May 7, 2002
“Ethan?” Shawn asked. I heard a tapping noise coming from somewhere and I turned my chair around, a half smile on my face. My friend waved at me when our eyes met. “Hello? Penny for your thoughts?”
I blushed when I realized I had been caught daydreaming, something I hadn’t done until Gia came into my life. The time we spent in the hotel room seemed so surreal and so far away now, though it just happened less than 48 hours ago.
I can’t remember the last time I made out with someone for hours. The whole concept of physical intimacy had been… well, merely physical in the last few years, and there had been nothing intimate about those encounters. But that night was… interesting. We kissed and laughed and laughed and kissed and just kept doing it, like we couldn’t help ourselves. We talked too, mainly about mundane things, but that didn’t quite matter.
I now know what her favorite color is (black) and her favorite season (spring, like me.) I now know her sister’s name (Maria,) and that she practically raised her. She asked me how long I played piano for, and why I stopped, what my favorite subjects were in school, and what my last meal would be if I had to choose one. In between cuddling and kissing.
It was perfect.
Who knew that I liked those things?
“Man,” Shawn said, annoyed. “If I had known you were just going to ignore me, I wouldn’t have come.”
“Sorry,” I said, though I was not sorry at all. I would relive that night over and over if I could. It was a conscious effort just to force myself out of the house this morning, knowing damn well that had I not I would probably have mooned over her for the rest of my day, something she would have laughed at me for.
That’s okay. She can laugh at me if it meant that she was laughing.
Maybe that trip up the mountains had been good for her, after all. I had never ever seen her looking so lighthearted, and in truth it had been worth all that effort. Even my passing out, though that had been completely unintentional.
“I hadn’t been able to reach you the last couple of days,” Shawn explained. “Or I would have told you that I was coming. I even called your older sister, but she didn’t seem to know where you were, either.”
“I was out of town,” I said, a little hesitant to share that I had been with Gia, though I wasn’t sure why. The door opened and Ha Neul entered, two cups of coffee on a tray. “It happened very quickly and only Ji Soo knew where I was.”
Ha Neul had been in the process of putting the cups down, but at the mention of my sister’s name, his hands shook and his ears turned bright red. I shook my head. Do I need to have a repeat of that conversation again?
“Thank you,” I said as he scurried out of the room, wordless. Shawn had been watching him, as well, and raised an eyebrow as soon as he left the room.
“What the hell is wrong with him?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Not sure yet, but I think Ji Soo may have herself a new crush.”
“That’s cute,” Shawn commented. “Don’t kill the boy.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Do I even look like the sort of brother who would do that?”
“Yes.” The answer was swift and unhesitant. “He looks better now than he did before.”
“I’m sure he’ll be flattered you think so. I didn’t think he was your type,” I said dryly and Shawn laughed.
I heard the sound of throat clearing and looked at my friend, now trying to be serious. “So,” Shawn started. “How goes it with Gia?”
I felt myself puff up. “It’s all progressing well, if I say so myself,” I replied. “She’s amazing.”
“Have you and amazing Gia actually spoken about anything of substance or has it been all rainbows and kisses?”
“We have spoken A LOT,” I said vehemently. “We have kissed a lot, too, but we have spoken too.”
“Have you told her how you felt yet?” Shawn was tapping a finger on the desk again, and the sound was making me inexplicably nervous.
“No, the timing just hasn’t been right.”
Shawn frowned at me. “You know that she’ll still have to leave, right? Her life is in America.”
I thought about what my friend said for a moment. I always knew that Gia had only meant to stay until after the birthday party, but she hadn’t said anything about it, and I hadn’t asked.
“She hasn’t said anything about leaving, ” I said defensively.
“She hasn’t said anything about staying, either.”
“We’ll deal with that when we get there.”
Shawn sighed. “Has she said anything about how she feels for you?”
I ran frustrated fingers through my hair. “For fuck’s sake, Shawn, isn’t it a bit early for this interrogation?”
“Your relationship, if it can even be called that, is like a ticking time bomb.”
“That’s a bit fatalistic.”
“It’s called being realistic, Ethan. Let’s face some facts: you haven’t even began defining what you two are to each other. Neither of you are making actual plans to further this… thing you have. All you’re doing is living together and kissing. It’s not sustainable.”
“That’s an unfair assessment! We may be living together and kissing but that’s not all we have,” I protested. “Just because we haven’t spoken about feelings or whatever doesn’t mean we’re like a bomb or something.”
“I don’t mean to be a party pooper, but I don’t think you’ve thought this through. She’s a great girl, but the situation you’re both in is a little weird. If you two really want to be together, you will have to figure out how you can do this taking the distance into account, your differences, etcetera.”
“We’ll figure it out,” I said. Shawn looked at me and gave me a doubtful look. “We will.”
“If she doesn’t run out on you first,” Shawn muttered. My friend wasn’t looking at me, which made me wonder if it was even meant for my ears. “Have you ended things with Hye Soo?”
The question caught me by surprise. I can honestly say that I haven’t thought of Hye Soo at all since the last time I saw her. “Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”
“I hope so,” Shawn said. One look at the clock on the wall had my friend getting up quickly. “I have to go. I have a flight to catch.”
“Thanks for the visit,” I said. “How come you’re in Korea anyway?” Shawn merely looked at me before breaking into a smile. “Business?”
“Yeah, something like that,” Shawn answered. “I’ll call you this weekend.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said, standing up, before remembering something. “Actually, no, don’t call this weekend.”
“Why not?” Shawn asked with an accompanying raise of eyebrow. “Another trip?”
“No,” I said. “I’m taking my woman out on our first date.”
“Have you asked her yet?”
“No, not yet…” I said as I walked Shawn out of my office and towards the elevator. “I was going to surprise her.”
Shawn sighed again before the elevator opened and my friend entered. “She might not like surprises.”
“She’ll like this one,” I said confidently.
“I wouldn’t place my bets on that.”
The elevator closed before I could ask Shawn what that comment meant and I glared at the elevator. What the hell does Shawn know about my woman? I swear to God, people get in relationships and everyone’s an expert.
She will like it. I know she will.
“Tonight?” I asked, my mouth suddenly dry. “Why so soon?”
Junnie wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I have a job and a person to go back to now, you know. I thought you’d want to go back with me tonight and then be back in San Francisco come weekend. My tenants have moved out. You can stay at the loft again before you figure out what to do next.”
The calm way she was speaking about this was making me feel frantic. I stood up and Dog did, too, following me on my heels as I started pacing the room. “Jesus, Junnie… I don’t live my life on your schedule. You wanted to leave me in Korea so here I am. You want me to go to Singapore and you expect me to just pack all my shit and just… go?”
“Why are you getting so upset?” She asked. “You’ve practically been begging me to come get you as soon as I left. Besides, I bet you haven’t even unpacked anyway. How hard can leaving be?”
How hard can leaving be?
It’s never been difficult before. In fact it was my forte. So why did it feel now as if she was forcing me to do something I didn’t want to do?
I’ll have to go back sometime. I just didn’t realize that it would have to be this soon.
“I can’t leave,” I said, stopping my pacing long enough to look at her. “Not yet.”
“Why not?” Junnie’s gaze narrowed at me.
“I have things to take care of, people to speak to.”
“And your boyfriend?”
“He’s not my boyfriend,” I said hotly. “He’s my something.”
“He’s been your something since the two of you met. And you haven’t figured it out yet?” She asked.
“I just… need time. To figure out what this is,” I said. “Just a little more time.”
“The Gia I know would have figured this out a long time ago.”
“That person is gone, as you know. You have to deal with me now, and I don’t know how I feel.”
“Of course you do. You just haven’t trusted yourself in so long you’d forgotten how to,” she said calmly, standing up and petting Dog on the head. “I’m leaving.”
“When do I need to give you an answer about tonight?” I asked, following behind her.
“You already did,” she said.
She looked at my face then, and I was hit by a feeling of deja vu. How many times had she looked at me like this, with the mixture of concern and affection written all over her face? And how many times had I tried to dismiss it, or tried to ignore it? Junnie has been the voice of reason for the last ten years and she knew me better than anyone else. It was without surprise that she understood what my dilemma was without my having to say it.
“What about the ticket, Jun?” I asked.
“There is no ticket.”
“But you said…”
“I know what I said. I just wanted to see how you would react.”
“Thank you, Junnie,” I said, throwing my arms around her. “You’re the best.”
“Don’t thank me just yet,” she said, pulling out of my embrace and regarding me yet again. She reached a hand out and touched my cheek. “While I think that you’re going in the right direction, I’m not really sure if you’re going about it in the right way.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Have you stopped using your sleeping bag?”
“What does that have to do with me and Jung Jin?”
“That’s my point, exactly. You haven’t even started dealing with all your shit.” Junnie took a deep breath. “I’m only going to say this because you know it yourself. You can’t run away from one issue by jumping into another one. People aren’t like places. It’s not as simple leaving one as it is leaving the other. You’re operating under some very inaccurate assumptions.”
“Now wait a minute…”
“I get the feeling you’re reading this completely wrong and I’m afraid that no one will get out unscathed.”
“You’re really worrying for no…”
“I’ll talk to you soon,” she said, holding me close for another minute before she stepped foot in the elevator. “Be careful.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said lightly. “I know what I’m doing.”
“Not for the first time we will disagree. I think that you think that you know what you’re doing, and that’s what scares me. You’re still thinking too damn much.”
“What do you want me to do?” I had my hand on one side of the elevator door to keep it from closing.
“Stop thinking and start feeling. You already know the answer to all your questions,” she said. “Let’s just hope that you realize this before you lose the one thing you’ve always wanted because you couldn’t see it though it was right in front of you.”
“What else?” Junnie pried my fingers loose from the door, giving it a little squeeze. “Love.”
“I don’t need love,” I said.
Junnie made a sound of frustration. “I wish you’d stop lying.”
“I’m not lying to you.”
“Do you think I give a shit whether you’re lying to me or not?” She asked, her tone flat. “I’m your best friend. I can always tell when you’re lying whether or not you want me to. I meant to yourself. I wish you’d stop lying to yourself.”
I had gone home with a bottle of wine to what seemed like an empty house. The days were longer now, and had it still been winter it would have already been dark outside already, but tonight there was still the faint sheen of sunlight through the open curtains.
“Gia?” I called out. “Dog?” I put my keys down on the kitchen counter, noting the random food items scattered about before putting the bottle of wine in the cooler to chill. “I’m home.”
There was no response and I wondered if they had already left for their evening walk. Strange, though, since that had become part of our routine. I walked through the living room to draw the curtains close when I noticed that the deck door was open.
From the opened door I could hear her laughing, accompanied by excited yelps from the dog. I stopped as I watched the two of them play fetch on the patio, letting myself think about what Shawn had said.
Should I start defining what we are? Do we need to do that to start moving forward?
I don’t know why but I get some strange sort of feeling when I start thinking about doing just that, as if that would be a big mistake, at this time. She’d only just begun opening up. There are times when I feel like the closer I get to her, the farther I am actually getting.
I shouldn’t talk about it yet. But… what was my other option? Wait for the day I’ll come home and she won’t be here?
The thought brought a frown to my face. Surely she would not just leave without speaking to me. But why would she? Without any talk of commitment or anything, what need does she have to answer to me?
She looked up just then after picking up the ball and our eyes met. A shadow passed over her face before it disappeared and she started walking towards me, Dog in tow. She stopped when she reached the door then leaned over and gave me a quick kiss on the lips.
“Hey,” she whispered. “You’re back.”
I nodded, my voice stuck. I swallowed the words that I wanted to say, tamped down the questions I wanted to ask, and just wrapped her in my arms, instead.
When she was this close to me none of of those uncertain things mattered. When she was here none of them needed to.
I’ll have to just hold her for as long as I can, hoping that with enough time, I can convince her too.
I read over the instructions I had hastily written on a piece of paper. It can’t be a good thing that I can’t even understand my own handwriting.
I could hear the sound of the television from the living room, and one glance told me that Jung Jin was on the couch, reading something on his laptop, and Dog trying his damnedest to make sure that he does not.
I ran to the bathroom after surreptitiously taking the cordless phone. Dialing Ji Soo’s number, I waited for her to answer while I ran the water into the sink. You know… just in case Jung Jin had any ideas about listening through the door.
I planned to tell him about Junnie coming today, and I need to make this meal nice. Because for some reason the mere mention of Junnie’s name brings a frown to his face.
I still don’t get it.
“Oppa!” Ji Soo greeted. “Mueoseul hago isseoyo? Unnie jia yoli neuneyo?”
“Ah, Ji Soo,” I interrupted before she launched into any more Korean. “It’s Gia. ”
“Unnie, I thought you’d be elbow deep in kimchi jigae by now. I was just asking Oppa if you were cooking. How’s it going?”
“Okay… except I can’t read anything past putting the kimchi juice and water into a pot. What comes next?”
She laughed before she spoke. “You add the sliced onion, hot pepper paste, hot pepper flakes, sugar, and green onions, and then pork belly. Then you just pour water over the top until all the ingredients are submerged and then boil it for, like, half an hour.”
“Uh huh,” I said, writing furiously on the back of the paper. “And then what?”
“Add the tofu in the end and boil for five more minutes and then put some sesame oil before you serve. Do you still have some side dishes from the party?”
I thought about it before I answered. “Yes, I was thinking of using the bean sprout thing and spinach for a side. Maybe the potato salad too. I’m not sure yet… what do you think?”
“Yes,” she said. “All of the above. What about rice?”
Shit. “We still have some from this morning, I think?”
“That will work. It’s okay,” she reassured me. “But Unnie… why tackle kimchi jigae of all things? That’s like a Korean staple and people here tend to have really strong opinions about it.”
“Your brother said that he loves that and soju, so I thought it would be nice to make it for him.” Especially because I’m about to dance around the subject of Junnie coming over and dropping off my documents. Maybe even ask him to take care of Dog when I leave.
“Well, that’s very sweet,” she said. “He’ll appreciate it.”
“Maybe,” I said, trying to push aside the nagging feeling of guilt. I wasn’t just doing this for him. “Maybe not.”
“I think you could feed him anything and he’ll be happy.”
Her certainty made me uncomfortable. “He hasn’t really tasted my cooking yet.”
“That’s okay… he lo…”
“I have to go cook now,” I quickly interjected.
“Oh, okay…” she said. “Good luck!”
“Thanks… I’ll need all the luck I can get.”
“It was… delicious,” Jung Jin said as he poured some soju onto some shot glasses.
I raised my eyebrows at his comment, knowing damn well that the stew had been inedible. Maybe I should have asked his sister to clarify what the measurements were on all the pastes and powders. The stew looked nothing like I’d ever eaten, nor did it taste like it, either. The saving grace had been the rice and the side dishes, though I had no hand in making any of those.
“I thought you said you wouldn’t lie anymore?” I asked, smiling slightly.
“Fine,” he conceded. “It could have been better, but you made the effort so it was delicious to me.”
He stretched his legs out in front of him as he leaned back against the wall. We had lain out a blanket on the outside deck after dinner, and we sat next to each other as Dog puttered about, sniffing everything.
I followed his eyes to the sky; it was a clear evening and the stars were out. The air was cool enough that we still wore long sleeves but not so cold as to need a coat. The smell of flowers was in the air: sweet and fresh.
“When did you get the soju?” He asked, taking his drink in one go and making a face.
“The same time I got the other ingredients for the stew,” I replied. “I used store bought kimchi though… maybe I should have used your mother’s, though I’m not sure if that would have made a difference with my skills.”
He chuckled softly. “It’s okay,” he said. “Outside the food I cook and my family’s, I haven’t had food made for me by anyone else. So,” he continued, pouring himself some more soju, “I appreciate that you tried.”
I took a sip of the liquid in my own glass just as Dog sat down next to me. I petted his fur and he laid himself down with a groan. I looked at Jung Jin, now wearing jeans and a heather gray cashmere sweater, looking content, and then at the animal next to me, his paw resting trustingly over my lap. I was filled with a feeling remarkably like happiness, or as close to it as I had ever known in the recent years.
Here I didn’t have to worry about who I was. I could pretend that I am who they both think I am and maybe hold on to this feeling just a little bit longer, or as long as time will allow me.
And time seems to be running out.
I feel it in my bones. My time in Korea is almost up. I shouldn’t be surprised. Junnie’s visit just reminded me again that change is constant.
Everything changes. Life shifts. I am a person who has made myself content with this. I was a wanderer, someone who chooses not to plant roots, time and time again.
But Jung Jin, despite how he presented himself, was a man all about the opposite. He seemed someone who liked the familiarity of the consistent, someone who liked the security and stability of what was expected. He may think otherwise, may have even convinced himself otherwise.
But the man cannot fool me.
We were so different. Just like my mother and father were, except this time the roles had been changed. I felt myself deflate at the thought.
“Hey,” I heard him say next to me as he wrapped an arm around my shoulder. “Where did you go?”
“Nowhere,” I said quickly. “I’m right here.”
Her eyes were fixed on the scene before her, and yet they seemed not focused on anything at all. I saw the tense line of her mouth, the stiff way she was sitting, and then the expression that came over her face before it was erased, all in the blink of an eye.
“Hey,” I said, drawing her close to me. “Where did you go?”
“Nowhere. I’m right here.”
You’re here but not really, I wanted to say, but I bit my tongue. It always fascinated me before, the way she held herself back. I had almost convinced myself that that was the best way. After all, I was a man who became bored easily, and the mystery she was shrouded in made her even more fascinating than I already thought she was.
It had all been so simple, until I fell in love.
Now I’ve become greedy. As much as she’s given I only just wanted more. Always more. I feel like I can never get close enough.
And I’ve become afraid. Afraid to lose this, and her. Afraid of going back to who I was before she came into my life. I had been directionless, a drifter; I know that now. She is the one who gives me focus, a clear mind.
And yet… I feel like in the recent days we had been fast forwarded to someplace unknown, even to me. It felt as if we were perilously close to the edge, as if all the energy of the universe was gearing up for something… and it was something big.
We cannot stay here, in between black and white, for much longer. Even as we danced a delicate balance between what we are and what we’re not, I felt the question between us thickening with the heavy pressing of doubt.
To banish the feeling away, I held her closer to me and took a whiff of her hair. “Are you cold?” I asked, noticing just now that she was trembling. “Do you want to go in?”
“No,” she said softly. “I’m not cold.”
“You’re shaking, though.”
“It’s you who makes me feel this way,” she admitted sheepishly. “I don’t know how it is that I can feel this comfortable and uncomfortable with the same person at the same time.”
Her admission made me smile. It wasn’t every day that she shared one of her weaknesses with me, even more seldomly does she actually say that I was one of them.
She cleared her throat. “Joon was here earlier.”
I frowned. The surge of jealousy came on strong and I found myself stiffening. It should be wholly expected by now, having experienced it so much in the past already, but it still surprises me every time.
What the hell does he have that I don’t?
“Oh yeah?” I asked, satisfied that I didn’t betray an ounce of jealousy. “Why?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Apparently my best friend decided to get married without asking for my opinion first.”
Thank God. Clearing my throat and trying to remind myself to enquire about how she felt about this, I asked, “And how do you feel about that?”
“I’m happy,” she said without a moment’s hesitation. “Joon’s my oldest friend. Why wouldn’t I be?”
I was surprised at the casual way she just said that. I tried to decipher if it there was a hidden meaning behind her words but couldn’t see any.
“Funny…” I said thoughtfully, remembering something just now. “My friend is getting married too.”
“Funny…” he said, almost pensively. “My friend is getting married too.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “Shawn?”
He nodded. “How did you know?”
“Ji Soo told me.” I looked away, not wanting him to catch me staring at his face, as I always seem to do whenever he speaks. “Don’t you find it weird, though, that both our friends just happen to be getting engaged now, at almost the same time?”
“That’s true. It is a bit weird,” he said, nodding. “I’m sure it’s just plain coincidence, though. We’re at an age now where all our friends are either married, or getting married.”
“You’re telling me.”
Jung Jin remained silent for a minute before he coughed again and cleared his throat. “Are you really okay with Jun getting married?”
“Of course,” I said, baffled. “Why wouldn’t I be? I love Junnie.”
“Even now?” He asked. “Even after everything that happened?”
He must think I’m still angry at Junnie for leaving me here. He was wrong. If anything I was thankful, appreciative. Each moment here was precious to me; even more so now that I feel the moments slipping away.
“Yeah,” I said with a tight smile. “If Junnie’s happy, then I am, too. Isn’t that what friends are for?”
“Jun’s lucky to have you.” He poured some more soju in his glass and gulped it in one go.
I followed his suit, ignoring the burn of soju down my throat. “We’ve always been lucky to have each other.”
“I’m jealous of your friendship,” he admitted, sounding just a little embarrassed, as if he couldn’t believe that he said so himself.
I looked at him in surprise. “Why?”
“Why?” She asked, sounding well and truly confused.
Did she really not know? “Because no matter what, you two will be in each other’s lives,” I said unwittingly. “Joon will always know a side of you that I never will.”
“Same with you and Shawn.”
No, I wanted to say. Not the same at all. How could she think it’s even similar?
“Look,” she said suddenly, excited, making Dog sit up as well. She pointed at the sky, where a shooting star was descending into the night time sky. I quickly glanced at where her finger was pointing, before directing my eyes back to her face, her eyes wondrous, dreamy.
“Beautiful,” I whispered and she looked at me and smiled.
“Isn’t it?” Her smile only got bigger and i had to stop myself from kissing her right here and now. The woman had no idea I wasn’t talking about the stars. “Quick! Make a wish!”
Though I wasn’t sure that I believed in making wishes on stars, I figured that I could use all the help I can get. Closing my eyes and taking one of her hands in mine, I threw a prayer out into the universe, hoping that someone, somewhere, was listening.
Please, I thought. Please make her love me. Maybe, if it’s not too much trouble, please have her spend her life with me too. I’ll make her happy, I swear it. Even if it’s the only thing I do in my life, I’ll do it. Please.
When I opened my eyes, I saw that her gaze was fixed on my face. “I didn’t think you’d actually do it,” she said softly, teasingly. “I didn’t realize you were such a dreamer.”
I smiled at her before running a thumb over her cheek. “Some wishes are so far-fetched that we can all use a helping hand.” Like you. Like loving you forever. It seems like a distant dream. “Tell me something even Joonie doesn’t know.”
“There’s not much,” she said. “Joonie knows almost everything about me.”
“There’s not much,” I said. “Junnie knows almost everything about me.”
Except how much I like you. Except the fact that I find myself liking you more and more each day. My throat closed up with the words I couldn’t say.
“I tried to get my ex fiancé back even after he left me,” I found myself sharing, instead. “Begged for him to take me back, actually.”
“Because you loved him that much?”
“No,” I admitted. “Because I was afraid to be alone. Isn’t that horrible?”
He looked at me searchingly before shaking his head. “No,” he said. “Understandable.”
“Still,” I said, looking away, “I thought I had stooped to a new low, which was why I didn’t even tell Jun.”
“And now?” He asked. “Are you still afraid?”
I’m afraid of a lot of things, the least of which was how much he makes me feel, but I wasn’t afraid of that. “No, not at all,” I replied. “Solitude doesn’t do anything for me anymore. It’s a fact of life. Even when you’re with someone you’re never really with them. Giving all of yourself away without thought is reckless and dangerous. Two things I am not. Two things I never want to be.” Not anymore. That was how you lose yourself. That was how you give people the power to hurt you. “We were all born alone, and we all die alone. It’s naive to think we don’t spend our lives in that same vein.”
He remained quiet and continued to watch me. “Even when people love you?”
“Especially then.” I directed my eyes to the sky. “Look at the stars, for example. They exist in the universe, in the galaxy, with all the other stars and planets and moons. But it lives and burns alone. It’s only when it dies that it takes everything out with it. People are like that too, I think.”
“We all take someone down somehow, at some point. In death, we leave the ones who love us behind, to deal with the pain of losing us. In life we take them down whenever we hurt or we make mistakes. What’s the point in sharing those bad things?”
“Because no one should have to go through them alone?” He asked.
“Everyone goes through things alone.”
“Everyone goes through things alone,” she said firmly. “No one can ever love anyone so much that they would want pain inflicted on themselves. And no one who really loves will want to inflict that pain on someone they truly love. It’s a conundrum.”
I took another swallow of soju and watched as she did the same.
I would love her like that. Pain and all. I would learn to do it. I had never put my mind into doing something and never accomplished it. This time will not be any different.
“Anyway,” she said. “It’s getting late and Dog is getting restless. We should probably head back inside.”
She stood up and started walking towards the deck door, Dog quickly following. Before she could open it, however, I had followed and trapped her between the length of my arms, now on either side of her head.
I was hit by a sense of familiarity as she turned around, her eyes wary. Just like the first time I kissed her, a lifetime ago.
“What?” She asked, licking her bottom lip.
My eyes fixed on her lips, wishing I could do the same. The silence between us lengthened and stretched, the cackle of tension almost audible. “You haven’t kissed me today, yet.”
“I did, too,” she said, averting her eyes. “I kissed you when you got home.”
“That was a peck, not a kiss.”
“Semantics,” she said without any real annoyance. “Fine.”
I watched as her eyes drifted close, her chin tilted up. It seemed a miracle in itself that she now welcomed my advances. What a difference time makes.
I found myself just staring at her leisurely, though the desire to kiss her was pounding through me. I lifted a hand and brushed my fingers over her forehead, her eyebrows, her nose. They traveled slowly to her pillow soft lips, before resting there.
She opened her eyes and her gaze locked with mine, the color rising to the apples on her cheeks. I could feel her pulse jump under my fingers when they traveled to her neck.
She looked so beautiful, waiting for my kiss. So I irresistible that I had to force myself to remember what my plan was. Her mouth opened slightly, as if she was trying tor catch her breath, drawing my finger dangerously close into her mouth.
I inwardly shook myself. She really didn’t realize what she does to me.
I smiled before I claimed her lips, sweet and slightly tasting of soju. She sighed when my tongue met hers slowly, probingly. I wanted these moments to last as long as possible, but she was making it damn near impossible. One of her arms wrapped around my neck as the other grazed my back, her fingers firm. I pressed her against the deck door even as I vaguely heard the dog barking in the background.
She melted into my arms, her body molding to fit with mine, and I was lost. Lost in her, lost in this moment. I was acutely aware of everything, from the scent of her to the feel of her hair brushing against my skin. My hands tightened on her hip to keep myself from touching her further, telling myself to not lose my head.
I had a reason for doing this. I needed to remember that, despite how much I’d love to just kiss her forever.
She moaned low in her throat and desire pounced through me, trying to erase all thoughts of restraint. It took concerted effort to drag my lips away from hers even as she tried to pull me back.
We stood inches apart, both breathing heavily. I know exactly how she’s feeling. Love surged through me, warm and tingly, as she looked up at me, her eyes soft.
“Jesus,” I muttered. “I will never tire of this. I will never be able to get this out of my system.”
One corner of her mouth lifted. “I know. It’s because…”
“… of a chemical reaction?” I asked and she nodded. The remembrance of this same conversation made me grin. So long ago now. And still, the same emotion flowed through me, although it was stronger and more intense. More permanent. “I don’t need an explanation.”
“I do.” I knew she was going to say that. I may not know her completely, but I knew enough. Her cheeks colored even more and she looked away. “What did you wish for on that star anyway?” She asked distractedly. “I was going to ask earlier but I forgot.”
You, I wanted to say but held my tongue. “Nothing worth mentioning,” I said. “I have a question.”
“What?” She asked, her eyes back on mine. I fought the urge to take her in my arms and kiss her again.
“Do you want to go out on a date with me?”
“Like the birthday party?” She asked and I shook my head no.
“A real date,” I said, punctuating the word ‘real.’ “You and me. No pretending.”
“Just us?” She said, furrowing her brows.
“Yup,” I said. “And maybe about two hundred people.”
May 11, 2002
“Go left,” Ji Hee Unnie said, pointing towards the left lane.
“No, you can’t! You have to make a right and then circle around,” Ji Soo said.
“You can just make a left here,” her older sister insisted.
I looked at all of them, reminded very much of the first time I saw them. Minus Ji Hyun Unnie, who was back in Taiwan. And the fact that they were all speaking in English, though, like then, they were talking on top of each other. The addition of Mi Rae Unnie was also different, though unlike me, she merely watched them all amusedly.
“Don’t worry,” she said to me with a nudge on my shoulder. “They’re always like this when they get together without Ji Hyun.” She shook her head at the younger women affectionately before reading something on her phone.
Ji Hee Unnie and Ji Soo continued to bicker until the screech of the brakes startled all of us.
“Will you two be quiet?” Ji Min Unnie complained, glaring at her two sisters. “You’re giving me a headache already and we haven’t even gotten there yet.”
“It’s her fault,” Ji Hee Unnie said, frowning at Ji Soo.
“Nuh uh,” Ji Soo retorted, sticking her tongue out at her sister.
“Stop.” Ji Min Unnie turned around and addressed them both, her voice stern. “If you two don’t stop, I will leave you here. I swear to God, I will leave you both right here, Omma’s lecture notwithstanding.”
“Your eldest brother said to stop harassing Ji Min,” Mi Rae Unnie said, putting her phone back in her purse. “And to not stress me out in my condition.”
“Sorry, Unnie,” Ji Soo said first, followed by a softer one from her other sister.
The car started moving again and I breathed a sigh of relief.
“But what condition?” Ji Hee Unnie asked, from the front passenger seat.
Mi Rae Unnie beamed at all of us. “We’re pregnant again. You’ll all have another niece or nephew in October.”
Delighted squeals filled the car as Ji Min Unnie made a left towards a side street.
“Congratulations,” I said sincerely to Mi Rae Unnie. “You must be very happy.”
“We are,” she replied. “We didn’t want to tell the family until after the third month had passed or we would have said something at the birthday party.”
“But,” Ji Min Unnie said, looking at the rear view mirror before she eased the car into a parking space. “Weren’t you planning on going back to work?”
“I was,” Mi Rae Unnie said, smiling. “But as much as I loved working, I love my family more. We will reassess the situation again once this one is walking.”
“Unless Jung Yoon Oppa gets you pregnant again,” Ji Soo teased. Mi Rae Unnie merely laughed in response.
I looked around, confused. I had been invited to go out to lunch but we were not parked in front of a restaurant. “Where are we anyway?” I asked out loud. “I thought we were going out to eat?”
“We are,” Ji Hee Unnie said as she opened the car door. We all filed out after her as Ji Min Unnie took the keys out of the ignition. “After we go shopping.”
“We heard you and Oppa are going out on a date,” Ji Soo whispered. “We’re going to help you find a dress.”
“Here we are,” Ji Min Unnie said as she walked towards the front of an elegant looking shop.
I looked up at the name of the store. Heritique New York. I’ve never been here before.
“I don’t need a new dress,” I said. “I was just going in jeans and a sweater or something.”
The women laughed. “As usual, Oppa didn’t tell you where he was taking you, did he?” Ji Soo asked.
I shook my head. “I had assumed it was just for dinner and a movie, or something to that extent.” Something with a lot of people, anyway.
“Not quite so,” Ji Hee Unnie said. “You’re going to a charity ball tonight. We have been tasked to dress and style you appropriately.”
I had tasked myself with a few things myself, a few nights ago. To tell him about my having my passport and bank card. To ask him to take good care of Dog. I didn’t manage to accomplish either task.
Whenever that man touches me all thoughts fly out of my head and I forget. It’s best if I stop letting him touch me, I know that… but I can’t seem to stop.
The last few days have been strange, and not just a little bit uncomfortable. Jung Jin has been as thoughtful and attentive as he had been before, except there had been expectation in the air. I wasn’t quite sure if it was because I had accepted his invitation for a date or something else, but I was already nervous.
In fact, there had been times when I felt like I was going to be sick from the anxiety. I’m sure my brain was putting more weight to it than what was necessary. It was only one date, for goodness’ sake. I hadn’t agreed to marry the man.
Even so, the fact that his sisters were treating the event as if it was a momentous occasion caused the butterflies in my stomach to flap around wildly.
We all turned around just as the store’s concierge came over and greeted us warmly. Within seconds of arriving we were ushered to a large room. It had a three way mirror with a round platform in the middle, as well as gilded walls and an impossibly luxurious upholstered chaise.
We were instructed to sit down by the same concierge, her hair in a tight bun behind her and wearing an impeccable black suit with sensible heels. Another woman entered the room bearing a tray full of fruit and a few glasses of yellow liquid.
“Champagne,” Ji Soo whispered to me before handing me a glass. “Drink up.” Turning to the woman who brought the drinks in, she said, “Can you please bring us a glass of orange juice as well?”
The woman nodded and left the room and I swallowed the liquid in one go. I had never been to a store where you were treated like this.
“I understand why I need a dress,” I said uncertainly. “But we’ll need to go to another store.”
“Why?” Ji Hee Unnie asked. “This is the best one around.”
“I know,” I said, looking down. “But it looks… expensive.”
“Don’t worry,” Ji Min Unnie said, patting me on the back reassuringly. “We have Jung Jin’s credit card.”
That was even more reason to go somewhere else. “But…”
“No buts,” Ji Hee Unnie said. “He told us to buy whatever you want to wear, no matter the price.”
“But…” My words were cut off by the arrival of the staff, bearing a glass of juice.
“Just go along with it,” Mi Rae Unnie whispered, taking the glass from the tray. “There’s no winning arguments with the Lee women. They outnumber us three to two and we don’t stand a chance.”
I had just picked up my tuxedo from the tailors’ after a quick stop at the jewelers when I passed a store selling outdoor and active wear. The displays of running shoes caught my eye and I stood in front of the shop, staring at the shoes.
Remembering how torn and worn out Gia’s shoes had been when we went up Mt. Seoraksan, I didn’t even think twice before I entered the shop.
“Hello,” one of the sales people greeted me, a smile on his face. He stopped as he came nearer, as if recognizing who I am. “Lee Jung Jin-ssi! You’re Kim Jae Joon’s manager, right?”
I nodded as he went to shake my hand, eliciting a small smile from me. “Yes,” I said. “I didn’t realize we met before.”
“We haven’t,” he said, grinning, before pointing me to a giant poster of Joon’s on one panel of the shop. “But you were here when Kim Jae Joon had an autograph signing.” I continued to look at him, puzzled. “When he became the spokesmodel for North Face?”
“Ah.” I still wasn’t quite sure exactly when he was talking about, but I nodded nevertheless.
“I just wanted to let you know, sir, how much I admire the work that you do,” the man continued, his words pouring out quickly, as if he was afraid that he wouldn’t get them all out. “I was wondering, if it’s not too much of a bother, if I can possibly ask you how you achieved so much in so little time. I write for our university’s paper and I would like to write an article about you.”
“Ah, I don’t think that’s a good…”
I had been distractedly looking around for where the running shoes were, when I heard Gia’s voice in my head, reprimanding me for not paying attention even as he spoke.
“What did you like, then?” Ji Min Noona’s voice echoed in my head, the day I walked in on her speaking to my sisters.
“I saw him in the park. Talking to an old lady,” Gia had said, her voice sounding a little baffled as well. “I thought he was kind. It surprised me.”
It surprised her that I may be kind, and though I didn’t think I was, most days, I knew that I would no longer have any excuse not to be now. Her voice will guide me and challenge me into becoming a better person.
I turned my eyes to the person still talking to me, his face bright red from speaking so much, looking at me expectantly.
What would Gia have me do?
Realizing the answer, I gave him a smile. “Sure,” I said, pulling out a business card from my wallet. “Call my assistant next week and let him know when you have time.”
He took my card then my hand in both of his, beaming gratefully and bowing repeatedly. “Thank you, sir. Thank you.” I pulled out my hand, a little embarrassed. I hadn’t even done anything yet. He was so grateful for something so small.
I cleared my throat. “You’re welcome. Anyway, do you have women’s running shoes?”
As if only now realizing that I must have come into the store for that purpose, he straightened his spine and waved a hand towards a display on one wall. “We have plenty of women’s running shoes, sir. Did you have a particular brand in mind?”
“N…” I began to say before I stopped. “Actually, yes, I was wondering if…”
“Can we borrow your dog next weekend?” Mi Rae Unnie asked. “The kids will love him.”
We were all back at Jung Jin’s penthouse, where all the women have cooed over Dog, who then preened like a peacock at all the attention he was getting. They were now stuffed in the guest bedroom, sitting on the bed, chattering excitedly amongst themselves. I could barely hear my own thoughts they were so noisy, which may be a good thing considering how nervous I was.
“Of course,” I said, standing up from the vanity seat and looking for the pair of shoes I had purchased. “Absolutely. He’ll love being able to run around with children in an actual yard.”
I stood before the full length mirror in front of the wardrobe and the women were silenced. Fearing there might be something wrong, I turned to face them with a frown.
“Well?” I asked.
“You look beautiful,” Ji Soo said, standing up. She wondrously ran her fingers down the dress that I had chosen, her eyes wide as saucers.
Ji Min Unnie rose from the bed as well, before standing next to me. “You know, I wasn’t exactly sure when you had picked this dress if it would suit you, but I was wrong. This looks like it was made for you.”
“You think so?” I asked.
I perused myself in the mirror. Not bad.
The women had protested passionately when I had rejected dress after dress at the shop. None of them just felt right, despite the fact that they had all been exquisitely made and cost a fortune.
It was not until we were about to leave empty handed when I spied this dress in one corner of the shop and asked to see it.
I had been so eager to bring it back with me that I didn’t even get to try it on, though I had been persuaded to buy some fabric tape in case it was too long.
The dress didn’t need it. It was, as Ji Min Unnie said, as if the dress had been made for me.
It was a modernized hanbok, as I was informed by the concierge. The underskirt was made of ecru colored silk shantung, so light and airy it was as if the layers and layers of fabric didn’t exist, and there were many layers. The bodice was made of gray hemp, the panels that lay over the overskirt made of the same fabric, in varying shades of black and indigo. A single thick panel of turquoise was at the very front of the dress. There was a gossamer silk ribbon in the same off white shade that wrapped in an asymmetrical pattern around the top, knotting lightly at the highest point of my waist before flowing in two long strands over the paneling and skirt. One was longer than the other, a single bold line of delicate cream, and the other embellished by fringed accouterments in shades of pink. At the knot on my waist sat a coral colored hemp flower.
The effect should have been haphazard, but it was not. Instead the dress looked perfectly imbalanced, focusing the eye on different details everywhere one looked. I liked how the material brushed over my skin, how it lacked any real weight. The bodice should have felt constricting, instead, it merely felt stable. I needed not to feel uncomfortable about wearing any supporting undergarments underneath.
“Good call on the hair, too,” Ji Hee Unnie called out and I smiled at her through the mirror.
To offset the formality of the dress, I had opted to leave my hair down, instead of the traditional pulled back ponytails or chignons that Korean women usually wore with their hanboks. My hair hung in loose waves down my back, with the sides braided into a waterfall twist, leaving the shorter layers to frame my face. It was effective, just as the hair stylist promised me it would be.
The makeup artist that I had been dragged to see managed to convince me that a bare face was the way to go and she had been right. She left my face lightly made up, leaving my lids shadowless and nude but for a single sweep of ink black eyeliner, which ended tilted at each corner of my eyes. Color was brushed on the apples of my cheeks, giving them a healthy rosy glow. My lips shone with a sheen of pink gloss. The whole look was completed by a light dusting of shimmery powder, applied to my face and with much debate, to my decolletage as well, and my shoulders.
Twin round diamond studs sparkled on my earlobes, the only jewelry I decided to wear. They had been as gift from my mother on my birthday last year; one of the few baubles that went with me wherever I moved.
As I looked upon my reflection on the mirror, I marveled at the fact though I had been styled in a way that was contrary to the way I would usually pick for myself, the effect still looked distinctly like me. I looked wide eyed, my skin dewy, the woman in the mirror still me, but somehow transformed into a confident, beautiful woman.
I tried smiling at myself, reflecting the same expressions on all the women’s faces behind me. Dog was on the bed, looking at me as well. My stomach churned, as if only now being reminded at how real this whole thing was. How important.
The sound of the elevator bay opening made all the women turn towards the direction of the door before Ji Soo stood up.
“Are you ready, Unnie?” She asked, her voice barely disguising her excitement. “Oppa’s here.”
My heart started thundering in my ears as I gripped the back of the chair, my knuckles white.
“Yeah,” I said weakly. “Ready as I’ll ever be.”
I was standing by the mirror of the foyer, straightening the bow around my neck. My hair was slicked back, with more hair product than I was used to wearing. My tuxedo had been tailor made, specifically for an occasion such as this.
I needed to look good. I was going on a first date with the love of my life. Surely that was the best reason any man would have to make an effort.
The guest bedroom door opened and out came my three sisters and our dog. My sisters all walked towards me until the sight of me stopped them short, except for Dog, that is, who didn’t seem to realize what was going on and only seemed focused on sniffing my shoes. The way they were looking at me was in such disbelief that I found myself blushing.
“What?” I looked at my sisters, all gaping at me.
Ji Min Noona recovered first. “Nice bouquet,” she said, her eyes on the giant white flower arrangement on the table. I eased the shopping bag with the running shoes behind it, praying that no one would notice. “You don’t look half bad, either.”
“Oppa, you look… so great.” This came from Ji Soo, patting me on my back as she planted herself on the couch.
“You look like you’re about to get married,” Ji Hee Noona said, following Ji Soo’s lead as she grabbed a bottled water from the fridge before sitting down.
I glared at all the women currently occupying my space. I was nervous as it was, I didn’t need them making me even more so.
“You guys can just… shut up,” I said, irritated, as I took the shopping bag to my bedroom.
I remained standing in front of the mirror, as one by one the women and Dog left the room, trying to calm my nerves.
I looked away from the image of me as Mi Rae Unnie stood up from the bed, the only one left in the room with me, and placed a hand on my arm.
“You okay?” She asked gently. “You looked a little off for a second. Don’t let all the preparations overwhelm you.”
“I don’t know,” I told Mi Rae Unnie. “It just seems like a lot for a first date.”
She smoothed a reassuring hand over my hair. “I know how you feel. The Lee men and women can be a bit overwhelming. I felt the same way, too, when I first joined the family.”
“It’s not them,” I said. It’s me, I almost added. “I just haven’t done this in a long time.” Not date per se, but go out with someone I already had feelings for. Generally speaking, I thought the whole dating thing was to get to know someone so that you can have feelings for them? Jung Jin and I seemed to have gotten the order of things messed up and it’s throwing me off guard.
“It’s okay, you know,” she said. “At the end of the day it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing or what you look like. It’s about you and Jung Jin. And,” she whispered, ” I have the feeling that the man will only have eyes for you, no matter how many people are around.”
She had meant to be comforting, but I wasn’t comforted at all. There was a heavy weight on my spine, a feeling of unease.
“I’ll see you outside,” she whispered. “Go get your Jung Jin.”
She soon departed and I was alone. I touched the earrings that my mother had given me, as if in touching something she had given me, I could draw on some of her strength.
Well… now or never. I have to leave this room sometime.
I gathered my hair and straightened it on my back, put my shoes on, took a deep breath, and exited the room.
“We asked to borrow your dog next weekend,” Mi Rae Noona said as she leaned against the door of my bedroom, before she saw me and whistled under her breath. “If I wasn’t already married to your very handsome older brother,” Mi Rae Noona continued, “I might find myself making a play for you, instead.”
“I’m flattered, Noona.”
Dog innocently toddled to the bedroom, sniffing all around. And I started searching for my favorite pair of cufflinks, the ones I always wore. I can’t seem to remember the last time I wore them, actually, when I think about it now.
Shaking my head, I was still thinking about where they were when I turned around to see Ji Min Noona, now leaning against the opposite side of the door with my sister in law, watching me as well.
“What time are you guys supposed to get there?” Ji Min Noona asked.
“Dinner starts at 8:30, I think.” Where was it?
“And you have the invitation?”
“Yep,” I said, patting the pocket of my jacket. “Right here.”
I opened a couple of drawers in search of said cufflinks and was still unsuccessful. I walked out of my bedroom, both Mi Rae and Ji Min Noona closely following, and walked back to the living room, picking things up to see if I’d misplaced them underneath.
“What’s wrong?” Ji Soo asked over my shoulder.
“Nothing,” I muttered. “Just looking for something.”
“What?” Ji Hee Noona had stood up as well and was now at my side. “What are you looking for?”
“Just…” I started. It was very hard to focus with four women and a dog following me around.
“It might help if you tell us what you need,” Mi Rae Noona said. “Five pairs of eyes are better than one.”
“It’s nothing, really,” I said, resigned. “Just my…”
I straightened my spine as the door to the guest bedroom opened and all the words that I was about to say, that I was supposed to say, deserted me.
My jaw dropped involuntarily as my eyes ate up the vision before me. Looking exactly nothing like herself but exactly like herself too.
Her skin was shimmering, her eyes so big on her face, the green brown depths searching. As if she was looking for me. She gave me a small smile when our eyes met, and all the world and its people disappeared. Time froze and stilled, with my heart beating as the only sound I could hear.
I wanted to say hello, to tell her she looked beautiful, to declare that I loved her. The words seemed stuck in my throat and I could only stand there, looking like the world’s biggest fool, and I didn’t care.
I stood by the door, my hands restless at my sides, unknowing what to do. There were many people in the room, and yet I couldn’t find the only one I was looking for.
I vaguely heard the shutter of a camera as I walked out. And then suddenly he stood up, and I felt like I could breathe.
He looked as he always did, except he didn’t. He was in a classic tux, tailored pants hugging the long length of his legs. His broad shoulders were covered by a perfectly fitted suit jacket, not unlike the one I had selfishly kept for myself for many many months. His pressed white shirt looked sharp, the bowtie on his neck adorably lopsided.
I loved that. It made him look real, flawed.
It made him look like someone who could belong with me.
He held my gaze for the longest of times, his expression surprised. His lovely eyes appeared awed, wondrous, and I felt beautiful, like I was actually the woman that I saw in his eyes.
The feeling brought an unnamed emotion to the fore and I felt tears burn the back of my eyes. I blinked them away and swallowed the feeling, hoping that my face didn’t betray me.
He grinned at me, his dimple winking, the expression slightly off center, and just like that… I suddenly knew.
I had fallen in love.
For years I had fought against life, not letting go but being taken instead, against my will and against my better judgment. Not for a long time had I allowed myself to lose my grasp on my control and my thoughts, never allowing my heart to rule my head. But somewhere in between San Francisco and Seoul, my fingers had learned to loosen their hold on this one thing that I had, the one thing that was left, the only thing I ascribed to keep.
It was so easy. It was frightening how easy it had been, how mindless and unintentional. How instinctive.
Panic rose inside me, even as I tamped it down. My feet were ready to bolt, to run, and I kept them grounded to the floor. Where the hell would I go, in this dress and at this time? Why the hell would I go when the man I would run to was right in front of me?
It’s okay, I told myself. It’s okay. As long as you don’t admit it, it’s not real. It will still be okay. The ending will only begin if you admit to it. Do something. Say something. Anything.
“Are you ready?” I forced myself to ask, satisfied to hear that my voice sounded as it’s supposed to.
Now if I could just hide this feeling away for the rest of the night, for the rest of my life, I’ll be fine.
“Are you ready?” She asked, her low voice cutting through the silence and still I couldn’t drag my eyes away from hers long enough to give her a response.
“Really, Jin-ie,” Ji Hee Noona commented dryly from behind me, “wipe the drool of your face. There are people here.”
The sarcasm in her voice broke through my reverie and I turned around to glare at all the women in my family.
“Why are you all still here?” I asked. “Don’t you all have any other place you need to be?”
“Nope,” Ji Soo said, laughing.
Gia walked over to stand at my side and I took her hand, slightly cold in mine. I looked at her in concern, my brows furrowed, until she gave me a reassuring smile. She held my gaze as I brushed a hand over her cheek and leaned down to kiss her, her eyes closing. I mourned the loss of contact for a brief second until I realized that her hand was resting lightly on my chest, right over where my heart was.
Her lips tasted as sweet as they looked, her kiss even more so. It took everything in me to keep the kiss short, what with our audience; even so, I was beset with the same desire over and over again every time I laid my eyes on her. I pressed a kiss on her forehead as she straightened my bowtie, and I heard someone clear their throat.
“See?” I heard Ji Min Unnie’s voice say. “This is why we haven’t left.” I looked at her questioningly. “We knew you were going to be like this. Someone has to make sure you two actually leave the house.”
Jung Jin took my hand in his as I stepped out of the car then handed the valet attendant his keys. As soon as I was fully standing, he took a step back and looked at me, his expression inscrutable. Then he broke out in a slow smile, his left dimple sinking into his cheek.
I felt my breath stop as I looked at his face, wondering if anyone could see if they looked at my face how much I loved him. If he could see it, too.
His beautiful eyes were locked on mine and the way he was looking at me made me feel self conscious. I felt myself coloring before he closed the gap between us. His hand strayed to the side of my face before he leaned down.
“You are magnificent,” Jung Jin whispered in my ear before letting his lips drift over my cheek softly.
“I feel a little overdressed,” I mumbled. “Surely this is too much for a first date?”
He shook his head no before he took my hand and looped it into his arm, his other hand holding onto my wrist, his hold firm yet gentle. He guided me down the marble flooring of the hotel towards the ballroom.
“Why do you seem taller tonight?” He asked, his voice teasing.
“I’m wearing shoes,” I said. “You’re used to seeing me in slippers, or lying dow…” My words stopped when I realized what I was about to say and he chuckled. “You could have warned me, you know.”
He turned to me in surprise. “Warned you about what?”
“That our first date was going to play out in public.”
“I knew if I did you might have refused,” he said, before he acknowledged a suited man with a nod.
“It’s kind of cheap, though,” I said, forcing my voice to sound light despite the fact that I would give anything to be able to leave. “How are you going to take me on a date that you don’t even have to pay for?”
He blinked at me before my words registered. He threw his head back and laughed, the sound rich and masculine, and I saw more than a few heads turn around to look at us.
“That’s true,” he said, his face sobering. “I’ll make up for it in our next one.” At the mention of a second date that may or may not come, I felt myself deflate but kept my face expressionless. “Plus, if we didn’t go here tonight, I wouldn’t have been able to see you like this.”
“Lovely, composed. In a hanbok,” he replied, his eyes traveling appreciatively over my form. “Have you ever worn one before?”
I shook my head no. “My first time.”
“There’s a first for everything,” he said, pressing a tender kiss on my forehead before standing at the double doors. “We’re going in. You ready?”
“That depends,” I said. “Do I have a choice?”
As if realizing my trepidation just now, his eyes met mine searchingly before he spoke. “We don’t have to go in if you really don’t want to. We’ll find someplace else to go…”
“Dressed like this?” I asked, pointing to his suit and my dress. “It would be a waste. Plus, I never miss out on a free meal.”
He kissed my hand before pushing the doors open. And we found ourselves walking into a dream.
I watched Gia’s face as she took in the scene before her, enjoying her reaction even more than I actually liked seeing the ballroom made up like this.
The ballroom looked like a fantasy come to life. There were canopies over the ceiling, suspended in sweeping curves around around the crystal chandelier. The light that bounced off the gems reflected back onto the brocade walls, making it look as if we were blanketed by stars.
The lights were dim, making the votive candles on each table appear softer, painting the room in a hazy glow. The centerpiece of the room was a large tree with bright red blossoms, the same votive candles hanging from its branches. Each table was topped by a topiary with flowers in the same shade, bold and vivid against the cream colored linens.
Her hand felt so small in mine, and for one second I worried. She was so silent and pensive the whole ride here, her eyes fixed outside the car. Still it didn’t detract from the picture she made.
Beautiful. Breathtaking. Incomparable.
My veins pulsed with anticipation. I planned on telling her how I felt by the end of the night, whatever the outcome. I probably should be more nervous than I actually am about it.
But there was something in the way her eyes met mine at the penthouse, as we first laid eyes on each other, that told me that she may feel the same for me.
For a brief moment her eyes had been unguarded and open, and the tenderness I saw in them filled me with such love that I had to remind myself to slow down. It might have been a good thing, after all, that my sisters and sister in law were there. Had they not been, I might have just continued standing there, gaping at her like an idiot.
Or I might have jumped her bones, like a lust filled teenager.
I chuckled to myself and she turned her eyes to me, her mouth curving into a smile. As I always did whenever she was near me, I couldn’t resist the impulse to touch her, my hands landing on the curve of her hip over the impossibly luxurious dress that she wore.
I was about to lean down and kiss her when I heard someone’s voice behind me.
“Jung Jin Hyung!” The voice said, and I turned around to see Jae Joon’s old catcher from university, smiling at me with a woman on his arm. I recognized her, too. Joon’s old manager from his university team. “Let me guess,” he said. “Chilbong sent you in his stead?”
Biting back a curse, I turned Gia around to face them as well, before I fixed a smile on my face.
The man was out to make me fall in love him. Except that I was already. And he didn’t even know.
He was the perfect date; attentive, thoughtful and affectionate. He held my hand as others came to shake his, as they came to greet him and made small talk. He spoke to them in English whenever he could, then translated for me when he could not. He introduced me politely to each and every single person, never letting go, not even for one second.
It wasn’t until I watched how he navigated through the throng of people wanting to speak to him and ask him questions that I really saw how he became so successful at what he does. He was charming, personable, intelligent and gracious. He remembered the small details about the people he spoke to, sent warm regards to various family members, enquired regarding their spouses and children.
It was no wonder he got paid for this.
It was impressive watching him work, and just a little bit intimidating. It felt like I had walked into another world; one that I didn’t quite belong in. I think I may have a slight idea now how Cinderella must have felt.
I didn’t miss the admiring looks directed at him by the elegantly dressed women, as well as the assessing looks they sent my way. To his credit his eyes never strayed away from me, if not to give anyone a polite response. It took concerted effort to keep my spine straighter and my posture perfect just so I could look the part of a woman who would be seen with him.
Thank God I didn’t wear jeans and a sweater, is all I have to say.
The thought made me giggle and Jung Jin looked across the table at me, smiling. We had been shown to a private table for two and it hadn’t been until we were finally seated by ourselves that I was able to take a deep breath, relieved that I was able to relax, if only for a few minutes. Never had I been more aware of being closely scrutinized.
“What’s so funny?” He asked, his fork paused mid air.
“Nothing,” I said, taking a sip of the champagne in front of me. “I like seeing you like this.”
“Dressed up?” He said and I grinned.
“No, seeing you work your magic on people. It’s amazing, the way they respond to you.”
“Thank you,” he said quietly. “It’s taken me a long time to hone those skills. Although,” he continued, “There was only one secret that I really needed to know when dealing with people.”
“What’s that?” I asked, chewing on an asparagus.
“Figure out what’s important to them, tell them what they want to hear, and then go from there.”
The casual way he just said that, as if it was fact, brought a measure of discomfort. “Even if it’s not true?”
He looked at me across the rim of his glass. “Sometimes.”
I swallowed what was in my mouth and took a big gulp of champagne. In my profession I didn’t deal in falsehoods, whether or not it was what people wanted to hear. Giving people false hope sets them up for disappointment; I would know.
The memory of Teddy came then, as fresh as it had been the moment life left him, and I closed my eyes to will them away.
Don’t think about it. Do not think about him.
“I feel a little under dressed now,” I said, looking around the room to distract myself. Everyone was in western type evening gowns, wearing inordinate amounts of jewelry. “I should have worn a something diff…”
“You look perfect,” he said, taking my hand over the length of the table. “I wouldn’t change a thing about the way you look tonight.”
I met his eyes and found them to be focused intently on me, before they traveled leisurely over my face and stopping at my lips.
“Thank you,” I said softly. I was searching for something else to say when a single violin strain began, launching into a familiar melody, before it was joined by the live orchestra in front of the ballroom.
Before I knew it, Jung Jin had risen from his seat and straightened his jacket. Standing in front of me, he smiled before holding out a hand.
Looking at him inquiringly, I was about to ask him what the matter was when he spoke.
“Dance with me.”
I watched the gold glint off her irises as she looked up at me, a question in her eyes.
It seemed only fitting that we danced to this song, since, it seemed the night she caught me playing it was when our story really began. An evening, not unlike tonight, except this time, I could believe it was real. That it wasn’t a dream. That she was here.
What better proof of this than having hundreds of people as my witnesses?
“Dance with me,” I asked.
She blinked at me a few times before putting her linen napkin down. It wasn’t until I felt her fingers on my hand that I was able to relax. I led her to the center of the dance floor, where some couples already were dancing, lost in their own worlds.
I turned her to face me and placed a hand on the small of her spine as she wrapped an arm over my shoulder. Though the shoes she wore gave her a few inches, her head still only just reached my shoulder.
A surge of protectiveness came over me as I held her other hand in mine before pulling her closer to me.
As we glided over the dance floor, in a dance that had existed between lovers long before us, we remained silent. I could feel fate weaving its magic on this moment.
For so long I had rejected and dismissed love, but now, with her in my arms, I realized that I was just waiting. For her.
Emotions swirled in her eyes, her mouth opening and closing as if she was looking for words to say. I almost laughed. As usual, my woman needed to speak.
But I didn’t need words. Not yet, anyway. I was more than happy to be caught up in this embracing, comforting silence.
Her lips beckoned me and unable to help myself I leaned down and pressed a gentle kiss on her forehead, then the tip of her nose. We were dancing closer than we probably should be, but it didn’t matter, not when her cheek was against mine, the scent of her all around me.
I would break all the rules. For her I would do anything.
It wasn’t until I realized that there were now people watching us that I realized that the music had stopped. She turned her face towards me, an emotion looking very much like love in her eyes, and brushed a hand over my face. It was then that I decided to tell her that I love her. That I was in love with her.
Now. Right now.
I opened my mouth to do just that when a familiar voice rang in my ears, the tone coolly amused, deceptively friendly.
“Long time no see, Lee Jung Jin-ssi.”
He looked like he was about to say something, the air tinged with a tense, expectant silence.
I had just placed a hand on his cheek, a way to prolong the contact though I was still in his arms. His mouth held the beginnings of a smile, until I heard a voice, vaguely familiar, speaking in Korean.
He turned around to where the voice had come from and I followed suit. In front of us stood the woman who came to his penthouse, more beautiful than she even looked that day. She was wearing a strapless dress in red, the silhouette wrapped over her slender body. Her ears dripped with diamond chandelier earrings, a matching piece around her neck. Her short hair held pincurls, her eyes smoky. Her lips were the same red as the flowers that surrounded us.
Behind her stood a younger looking man, as devastatingly handsome as Jung Jin, looking slightly abashed. I nodded at him and he gave me an embarrassed smile.
I didn’t miss the way Jung Jin stiffened, tension etched on his handsome face before his mouth broke out into a tight smile.
“Kang Hye Soo-ssi,” he said in English, his voice devoid of any warmth. “I should have known you would be here.”
She responded in Korean. Her voice sounded friendly enough, but I detected an undercurrent of amusement, and with it, anger. Though her eyes darted to me, it had been so brief it could barely be considered a glance.
“It’s none of your business who I bring with me,” Jung Jin said, still speaking in English. “Or who I’m with.”
She laughed, the sound without any real humor, and I felt a chill run up my spine. She spoke again, her words curt, and Jung Jin looked at me quickly before he turned back to her. I didn’t have to know Korean to know that she was speaking about me. Irritation sparked and licked at my temper, even as I told myself to keep my head.
“Stop,” Jung Jin said. “Your problem is with me, Hye Soo, not her.”
Hye Soo responded to him in Korean. I noted the tic of anger on Jung Jin’s cheek and the clenching of his jaw as she continued to speak, her voice neither rising nor falling. Her expression didn’t betray her, either; she appeared both congenial and astute at the same time.
Jung Jin finally replied in his native language, his anger barely disguised. To his credit, though, the calmness never left his face.
They seemed so alike that for one second, I could see, how they could have been lovers.
The two of them, like two predators sizing each other up, were beautiful together. They stood almost shoulder to shoulder, both statuesque. I could see it, how they must look together. Like they could belong to each other.
The air between them cackled with barely disguised animosity. They must have been passionate lovers. That much resentment doesn’t come from a cold blooded affair. Passion, as I always thought, though, soon gives way to resentment. I knew that already without being a front row witness to this spectacle.
Except I wasn’t just a part of the audience, was I?
Funny… I was suddenly relegated to a supporting role to this story when just a few minutes ago I could have sworn I was the heroine.
She was still speaking, her contempt audible, quick contemptuous looks directed my way. Enough was enough… I had a right to know whatever she was saying about me.
“I don’t understand Korean,” I interjected, trying to keep my voice calm. “Please speak in English.”
“Gia…” Jung Jin began to say and I silenced him with a look.
Hye Soo turned her eyes at me, cold and derisive. “So… the kitten has claws,” she drawled. “I don’t really think you want to hear anything I have to say, whether or not I say in in English.”
“I’m no kitten,” I said. “And on the contrary. If you’re going to insult me, at least do it in a language that I can understand. God knows it didn’t stop you before.”
“Of course I would be here,” she said in jondaemal, ignoring the person behind her, someone I recognized as the boy toy she had been seeing for the past year and a half even as she continued to sleep with me. “You and I always did run in the same scene. I was wondering when you would actually rejoin civilization. How goes slumming it? I’m surprised you brought her. I thought for sure that you would be tired of her by now.”
“It’s none of your business who I bring with me,” I said in English, aware how much Gia hated not being being able to understand what people are saying around her. “Or who I’m with.”
She chuckled dryly before she spoke again. “Of course it’s my business who you’re with. I made you,” she said, responding deliberately in Korean. “Especially when you decide to bring someone like her into my world.”
What was she talking about? I looked over at Gia and watched her tense up.
“Stop,” I said, trying to diffuse the tension. “Your problem is with me, Hye Soo, not her.”
“My problem has never been with you, Jung Jin-ssi. You and I got along perfectly well before she came along. I bet you don’t even know half the things I found out about her.”
I looked at her incredulously. “It’s up to me to decide what I need to know and what I don’t need to know about her. What are you doing digging up information?”
She turned her eyes at me, eyes that I once thought were sharp, but only now did I realize that they were more cruel and manipulative than that. “I am a business woman above everything else, Jung Jin-ah.” I stiffened at her use of my name in banmal. “I never go into battle without checking out my competition. And certainly not when there’s so much to…”
“I don’t understand Korean,” I heard Gia say, her voice guarded, polite. The way she spoke to me when we first met. “Please speak in English.”
“Gia…” I said, and the look she gave me cut whatever I was about to say off. I shifted my stance uncomfortably and remained silent.
Hye Soo looked at her. “So the kitten has claws,” Hye Soo said, in perfectly modulated accentless English. “I don’t really think you want to hear anything I have to say, whether or not I say it in English.”
“I’m no kitten,” Gia said woodenly. “And on the contrary. If you’re going to insult me, at least do it in a language that I can understand. God knows it didn’t stop you before.”
“You two…” I said, looking at both women. “You two had met before?”
“She didn’t tell you?” Hye Soo asked in Korean, blatantly ignoring Gia’s request and turning back to face me. “I came to your penthouse, weeks ago.”
“I never invited you.”
“Do I look like the type to need an invitation?” She looked at Gia again, and I could see the anger simmering in both pairs of eyes. “How dare you replace me with her?”
“You were never irreplaceable, Hye Soo. No one is… you taught me that, remember?”
“Did you know that her father has many illegitimate children?” She asked, continuing to speak in Korean, despite Gia’s request. She didn’t even address what I just said, her eyes taunting. “That he’s never held down a job?”
“That’s none of your business, or mine,” I said. Next to me Gia was still as a statue, her spine stiff. Though I knew she didn’t understand what we were talking about exactly, I got the feeling she didn’t miss the gist of the conversation.
I felt foolish, suddenly. I should have listened to Shawn. Women like Hye Soo do not allow anyone else to call the shots. I had been naive, thinking that she would accept my request; even more naive still to think that she would I leave Gia alone.
“Her sister is a college dropout,” Hye Soo continued, her voice amused, seething with satisfaction. She always did enjoy knowing things that no one else does. “You couldn’t even pick a woman who matches you.”
“I don’t care about any…”
“She dated a convict!” Hye Soo said, in English, her voice emphatic, loud. Deliberately so. Her words cut through the conversation all around us, and everyone on the dance floor turned as a pregnant silence descended upon the ballroom.
I saw Gia flinch before she tensed, her shoulders strung as tightly as a piano wire. I spied the shame in her eyes before her wall was back up. Her green brown irises looked dull, lifeless. The woman I love had retreated again and I wanted to rail at Hye Soo for having made her feel like this.
In front of me, Hye Soo looked triumphant, vindicated. She had meant to scorn and shock, and she thought she succeeded. For the first time in my life I was actually embarrassed to having been compared and likened to her once upon a time.
I wanted to take Gia’s hand, to hold her close. Tell her none of those things mattered. I wanted to lead her away from Hye Soo and her poisonous words.
“Gia…” I said, reaching out for her. She backed away from my touch as she fixed her eyes on me, her expression flat, and then looking at Hye Soo.
“How?” She asked, her voice shaky, directed to no one in particular. “How did she know about that?” Her eyes looked at me accusingly. “Did you tell her?”
Her head whipped towards me, her eyes hard. How the hell could I have told Hye Soo something I didn’t even know myself?
“How?” I asked, trying to keep my voice from shaking. “How did she know about that?” I looked at Jung Jin, who wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Did you tell her?”
“I won’t even dignify your question with a response,” he said, his posture defensive.
I resisted the urge to laugh bitterly. Was that what they talked about while they were together? Was I the topic of their bed talk? Did they sit around and discuss my life, as if I was some sort of strange, sad person?
I must have provided a lot of fodder to speak of. I know my life held enough secrets to keep them entertained for years. This moment reminded me only too well that my past sins have neither been forgiven, nor forgotten.
My hands started shaking to their own accord, even though I felt so warm I thought I might burst into flames. I felt like I was naked, exposed and vulnerable, my past torn open, all to gape at and see.
“Are you asking if we talked about you?” Hye Soo asked, more than eager to answer my question. “What do you think?”
She opened her purse and pulled something out before holding her palm open, directed at Jung Jin.
Jung Jin stood motionless, not even acknowledging her, his eyes willing me to look at him. I refused to do so.
I could feel the eyes of what felt like a million people and wished that the ground would swallow me whole. The dress I was wearing felt constricting now, as if it was choking me alive. My throat felt tight, my senses hyperaware. Behind us the orchestra continued playing, but the sound was distorted. Disjointed. I felt like I was trapped in a nightmare.
Jung Jin, as if realizing that I wasn’t going to look at him, turned an impatient gaze at what Hye Soo was offering.
“What is that?” His voice was curt, dismissive.
“Your cufflinks,” she said, her voice low, husky, conspirational. As if she was about to divulge a secret to a roomful of people and enjoy it. “You left them at our hotel room, a few nights ago.”
I felt all color drain out of my face, unwilling to believe what she was saying. In one instant I remembered the phone calls he didn’t take in my company, the nights he would disappear. I waited for him to deny that he had been with her, for him to say that she was lying. I needed him to let me know that she was just trying to hurt him and me, any sign that what she was saying was a lie. I waited, my heart in my throat, as he responded.
“It was more than a few nights ago, Hye Soo,” his voice sounding nothing like the Jung Jin I know, the Jung Jin I love. He sounded cold, hard, like someone I didn’t know at all. “I thought you, of all people would feel no need to embellish. I’m surprised that you can even remember who it belongs to, your bed is such a merry go round of players.”
“It was not so long ago that you were damn proud to be in that pool, Jung Jin-ah” she responded, her mouth curving up. “And I always remember you.”
My eyes fixated on the necklace she wore to pretend as if I wasn’t here, the blood red jewel winking at me even from this distance. She caught my eyes and looked at me slyly.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” She asked. “Jung Jin gave it to me… one of his ‘gifts.’ He always gives them when he’s about to get rid of you, is trying to sleep with you or is ‘thanking’ you for it. You probably don’t know about that, yet.”
I had once told Junnie that he was the type to give away gifts to his women, always kind of knew that was his way, but being smacked with it in the face is another thing altogether.
“Or actually,” she said, looking my dress up and down, as if she knew it had been bought with his money. “Maybe you do.”
“Hye Soo,” Jung Jin said in warning, taking a step towards her.
“What?” She asked. “Everyone knows that you like to buy presents for your women, Jung Jin-ssi. Just like everyone knows that you can’t be alone.” She turned her gaze back to me. “If you play your cards right, you might get a hell of a lot more than I ever did. Hold out enough and he might just give you the world.”
The woman was good, I told myself. She knew how to hit us both at the same time. On one hand she was calling him out on the shit he did, and on the other she was implying that I wanted him for his money. Though I was angry I almost felt a begrudging respect for her. Still, that didn’t mean that I didn’t want to slap her. Just that I respected her, too.
A woman who can leave Jung Jin stunned and speechless deserves that much.
“Hye Soo, that’s enough!”
Jung Jin was so angry he was visibly trying to keep himself in check. I could see the color spread from his face to his neck, though he denied nothing.
Of course he couldn’t… she was only telling the truth.
I fought the bile that had risen from my stomach. The two of them regarded each other without any affection, or even respect, their words biting. And yet they both seemed entertained, as if they enjoyed baiting and talking to each other like this. As if this was their foreplay.
“What do you see in her, anyway?” Hye Soo asked him, her gaze traveling over me.
“She has more than you could ever offer me,” Jung Jin said. “A heart, for example.”
The two of them spoke of me as if I didn’t exist. And I realized… This was not a world I could belong in. This was not something I wanted to be a part of.
“Funny, that hadn’t been a problem in the five years you’ve been warming up my bed.” Hye Soo’s voice sharpened, as if he had hit a nerve.
“Don’t get it twisted. You were the one warming mine up.”
Even as they kept volleying at each other back and forth, I felt myself taking a few steps backwards, attempting to distance myself from this, and them. Jung Jin turned to me, his eyes softening, before spoke. His voice was gentle, placating.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t need to be here.”
He held out a hand. “Please, let me take you home. I have no business being here without you.”
I shook my head and ignored his hand, trying to preserve what was left of my dignity. The last thing I needed was to be around him at this time. “No, it seems you two have unfinished business. I’ll see myself out.”
“Please,” Jung Jin said, his voice imploring. I couldn’t bring myself to meet his gaze. I couldn’t afford to get lost in his eyes. To get lost in his lies.
“I’m not going to stay here and allow both of you to use me as a pawn against each other,” I told him, my voice calm. “Don’t follow me.”
He looked as if he was about to say something else. And he might have done, had I not turned around and walked out the door.
I tried not to blanch at the expression on Gia’s face before she turned away from me. She regarded me the way she did when we first met, her gaze frosty and distant. There was nothing of the warmth and affection that she had been showering me in the last month.
It never hit me until now how valuable her good opinion of me was. How much I needed it. It didn’t matter to me what anyone else thought of me as long as she wanted me, as long as she thought I was worth loving. But now… I reined the urge in to drop down on my knees to ask her for forgiveness, to explain.
This was not how it looked, though I was certain that it didn’t look good.
I watched as she walked away, her back ramrod straight, her chin held high. I never took my eyes off her retreating form, my mind begging for her to turn around just once.
She didn’t so much as look back.
Our relationship rested on a knife’s edge, standing between the line of what could or could not happen, what it could and could not be. It was fragile, teetering uncertainly. Something can happen and it would disappear. Something can be said and it will be over.
It felt as if my heart left with her. I was suddenly exhausted. Of all this.
Slowly, I heard murmurs behind me, became aware of the people that surrounded us. Hye Soo still stood in front of me, her beautiful face defiant. Her goal had been to drive a wedge between us, and she had succeeded.
I turned to her, tried to put on my public relations face. I tried to remember that Hye Soo and I had a long history, that she can destroy my livelihood if that was what she wanted. It didn’t work.
“Happy now?” I asked, my voice seething with resentment.
“I won’t be happy until you’re back where you belong, Jung Jin-ah.”
“And where do you think I belong?” She responded with a knowing look. “Not with you, surely.”
“Didn’t I tell you?” She asked. “No other woman will accept you as you are but me. No one knows better that there’s a price to pay for success. What does she know of this world?”
“Stop talking about her as if you know her,” I said. “You know nothing about her.”
“Neither do you.”
My fists clenched at my sides. “What do you want from me, Hye Soo?”
Her face fell, as if disbelieving that I would even ask that. “You really don’t know?”
I shook my head. “No. And I don’t really care.” She took a step towards me, tried to grab hold of my arm. “I always knew you were a sore loser, Hye Soo. I just didn’t realize you were also a bitch.”
What was it about white flowers and Jung Jin that signaled bad news? I should have known… I should have known as soon as I saw the giant bouquet of white flowers that this date will not turn out as planned.
I walked through the hotel’s lobby, my heels clicking on the marble floors. I was surprisingly calm, even though my emotions were a mess.
I wasn’t sure if I was angry or upset or angry and upset, but I knew I was something. The fact that I can’t even figure out which one I was was the first indication that I needed time to think. The second indication was that I wanted to find some liquor, and fast.
I should have known, really, that Jung Jin and that woman were involved. Just like I should have known that she was the type of woman he would be involved with.
She was beautiful. Until she opened her damn mouth.
I ignored the people looking at me, no doubt because they just witnessed what happened at the ballroom, and kept walking. I lifted my chin and kept my eyes focused on the door ahead.
I let the sound of my footsteps comfort me, the sound reminiscent of how my shoes sound on the pavement as I ran. It was better than fixating on the way my heart was hammering in my chest.
I had just stepped out of the revolving door when I saw a familiar face. Not wanting to make small talk and really not being in the mood to be polite to anyone, I started walking the opposite direction, only to be stopped by a voice calling out my name.
I pulled my arm away from Hye Soo’s grasp. I didn’t even clock her reaction before I walked away.
I tried to keep the smile on my face as I passed the multitude of onlookers. I know it worked; it’s never not worked before. Inside though, I felt the full gamut of emotions. Frustration at this mess of a date. Concern for Gia. Anger at Hye Soo.
As I walked I attempted to process the conflicting emotions, the frustration and concern eating me up. I knew that I can’t do anything about either right now, at least not until I can figure out a strategy. But the anger… my mind fixated on that, savoring the white hot feel of it. It was so much easier to handle the anger than it was everything else.
I had just stepped out of the ballroom when I found myself turning right back, to where Hye Soo stood, a champagne glass in her hand. Next to her, her younger boyfriend looked discomfited and completely out of place as she ignored him.
“You know what?” I started, drawing the attention of the onlookers who haven’t quite dispersed from where they stood. “For years you told me that relationships are just temporary, that our relationship was temporary. I would have given you everything a long time ago, but you didn’t want that. I was good enough to fuck, but not actually good enough to be with. And now you think you can just butt into my life when I am actually happy and have it your own fucking way. You don’t get to have it like that. You don’t get to have me like that.”
I clenched my jaw. “I love her. Her, Hye Soo, not you. You want to know why? Because she’s nothing like you. I may not have made it clear before, and I will apologize for that, but not for anything else. This is over.”
Contrary to what I was expecting, her mouth pulled on its corner into a smile. Either she didn’t believe me or she didn’t want to.
I didn’t really give a damn whether she did or she didn’t. Hers was not the opinion I wanted, nor needed.
I strode away from her, loosening the bowtie on my neck. I marched through the ball room’s double doors, doors that just just an hour ago Gia and I had walked through, convinced that tonight was going to be a magical night. A dream.
I have to fix this, I thought. I’ll make her listen and understand. I looked around the hotel foyer and saw no sign of her.
“Hi, Dr. Park, what are you doing here?” I asked uncomfortably. I shifted my weight to my other foot, tried to look relaxed.
“Ah, we had a veterinary seminar in the Iris room,” he said, pointing to the room behind him. “Hence the suit.”
I nodded distractedly, only now noticing that he was, indeed, wearing a three piece suit. He truly was a handsome man, with his honey colored skin and dark brown eyes, not quite the shape of Jung Jin’s but pretty nevertheless.
“Work never stops, huh?” I said, meeting his gaze.
His eyes crinkled at the corners a split second before he smiled, revealing perfect teeth. I couldn’t help but smile back, though it was the last thing I wanted to do.
He shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah,” he replied. “But,” he added, waving a hand over me, “look at you.”
“Yeah,” I said, a little self-consciously. “Look at me.”
“You’re wearing a hanbok,” he said appreciatively. “I approve. You look fantastic.”
“Thanks.” I looked behind me and tried to appear as if I had somewhere else to go. “Anyway, I won’t…”
“Seriously,” Dr. Park continued, missing the point altogether, “you look so different than all the other times I’d seen you.”
“Well,” I said with a dry chuckle, “the first time you saw me I was soaked from the rain and the second time I had just been peed on… I would really hope that I do look different from those times.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t think you looked bad then. Although… you do look better now.” I felt my cheeks flush with color at the sudden flattery. “Are you on your way out?” His question was unexpected and I looked at him in surprise.
“Yeah… I had gone to the charity ball thing, but I don’t feel so well so I was just heading back to the penthouse.”
“Oh? Did your landlord roommate friend person come with you?” His voice seemed unassuming, but the last thing I wanted to do was talk about Jung Jin, and I shook my head no. “Can I escort you home, then?”
I looked at his kind face, reminded of how Marc had treated me a long time ago and gave him a hesitant smile. I could see now, what I couldn’t see before; I had been so wrapped up in Jung Jin and Dog. There was not only friendliness in his eyes but interest, as well. The thought made me even more uncomfortable.
“Well?” He asked again, and I only just now realized that I still hadn’t answered his question. He looked at me expectantly and I struggled for a response.
I wanted to say no; I wasn’t the type of person to drag someone else into my drama. I was going to say no. The word was hanging on the tip of my tongue, ready to be set loose.
I was about to do just that when, from the corner of my eye, I saw Jung Jin standing by the front door watching me, Hye Soo behind looking at him, and behind her, the man I had nodded to, his eyes fixed on her.
It was like one long line of anger and distrust.
I would laugh if I wasn’t so unamused.
I had no desire to speak to Jung Jin just yet, and I felt no inclination to speak to Hye Soo ever again. But I did wish I could speak to the man who was behind her, to the one who looked at her like the sun and moon rose in her eyes even when she was obviously pining for someone else. I wanted to tell him that life is too short to be spent loving someone who makes you feel like you were second best.
I would know. I lived my life feeling like nothing I ever did was good enough, that I was intrinsically just not enough. For anyone.
All thoughts of good will and niceties faded when I saw Hye Soo place a hand on Jung Jin’s shoulder and whisper something in his ear, though his eyes didn’t stray away from me. The sight made me see red so quickly even I was surprised. The next thing I knew I was addressing Dr. Park, a bright yet not altogether genuine smile on my face.
“Yes,” I said, my voice sounding manufactured, fake. “Please walk with me.”
I watched her from the glass door, just as I did not even a couple of weeks ago. How far the distance seemed from then and now. And yet how short. There was a whole lifetime in between those times, a lifetime filled with laughter and kisses, and now I stood to lose it all.
She was speaking to the vet without speaking to him. Her stance told the story that he hadn’t recognized yet. But I do.
I know her frowns and her smiles. I know how her eyes darken, whether they be from desire or anger. I know the stubborn tilt of her chin when she’s been hurt and is trying to cover it up, or when she bites her lip because she’s nervous or wants to be kissed. I know the silence right before she explodes in indignation, the flash of temper before she reins it in.
I know all these things. Just like I know she meant every word she said to me just now.
I know her. So I should know how to fix this. And yet I hesitate.
For most of the past few years I had considered myself untouchable, immovable. I was as certain of the things I didn’t want as I was about the things I deserved.
Gia made me question everything. It’s been less than a year since I met her, even less time since we first kissed, a brief moment since the night she walked in on me playing the piano, and a heartbeat away from when we found ourselves together in a hotel room in the mountains. And yet… in that short amount of time, at least short in relation to time as a whole, she transformed from being a stranger to being my everything.
I noted her guarded posture, as well as the moment she realized I was there. And she did realize it. Her shoulders pulled back even more, her face tensed. If she was in front of me her eyes would blaze before they’d hide. Her smile was so rehearsed I was surprised that the vet didn’t pick up on it.
But why would he? People will believe what they want to believe. It didn’t change the fact that she was speaking to him and not me, albeit only in a superficial, casual way.
A flash of all consuming, all encompassing jealousy went through me as I watched her walk with him, debating with myself whether I should claim my rightful place or just leave her be. I remembered her words and chose the latter.
Me demanding to speak to her before she’s ready will only end up in disaster. I need a plan. A solid plan.
I have truth on my side. Now I just have to convince her of it.
It seemed deceptively simple.
It wasn’t until I felt a hand on my shoulder that I realized that I wasn’t alone. I didn’t have to turn around to know it was Hye Soo, just like I didn’t have to ask to know that she was watching Gia too.
“Not so different from me, after all,” she whispered, a finger brushing over my ear. It took all of me not to grab her wrist and tell her, no, command her, never to touch me again. “She’s moving on from you by sticking to another man. Just like I always did, with my ‘merry go round of players.’ Just like you always did, with the women in your life and your bed. Congratulations, Lee Jung Jin-ssi, you have taught her well.”
I turned around and gave her a hard look. “Don’t fool yourself, Hye Soo. She’s better than either one of us. Better than both of us combined. Nothing will change that.”
“She’ll never accept you, you know,” Hye Soo said, her voice soft. I couldn’t read the emotion in her voice.
It sounded almost like pity. With maybe a hint of sadness, too. I didn’t ask her whether the consideration was for me or for herself. I didn’t give her a response.
I looked at Hye Soo’s face one more time, before I walked away.
I couldn’t even do vindictive right.
After walking with Dr. Park for a couple of blocks I found myself hailing him a cab and sending him away. As much as I appreciated his calm and steady demeanor at a time when I felt everything but calm and steady, the polite conversation we shared did nothing to soothr my nerves.
It wasn’t until I knew that I was well and truly alone that I managed to get my thoughts in some type of order.
I wandered down the streets of Seoul, wearing a dress that looked too fancy to be worn by someone like me, in shoes that were pinching, not quite mine. The air was cool enough with a breeze, and I wrapped my arms around myself to keep the chill off. In the distance the Han River shone, and I found myself walking towards it, trying to find comfort in its constancy.
I wasn’t quite sure why, but bodies of water, like mountains and valleys, offered me a sense of perspective. It’s only now that I notice that the more chaotic my thoughts were, the greater my desire to be in the presence of immovable objects. It was almost as if an inner compass was searching for my North, something to lead me home.
I walked the two and a half miles towards the river, my feet taking me on a path I didn’t know. I found a spot that offered a view of the Banpodaegyo Bridge, away from the couples sitting on blankets and standing around. The last thing I needed was to be surrounded by loved up people, but it seemed in this I had no choice.
The bridge shone its multicolored lights over the river, the water jets dancing to the music. I admired and appreciated the beauty of it, though my eyes focused only on the water ahead.
It’s only now that I had stopped that I felt embarrassed for having used the veterinarian to try to make Jung Jin jealous; it was shameful that I stooped that low. That kind of petty behavior hadn’t been one I had indulged in for years. Once upon another time it was something I had done quite routinely.
But I was young then. Immature. I didn’t know better. But now I do. Or at least I did until a few minutes ago. I don’t have the luxury of immaturity or age to use as an excuse.
The shock of what just happened was wearing off, and I slumped onto the ground in exhaustion, my brain already trying to make sense of what just took place.
I considered the facts.
1) Jung Jin and Hye Soo were lovers. Are lovers.
2) They were sleeping together even as he was in the process of pursuing me.
3) There was still something there. Chemistry, perhaps, that has turned into something destructive. As most relationships did, once the love is gone or if one loves and not the other.
I found comfort in the logical, in things that made sense. My mind, in the absence of provocation, knew to go back to this skill.
Though other things have been uncovered in those heated few minutes, these were the only facts I entertained. I was almost positive by now that I had accused Jung Jin of sharing things about me in detail to Hye Soo unfairly, even though she made it sound like he did. Jung Jin was nothing but discreet, and if nothing else, I don’t think he was capable of sharing those details; at least not unless he looked them up himself, seeing as I didn’t disclose them. Taking my personal feelings away from the equation I let my mind wander back to the surprise on his face when Hye Soo told him about my dating Marcus.
I might have been swimming in a pool of his lies, but that had not been one of them. He really didn’t know. At least until she told him.
I can’t pinpoint how he feels about her. There was resentment there, anger. But was it for my sake or his? Love and hate stood on different sides of the same coin. Had I been used to make her jealous, to spur her into a decision about their relationship? Was I just a cover to get what he ultimately deemed as his prize?
Anger flowed through me now, dark and murky, at all the possibilities. Whether or not I was merely a player in their little game didn’t change some facts. Jung Jin may not be completely, wholly bad. But he wasn’t good, either. And I, blinded by only what he wanted to me to see, deaf except to the things he wanted me to hear, had succumbed once again to the greatest of my weaknesses.
I had fallen in love, once again, for someone I knew had been wrong all along. I felt a sense of peace descend over me, though I wasn’t quite sure whether it was from knowing that my instincts had not failed me or from realizing that even though so much of me hadn’t felt like my own since I came to Seoul, that I, at least, was consistent in this failing.
My heart tightened in my chest, begging for me to reconsider my conclusion. Reminding me to think about the way he looked at me, the way he always touched me. It would be so much easier to just believe in those things, but the lies I discovered tonight told a different story.
The problem was that Jung Jin was an expert in deception. He made a living making people believe whatever truth he presented to them. He even admitted it himself… it didn’t matter if what he was saying was true or false. He would offer whatever he needed to to accomplish his goals.
Something nagged at me, a feeling of unease, as if, once again, I was not properly seeing things. It was a sensation of looking into different colored glasses, my view skewed. This was the reason why I trusted my head and not my heart.
With my emotions jumbled up I couldn’t discern fact from fiction, couldn’t figure out the things I wanted to be true as opposed to the things that were actually true. I wasn’t even sure what I wanted to be true anymore. I wasn’t quite certain of a lot of things at this moment in time, but I did know that I would never get the answers that I seek sitting here.
Reluctantly I dragged myself to my feet, trying to take some deep calming breaths, even though I felt a dark foreboding taking over me, its presence steadfast. It clung to me with its razor sharp talons, digging deep into my mind, refusing to be dismissed.
Whether or not I liked it, Jung Jin and I will have to speak. The only question that mattered now was whether his answers even mattered, really, or if I was so far gone that I would accept whatever reasoning he gives if it meant that I can love him for as long as I can.
I paced the length of the deck as I waited for her to come home. Running over the whole night in my head, I made a mental list of all the issues I would have to address. The greatest of which was that she cannot keep running away.
I needed her to stand by my side, to present a united front against a common enemy. Was that too much to ask for? I didn’t think so, but apparently…
My thoughts were interrupted by the ringing of my handphone. For a brief moment I considered not taking the call, but in the off chance that it was Gia calling, I quickly pulled it out of my jacket and answered without looking at the caller.
“Hey,” I heard Shawn say. “I’m surprised that you answered.” I stayed silent. “I was only just planning on leaving you a message.”
“What’s up?” I asked. My voice was flat, emotionless.
“How did your date with the amazing Gia go?” There was hesitation on Shawn’s tone, an inexplicable concern.
“It was perfect,” I said. “Until Hye Soo showed up.”
Shawn was silent for a second before continuing to speak. “So why would that be a problem if you ended it?”
“Shit,” I said, running fingers through my hair. “Apparently Hye Soo didn’t accept that decision.”
“What exactly did you tell her?”
“That we needed to cool it off,” I responded. “For now.”
“What?” Shawn’s voice was incredulous. “Why would you say it like that?”
“I don’t know…I thought I was being kind.”
“Which really means that you were just covering your ass. You’re an idiot. If I was there I would smack you.” Shawn said with an angry sigh. “You can’t burn your candle on both ends.”
“Hye Soo and I still run in the same circles, Shawn. I can’t afford to be on her bad books.”
“You do realize, right, that in your insistence on not being the bad guy, that you actually became the bad guy?” I didn’t respond. “And what did Kang Hye Soo have to say for herself?”
“That she and I talked about Gia.”
“Did you?” Shawn asked sharply.
“I don’t know,” I said. “We may have. I can’t remember now.”
“It’s bad when you can’t even keep track of the lies you tell.”
“Hey,” I said. “I may not remember what I said then but I don’t remember lying. Not about Gia.”
“Whatever. What else did Hye Soo say?”
“It wasn’t ‘say’ as much as tell the whole damn room about our arrangement.” I coughed and cleared my throat. “There’s something else.”
“That’s not enough?” Shawn asked.
“Hye Soo looked into Gia’s background and dug things up. About her family. About her ex being in prison.”
Shawn blew a breath over the call. “I had a feeling that she was about to do that. I warned you, didn’t I?” I remained silent. “Is that it?”
“No,” I admitted. “She… said a lot of stuff… just. So. Much. Shit.”
“Were any of them untrue?”
“That’s not the fucking point, Shawn. Anyway… she had my cufflinks, Shawn, from the last time we slept together.”
“And let me guess, she decided that your date was the perfect time to let Gia know that you two were still fucking even though you were already trying to get with her.”
“It was a long time ago, Shawn. Before Gia even came to Korea.”
“I’m serious, Shawn. I haven’t touched Hye Soo since Gia started staying here.”
“I believe you, but I don’t think I’m the one you should be worried about. I just called it how your girl will see it.” Shawn sighed. Again. “You’re a PR man. You, of all people, should know that the truth doesn’t matter as much as her perception of it does.”
I looked out at the view before me, stumped. “What the hell do I do? I have to fix this. What should I do?”
“If Gia was as reasonable as you say she is…”
“IF she is, I wouldn’t worry so much about what Hye Soo said. It was damaging, for sure, but not conclusive.”
“That’s good, right?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Shawn said. “Maybe not.”
“What does that even mean?”
“I don’t know yet,” Shawn replied. “I can’t call this situation from miles away. Where is Gia now, anyway? I think you should be talking to her and not me.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “She told me not to follow her. She could be anywhere.”
“And you actually listened? It’s the middle of the night. And she’s a foreigner in a city where she doesn’t speak the language. What the hell are you thinking?”
“Hey, I was trying to be considerate. It was the least I owed her considering what happened. Besides, it’s not her first time being out there on her own and she was okay, then.”
“Just because she was okay doesn’t mean she’s fine.”
“What the hell was I supposed to do? It’s what she told me to do. I have to pick my battles with her, Shawn. I can’t lose her.”
“Except do you really have her if you’re with her just on her terms?”
“What does that even mean?”
“I mean, that, you’re the guy who gets shit done, who asks the questions. You’re demanding and overbearing, ridiculously so. You pick and pick and pick apart until all the things break, and then you make sense of it all. That’s what you do. That’s who you are. It’s not like you to be so considerate.”
“I was trying to be what she needs me to be.”
“You were trying to be what she thinks she wants you to be. Not what she needs you to be. I would bet a million dollars that all the others that came before you did the exact same thing. Even the man she almost married.”
“What’s that?” I asked, frustrated. What did I do that was so wrong? “And how the hell did you know about him? Does everyone in my life think it’s okay to dig shit up about my woman?”
“Enabled her. I bet you hadn’t even asked her how she really feels about you or what her plans are with your future. Still. Even after I told you it’s absolutely imperative that you two talk about it.” Shawn paused. “And I only looked into her history to see what Hye Soo might find.”
“Whatever,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. And the whole talking about it… It’s not that easy, Shawn. She has so much baggage it’s unbelievable. She sleeps in a sleeping bag, for fuck’s sake.”
“You can’t possibly think you two have something lasting if she hadn’t unpacked her so called ‘baggage.’ I swear, what would you do without me?”
“That’s beside the point, anyway,” I said. “We can deal with that later. Right now I just need her to believe me and not Hye Soo.”
“Stop fixating on Hye Soo,” Shawn scolded. “Whatever Hye Soo said, whatever Hye Soo did, none of that would matter if your girl trusted you. Look at the big picture. It’s what Gia would do.”
“None of the other stuff matter if I can just get Gia to believe me.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. What happened with Hye Soo is the least important in the scheme of things. All the stuff you just dismissed, those are the things that will matter and will decide.”
“The real crux of the matter, and the only thing you should really be worrying about: whether or not she will actually, truly, let herself love you back.”
And with that, Shawn hung up the call. Without as much as a goodbye. My friend’s insistence that Gia might find a reason not to let herself feel for me what I believe she does sobered me up. If what Shawn was saying was true, and I suspect it might be, then we have bigger problems than fixing what just happened. The thing with Hye Soo may have exaggerated it, may have catapulted it to the fore, but there’d be nothing to use as a weapon had it not already been there. Waiting for this moment.
I stared out at the view before me, my city and a sight I knew by heart. A testament as to how much I had accomplished.
Why did I go against what I knew to do?
Why didn’t I press her for answers before we even began?
The answer came to me, a whisper in the breeze. I suppose it was because, at the end of the day, I still had some of the boy I used to be inside me. The one who only ever wanted to love and be loved.
It was so easy just choosing to be happy. But Shawn was right and I knew it. I am not that Jung Jin anymore.
The sound of the elevator bay buzzing had me walking back into the living room, where Dog had been sitting on the floor, playing with his toy. He stood up as soon as the doors opened, and greeted his mistress with unrestrained enthusiasm.
Without acknowledging me she dropped down on the floor and petted his head, showering kisses all over his head. She stood back up and took off her shoes, putting her feet into her slippers. All was done without a word or a look for me.
It was as if I didn’t exist. It was how she treated me when we first met.
The remembrance of that time, along with my frustration at the situation that we had found ourselves in, made me rash with my words.
“Where the hell have you been?” I asked before I could stop myself.
She turned to face me, her cheek tight with tension. Our gazes met; mine furious and hers defiant. She looked at me as if she didn’t know me and I had to make a concerted effort not to flinch.
“You,” she said, her voice low in warning, “should be the last person asking me any fucking questions.”
He stood a few feet away from me, looking enraged, as if I had been the one who committed a sin. His warm eyes were angry, angrier than I had ever seen him. His shoulders were stiff and his arms were crossed over his chest.
“You,” I answered, “should be the last person asking me any fucking questions.”
I walked past him towards the kitchen, where I grabbed a wine bottle from the cooler and a couple of glasses, then opened it. Filling both to the brim, I picked up my glass and drank my fill, before I allowed myself to look at him again.
“Are you not going to touch it?” I asked, referring to his wine. He made no move to pick it up and I took it and drank it as well. “Don’t worry,” I told him. “I’ll pay for it.”
“We need to talk,” he said haltingly.
“Yep,” I agreed readily. “We do.” I sat myself down at the dining room table and waved a hand over the seat opposite from mine. “Sit,” I said. “Talk.”
He narrowed his eyes at me but sat down. I continued to nurse his drink as I waited for him to begin. A few seconds ticked by without him speaking, just looking at me with those pretty eyes of his, eyes that I had only been ready to believe. Seeing as he wasn’t going to be forthcoming with the ‘talking’ that he so wanted to do, I decided to begin.
“Who is Hye Soo?” I asked. “The condensed version, if you please. I don’t need to know your meet cute and all the happy memories you two had. I only need to know why she thought she had the right to hurt me.”
He looked away, his eyes fixed on the table between us. “Hye Soo was someone I was in some sort of a relationship with.”
“For how long?”
“Five years,” he said, pouring some more wine into my glass then his.
“Were you always just fuck friends or was it something more?”
He lifted his head to meet my eyes. “Don’t be crass, Gia. It’s not you.”
“Actually,” I said. “It is me. I curse like a sailor, as I’m sure you already know. I also fight like a man.” My lips curled into a sneer. “Dating a convict has its perks. So does being beaten.” He blinked at me but said nothing. “So? Are you going to answer my question?”
“I used to like her a lot, when we first started. I was maybe even infatuated. Hye Soo was everything I wasn’t. I was fresh from a breakup, fresh from the accident that almost killed me. She made me feel like I was worth something.”
I stared into my drink. “I get it now, why she would think you were hers.”
“Don’t misunderstand. Hye Soo made it very clear to me years ago that she and I will only ever just be involved physically.”
I met his eyes directly. “Hye Soo lied.”
“Hye Soo lied.” I looked at her and she averted her eyes.
“I don’t think so.”
“As usual, Mr. Lee, your perception about women has failed you once again. All those things that woman said had less to do with me and more to do with you. I was just a weapon that she used to hurt you and to get under your skin.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’d already forgotten what I told you before. I am an expert in people’s behaviors, in reading between the lines. Everything that Hye Soo did, everything she said, didn’t come from a place of anger. Insecurity, maybe. Pain, very likely. But more than that, they came from a place of love.”
I shook my head. “You don’t know her. You can’t possibly think that Hye Soo loves me.”
“Only love would make a normally sane and balanced person behave in that way. Especially a woman who looked like her. Her only fault was falling for the oldest trick in the book.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. “What is that?”
Her mouth curled into what I assumed was meant to be a smile, but it didn’t meet her eyes. They remained vacant, empty. “That as soon as the thing you always had, that thing you always took for granted gets taken away, it suddenly becomes necessary. You made yourself emotionally unavailable to her, and you just became the catch of her life.” I frowned at what she was saying. “Not what you wanted to hear?”
“No. The last thing I want is for Hye Soo to be in love with me.” I couldn’t bring myself to say any more. I didn’t even understand why we were talking about Hye Soo and decided to tell her as much. “Why are we talking about her?”
“Because I could be her, five years from now.”
“You’re nothing like her.”
“Whether I am or I’m not is not actually the issue but you.” She paused and took another drink of the wine. “Right now I’m new and shiny, a mystery waiting to be unveiled. But what happens when I don’t give you what you want? Or, God forbid, I do give you what you want and then I do something to mess it up? You once thought she was wonderful, I bet, until she fell from grace. Will you see me that way too? Will I, when you tire of me and find someone new, be relegated to that role as well? Will I be sent off with a gift and that will be that?”
“You’re asking ridiculous questions.”
“It doesn’t make them less valid.”
I clenched my jaw. “You’re supposed to be on my side. Not hers.”
“I’m on my own side, Mr. Lee,” she said. “Not hers. And not yours, either.”
She continued to stare at everything but me, and a question came to mind. “Why didnt you tell me she came over, before?”
“Because our issues have nothing to do with her. To be honest I don’t give a shit about Hye Soo. I have no ties to her. But you… you, I thought I knew.” She downed the rest of her drink. “Didn’t we start out as a lie?” I didn’t respond. “There is absolutely no reason for me to believe that this situation would be any different.”
“It’s different,” I insisted and she looked at me, her eyes cold and assessing. I didn’t like seeing them this way. “It is. Why didn’t you say something back to Hye Soo while she was insulting you?”
“What did you want me to do?” She asked. “Get into a fucking fistfight? A screaming match? You two were perfectly capable of doing that on your own; in fact, you were so busy throwing stones at each other I might as well not have been there. I’ll tell you what… if that’s how you people show your affection, then I understand why she would behave the way she did, thinking it was the only way to tell you how she felt. It made me realize that I can never belong in your world, where people speak a language of cruelty and where insults are eponymous with love.”
“That’s not true,” I protested.
She looked into my eyes, hers sad. “It is true. You and I are different, Mr. Lee. I am too simple a woman to belong in that world and too smart to actually want to be a part of it.”
“It is true,” I said. “You and I are different, Mr. Lee. I am too simple a woman to belong in that world and too smart to actually want to be a part of it.”
“You’re a lot of things, Gia, but simple is not one of them.” He continued watching me, his eyes searching. “Enough about Hye Soo. That is done and over with, for good. I don’t love her. I swear on my family’s life, being with Hye Soo had never even crossed my mind since you came to live here. I will apologize that you had to witness that and that she used you against me. I should have known she would resort to that.”
I didn’t acknowledge what he said. “You know what really bothered me?”
“How easy it was for you, how natural it was for you to be just like her. It made me wonder if the Jung Jin Lee I know is the real Jung Jin Lee or merely the one you thought I wanted to see. I questioned myself, who is this man? Who is he, really? And what did he really want from me?”
“I had never lied to you about wanting you.” He drank his wine before spoke, his voice resigned, hoarse. “But the fact that that’s the first thing you question tells me that you don’t believe me.”
“How can I when I don’t know who you are?” I asked. “One minute you’re gentle and kind the next you’re cold and vicious. Which one of you is real?”
“Some people will say that I am cold by nature, ruthless even. But not to the people I care about. As long as that’s the case, why should it matter how I treat everyone else as long as I cared about you?”
“Some people will say that I am cold by nature, ruthless even. But not to the people I care about. As long as that’s the case why should it matter how I treat everyone else as long as I cared about you?”
“That you’re even asking me that question is why we would never agree. I thought that when you almost died, you might have gleaned a lesson, that you might have realized that your life is interconnected with other people’s. You have a responsibility to become not just the man you thought you deserved to be, but the best possible version of yourself, not only for yourself and for those you love, but for strangers, too… people you have yet to meet. I thought the experience would make you want to be a better human being.”
“You say you know people, but you don’t,” I said. “Because if you really did, you’d know that people always go back to who they are.” I clenched my jaw. “No matter what.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I hope not. I have to believe that people can be better. That people can learn from their mistakes and move forward. That people can overcome and get stronger, become kinder. I have to believe that it can happen.”
Her tone was impassioned, shaking from conviction, as if this was something that had to be true. As if this was something that she needed to be true.
“Why?” I asked.
“I have to believe that it’s possible… Because if it’s not…” Her voice broke and she swallowed, her voice lowering. “If it’s not possible, then there’s no hope for me.”
She stood up shakily, before trying to walk away. She was a whisper away from me when I reached out and took her hand, needing to be reminded of how we felt before tonight. She looked at me, then at our hands, her eyes shuttered.
“What is this really about, Gia? Surely it can’t just be about what happened.”
“I don’t know what you mean.” She wrenched her hand away from mine and crossed her arms over her chest.
“You know what I mean. You ran out of the car after the birthday party. You left for the mountains without telling me. You’re always running away. You were already pulling away from me even before tonight.”
“I’m fine,” she said, and tried to leave once more.
I stood up and stopped her, my hand grabbing hold of her arm. Desperation made me impulsive and part of me thought that if she and I didn’t address this now we may never be able to. Ever.
“Will you tell me what’s wrong?” I urged. “It might help if you talk about it. We were friends, once.”
A humorless chuckle escaped her throat before she responded. “We were never friends.” What she said brought on a wave of deja vu, one I didn’t have time to examine because she had already resumed speaking. “And who’s going to help me? You?” She asked incredulously. “Don’t make me laugh, Jung Jin. You are just as fucked up as I am.”
Her statement made me put my guard up. I had to remind myself before I even opened my mouth that she was just trying to hurt me as badly as she’s been hurt tonight.
“I never claimed to be otherwise,” I said, trying to control my emotions.
“No,” she said. “But you’re not doing a damn thing about it. I may fail a lot of times but at least I’m trying to fix it. I know how fucked up I am. Whereas you… you see nothing wrong with it at all.”
Anger overtook me and I found myself hovering over her. All this goddamn time I let her speak, trying to understand. But now… “What is so wrong about being who I am? Being who I am has made me successful, acknowledged, admired. No one had any problems with who I am until you came along.”
“That’s because you lie to everyone to tell them what they want to hear,” she ground out. “Who the hell would have a problem with that?”
“So I lie,” I spat out. “I lie when it’s necessary. I do what I have to do to get what I want. Everyone lies.”
“You do whatever you want, no matter the price to pay, and no matter who has to pay it,” she said, her eyes colliding with mine. “I can understand why you would do it. If you don’t do it for yourself, who would, right?”
“You make it sound like it’s a bad thing,” I said, “when you do exactly the same.”
“Wrong, Jung Jin,” she said through gritted teeth. “I don’t drag anyone else into my problems. I don’t get satisfaction from getting what I want even at the expense of other people’s hearts. And if by chance I end up hurting someone else because of it, I hurt right along with them.”
Everything she was saying sounded like more accusations and I stiffened. She touched a tender spot, a spot I didn’t even realize was still there. I didn’t even think and consider what I was about to say before I said it.
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “I forgot. You just shut yourself from the world and allow yourself to connect only with strangers. You reject happiness that’s being offered to you. You’d rather lock everything away and forget rather than dealing with your issues. You choose to forget, because then you have a reason why you won’t let anybody in and no one will ask why.”
“Forgetting is necessary,” she said dully. You need to forget to survive.”
“Admit it,” I continued, “you would rather be miserable. You thrive on being able to say that you’ve been hurt before, you like having the excuse that you’re hurting.”
“Why the hell would I need an excuse?”
“Because as long as you have one, you wouldn’t have to give any of yourself away or let anyone in. You can live in your delusional bubble where you’re good and everyone else is bad,” I answered, my voice even. “It’s a relief that you’re so good, then, because who knows what the hell would happen if you were miserable and bad?”
She flinched as if I just slapped her. “Thank you for reminding me why we could never be together.” She said, her voice cold. She broke her arm free of me before walking away. I was tempted to take it all back, to explain that I didn’t mean it as I watched her make her way to the guest bedroom.
It was only then that I saw Dog, already in his crate without prompt, like a child who tries to fix his parents’ problems by promising to never misbehave again. I was walking to the dog to reassure him when Gia turned on her heels. She marched towards me and spoke again, her voice low.
“You justify your behavior because you almost died. You think it’s okay to do what you do because someone broke your heart once.” I looked at her in surprise. “Yeah,” she continued. “I know about your almost fiancée and what you did to her lover. I know why you would feel the need to take revenge then, but not why you still do what it is you do now.”
I couldn’t drag my eyes away from her face, resenting how even now she could still take my breath away. Her cheeks were suffused with color, her eyes bright with emotion. “Do you think you’re the only one who’s ever been hurt?” She asked. “You think you’re the only one whose heart has been broken? What’s so precious about your fucking heart that it’s more valuable than anyone else’s? Why is it that when you get your heart broken you get permission to trample over everyone else’s? As if it was what’s owed you.” Her eyes turned hard as she looked at me, like glittering topaz: beautiful but untouchable. At least not to me. “The world owes you nothing, Mr. Lee. Open your eyes. And grow the fuck up.”
“There is nothing wrong with what I do. I’m always honest with the women I get involved with…”
“Except when you’re lying.”
“I always give them the things that they want.”
“So you treat them like whores.”
“I haven’t done anything wrong!”
“Tell me then,” she said, her eyes boring into mine. “If you hadn’t done anything wrong, why do you hide your women from your family? If you’re so content and proud, why don’t they know what it is you do with your women?” I didn’t respond. I couldn’t respond. “Face it, Mr. Lee, living like this hasn’t made you a very happy person.”
“Living like a martyr hasn’t made you one, either.”
The words came out without pause, without hesitation. She hurt me, and I wanted to hurt her back. And it seems I’d succeeded.
I saw her face crumple for a second, all signs of her defiance and bravado gone. It should feel good that I wounded her just as badly as she wounded me, but it did not. In fact it only felt like the pain had doubled, tripled, and I had a hard time distinguishing which was hers and which was mine.
We stood just inches apart from each other, both out of breath, as if we had just gone through battle against each other. I could never have foreseen that tonight was going to end like this. She looked as exhausted as I felt.
The liar and the martyr. What a pair we make.
“Gia.” I was the first to break the silence, wanting to regain some connection with her, wanting to know that we hadn’t just destroyed what we had spent months building. “Do you think… do you think you’ll ever be able to trust me?”
“Gia.” I heard his voice, hesitant and vulnerable, and looked down. “Do you think… do you think you’ll ever be able to trust me?”
I swallowed before I responded. “No.” As long as I didn’t trust myself I couldn’t possibly trust anyone else. Much less a man who lied on a regular basis. Like attracts like, Marcus once told me.
I had a habit of falling in love with men who are emotionally damaged, broken. Empty and selfish, both at the same time. The fact that I just realized that Jung Jin was just like every other man I fell in love wasn’t really a surprise. What did, however, surprise me was that I had managed to convince myself that he was different.
That was a rude awakening. A late one, but an awakening nevertheless. It never failed to amaze me how predictable I was, even in my choice of men… even when I was trying hard to do the opposite.
He stiffened and took a step away from me, distancing himself from where I was. He turned and walked to the living room, where he kissed Dog on his head, before making his way to the elevator bay.
“Where are you going?”
“I don’t want to subject you any longer to having to breathe the same air as someone whom you think so poorly of,” he said, not looking at me. He pulled his wallet out and pulled out a business card. “There’s my office number. If you need anything let my assistant know. He’ll get it done.”
There was a strange sensation in my chest, a tightening. Not very different to the feeling of panic I was very familiar with, except this pain was sharper, impossible to ignore. It stole the breath from my body, made me want to stop him from taking another step away from me.
“I should be the one leaving,” I said, just now realizing the gravity of what just took place.
The conversation we just had had been staid compared to our other fights. Civilized, almost. But it was worse. Way worse. Our earlier fights had only been to maim, to graze. We yelled and we screamed but the focus was never to injure.
But what happened just now… it was as if the gloves had come off, and we both went for the jugular. I was surprised that neither of us were bleeding, what with the wounds we had inflicted on each other.
“No,” he interjected, already stepping in the elevator. “I told you that you can stay here as long as you’re in Korea.” His eyes met mine. “For what it’s worth,” he said softly. “This thing with us may have started out as a lie, but believe me when I tell you that nothing I ever did or felt for you, nothing I said to you, had been untrue. At least not since I promised.” I swallowed the lump that had formed in my throat as he attempted to give me a smile. “I won’t take up any more of your time. I give you my word. I know you don’t think that it’s worth much, but it’s yours, anyway.”
It wasn’t until the elevators had closed that I realized that he really left, and that he intended not to come back. Inside my chest something had loosened, the pain making me put a hand against the wall to keep myself from falling.
It was the right thing to do, I told myself even as I reminded myself to breathe in and out. It was the right thing to do.
It was time for both of us to realize that he and I could never work. We couldn’t possibly live in our bubble forever. This had been inevitable from the very beginning. There are just people who cannot be together.
It was the right thing to do, I kept on telling myself as I picked up our dog and held him close, trying to blink back the tears that burned the back of my eyes.
May 17, 2002
I could feel Joon’s eyes on me even as I tried to sleep. I heard his voice, soft and low, as he spoke on his handphone, and assumed he was talking to Na Jeong.
“I know, jagiya,” he said. “Of course I ate well. We ate some samgyetang earlier.” He paused. “It was okay. Not as good as yours, but passable.” He gave a soft chuckle. “My woman spoils me. I find the taste of other people’s cooking bland now. Ddukbokki? No, of course not. How can I eat ddukbokki when you can’t eat it? As long as you can’t eat it, I won’t either.” He paused again. “You should tell the doctor that you’re still throwing up that much. No! I don’t think I’m overreacting… what if something is wrong?” I could hear Na Jeong’s voice coming through as she spoke. “Fine.”
Joon quieted and I thought that their conversation was finished, until I heard him sigh. “You know Hyung won’t let me drink on the road. Don’t worry. Jung Jin Hyung? Yeah, he’s with me now. I know… I don’t know why he’s traveling everywhere with me right now. He usually just goes to the first game to make sure that the accommodations and everything are acceptable, but he’s been on the road with me for the last five days… Noonim? Yeah, I suspect something has happened with her… okay, okay. I’ll make myself available when he’s ready to talk… jagiya, I have to go… everyone on the bus is asleep but me and we will be in Daegu in an hour and a half. Okay… Okay. Make sure you eat a work. Okay… I love you more… yah! You’re still so competitive. I’ll see you and our aegi in a couple of days… yup… good night.”
I heard him close his phone and press a kiss on it, and had I not been so set on pretending I was asleep, I would surely have teased him about it. Nothing has changed with that boy, even after all these years. Not with baseball and not with Na Jeong.
It must be nice to have that kind of certainty in life. It must be nice to have someone who loves and misses you, wherever you may be. It must be nice to know that however far you go, that there is someone waiting home for you.
I had no such thing waiting for me. I hadn’t been back home in almost a week. I missed Gia. I missed our dog. Every day was a struggle not to go back.
“I know you’re not asleep,” Joon said. “Your eyes are twitching behind your lids.”
I opened my eyes and frowned. “I would be asleep if you weren’t so hell bent on talking sweet nothings with Na Jeong.”
Joon smiled a bit sheepishly but without any real embarrassment. The boy was happy. Like really happy.
“How is she doing with the baby?” I asked. No one knew yet that she was pregnant but me and a few of their friends.
Joon beamed with pleasure before he responded. “The morning sickness is pissing her off, but you know Na Jeong. She’s taking it as well as she can, when she’s not cursing her way through it.”
I chuckled before I nudged his shoulder. “Yah, I’m happy for both of you.”
“Thanks, Hyung,” he said sincerely before taking a good long look at me. “It’s been so busy and you hadn’t looked like you wanted to talk, but, you’re looking rough, Hyung.”
“What do you mean?” I feigned ignorance. “I look like I always do.”
“Yeah, to other people you might, except you just bought a brand new wardrobe. I hadn’t missed the fact that you have been going everywhere with me, either. You know I appreciate the company, but you’d never done this before, not since Japan.”
I looked out the window to nothing In particular. “I’m fine.”
“Has something…” His voice was hesitant. “Has something happened with Noonim?”
I looked at him and he turned away. “What do you know, Joon-ah?”
“Nothing,” he said quickly and I narrowed my eyes. “Nothing specific… but you know In Sung and Mi Soo were at that charity event thing, too, and they mentioned that there was some sort of incident.”
I sighed before I answered him. “Yeah, something happened there.”
“I’m sorry, Hyung. I feel like if you hadn’t taken my place none of this stuff would have happened.”
I looked at him reassuringly. “I’m pretty sure that Hye Soo would have found me wherever I was, Joon. It wasn’t your fault. It was mine.”
He looked at me in surprise. “Huh.”
“Nothing… just I’d never actually heard you say anything was your fault, before.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yeah,” he insisted. “It is. In the last seven years I had known you you’ve never actually said that.”
What he said gave me pause. “Well, this time really was my fault.”
Joon nodded as he leaned back on his seat. “Hyung,” he said quietly and I uttered a soft hmm. “Whatever happened with Noonim will work itself out. Things like this fix itself somehow. People who are meant to be together find their way back to each other, no matter what.”
“Not this time, Joon-ah,” I said as I closed my eyes. An image of Gia ran through my mind, one of the welcome memories from that night. She was in my arms, her body close to mine. Her eyes looking at me like she really knew me. Like she really cared. I pushed it away. “Not with us. She and I are just too different.”
“Different doesn’t have to be bad.”
“No, it doesn’t. But it is when you’re dealing with two grown ups, already too used to being on their own, to not answering to anyone else,” I said. “It’s bad when both people have been hurt before, have seen too much before. There are things in life that you can’t change. There are things that you can’t unsay and can’t undo no matter how much you wish you can.”
“I don’t think so,” he said. “You may not be able to undo things or unsay things, but it doesn’t mean that it can’t change. You told me that, a long time ago, when you first started managing me.”
“I did?” I asked. I can’t remember ever saying that.
He nodded. “Yeah,” he said, giving me a small smile. “As long as you’re alive, you said, you are capable of being better, stronger. You said that there’s nothing more constant than change, and that’s why I can never give up on anything I believed in that much.”
“I used to be so smart,” I said lightly, but Joon didn’t smile.
“You still are, Hyung. You got me through a lot of my shit,” he said, his voice thickening. “I’m grateful for that. It wasn’t until I met you that I really felt like I lost out in not having an older brother.”
“It was no big deal, Joon-ah.”
“Maybe not to you, but it was to me. I’ll tell you something now that you told me, before I left for San Francisco. I hope it gives you the same comfort that your words once brought me.” I looked at him expectantly and he finally broke out into a smile before he spoke again. “Make your choices with the knowledge that you will have to live with them. Live and love as if everyday was your last. Fight as long as you can. But know when to surrender, too, to what the fates had planned for you.”
That’s it, I decided, my ward had officially become more mature than me. The thought made me smile, the first time I had done so since I left home. But, just as quickly as the smile appeared, it faded just as quickly as well.
I looked at the sky from the bus window as I thought of Gia, at home, probably not even thinking of me, perhaps even relieved that I was no longer there. The ache in my chest returned, and I fought to push it away.
I would surrender to destiny if I knew that it was all powerful. Unfortunately I think that even something like fate was no match for the woman I love. Whether or not we’re destined to be together, we will never know, if she keeps rejecting it.
Just as she had rejected me.
I sat on the deck while Dog happily wandered around, chasing invisible things. It was a relief, really, to see him this way. For days after Jung Jin left he moped around, as if aware that things were not quite right. But now, it seemed he had forgotten, or, at the very least, pushed it to the back of his mind.
I envied him that ability.
As Jung Jin promised, I had heard nothing from him at all. I waited and slept by the elevator since the night that he left, hoping that he would change his mind and come back. But he didn’t.
I had tried going about my days the way I did before he moved into the house, tried to go back to my old patterns and routines. And still I find myself buying the foods that I knew he liked, making coffee for two. I laid a plate out for him for every meal, my eyes fixed on the elevator as I ate. Sometimes I imagine him walking through it, holding another bouquet of white flowers that he always seemed to think would fix things, but actually always managed to do the opposite.
The flowers he bought for me were dying now, and yet, I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out. I listened to his answering machine at home just to hear his voice, and then I actually respond. Out loud.
It seemed that I had developed even stranger habits than before.
My phone rang in my pocket and I pulled it out, hoping that it was him. When I saw Junnie’s number I silenced the call.
I wasn’t ready to talk to anyone, not even her. I wasn’t ready to leave just yet, either, and I knew she would only ask. In truth I wasn’t quite sure why I was still here, waiting. Or I was sure and I still won’t fess up to it.
I called him a liar, when I was one too. I pretended not to love him when I already knew I did. But love didn’t quite matter, not when trust didn’t exist in the same space.
I looked up at the sky, trying to comfort myself with the thought that at least, even now, we were still under the same moon. The same stars.
I wrapped his jacket closer around myself, the same jacket that brought me to Korea in the first place, and the one I’d since reclaimed. Calling our dog back into the penthouse, I eased myself on the floor next to the elevator as Dog planted himself next to me, used to our routine by now.
I chuckled to myself when I realized that I hadn’t even thought of sleeping in my sleeping bag in days, not even the night he left. Instinctively I pulled out my phone to tell him, knowing that he would be proud of me. I was halfway through typing the text when I remembered that we weren’t talking. That we might never speak again.
I closed my eyes as the familiar ache started and spread, expected now but still painful. I closed my hands around his jacket, as if in doing so, I could hold onto him, instead.
May 18, 2002
“Ji Soo,” I said in surprise as the elevator door opened. I discreetly took her brother’s jacket off and placed it on one arm of the couch.
She walked in and dropped something off on the kitchen counter before she wrapped her arms around me. “Hi, Unnie.”
“What’s that?” I asked, pointing to what she had brought.
“Oh,” she said dismissively. “Omma sent some kimchi and some ginseng tonic things. She’d been worried about you since you told her you were sick.”
“Ah,” I said, nodding. “Please thank her for me.”
“You can thank her in person,” she said. “She assumed you and Oppa are coming to dinner Sunday evening.”
“Does your brother know about this?” How can we have dinner with his family when we aren’t even speaking?
“Not yet,” she said as she took her messenger bag off her shoulders and sat down on the couch, looking around. “Where is…”
“Your brother is…” I searched for an understandable excuse as to why Jung Jin wasn’t home on a Saturday afternoon.
“I know. He’s in Daegu with Joon Oppa,” she said knowingly. “Where’s Dog?”
“Ji Min Unnie picked him up earlier to spend the weekend at their house today. He’s supposed to be going to Mi Rae Unnie’s house tomorrow. Apparently all the kids want to see him.”
“Hmm,” she said. “It’s so quiet here now without him.”
I murmured my assent. “Do you want some coffee?”
“Nah,” she said. “I’m performing tonight. I’d take some ginger tea if you have it. No sugar.”
I boiled the kettle and prepared two cups of tea before I balanced both in my hands and brought them to the living room.
Ji Soo sat on the couch, a smile on her face, holding a wrapped package on her lap. “I have something for you,” she said before handing it to me.
I smiled at her as I took it, weighed it in my hands to figure out what it was.
“Open it!” She urged, more excited than I was. “Ji Hyun Unnie sent it a couple of days ago.”
I nodded and tore off the wrapping to reveal a framed photo. Wondering what it was, I flipped it over to see a photo of Jung Jin from the night of the birthday party, sitting with his nieces, a tiara on his head. He was holding a teacup to his lips, fully ensconced in their conversation. He was grinning widely, his dimple making a deep indent on his left cheek.
I ran my fingers over the frame, touching his smile. It seemed so long ago now. It feels like it’s been an eternity since that day.
“She thought you’d like it,” Ji Soo said, her voice thoughtful. “It seems that she’s right.”
“It’ll be good for you to have,” she continued. “You know, for when you have to go back to San Francisco.”
“Unnie,” Ji Soo said, her voice hesitant and I turned to look at her. “You will tell me when you’re leaving, right?”
“Of course,” I responded, wrapping an arm around her. “Is that why you’re looking so gloomy?”
“Yeah, kind of. Oppa said…” She stopped speaking, as if reluctant to share.
“What did your brother say?”
Dhe took a deep breath before she spoke. “Oppa said that you might be leaving soon, and to not take it personally if you don’t say goodbye.”
“I won’t leave without telling you,” I said, trying to give her a smile. “I promise.”
Experience taught me never to promise anything ever again. I seemed to have a nasty habit of breaking them, after all. But I planned to keep this one, if nothing else.
“Unnie,” Ji Soo said, now noticeably brighter and happier. “If Oppa is not here tonight and neither is Dog, that means you can come with me to Hongdae! You can watch my gig! You don’t even have to change or anything. Annnddd… we can call Ji Hee Unnie when I’m done. She should be done with work by then and we can all go out to eat.”
“I like it,” I said. “But Ji Soo, I’m kind of not in the right clothes to be going out.” I stood up and handed her the cordless phone. “Here,” I said. “Go ahead and call a cab and I’ll get ready.”
She gave me an answering smile. “We don’t need a cab.”
“Oppa let me borrow his car before he left for Daegu. I’ll drive us to Hongdae.”
“Okay,” I said, smiling back at her. “I’ll be right out.”
“Jeez, this weather,” Ji Soo muttered as she pulled out of the parking space. “It was overcast just a few minutes ago and now it’s pouring.”
She eased the car towards the street as I fiddled with the radio stations, searching for a station we can listen to. The familiar sound of Nelly came on and I relaxed against my seat. I can’t believe that it’s been three months since I have been here. A whole season.
Ji Soo navigated the streets of Seoul like an expert, her hands precisely where they needed to be on the steering wheel, her gaze focused ahead.
I leaned my head on the car window, looking through the raindrops at the scenes that had become familiar to me by now. The park across the street. The mart minutes away. The place that serves the best porridge. The stall that sells the fish sticks.
I knew this part of Seoul now like I knew San Francisco. It’s become ingrained in my soul.
I busied myself with the sights outside the window for the next twenty minutes while Ji Soo was singing along with the radio, now playing Alanis Morrisette. I watched her, entertained, and watched with concern as she stopped singing and frowned.
The car’s brakes screeched as she came to a stop, a few feet away from the line of cars ahead.
“There’s traffic ahead,” Ji Soo said. “Could be road works.”
I turned the radio off, and opened my window. I leaned my head out to see what could be the matter.
“There are police cars,” I told her. “Looks like a big accident.”
“We’ll make a left at the next stop and take another way to Hongdae, or else we’ll be here forever and our girls’ night out will become a bust.”
Ji Soo sat, nonplussed, and tapped her hands on the steering wheel as we waited for the light to turn green. When it did, she pressed her foot lightly on the accelerator and the car moved.
I had just looked over to tell her what a good job she was doing when I saw the truck run the red light. I didn’t have time to eke out a warning when the truck started skidding on the wet pavement, sending it hurtling straight towards us.
I reached an arm over to push Ji Soo’s head down as the front end of the truck crashed into her side, the sound squealing tires deafening to my ears. The car slammed against the vehicle ahead and I heard the sound of glass shattering. I felt a shard land on my shoulder as I heard Ji Soo cry out in pain. There were more sounds of things crushing, other screams. There was a cacophony of things popping and grinding, of metal groaning into place.
I felt the car tremble as something hit its back end, but didn’t dare look. I chose instead to keep my head low, my eyes closed, holding onto Ji Soo. The seconds ticked by, the length of several lifetimes, as I waited for silence to descend.
When at last the sounds stopped after what felt like an eternity; I opened my eyes and turned my attention straight to Ji Soo, even as I made a quick assessment of my injuries. The shard remained embedded on my shoulder, small but sharp.
“Ji Soo!” I screamed and she didn’t respond. “No.” I was shaking my head as I felt for her seatbelt and released it. “Ji Soo!”
She opened her eyes and I breathed a sigh of relief. “Unnie,” she said softly. “What happened?”
“Hey,” I said, mustering up a smile. I ran a hand over her face, my heart jackhammering in my chest from relief. “We… we were in an accident. I need to get you out of the car, okay? I don’t know whether the gas tank has been damaged, and we can’t risk being in here.” She nodded slowly. “Can you move?”
“I think so,” she said.
“Okay. On the count of three I’ll help lift you up from your seat and we’ll get out of here, okay?” I took my own seatbelt off before I placed my arms under hers, my hands flat on her back. “Alright, on the count of three, just like we did with your brother.”
“Unnie,” she said, her eyes fixed on my shoulder, worried. “You’re bleeding.”
“I’m good,” I reassured her, smoothing a hand over the frown between her brows. “Ready? This might hurt.” She nodded. “One… two… three…”
Ji Soo screamed in pain, tears running down her face. By some miracle we managed to get her off her seat and I exited the car before reaching a hand out to help her. By an even bigger miracle, Ji Soo managed to put weight on her legs and crawl out of the car. I helped her over to the nearest pavement and made sure she was in a safe place before I actually surveyed the scene around us.
It was chaos. There were about twenty vehicles crashed onto one another, smoke all around. There were onlookers on the streets, watching in morbid fascination. Some cars had but minor damages, though some were totaled. As was Jung Jin’s car. Its front end was crushed into the car in front of it, its back end as well. The truck’s front body was still on the Ji Soo’s side of the car, crumpled as if it was paper. Already I can hear the sirens in the distance.
The pain on my shoulder made me wince, but I walked over to Ji Soo when I heard her call my name.
“Unnie,” she said, still crying. “I… I can’t move my left arm.”
I quickly knelt down to look at her arm, picking it up. She cried even louder and I grimaced when I actually got a good look at it. A bone was protruding from her skin, the arm swollen compared to the other.
I touched her fingers one by one. “Do you feel this?” I asked and she nodded through her tears. “That’s good.” I gave her a shaky smile.
“It’s good?” She asked.
“Yeah… it means your nerve endings weren’t damaged,” I reassured her. “Can’t have a guitar playing singer who can’t play guitar.” She smiled at me and I wiped the tears from her face. “You’ll need to go to the hospital but they’ll be able to fix you up. In the meantime…” I looked at the crowd that had gathered on one side of the street. “Does anyone speak English?” I asked. “Does anyone speak English?”
A hesitant hand went up from a young girl, and I urged her over to me. “Can you ask anyone for a magazine?”
She looked at me blankly. “A magazine?” She asked and I nodded.
“And maybe a scarf or a thin piece of fabric.”
“Okay,” she said before she disappeared into the shop behind her.
“Unnie,” Ji Soo said. “I’m scared.”
“I know, baby. I know. But there’s nothing to be scared of. You’re fine. I’m here.” The girl came back with the supplies I asked for and I fashioned a temporary splint for Ji Soo’s arm. Once I had her arm stabilized, I looked at her face only to realize that her eyes were closing, her body going slack. “Ji Soo,” I said loudly, afraid that she would lose consciousness. “Did you hit your head?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “But I’m so tired and it hurts.”
“I know, but I need you not to fall asleep, okay?”
“But I’m so tired,” she whispered, her eyes drifting shut.
“I know you are,” I said. “But you have to stay awake just a little bit longer.” I tapped her lightly on her shoulder. “Hey, remember how funny your brother looked when he came in drunk?”
“Yeah,” she mumbled, “it was so funny. He was singing off key.”
I gave a chuckle. I was about to say something else when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and a man dressed like a paramedic started speaking to me in Korean. I darted a look at the girl who had helped me, and she told him something before addressing me.
“He wants to know if you were in the accident.”
“Tell him yes. We were. She,” I said, pointing to Ji Soo, “needs immediate medical treatment. She has a broken arm and a possible concussion. Her name is Lee Ji Soo.”
The girl nodded and translated what I said to the paramedic. He called over to one of his coworkers and they brought a stretcher out to put Ji Soo on. A scan of the area told me that there were multiple ambulances now on the scene, as well as police cars and fire trucks.
The girl tapped my shoulder. “He wants to know if you’ll be coming. He said the cut on your shoulder looks bad.”
“Tell him that I will come, but to focus on Ji Soo. I’m a nurse.” I turned to Ji Soo, now belted on the stretcher. “We’re going to the hospital now. It’ll be okay.”
I was about to step up on the ambulance when the girl tugged at my arm. “Excuse me,” she said timidly. “You’re a nurse?” I nodded. “There was a person, when the truck skidded. There was a person that was hit.” She pointed to the cluster of cars, an in discernable mass. “Over there.”
“Unnie…” Ji Soo called out as I closed my eyes.
I should just go and let them handle it. But that’s precious time that would be wasted, if in fact, that person was hurt. The emergency personnel wouldn’t even know where to begin looking for them.
I took a deep breath and spoke to the girl. “Tell them to take her to the hospital. I’ll follow shortly.” I heard her speak to the ambulance personnel as I took Ji Soo’s hand.
“You’re not coming?” She asked, her voice rising in panic, her tears starting again. “Unnie…”
“They’ll take good care of you. I promise I will be right behind you, ” I said, placing a reassuring hand on the side of her face, forcing her to look into my eyes. “I have to stay here and help. There were a lot of people hurt. I’m a nurse. I have to help. Do you understand?” She nodded and I gave her a smile. “There’s my girl. I’ll see you at the hospital, okay? Make sure to tell them to call Omonim and Abonim.”
The paramedics climbed the ambulance, as they were closing the doors behind them, I asked the girl to find out where they were taking Ji Soo. She spoke to them before turning to me. “They’re taking her to Severance Hospital,” she said.
“Thanks,” I said, watching as the ambulance drove off. “Now, where did you say the person was?”
I and a couple of other managers were at the players’ lounge, waiting for the press conference to be over, when the news that we were watching was interrupted for breaking news.
“This afternoon, there was a multi car collision in Sinchon-dong, just a few meters away from Yonsei University, in Seoul. It has not yet been determined what the initial cause of the accident was, or how many people have been injured.”
Behind the telecaster was the scene from the accident and I stood up. There was car after car all crushed together, as if they were toys.
“As you can see,” the newscaster continued, waving to the picture behind her, “emergency services are still working very hard to assess and control the damage. All roads leading to Sinchon-dong and Mapo-gu have been closed temporarily and re-routed. The police chief is expected to hold a press conference in the next hour and we, of course, will have a live update as soon as we know more. Back to you at the station.”
I felt a prickle at the back of my neck, worried that Hye Soo may have been driving, but dismissed it.
My sister knew better than to drive in the rain.
I walked in the direction that the girl had pointed me to, already scolding myself prematurely. It didn’t seem a safe thing to be doing this, but what can I do?
I have the skills and the knowledge. I can’t just walk away if someone was in need. Anyway, it seemed that the fire department was in total control of the scene, and whatever immediate dangers had already been addressed and eliminated.
I passed Jung Jin’s car, barely recognizable now, and walked over to the side of the truck. I had almost walked past without seeing anyone when I saw a hand, small and delicate, underneath the truck.
I quickly crouched down and tried to speak to the person, but didn’t get a response. I pulled on the hand with my left arm, my heart racing. I don’t know where I got the strength to get her out from underneath the car, but somehow I managed to.
Once I had the person on the ground I realized that it was a woman but didn’t let myself register anything else. I focused, instead, on what I had to do, refusing to look at the person’s face, as I tried to listen for her breathing, of which I could note none. My hand stayed on the side of her neck, feeling for a pulse and there wasn’t one either. She had blood coming from her forehead, as well as gashes on her arms. I could see crimson extending from her chest to her flank, and it now left a trail on the pavement as well. The rain water ran down the drain at the edge of the road, tinged pink with her blood.
Adrenaline surged through me, as it always did in times like this, as well as a small measure of fear.
My favorite nursing professor told me once that it was human to be afraid during an emergency. She had said that a healthy fear of losing a patient makes a nurse vigilant and careful. It was normal, expected, as long as I didn’t let it distract me from what I needed to do.
Without hesitation, I gave her one breath and watched the rise and fall of her chest. And then another. I placed my hands directly on her sternum, in textbook perfect form. Taking a deep breath I pushed down, exactly one and a half inches, the way I was taught to do. I felt her ribs collapse under my hands and the sensation unlocked a memory, from an eternity ago, one that I had only ever pushed to the back of my mind every time it ascended, determined to banish it into oblivion and to never ever remember.
It felt like I was watching outside of myself.The rain continued to fall steadily, the droplets trickling into my eyes. In front of me my hands were bloodied from the woman’s wound, somewhere on her chest. But even as I continued to push and count out loud, it was not her face that I saw.
I shook my head to regain my bearings, tried to blink the image of Teddy away even as I told myself to focus. But I stayed fixed in San Francisco, the day that Teddy died. My hands remembered the crush of his chest, as clearly as they remembered my failure to save him. His face alternated with the face in front of me, even as I tried to fling the memory away. Unsuccessful, the adrenaline that once nurtured me and pushed me turned into a blinding, choking panic and I had to remind myself to breathe.
As I pushed down, I remembered the blood spurting out of Teddy’s neck, spraying onto the glasses he wore. I remembered the way his body hardened under my fingers, even as I fought to save his life. The body underneath my hands now was pliant, the chest giving way. But it was lifeless. Just like Teddy’s.
I pushed and I pushed, as I knew to do, my breathing becoming erratic. I could hear my heart thundering, a cold sweat starting at my forehead, even in the rain.
Even so, my hands continued what they were doing, guided by instinct; they needed no active thought. My mother once told me my greatest strength was the fact that I lived with intention. I didn’t do anything that didn’t make sense.
If I keep on doing this, the logical end would be that the patient will live. If I just did it long enough, hard enough, I can bring them back to life. If I can be better, I can change all the outcomes. If I just remembered to live with intention, I can wrangle my life from the hands of fate and it will turn out just as I planned.
I wasn’t sure how long I was pushing, but it was as if time slowed down to a stand still. I could see the drops of rain falling on her chest, making a kaleidoscope of half little globes on her skin. I could smell the wetness of the ground, as well as the fumes from petrol and oil. My lip was bruised, swollen; I tasted the telltale rust of blood, a result, no doubt, of biting my lip as I did compressions. I heard voices behind me before I was lifted by my waist and my eyes fixed on the person on the ground.
And yet it was still Teddy I saw.
His body bloodied, violated by the needles and tubes he had hated. No longer breathing even as I prayed that he would open his eyes and tell me it was only a joke. I promised him I wouldn’t let him die. And I’ve failed. Again and again. It seemed to be the only thing I ever did perfectly.
“No, Teddy, no!” I said, trying to make my way back to him. I can fix this. I can change this. Someone was holding me back, and like a wild animal, I scratched and fought until I was set loose. I turned around. “Let me go! Who the hell do you think you are?”
I expected to see Marc Stevens standing in front of me, Jeremiah at his side. The person that stood in front of me was speaking in a language I couldn’t understand, and behind him were other people, now all looking at me with what looked like pity and concern.
On the ground was a middle aged woman, laying flat on her back. She was dressed in jeans and a sweater, her hair cut short around her face. A shoe was missing from one of her feet. She wore pearl earrings on her ears. There was a bag not far from her, lying on the ground with its contents spilling out. An onion and a bag of chicken. Her family will not know that she will not make it home, at least not until it was too late.
I looked around me and for a minute I couldn’t remember where I was. Hysteria built in my chest as I tried to remember what I was doing here. I felt out of breath, airless, even though I was outside. I shook my head as sounds began registering: the police siren wailing, a car horn honking, the swell of conversation from the crowd surrounding me building to an almost feverish pitch.
Life was moving despite what just happened. Everyone will move on and forget, except for me. Except for Teddy. Except for this woman, someone else I couldn’t save.
And just like that, something loosened inside me that should not have loosened. The stitches that held me together came undone. I felt something inside me break, and I clutched at my chest, the pain lodging heavily, as if it was stuck.
The man in front of me was speaking and I found myself turning away. My feet moved, slowly at first, to distance myself from this place. I counted the steps as I walked shakily, the routine as comfortable to me as my skin. I took one step, then two, then three. My feet did what they knew to do; it should have calmed me but it didn’t. Somewhere inside me something was simmering, bubbling, boiling.
I felt like I was about to break, to splinter into little tiny pieces.
I began running, without a destination, without a real plan. I ran through the strange people in this strange place. And I kept telling myself… that if I ran fast enough, if I ran far enough, maybe someday, one day, I might actually find my way home.
Daegu, South Korea
The whole of Joon’s team and I have just sat down at a pojamangcha, a little celebration after their last win. It was a rare event, and one the team managers and coaches don’t usually allow until the players have a couple of days off between games.
To my right Joon had already taken a shot of soju, the samgyepsal sizzling on the table pit in front of us. There were similar sounds coming from the length of the long table, where the rest of the team was. On the table sat large platters of sesame and Napa cabbage, accompanied by smaller dishes with garlic, onion and pickled fermented shrimp, along with bowls filled to the brim with saeujeot and kimchi. There were makgulli and soju bottles up and down the table, and pitchers of beer.
I could hear conversation coming from all the people at our table as I sat staring at my glass of beer. To my left was Joon’s new catcher, Lee Do Hyung, in a discussion with one of the batting coaches. Joon was reading something under the table, one he hid as soon as I nudged him on his side.
“Do you take that book everywhere?” I teased, as I drank some beer.
“Hyung,” he whispered sheepishly. “I’m freaking out. This pregnancy business is tricky and nerveracking.”
I chuckled. Apparently Na Jeong has been having serious bouts of morning sickness, though I believe it’s Joon making it out to be more severe than it was with his behavior. The last time I spoke to Na Jeong she cheerfully informed me that yes, she was pregnant and having morning sickness and yes, Joon’s overreacting.
“You’d think I was the first woman in the world to get pregnant,” she’d confided before she shrugged her shoulders. “But, Joon’s Joon.”
Apparently, letting him take the pregnancy book with him wherever he went was the only way she could get him to calm down enough to actually focus on his games, so that was what they had agreed on. The two of them always did things together, whether agree on decisions or make plans. They had such a functional relationship it was enviable.
Lest I get taken by jealousy of what they have and what Gia and I didn’t, I had to remind myself that their road had also been paved by near missed opportunities and huge difficulties. That was still of no comfort to me, though. Na Jeong and Joon were different from Gia and me.
Whereas the two of them had a solid foundation of friendship to fall back on whenever their romantic relationship hit a snag, Gia and I, as she had said herself, were never friends.
The thought had me reaching for the bottle of soju. Seeing this, Joon grabbed it with a smile as he put his book away. He was still pouring soju into my glass when my phone rang in my pocket.
I saw my Omma’s number and for a second briefly considered not picking it up. She had asked me to come to the house for dinner tomorrow night with Gia, and I had given her an evasive response. True to form my mother was as persistent as ever and had called several times in the last week to ask for my response.
I hadn’t given her one yet.
Still, I can’t avoid my mother forever and with that in mind, I took a deep breath before pressing the ‘call’ button on my hand phone. I didn’t even get to say a greeting when I heard my mother’s voice.
“Jin-ie,” she started, her tone shaky and somber. “You need to come home.”
“What happened, Omma?”
“Ji Soo… Ji Soo…” she continued to say my sister’s name and a heavy feeling of dread settled on the pit of my abdomen. She couldn’t even finish her sentence long enough to tell me what’s going on before she burst into tears.
There was only my mother crying on the other line and I stepped out of the tent to hear better. My mother continued to sob and I was about to ask her again what happened when I heard a rustling, followed by the sound of my father’s voice.
“Jung Jin-ah,” Appa said, sounding more serious than I can ever remember him being. “There was an accident by Sincheon.”
“I saw that on the news, Appa. But what does that have to do with Ji Soo?”
“Your sister was hurt. She was driving,” he said, a nervous tremor in his voice. “We don’t have any details yet. All we know is that she’s at Severance Hospital.”
“Where are you and Omma now?” I asked. My mind was running different directions, as were my emotions, but I told myself to stay calm, to think. Already I was trying to figure out how long it would take for the bus to get me back to Seoul.
“Jung Yoon is coming to get us and bring us to the hospital,” Appa said. “Ji Soo is already in surgery.”
“Has anyone told Ji Hyun Noona?”
Appa sighed. “Yes. Ji Min spoke to her already and she’s taking the first flight out. Ji Min is at the hospital with Ji Hee now.”
I ran my fingers through my hair, trying very hard to tell myself not to panic, and failing. “I’ll meet you guys there.”
The rain was still pouring outside, and it seemed to be getting stronger by the minute. And after what seemed like the slowest two hour ride back to Seoul, I had finally arrived.
Exiting the car I uttered a soft thanks to Joon’s coach, who drove back in his car and said goodbye to Joon, who decided that he couldn’t possibly let me make the trip back after seeing how panicked I’d been after my parents’ phone call.
I ran through the sliding doors of the emergency room department, not stopping until I was at the nearest desk, tapping impatiently at the table, where a woman in scrubs was on the phone. She lifted her eyes to mine, then ended her call hastily.
I know how I must look, I thought, as she looked me over. I was still in jeans and a button down shirt, my clothes drenched. I haven’t shaved in two days. She must think I’m a crazy person.
“You’re Lee Jung Jin, right?” She asked. “Kim Jae Joon’s manager?”
I nodded. I had thought that she was looking at me as if I’d gone insane but apparently she was merely recognized who I was. I waited for the flush of pleasure, the satisfaction from being acknowledged, but felt none. I wasn’t even surprised anymore. Since that woman came into my life I stopped caring what other people thought. Why the hell would I fear how other people saw me when my biggest critic was living under my roof?
“How may I help you, sir?” The woman in front of me asked.
“Ah,” I said, remembering why I was even here and putting that particular woman out of my mind, “I’m looking for Lee Ji Soo. I think… I think she came here from that accident… the big one, from a few hours ago.”
“And you would be…”
“Family. She’s my youngest sister.”
She nodded before typing a few things into the computer. She pulled out a pen and a piece of paper and wrote something before looking back up.
“It looks like she just came out of the recovery room,” she said, handing me the paper. “If you go straight through those doors,” she pointed to the door behind her, “and take the elevator up to the second floor, they should be able to tell you more at the waiting room.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Has anyone else come looking for her?”
“No,” she answered. “But my shift just started. If there is anyone else here for her, they would be at the waiting room, next to the OR.”
The phone rang again and she gave me a wave before answering the call. I walked through the doors that she pointed me to and took the elevators up, trying to banish the picture of my sister, mangled and broken, out of my head.
You don’t even know how bad the injury is, I told myself. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Besides, I thought as the elevator door opened, she’s alive.
I walked briskly to the waiting room and breathed in relief when I caught sight of my father, standing with Jung Yoon Hyung and someone in a white coat. The calm that had descended over me was not dissimilar to how I felt when I opened my eyes after the accident and saw him. My mother may be my light, but my father was my rock. I know that all my siblings felt the same.
All of my older sisters, with the exception of one, stood up as I approached them, and Ji Hee Noona walked towards me, arms outstretched. She enfolded me into her arms as Kye Sang stood behind her. I greeted all my sisters in a similar fashion and embraced my mother. She was sobbing still, her face drawn and pale. I pressed a kiss on her forehead before standing next to my brother and father, who wrapped a strong arm around my shoulder.
“Ah, Dr. Choi, this is my younger son, Lee Jung Jin,” my father said, introducing me to the man he was just speaking to.
The doctor extended a hand and I shook it. “As I was telling your family,” he said, “your sister has a fractured arm and a concussion. Lee Ji Soo-ssi was very lucky… it’s fortunate that her arm was immobilized right after the injury, or it might have been worse. We just performed surgery to put the bones back together and inserted a pin. She’ll need rehab but she will regain full function of her arm.”
I could feel the collective relief from my family at the news. “Was she not injured anywhere else?” I asked, my voice hoarse. “How thoroughly was she checked?”
“Jung Jin-ah.” Jung Yoon Hyung tried to quiet me down and I ignored him. Despite the fact that he was a professional himself, with impressive credentials, my older brother always was impressed by surgeons. I, however, was not.
The surgeon merely smiled in understanding. “I understand your concern,” he said. “But we have assessed her closely and nothing else seems to be the matter. Of course it helped that we were told by emergency services that she might have the concussion… we got her straight into the MRI machine to make sure the bleed wasn’t big. That should resolve on its own with a lot of rest and time.”
“Is she awake?” Appa asked. “Can we go see her?”
“Yes,” the surgeon said. “She is waking up. The nurses are getting her settled into her room right now, but you should be able to see her in a few minutes.” His eyes addressed all of us. “She has fluids running right now as well as a pain pump. There’ll be some tubes connected to her overnight so don’t let that alarm you. Do not give her anything to drink or eat until the nurse has assessed her swallowing since she was intubated for the surgery. I think I’ll need to warn you guys that she’s still coming off the anesthesia so if she seems a little off, it might just be that. Do have the nurse page me though if she has any confusion in the morning.”
“How long is she expected to stay in the hospital?” Jung Yoon Hyung asked.
“We’ll need to monitor her neurological function and get her started on her physical therapy, make sure her pain is controlled, etcetera. It really depends on how well she recovers, but I can tell you it will be at least three or four days, maybe even longer.”
We all nodded in understanding and he shook our hands before he disappeared back through the OR’s double doors. We all sat down at the partially full waiting room, all somber and silent, on pins and needles until we could see her, except for Omma, who steadily continued to cry.
For a second I was tempted to call Gia at home, to tell her what had happened, but then decided against it. I had already promised her that I wouldn’t be bothering her anymore. I don’t want to renege on my word. Not with her.
Within minutes a woman in scrubs came to get us; we all filed, the mood subdued, and follow her straight to Ji Soo’s room.
Appa opened the door, but not before I saw his lips moving on Omma’s forehead, telling her something that’s meant for her alone. I watched as he tenderly brushed a hand over her hair and lifted her face to look at her, still speaking softly. Something tugged inside my chest as I watched my parents, thinking that this was how they might have been when I was in the hospital. Their hands were entwined, interlocked; I always knew that my parents loved each other, but it was not until now that I really understood how much.
Omma’s eyes closed before she opened them again, her gaze now determined. She brushed her tears away before she took a deep breath and entered the room, Appa’s hand squarely on her back. We all followed, Jung Yoon Hyung and Mi Rae Unnie first, then my sisters and their partners, and then lastly, hesitantly, me.
By the time I had entered the door my mother was already sitting on Ji Soo’s bed, one of her hands on my sister’s, and the other still in my father’s. She was pressing a kiss over Ji Soo’s face, and murmuring softly. All my siblings were standing around the bed, their partners with them, and for the first time in my life, it bothered me that I stood alone; that I had always chosen to stand alone.
My youngest sister lay on the bed, her back flat against the headboard. She looked so small, dressed in a hospital gown, her left arm in a cast. She had compression boots on her legs, the sound the only thing audible in the silence of the room. Various bags were hanging from a pole, connected via tubes to her arm.
She attempted a weak smile when she saw me, though her eyes remained a bit unfocused. She bit her bottom lip before she spoke, her voice gravelly.
“Oppa,” she said. “Your car…”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said, giving her a smile. “It’s only a car. How are you feeling?”
She blinked, as if thinking. “I feel okay, I think.”
“Are you in pain?” Ji Min Noona asked.
Ji Soo shook her head. “No, but I am thirsty though.”
“We’ll tell the nurse,” Omma told Ji Soo with a reassuring squeeze of her hand.
“I’m so sleepy,” Ji Soo complained, her eyes closing.
“It’s probably the anesthesia,” Appa said. “We’ll leave soon and let you rest.”
She nodded and appeared as if she was doing just that when, with much effort, she opened her eyes again and looked directly at me. “Oppa…” She lifted a hand and urged me to come closer.
I walked to her bed and took her hand. “What is it?”
“Unnie…” she whispered, her eyes glazing with a sheen of tears. “Unnie promised she’d be here.”
Ji Hee Noona spoke. “Ji Hyun Unnie is on her way, Ji Soo-yah. She should be landing right about now. She’ll be here soon.”
Ji Soo was shaking her head insistently, her grip firm against mine. “Not Ji Hyun Unnie. Gia…Gia Unnie…”
My mother looked at my sisters and brother, who then all looked at one another.
“No one told us anything about Gia coming with her when they called,” Appa said, trying to diffuse the sudden air of concern.
“The surgeon did say that she might be a little confused from the anesthesia,” Jung Yoon Hyung said.
I almost dismissed it as that when I saw Ji Hee Noona pale. “It’s not that,” she said, her voice apprehensive. “Ji Soo called me, hours ago, asking me to text after work. She said Gia had agreed to go with her to her gig in Hongdae. I completely forgot.”
I stood up. “Noona… how can you forget that?” I asked, my voice coming out louder than I’d planned.
“Jung Jin-ah,” I heard my Omma say when I pressed a soft kiss on Ji Soo’s cheek.
“I have to find her. What if she had been hurt too? What if she…”
“They would have called you had something happened, Jin-ie,” Mi Rae Noona said, her voice gentle, meant to placate.
“Noonim, you know she doesn’t speak any Korean,” I said, then took a deep breath, my heart beating painfully in my chest from the anxiety. “She doesn’t even have any identification on her. She doesn’t have a mobile phone. No one but us and her best friend know that she’s even in the country. I have to find her.”
My brother lay a hand on my arm. “Do you need me to make any phone calls?”
I shook my head no. “I’ll have to go to all the hospitals,” I said, my mind already running a million miles a minute. “Even if we were to call, they wouldn’t be able to tell us anything, if she was hurt or uncon…” I felt something lodge itself in my throat and tears burned the back of my eyes. “If she’s uncons…”
My whole family looked at me in concern as I couldn’t finish my sentence. “I’ll call you guys.”
The clouds have well and truly unleashed their fury. What had been a mere drizzle had intensified into a thunderous storm hours later.
I couldn’t even remember now what I was doing earlier, my mind foggy, unable to sift through what was real and what was wasn’t, what had been my imagination or what was a memory.
My feet hurt, my legs sore after running for what seemed like a lifetime.
The sun hadn’t made an appearance in all the time that I ran, and now, evening had descended. People were still in the streets, standing under awnings and bus stops. Those that were in restaurants and cafes were dawdling, seemingly hesitant to go out. Those that were out were running for cover. Everyone was looking for a place to take shelter in or under.
Everyone except for me.
I’d been running and running, looking for some place that almost seemed familiar to me. Through the streets I passed people idly by, looking curiously at the woman who was running through the rain as if some demon was chasing after her. Either that or barely sparing her a glance.
I wasn’t sure what I was doing or where I was running. I wasn’t even sure why. All I knew was that it was the only thing I knew to do to try to ease the pain that was still throbbing in my chest. It had worked every other time before.
So why wasn’t it working now?
My legs begged for me to stop, a request I ignored. I continued to run and run and run, my mind not really consciously knowing where I was going, letting my feet guide the way.
My feet pounded the ground, sending water splattering in my wake. I lifted my chin and kept on running despite the fact that the pain that now throbbed through me felt so big it felt like it would eat me up.
I may not be able to outrun this feeling, I told myself as Teddy’s face ran through my mind, but it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try.
I was running and running, out of my mind. I’d been to every hospital in Seoul; anxiety rising every time that I’m told that no one by Gia’s name or her description had been there. No one had seen her. No one even knew who it was that I was speaking off.
The cab driver dropped me off a block away from where the accident happened, the site still taped off from onlookers. I walked, slowly to where it had taken place, afraid of what I would see.
The worry had been warranted. I felt my heart stop as I looked around.
The place looked like a crime scene, except with more debris. Emergency workers were still on site, clearing up the remains of the accident. There was torn metal and glass everywhere, inky stain on the ground where oil and petrol have spilled. It looked much, much worse than what had been shown on television.
My eyes wandered to the people on the street, hoping that she would be there. But no such luck. The people that passed by now barely looked at the scene, as if in doing so they didn’t have to think about how many people may have been hurt. As if they could pretend that it didn’t happen.
Human beings are such strange creatures, believing themselves to be invincible, untouchable, until they realize that they’re not. And even then, they go back to what they had been doing before, allowing themselves to deny and accept that they are no longer the same. I know I was that way.
But Gia… was different. She wears her scars like a shield of armor, bleeding for all to see. Maybe not without shame or without fear, but she does it anyway. Every time the tide had changed she had changed right alongside it, bending and bowing with the wind, as the strongest trees do. It was no wonder why I loved her. And I do love her. As I suspected I would do for a long, long time, despite the fact that she doesn’t feel the same for me.
The pain in my left thigh throbbed angrily, making me wince. My legs were killing me, as was the pounding in the base of my skull. I ran a hand through my hair, ignoring the fact that my clothes were still wet and clinging to me uncomfortably. None of that shit mattered, not when I didn’t know where she was or if she was even okay.
The whisper of a breeze made me think of the penthouse, and somehow I knew that’s where she would be. Perhaps not because that’s where she wants to be, but because it was the only place she knew.
I forced myself to move from the spot with one last look at the scene behind me and hailed a cab home. I know I had promised to leave her alone. And I will… just as soon as I knew that she was safe.
As I turned the corner I paused against a wall, out of breath. My right shoulder thrummed with an ache, something sharp still lodged there. It was annoying but tolerable, unlike the pain I’m feeling on my chest. I placed a shaky hand there and rubbed, wondering how much longer this pain was going to stay.
It felt like it was breathing into my bones, coming from somewhere deep inside me. It was a pain that I remembered but hadn’t allowed myself to feel in a decade. It felt nothing like like the ache in my right shoulder, or that in my legs. This pain was all encompassing, paralyzing; it had transcended the physical and it now felt like my whole body was broken.
I opened my eyes and urged myself to keep going. To run. To escape. It was the only thing I knew. It was the only way out.
And yet, something called out to me and made me stop. I lifted my eyes to see the penthouse, just up ahead, through the trickle of rain, a mere block away from where I stood.
Before I knew it I had moved, my feet so quick on the ground it felt like they didn’t touch it at all, my gaze fixed on the penthouse. It was the closest thing to home that I’ve had in a long, long time. It called to me as if beckoning my name.
I didn’t stop running until I was there, my body sinking onto the wooden bench in front. Out of breath I clutched at my middle, folding into myself, feeling the full force of the pain I had so long tried to forget. My eyes were wide open but it felt like a cloud had descended over me, and I can see nothing but the darkness.
May 19, 2002
I had been lost in my thoughts when the cab almost passed the penthouse and I yelled out a quick demand for the driver to stop. The screeching of brakes sounded so loud that it was deafening. Handing the driver a bill and not waiting for the change, I exited the cab.
My feet took me back towards the penthouse, quickly at first, pushed by panic and urgency, then slower as I approached the entrance. There was a single lamppost right in front, its glow hazy against the falling raindrops. My eyes adjusted to the dim light as I walked, holding my breath and I spied a small figure, huddled on the bench.
I walked until I was right in front of her, overwhelmed by relief, that she was okay and then anger, both residual and acute, at the words we had exchanged a week ago and that despite it she would still worry me so.
“Gia,” I started. “Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?”
It seemed that I had only closed my eyes for a second when the memories began assaulting me. Memories of Andrew, of Chris… of Marcus and my father. Teddy. The woman at the accident. Junnie and my mother. My sister… everyone that I had failed, in some way, shape, or form. My long buried feelings of guilt pressed heavily on my chest, a sense of helplessness.
The pain that had felt so big as I ran was nothing compared to what I felt now… it had transformed into something that felt like it was being ripped from me, as if I was about to combust.
The feeling of failure crawled over my skin, over my clothes. It nipped and it clawed, this particular feeling, and I tried to fight against it, just as I had everything else in my life. But now it just felt like I was all tapped out; life had finally beaten the fight out of me and I was no longer able to resist.
Someone once told me that failure is a part of life, that it is inevitable in some cases. I could understand accepting it as that in some things: a driving test, an exam, a class. Relationships, even, and jobs.
Those who have experienced failure will say that it hurts no matter what it was that you failed. But they only spoke of failing things. Failing things wound you, injure you, maybe even teach you, precisely because they’re merely things.
Failing people was another thing altogether. When I fail, I do it like I do everything else. Guns blazing, and everyone decimated. Even in that I knew no moderation. My failures end in broken hearts and lost, wasted lives.
I can’t do it anymore, I thought as the tears started falling from my eyes. I’m done. I give up. I cannot do this anymore.
Jung Jin’s face flashed in my mind, and I closed my eyes. I wish he was here, though I knew that was wishful thinking. Just like my desire to hide in the safety of his arms, as if I belonged there. The Jung Jin that I love would tell me that he’s here and would run his hand down my hair. He would take me in his arms. He would cry with me and tell me that it will be okay, though he didn’t know that, that I’ll be okay, though he only means that he’ll make sure of that one thing. He’ll tell me it’s not my fault, even though it is.
His conviction would make me believe that somehow he could save me, even though we both knew that wasn’t true.
He can’t save me. No one can.
“Gia,” I started. “Do you know how long I’ve been looking for you?”
My voice trailed off as I realized that she didn’t even look up… it was as if I wasn’t even here, as if she wasn’t even here. She didn’t respond, staying silent instead, her eyes on the ground in front of her. She may still be angry with me, but it was no reason to ignore me.
“Do you hear me?” I asked, my voice louder. ” I’ve been all over the goddamned city for you.”
I stopped abruptly when I realized that there was blood behind her shoulder. I dropped to my knees in front of her and started checking her over, my movements impatient, urgent.
“Where are you hurt?” I asked, lifting her arms. “Where are you hurt? You need to get up. We need to get you to the hospital. We need to make sure you’re okay.”
I allowed myself a look on her face then, something I hadn’t wanted to do, afraid of the way she would look at me, that she would look at me the same way she did the last night we were together. I lifted my eyes to hers, only to find hers haunted and heavy in pain, looking at her hands, shaking in earnest. I could taste the inconsolable sorrow seeping off her, could almost touch her palpable grief and as much as I wanted to turn away, I could not.
She clasped her hands together, her shoulders shaking, and I realized that never had I seen her like this before. She looked exhausted, drained, defeated. She looked lost. She kept her eyes on her hands, her breath shallowing as she began to cry.
It was silent at first, quiet. The cry of one who wasn’t used to crying, who didn’t like to cry. Her tears broke something inside me, and I could only look as the tears fell from her eyes, looking as if something inside her was imploding. I felt her cries deep inside me, like I was being stabbed, as if I had taken on her pain.
“I couldn’t save him,” she whispered. “I couldn’t save her.” Her breath hitched before she spoke again, her voice breaking. “I don’t understand. I couldn’t save anyone.” Her hands were still shaking, even as I took them in both of mine. “I’ve never been able to do anything else in my life,” she said, her voice a shaky whisper. “Except this. I’ve always been able to save everyone else, and that was always enough. Even if I couldn’t save myself… I thought that if I could at least help other people, then my life had a purpose. But now, even my hands can do nothing. Other people fail at things that are so inconsequential, but I always fail people. I don’t understand.”
Her tears continued to fall, as if they won’t ever stop. But they were soundless, breathless. As if even in this she couldn’t let go.
Even in her anguish she was still lovely, though she was also other things. Hollow. that’s what she looked like. Empty. As if everything that kept her together had dissipated, leaving only her shadow behind. Fragile.
It’s never been a word I would ever use to describe her before. But now, with her heart breaking in front of my eyes, I realized just how fragile she could be. And I didn’t know when I was wishing to see her this way how unprepared I was to ever really see her this way.
I could not say a word, was as stricken as she might have felt in whatever hell she just walked out of. Her tears kept falling, and I was unable to say or do anything to make them stop. I was useless, helpless even in this, my mind singularly fixed on one thought.
I take it back, I wanted to say out loud. I TAKE IT BACK. I don’t want to see her cry. I don’t ever want to see her like this.
She lifted her tear streaked face, her normally expressive eyes desolate; it was as though it was as if she didn’t really see me. The pain in her eyes resonated inside me. I would have given anything to take it all away, to exorcise her ghosts and will them away.
The woman I love was shattering right before my very eyes and I didn’t know how to put her together again. Wasn’t even sure I ever could. No matter how much I love her.
Beyond us the world was already moving forward. But here, in her eyes, it was ending, stopped in a moment that only she remembers, and I can’t do anything about it. Not a single damn thing.
The thought made me want to punch the nearest wall.
I realized that I was fighting a battle with enemies I knew nothing of. Stronger than me. Stronger than her. Stronger than love.
I ran my hands down her hair and she cried even harder, her breath catching tightly, as if no amount of air could possibly make it better.
Her grief broke me. Even as I enfolded her trembling body into my arms, I felt the tears burn the back of my eyes, already silently apologizing that I can only offer her this much.
I pressed my lips against her forehead and said the only things I knew to say, words that I hoped to God was true, words that I hoped she would take to heart.
“I’m here. It will be okay,” I whispered. “You’ll be okay. None of it was your fault. It will be okay.”
I heard the clap of thunder from somewhere behind me and realized that we cannot stay here. I helped her up to her feet only to feel her sag against me, as if she didn’t even have the strength to hold herself up. Her arms were wrapped tightly around my neck, her fingers clutching at me as if she needed me, as if I was the only real thing she dared hold on to.
I tucked her head towards my neck before I lifted her in my arms. I had done this so many times before when she was asleep, but this time she was awake, though she felt just as distant, if not even more so.
The doorman allowed me into the building silently, looking in concern at me and the woman I held in my arms. I nodded at him and walked straight to the elevators.
She didn’t speak. At all.
Not when I marched through the lobby and not when I walked into the penthouse. Not when I placed her on the couch.
She remained silent, unmoving. Her eyes glazed, her gaze fixed ahead. What she was seeing, what she was thinking of, I wasn’t quite sure. Her tears were still falling steadily, like a river, like the rain that was still trickling against the penthouse’s glass walls. She was frozen, like a statue, trapped in her memories.
I walked to the kitchen and poured a glass of water for myself and for her, realizing only now that Dog was nowhere in sight. Had it not been for a handwritten note hung haphazardly from a magnet on our fridge with what looked like a schedule for where he is and my siblings’ home numbers, I would surely have worried about him, too.
For someone who once lived his life worrying about nothing, I seemed to do a whole lot of worrying nowadays.
I walked to the living room and sat down on the coffee table in front of her, taking her hand and placing the glass of water there. She remained immobile, neither acknowledging or unacknowledging my presence.
“Jagi,” I said softly. “Drink.”
She followed me my request woodenly as she lifted the glass to her mouth and took big gulps. She drank and drank, and drank. It was almost as if the will was not her own, and she was only doing it to appease me. Automatic. Robotic.
“That’s enough,” I said, taking the glass back off her hands. “You’ll end up with a tummyache.”
She blinked and I was struck again by the sorrow I saw in her eyes. The Gia I know would rail and complain, be angry at the fact that I was ordering her around. But the woman in front of me now was lifeless, spiritless.
I went to the bathroom and pulled my handphone out, calling my older sister. Ji Hee Noona picked up the phone after the second ring.
“Jin-ie,” she said, her voice breathless. “Did you find Gia?”
“Yeah,” I responded, leaning back against the sink counter. “She’s in bad shape, though.”
“Bad shape like how? Is she hurt? You should take her to the hospital.”
“I would but I don’t think that’s a good idea, Noona. She’s in shock or something.” I ran the tap and splashed a water over my face. “I don’t know what to do, what to say. Something happened after Ji Soo was taken to the ambulance. Something bad. I don’t know what to do. I’m sorry I called you… I know you must be worried sick about Ji Soo. But I didn’t know who else…”
My sister sighed. “Jin-ie, it’s okay. It’s okay to ask for help. Besides the fact that she is the woman that you love, we love her because she’s her. Ji Soo is fine, will be fine. You did the right thing calling me.”
“It doesn’t change the fact that I’m the worst person to be with during times Iike this. I’m shit at this stuff,” I said. “Besides, I am probably the last person she wants to be with right now.”
“Has something happened between you two?” She asked. “Ji Min Unnie had mentioned that she was evasive when she asked where you were.”
Has something happened? Besides the fact that we both just realized that we may not have enough of anything to build a foundation for a relationship, or a friendship, even? “Something like that,” I finally responded, unwilling to share the details. “I should try to find her best friend’s number, get him to her. I think she might feel better if he…”
“I don’t think so, Jung Jin,” she said, her tone hard. “I think you are the only person who should be with her right now.”
“You don’t understand,” I argued. “Noona… I’m not her… we’re not really…”
“Together?” She finished for me. “I know.”
“Does everyone know this stuff and just let me go about pretending?”
“But you weren’t pretending anything, Jung Jin-ah. You may be a good liar, but you’re not that good. And she wasn’t pretending, either.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Of course I do. A woman doesn’t go through that much effort for a man if she didn’t care.” She paused and released a breath. “You are the only person who should be with her right now. Stop worrying so much about doing the right thing or saying the right words. Your presence will be enough.”
“She doesn’t trust me.”
She tsked. “Gia’s strong, resilient. She doesn’t need anyone. Do you think a woman like her would allow herself to fall apart with a person she doesn’t trust?” I didn’t respond. “No, she trusts you. Perhaps even more than she trusts herself.”
I ran the bath silently, my sister’s words echoing in my ears. I wasn’t convinced that she was right, but none of that mattered now. All that mattered was taking care of Gia. I can’t do anything about fixing how she feels, but I can start with making sure that she was physically okay. I will do whatever needs to doing to get her through tonight.
When I came back to the living room she was just as I left her. I drew a breath and walked over to her, taking her by the hand and leading her to the bathroom, my eyes locked onto the patch of blood over her shoulder. I kept my eyes fixed on her face as I undressed her; she didn’t protest. She didn’t say a word. Just lifted her arms when I asked her to, and put them down again. It was only when I bent down to take her shoes off that I realized she was wearing the same damn shoes from the mountains, looking worse for wear now than it even did before.
I lifted her onto the bath and set her gently. My hand grazed over a bloodied spot on her shoulder, and still she didn’t make a sound. Her eyes were distant, cold. I grabbed the first aid kit I had since bought for the penthouse from the bathroom cabinet and took a pair of tweezers out, after spying the piece of glass that was embedded on her skin. Carefully I took it out and she still didn’t flinch. Not when I pressed on the wound with a thick wad of bandage to stop the new bleeding. Not even when I rubbed some alcohol around it to disinfect it.
It was enough to make me even cringe uncomfortably, enough to make some grown men weep. But she stayed sitting, her face expressionless. As if she was numb.
I placed a new bandage on her shoulder and proceeded to wash her back and her arms. I undid the knot on top of her hair and let it fall down, the heavy mass cascading over her spine. She curled into a fetal position in the tub and I washed her hair, careful not to get shampoo in her eyes, careful not to touch anything I should be touching.
I was grateful for the task, to finally have something I could do, however trivial it might be. It wasn’t much, what I was doing. Stupid maybe. But in my mind I ran through what she did for me when I woke up from my nightmare, the careful way she did what little she could to ensure that I was fine. It was the least I could do for her now, when she was unable to do it herself.
When her bath was done, I went to the guest bedroom to grab something she could wear, only to see her suitcases shut. Not wanting to invade her space I went back to my own room, the bag holding the shoes I bought her a lifetime ago on my table, right where I left it. I grabbed one of my shirts, and headed back to the bathroom. I lifted her out of the bath and dried her body, my eyes averted. Her face remained wet with the tears that wouldn’t stop through the whole process. I dressed her in my shirt and carried her out, not stopping until I was in the guest bedroom.
As I stood there I wondered once more where I should put her. The bed, which would surely be more comfortable but wasn’t her choosing, or her sleeping bag, where she had a chance of feeling safe again.
The choice was clear. Without hesitation I placed her gently on her sleeping bag, wishing that it would reset her back to who she was before tonight. Her eyes were open, unblinking, lost, even as I covered the rest of her up.
“Sleep,” I said softly, ignoring the ache in my chest, running a hand over her hair. “I’ll be outside if you need me.”
I pressed a kiss on her forehead before I dimmed the light in the room and walked out. I pattered to the kitchen and did the next task in my mind. Setting a pot to cook some ramyun, I didn’t let myself stop moving until the food was ready, in case she woke up hungry in the middle of the night. Busying my hands felt good, it didn’t give me much time to think about anything else. I actually felt like I was someone she could depend on.
When at last the ramyun was done, I finally allowed myself to stop. To sit down. To feel and process what just happened.
I thought I knew what fear was when I was scared that I would lose my life. But that fear didn’t compare to what I felt now, when I felt like the fate of my woman’s happiness and well-being hung by a thread, when I honestly didn’t know whether she would be okay.
The feeling was dark and heavy, a weight on my chest. It was nagging, insistent, persistent in its presence.
I could have lost her and Ji Soo today, but as usual, I let my pride and my ego get in the way of doing what I knew to be right. I told her I’d be her guardian, that I would be responsible for her, and yet I allowed this to happen, because I heard her tell me things about myself that I didn’t like. So what did I do?
Rather than try to understand I struck back and then abandoned her. I may not have hit her with my hands, but I hurt her anyway, doing the thing that I had tried to convince her over and over again that I wouldn’t do. Just like every single fucking time she told me no, I didn’t listen. I did whatever I wanted to dd.
She had been right. I was fucked up.
I thought myself strong, but in truth I was not. I didn’t realize it until I was faced with her demons, how unprepared I was for this. It was no surprise she didn’t feel as if she could trust me. How can she trust a man who does the wrong things over and over again and remains unrepentant for it?
Even now… even now I had broken my promise. I couldn’t even give her that. My sister was wrong. I am the last person who should be with her tonight.
Unknowing what else to do, and afraid that I will never have the fortitude to actually become the man that she deserves, I sat in the dark and finally, silently, allowed myself to cry.
I slept a dreamless slumber. Unless I really was dreaming but just can’t remember. Yes, it had to be that.
Because when I opened my eyes I didn’t feel like a person who had slept well; in fact I didn’t feel like a person who had slept at all. Or even rested. I was drenched in sweat, the shirt I was wearing bunched against my thighs, as if I had been struggling in my sleep. My heart was still beating hard in my chest.
I sat up and looked around, only now just realizing that I was back in Jung Jin’s penthouse, though I don’t remember how I got here. Bits and pieces came back to me, of what happened yesterday, and felt my heart tighten. I was drained but I welcomed it, if only for tonight. Still it didn’t hurt as badly as my last memory of it did. What had felt so jagged and sharp has somehow dulled into an ache. Definitely something I still felt, but it no longer had the power to destroy me, as it did before.
I felt more tired than I have ever felt in the last decade, yet it didn’t bother me. Not tonight.
My eyes drifted to the glass wall in my room, looking over Seoul, the raindrops pattering against it. Still. The world was still going about its business without a care about what had happened. It didn’t care about the past or the future. Didn’t care about what had been lost, what we had gained. Life continued its pattern of destroying and rebuilding, something I had never been able to do.
I gingerly stepped out of my sleeping bag and slowly stood up, making note of the various aches and pains in my body. On my right shoulder was a throb and I reached back and felt it, noticing just now that there was a bandage there. Had I somehow managed to patch myself up?
I tried to remember but couldn’t seem to do so. A memory of Jung Jin’s hands doing just that floated over me vaguely, but my mind couldn’t actually reconcile that fact. Just as it couldn’t accept that he had come back and held me close, uttering the words that I needed him to say.
Jung Jin was gone. He said so himself, that he will not return.
My throat tightened and I felt tears spring into my eyes. I missed him so much, especially tonight. I had never needed anyone, had prided myself on this fact, but if I did need someone, if I did call out for someone, I would have called out for him.
I called him a liar. He had called me a martyr. I don’t know which of us was worse; probably me. Because he had been right. I was a martyr, but I was a liar too. The same thing I had accused him of being.
I walked out of the guest bedroom, my footsteps slow and soft on the hardwood floors. It reminded me of that night, when I heard Jung Jin on the piano. I padded my way to the living room, noticing only that everything was dark. I was about to open the deck door to take a step out when I saw a lone figure, sitting on the couch.
I blinked to see if I was imagining him, to see if he would disappear. But he did not.
Jung Jin sat still, his eyes shuttered. He watched me silently, quietly, making no move to come closer. I cleared my throat as I stood, our eyes crashing. His gaze was loaded, heavy and I wasn’t quite sure what to say. It seemed that we had finally come to a point when we both had said too damn much already and there was nothing left.
The silence between us lengthened and grew, as his face remained hidden in the shadows. One look at his hands told me that they were clenched so tightly they were almost white, as if it was the only thing he could do to stop himself from touching me.
“You came back.” I spoke first. It was not a question but a statement.
“I know,” he said with a rueful smile. “I broke my promise. It will be the last time, I swear it.” He was staring at me as if he was drinking me in, as if this was truly the last time he would allow himself to do so. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.”
“Good,” he said and stood up. “I’ll be leaving, then.”
He passed by me and I found myself reaching out for his hand, an unexpected urgency thrumming through me. He stopped and looked at me, his expression hidden. It was only now that I saw the blotches of red on his shirt, and I furrowed my brows.
“Where are you hurt?” I asked.
“But there’s blood…”
“It’s not mine.”
He looked at my shoulder and realization dawned. So I didn’t imagine it after all?
He took a step away from me even as I was trying to gather my thoughts. What else didn’t I imagine?
“Did you come back for me?” I asked, my voice small.
“I came back.”
“For me?” I asked, needing his answer, needing to hear that he had done it for me.
Until recently haven’t I been so good in never letting people in? Haven’t I carried the burden and the guilt from all my sins without complaint? In five years I had never asked for anything for myself, believing only that what I had was what I deserved. But tonight… tonight I needed something that’s just mine and no one else’s. I needed something real and true to hold on to, to make me believe that there was still a part of me worth loving.
I was still as selfish as ever, I realized. But it didn’t matter.
I was just so… tired. Tired of fighting this.
His face stayed even for a few beats before his guard went down and I saw the hesitation in his eyes. “Yes,” he said, his voice hoarse, angry. “I know I shouldn’t have come here, knew that you wouldn’t like it, but I did it anyway. I can’t stay away from you, so you have to push me away.” He pleaded with his eyes. “Push. Me. Away.”
“Is this a test or something?” He said, breaking free of my grasp. “Are you testing me?”
I didn’t know how to respond, afraid that I would end up begging. Pleading.
Just for tonight, I want to believe that we were meant to be together and that somehow we can make it work, that there was a reason why our paths crossed. Just for tonight I’ll believe that the past doesn’t matter and the future doesn’t exist.
One night is all I ask for. I’ll give him up after this, I swear it. I’ll give him up if I can just have tonight.
“Please,” I said, my voice breaking, thick with emotion. “Stay.”
“Please,” Gia said, her voice husky. “Stay.”
I looked into her heartbreaking eyes, now looking at me the way she did that night. As if she had missed me. As if I could make her forget.They were open, now. Beseeching.
But for what? For me?
She should not be playing with fire. I was unglued enough as it was, my emotions frayed. If I didn’t leave soon, I will never leave, and all my good intentions will be forgotten.
I will once again revert to the baseless man she thought I was and I won’t regret it.
I looked at her delicate hand, holding onto my arm so tightly it blanched my skin, and peeled her fingers away.
I was going to tell her to stop, to end it here. I was going to beg her to tell me she didn’t want me, that she could never love me. I was going to plead with her to let me let her go, when she reached for my hand and kissed my palm, before holding it over her heart.
“Please,” she repeated. “Stay.”
The dam broke over the control that I was trying to keep. Muttering back a curse and a prayer, I took her in my arms, as tightly as my arms would let me. She didn’t resist, molding herself against me, her body melting.
I slanted my lips over hers roughly, our kiss desperate and unhinged. There was nothing gentle or delicate about the way I ravished her lips, nor the way her nails scored over my back. I lifted her and she wrapped her legs around my waist, even as she struggled to peel the shirt off my chest. Our tongues met and mated, her breaths joining together. She bit my bottom lip and then licked it gently, her fingers running through my hair.
She was sighing against my lips, soft moans of pleasure escaping from her mouth. It urged me on, and with a low growl, I pushed her against the wall for support even as I dragged my mouth away from hers and latched onto her neck.
I nipped and I sucked, her body pliant against mine. I lifted the hem of my shirt over her waist, savoring the feel of warm skin underneath, my hands traveling over her ribcage. She sucked in a breath but didn’t tell me to stop. It wasn’t until my fingers glazed over the peak of her breast that I heard her voice.
“God,” she moaned. “God help me.”
My hand cupped her fully and traveled leisurely over one nipple, relishing the look in her eyes as I did it. I brought my face back up, my lips a mere heartbeat from hers.
“My name,” I said, as I planted a kiss on her mouth. “is Jung Jin. If you want to call out for someone call for me and not God. Like it or not, God can’t help either one of us now.”
She blinked at me but didn’t say a word, her expression subdued. It cleared some of the haze from my eyes and I realized that I need to ask her the question before I was no longer able to.
“Do you want me to stop?” I asked. “Now is your chance to tell me.”
He looked like a fallen angel, a disheveled one, with his eyes full of passion, his mouth made for sin. His eyebrows were narrowed, as if trying to remember what he was about to say.
“Do you want me to stop?” He ground out, his voice hoarse. “Now is your chance to tell me.”
Even as he asked me the question he didn’t stop touching me. The hand that was on my waist sunk deeper, his body drawing closer to mine. The skin on his chest gleamed in the moonlight, his eyes still fixed on my mouth. He was breathing heavily, and his cheeks were stretched with tension.
Caught in the in-between moments, the space between his lips and his hands, I felt like I was caught in a maelstrom, well and truly in the eye of the storm. I had the sense that things were unfolding as they were always supposed to, of things happening the way they were meant to, of destiny flexing its power and taking hold.
He may have asked me the question, but the choice was no longer mine.
Destiny will unfold and uncurl, and then I will be left with the debris in the aftermath. What a strange feeling to know what will undoubtedly happen but be unable to do anything about it but surrender.
His eyes were waiting for me to respond, his lips already coming closer to mine. I lifted the hem of his shirt, and tried to lift it over my head. I groaned when the movement pulled on the wound on my shoulder, the one that until now, I had completely forgotten about.
He tore the shirt off of me, his lips pressing kisses over my collarbone, before drifting over my right shoulder, as if trying to kiss the pain away. His hands lingered over every curve, his lips trying to follow. His mouth was magic on my skin. I felt his warm breath over the crook of my neck, as he suckled and kissed.
His hair felt thick in my hands, longer than it’s ever been. He moaned when I licked his earlobe and growled when I gave it a nip.
He reclaimed my mouth with his with a new urgency, like that of one finally giving in. He tasted of the rain, of myself and of love. Our lips were molded together, moving over each other, trying to consume.
I felt the wall fall away from behind me, the chill in the penthouse bringing goosebumps to my skin. His body was warm, so warm, and I pressed closer, as if trying to draw from him.
Vaguely I heard the opening of a door, though his lips never left mine. And then I was placed, gently and tenderly on the bed, and he lay on top of me, our bodies almost one, his arousal pressed insistently on my abdomen.
I watched as he rose over me, his broad shoulders and lean hips casting shadows on the wall. I watched as he shakily unbuttoned his pants, his eyes never leaving mine, and almost laughed. How could he look so adorable like this?
It wasn’t fair, I thought, even when he returned his weight to me and I had to close my eyes from the pleasure. His body was a study of angles and muscle, and had the light been on my trained eyes surely would have devoured the sight. Under my lips his skin was smooth and warm, like burnt velvet. There were ridges and dips everywhere I touched, scars just like mine. I pressed my lips to each one my fingers encountered, as if I could make them disappear with my touch.
He let me explore him for as long as he could, before he took over and did his own exploring. I felt his lips on my neck, over my collarbone. He caressed me and touched me as if I was someone beautiful and someone precious. I sighed when I felt his hands cup my breast, bringing the peak to his mouth. He laved and he suckled, even as his fingers continued to move, even as he moved his mouth to the other side.
Pressing kisses on my stomach, I almost jolted off the bed when his lips followed where his hand just was. I felt his tongue, tasting and exploring the most sensitive part of me, and my toes curled, my hands clutching at the sheets.
I felt pleasure coil and tighten at the base of my spine, my peak coming close. He didn’t stop until I was shaking with need, my body shattering into a million pieces.
Even as I was still trembling he rose over me and I pulled him close, wanting the connection, wanting him. With our mouths fused together, I reached between our bodies and touched his arousal.
Hard, warm and ready, I touched him as he had touched me, my hand stroking and caressing, the low sound of pleasure he made intensifying my own. I dragged my lips from his and kissed his neck, his shoulders, his chest. His hands busied with my skin, touching and pressing; his mouth kissing whatever he could reach.
I felt him lift the weight of my hair even as I took him in my mouth. He stiffened in surprise and I heard an intake of his breath. His thumb brushed the curve of my cheek as I continued to taste him and to suckle, just as he had done for me.
I touched the ridges of his abdomen, my fingers lazily tracing circles. I felt the moment his muscles tightened, and found myself lying on my back once more, his mouth over mine, devouring, hungry. Our mouths met as our gazes collided, his dark eyes heavy with need.
Without taking his eyes or his mouth off me, I felt him slip inside me, joining our bodies at last. I felt my body tighten, unused to the intrusion and then relax, allowing him inside me as I have not allowed anyone to do in years.
Even so, it was not only my body that I allowed him into, but my heart. I knew this as he moved against me, our heartbeats echoing one another’s. My eyes stayed locked on his even as he murmured indecipherable words, words in his native tongue.
He thrusted slowly, hesitantly at first, watching for my reaction. I could feel him breathing me in as he moved inside me, his fingers touching me reverently.
The way he was looking at me moved me; it brought tears back into my eyes. I felt open, vulnerable, needy. The tenderness with which he was touching me smoothed a balm over my broken soul. It made me greedy, made me want to take as much of him for myself as possible, and I found myself digging my nails into his back.
“Shh,” he whispered, his eyes on mine, mouth curving into a smile, drawing back. He lifted my leg and turned his head, even as he continued thrusting slowly, pressing a kiss on my ankle, then my calf, his fingers traveling over the length of my leg as if it was a piano keyboard. “Slow down. We have all the time in the world.”
No, I wanted to say, the tears coming back to my eyes. We don’t have all the time in the world. People always think they have more time and then they die. The remembrance made me desperate, even as I moved my hips against his.
I lifted myself to my elbow before wrapping my arms around his neck. He bent his head low and kissed me once more. Adjusting our positions so that I was on top of him, my chest rubbed against the hardness of his. He lifted me by the waist before setting me down, his mouth back on my breasts. I rocked my hips back and forth, my fingers in his hair.
I could feel the tide rising as he held me close like this; our bodies were connected as close as two people possibly be. He thrusted deeper and faster, watching as my eyes clouded over, the pleasure almost too much to bear.
His eyes held mine for an eternity; I wasn’t sure anyone where I ended and he began. One of his hands firm on the curve of my spine, he brought his other hand between our bodies and touched the sensitive skin over where we joined. The sensation plummeted me into oblivion and I cried his name out as pleasure took over, our eyes still locked together. I was still riding thw ride when his tongue met mine frenzied, his fingers digging into my skin. He groaned my name against my mouth as I felt him stiffen and then tremble, his big body shaking under my hands.
It took a long while for the little earthquakes to stop. And we held onto each other like it was the only thing we had.
In the aftermath, we remained in this position, my long hair falling forward. My arms were still wrapped around his neck, his hands still on my spine. Neither of us seemed willing to move, neither of us was unable pull away. We seemed both trapped in shocked silence and were both unable to speak.
I wanted to stay in this moment for the rest of my life.
The familiar panic thrummed through me, even as I tried to talk myself into remembering that Jung Jin is very experienced. The reminder made my heart ache, the thought that he may have touched another like this, but I had to distance myself somehow.
Something just happened here, that wasn’t supposed to happen. Something other than the temporary connection that I had wanted. Something permanent. Something that had substance.
I’ve been touched many times by men before. I’ve been touched in desire, and in anger, been touched in tenderness and in rage. I even thought I had been touched in love. But what happened just now… seemed even deeper than love.
My throat tightened and tears came to my eyes. They fell to their own accord and I hid my face, embarrassed to be seen in such a way. He lifted my face and looked at me searchingly, his hand brushing my tears away. His mouth blazed a trail over my cheeks and my nose, my forehead and my jaw. His fingers traced the line of my collarbone wondrously, as if he was trapped in a dream.
His fingers touching my right shoulder, he cleared his throat before he spoke.
“Did I hurt you?”
I have heard before that there was something different when you’re making love with the person you love and when you’re just having sex with someone you merely desire. I never put much stock in that, always dismissing it as useless, sentimental folly. I never believed it myself before, thinking that a thought like that was only for suckers and romantics.
And yet, as I looked at Gia, on top of me still, her eyes still dewy with passion, her soft skin still warmed by my hands and my mouth, I realized that those people weren’t lying.
What just happened here, what I felt while it was happening, was no ordinary thing. I would know. I had substituted and settled for the impersonal business of intimacy, realizing that the elusive thing that so many people speak of may never ever happen to me.
And yet it did. I felt my heart skip in my chest just watching her face, her cheeks glowing and her mouth tender from my loving. Neither of us spoke.
Her face clouded with an altogether too familiar expression and I almost shook my head, willing her not to start thinking yet. She dropped her gaze as a tears spilled from her eyes and I lifted her chin, brushing a thumb to wipe it away.
I wished I could do it for all her tears.
My hands continued to roam over her body, still disbelieving that we had just made love. I touched her collarbone, then the skin over her chest. My fingers found the wound on her right shoulder and I remembered her groan when I had her pushed against the wall.
“Did I hurt you?” I asked, softly.
Her eyes were fixed curiously on my back now, her gaze worried. God, I thought as I saw the look on her face, I love this woman.
“No more than I hurt you, it seems,” she said.
Her tone was soft, as if we were not only speaking about the violence with which we came together but what occurred a week ago as well.
I caught her grimacing uncomfortably and reluctantly pulled out, already mourning the loss of the contact. She frowned at me, as if hating the fact that we were no longer connected as well. I smoothed a hand over her brow before I lay her on her uninjured side, facing me. I lay down too, the length of my body flush against hers, the way we were at the hotel room in the mountains.
Chest to chest, hip to hip, we just continued to look at each other as if we’ve never seen each other before.
And yet it was strangely familiar as well. If I believed in reincarnation I would swear that she and I had loved each other before, just like this. My body recognized hers as the one belonging to mine. I feared that as soon as our bodies no longer touched, that the magic we just wove will disappear as well.
A smile formed on my mouth, as I thought of the way she had responded to my touch,
her every sigh, every moan just as I thought it would be. She was generous, passionate, earthy. My dream come true, in one pint sized package.
I loved the curves of her body, soft and sensuous against mine. She fit me perfectly. Even now the sparks between us continued to crackled. My groin tightened and she looked at me knowingly, a pensive smile on the corner of her mouth. I gave her a little peck even as I tried to adjust my position.
She hadn’t done this in five years, I had to remind myself. Don’t ask for too much.
In truth I was more than happy to be this close to her and be able to look at her like this. I could feel little bursts of joy from realizing that tonight has changed everything… that the tides had changed for us.
We were going to be better after this.
We were finally going to be together.
The way he was looking at me made shiver, my nerves strung tight as if I hadn’t just had a release. Already I felt my walls breaking, and I tried to convince myself this had been merely physical. Incredible, breathtaking, mind-numbingly pleasurable, but merely physical.
We had finally given in.
I had surrendered to the illusion of the love he offered. And he succumbed to the illusion of me that I presented to him.
It wasn’t real, I told myself, trying to tamp down on the desire to hold onto him forever. None of this was, except for the passion. I tried to convince myself that of course this was what I wanted, though the pang in my heart said otherwise.
The instinct to run was strong, irresistible, and even as our bodies stayed close together, I told myself that it’s all fine. I turned to my other side and comforted myself with the knowledge that nothing had changed.
Until I heard him speak.
My eyes were already closing, unable to help themselves. Between traveling and Ji Soo and everything that just happened, it was as if I could finally relax and let go. Finally. I felt more at peace than I have ever felt in as long as I can remember.
I wanted to keep talking to Gia, to keep hearing her voice, but my body had other ideas. The adrenaline that had pumped through it to keep me going and running seemed to have dissipated and left only fatigue in its place. I can’t even keep my eyes open.
Embarrassing. This old body of mine knew just what to do to mortify the shit out of me.
I tucked her body closer to me even as she turned away, pressing a soft kiss on my shoulder. Burying my face in her hair I felt little waves of tenderness come over me, my heart so full of love that I could no longer resist.
The words tumbled out of my mouth so quickly they surprised even me. I darted a glance at her, wondering if she heard me and debating with myself if I actually had wanted her to.
I waited for any signs that she understood: the stiffening of her shoulders, the tension in her spine, but her body remained lax, pliant. I breathed a reluctant sigh of relief. Never had I been more thankful to love a woman that didn’t speak my native language.
Just like when I told her that she was my responsibility a long time ago, she didn’t realize that just saying those words, ‘taking responsibility’ connoted a different, deeper meaning in Korean.
I had already been telling her these things… just in a different language. The thought almost made me chuckle.
I will say those three words in English soon enough; what I said just now had just been practice. An accidental one, but at least I actually said it, which was more than I’d ever been able to accomplish before.
Shaking my head at myself I closed my eyes, content that everything was going just as I had wanted. I was already half asleep when I heard the bed groan. Her warmth disappeared from my side even as I tried to reach for her. Summoning whatever energy I had left in me, I spoke, my voice slow.
“Where are you going?”
“Nowhere,” she said, her voice soft. “I’m just going to the bathroom.”
I nodded though I knew she couldn’t see me. My eyes just felt so heavy. I will make it up to her in the morning. Right before I ask her to make an honest man out of me.
His arms wrapped around my waist as I felt him draw a breath. He dropped a kiss on my shoulder and buried his face in my hair.
I was telling myself to stay still, forcing myself to relax.
Sleep, I ordered myself. Sleep. Deal with this in the morning. Deal with him in the morning. You can undo this. You can forget this. You can stop wanting all of this to be true.
I had almost convinced myself that I was just perfect when I heard his voice.
“Saranghae,” he said, his voice almost a whisper and my eyes opened.
Surely… he didn’t mean it. Surely… he didn’t mean to say that. Of course he didn’t… he knows I don’t speak Korean.
And I don’t. Even after all these months, I still barely had a grasp on most words, could barely string a full sentence together, but this phrase… this phrase I knew.
Thanks to watching enough dramas on television, I actually knew what that meant.
My heart skipped and skittered in my chest, and I could feel the coldness seep into my veins. I felt panic more intense than I had ever known rush through me. And more disturbingly, bittersweet, optimistic, ridiculous hope as well.
The feeling brought tears to my eyes. Hope was an emotion that I had long thought had abandoned me.
I waited until I heard his steady breathing before I allowed myself to breathe. I got up off the bed, my mind going in a million different directions.
“Where are you going?” I heard him ask from behind me, his voice alluringly soft. It evoked images of how he sounded as he moved inside me and I resisted the urge to climb back into bed with him, despite the chaos in my mind.
“Nowhere,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. “I’m just going to the bathroom.”
Padding slowly on the carpet I struggled to find a piece of clothing I could slip into. Spying the discarded shirt I had been wearing at the doorway, one that I was sure was his and not mine, I was almost at the door when the light through the glass wall caught the reflection of something on the table.
Something white and rectangular. Bearing my name.
I opened it, the words he had written blurring in front of my eyes as I read. With shaky hands I took out three boxes from the bag on the table, sitting right next to the card. With bated breath, I opened the first box and then the second, almost identical to the first but for the size. Gingerly I tried the contents of the first box, the fit perfect. How did he know? Still thinking about this, I opened the third box, much smaller than the other two, and found myself staring at an exquisite pair of diamond earrings.
The sight of it on my feet brought on a new, different type of fear, and I found myself walking to the guest bedroom just to get away from all of this.
I shut the door behind me, my heart almost palpitating it was beating so fast. I sat on the side of the bed, my mind in disarray.
Three syllables. Three fucking syllables. And now this.
Why did he have to say that? Why did he have to do all this? What does it all mean?
Everything he had done tonight undid everything I held on to, everything I believed in. If this had just been about the sex, nothing would have changed. If he had just continued speaking in circles we could have been fine. But he didn’t and now it was all real. Except I didn’t know what real was anymore.
How was I supposed to believe in him, to believe him when he tells me I’m different, that we’re different when he’s giving me the same thing he had given all the other women before me?
Falling in love was so easy. Tying my life to someone else’s was, too. Like riding a bike. For me it bore no conscious thought at all. If I stayed, the patterns I had recognized about myself will emerge again and change me back into the version of myself I had long rejected. His desire to love me will change him into someone that he will barely recognize, and still manage to not change at all.
Both of us will lose. Sooner or later we will both lose, unless I did something about it. I can still do something about it.
I stood up and hurriedly put jeans on, shoving everything that I owned in my suitcase and locked it shut. I gathered my stuff from the bathroom counter and dropped them in my cosmetic case.
It was as if I was escaping a crime scene. Except the crime hasn’t happened yet.
This… was not as organized an affair as I had long been accustomed to. My clothes were haphazard, scrunched up and wrinkled. What I had long thought of as the metaphor for my life was in disarray and I couldn’t even care.
My hands shaking I grabbed the manila envelope Junnie had left me and dragged my stuff, my life, by the elevator bay, my mind now just fixated on getting out of here.
Because I may not know everything, but i knew that this… is how it will begin.
I’ll hope and believe that he can be a better man, though I already knew that he was innately selfish. But despite knowing that, I’ll keep hoping and believing forever because I love him. And he, in the throes of what he believes is love will convince himself to become someone that he’s not, until one day he starts resenting who he has become and starts hating me.
This is how it begins. And in some ways how it all ends as well.
The cogs of fate turned and played their hand. Will I fight it or surrender?
The elevator arrived and I stared at the door as it opened and shut, the question still ringing in my ears.
Will I fight destiny or will I surrender?
I stepped into the elevator with all of my possessions, not allowing myself to even look back.
People who believe in destiny enable and accept. They use it as the reason why they don’t do the right thing because why does it matter when what’s meant to happen will happen anyway, regardless of whether or not they actually make the right decisions?
The faith people have in destiny is the same faith that has people believing that loving someone meant accepting even the very worst version of the person they love.
Believing is dangerous. It’s how people set themselves up for disappointment; it’s how people justify destroying themselves and their lives, along with others’… all in the name of love. As if that makes it okay.
It’s not okay. I know that, just as I know that whatever pain I was feeling now will be no comparison to the one I was actually saving myself.
Because as much as believing was dangerous, there was also something even more so: damaged people. Never had I known that to be truer than now. Just as the fact that I had never been more convinced that I was one of them than at this moment in time.
I read somewhere once that there was one reason damaged people are really, truly scary: because no matter what happens, they know they will survive. That knowledge makes them fearless, thoughtless, ruthless.
The elevator arrived to the first floor and I made my escape in the dark of the night. By the time he wakes up, I will be long gone, all traces of me hopefully erased. The thought brought a tightening in my chest, one I stubbornly ignored.
He brought me back to reality by uttering those words. Now it was time for me to return the favor.
He doesn’t know it yet but he’ll understand soon enough. The problem is how do I make him understand something I don’t myself?
Still wearing his shirt on my back and the shoes he had yet to give me on my feet, I managed to flag a cab down. It wasn’t until I was trying to utter the request to take me to the airport, the words lodging in my throat, that the tears began to fall.