May 4, 2002
I watched as Gia blinked at the CD player in frustration, her eyes narrowing at it as if it had done her some grave injustice. She huffed and pressed the power button to shut it off before leaning back on her seat.
Ahead of me the light turned red and I pressed on the brakes before turning to her. “What’s wrong?”
“What is this CD? She asked accusingly.
“Greatest Hits of 2001,” I said with a small smile. “They’re love songs.”
She mumbled something under her breath. I caught none of the words except for fuck.
“What did you just say?” I asked.
“Are you okay?”
I sneaked a glance at her face, which was devoid of any expression. She was trying very hard to appear nonchalant but I could feel her restlessness. Her shoulders were stiff with tension, as was her generous mouth.
“Yeah. I’m fine.” Her answer came out tightly. She was lying to me.
I tried to keep my mood up, tried to tell myself that she must just be exhausted. Fatigued. She’s had a long day.
She needn’t not have worried that my family would not like her. They loved her, as Omma made sure to tell me before we left. As did I.
It’s amazing how much freer I felt now that I had admitted it to myself and accepted it. Just as I know my name, I knew to whom my heart belonged.
It wasn’t every day that I brought a woman home to one of our family functions. In fact I only ever brought Kelsey and she had not been very receptive to my family. She commented that my ‘family was loud, quite unexpected really for such wealthy people,’ with barely an attempt to disguise her disdain.
Gia had shown no such reaction. In fact she had reacted quite unexpectedly. Better than I could have ever hoped for.
I already knew that she got on well with my sisters, but she had extended that same warmth with my parents and with the rest of my family as well. Including the children, although it had been tinged with a bit of incredulity for most of her visit. It was that side of her personality that drew me, and the fact that she seemed to have reserved all of her dislike for me alone.
I felt a smile tug at one corner of my lips remembering the first time I met her. I recalled her stern mouth, her intelligent eyes barely hiding her judgment of me. She had stood taller even as I stayed sitting down, as if making herself appear larger, more forceful. She never needed to do that. There had never been in any time in all my dealings with her that I didn’t take her seriously.
I felt her look at me without saying one word and I forced myself not to meet her eyes. I lose all train of thought when I look at her, my mind becoming singularly obsessed with touching her, kissing her, holding her… and I needed to think, though there were so many things I needed to think about I scarcely knew where to start, and if now was even the time to do it.
She hadn’t spoken in a few days about leaving… perhaps she was changing her mind. It wasn’t that I wanted her in Korea permanently; I was certain that if she went back to America that I would do my best to make this work anyway, if that was what she wanted. All she needed to do was say the word and I’m in. All in.
Because unlike Joon I am not a patient man. I refuse to do the unreciprocated love thing for any length of time. I had always fought to win, and if defeat was imminent, I knew to cut my losses and throw in the towel.
Bullshit, a little voice said. Liar. You had not always played to win.There had been a time once, when you fought because it was worth fighting.
Once, I had been idealistic and hopeful. The accident had changed my perspective and altered who I am. It taught me that life was too short to spend any of it being weighted down by defeat, that it can be taken too quickly to live my life with regrets. Waiting was a wasteful exercise, not when reward was not guaranteed.
My sister said Gia felt some sort of way about me, but that she would fight it and me. While the first thought made me happy, the second did no such thing.
I allowed myself a look at her as I eased the car around the corner, the road leading to the penthouse. Even with only the street lamp’s light I could see that her color had dimmed some, her eyes closed. I would think she was asleep except for the way her hand gripped the side of her door, her knuckles almost white.
I was about to ask her what was wrong, again, when she opened her mouth and spoke.
“Stop the car,” she said. Her voice was shaky, obviously on edge.
“What? Why? ” I asked, my brows furrowing in concern. “We’re almost home.”
She sounded out of breath, each word pronunciated in staccato. For a second I wondered if she didn’t feel well, if I should take her to the doctor.
I signaled and pulled the car to the pavement, already turning to her to ask what it was she needed, what she would have me do to help. She took a deep breath, but didn’t look at me. Her eyes were shadowed, distant, looking only outside.
The question hung on my tongue.
Before I could speak she grappled with the door handle and let herself out. Without saying even one word to me. She slammed the door shut and I watched as she took off, her legs in a sprint, despite the fact that she wore boots.
Where was she going? And more importantly, what was she running from?
I followed her for a couple of blocks, and she was so focused that she didn’t even notice or spare me a glance, the way she had always been in San Francisco. The reminder made me panic, and I was overwhelmed with the desire to bring her back into the car and demand that she speak to me, that she allow me into her mind. Despite how I felt, though, I knew that if I did that, that she would forever try to break away. I hadn’t asked her for any promises and I was not about to start now, though I could admit that I wanted to.
You have to learn to let go, my sister had urged. I will this once, I thought, as I passed her running form. I will allow her her space. She needed time to think? I can give her that. She needed time to process this? I can provide that, as well.
It’s a lot to take in, but sooner or later she will have to accept us, and this. I can make her love me. I can bind her to me. The thought was reassuring.
She and I were inevitable, as we always were. It was as good as done.
“You think I want your apology?” He asked disbelievingly. “Or maybe you thought I would beg for yours? You’re sorely mistaken,” he continued. “I called you here to show you what the man you ruined looks like. You made a monster out of me and yet you get to spend your life out there. Even happy, maybe. I hope your groom knows what kind of person he is marrying… what kind of woman he’s chosen to become the mother of his children.”
“And who’s that?” I asked quietly, wanting to know how he saw me.
“Someone so desperate she would take punches for love and slaps for kisses,” he answered, chuckling. “Someone who wants to be accepted so badly she would stay with a man who won’t even bring her out in public. That’s who. Someone that pathetic.”
I felt like I was going to throw up. He has used each and every single thing I hated about myself, everything he knew I hated about myself, against me. “I’m leaving,” I said, standing up. If I didn’t leave I would cry and I can’t be having that. I have not cried in four years and I wasn’t about to start now. Crying is weakness. Crying means vulnerability. I will never cry again. “I shouldn’t have come.”
“You can’t deny who you are,” he said quickly before I had the chance to hang up the receiver. “You love lost causes… thinking you’re the savior when you are the sin. No good man would ever be able to love you, with your fucked up family, your passive aggressive shit and your Daddy issues. You’re a control freak. Your husband-to-be will leave you too as soon as he realizes that you are not what you seem.”
I didn’t stop running. I couldn’t stop, not when memories continued to plague me. Everyone had secrets, secrets they can’t tell anyone else. Not good secrets, though, because those are too good not to share. But bad ones, dirty ones… secrets that were shameful even to carry.
My legs continued to propel me forward as the familiar scene kept playing in my head, the same scene I replay every time I ran. Shame and guilt anchored me in the past, my mind staying frozen in the same place for the last ten years, The past was still here and it will not let me go. I could feel it reaching for me even as I ran, even as I tried to evade its grasp.
The familiarity in this routine isn’t just in my head. i feel it in my bones. I was so used to this it had become muscle memory. I ran until I was out of breath, until I felt the pain in my lungs. Part of me knew I wouldn’t win, that I could never outrun my past. How do you leave something behind that was still a part of you?
“You can’t,” Marcus’ voice said amusedly. “Are you still denying it, then? Like attracts like. And you attract liars, beaters, cheaters. You love lost causes… So what does that say about you? You keep blaming your father when it was really your fault… didn’t you say that had your mother not gotten pregnant, your parents wouldn’t have stayed together? Think about your mother, your father. Think of all the pain you’ve caused them just by existing. Even from the beginning, you were destined to destroy people’s lives.”
I knew even then what he had been trying to do. His words were poison to my mind. He wanted to leave seeds of doubt where he knew it would spring, and had I been certain about Chris I might have forgotten it altogether.
For all the accusations he spat at me, however, there had been a grain of truth. Some I would not discover until it was too late. And the experience had not gone without a lesson, either. It taught me again that showing someone your weaknesses will do nothing but hurt you in the end.
I did confide in Chris, three months before we were to be married, saw no choice but to when he saw how I looked when I came home. I had to watch as the way he looked at me changed, as he began regarding me as if I was a stranger, someone unknown to him. I had to answer all of his questions, at first coming slowly, then all at once, then watch as he crumbled from the weight of it all. I felt him pulling away little by little, unable to do anything but hold on, convinced that he will still love me, determined to prove Marcus wrong. But showing him, the man who was supposed to love me, the man who wanted to marry me, that side of me didn’t bring us closer together, as I once thought it would. It was the final nail in our coffin.
When he confessed to me that morning I didn’t have to ask why he did it. I already knew why. He had said he wanted space, but I knew what he really wanted. I wasn’t the woman he thought I was, and he wanted me to be the one to let go. He didn’t want to admit that he couldn’t handle what he learned about me, and he wanted me to be the one to walk away. I gave him what he wanted and he bounced back as I knew he would. With his hands clean off of me he had gotten everything he’d wanted. A spouse. Children. My life without me.
What happened with Chris told me never to share everything about my past to anyone. Especially not to those who loved me. I couldn’t lose my family. Even Junnie.
I had tried to live my life as if certain events had not come to pass, as if the past wasn’t my past but someone else’s; something imagined and didn’t really happen. In the protective blanket of the night I acknowledge that it had all been real and that I owned it. That past was inscribed with my name and number, just as every discarded memory was. Tangible still, with rough corners and edges, they had not disappeared. Broken, perhaps. Pushed aside, maybe. Forgotten, definitely.
Forgetting was a habit I adored and routinely exercised.
“Even from the beginning, you were destined to destroy people’s lives.”
I continued to pound the pavement with my feet, his voice echoing in my ears, ignoring the fact that my boots were not meant for this. I dismissed the pain and kept pushing past the young people still milling around, past the curious looks being directed my way. This was my atonement and my way out.
Because unlike what books always say, the truth did not set me free. It imprisoned me in its chokehold, stealing the breath from my body. It only made brought back the bad things I didn’t want to accept about myself and made them real, for both myself and the people around me.
I will not let any of my truths annihilate another person that I love. But I can’t have it destroy me either. Marcus had been right… he always did see that part of me very well. I was a selfish being. I always was. That was the bad part.
“Even from the beginning, you were destined to destroy people’s lives.”
The worst part? The worst part, I thought as my legs ached so painfully I thought I would fall down, the worst part was that I believed him.
I did make him into someone who hits women.
I did make Chris a cheater.
Human beings look for the relationship in everything. The causes and effects. And I was no different.
Case in point:
If I get close to someone, it hurts even more when I have to let them go. If I loved a man that was not good before I came along, he won’t be good after I came into his life either.
If I loved a not so good man, I will get hurt. If I loved a good man, I will hurt him.
“Even from the beginning, you were destined to destroy people’s lives.”
Marcus was a manipulator, but he hadn’t been wrong. The lessons, no, tenets I now upheld confirmed this. I still believed him. What was sadder than that? When someone who knows you well tells you things about yourself that you already knew but wished weren’t true, what choice does anyone have but to believe?
I had told Jung Jin the truth. People will only do what you let them do.
Let. What a loaded word. Like a gun pointed directly at me.
That lone word implied my consent, therefore concreted my culpability. I was guilty too. No one was more responsible for my heart and I chose to put it in danger time and time again.
Perhaps more so than Marcus was, seeing as I went back each and every time, considering that when I was given the choice to break my ties loose with him once and for all, I still went back to see him, unable to help myself. Perhaps more so than Chris, who I still would have married despite the fact that he didn’t love me anywhere as much as I loved him.
Over and over again I found myself in predicaments that I had sworn I would avoid. For years I had wondered why my mother stayed with my father. It seemed she had accepted him and had long given up on the happy future that she once imagined they would have. She made peace with the vision of the practiced, preambled life they shared. A situation undefined. A relationship unclear. It became not a matter of love but persistence, of resilience. Of being the sane one in the relationship, the one who holds it all together.
I recognized this in her, just as I recognized it in myself. In trying not to adopt even a semblance of my mother I had found myself retracing her steps, albeit with different men.
That was not the only difference.
Whereas she liked the security and stability of being that woman, I didn’t. Not anymore. The self knowledge I had patched together from these experiences careened into me with so much derision that I no longer knew if I even liked myself sometimes.
“Even from the beginning, you were destined to destroy people’s lives.”
My feet continued to land viciously on the pavement as his voice continued to taunt me. I slept in my sleeping bag for protection, when I was the person that needed the least protecting. How could a sleeping bag protect me from myself?
Somehow and some way I always manage to destroy everything I touch, every person that I love. I was a danger not only to myself but to anyone who wants to love me. They think to change me, but I change them instead. Into the worst possible versions of themselves, just so I could play the part of the woman who will love them despite it.
It was my sin, my burden to carry. And to atone for it I make a conscious effort to be kind to everyone else. It was no disguise. That was the person I ultimately wanted to be, but could never seem to be to those I love. It was a small price to pay for all that I had done.
My thoughts strayed to Jung Jin, with his playful smile and his lovely eyes, and what was left of my heart all but broke. I was beginning to like the image of me I saw in his eyes, though I knew it was a false image, something I hope he will never ever discover. Briefly I was tempted to stop and go back, to feel his arms around me if only for a little while. If only to convince me that I am worthy of being loved, that I deserved it. But it was not a luxury I could give myself. He was someone who had been hurt before, but there was still a lightness about him that life still hadn’t touched. I would not be the person to ruin that.
“Even from the beginning, you were destined to destroy people’s lives.”
I blinked away the sweat that had fallen into my eyes. I wasn’t a good person. I try, but it seemed my weaknesses will forever taint me. It was the reason behind my insistence in loving someone good. One of us had to be. I need someone whose actions are guided by their own sets of values, and not my influence. I needed someone who already had integrity, who knew right from wrong, someone whose future will not be swayed by who I am.
All this… is merely an illusion, an image of the love I I wanted. Words will make it real and he hasn’t given me that; not the three words that will make this tangible. As long as those words were never uttered out loud, this will continue to just be a fantasy. A very detailed one, a very complicated one, but a fantasy nevertheless. Sooner or later we will both have to wake up.
It was a shame… I wanted to stay in this fantasy forever.
“Even from the beginning, you were destined to destroy people’s lives.”
I ran and ran and ran and ran. Marcus’ voice in my ears the whole time, the way it’s been for the last decade; simultaneously wishing I could outrun him, and knowing damn well I would never be able to.
May 5, 2002
I sat on the bench, Dog by my side, both of us waiting for the same woman.
I had gone in after I came back to take care of the dog and to tidy up so that she didn’t worry about any of it when she got home. She was in some type of mood tonight, and I wanted to do my part in easing off some of her worries. I needed to show her that I could be someone she could depend on, someone she could rely on, someone she could trust.
I had made her a cup of coffee, still left untouched on the dining room table. Dog and I had leisurely strolled the deck, as he did his business for the night. We watched television for a couple of hours, until we both fell asleep on the couch. And now here we both were, awake and anxious, in front of the apartment building, waiting and wondering why she hadn’t come home.
I understand why she needed time alone. The more I knew her, the more surprised I was that she hadn’t had more breakdowns, really. She was usually so calm and even keeled, usually so sensible, that I had no doubt this whole situation had thrown her for a loop. None of it made sense; from how she found herself in Korea and how she found herself living with me. Even how she found herself a dog.
Even I can admit that it was all very strange, as if it was meant to happen that way… like it was destiny. I shook my head at myself even as I grinned. I was ridiculous, but Gia…
My woman was nothing if not adaptable, and the more I saw how well she took each and every strange thing thrown at her, the more I loved her. The woman is resilient, strong. She would no doubt be scared… hell, I was scared, but she will borne this as she had everything else. Of that I had no doubt.
She won’t be like me, afraid of love and all that comes with it. Not when she had been through much worse and overcame it. Love should feel like the reward at the end of it all. Like a gift, I thought, nodding to myself. Yes, like a gift.
Even so, there was a nagging feeling in the pit of my belly, an uncertainty. I feel like I wasn’t reading this situation correctly. Like I somehow misinterpreted things.
She was a woman who seems to hold back by instinct, but tonight seemed about something else altogether. As if she just came to a realization about something, and she didn’t like it. But… I come to realizations about things most of the time! It doesn’t usually make me want to go run in the middle of the night.
I have to learn to accept that she and I were two completely different people… that we would not react to things the same way. The disturbance in her mood could have been caused by anything. I’m sure that I wasn’t the cause, anyway.
I crossed my legs in front of me, lifting my face to the sky, grateful that spring had finally come. As if mirroring me, Dog lifted his nose up in the air as well, as if trying to sniff whatever it was that had me so fascinated. I looked at his face and down the sweater that Gia had put on him, almost identical to the one I was wearing, actually, before we left the penthouse. She said it made him look like a gentleman, and I was inclined to agree. I gave a silent chuckle before I leaned myself back and settled for the long wait.
I wasn’t sure how long I was running. Or where, exactly, I had meant to go.
But I ran for as long as I could, until my legs were achy and exhausted, until my mind no longer assaulted me with the memories. Not that they ever leave completely, mind you. But the memories staying with me, unobtrusive and in some weird only-come-out-when-I’m-running pact, I can live with. That is what I’d learned to live with. It’s when they take me by surprise that I never know how to cope.
Every time the memories became too much to bear was when I always moved in the past, to another city, another job. Something else to keep me occupied and distracted. San Francisco had been different.
In the five years I had lived there, I had finally done the grown up thing and just… stayed. Whenever I felt the memories creep up on me, I just put my head down and kept pushing. Through it. Despite it. Until the coast was clear. Until I could breathe with ease again, without the painful tightening in my chest.
I felt it now, even as I sat on the bench and placed a hand over my heart. I looked around me in the forest of the park, the leaves vibrantly green even in the dim glow of the street lamps, flowers sprouting even now.
I wasn’t sure how I ended up here, but I did. The trees had called to me, even as I blindly ran towards an unknown destination. And so I had proceeded, to take cover in the darkness and the shadows. I didn’t want anyone to see me like this.
I caught the scent of flowers in the air and took a deep breath.
Spring was here. Another season. A time to start anew. How I wish I could… year after year I give myself the same speech. Let’s try again. Let’s do it this time. Let’s do better. I keep telling myself that I deserved to be happy now, that I deserved love, too. Year after year it’s the same, with no real progress. Year after year I am reminded how stunted I had become.
No matter what I did, it seemed I was stuck in this neverending carousel, unable to get off and unable to make it stop. I rode with the waves of ups and downs, destined to stay an unwilling participant. My history was like a labyrinth, with no clear way out.
It was why I planned so much of my life out.
My parents were married but not together. I was both good and bad. I may or may not change. I could stay or I could go. There was so much ambiguity in my life that my plans offered me a reprieve, a shelter from these contradictions. Unlike so many things in life, plans were concrete, solid. They were conscious decisions, fruits of constant thinking and endless considerations of situations and consequences.
I like plans. I live by them, swore by them, took comfort in the fact that they gave me a sense of spaciousness and freedom. I derived reassurance from knowing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. I make plan after plan after plan after plan, figuring that if one didn’t pan out, I still had a few options, and ones I had prepared for as well. Life was much simpler when lived from a script.
But I had never planned on Jung Jin. Or the dog. I never planned Korea. And yet I was still here.
For my part I could admit that I feel more than I should, but I can handle my emotions. A one sided love was not a concept unknown to me. I may be falling, but I can still stop that. Falling is an active word, something that can still be changed. Maybe with some more time I could sway it. Maybe with a little bit more time I could put to rest any doubt that this could be something else.
But could this not be a one sided thing? I shook my head. Impossible. Jung Jin may feel some sort of way about me, but he feels that way for the woman he thinks I am. If he knew me, really knew me, he will probably not feel the same. I nodded to myself, satisfied with my assessment of the situation.
My thoughts now back in order, I stood up and started walking. Jung Jin will probably be asleep when I get back. Or maybe he had already been asleep and woken up again, as he usually did. My strides were getting faster as I made my way back to the penthouse, hoping to God that he doesn’t ask any questions when I return.
Everyone has secrets. And the ones worth telling are the ones that must never be said out loud. In that sense secrets were a bit like love. Never to be spoken of, not unless you’re willing to deal with the consequences of such confessions and declarations.
Not only because they might hurt you, but because they might hurt those around you, too. People who didn’t deserve it. People who would have been better off never having known the truth.
Traipsing around both without thought would ensure that there would be no forgiveness that will follow, nor absolution. Disappointment was an almost certainty, as was pain. More regrets at best, and at worst, another ending.
The pain in my chest felt so real it was almost tangible. Like a solid familiar mass. Sitting where my heart was supposed to be.
Everyone has secrets, and the worst ones are those who remind you time and time again that you are not blameless in how your life had played out, that you had hurt others too and irreparably altered them to become someone worse than who they were to begin with. In my past I had not been a victim, but an accomplice. Perhaps even the culprit.
How do you share a secret like that? There was only one answer: you don’t.
I had just walked Dog back to the penthouse after almost two hours of waiting outside. He was beginning to get restless, pacing back and forth, barking at the wind. Every so often he would stop moving, ears perked up, as if listening for any noise, and then would look disappointed when no one showed up. His anxiety was making even me anxious.
When was she coming home?
She couldn’t have gone far, I thought, as I stepped outside the elevator. She’d been in Korea for a few months and had ventured to more places than I probably had even been, but she wasn’t one to deviate from her routines. She might have taken the route that she jogged on a daily basis, perhaps ended in the park nearby, where she had mentioned she goes sometimes.
I walked towards the front door, thinking about what could have happened that she felt the need to flee, when I saw her.
She was walking with her head down, her arms around herself, as if trying to stay warm, though I knew that it was already warm outside. We were separated by the glass wall, and I knew that she couldn’t see me as I saw her. She wouldn’t see that I had now slowed down my steps to match hers, my fingers trying to touch her through the glass.
We walked in this way, side by side, slowly, carefully, when she stopped abruptly and faced me, except she didn’t know that she was facing me. As far as she was concerned, she was only looking at herself. Behind her I saw that the night was already departing, that the sun will be out in mere minutes. She lifted her face and my heart squeezed when I noted that she appeared pale, exhausted. The circles under her eyes were more prominent in this light, and I watched as she took a deep breath, her brows knitted and her eyes troubled.
She appeared to be talking to herself before pasting a smile on her face. She practiced the expression a few times, as if she was about to go on stage. And yet, the smile didn’t meet her eyes, which remained haunted. The way she was rehearsing her face, as if I wouldn’t know any different, bothered me.
Even as she started moving again, I remained in place, wondering how I was supposed to approach this situation. I wish I had asked my sisters, who would know just how to do this without scaring her off. I didn’t want her to feel pressured to share more than she was ready, though I had the feeling that there was a lot more that I didn’t know.
Acknowledging this, I hardly had any time to get my thoughts together before I heard the sound from the front door, her key card granting her access. She walked towards the elevator, her head still back down, and I planted my feet to the ground and waited for her to see me.
She continued walking in this way, as if I was invisible, until I saw her raise her head quickly. Her eyes met mine in surprise and I gave her a smile, despite the fact that she had already guarded her eyes. Her shoulders stiffened in tension, and her mouth curved up in the smile that she had practiced just a few minutes before, and I couldn’t help but feel a burst of anger at the sight.
Why would she need to lie to me? Why would she need to hide?
If I had any inclination at all of asking her about it, all questions were stopped by the look in her eyes. I had seen them bursting with anger, even twinkling in joy. I had occasionally spied the ghosts that seemed to continue to haunt her, seen her conflicted about how she was supposed to feel, but now, the light in her eyes had faded, no sign of the emotional woman I had come to love.
She looked empty, drained of the life that once fascinated me so.
I might have the right to ask her questions, but the time to do that was not now. it was as if she was on that roof in San Francisco once again and I felt like I was so far from her even though I was right here. I could do nothing for her, then. I chose to do nothing for her, then.
I was a man of my word. That time had passed.. there was nothing I could do to change what I did then. But this time… This time was different. This time, I will do what I should have done then.
I reached out, palm open, and offered her my hand.
I stopped in front of the reflective wall of the apartment building, determined to practice my smile so that when Jung Jin sees me he wouldn’t realize that anything was wrong. I noted how tired I looked, but that didn’t hold a candle to how tired I felt.
I smiled a few times, tried out a few expressions. They all looked fake, mockeries of the real thing. I knew I was a bad actress. I took a deep breath.
“You can do this,” I told myself, trying once more to appear bright, happy. “You’ve done this for five years… how can you have forgotten already?”
With a shake of my head, I trudged through the front door, grateful that I had brought the key card with me so as not to have to wake Jung Jin up to let me in, or have to wait by the front door until the doorman came. I kept my eyes to the ground and focused on the marble floor, the etchings beautiful. Funny how everywhere else in nature… in marble, in wood, imperfections made them much more beautiful. In nature flaws were regarded naturally, but that same consideration was not extended to human beings.
I was almost by the elevator when I saw a pair of familiar shoes, the same pair I see every day by the door before I went for my run. I lifted my head and saw Jung Jin standing in front of me, still dressed as he was at the party. His hair was mussed, his eyes smaller than usual. It looked like he had barely slept.
Was he waiting for me?
I’ve been drifting around for so long I had forgotten what it was like to have a home to come back to and how it felt to have someone waiting for me. Permanence was a concept I had long forgotten, teaching myself to be content instead with what was temporary and disposable.
Isn’t that what we were? Temporary.
He looked at me in question and I searched for the right thing to say, already debating how much I would say. I had been on my own for so long, even with a best friend so far away, that no one had actually seen me when I was like this, I had never prepared myself for this day to come, thinking that I would never need to. The flash of anger apparent in his gaze took me aback. It blazed out of his eyes towards me, making me ponder what he could possibly be angry about.
How are you? I wanted to say. How is Dog? I’m sorry if I worried you.
I knew on an intellectual level what I should be saying, but for the life of me, I couldn’t make myself speak. We just stood there, looking at each other, me with my fake smile and he with that inscrutable expression. I dropped my smile and hung my head, my shoulders bunching instinctively, as if bracing for an argument, maybe even a fight. Whatever it is, I was too exhausted to deal with it, so it will have to wait. Hopefully to some unforeseen time.
I was about to walk past him when he held a hand out, reaching for me. I didn’t even think twice before I took it. Not for my sake, but his. I should do this, at least.
His grasp was strong and warm as his fingers interlocked with mine. He pulled me close just as I was about to ask him why he was still awake, silencing me. I rested my head on his chest and listened to his heart as it beat steadily. The sound calmed me, made me feel almost like myself. He rested his chin on top of my head, just as he had done at his parents’ house. He smoothed a hand over my hair, but didn’t ask me any questions.
Everything he was doing was meant to comfort himself, but it comforted me, instead. With a start I realized how much I had come to depend on him, on this, to bring me back to the now. I tried to remember what it was like before him and I couldn’t remember. Not anymore.
My thoughts were jumbled up together, as were the words now hovering at the tip of my tongue. I felt like a sinner who’d come to confess. If he was to touch me with even more tenderness I feared that I would shatter, everything I had been holding back tumbling out without pause. Just so I could hear him say it’s okay. Just to hear him say he will still be here. Just so he could say that I’d been forgiven. Just so he could wipe my slate clean.
But he wouldn’t do that. No sane man would. And I wouldn’t even blame him.
The panic flared once more even as I forced myself to relax in his arms.
I have to leave. I have to leave.
I have to gain some distance between me and him, even if it was just a day. Just so I could relearn what it was like before he came into my life. Maybe I could re-like it as well.
Because this… I liked too much. Even knowing that I didn’t have enough of myself left to offer, I would selfishly keep him, but always on my terms.
I closed my eyes, all these thoughts almost too much to bear, and a few minutes later, we finally headed to the elevators, together but in silence. I looked at our reflection on the elevator door, the sheen making us look as if we were bathed in gold. We looked like we could belong together, as we stood with our hands intertwined. Except there was me, looking out of place, looking at us dispassionately, and he, much taller, with a determined gaze at the numbers above us.
I could take what he’s offering and still give nothing back. After all, I didn’t owe him anything any more than he owed me. If I was a different woman, I might have been able to do that without thought. But I can’t. Jung Jin shouldn’t have to pay the price because of the men who came before him. The thought of hurting him in any way, shape, or form, made me ache.
In that sense, I still had not changed. I was still soft, fallible. It’s that same crack that allowed me to get hurt in the first place. Except now I didn’t worry for myself but for him. What a revelation it was to realize that I was more worried about breaking his heart than I was about breaking my own.
Our hands were still entwined by the time the elevator had stopped. I was surprised to see Dog wandering about the apartment, loose, before he realized we’d come home and approached us, tail wagging and his yelps coming out in tight screeches, as if he was trying to control himself.
It was only then that Jung Jin and I broke free of each other to greet him, Jung Jin bending down and petting him with both hands.
He might have started out unsure about having a dog, but that seems to have changed. I sensed genuine affection between them, and I almost felt like I was an outsider, regarding them both as they rolled around on the floor, oblivious to my pensive state. Dog picked up a big knotted rope and brought it to Jung Jin, before they proceeded to play a game of tug of war. Jung Jin’s face lost all tension as he looked at Dog, and Dog let go of the rope long enough to lick his face.
My man and my dog, both playing like children. On the floor of a penthouse. Of the man who once feared dogs. With a dog who used to live in the streets, now wearing a sweater almost identical to his master. And me… a woman who can’t handle things that are alive, one who can’t stay in one place, now part of this makeshift family.
How bizarre. This whole situation was bizarre.
As soon as the thought came I realized how much stranger it was that I now thought of both of them as mine. I had no right to lay claim to anything, and yet it seemed that I had already done that with them both.
Dog ran to me then, jumping up to me, his mouth open, as if grinning. I ran my hand down on his rough affectionately, earning myself a soft lick.
He toddled off, then, fully content that he had done an adequate job of making a fuss for his owners’ return. He picked up the rope that he had abandoned and parked himself back on the couch, holding his toy between his paws and licking contentedly.
I looked around the penthouse.
“Did you clean up?” I asked, my voice coming out hoarse.
“Yeah,” he said, lifting himself off the floor.
“Does Dog need to…”
I looked at him in surprise. I thought the condition of Dog staying here was that he was to be my responsibility.
“Thank you,” I said.
“It was no problem,” he said. “He’s our dog.”
I nodded, trying to ignore that he used the word ‘our’ and he smiled, the Jung Jin that I had come to know making an appearance.
“Do you want some breakfast?” He asked. “I know you must be tired but you should eat something.”
I shook my head no. He turned towards the kitchen, picked a cup off the table and brought it to the sink.
“You should go to sleep, then,” I thought I heard him say from behind me as I walked to the living room and sat myself down on the couch.
I sighed when I sunk into the sofa, my back grateful. I was so tired.
“You’ll never be comfortable if you slept here,” he said, suddenly in front of me. “Dog will wake you…”
“It’s fine,” I interrupted. “It’s fine.” And it was. I wanted to be inside this bubble of normalcy for just a little while.
He sat down next to me, an arm going straight around my shoulder to draw me close. I leaned into his chest even as Dog lay his head on my lap. The smell of him, masculine and woodsy, wrapped around me like an embrace, and I closed my eyes.
I’ll stay awake, I told myself as I forced my eyes to stay open. I’ll do this for just a few minutes and then I’ll walk myself to my room.
My eyes started drifting close and I fought to keep them open. I need to talk. Talking will keep me awake.
“Jung Jin?” I said, my voice soft. My fingers found Dog’s ear and rubbed gently.
“Hmm?” The rumble from his voice was comforting against my head. He was real. And solid. And here.
“Why wasn’t Dog crated when we got back?”
He sighed. “He deserves his freedom, too,” he replied, his voice growing softer as my eyes shut close. “What kind of life would…”
His voice disappeared altogether as I succumbed to sleep.
May 6, 2002
I pulled my phone out of my pocket as soon as I stepped out of the elevator. The sun was shining brightly outside, its rays glinting through the glass. Pressing the speed dial button for my oldest sister, I stopped when I realized how early it was and what kind of chaos she would be dealing with at this time. The kids would just be getting ready for school, her husband on his way to work. Perhaps they would all be at the breakfast table, no doubt as chatty and noisy as our household had been.
Definitely not the right time to phone her and speak of serious matters. It was way too early for that. Hell, it was way too early for me as well, but I can’t not talk about it with someone.
Our breakfast today had been as awkward as last night’s dinner had been. Something had shifted in Gia the night after the birthday party though she still would not speak up about what was bothering her.
And that bothered the shit out of me. I was trying to be patient, not a small feat for me, but it was not working. I could feel the urge to make her talk creeping over me… it was all I could think about the last couple of days. The way I was going I would end up interrogating the woman and declaring my love for her all in one sentence, the order notwithstanding. I needed someone to guide me through these treacherous and dangerous times, and Ji Hyun Noona was my best option but I won’t unload this upon her at this time of day.
My sister was grumpy when she first gets up.
Thinking to myself as I got in the car and put my sunglasses on, I settled on calling Shawn instead. My old friend had seemed more intuitive with this… crap than even I realized, and all the advice that has been dispensed to me did have some bearing. If anyone would know how to approach this, it would be Shawn. And it doesn’t hurt that aside from me, Shawn was the only other person that I knew who would be up and about at this time already.
I pressed the speed dial for Shawn’s hand phone number and waited for the call to be picked up. A voice answered that I wasn’t expecting and I frowned, wondering if I had dialed the wrong number. But I didn’t dial the number… the phone did.
“Hello?” The voice repeated. This was definitely not Shawn.
“Hello,” I said uncertainly. “Is this Shawn’s number?”
“Ethan, right?” The voice asked before chuckling. I instantly felt comfortable. It sounded warm and friendly… just the type I liked. Unless, of course, it was Gia and then I would just be thankful that she was even talking to me. But… how did this person even know it was me? “Your name was on the caller ID.”
“Hang on a second, I’ll pass you over.”
“Who are you again?” Shawn has never ever allowed anyone else to answer my phone calls. Ever. I don’t even know the office number, where I was sure there’ll be be a secretary.
The person chuckled once more before responding. “I’ll let Shawn tell you. It was nice to finally speak to you.”
I didn’t have much time to respond before I heard Shawn’s voice, entirely too amused. “Yo.”
“Who the hell was that?” I asked. “And why did it sound like they knew me?”
“No one,” Shawn answered. “Just the person I’m marrying.”
“What?” I was shocked. Shawn had never shown any inclination towards marriage. “When did this happen?”
“When were going to tell me?”
“Soon,” I heard Shawn’s voice say before I heard a sigh. “I hadn’t planned on it being today, though.”
“Shawn!” I couldn’t contain the surprise in my voice.
“I wish you’d stop calling me that.” The statement was said so drolly I had to shake my head. “You know my real name. It’s so unnatural that my friend calls me what my father does.”
“That’s our thing, though,” I insisted. “Don’t change the topic. We need to talk about this.”
“Why must we talk about it?” Shawn asked. “We had already agreed to marry, even settled on a date and everything.”
“Which is when?”
“A year and a half. We need to appropriate our funds. Plus that’s the earliest I can take a vacation from work.”
“How organized,” I commented drily.
“Don’t be like that, Ethan. I’m not abandoning you.”
“You’re my last single friend left.”
“I thought I was your only friend,” Shawn said with a chuckle. “You may be big and famous now but you haven’t changed much from uni. Besides… I can’t stay single forever.”
“Not even for me?” I complained, though the shock was already wearing off. I just wanted to tease the hell out of my friend, seeing that it incited such a violent reaction.
“Especially not for you, you ass.” There was a bit of murmuring in Chinese on the other line before I heard Shawn’s voice again. “Why are you calling so early in the day anyway?”
I thought about the question and debated for a few seconds whether I actually needed to speak about it now. “It’s alright,” I said. “I don’t want to burden you with my woman issues right after your happy news.”
“The fact that you’re calling so early tells me that it’s important enough, and seeing as you’re an idiot when it comes to your one particular woman, it might be best that you just tell me what’s on your mind.”
“Seriously, it’s okay…”
“Knowing you, you’ll just mess it up. Again. And end up being thrown out of the house.”
“So what’s up?” Shawn seemed all of a sudden too interested in my demise.
“Well… Gia… Have you ever been in a relationship where you thought it was going just the way it’s supposed to and then something changes and you don’t know what happened to prompt it or why it did?”
“Has she fallen from grace already?”
“What does that mean?”
“The way you talked about her she sounded more of an idea than a real person. It was nice and sweet, the way you saw her, but it wasn’t real. Or sustainable. Sooner or later you will learn that she’s a real person and not some perfect idea. I am waiting for that day.”
“I don’t see her as an idea.”
“Of course you do. You’ve probably never seen her with her hair out of place or so pissed off she didn’t look like the woman you supposedly love.”
“I will have you know, that I have seen my woman in various states of ridiculousness and I still find her beautiful. The first night I kissed her she had a charcoal mask on her face just minutes before. And I’ve seen her pissed off many many times. Even then I thought her remarkable, magnificent. Those things don’t matter to me. I could take whatever she dishes out.”
“So what’s the matter, then?” Shawn sounded thoughtful. “It sounds like you have the foundation for a good relationship there.”
“She’s pulling away from me and I don’t know why. There are times when she just relaxes for a minute and then it’s like she catches herself and just puts her guard back up.”
“Sounds like someone I know.”
“I’m not like that!” I protested and Shawn didn’t respond. “I’ve never even seen her cry. As in, ever. Even when she’s dealing with some things that would make anyone else cry. That’s weird, right?”
“Kind of,” Shawn said, sounding thoughtful. “But you want her to cry because…”
“I don’t want her to cry!” I protested. “The crazy thing is that she has this… economy about her. She looks like a woman who will always rise above any situation. She is very self possessed, very self aware. It was what drew me in to begin with, but the closer I get to her, it’s that same thing that is putting a wall between us. Like we were just driving home, and all of a sudden she tells me to stop the car and just leaves.”
“This sort of thing doesn’t just happen out of the blue. There must have been a reactant.”
“A reactant?” Is Shawn speaking chemistry now, of all times?
“A spark, a trigger.”
“I know what a reactant is.”
“Well then you must know that these things don’t just happen overnight. She sounds like a reasonable human being so something had to have prompted this behavior. When did this happen?”
I didn’t have to think about it. I’d revisited that day so many times, examined all the angles, searched for what could have disturbed her so. “It was after my nephew’s birthday party.”
“Did you come home drunk?”
“No, you know my family doesn’t serve liquor in family events. Besides I would never drink and drive, especially when she’s with me.”
“She went with you.”
“Yes, she met my sisters and Ji Hyun Noona invited her. She met my parents, too… The whole clan in fact.”
“Did they… Dislike her?” Shawn’s voice had taken an unnatural tone. It was a widely accepted fact that the last time I brought a woman home my family had an almost instantaneous reaction to her. And it wasn’t good.
“It wasn’t even like that,” I replied, thinking of the many times the various women in my family have texted me since the party telling me how impressed they were with her. “They like her, probably more than they like me, even.”
Shawn stayed quiet and I wondered what was going on in my friend’s mind. “Maybe she realized that she feels more than she wants to admit to,” Shawn finally said, so softly I wondered if the intention was for me to hear it.
“Isn’t that a good thing, though?”
“Not if she’s someone who doesn’t want to tie herself to anything or anyone.” Before I could ask how Shawn knew these things about women, I was interrupted. “That’s the kind of woman she sounded like, anyway. Self assured, independent. It can’t be easy to find herself in an almost relationship.”
“So what do I do?”
“You have two choices. You can let her stew over it on her own, something I would advise you to do had she just been any other woman. Other women need space, and silence. But your woman is different. She already knows herself. She already probably knows what’s wrong.”
“So what’s my other choice?”
“You can ask some questions and force some answers. The more you know her past the better you will understand her.”
“Sometimes I feel like I will never completely understand her. Just as I’m sorting through the new thing I learn, something else comes up. The woman has hidden depths that I can’t even begin to comprehend. Where do I start?”
Shawn chuckled again. “You already said the answer. You are so obtuse at times. The answer is so clear. Where else could you start but the beginning?”
May 6, 2002
“Omonim,” I greeted uneasily, wishing now that I had asked Ji Soo for her mobile number. As it was, I only had Jung Jin’s parents number to reach her. “How are you?”
“Gia-ya,” she responded warmly and I instantly relaxed. Jung Jin’s mother had a way about her of making me feel at ease. I expect that other people felt that way as well. “I’m doing well. How are you?”
“I’m…” a mess. “… okay.”
“Are you sure?” She asked. “I have four daughters and I always know when something is going on. And your voice sounds funny.”
“Ahh…” I searched my mind for a reasonable explanation. “I haven’t been feeling well for the past few days.”
“I’ll have Jung Jin swing by here and bring home some soup and medicine,” she said decisively and I found myself chuckling. My mother was the same exact way. Mothers will be mothers no matter what… Whether or not they remember that they’re dealing with a medical professional.
“That would be great, Omonim,” I said sincerely. “Is Ji Soo home?” I wasn’t sure if she said that Tuesday was her day off from lectures, but I thought it would be worth a shot.
“Ji Soo-yah? She just got up a few minutes ago.”
“Is it possible to speak to her?”
“Of course. Hold on one second. Ji Soo yah,” she called out. She then spoke in Korean before she came back to the call. “She’s coming, but before I pass you over, I wanted to tell you that you’re invited to come here anytime you want. You hear me? Come whenever. Jung Jin doesn’t even have to be with you. You are welcome here anytime.”
I involuntarily cringed at her generosity. She was still under the impression that Jung Jin and I were more in an actual official relationship. We were in something, I will admit that now, but it’s nowhere near official. Was it? Surely one meeting with his family didn’t set us in stone. The last thing I needed was to feel more responsibility towards his whole family.
He has a big family.
“Thank you, Omonim,” I said, unknowing of what else to say.
Thankfully my awkwardness was broken when she spoke again. “Here’s Ji Soo now.”
“Thank you, Omonim,” I said. Within a few seconds I heard Ji Soo’s voice, breathless and bright.
“Unnie! I was just about to call you!”
“You were?” I asked. “What’s going on?”
“How much do you know of Oppa’s work?”
“Not much… I know he manages JJ Kim.”
I heard a sigh. “Jae Joon Oppa is so handsome,” she said dreamily.”So handsome.”
“Yeah, he is,” I said. I agreed whole-heartedly. “But what about your brother’s work?”
She said something in Korean to someone before she returned to the phone. “Ji Hee Unnie and Kye Sang Oppa just told me to tell you ‘hi’ and that they’ll try to set something up with Oppa to come to dinner at yours sometime next week. They’re here for breakfast.”
“Ah…” All this talk of domesticity was making me decidedly uncomfortable. The assumption that I would be here for all these future plans made me nervous.
“Anyway… how much do you know of his assistant?”
“Whose assistant? Ji Hee Unnie’s?”
“No,” she said, giggling. “Oppa’s assistant.”
I searched my mind for any memory of having met said assistant and came up empty. “I don’t think I ever met her.”
“Him, Unnie!” she said. “It’s a him!”
“O-kay…” I wasn’t really sure who she was talking about or why, all of a sudden, she sounded happy, yet shy. “Why? What’s up with him?”
“Nothing,” she said quietly.
Her silence made me grin despite my mood. I haven’t known her for long but Ji Soo has never been a quiet girl since I’d met her. It reminded me of Maria, every time she had a secret; oftentimes it was when it was a boy.
“Ji Soo, do you have a crush?” My tone was teasing, meant to cause a reaction.
“NO!” She protested. “I just… it’s just… just… hehasanicevoiceandI’mwonderingifyouknowanythingabouthisface.” She finally took a breath and I had to chuckle. Yes. Definitely a boy secret.
“I’ve never met him,” I said. “But I can find out for you.”
“No way! No!” She was mumbling under her breath. “I was just curious. Oppa said I’m too nosy and I need to stop.”
“What’s the harm?” I asked. “It shouldn’t be too difficult to get information about his assistant. I’ll ask your…”
“No, Unnie forget it! Oppa will know you’re not asking for you and then he’ll push and push and push until he gets answers, because he is just as nosy as I am and you won’t be able to lie because you’re not a liar and then I’ll never live it down.” She was getting more and more agitated with each word. “It’s not that serious so don’t worry about it, okay?” I was just about to respond when she repeated herself. “Okay?”
“Fine… fine…” I said, shaking my head. All this drama for one boy. Girls are girls whichever country they’re from.
“Anyway, why were you calling me?”
“Ah,” I said, taking a breath. I looked over by the elevator bay, where a small bag was, Dog sniffing around it. “Do you think you can come over later and feed and walk the dog?”
“Sure,” she said. “Are you and Oppa going out?”
“Something like that.” And by something like it I only meant that I was going out and not her brother.
“But… can’t you just feed and walk him when you get back?”
“That would be difficult since that won’t be until tomorrow.”
“An overnight trip? How exciting! Where are you going?”
“Seoraksan,” I said, reading the name from the paper I had printed out as soon as Jung Jin left for work. “In…”
“Sokcho,” she finished for me. “I’ve never been there but I heard it’s pretty.”
“The pictures look pretty.” Though I wasn’t going there for the prettiness but the space and the distance. Away from Seoul. Away from him. “Anyway Dog will need feeding and letting out.”
Anytime before your brother comes home and sees me gone. “5 p.m.”
“No problem,” Ji Soo said. “But… you’re okay, right?”
“Of course I am.” Why was everyone asking me if I was okay? Was I so transparent? “Why would you think I wasn’t?”
“Your voice sounds…” she paused, as if thinking of the right word to say. “… constipated?”
I couldn’t help myself and laughed. “I’m fine, Ji Soo. Don’t worry.”
“I do worry,” she said, her voice altogether too serious for my liking, the way my sister sounds when she’s thinking hard about something. “We’re your family now, too. You know you can talk to us, right?”
A lump formed in my throat. “Yeah. Thanks. I have to go.”
I hung up the call and sat down on the arm of the couch, telling myself that I hadn’t been lying. I was fine. That I kept telling myself. I just needed to decompress and regroup, hence the trip to the mountains.
I was hoping that a bit of fresh air would bring with it a fresh perspective. God knows I needed it.
After what happened two nights ago Jung Jin hadn’t as much as left the house. Not unless he was out with me and the dog. I felt him watching me, with questions that he had yet to utter and words that he had yet to say. He worried, too. Though he wouldn’t say it out loud.
The Jung Jin I had met from months ago would have been brash and forthright, demanding answers. This Jung Jin now was hesitant, treading on my space carefully. As if he was afraid to spook me. As if he was honing in on the kill.
He had already begun changing, and I doubted that he even realized it, yet. The last thing I wanted to happen: my presence altering him into someone he’s not… the wheels have already started turning, as if events are getting put into motion.
The time away from each other would do him good as well, regardless of the fact that I’m sure he would vehemently disagree.
I patted Dog’s head as I took another look at the penthouse, making sure to leave it dog proofed.
“Be a good boy,” I whispered to the Dog, as he sat on the couch. I kissed his head and he licked my cheek happily. “I’ll be back soon.”
I stood up when the phone rang signaling the arrival of the cab that I had ordered. Walking briskly to the elevator bay, I did not allow myself to look back. I exited the building and hopped into the cab that would bring me to the bus station in this same indifferent way, in the same manner I had done with everything else.
I was so focused on keeping my eyes ahead that I didn’t realize I had forgotten my sleeping bag until the bus had pulled out of its parking bay.
I ignored the people around me and kept my eyes averted, holding on to the printed piece of paper with my destination on it like my life depended on it. As if it was the promised land.
If I could just get there, I thought, I could reset things. I could make believe I could go back to my life before Seoul, before Jung Jin; before I remembered what it was like to feel again. Before I realized how much I had missed it.
I had mulled over what Shawn had said this morning in the few precious minutes between meetings. Joon was performing better and better with each game, and as a result, we had been getting inundated with offers. It was great for business, not so much for personal introspection.
The door to my office opened and in came Ha Neul, my right hand man, and I looked up long enough to see that he had taken my suggestion and bought himself new clothes. The ugly glasses were gone, too, replaced by contact lenses. His hair was cut short, and already he looked sharper, more confident. Definitely better.
He placed a cup of coffee on my desk, already fixed the way he knew I liked, along with two pieces of paper and some more files. He waited for acknowledgment and seeing that there wasn’t any forthcoming, turned around and walked towards the door.
“The green tea contract is here?” I asked and he stopped on his heels and turned around to look at me.
“Yes,” he said, nodding. “Along with Trugen and Arnold Palmer. There are also a couple of things I clarified with the editors of the magazines who requested interviews. The details are on top of the files.”
I responded with a nod before picking up the scraps of paper. “So many messages?”
“Your mother and sisters called, sir.” He cleared his throat. “Your mother said she couldn’t get a hold of you on your handphone… She called twice. Something about soup and medicine.”
“My sisters called as well? Which ones?” I asked. “You know I have several.”
“Ji Hee-ssi first. She said something about dinner next week. And I believe your younger sister called as well.”
“She was speaking a little too quickly… More quickly than I could write, in fact. But she called a few times, though she hung up without speaking the first few times.”
“That’s strange.” Ji Soo has never been the bashful type before. She must be feeling under the weather. “What did she want?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Like I said… I didn’t quite understand but it seemed she needed the code to your penthouse.”
I took a deep breath and saw him turn again from the corner of my eye. “Ha Neul-ssi,” I said and he turned around. Again. His shoulders drawn, as if anticipating a rough talking to. I understood that I was brusque at times, fine, most times. And exacting. But I took my business very seriously and expected my associates to do the same. I thought of how Gia would see me if she saw the way I was right now and immediately felt chastened. She would never treat anyone this dismissively. Except for me. “Thank you for your hard work.”
Ha Neul smiled, a little tentatively at first, and then wider, then from ear to ear. I was embarrassed to admit that I never realized that something so small could affect someone so. I thought of the years he has worked for me and couldn’t remember myself saying one kind word. I didn’t even know anything about him.
“Ha Neul-ssi, should we go out for a drink after work sometime?” I asked now, looking away from him as he flushed with pleasure.
“That would be great, sir. Thank you.” He bowed once then again. I waved my hand at him and out he went, and dare I say with a bounce on his step as well. I shook my head.
I waited until the door was closed before I opened the first file, trying to read the specifics about a two year contract for a clothing company. But my eyes kept straying back to the pieces of paper on the table. My mother doesn’t usually call me during the day, unless it was absolutely necessary. Ha Neul did say that she called about soup and medication.
Was she sick? If so, where was Appa?
I powered my hand phone on and called home, half expecting my mother to sound miserable, already rearranging my schedule in my mind. I heard her voice as soon as the call connected, as bright and cheerful as ever.
“Jung Jin-ah!” She greeted. “I was just coming back from the market. Did you get my messages?”
“Yeah, Omma, I’m sorry I just got back to you now. I’ve been stuck in meetings all morning. Who’s sick?”
“I thought you said you got my messages?”
“Ah… I haven’t read them yet. It’s been a little hectic in the office.”
“Gia said she hadn’t been feeling well, so come over after work. I made her some samgyetang and got her some health tonics.”
I thought about what she said. Gia’s sick? She hadn’t looked sick. “When did you speak to her?”
“A few hours ago. She called Ji Soo.”
“She did?” And my mother made hummed in response. “I’ll come after work, Omma. Is Ji Soo there?”
“She nipped out for a few minutes, said she had to get a new pick for her guitar or something. Should I have her call you when she comes back?”
“Nah, Omma. I’ll call her hand phone.”
“Okay I’ll speak to you soon.”
I hung up the call and was about to call my youngest sister when a call came through on the office phone. Another of Joon’s sponsors, asking to see if he can be booked for an autograph signing.
With a sigh I started writing the details on my pad, Ji Soo momentarily forgotten.
It wasn’t until half an hour later that there were three swift knocks on the door to my office, just as I had taken a bite of the sandwich I had ordered in. Ha Neul entered hesitantly and I narrowed my eyes at him. He knows not to interrupt me excessively when I am elbow deep in work. I was about to ask him what was going on now when a head peeked out from behind him, her face smiling.
“Hi, Oppa!” Ji Soo said as she stepped from behind Ha Neul.
She stole a glance his way and Ha Neul blushed bright red. All the way to his ears. He mumbled something before he left the room, almost bumping into the glass door in the process. Jo Soo kept her eyes on him and my brows furrowed even more.
My sister had made an effort today, wearing a dress, as opposed to the jeans and casual shirts she normally favored. Her long hair was down her back, loose. She had lip gloss on.
I was not used to seeing her like this. I wasn’t sure I liked it.
What the hell was going on?
“So, Oppa,” she started as she ceremoniously sat herself on the leather seat across from mine. “What are you doing?”
I put my sandwich down and wiped my mouth with a paper towel. I waved a hand over the various half opened files littering my desk. “What does it look like I’m doing? I’m working.” I took another good look at her. Was it just me or were her cheeks flushed? “What are you doing here, Ji Soo-yah?”
“Oppa,” she said. “How long have you had this office?”
“Three, four years?”
“And yet you never invited me to come visit. Why is that?”
“I didn’t realize you wanted to.” I took a sip of water and opened another file. “You called before?”
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I did. But it’s okay. Ji Hyun Unnie gave me the pass code to your penthouse.”
“Okay,” I said, my pen stopping mid air. “Why do you need the pass code to the penthouse?”
“Oppa,” she said with a sly smile. “You don’t have to pretend like you’re not going. Unnie told me.”
“Gia Unnie. She told me you were going to Sokcho.”
“I was going to Sokcho?”
“No, silly. That you both were. She asked me to feed Dog and hang out with him. I thought you were going straight after work since she said to go at 5. To be honest I was just planning on spending the night at yours.”
“Why would we go to Sokcho?” Gia never mentioned any of this to me, and already I had the dreaded feeling that that had been an intentional omission.
“Seoraksan. I must say, Oppa, for someone who has a fear of heights, you’re being mighty adventurous going up the mountains.” She blinked at me as I looked at her and put a hand to her mouth. “Oh no, did I blow it? Was it supposed to be a secret?”
“I remember now,” I said, feigning a smile. “I must be getting forgetful. When did you speak to Gia?”
“A few hours ago,” she said, thinking. “But if you two were supposed to go together how come you’re at work?”
“I’m only working half a day,” I said smoothly, closing all the files shut. “In fact, I’m leaving now.” I grabbed my jacket from the back of my chair and shrugged it on as my sister arose as well. Leaving the various folders on my table, I took my sister’s arm and led her out of my office.
We stopped at Ha Neul’s desk and he looked at me first before furtively glancing at Ji Soo, who was directly staring at him, before turning his gaze back my way. “I’m leaving for the day and taking the day off tomorrow,” I said. “Send the files on my desk to my email so that I can read over them when I get back.”
“No problem, sir.”
I turned my attention to my sister before nudging my head towards the elevators. “Ji Soo-yah, wait for me outside. Call your Unnie as well and see if she’s still at the penthouse.”
“I can call Gia Unnie here.”
“Wait outside for me, Ji Soo-yah. I’ll give you a ride back home so that you can pack a bag and spend the night at our place.”
“But Oppa…” she glanced at Ha Neul again and I frowned at her, quieting her instantaneously.
She pouted at me before walking out of the office.
“Is everything okay, sir?” Ha Neul asked, finally looking more comfortable than he did the whole time Ji Soo had been here.
“Is something going on with you and my sister?”
“No,” he stammered, looking down. “We just met for the first time today.”
I studied his face for any sign on duplicity, and saw none. Reassured I gentled my voice.
“I’ll be out of town today. If Joon calls the office tell him to call my handphone instead.” He nodded as he wrote my instructions down. “I need you to call the bus lines and find out how often a bus goes to Sokcho. What time the next one is leaving, what time the last one left. Call me and let me know as soon as you know.”
“Will do, sir.” He looked up at me after writing the details on his notepad. “What will you be doing in Sokcho, sir? I have never heard of you speaking about going there before.”
I gave him a wry smile and he perused me in surprise. “Apparently I’m going up a mountain.”
Sokcho Express Bus Terminal
I stepped off the bus with my bag in tow, still thinking about my sleeping bag on the floor of the guest bedroom. I only had the paper printout of the mountain, along with my guide and phrase books. The Sokcho terminal was full of people, but they all seemed to know where they were going.
I had been so intent on getting out of the penthouse that I hadn’t devised a clear plan. I wasn’t even entirely sure if I had any place to stay or sleep. Didn’t know if I would be able to find somewhere to eat. I just forged ahead without thinking it through.
I had meandered around the bus terminal in Seoul for too long a time just searching for the right booth to buy my ticket. I should have been here much earlier than now. Even so, the bus had made good time once we actually started moving… we got here in less than the two hours that was said on the website. It’s lucky I actually thought to take the express bus.
I blew a stray strand of hair that has fallen from my bun away from my face. I thought I was way past doing things without thinking, but I guess in some situations I was still the same. When I get my mind set on going somewhere, I have to just do it, before I changed my mind. Courage is plenty for those who don’t have to think about the consequences of their actions.
Besides, I have the whole two hour hike up the mountain and the whole two hour descent from the mountain to figure it all out. Plenty of time to think about it. As long as I manage to even get there.
I secured my backpack on my shoulders before looking around, realizing that all the signs were in Korean. Opening my phrase book, I stopped a friendly looking girl to ask for where the bus stop to the national park is.
“Excuse me,” I said and cleared my throat. “Jamkkanmaneyo… ahh… beosenun seoraksan?” I flushed as I said the words, realizing that I didn’t even construct a full sentence.
The girl in front of me smiled, as if understanding, before pointing to a bus stop, only a few feet away from the terminal. I bowed in gratitude, as I had seen Korean drama heroines do on television, uttering a quiet ‘kamsahamnida.’ I clutched the ticket in my hands and made my way over, hoping that I had not been led astray.
I climbed the bus and went to the back, as I always did in San Francisco. Old habits are hard to break. My tummy growled and I looked around self-consciously, in case anyone heard. Cursing myself mentally for for not eating any breakfast nor packing any food, I told myself that I can wait. I took out a bottled water, the one thing I did remember to bring, and took a sip.
During the almost two hour journey, I did not think of Jung Jin at all. I didn’t think of him when we passed by a restaurant that served porridge. Nor did I think of him when the bus passed a field full of white flowers. I didn’t think of him when a vendor came on the bus selling the dry fish that he liked to snack on so much, not even when the kid sitting on the bus to Sokcho smiled at me, a dimple on his left cheek appearing like magic, the same spot where Jung Jin’s dimple is.
The time on the bus was wisely spent, I think. Not thinking about Jung Jin was very easy. It’s comforting to know that I can still not think of him.
The bus pulled out of its stop and I leaned towards the windows to look at the scenery outside, grateful to finally be somewhere Jung Jin was not.
“Did you get the information?” I asked Ha Neul as I put him on speaker phone, after having let my sister talk me into buying her lunch before taking her home.
I glared at the phone as I remembered the not so subtle way Ji Soo had peppered me with questions about my assistant. I think, maybe, that my sister has a newfound crush. The last thing I needed while worrying about the state of my love life is having to worry about the state of hers.
Besides, isn’t she too young for that? To be fair, if it was up to me she would never date. Ever. I can honestly say I never ever thought that I would ever need to think about this so early on in my life.
“Yes,” Ha Neul said, interrupting my thoughts, “the express bus leaves from Dong Seoul Station every hour. It should take two hours from Seoul before she has to take the Sokcho Express Bus for another hour from the terminal to the park.”
“So you’re telling me she’s already there?” I asked, keeping my eyes focused on the road in front of me, unable even to enjoy the pretty spring scenery. “Dammit.”
“If she left before 11 a.m., then yes, she would already be in Sokcho, at the very least.” I cursed again. “Do you want to hear the other bad news?”
“The weather forecast in Sokcho says it’s due to rain in…” he paused, as if reading a piece of paper for the exact information, “…about three hours.”
“How long does it take to hike that thing?” I asked.
“Two hours, give or take.”
“Shit.” I shook my head. Of all the times for my woman to take a fancy climbing up the mountain, why did it have to be today?
“Do you need me to look hotels up and make a reservation?”
“Yes,” I said, then thought about it. A bulb lit in my head despite my grim mood. Gia is a planner, just like me. If so she would have planned on being here overnight which means that she would have made a hotel reservation. If I was stranded with her, that would mean she would have to share a room with me. If I played my cards right, she might even share her bed, maybe. “No. Don’t make any reservations of any sort.”
“Sir?” Ha Neul said. “Can you repeat that?”
“Don’t make any reservations. I’ll just have to play it by ear.”
I hung up the phone, a smile fixed on my face. For the first time since I heard that she just left without even telling me, I felt good. Excited. I was so happy I didn’t even think about the fact that I would need to find her first. And more than likely, she would be up, up, up up in the mountains.
But… she already knows I’m scared of heights, therefore I will be greatly rewarded for even taking the chance. This would be the first time we would be alone since Dog came along, and as much as I liked the little bugger, I was in need of one on one time with my woman.
She would no doubt yell and complain first, but surely she will be happy that I came, eventually. She’s too kind to leave me stranded outside, in the rain, shelterless. If my hands were not occupied with driving I would have rubbed them together in anticipation.
This is going to be fun.
Seoraksan National Park
I sat at one of the wooden benches, munching on some shrimp crackers at a small mom and pop shop as I took a break before going up the hardest part of the hike. The first part had not been difficult, even with my ten year old sneakers on, torn and ripped in some places.
I always did like my shoes like I liked my jeans, worn and comfortable. Familiar. I was the same with my clothes the way I was with everything else, unable to let go.
The thought didn’t as much as incite any kind of reaction out of me. I already knew this about myself.
I finished the rest of the chips as I perused my surroundings. It was beautiful here, peaceful. The sun was bright though there were fluffy clouds as well, in pretty little shapes in the sky. Exactly what I needed.
But… Where was everyone? I could have sworn there were at least a half a dozen people who got off the bus at the park’s entrance with me. However they had all passed me, looking as if they were in a rush, talking amongst themselves in Korean. And now there seemed to be no one here but me.
The woman minding the small store walked towards me as she cleaned up the tables. She said something in Korean and I shook my head before telling her I didn’t understand. She pointed to the sky and I continued to look at her, trying to figure out what she was trying to tell me.
“B,” she said and I bit my lip in confusion.
“B?” Like A, B, C, D, E, F, G, B?
She nodded. “B.”
What does the letter B have to do with anything? My phrase book has phrases, but it wasn’t a dictionary. She seemed hell bent on telling me something and to placate her I just nodded, as if I understood. Then I went about my business and chucked my now empty water bottle in the bin.
The woman who spoke to me just stood by the door, her hands on her hips, watching me, looking concerned. There was nothing to worry about. I was perfectly fine going up a mountain on my own. With one last cheerful wave, I smiled at her and continued on the last half hour of my hike.
I looked up at the entrance to the park, already losing my nerve. I haven’t hiked since Peru. Never wanted to. I would have been perfectly happy never ever hiking again.
Why is it that this woman always wants to take me to places of high elevation? Why can’t we just be on plain ground? Already I could feel my heart racing anxiously. This was the most important reason why I shouldn’t do this.
I had parked my car just minutes before, at one of the unmarked spaces not far from the park. I had taken my suit jacket off, but I looked at my shoes now and already knew they’d be ruined by the end of this trip.
Why didn’t I stop off at home and change first?
In truth I was so intent on getting to her that the thought didn’t even cross my mind. Until now. I was still in a button down dress shirt and trousers, for fuck’s sake. If the weather prediction was right, I will be drenched. Another reason not to go.
What was I thinking?
She might not even be here anymore. She might have heard about the rain coming and decided against climbing today. For all I know she could be cozy and warm in the hotel room, watching one of the dramas that she followed religiously.
I swear, for someone who doesn’t understand a lick of Korean, she was certainly very invested.
The sun was still out, though partially covered by the clouds now. It was cooler here, and I could feel the moisture in the air. The rain was coming, alright, but perhaps not quite yet. But it was coming. A third reason.
I paced back and forth by the arched entrance, still trying to talk myself out of this strange… expedition. What was so wrong about just waiting for her down here?
I didn’t expect many people around since it was a weekday, but there was no one here at all. As in, at all. The place was deserted. It was very likely that she wasn’t here, but in the off chance that she was… I bit back a curse.
I have to go. I have to go.
Just… think of the bed afterwards, I told myself as I forced my feet into the park entrance and began the long walk up. Just think of your woman and the bed. And the pampering and praise. The image of Gia doing those things was so ludicrous and far-fetched that I don’t even know why I’m setting myself up for disappointment. I’d be lucky to get a ‘good job’ or a ‘thank you.’ I chuckled in spite of my apprehension.
I’d really lost it now. This was not how I get myself hailed a hero. This was how I get myself killed.
Jesus… I’m dying here. I thought I was in good shape with my daily jogging but I definitely was not used to this. Even now I struggled to catch my breath as I continued to climb another set of stairs.
At least the first half of the hike had a giant Buddha and a few temples to distract me. And small shops dotted around to feed me. Now all I see are stairs, stairs and even more stairs.
How did these people get these built onto the face of the mountain? It’s a feat of engineering built only to torture me.
I paused for a second and rested my hands on my knees, trying to get my bearings. From this altitude I was already getting lightheaded. What the hell made me think I can do this? I had never hiked a day in my life.
Sure I wanted to get away from the man, but couldn’t I just have chosen a little overnight spa or resort or something?
My backpack felt like it was the equivalent of my weight. What the hell did I pack in here? There was a reason hikers’ meals came in flat little packets and convenient little bars. I should have definitely bought some of those. And maybe one of the foldable bottles too.
I looked up ahead of me. There were only four more flights left. Only four more.
The thought should have made me happy, but it almost made me want to cry. And here I thought I was going to be serene and zen the whole way.
This fucking view better be worth it.
I reached the halfway point of the hike according to the signs, and as my reward I parked myself at one of the small shops that sat on the flat plane of the mountain, just past a temple with all the paper lanterns.
I have to hand it to Gia… she certainly chose a beautiful mountain to try to climb. I could only appreciate little bits of the scenery with one eye open looking down as I climbed up, but nevertheless, it was beautiful, what with the pine trees so green and the wildflowers in bloom all around.
I sat myself down on a bench and unbuttoned the collar of my shirt. This was insanity. My left thigh was throbbing, unused from the activity. It’s been almost a decade since I climbed, and at least then I was wearing the right gear.
An elderly woman passed by me with a suspicious scowl, a visor cap over her permed hair. It appeared as if she was emptying the trash bins. See? Even the people that worked here were preparing to go. What foolishness was this that I decided to go up? And for what? For the tiniest of chances that she might have forged ahead?
If the woman jumped off the cliff would I follow too?
“You’re not dressed like all the other visitors around here,” she harrumphed under her breath when I approached her and tried to take the heavy bag from her.
“Halmoni, what do you mean?” I teased as I followed her to the side of the small shack and deposited the bag. “You don’t like my suit?”
“Who dresses in a suit while hiking?” She perused me from head to toe one more time. “You’re handsome, though. I’ll give you that.” I flashed her a smile and she gave me a close mouthed smile. “It’s going to rain soon. You best climb back down unless you want your nice suit ruined.”
“I have to go to the top, halmoni.” She shot me an incredulous look.
“What is it with you young people not listening to me today?” She complained. “Yeah, well, if you do get up there and you see a foreign girl tell her to come down too.”
“A foreign girl?”
“Yes. Short girl. Long hair. Looks Asian but not completely. Big eyes.”
“A woman like that passed here?”
“About an hour ago. Silly girl thought she could fool me by nodding along with what I was saying but I knew that she didn’t understand.”
“What exactly did you tell her?”
“The same thing I just told you. There’s a storm brewing. Neither one of you should still be here when it happens.”
“Thank you, halmoni,” I said sincerely. “I have to go now.”
“So you’re taking my advice then and going back down?”
I shook my head no. “I’m climbing to the top. I want to make sure that woman gets down safely. She gets herself in trouble a lot.”
The grandmother gave me a surprised look. “Is she with you?”
Is she with me? If by saying ‘with’ one meant that she was a part of me, then yes, she was with me. But ‘with’ was too tame a word, too weak. It doesn’t nearly encompass what I feel for her and what she is to me. The longer I spend with her the more I understood this. And the more I understood, the more I accepted.
“Yes,” I answered.
It’s amazing how much easier things get once you make peace with the truth.
I took a deep breath and my eyes ate the beauty that was in front of me: the countryside laid just beneath my feet, wildflowers everywhere I turned. To my east was the coastline and the Sea of Japan, serene and peaceful. Life thriving as another season began.
I don’t know how long I had been sitting on this rock, just on the edge of the mountain, inches behind the safety railing. It felt like time was standing still, like I had been here for hours and days, when I knew that it had merely been minutes.
In the presence of enormous things, physicists have named this concept relativity. Where space and time, always considered separate and apart from each other, were now interconnected and fused, each a part of the other.
For the first time in many years I felt like I was part of something bigger, something greater than myself; as if I had a purpose, though I had yet to find out what that ultimately was. As if this was a gift that had been given only to me in this moment. This feeling was already embedding itself in my memory, something I know I will cherish forever.
I was right to come here. I needed this.
Despite my best intentions otherwise, my mind instinctively wandered to Jung Jin. I wondered if this was how he felt when he was sitting atop Machu Picchu. If he felt this humbled and lucky, or if all that was colored by the guilt of having survived when others had not.
I hoped not. I hoped it was not so.
Life is too short, really, to live with such regrets. In my profession I knew this on an intellectual basis and yet… it still surprises me sometimes, what it really means. We are all on the planet for the minutest of time, a blink of an eye when compared to the mountains and the stars and the sea. Long will they exist even after we’re all gone and forgotten.
The thought makes one wonder what life is really about, what it is for. Money? No. Riches? Not that, as well.
It was for memory.
It would all be okay as long as someone remembers you, as long as you’ve touched something real and true. Being tossed into oblivion was okay if while you are present in the world, you were really present in the world.
Nothing in the world was as permanent as the impermanence of things. Which is why, I supposed, people are taught from a young age to enjoy life as it comes. I had done that only very rarely but surely it wasn’t too late for me.
Surely… it wasn’t too late for me.
I know this thing with Jung Jin is not going to last… I could already feel the seconds ticking away from me, but can’t I hold on to it for as long as I could? Maybe, even allow myself to enjoy the presence of the man who actually, inexplicably, truly, made me happy?
I wasn’t sure yet, but right now it feels like I should try. I stood up and looked at the vista before me one more time, already saying my goodbye. Already whispering my gratitude. I think I might be ready to go back and face what might be ahead.
I had only just turned the corner on the first set of stairs when I made the mistake of looking down and saw how far up I actually was. I thought that living at the penthouse was going to cure me of this irrational fear, but even with that it was different. There were walls and glass protecting me. I was so rarely on the deck that it was neither here nor there, and whenever I did find myself having to go there, I made sure to stay close to the perimeter of the building.
I have learned to cope and to find ways around my fear without actually having to deal with it.
I stood on the landing, my fingers clutching the railings, sweat beading on my forehead. I told myself to breathe through it, but not to breathe too quickly. All this thinking while I’m feeling like this isn’t helping.
In through the nose, out through the mouth. In through the nose and out through the mouth.
I kept telling myself to breathe more slowly, to slow it the hell down, but my body was doing what it was built to do during situations of panic. Rather than slowing down I was breathing faster and faster, as if I was running. I felt my knees sink down onto the stairway platform, my mouth dry, and the sight in front of me blurred.
I should really have brought a little brown bag, as I had been taught to do. I tried to summon the voice of the therapist I saw (once) to try to reason myself through the fear.
“It’s because your body is depleted by carbon dioxide when you breathe too fast that makes you feel dizzy and lightheaded,” the therapist had said. “Get more carbon dioxide and you won’t fix the problem, but at least you would feel a little better.”
See? I thought as I blinked the sweat from my eyes. I know what to do; I have always been a great student. What was I thinking about again?
I looked around and tried to regain my bearings, but for some reason my brain wasn’t functioning.
Where was I? How did I get here?
It doesn’t matter, I thought, trying to hang on to that advice. I needed something that made sense and it sounded very sensible, indeed. Never should it ever be said that I wasn’t a logical human being. Despite what Gia implies most times.
She’s somewhere here, wasn’t she? She was the only reason why I would be somewhere that I never planned on. How absurd that though I can’t seem to remember anything else I can remember her, her every detail clear to me. Her frown, her smile. The smell of her hair. The touch of her hands. I tried to keep my brain locked onto the image of her even as the clouds thickened and my eyes went dark.
I felt drops of water on my face as I rested my head on the railing. What if she had already left? What if I missed her?
No one will find me here. No one. It was the last conscious thought in my mind before all awareness ceased and I closed my eyes.
I ran down the set of stairs as the rain started falling more heavily, my footsteps making a strange sound. I really ought to get new shoes. My hair was drenched as were my clothes; the rain descended so quickly I barely had time to find someplace to stand under.
Not that I had many options around here, mind you. The whole place was open to the elements, part of the reason why I came in the first place, and with the exception of the snack shop I passed earlier, there was nowhere else I could go.
I turned the corner of the platform to go down the last set of stairs when a slumped figure took my notice. My footsteps slowed down as I took the person in, wondering why anyone would come here looking like that.
He, I only assumed it was a he seeing as the back was too broad to belong to a woman, was dressed in a white dress shirt, now soaked and clinging to his skin. The figure didn’t move. At all. Not even to look behind him when I had gotten closer.
What the hell? Did he get drunk and decide to climb up the mountain? Who the hell does that shit? I’m on vacation, goddammit!
I marched to stand in front of him to give him a good shaking and a lecture, maybe. Even if there was a high chance that he wouldn’t understand what I’m saying. Taking a deep breath I cleared my throat before I looked down, ready to unleash my exasperation onto this person.
“Excuse me, sir. Do you know how dangerous it is…” My voice trailed off when I realized that the person was no stranger but Jung Jin, pale and drawn, unresponsive as the rain continued to pelt us both.
I dropped to my knees and lay my hands on his shoulders, giving him a little shake.
“Jung Jin,” I said. “Hey,” I tried again after seeing that he had not opened his eyes. Was he just pretending? I felt a burst of anger thinking how far he would take this. “Hey.” I shook him harder, my hand drifting to his neck, checking for a pulse. The anger quickly gave way to worry, a nagging concern. His pulse was weak and slow, his breathing irregular. His hand was wrapped around the railing of the stairs, as if he had known what was about to happen. I lifted them off the rail now before helping him lay on his back, trying to ease the apprehension bubbling inside me and failing.
Though I knew just what to do, I couldn’t help the anxious fluttering inside me. What was he doing here? What the hell possessed him to climb up when he knew he was afraid of heights? Jesus… I came here because I thought he would not dare follow even if he knew I was here.
I thought his fear of heights would outweigh his predilection to follow me. Illogical man. I was only going for a day.
I bent low to put my ear to his mouth, listening for a breath as I watched the rise and fall of his chest. He’s breathing, but too damn slowly for my liking. Without hesitation I tipped his chin up and opened his mouth, then blew a breath, before counting to fifteen silently and then repeating it again.
I kept doing it in this way until I saw the color come back on his face, though he still didn’t open his eyes. I put my mouth on his again to give another rescue breath, wondering if I should try shaking him again. However, I saw a twitching behind his eyes just as my lips touched his, one of his hands all of a sudden on my back, warm and very very awake. His eyes shot open as our lips touched and he tightened his arms around me, pulling me directly on top of him, pinning me in place.
I was so caught off guard I could do nothing but stay still, even as his eyes now danced merrily in front of me. His lips softened against mine and his tongue drifted out playfully to lick at my upper lip. I frowned at him even as our lips stayed locked together, telling myself sternly not to enjoy this too much. While I don’t think he was trying to deceive me, he should not look so happy to have woken up to me trying to rouse him back to consciousness. Nor should he be so eager in taking advantage of the same fact.
I tried to push off the warm awareness that came over me as I realized that we were both wet, our clothes sticking to both our bodies so much we might not as well have been wearing any. Underneath me his body felt tense, solid, like a coiled spring ready to uncoil. His eyes darkened as his hands traveled up and down my spine, before resting on the curve of my hip.
His touch seemed light enough, and had I really wanted to, I could have risen and pulled away. But I didn’t even as alarm bells were ringing in my head. Still, those alarm bells didn’t have any hold over me when I was being barraged by sensations, my body coming to life.
The feel of the rain, and this man, looking at me in the way that he does and making me feel in a way that only he can. I closed my eyes, having an argument with myself about how I should be angry that he followed me here, how I should be mad that he never told me how bad his fear of heights actually was.
But it was a little difficult to keep my thoughts straight when he nipped at my lip before licking it soothingly and I forgot where I was. It became even more of a challenge when I felt something hard and insistent pressing on my abdomen and forgot who I was.
Everyone should date a nurse. Seriously… everyone should date one. Or, at the very least, date someone who is certified in first aid.
This was the first thought in my mind as I came back into consciousness, feeling the presence of another person above me. Although I already knew it was her before I even opened my eyes. Her scent was distinctive; it always was. I didn’t know what perfume she used, or why she would use it while climbing up the mountains; my memory coming back as urgently as the blood pumping back into my body. Still it didn’t matter. I loved the way she smelled, just as I loved every part of her.
My hands found my way to her back, as it registered that I was lying supine, my eyes twitching behind my lids. Her lips felt soft on mine, pliant. My eyes opened as I felt her warm breath mingle with mine. Without any real effort I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her flush against me, savoring the weight of her, her curves melting into me.
I let my eyes travel over her face as our lips stayed connected. Pleasure shot up inside me as I watched her green brown irises glaze when I licked her upper lip. Then her eyebrows furrowed and I suppressed a smile. Already she was thinking again when she should just be feeling.
I know that’s all I was doing.
My fingers wandered the length of her back, trying to ignore the sensation of her chest against mine. I chose to focus, instead, on her heartbeat fluttering against me, my heart echoing in response. She was wearing a shirt so thin it was almost as if we were flesh to flesh. Love flowed through my veins, thick and all-encompassing, the way it always did whenever I was near her. My body tensed as I fought the urge to pin her to the ground, my instincts already taking over.
In this moment I can honestly say that I don’t know how people in love manage to go to work or do anything. If I was granted the freedom to do this whenever I wanted I would never leave the house. Ever.
My hand settled flat on a shapely hip, her waist dipping in. I wanted to touch that dip. Maybe kiss it, even.
I tried to keep my touch light for my sake as much as for hers. I hadn’t forgotten her first phone call, when she had told me how long it’s been for her since she had been this close to a man. Although the position we had found ourselves in right now helped nothing.
My whole body felt alive; I was breathing in the scent of the trees around us, the smell of wet earth just below us. We were connected hip to hip and I shifted myself to try to disconnect, to disengage before she even realized that already my body was responding to her vicinity.
She closed her eyes as she released a breath and I gave her lower lip a playful tug before another tender lick. I wanted to devour her. I felt my abdomen tighten and hoped that she wouldn’t notice. She said nothing even as her eyes opened in awareness, her teeth latching on her lip. She shifted her weight on top of me and the contact felt so good I wanted her to do it again.
It won’t be long now until she puts an end to us doing this, so I braced myself for the moment as she looked into my eyes.
“Are you okay?” She asked, that honeyed voice of hers lower still.
I nodded, afraid that my voice would betray me. I wanted to tell her that I loved her. That my desire for her was compounded by this fact. And it was true. I have never wanted a woman like this.
“Okay, then.” She said nothing else.
I thought she was getting ready to get up, already consoling myself with the knowledge that she hasn’t yelled at me and that this had felt as good as I always imagined. But she merely ran her fingers through my hair, shaking her head slightly at me before resting her head on my shoulder, her body molding itself to mine.
“You scared me,” she whispered and I could do nothing but cradle her against me, trying to figure out if there will ever come a time when I would be able to predict what she will actually do.
“What do you mean you don’t have a plan?” Jung Jin asked.
It had only been a few minutes since the rain had stopped just as suddenly as it started and we found ourselves sheepishly standing up from the ground, him looking at me curiously and and me studiously avoiding his gaze. To be honest I wasn’t quite sure what had come over me. Well, actually, let me edit that. I knew what came over me, but I’ll blame the altitude instead.
I looked at him now, looking disheveled, the top button on his shirt loosened, his hair all over the place. Was it weird that I found him even more attractive when he’s Iike this? Still, who dresses like they were about to go to a business meeting knowing damn well he was going up a mountain?
I had slung my backpack to rest in front of me, fully aware of how I looked myself. I wish now that I had insisted on stopping at the restroom and changing my clothes.
“I was going to figure it out when I got here,” I answered. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
“Ahh…” I heard him hesitate and knew for damn sure that he was going to make an up a story instead of telling me the truth. “I had business in the area.”
“A baseball player’s manager has business in the mountains?” I asked, stopping and looking at him. “I didn’t realize that baseball was now played in a national park.”
“For your information, this region also has a baseball team as well,” he said. I was about to ask him what the name of the team was when I saw him stop walking as we exited the park and walked down a street, his head moving from left to right, as if looking for something.
“What? What had you lost?”
He looked around again before giving me a response, his tone fully annoyed. “My car.”
“How do you lose your car?”
“I don’t know. I could have sworn I parked here.”
“Well there are no cars anywhere,” I said as he took my hand, looking both ways before leading me across the street. He didn’t let go even as he stopped to speak to an elderly gentleman, walking on his way to somewhere else.
The man looked at me and I gave him a smile before he redirected his attention to Jung Jin, talking while moving his hands, something he’s never really done before. That was something that I always did, though. Was I rubbing off on him?
You were rubbing on him a few minutes ago, a voice snickered in my mind and I flushed. Jung Jin and the man continued to speak in Korean for a few more minutes and then the man walked away with a wave.
Jung Jin ran his free hand through his hair. “What did he say?” I asked.
“That this was a no parking zone. Apparently my car would most likely have been towed already. And the place closes at 5:00 p.m. It looks like I’ll have to spend the night here.” He paused as if for effect. “With you.”
“What?” I asked. “Why? There are buses, you know.”
“Christ,” he said, ignoring me. “If this was a no parking zone why are there no signs?”
“Don’t you have to work in the morning?”
He flashed me a grin and shook his head. “No… One of the few perks of working for myself.” I made a face that made him smile even wider. So much for getting away from him. “Which hotel did you make a reservation at? The one just there?” He pointed to an imposing gray building across the park’s entrance.
“I didn’t make a reservation.”
“How could you come here without making a reservation to a hotel? And you expect me to just leave you here?” He met my eyes then, a scowl on his normally all too handsome and irritatingly composed face. He kept my gaze for a bit longer than I would like and I shrugged my shoulders.
“What?” I asked. “I didn’t ask you to come with me.”
“Well, I’m with you now,” he responded. “Let’s go.”
Pulling on the strap of my bag closer to me, I bit back a curse as he pulled me in the direction of said hotel.
“This was supposed to be a spontaneous trip,” I protested. “Where’s the fun in spontaneity if I made plans? I would have figured something out.”
“Have you forgotten you don’t speak Korean?” He asked. “How would you have told the cab driver to go anywhere? This is the province… you won’t just bump into someone who understands English here, and on a weeknight at that. Would you have wandered around aimlessly until you found a hotel?”
“I’ve managed to do just fine without you for thirty three years.”
“I’ve managed to do just fine without you for thirty three years.” I recognized the stubborn lift of her chin and was about to comment that never had she been in another country altogether in her thirty three years when it hit me that she was only just thirty two when we first met.
“You’re making yourself older than you are,” I teased. “I thought you were just 32.”
“I was 32. I’m not anymore.”
“You birthday passed?” I asked as she broke out of my grasp and walked more quickly towards the hotel. “Before you came to Korea?”
“No…” she answered, turning back to look at me. “Since I’ve been here.”
“When?” I forced myself to say even as I fought the urge to take off my equally wet shirt and put it over her front. As much as I enjoyed seeing her this way, I was no sharer. I don’t want anyone else to see her that way.
“The night I went on a blind date.”
“You mean the night you kissed m…”
“Yep. That night. Well, actually,” she said as she put her backpack behind her. I swallowed when I realized that her shirt was still wet. I could see everything.
I looked at her, her hair still drenched and her skin still damp from the rain. Her lips are pink and shiny, her eyes glowing more green than brown under the hotel chandeliers. What was it about this woman wet that I just could not resist? If it was up to me, I’d have her forever in water. The blood started pounding in my ears and my groin tightened almost painfully. I was having a hard time hearing what she was saying. “… when you think about it, the thing happened early the next day but semantics, right?”
Try as I might, I could not peel my eyes away from her shirt. I could see dark fabric through the thin material, the curves of her chest visible.
What the hell were we talking about again?
“Jung Jin…” I thought I heard her say and I lifted my eyes to meet hers. “Are you just going to keep standing there?”
She didn’t wait for an answer before she started walking up to the front desk. The sight of her chest gone I quickened my steps to catch up to her. I shoved her behind me to address the front desk person. I’d only just had a glimpse of my woman’s curves… I’ll be damned if anyone else gets that privilege on the very same day.
Cheoksan Onseon Spa
“Are you sure that there was only one room available?” I asked Jung Jin as we rode the elevators up to the second floor.
“I asked him to speak in English precisely for this reason. I knew you would be suspicious,” he said, the key card in his hand and he walked a few steps before turning to me and allowing himself a touch of my cheek. “You heard him yourself.”
“Yeah… but you two spoke in Korean for quite a bit longer afterwards…”
“He was just telling me that they have a group of tourists from Japan booked into the hotel tonight so we only have an ondol to sleep in.” His eyes were laughing, obviously pleased at the this turn of events.
“Ondol?” I asked.
“A traditional room with heated floorboards and sleeping mats,” he answered as the elevator opened and he took my bag from me and took my hand. At the frown he spied on my face, he asked, “Is that going to be a problem? It’s not very different from a sleeping bag.”
It wasn’t the sleeping mat that I was worried about but the same room business. He looked at me quizzically before walking, his eyes peeled on the room numbers we passed before finally stopping in front of a room.
He slipped the key card into the slot before opening the door, turning a switch on the wall. He sighed as he entered, and I followed behind him. I looked around as Jung Jin dropped my bag onto a small table before walking to the windows and pulling the curtains close.
There was a hot plate on the same table my bag now rested, a coffeemaker and a small fridge in the corner of the room. As expected, there was a pile of folded mattress pads and small pillows. The room was small, with really just enough space for one person to move about comfortably, but I didn’t mind. I’d stayed in worse places.
Jung Jin opened the fridge and pulled out a bottle of water, offering it to me. I took it gratefully as I sat myself down on the floor even as Jung Jin puttered around the room, checking the thermostat and pulling a robe out of the small armoire.
“Did you not bring a change of clothes?” I asked as I unscrewed the top of the water bottle and took a sip.
“I did,” he said. “It’s in the car.” He started taking his shoes off, then his socks, and I looked away. I see him put on his slippers before, had taken his socks off myself before, but something about seeing him walking barefoot, padding around like we had done this many many times before brought home the fact that we were going to be sleeping together in the same room; a room that’s barely big enough for both of us. And he was acting like it was the most normal thing in the world. “Do you want to take a shower first?”
“No,” I responded, not looking at him, busying myself instead with making some coffee even though I had no clue how to do work this particular coffee machine. And despite the fact that I only just started drinking from a bottled water. “You go ahead.”
“I’ll only be able few minutes,” he said, dropping a kiss on top of my head before walking through the door to the bathroom then poking his head out to hand me a towel and disappearing.
I didn’t get up from the floor until I heard the shower running, and I quickly took my bag and pulled my small cosmetic case out. Grabbing my mirror out I cringed when I saw that the strands loose from my ponytail was drying into a frizzy halo around my face, my eyeliner now completely smudged in some places.
I looked like a crazy woman.
No big deal, I told myself. The man had seen me worse.
I poured what was left of my water bottle into the water reservoir in the coffee maker before putting one of the filters that were placed next to it into the basket, just as the picture showed. Tearing open the package of coffee, I poured the lot into the filter and turned the switch on. Or at least I think I turned it on.
Pulling out two cups, I tore open packets of sugar and creamer for mine and just creamer for Jung Jin’s. I waited by the table, pulling my hair out of its ponytail and drying it with the towel, trying not very successfully to not think of Jung Jin in the shower.
He always took showers at the penthouse in his own bathroom and before I even got up out of bed, so I never really had time to think about it before. But now, we were literally separated by one door and a shower curtain, maybe.
He’s naked. And wet.
I started rubbing the towel over my hair more vigorously, remembering what had transpired in the rain. Or more specifically, what I had felt in the rain. I felt a fluttering in the pit of my abdomen and chose not to label it as what it was and decided to call it nerves instead.
He is a man. I am a woman, and a nurse. A body is a body. We are attracted to one another. There was nothing abnormal or unnatural about two people attracted to one another spending time together. In fact that was almost expected. But what of those two same adults who keep finding themselves in close proximity for a whole night?
I kept asking this of myself as I sat staring at the coffeemaker, now sputtering coffee into the pot. We were adults. Surely we can sleep next to each other without actually doing anything. He has shown me time and time again that he has perfect control over his physical urges.
I was confident in Jung Jin’s ability to restrain himself. I wish I could say the same for my own.
By the time I got out of the shower and donned the flimsy robe that was provided by the hotel, the coffee was already made and Gia was standing by the windows, looking out.
Her hair was loose now, down her back, and I tried to count in my mind how many times I have seen her like this. The sight was so familiar and I felt the same emotion come over me. But there was something curiously different, too.
She was trying very hard to look casual, but the flat expression on her face told me that she might be feeling the opposite. If there was anything I had learned about this woman in the last few months, it was that though she did a great job hiding how she feels most of the time, it didn’t mean that she didn’t feel some sort of way about anything or that she didn’t have an opinion on it. The woman that I first met was mysterious and elusive, but the woman she actually is was even more so.
I dragged my eyes away from her and tightened the belt around my waist, wondering as I laid out my clothes on the back of the chair if by the time we decide to go to sleep my shirt and pants would be dry enough to put back on.
This whole sharing of floor thing actually ended up being better than perhaps sharing a room or a bed, so why the hell were my hands so clammy?
I don’t have any bad intentions.
When I thought about it earlier, I only wanted to be next to her. It was that simple. And innocent… but… There was something intimate about the fact that we were enclosed in this small room by ourselves, and the knowledge that we were meant to spend the night here together.
God knows I was no virgin. I had spent nights sleeping next to women I barely knew; a fact that didn’t quite make me feel as smug now as it used to do. But this was not the same as any of that.
She turned to me then, a smile on her lips. “All done?” She asked softly and I nodded and she walked towards the table and grabbed a few pieces of clothing. “My turn.”
I watched her walk to the bathroom, my heart in my throat, wondering if tonight will be the night I will tell her how I feel. I should say it. I need to say it. Those three words hovered on the tip of my tongue every time I’m next to her and it’s driving me nuts. Saying them will change everything but perhaps in the best way possible.
After all, who doesn’t like hearing that they’re loved?
I pulled out two individual cups of ramyun from the top of the small fridge and set a pot to boil on the hot plate. While waiting I pulled out the two sleeping mats and laid them out, one as an actual mat, and one to be used as a cover. I mentally thanked the powers that be one more time that not only did the hotel not have two separate rooms but that the room they did have only had enough space for two people to lie comfortably next to each other. I positioned both pillows not that far away from each other and then surveyed my handiwork. Not bad.
I will work up the courage to tell her I love her. Soon. But in the meantime I’ll just have to do whatever I can to show her the same thing without actually saying the words.
By the door our shoes were side by side, and the sight made me grin. Only now did I notice that the shoes she always wore had holes and rips all over them. I frowned… surely they can’t be comfortable to wear in that state. The woman seems hellbent on not doing anything for herself so I’ll have to do something about that.
I pulled down my chemise lower on my legs, wondering why I thought to pack this when I knew I was going on a hike and without a hotel room booked no less. To be fair I thought the worst case scenario was that I would be sleeping outside, in which case I wasn’t going to change my clothes. And the change of clothes I had brought with me were as wet as the ones I just took off. The only things that had stayed dry in my backpack were my books, which I at least had the foresight to put in a smaller case, and this, which I packed right at the very bottom, along with my underwear.
I was still more fully clothed than he was. I was showing no more skin than he had seen already. But, I thought as I looked at myself in the mirror and noted the flimsy spaghetti straps on my shoulders, the swell of skin on my chest, my legs peeking out of the hem, did I have to bring this?
I towel dried my hair and started brushing it, chastising myself for not having brought another pair of pajamas. I debated with myself whether I should apply some makeup to look more like myself, to feel more like myself, to put up some sort of armor between me and Jung Jin, but then decided against it.
What was the use? Makeup won’t protect me from myself. As long as I stayed away from him, we will both be okay.
That’s a good plan.
With a deep breath I exited the bathroom to be greeted by a familiar smell. Ramen. I sniffed the air, remembering just now that I hadn’t eaten anything since the morning.
Jung Jin was still in his robe, his clothes drying on the back of the lone chair in the room. His hair was still wet, and he was sitting on the floor, stirring what was in the pot. I ignored the sight of his bare legs and his broad shoulders covered by the white robe tied carelessly at his waist. The man looked great no matter what, or what he didn’t, wear. It was disconcerting. He looked up as I walked past and smiled.
I gave him an uncertain grin before I sat down on the floor as well, folding my legs underneath keep and pulling my chemise down. Again.
“Where’d you find the noodles?” I asked as he started putting the noodles into bowls.
He handed me mine with a pair of wooden chopsticks. “Rooms like this usually have these types of things available for sale. Don’t worry… we’ll pay for it.”
I gave him a light chuckle. “I wasn’t worried, just thankful that there’s food.” I tugged on my chemise again and he pulled the corner of one mattress pad closer to him and laid it on my lap, as if sensing my discomfort with this whole arrangement.
“Get comfortable,” he said, his voice gruff, when I was about to protest.
I straightened the cover over my lap and when sufficiently satisfied with the state of my modesty, I brought the bowl closer to me and began to eat. Jung Jin also stretched his legs in front of him and did the same. We ate not so companionably for a few minutes.
The silence now was deafening… I could hear every damn noise in the room, from the whirring coming from the central heating system to the bubbling still going on in the pot he just cooked the noodles in. The air between us was thick and tense and I told myself to stay still; to not, under any circumstance, get close to the man. He seemed nervous too, a fact that wasn’t comforting to me, either. If he was nervous then that meant that he knew that this… no talking thing going on between us right now was really abnormal and strange. That he wasn’t asking me what the matter was told me that he knew it already and he either didn’t know what to do to ease this, or he had no desire to.
When we were done, he wordlessly got up and took our bowls and threw them away, even as I rested my back against one wall. He sat back down and feigned a yawn, and I did the same.
“Tired?” He asked and I nodded, though I wasn’t really sure about going straight to bed after eating something so spicy. But what was the alternative? “Bed, then?”
“Yep.” I pulled the cover over me before scooting my bottom towards the center of the mat on the floor, noting that Jung Jin had walked over to the chair, frowning as he felt his clothing, but pulling them off anyway. “What are you doing?”
He blushed. “I was going to put my clothes back on,” he admitted. “I didn’t want you to feel uncomfortable.”
I rose from the floor and walked straight to where he was, trying not to notice how much taller he was when my shoes are off. I tugged on the clothes and noted with some worry that they were still damp.
“You can’t wear this,” I said. “You are going to get sick.”
“It’s okay… really…”
“It’s not okay,” I said as I marched back to the mat and went under the covers.
“Are you sure?” he asked, not meeting my eyes.
“I’m a nurse.” I blinked at him.
“What does that mean?” he asked, amusement in his voice.
“I mean… that it’s no big deal.” I laid down and turned to my side. “Come on.”
I heard footsteps and then the room was dark, but for the sliver of light coming from the window. Pretty soon that was gone too, as Jung Jin drew the curtains more closely together. I heard some rustling, and I looked over my shoulder to see him shrugging out of the robe he wore and immediately averted my eyes.
I felt him as he joined me on the floor, his bare back against mine, his skin warm. I closed my eyes at the sensation, taking a deep breath. Dear God… I hope I don’t start doing things to the man in my sleep. It’s been too long since I had shared this kind of space with a man. Maybe… maybe I should have tried to get it out of my system before I came to Korea… maybe I should have…
“Good night, then,” Jung Jin said, his voice strained. I felt him shift behind me, as if he was now facing my back. I debated for one second before I began to turn around, as well, not wanting to appear rude. He looked like he was about to drop a kiss on my shoulder, but his lips ended up on my lips instead.
He froze and so did I. One of my hands automatically went to his shoulders, the skin velvet under my fingertips. My other hand found its way to his hair, thick and soft, in the space of a moment. A beat passed and I reluctantly dragged my lips away.
“Good night.” My voice sounded weird, even to my ears.
Turning back on my side, I forced my eyes close, telling myself over and over to keep my hands to myself.
It’s going to be one long fucking night.
The smoke was heavy, thick. I thought that if I counted to ten that I would wake up and this will all be a nightmare. A nightmare that I can wake up from. When I open my eyes I will be in the plane, still up in the sky, on my way home.
Home… where Omma and Appa were waiting, no doubt relieved that Kelsey had broken my heart. Back into my siblings’ fold, just one of the many Lee children, and the most indistinct of all of them.
I silently counted, my breath shallow. There’s a pain in my thigh, deep and sharp. Like something was stuck there. I tried to move my left hand, but I couldn’t. It was as if the connection between my hand and my mind was broken, as if the orders being fired by my brain were going somewhere else, somewhere unknown.
I opened my eyes and looked around only to see that it wasn’t a nightmare. It had all been real. The smell of blood emanated the air, as well as the smell of death. I never knew that death had a smell until now. There was something else, too… the smell of something burning. The heat enveloped me, even here. I felt like I was choking.
I drew a breath as my eyes adjusted to the dark, blinking back tears. I need to get out of here. I tried to take my seatbelt off, the strap digging into my skin. I couldn’t get it off. I struggled against it for a few minutes until I saw a hand and remembered him.
Jason. The man on the plane next to me. Pieces of memory came back then, my brain combing through the details in the fog.
His name… had been Jason. His English name, anyway. In Korea he had gone by the name of Chae Soon, but had lived in America for most of the ten years prior to this flight. He had a wife and three children, two boys and a girl. Aged 10, 7 and 3, respectively. One for every time he managed to stay in Korea for longer than two weeks at a time. He made his money as a banker in America… earned enough for his family back home to live comfortably, but not enough to bring them all over.
This had been his last flight home. He said he was ready to tell his wife that he couldn’t be away from them anymore, that he’d saved up enough money for them to live on, for them to send their children to college. I closed my eyes as I remembered his joy, his anticipation. This was to be the final flight alone. He couldn’t have known how accurate that statement was.
I looked at him now, his head lolling to the side, his forehead bloodied. I managed to get my seatbelt off and turned to him, my right hand reaching out to shake him awake.
“Jason!” My voice was hoarse, gruff. I was having trouble speaking my mouth was so dry.
He remained unresponsive, unmoving. I fought the bile that rose up from my stomach as I shook my head in denial. His hand was still holding on to a picture.
“Take the window seat,” I had offered. He had refused, at first, but I had insisted. “Please, you deserve it.”
He had been so grateful, so happy. Such a small thing, what I did. And now I was alive, and he… was dead. It should have been me. The guilt rose up suddenly, and I swallowed it to keep it at bay.
It wasn’t my fault, I told myself, even as the tears started flowing from my eyes. It wasn’t my fault.
I kept repeating it to myself as I sat there in the dark. My body was broken, and I suspected, my heart too. My soul will carry this memory with me. I kept repeating it even as I knew, that this feeling of guilt will be something I will have to burden for the rest of my life. If I still have a life to live.
If anyone even finds me.
I closed my eyes again, my brain unable to function. I know I need to get help, but how do I do that if I can’t even walk? I tried to listen for the telltale sound of the sirens, of emergency vehicles, but there was nothing. Only silence.
No one will find me. I will die here. Forgotten. Alone. No one will even know that I had lived after the crash.
And then, a voice, as familiar to me now as my own, calling out for me. There was no one else here, no one else alive, so how was it that I was able to hear her?
“Jung Jin,” she said, her voice soft, a whisper of fear tinging it. I barely had time to question whose voice it was when I remembered. A lock of honey colored hair. Green brown irises flashing with irritation. Soft lips that tastes of heaven.
Mine. My love. My woman.
“Jung Jin,” she was still saying. There were bubbles of warmth all over my body. But that was impossible, because I was just freezing a moment ago. Even in this fire. Even in this heat. How was it that the memory of her was as real as this was? “JUNG JIN! Baby…”
I struggled to call out to her, but I couldn’t. And yet I saw a flicker of light, a faint beam. She sounded… scared. She can’t be scared. She’s been scared for too long. And yet she kept saying my name tenderly, as if it was a prayer. The panic in her voice drove me.
It tugged me back to life. It tugged me back to her.
May 7, 2002
I had waited until I heard the steady sound of Jung Jin’s breathing that I allowed myself to go to sleep. Or to half sleep. I hadn’t been able to sleep well, or at least not on a regular basis, since Marcus.
Though my eyes closed, my subconscious kept me wary, watching, stubbornly awake. The big, warm body just inches away from me wasn’t helping. It took forever to calm my mind long enough to actually rest.
Within what felt like minutes after, I was awake again. Jung Jin was shaking next to me. Clammy, trembling, his eyes were squeezed shut. He was now facing me, his body strung tight like a bow. As it always did whenever I am around him and he does something completely inexplicable and unexpected, something lodges itself in my throat. More often than not it’s curiosity; tonight it was worry.
“Jung Jin?” I asked. He didn’t wake up. “Jung Jin!”
I ran my hands over his back, over his shoulders, wondering if he was in pain. I did what I knew to do as if he was one of my patients, when the touch of my hand was enough to soothe and to silence. He was shaking hard, his chest gleaming with a thin sheen of perspiration. And yet he didn’t respond to me.
Something was wrong. He needed to wake up. I need to wake him up.
“JUNG JIN!” I yelled, my hand cupping his chin. “Baby, wake up!”
His eyes shot open as he took a gasping breath, though for a brief moment his gaze was unfocused, glazed. It took him a minute to realize that I was in front of him, and when he did, he gave me one of his trademark grins. I know what he was doing. He was trying to look as he always did: unruffled and composed.
I narrowed my eyes at him, trying to find the right words to say. My heart was beating erratically in my chest, as if I had walked into something I shouldn’t have.
“Don’t pretend to be okay,” I found myself saying before I rested a hand on the floor to get up. I had a hand on the bathroom door handle when I heard him speak.
“Why?” His voice was soft. “You do.”
I went into the bathroom and grabbed a towel off the rail before I went back to the mat. I hastily rubbed it on his back, his shoulders, his chest, not meeting his eyes the whole while. I stood back up to get him something to drink when his hand stopped me.
“Where are you going?” He asked.
“I’m just getting you some water.”
“Please,” he said, not letting go of me, his voice low. “Just… stay.”
“Are you going to tell me what just happened there?” I asked. I tried to remember if, in all the times we had ever fallen asleep together, he had ever been like this. I couldn’t remember one instance, unsurprising since he always woke up before I did, and by the time I did, I was almost always back in my sleeping bag. I sat back down ran the towel gently over his face with my free hand. His other hand clamped on my wrist, urging me to put the towel down. “Are you going to talk to me?”
“That depends,” he said with a rueful smile. “Are you?”
“You know me,” I said lightly. “Let’s make a deal.”
“The last time you tried to make me a deal I almost ended up being your friend.” The way he said the word made me smile despite my worry. Like he just thought of something unpleasant and inedible. I could have sworn he wrinkled his nose as well, but in the dim light of the room I couldn’t be sure.
“You talk and I talk,” I said, offering my pinky up to show my sincerity.
Rather than link his own to my finger, he brought my palm to his mouth to give it a kiss, instead. The sensation felt light, and over too soon. I reminded myself to stay focused on what’s going on and to not let him distract me. As if sensing my unease he lay flat on his back, wrapping a long arm around me. I would have stiffened had I not been taken by surprise. I would have pushed him away had I not been so worried. Keep telling yourself that, a little voice in my head said. He pulled me close and I found myself resting my head on the nook where his neck met his shoulders, resting a palm over his bare chest.
His heart was still racing under my fingers, even as he tried to even his breathing. For one second I wondered if he meant to go back to sleep he was so quiet. The silence felt heavy, and not at all comfortable. It felt like we were on the edge of something, and I wasn’t quite sure if we were about to cross it or turn back.
“So,” I said uncertainly. “Do we have a dea…”
“Let me tell you a story,” he interrupted.
“Does it have a happy ending?”
“No,” he responded, his voice haunting, faintly distant. “I’m afraid not.”
I lifted my head to look at him, waiting for him to begin. Even as he lay here with me, so substantial and real, his eyes took on a faraway look and it was almost as if he was getting colder under my hands.
And then he began to speak.
“It was six years ago,” he started. “I was on my way home. There was a storm. The pilot said we had to make an emergency landing, but, something went wrong.” The words he was saying were registering in my head, my brain digesting them slowly, as one would do with an overly tough piece of meat. His voice was even, monotonous, when what he was talking about had nothing monotonous about it. His voice was soft and hoarse, getting softer and hoarser still as he continued speaking. “The plane crashed, instead. I remember… a lot of turbulence. I had been sleeping deeply when it began. I remember feeling pissed off that it woke me up.”
He chuckled to himself then, as if he couldn’t believe it. The way he was speaking it was as if I wasn’t here with him. It was as if he was remembering and experiencing it all by himself.
I only knew that feeling too well. When it comes to things and events like this no one can possibly understand unless they’ve been through it as well, regardless of whether or not you want them to because it didn’t matter. It was of no importance whether they can sympathize if they cannot empathize. And then you are stuck with the guilt of having burdened them with even the idea of that kind of pain. This was the reason why people chose to forget. It was both for self protection as it was for the welfare of everyone else as well.
No one really wants to know about painful things. No one really wants to know about bad things. It was just so much easier to pretend it never happened for everyone all around.
“Is that why you can’t sleep?” He nodded. I remembered Ji Soo’s words, about her brother barely sleeping and all the times I’d woken up to find him already awake. “Are you having nightmares still?”
“Sometimes,” he said softly and I knew he wasn’t telling the whole truth.
“Really?” I asked. “Just sometimes?”
“Fine,” he relented. “All the time. That’s not normal, is it?”
“Of course it is,” I reassured him. “It’s like PTSD.”
“Post traumatic stress disorder. When something that tragic happens of course you take a part of it with you. How can you not?” I thought of my sleeping bag and my propensity to put my walls up when someone gets too close. “And of course you leave a part of you there, too. In that time. In that moment. All expected, really.”
“Most people say time heals all wounds,” he said. “I’m still waiting.”
I felt her take a deep breath. “Your mother said they thought you died.”
Part of me did die, I wanted to say. The part that knew that my life had been spared at the cost of other people’s lives. Jason’s life. People died. I survived. For no real reason but the fact that I had given him my seat.
I might have felt worse if I wasn’t so relieved that it hadn’t been me. I never realized how selfish I was until that moment, and it shamed me.
Guilt gnawed at me, as real now as it was then. The feeling was reassuring, comforting. As if that bit of humanity in me had been spared. Like a masochist waiting for his fix of pain, I let it wash over me. It was the least I owed for my life.
And yet it still wasn’t enough.
She took my left hand and lifted it to the light, her finger grazing on the long scar that extended from my wrist snaking towards the edge of my pointer finger.
“Was this from the crash?” I muttered a soft ‘yes.’ “It must have hurt.”
I tried to give her a smile. “It didn’t hurt that much.”
“You should stop lying to me. I’m a nurse, remember?”
“Fine,” I said, smoothing a hand over her hair. “It hurt a lot. And I won’t lie to you anymore.”
She nodded. “Your mother said you had to get several surgeries, that the doctors didn’t think you’d walk again.”
“My mother talks too much.”
“She means well,” she chided with a smack on my shoulder. “You know that. She loves you.
And I love you.
I bit the words back. “I know. And yes, lots of surgeries. I’m like a bionic man.”
She laughed lightly and I let the sensation of her breath on my skin envelop me comfortingly. Her hands chanced upon another scar on my left side, touching gently and then on the other side, almost symmetrically opposite.
“Chest tubes?” She asked.
“You had surgery on your leg, too, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“It changed you,” she said softly, the way my eldest sister did. “The accident.” I couldn’t deny what she said. It did change me… for the better, I thought.
“I had to. The boy I had been wouldn’t have survived.”
“That’s true. But still I would have liked to have met the boy you were before all that happened.”
“Why?” I asked, a strange lump in my throat. For so long I had resented him, for his weakness and his innocence. It’s taken me years to erase all traces of him from the person I am now.
She brushed her fingers over the scar on my hand, then brushed a thumb over my cheek. “I could tell him to get ready, to look at the big picture. I could tell him that one day he’s going to be someone really cool and handsome,” she said, her tone teasing before all lightness went out of her voice and it became pensive, thoughtful. “I think I would have liked him a lot, too.”
Her hand dropped casually to my thigh, finding the jagged edge of my scar, before I could react. Fingers drifting over it carefully, as if it was a fresh wound.
So many times, I thought, so many times I had been touched over the last few years, but I can’t remember a time when I was actually touched like this. Oftentimes it was done with an almost perverse curiosity, others avoided. But she lingered over each one, careful but confident. There was also something coolly efficient about the way she was cataloging my scars, as if they weren’t unnatural ridges of skin that existed on my body. She touched them as if they were just part of me.
“Do you have them?” I asked, my voice low and husky. I wanted to tell her I loved her. Over and over again. To counter against that, I decided to launch into another topic, instead. It wasn’t the right time for declarations. Not yet.
“Accidental ones?” She asked, lifting her head off my chest and resting an elbow on the mat so that she could look at me. Our bodies were only separated by mere inches and only now did I realize how under dressed we both were.
“Are there other types?” I asked, trying to distract myself from staring at the altogether too alluring picture she made with her hair tumbling down over her shoulders and the thin strap of whatever she’s wearing slipping down, revealing the smooth expanse of skin.
She gave me a tight smile. “Of course. You’ve seen my tattoos. They may be self-inflicted but they’re scars too, aren’t they?”
I turned to my side and faced her. “I meant to ask you about them.”
“I got my first tattoo when I was eighteen. It was my first act of rebellion,” she said, a small smile on her lips. She pointed to her arm. “Mainly I did it to piss my father off.”
“You and your father don’t get along?” I watched as she bit her top lip, as if trying to decide how much to tell me.
“That we don’t get along is an understatement,” she replied, a little too quickly for comfort. “I inherited my father’s temper, and his penchant for being opinionated, aggressive and thoughtless at times.”
“That doesn’t sound too bad,” I said. “I kind of like those things about you.”
“And I already pointed out how weird that makes you,” she said and I chuckled. “But my father… loves women.” Her expression sobered. “Too much.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means my mother caught him with his mistress when I was a year old. She was only the first. There had been many since.” I waited for her to elaborate but she didn’t. “My first tattoo was my payback to him, since I knew he would be horrified to realize I had disfigured myself in such a way. You should have heard the fight we had when he found out.”
“Bad?” I asked and she nodded. “How bad?”
“Call the cops bad.”
“Your household sounded… interesting.”
“Not many people get to grow up in a family like yours, Mr. Lee.” I should have frowned at her use of that title but I didn’t. Not when she said it like that. Not when she made no move to get farther from me. “Our household was different, to say the least.”
“Your parents are still married, I seem to remember you mentioning. Why did your mother stay with him, when he wasn’t faithful to her?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Who knows? Does anyone really know what happens in any relationship besides the two people in it? Although, I suppose, it’s entirely possible that she saw the good parts of him and had convinced herself that it was enough.”
“In that sense you two are a lot alike.”
“How so?” She asked, her gaze shuttered. Why do I get the feeling I said the absolute wrong thing?
“You’re kind of like that, too. You see the good in people.” She stayed silent and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why she looked displeased with what I said when I had meant it as a compliment. Determined to steer the conversation away from the subject of her parents, I cleared my throat. “And the other tattoos?”
“I got one for every time I had my heart really broken,” she said, looking away. “Or more specifically, every time I closed a chapter on a relationship. When some things hurt that much, it seemed almost a waste to not have something to show for it.”
I mulled over her words, wondering why, even as she was talking about these things so easily, it still felt like she wasn’t telling me anywhere near enough. And why it didn’t matter. Not anymore.
“Anyway,” she said almost sheepishly, tucking her hair behind a delicate ear. “I’m talking more than you are. You’re supposed to be the one telling me a story.”
“I didn’t say it was going to be a long story. Besides, there isn’t much more to tell,” I said. “Everyone died.”
“But you survived,” she said. “And look at you now.”
“It seemed almost a waste not to have anything to show for it,” I countered, repeating her words back to her.
“Smart ass.” She gave me a dirty look before she smiled. “There was a reason why you survived.”
She laid a hand directly over my heart and our eyes met. I looked at her face and marveled at the fact that she was really here.
“Jung Jin?” She said suddenly. “Did you really have business in the area?” I hedged with my answer. “You promised you wouldn’t lie anymore.”
“I thought you don’t take too much stock of promises?”
She sighed. “Just because I don’t like them doesn’t negate the fact that you promised. And you’re not answering my question. Did you or did you not have business in the area?”
“No,” I admitted and she glared at me. The sight was as familiar to me now as her smile, and just as lovely.
I shifted my body so that I could close the gap between us and impulsively pressed a kiss to her lips. I only meant to do it for a moment, but then she wound her arms around my neck as she pressed herself closer to me and I was lost.
Chest to chest and hip to hip, I could feel her heart beating against mine, realizing that she made all of this real and true and okay, somehow. She made me feel as if there was a reason why I did survive, and that maybe the reason was this, and her.
Her lips yielded to mine as I cradled her head in my hands, feeling more connected to her than I ever did before, wondering if this was going to be enough.
Enough for her to love me back. Enough for this to last.
“Jung Jin?” My name came out in a whisper and I looked at her, raising my eyebrows inquisitively. “Did you know I got stood up for my date?”
I nodded before I bent down and kissed her again. I savored the taste of her on my lips and the weight of her underneath me, determined to make this moment last for as long as possible.
When she tightened her arms around me and wrapped her legs around my waist, all thoughts subsided and I realized that whatever the reason may have been that I survived, that it didn’t matter.
All I know, and all I needed to know, was already here in my arms.
“Jung Jin?” She said again as she pressed a kiss on my neck.
Now would be the time I would usually be dreading, when women would ask that one question. If I had been with anyone else I would have already left, or would be preparing to leave. But now… it felt so different I didn’t feel quite like myself.
Ask the question, I beseeched her wordlessly. Ask me if I love you. Ask me.
“Where did you stay when you left your penthouse?”
I would be disappointed but for her eyes, looking at me right now as if I was all that mattered too.
“Ahhh… At the Park Hyatt.”
She blinked at my response, looking altogether too beautiful with her merry eyes and shiny lips; lips that were moistened by my kisses. “Idiot,” she whispered, one corner of her mouth lifting slightly.
I would have been offended had it not been for the way she said it, breathy and husky and sweet, before she tightened her hold on me and molded her lips with mine.
May 8, 2002
“When did you get in?” I asked Junnie as I fiddled with my hair.
We were sitting in Jung Jin’s living room, minutes after I received her phone call. Dog was sitting down by my feet, regarding Junnie almost suspiciously. Between us sat two cups of coffee, which Junnie noted were served in real cups, before proceeding to tell me that it tasted better served this way.
“You look… different,” she remarked. “The color is back in your cheeks.”
“It’s not winter time anymore.”
“That’s not what I mean and you know it,” she tsked. “Where’s your roommate?” She asked the question as she looked around, looking suitably impressed with the penthouse. “I like the manager’s place.”
“He has a name, Junnie. Call him Jung Jin.” Dog’s ears perked up at the sound and I scratched his head. “And he already left for work.”
“I refuse to call him that.”
“Fine,” I said and watched as she reached into her bag and pulled out a small manila envelope, with a seal on one corner. I didn’t even have time to ask her what it was when she handed it to me; only had enough time to read one word on the seal before she spoke.
“Your passport and your wallet;” she said. “And a ticket back to San Francisco, with a stop in Singapore. If you pack quickly you can leave with me.” I tried to tamp down on the disappointment that came over me. “Aren’t you going to check that everything is there?” She asked when she noted that I had made no move to open the envelope.
“No,” I answered. “Despite how you manipulated me to come to Korea AND despite the fact that you tried to fix me up with the rudest man in the world I still trust you.” She stuck her tongue at me. “But why did you come now?”
“I have work, you know. Plus I got here two days ago,” she said. “But you were nowhere to be found. What happened to your cell phone?”
“You know damn well I don’t have a Korean sim card,” I said, forcing my voice to sound calm. “And we were in the mountains.”
She raised an eyebrow. “We?” She asked. “You’re taking trips with the manager now?”
“No,” I said, frowning at her. “I went to Sokcho by myself, but then he followed and then we were stranded because his car got towed.” I didn’t mention the night at the hotel room, but felt my face flush anyway.
“That doesn’t explain the way you’re avoiding looking at me now.”
I sighed. “Don’t read more into it, Junnie.”
“More than what?” She asked. “More than how it already appears?”
“And how, exactly does it appear?” I was beginning to sound annoyed and to calm myself down I lifted Dog to my lap.
“Like you found a reason to stay.”
“It’s not that, Jun,” I protested. “You just caught me off guard, that’s all.”
“I told you I’d see you soon,” she said calmly, closing her purse. The light caught on her hand and my eyes widened.
“What the hell is that?” I asked.
She showed me her hand. “What? This?” She asked. “Not much. Just… an engagement ring.”
“YOU’RE GETTING MARRIED?” I asked as I launched myself at her, arms outstretched. “Congratulations, you bitch! Why didn’t you call me?”
“Why do you think I’m here?”
“Who’s the guy?” I asked.
“Who else?” She said. “The guy who hit my car. That’s why you have to come with me. He already knows so much about you, and it’s time for the two of you to meet! And… Don’t change the topic,” she said. “Has something happened between you and the manager?”
I didn’t want to lie to my best friend, but I also didn’t want her jumping to conclusions. Has something happened between me and Jung Jin? My thoughts wandered back to the hotel room just a day ago, when we kissed until we checked out of the room, both sleep deprived but giddy nevertheless. We held hands in the car the whole drive back, seemingly content with just being together.
“Your non-answer has answered my question,” she said with another sigh. “Please don’t tell me you’ve been sharing not only his living space but his bed, too?”
“Don’t be rude, Jun. It’s not like that between me and him.”
“I thought you said he was a player?”
“I still think he’s a little too smooth, but maybe I was wrong about that,” I said.
“Do you love him?” Her gaze narrowed at me, as if waiting for my response. I remained silent, my eyes fixed on Dog. This did not escape her notice and she pursed her lips at me. “Someone’s going to get hurt.”
“It’s not that serious.”
“I really hope this is not some hormone fueled metamorphosis.” I could hear the censure in her voice and I shook my head.
“We’re not teenag…”
“Exactly. You know that I love you, right?” She interrupted. “If you still don’t know how you feel about him after all this time, you should leave now before things escalate.”
“Hold on,” I said. “I thought you told me to try new things, to try dating?”
“I suggested dating because it was casual and light. Easy. You always did better with things of that nature,” she said calmly. “The fact that you were so adamant about him being a player reassured me that things might not go faster than you’re ready for them to. But your hesitation tells me that this has passed that point and that makes me nervous.”
“Junnie, it’s okay.” I tried to keep my face expressionless. Though I had since changed my opinion of Jung Jin, I still felt lucky that all this was started as a ruse. He and I were still only just playing a game. The thought brought a strange ache to my chest but I banished it away.
He will be fine. All this is an illusion. He will be fine.
“When are you leaving?” I forced myself to ask, my voice dull, already making a list in my head of what I would have to do, how I would need to say goodbye to Jung Jin, his family, our dog.
This is what I wanted, I tried to remind myself. Remember? I wished for this day as soon as she left, so why did I now feel a heavy weight at the pit of my abdomen waiting for Junnie’s answer?
“I hadn’t planned on this trip taking so long,” she said, looking at her phone. “We’ll have to leave tonight.”