AMC: A LEAP OF FAITH TENTH STEP

Tenth Step

May 20, 2002
11:00 a.m.

Jung Jin

For the first time in six years, I slept a full night. Actually, it was more than a full night… I actually slept for a full eight hours and some change, double the amount I usually got on a regular basis.

A smile unwittingly formed on my lips, remembering what had happened.

Life can be so kind at times. My sister could have really been hurt, but she wasn’t. What I had thought was going to be just another night obsessing over Gia and what the hell we were going to do with us ended up with us making love.

Like I said… sometimes life can be so good.

My eyes still closed, I stretched on the bed, my arms going over my head, the sheet draped carelessly over my torso. On the pillow next to me Gia’s scent still lingered, and I burrowed closer to her smell. I put an arm out to hold her close when only the coldness of the bed greeted me.

I gingerly opened one eye, the sunlight already beaming in through the glass windows. When I saw that she was not on the bed as I thought she would be, I sat up, my back against the headboard.

I wasn’t worried.

She had spent the last five years sleeping in a sleeping bag, so it would be totally expected that she would want to go back to sleep there. It was a fair deduction. I may not know everything about her but I knew this much was true.

My woman liked her routines.

Still, I tried to listen for any activity, any sign that she was already up, but there was only silence in the penthouse. Dog would usually be roaming about now, demanding fuss and outside time. But now that he was spending time with my family, the place seemed quiet, too quiet for my liking.

I’d be lying, though, if I didn’t say that I wouldn’t mind a couple more days alone with Gia.

I plan on never lying again.

One glance at the clock on the side table told me that it was already 11 a.m.,way past the time she would be running.

That’s it, I thought. She must have already gone on her run.

Slowly I dragged myself out of bed, noting the clothes that we had hastily discarded last night with a grin. Not bothering to put any back on, I pick each up and chuck it in the laundry basket before heading straight to the bathroom to take a shower.

It may be the weekend but I like my routines, too. And certainly one I loved was getting breakfast ready for her.

I turned on the shower and waited for it to warm. As I did I wondered which Gia I would be meeting this morning, whether the Gia after a night I’d loved her would be even more beautiful than I ever saw her before. She might be shy, flushing whenever our eyes meet, remembering the urgency with which we came together. Or… she might be bolder, braver… wanting to touch me as badly as I want to touch her again.

I have to make up for falling asleep last night.

My abdomen tightened with the thought, already anticipating what will happen. I had no doubt she would want to talk about this, to give this definition, but strangely the thought didn’t give me pause.

We’ve needed to talk. We need to talk. Maybe after we can visit Ji Soo in the hospital and reassure her that Gia was okay. While there I can try to convince Gia to see a doctor, just to make sure that the wound on her shoulder needed no other intervention. Maybe after we can go to see our dog.

The idea that everything has completely changed and all for the better made me feel lighter than I had felt in a long time. It made me feel like I finally have the space and the courage to say everything that I need to say, everything that she needs to know.

I had nothing to worry about. Haven’t we already proven that what we shared was more than physical? That we could have something lasting? We were better together than we were apart. I already knew this, but last night just confirmed it.

Whatever thought she might have about still not being sure about us I plan to erase this morning. Things were definitely on the up and up.

People used to tell me all the time that tomorrow would be better, that a new day brings about new chances, the possibility of better things happening. I thought it was all a load of nonsense.

Until today. My tomorrow had come. Finally.

 

*****

Montebleu, Singapore
7:30 p.m.

Gia

I stepped off the elevator, my bags in tow. I had hoped that Junnie put the key to the San Francisco loft in the envelope she had left, but I had no such luck. As usual my best friend did what she knew to make sure that I can’t do anything without letting her know what I’m up to. And what I’m up to at the current moment is showing up in Singapore, precisely what she wanted me to do.

If I wasn’t so tired I might actually be able to muster up some energy to be angry.

I didn’t really want to go here, fully aware that the first thing she would do was ask me questions, but I didn’t know where else to go. I had no desire to go back to my family’s, yet. At least not while I felt this way. Like it or not, I had to come here.

At least until I figure out what to do.

I turned and looked at my reflection on the elevator door. My eyes were swollen, my face puffy. Jung Jin’s shirt hung loosely off my shoulders. I had already pulled my hair on top of my head in a severe ponytail.

I looked like I felt, which is not very good

I smoothed my hair over my head and straightened the shirt that I wore before trudging to Junnie’s door. Jung Jin’s scent should have faded now after all my hours of traveling, but I remained convinced that I still smelled distinctly of him. Similarly, my skin still remembered the feel of his hands and his lips, the press of his weight against me. I don’t think any amount of anything will ever help me forget that.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

Whatever the case may be I hope Junnie will not notice. Or if she does that she says nothing about it. Even now I wondered if other people could take one look at me and see what Jung Jin and I had done. Or even more disturbingly, if they could see what I had done afterwards, as if I’d been marked, guilty of a crime.

I was guilty of a lot of things. What was one more thing to be sorry for in a seaful of sins? Sometimes I feel like I live my life better steeped in guilt.

My finger hovered over the doorbell when suddenly the door opened and an extremely tall, extremely handsome man appeared. He looked as surprised to see me as I was him. He froze at the doorway, sucking in a breath, emphasizing his high cheekbones even more. I blinked at him, wondering if my best friend had moved to another apartment without telling me, when Junnie appeared at his side, bearing a box on her hands, still speaking.

“My mom wants us to…” Her voice trailed off when she saw me. With one discerning look she shoved what was in her hands towards the man next to her and took me in her arms. I took a whiff of her, letting the familiar smell of her wrap me up. “You look like shit,” she whispered before she pulled away and examined me more closely.

Next to her the man was studying me as well, a crease forming over his eyebrows. He cleared his throat and we both turned to face him, Junnie’s hand splayed protectively over my back.

“Gia?” He asked and I nodded.

“What the hell am I doing?” Junnie said. “Gia this is…, my fiancé. This is…”

He extended a hand to me. “I’ve heard so many things about you.”

“You have?” I looked at Junnie and she wouldn’t meet my eyes. I took his hand and gave him a polite, if not altogether genuine, smile.

“It’s nice to finally meet you in person. You look better than I’d been told.”

“Told by whom?” My question came out more sharply than I’d intended.

Before he could answer Junnie had pushed him out of the door, standing on tiptoes to kiss his cheek. “Anyway… didn’t you say you had to go someplace?” She asked him.

He looked at her in confusion before understanding dawned. With a small smile he addressed her. “Yeah, sure. Call me later.”

Before I could say anything else to him or even comment on the fact that Junnie did not appear as if she had not been planning on going out with him, he had disappeared around the corner, straight to where the elevators would be. By the time I turned around and looked at my best friend, her gaze was locked onto my belongings, her mouth downturned.

“What happened?” She asked, before picking up my suitcase.

I followed her into the apartment, letting my eyes wander through the space. Nothing had changed since I was last here, I thought, as I dropped the rest of my stuff on her immaculate floor and walked towards a window.

“Hello?” She asked, when I didn’t respond. “Are you going to answer me or will I have to hazard a guess?”

I turned to her and shrugged my shoulders. “It was just time for me to leave,” I lied. “Nothing happened.”

“Your face tells me that you’re not telling me the truth.”

“Junnie…”

“Stop lying to me,” she tsked as she sat down on her couch and patted the seat next to her. “Come on.”

I dragged my feet to join her in the living room and plopped down next to her. Though her eyes took in my shoes, she said nothing and just remained silent, waiting for me to speak.

I couldn’t. I stared at the magazines on her table as if they was the most interesting thing in the world.

I knew that I could talk to her, but something held me back. Not fear of judgment, since I knew my best friend would understand whatever I tell her. More like fatigue, and a bit of selfishness as well. I didn’t want to share what happened between me and Jung Jin to anyone else. I can’t hold on to anything, but I will hold on to that.

It was only as I sat here that I realized how tired I was, how tired I’d been, as if the weight of living the last ten years the way I chose to had finally caught up with me. There was an insistent, dull pain on the back of my head, one that no amount of medication or hydration has been able to diminish. My throat was dry, parts of my body aching. I felt like shit.

I just wanted to sleep.

As the silence lengthened, however, I realized that Junnie was still waiting for a response. I had no doubt that she would not allow me any respite unless I gave her something, anything to work with.

For a second I considered just leaving again and taking a cab to the nearest hotel. I was the expert in leaving, after all. But what good would that do now, when she already knew I was here?

“Nothing happened. I just realized that you were right, that’s all,” I said, trying not to betray anything with my voice. “Really.”

She narrowed her eyebrows at me. “So you and the manager agreed that this was the right thing to do?” I didn’t respond. “Did he agree to take care of that mongrel that you love so much, then?”

“Yeah, Junnie, that’s exactly what happened,” I answered, the mention of Dog bringing tears to my eyes. I got up from the couch and started walking towards her kitchen. “Do you have any liquor?”

She glared at me. “Hold on,” she commanded, stopping me on my tracks. “Something is not adding up here.”

“Don’t make this more complicated than it is.” I turned around, my arms instinctively crossing over my chest. “Do you have any liquor?”

“But…”

“Junnie, I’m exhausted. Let’s have this conversation later.” I really meant never, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. Not when she’s standing there looking at me as if she could see through the multitude of lies passing through my lips. “I’m going to sleep.”

She sighed audibly. “It’s only 8 p.m. Don’t you want to eat first?”

“I just want to sleep. I’ve been traveling for almost thirteen hours. Do you have any liquor?”

“Thirteen?” She asked dubiously, frowning, ignoring my question altogether. “A flight from Seoul is only 6 hours long.”

“Not when there are no direct flights,” I muttered under my breath, thinking about the incident at the airport, where I almost scared the airline employee half to death when I insisted, almost hysterically, that they put me in any plane that will take me out of Seoul RIGHT NOW. As a result I ended up flying to Thailand, then to Indonesia, then finally to Singapore. It was a logistical marvel that I even made it here, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. “I’m fine. I just need some alcohol and a little rest.”

“I think you should eat before trying to drink anything.”

“I don’t.”

“But…”

“DO YOU OR DO YOU NOT HAVE ANY LIQUOR IN THE HOUSE?!?!” I barked, my patience wearing thin, and Junnie jumped in surprise. It has never been my way to yell and scream my way through things, but I’ve had enough of people telling me what I should do.

“No,” Junnie said, a little too calmly for my liking. “You know I don’t keep alcohol here.”

“Fine. I’m getting washed up and I’m going to sleep.” I turned around until her voice stopped me. Again.

“Really?” She asked. “You’re really just going to walk away like this?”

“Junnie…” I started haltingly, almost hesitant to even speak. I know Junnie means well, and the last thing I want to do is to hurt her feelings, but really, now is not the time. I’m worn out and exhausted, both physically and emotionally, and I just absolutely do not have the energy for this shit. I shook my head and took a deep breath before I spoke. “… I know you want to talk,” I continued, forcing my voice to gentle, “I love you, but I swear to God if you don’t let me go to sleep now I will march out of your door with my stuff.”

I could see the flash of temper jump into her eyes, could almost hear the stubborn response she was dying to give me. I lifted my chin in defiance… she wasn’t going to win this one. Not this fucking time. It’s partly her fault that I’m in this predicament.

We were clearly at an impasse; me looking like a hot mess and she perfectly put together, as we always were, locked in a silent battle that only two people who have been friends for a long time and who now found themselves completely at odds could be in. Junnie knew me better than I did myself, but I knew her too. She will give in before I ever will.

The sound of the phone ringing broke the tense silence. She looked at me hard for one second before she turning her attention to her handphone, her fingers silencing it instantaneously. When she lifted her eyes back to me, her gaze had softened some, but her mouth remained in a stern line. “Fine,” she said, finally relenting. “Sleep.”

“Thank you,” I said, uncrossing my arms and turning towards the guest bedroom door.

“Stop thanking me,” she called out from behind me. “You have two days.”

What? I turned around to face her once more, confused. “Two days?”

“Yeah,” she said, unsmiling. “I need to look into something.”

“Look into what?”

“Something,” she said. “But you need to get your shit together or at least get your story in order because in two days, we. Will. Talk.”

“And if I refuse?”

“This is not negotiable, not when you show up at my house without any explanation or warning.” She looked away and picked up her purse. “I’m going out. Unlike you, I do need food and I need to speak to…”

“Great,” I said, relieved to finally be getting some peace, for a few hours at least. “See you later.”

She picked up my stuff and piled them onto one corner of the living room before she walked towards her door. I had already breathed a sigh of relief at seeing her almost gone when she turned back around to look at me.

“For the record, I don’t believe the cockaninny story you just gave me about this being a mutual decision, planned thing yada yada yada,” Junnie said, jiggling her keys restlessly in her hands, as if she just realized something. “I don’t think you planned this at all.

“Of course I did,” I said stubbornly. “I only ever follow plans. My leaving was an extremely organized, calm aff…”

“Oh yeah?” She interrupted. “Then pray tell me, if this had gone down the way you’re insisting that it did, where is your sleeping bag?”

Her question surprised me, shocked me into silence. Whatever words of denial I had left vanquished into thin air, and I could only look at her, wondering how it was that I didn’t even realize that I had left it behind.

“Yeah,” she said. “I thought so. Go to sleep.”

Without waiting for a response she walked out of the door and closed it behind her, leaving me standing where I was, cursing at the fact that she knew me so well.

 

*****

Seoul, Korea
May 21, 2002
4:00 a.m.

Jung Jin

I waited for her. At first in the penthouse where we always shared our meal, where she had been living for the past few months, and then moving outside, on the same bench where I had waited for her in the past. I waited on the same fucking bench where I always found her, except this time I didn’t.

I waited for her.

Like a fool I waited for a total of 24 hours, 15 minutes and, looking at my watch, 37 seconds.

After preparing an almost too elaborate breakfast, I had waited expectantly for her to step off the elevator. Two hours later the breakfast had cooled, and I passed the time reading over emails, doing some housework, mindlessly watching television… falling back into the same patterns I had done before she came into my life. Except this time, they didn’t feel so familiar.

Everything I touched in my own home reminded me of her, even though looking at it it appeared as though nothing had changed. Everything was in its place, precisely where it belonged, except for her.

At the sixth hour I had made up a scenario in my head that she must have fainted or fallen down somewhere, which would, of course, be the only reason why she wouldn’t be home. This resulted in a somewhat panicked hour and a half, wherein I called the hospitals I just visited the night before, demanding that they tell me if a woman with her name and description had showed up or had been brought in. They all told me no.

By the ninth hour I had dodged numerous calls from my family, calls I avoided because 1) I wanted to keep the line open in case Gia was to call, 2) They would only ask how she is and 3) I wouldn’t be able to respond. Even now the message icon blinked at me from my phone, one that I studiously ignored.

I had stubbornly insisted on keeping the food that I had made on the table by the eleventh hour, though by it being there I was reminded time and time again that she was not here, and decided to wait outside, instead.

The thirteenth hour was occupied by my interrogation of the new doorman, a direct result of my leaving the penthouse after our fight. Worried that she would not call me if she locked herself out, I had insisted that the building have one available twenty four hours a day, even going as far as offering to pay his salary. The new doorman, whose name I cared not to commit to memory, practically paled as I threw him question after question, even demanding that he review the tapes from the CCTV to tell me when it was exactly that she left. One call to the main office had him telling me that he will get me the tapes. But not until Monday, when the office reopens. I left his post angrier than I arrived.

I think it may have been somewhere between the eighteenth and twenty first hour that I had the first inkling that she may not be coming back. At this point I had swayed between the various stages that one would expect to go through during a time like this. I had been worried, then angry, and then worried and angry. I was in denial, telling myself that there was no way that she would just leave, until I stooped to bargaining the powers that be in my mind, promising that as long as she came back, I would stay away from her, a promise that I knew I had no plans of keeping.

By the twenty second hour I thought I had convinced myself that this was the situation now, that she had left, but yet I stayed sitting outside, my heart still not sold on the fact that she had left me. She may have left, I thought, but surely she will come back. No two people could have possibly shared what we did and just leave it all behind.

She’s a kind woman, a thoughtful one, though she didn’t seem to like that about herself. It’s not like her to do something so thoughtless and cruel; in truth I didn’t even think it was possible for someone like her to do anything like that.

With this in mind, I watched on the bench as day turned to night and night turned back into dawn, holding onto the every bit of hope that I could muster, comforting myself with the thought that even if I couldn’t bring her back, then the thought of Dog will.

The twenty fourth hour passed with no sign of her in sight. It was only then that I dragged myself off the bench and set out back upstairs, my mind fixed on figuring out where the hell she could have gone.

I entered the penthouse and went straight to the guest bedroom, the sight of her slippers by the door bringing a pinch in my chest. Not bothering to knock, I entered the room and turned on the light. Though part of me knew on a purely intellectual level that she was gone, the truth of it staring me in the face was another thing altogether.

I felt the weight of realization hit me full force as I looked around and found her suitcases gone. The bed was made up as it always was, the blinds drawn. I stalked to the bathroom and found none of her stuff on the counters or in the shower stall. The place looked as if she was never here.

I walked slowly, incredulously, back to the guest bedroom, as if I was in some kind of trance. It felt as if I was outside of myself, trapped in this parallel world where she was gone. I didn’t want to accept it. I couldn’t accept it.

How could I possibly go back to a life without her? This is not really possible. This is not plausible. If she truly left she would have left something. A note. An explanation. Something.

My eyes roamed around the room, almost relieved that I saw nothing of the sort. Until I looked at the table in one corner of the room.

I picked up the piece of paper, revealing what was underneath. My eyebrows furrowed I fingered the money order on the table, already made out to me. I read her note quickly, hoping that she may have written something that would explain what was happening. Instead, I only saw two words: thank you.

Thank you? That’s it?

Something heavy sat on my chest, my fingers crumpling the small piece of paper. My heart tightened, feeling something close to despair. Feelings I hadn’t known in years came over me and I staggered from the weight. It felt like someone had been given my heart and a knife and a hammer, to do with as they pleased. My heart started beating erratically in my chest and I could barely take a breath, my fingers shaking.

Blinded by the feeling of loss I felt unhinged, the ground beneath my feet feeling as if it was about to give way. The world felt as if it’s been tilted off its axis, and I wasn’t sure what was real and what wasn’t anymore.

I stood in place for what felt like a million years, grief that’s bigger than I had ever known pulsating through my veins. And above it, underneath it, through it, the exquisite, almost delicious feel of anger.

She played me. SHE played me. She played ME. SHE fucking played ME.

I couldn’t believe it. No one plays me. No one leaves me. The prevention of such a fact is what had driven me for years, but now she dared to do such a thing, after I practically laid my heart bare at her feet and offered her everything.

Fury pounded through me, overtaking whatever else I could be feeling, the sensation a relief. My jaw clenched as I latched onto the emotion, finding solace in this one thing, willing everything else away.

A humorless smile played on the corner of my mouth as I realized that she had paid me. For what? I thought. A rancid taste rose to my tongue as the thought came that she might have been paying me for my sexual services. Something she had accused me of doing to the women I had slept with.

I got it.

Silently I sent her a congratulations for getting her message across, and in the most effective way possible. Except she missed the mark, I thought bitterly as I picked up the money order and tore it up into little pieces, as if I could make it disappear. She didn’t pay me anywhere near what I was worth. She owed me a few more fucking zeroes for my ‘performance.’

I walked to the living room, strangely composed, almost eerily calm. Inside me a voice called out, the same voice that I had allowed to guide me in my every interaction with her, protesting the conclusions that I had come to, begging for me to reconsider. I blocked it out, remembering now how that voice had failed me so many times in the past, wondering why I even let it speak.

It didn’t abate. Not when I threw away everything that was on the dining room table, evidence of what a fool I had been. Not even when I sat down with a bottle of whiskey, the same color as her eyes the moment before I kissed her. The room rang hollowly with the echoes of her laughter, shadows of her smile peeking out at me from every corner. She was everywhere I turned, her absence like a darkness hovering over me.

And as I took a swig straight from the bottle, I marveled at how everything here could look the same and yet not the same at all. Her words came back to me now, resonating with a clarity I hadn’t allowed myself to see before.

“You don’t know me,” she had said. She was right. I didn’t, not one fucking bit.

“Forgetting is necessary.” She was right about that too.

I needed to forget her, as quickly as possible. As quickly as I am able. I needed to forget the shape of her eyes and the feel of her lips, the way her hand fit perfectly in mine. I needed to forget all those things. They were all illusions, a figment of my imagination. Everything I thought I wanted, projected onto a woman who was not what she seemed, a woman who wanted no part of me.

I think I may understand now, how vital it was to forget. I can’t imagine going about my life with these memories haunting me. But I will go about my life. I wasn’t quite sure how, but I will in whatever form I had at my disposal.

Resentment seethed inside me and took hold. I took another drink of the whiskey, savoring the burn as it went down. The feeling was almost euphoric, pleasurable. Or not, as my throat protested. Maybe I was exaggerating.

But given the choice between what I had felt before and this, I would take this any fucking goddamn day of the week.

 

*****

1:00 p.m.

 

By the thirty third hour the pain that I had felt had dulled significantly into an almost nonexistent ache. More a pinch, really. Spurned on by all the whiskey I’d already drank, I didn’t think twice before I opened the third bottle.

I sat alone in the penthouse, in the same position on the couch as I had been for the last nine hours, nursing the heavy glass of liquor, as if it was some kind of magic potion. My gateway to oblivion. Even now I liked that I felt nothing now, except the comforting blanket of numbness.

It made me feel like I was seeing things clearly for the first time. There was nothing wrong with how I lived. There was nothing wrong with me.

She was what was wrong. And now she was gone.

Still though, where could she have gone? She didn’t know anyone else here; she admitted that herself. Unless she went with that vet, I thought as I drank another swig of whiskey, then shook my head. No fucking way. She wasn’t interested in him at all. It may not have been him but it was because of someone.

Women never leave one man without having someone standing by waiting. I know Kelsey didn’t, and Hye Soo… always had someone waiting. Even Emmanuelle, Arabelle… what was her name again? In my drunken stupor I couldn’t even remember the name of the woman I had been sleeping with when I first met her… I was pretty sure what’s-her-name had someone on the side who was more than willing to take her when I tired of her.

Who could it be?

And then there it was… a flash of memory, something she said. About her best friend, Joon. He was getting married.

That’s it, I thought triumphantly even as renewed fury surged through me so quickly I felt myself quake. It has to be him.

It was no coincidence that she had already started pulling away as soon as he started contacting her again, then closed up altogether after he visited.

Bastard. Asshole.

Did she realize that she loved him before or after she slept with me? Was she imagining his face while I was making love to her, no, fucking her? Did she use the whole time she was here as an excuse to make him jealous, to force his hand into realizing that he felt more for her than he ever realized?

The foul taste was back in my mouth and I swallowed an inordinate amount of whiskey to try to wash it away.

But still, even as I tried to tell myself to not give a damn, to remind myself that I already got from her what I wanted to begin with, I could not stop myself from imagining the two of them together. My fingers squeezed around itself so tightly I could feel my nails digging into my palm.

Or maybe it was that fucking vet. Maybe she was interested in him, after all. Who knows what she told him that night of our botched date?

Either way, there was someone else. There had to be. The room dimmed in front of me and all I could see was red. Bloody, violent red.

She used the wrong damn person. And I still loved her. Despite the anger. Despite all the questions that she left unanswered. Despite the fact that she left without a fucking word, ripping my heart out of my chest, bleeding for all to see.

I really am an idiot.

The sound of the elevator door opening slightly roused me out of whatever stupor I was in though I couldn’t be bothered to turn around or call out a hasty greeting.

I stood up when I realized it might be her, and my traitorous heart jumped in my chest. Maybe he had rejected her. Maybe he didn’t want her, after all.

The thought gave me a shallow satisfaction. I stood up and turned around to face her, the sudden movement making my abdomen churn. I had to swallow the bile that had risen to my throat and the room spun for a millisecond. Somehow I managed to get my bearings and saw two of my elder sisters, standing in front of the elevator bay.

Ji Min Noona’s lips were partially open, as if she was caught by surprise. Ji Hee Noona took a sniff and frowned.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Ji Hee Noona asked, her voice already upset. “Our sister is in hospital and you’re drinking. Who the hell does that shit?”

I shrugged my shoulders nonchalantly. The last thing I needed was to deal with my sisters’ hysterics. “I’m a grown ass man,” I said. “If I wanted to drink in my own goddamn house then I have every right to.”

Ji Min Unnie’s eyes sharpened before she spoke. “Watch your mouth.”

“I hope you two didn’t come here to give me a lecture about how I should speak in my own house,” I said, sitting back down and pouring more whiskey into my glass. I looked at them both as they continued you watch me with slight concern, daring them to call me out on how much I was drinking.

“Where’s Gia?” The question came from Ji Hee Noona’s mouth.

“Gone,” I said.

“Gone where?”

“Who knows?” I ground out. “Who cares?”

“Lee Jung Jin,” Ji Min Noona said. “What the hell happened?”

I didn’t even get a chance to answer before I heard the elevator open again. Before I could even see who had arrived, Dog came tumbling into the room, excitedly running around, yelping. I could hear the quick pitter patter of his feet on the hardwood floors but stopped when he saw me, panting with joy.

The sight of him brought about a fresh wave of pain as I remembered us, before now. In one second I recalled her face as she held him, the way she looked as she sat with both him and me, as if there was nowhere else she’d rather be.

I blocked the memories away. They were all fucking lies. My heart skittered in my chest, clamping so tightly it brought tears to my eyes. Swallowing the feeling of loss away, I put my now empty glass down and drank straight from the bottle.

“What is he doing here?” I asked, my voice dull.

“What do you mean what is he doing here?” I heard Ji Hyun Noona’s voice ask and I met her astute eyes. “He lives here.”

“Not anymore,” I said. “Take him away.”

“Lee Jung Jin,” Ji Min Noona said, her voice in a mixture of disbelief and anger. “What do you mean?”

“Are you guys playing dumb today or what? How many times will I have to explain what I say?” My sisters looked at me, their faces bearing identical expressions of contempt and scorn. I don’t give a shit. “Get him out of here. Take his stuff, too.”

“Where are we supposed to take him?” Ji Hee Noona’s voice was furious.

“I don’t care. To the shelter. To the street. It doesn’t matter, just get him the hell out of here.”

“Lee Jung Jin… have you lost your fucking mind?” With every word Ji Min Noona’s voice was rising with agitation. “If Gia was here…”

The mention of her name made me livid and I found myself standing up and facing all of them. Ji Hyun Noona had picked Dog up from the floor, as if afraid that I was capable of doing something horrible to him and held him closely in her arms.

“If Gia was here, if Gia was here… well guess what?” I asked. “Gia is not here. That thing was her dog. I only took him in because of her and now she’s not here. Therefore, he is merely a responsibility I would rather not have and there is no reason for him to be here. If you guys can’t do what I’m asking you to do, then leave him here and I’ll fucking do it.”

“He’s not some thing that you can just get rid of like trash, Jung Jin,” Ji Hee Noona argued. She looked like she was about to say something else when Ji Hyun Noona handed Dog to her, his eyes fixed on me, looking confused.

“Ji Min-ah,” my eldest sister said, not taking her eyes off of me. “Grab Dog’s stuff and bring it to the car. Ji Hee-yah, go downstairs, too.”

My two sisters appeared as if they wanted to argue with her, but one look at Ji Hyun Noona’s face had them doing just what she had ordered them to do. Ji Min Noona gathered all of Dog’s things, including his dog food from the kitchen pantry and his bed without as much as looking at me. The color was on her neck and on her face; I knew she was as angry as I was but our family operated on a hierarchy and she was letting our eldest sister deal with me.

Within a few tense minutes Ji Min and Ji Hee Noona were in the elevator with Dog and his possessions. It wasn’t until the door had well and truly closed that my sister spoke.

“Gia left?” She asked, her voice gentle.

“Yep,” I said, sitting back down.

“Are you okay?”

“Yep,” I said. “Perfect. I mean… Really, she saved me from a lifetime of questioning and doubting myself. The person you’re with is supposed to make you feel good about yourself, right?” She didn’t respond. “They’re not supposed to make you feel like shit.”

“Jin-ie…”

“EXACTLY,” I agreed, more to myself than her.

“I understand that you’re upset,” she said, sitting next to me hesitantly. “But don’t you think you’re going a bit over the top? Something could have happened… an emergency at home, something. She…”

“She’s in love with someone else.” My interruption shut her up and for a few minutes it appeared as if she was debating with herself about what to say next.

“I don’t really think…”

“Anyway, Noona, it doesn’t matter.”

“Did you…” she cleared her throat. “Did you really mean what you said about Dog?”

“Yep.”

She visibly deflated and I looked away. “That’s harsh, Jung Jin,” she said softly, sounding disappointed. “I always knew that you had changed, but I didn’t realize that you were capable of such cruelty.”

“Do you know what I did to the man Kelsey cheated on me with?” I asked flatly.

She met my eyes in surprise. “I haven’t heard that name from you in a long long time. And yeah, I know you got him fired.”

“I didn’t just get him fired,” I said. “I also told his wife what he’d been doing, and she ended up leaving him, taking their kids with her. I gave her enough ammunition so that she ended up with sole custody and richer than she would have ever been had she stayed married to him. She left him broke, and I made sure he stayed that way.” I clenched my jaw and steeled my eyes as they met hers. “For the rest of his life. So yeah, Noona. I’m capable of such things. You don’t know a lot of things about me.”

“I know a hell of a lot more than I don’t, but you’re right. I can honestly say that I ever thought there would come a day when I would look at you and not know who you are.” She stood up. “I understand where you’re coming from right now, but I can’t excuse your behavior. You need to get it together.”

“Why?” I asked. “It’s not going to bring her back.”

She looked at me in disbelief. “And you think acting like this will?” I didn’t give her a response. “I had heard whispers that you and Hye Soo were two of a kind and I never believed it, until now.”

Her words brought back the same stuff that she had said and I found myself gripping the glass I held so hard it broke in my hands. My sister jumped from the couch and looked at me in concern and in anger.

“Jesus! Jung Jin-ah! Are you okay?” She leaned over me and tried to grab my hand. I held my hand, now bleeding onto the floor, away from her.

“Go away, Noona. You’re the last person I want seeing me like this.”

“What the hell does that mean?” She asked.

“At least Hye Soo accepted me. At least she made me like myself. All you guys ever did was make me feel bad about what I did, who I was.” I wasn’t sure anymore if I was speaking to my sister or to her. The alcohol I had been drinking made me thoughtless, hurtful. “Get out, Noona.”

“Jin-ie…”

“GET OUT!”

She looked at me and shook her head. “I’m going to assume that you’re angry and you’re hurt, and that’s why you’re saying this shit. We will always love you and never abandon you. I hope you realize what the hell you’re doing before you fuck everything up.”

“Your advice is not appreciated or needed, Noona. Everything is as fucked up as it could ever be. Get out.”

She said nothing else as she gathered her purse and left the penthouse, and I stayed sitting where she left me, the wound on my hand still bleeding.

I think I may get, now, why she gets tattoos. It seemed almost a relief to be able to show something for the pain I was feeling but couldn’t quite put into words. It was a marvel, in fact, that I wasn’t riddled with wounds, blood gushing from every part of my body.

 

*****

Montebleu, Singapore
May 22, 2002
8:30 p.m.

Gia

I played with the chilli crab noodles on my plate, swirling them round and round my fork, to make it look like I was eating, except I wasn’t. It was all for show.

The meal Junnie always cooked to make me feel better wasn’t successful tonight. I felt no different now than I did when I first arrived.

I could feel her scrutinizing me across the dinner table, her eyes watching my every move. I know what she’s doing. She’s biding her time.

I’ve stayed in her guest bedroom for the past two days, not coming out except for meals and to go to the bathroom. Even so our conversations have been stilted, awkward. For the first time in a decade my best friend seemed unsure about how to speak to me, what to say. She seemed like she was walking on the edge of something, careful with her words.

It was not Junnie’s way.

The first day I did make an attempt to look almost normal. But she saw right through me and told me so. I’d been too exhausted since to even give it another go.

Junnie, as if realizing this, had just shut up. Most of the time when she got home she remained firmly ensconced on her phone. Making phone calls, speaking quietly. This was not anything new or unusual. Junnie’s work days never just ended at work.

Still, she had stayed out of my way.

I don’t blame her… I don’t even know what to say to myself. I don’t even know what to think, how to feel. I feel as if I don’t know anything at all. Not anymore. I already know I’m horrible company. I’d be scared to speak to me too if I was her.

And so I wrapped myself up in silence, instead. In solitude. Not feeling much like getting up and running even, I had spent my time sitting in bed staring at the wall, or standing by the window starting at the sky.

I’d become the worst sort of loner, someone who doesn’t act as if she cared, someone who doesn’t even bother to try.

I would think I was in shock except I’d been crying. A lot. I’d shed more tears in the last two days than I had for the last ten years. It doesn’t even have to come from anything in particular. Anything could set me off. These crying sessions are interrupted only by bouts of anger. Searing, scalding anger. The kind that makes me want to throw stuff on the wall and punch things.

I vacillated between both on a minute to minute basis. It felt like I was losing my mind. I felt out of control, as if I was in the midst of a nervous breakdown, except most people who are having nervous breakdowns are very rarely aware of them as they’re happening.

I’d become a liability. Even to myself.

“So,” Junnie said softly, interrupting my thoughts. “What did you do today?”

“Not much,” I responded, trying to sound light. “You know.”

Junnie helped herself to some salad before she spoke again. “I don’t know, which was why I asked.”

I looked at her and shrugged my shoulders. “I did nothing different today than I did yesterday. What do you want me to tell you?”

“How about what actually happened?” She snapped. “You’ve been stuck in that room for ages.”

“Two days, Junnie. Hardly what anyone can consider as ‘ages.'”

“Whatever,” she said and I frowned at her. She met my eyes directly, frowning right back at me.

I had been so wrapped up in my thoughts that I didn’t notice that Junnie was seething. Not annoyed. Not irritated. Not even mad. Waves of fury bounced off her normally calm face and her mouth stayed tight with tension as she looked at me.

On the table her phone rang and she looked at it for a second before she silenced the call. I took a mouthful of the pasta and forced myself to swallow.

Her phone rang again and I pointed my fork at it.

“Aren’t you going to answer that?” I asked.

“It can wait.”

“But what if it’s your fiancé?” I insisted, needing her attention on something else besides me. “Your work? You’ve never not…”

“It can wait.”

I looked at the table, wondering how much longer I will have to stay here until it’s somewhat polite to excuse myself. I felt like a kid again, trapped in a meal where I have to pretend that everything was okay. I looked at my watch and feigned a yawn. I was in the process of inching the chair away from the table when Junnie’s voice stopped me.

“Where are you going?”

“Bed. I’m really tired. I’ve had a busy…”

“You just said you didn’t do anything all day,” she cut in, her voice so sharp it could cut through steel. “You can’t hide away forever. Besides,” she continued with a raise of her eyebrow, “your two days are up.”

“Junnie, I’m too tired to play these games.”

“Who’s playing?” She looked around the table as if addressing a roomful of people. “I’m not playing. Are you?”

I pursed my mouth shut and remained doggedly silent. She shook her head at me and swallowed some water, as if figuring out the right strategy to approach me with.

“This is not funny,” I muttered.

“I don’t think this is funny,” she said. “For two days you’ve done nothing but lock yourself away in that room, doing God knows what. If you don’t speak to me now, you’ll have to leave.”

I stood up. “Then I’ll leave.” With a stubborn lift of my chin I turned around towards the direction of the guest bedroom.

“You can’t run away forever,” Junnie called out from behind me, and I found myself walking back to the table.

“Of course I can. If I want to run away, I’ll run away. If I don’t want to speak to you, I won’t speak to you. No one is going to tell me what to do. No one is going to stop me. I love you but even you can’t make me do something I don’t want to do.”

She looked at me, her gaze unflinching. “So what… I’m the enemy now, too?”

“If you’re not with me then you’re against me.”

“What a ridiculous, immature way of thinking,” she replied. “I didn’t expect it from you, who is all about looking at the big picture. Life is not that simplistic and not everyone is out to get you.”

“I really don’t want to have this conversation now.”

“You never want this conversation, which is precisely why we’ll have it.” She paused and took a deep breath. Her voice gentling, she spoke again. “You’ve trusted me for more than a decade… can’t you trust me a little bit longer and tell me what happened between you and the manager?”

The anger was still in her eyes but it was accompanied by something else, too. A little bit of disappointment. And more than a little hurt. In my memory Junnie had always been my sounding board and my conscience. She had always proven herself on my side and always been someone whose counsel I valued over anyone else’s.

I had so much to say, so why now in the presence of someone who knew and understood me, someone who always loved me no matter what, did I still hesitate to speak?

“He has another woman.” I don’t really know why I decided to start at this point, but it seemed easier, somehow. Maybe I wanted to give her something without her prying for more information. Junnie knew that I had long said that there was no way that I would ever stay with a man who was unfaithful, again. I thought that by letting her infer that Jung Jin had been unfaithful that the conversation would be over before it even began.

I was wrong.

“There was or there is?”

“Does it matter?”

“The tense matters,” she said. “There’s a big difference between was and is.”

“It’s not important,” I said. “The point is that he lied.”

“He didn’t tell you about her from the get go. How is that lying?”

I looked at her in disbelief. “Whenever someone does something that is designed to conceal or omit the truth, it’s a lie.”

Junnie gave a delicate shrug of her shoulders. “So he told you an indirect lie.”

“That’s not everything,” I said hotly. “He also gave me earrings.”

“O-kay…” She looked at me as if she didn’t get it, appearing so befuddled that I was even more infuriated.

“I found them on his table… diamond earrings,” I said, fuming. “He was planning on making me just another of his conquests.”

“You’re right… the man is horrible. He was planning on giving you jewelry,” Junnie asked sardonically. “Hmm… did it ever occur to you that it might just be a gift?”

“His woman said so herself… he gives gifts to potential, present and future bedmates. They’re like ‘let me sleep with you,’ ‘let me keep sleeping with you,’ or ‘I’m tired of sleeping with you’ gifts. He was going to tire of me, too.”

“I don’t think it’s confirmed that she’s his woman.”

I glared at her. “It doesn’t matter. He got what he wanted, so he would have gotten rid of me, too… maybe not now, maybe not yet, but eventually. I just did him a favor and saved him the inconvenience.”

“I still don’t get it.” She said, wrinkling her nose and shaking her head. “And what do you mean he got what he wanted?” I looked away. “You two didn’t… sleep together?” I didn’t respond. “Jesus,” she breathed out. “Please tell me you used protection.” Again, I said nothing. “Do you two want me to have a heart attack?”

“It’s fine,” I said quietly. “I’ll handle it.”

“You taking care of things is not taking care of things,” she argued. “I hope that if it comes to that that you will think long and hard about making decisions that’s not just up to you.” She shook her head again. “Anyway… I don’t understand why you’d be so upset about him being a player. You weren’t even sure you wanted him in the beginning. You called the man a gigolo many times. You should be relieved that he is one.”

“I am relieved. I am so relieved I don’t know what to do with myself.”

Junnie ignored what I was saying. ” Why was it so upsetting to find out that you were right?” She continued to ask as her dark eyes bore into mine. “Unless… unless you didn’t think he was a player at all. Unless you didn’t want to believe that he was one.”

“Of course he was a player.”

“Disappointment only happens when you have expectations,” she said quietly, as if she was talking to herself. “And I know you… you’re not the type to have any kind of faith in someone unless you’re invested. Which leads me to believe that that’s not why you left at all.”

I really don’t know why she was delving into this more deeply than she should be. It made me even more defensive. “Anyway,” I said. “It doesn’t change the fact that I can’t trust him.”

“You can’t or you won’t?” She asked. “Was he actually cheating on you with her? Was he actually treating you as if you were only a conquest?”

“I don’t know. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.”

“You keep saying ‘it doesn’t matter’ when your face says otherwise,” she said dismissively. “So he has a past.” At the expression on my face, she corrected herself. “So he has a past where he’s behaved badly. So what?” She asked. “Let me remind you that you have a past, too, and you didn’t always behave well, either.”

“I can’t trust him,” I said, my voice adamant. “He lies all the fucking time.”

“You lie all the time,” she said lightly. “Does he lie about the things that matter?”

“That doesn’t make a difference when I don’t ever know when he’s telling the truth.”

“Have you lost so much of your intuition that you can’t figure that out? You’re the expert in people, after all. Didn’t you always pride yourself on this?”

“Junnie, he’s a fucking liar.”

“So you keep saying. From what little you’re giving me and the fact that you won’t stop fixating on this one thing, I think it’s safe to assume that he hadn’t lied about anything else.” Junnie continued to eat calmly, her face betraying no emotion.

“He still lied.”

“About one thing. People mess up. People make mistakes. How is it that you can forgive Marcus for hitting you and Chris for cheating on you but you can’t forgive him for lying to you about a woman who once was in his life?”

“I don’t want to have to justify what anyone else does!” My voice came out shrill, everything she was saying scraping over my tenderest of spots, the fact that she was still so sensible and reasonable about this pissing me off even more. “He fucked up. He’s a liar. It’s not my job to make him a better man.”

“One mistake doesn’t define who he is.” She kept her eyes on mine. “You, of all people, should know this.”

“Excusing one mistake leads to excusing everything. I was right.” I crossed my arms over my chest as Junnie stopped eating and stood up as well, bringing her plate to the sink before leaning against the counter to face me. Her face was inscrutable, though I saw the censure in her eyes. “I. WAS. RIGHT!” My voice was hard, uncompromising and she still said nothing. “Why are you looking at me like that? What is so wrong with choosing to be…”

“Right instead of happy?” She interrupted before fixing her eyes on me, her face unsmiling. She stood only a few inches from me, watching for my every reaction. “You didn’t want to be wrong about him, did you? The man never stood a chance, did he?” I didn’t respond and the anger came back into her eyes so quickly even I was surprised. “I can’t believe it,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t fucking believe it.”

“WHAT?” The way she was looking at me felt like an accusation, one I had no use for. Who the hell was she to judge me?

“You wanted him to fuck up!” Her voice had risen to a yell and I flinched. Junnie had never spoken to me this way in all the years that I’ve known her. Twin circles of color suffused her cheeks, her outrage a direct recrimination. But of what? “You wanted a reason to be angry. You wanted an excuse to leave.”

“That’s not true.”

“It is true,” she said, looking at me as if she didn’t know me. “It is.”

“Why would I want that?” I asked softly, almost afraid of the answer.

“Because if he didn’t screw up, it would mean that it was real. If he really loved you, it would mean that you would have to change the way you think, the way you live. It would mean that you would have to believe in him, to trust him. It would mean that you were wrong.” She shook her head. “What the hell happened to you? What happened to the brave girl I first met? You’ve become a coward.”

“Life happened to me, Junnie.”

“Once upon a time you saw the good in people. Once upon a time, you were able to believe in something. Once upon a time…”

“Once upon a times are in the past, and there’s good reason why they are. Fairy tales start with once upon a time,” I said dully. “And end with a happily ever after. This is no fairy tale. Nothing about my life is.”

“Just because your life hadn’t been a fairy tale doesn’t mean that it can’t be good. You do realize that as you’re rejecting him, you’re rejecting love, too.”

“Who said anything about love?” I said.

“You didn’t have to. It’s written all over your face.” she snapped, her eyes never leaving mine. “You didn’t leave him because you didn’t believe him; you left him because you did.”

“That’s not…”

“You’re in love with him,” she concluded, sounding genuinely taken aback.

“No.”

“You wouldn’t have left if you weren’t,” she said.

“No.”

“You’re losing your touch.” Junnie commented, narrowing her eyes. “Even your denial sounds weak.”

“I don’t need love.”

“Of course you do. It was the only thing you ever wanted.”

“Not anymore. I don’t want any part of it.”

She visibly sighed, an expression almost like pity in her eyes. “How many times do I have to tell you that no matter how hard you fight it, love will come when it’s supposed to? You have as much say in that as you do the person you fall in love with. You can lie to yourself but you can’t lie to me. You can keep telling yourself you don’t love him but you do, or you wouldn’t be here, looking like your world just ended. I see it… You don’t want to risk anything, even if it means that you will be happy in the end.”

“That kind of thinking is what gets people in bad relationships.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” she said gently, trying to lay a hand on my arm and I stiffened at her touch. “True love is not like that. The best of love is empowering, challenging, nurturing, everything good and worthwhile in life.”

The echo of words I once believed in so naively brought a new wave of pain and I felt tears spring to my eyes. They fell at their own accord before I could even turn away and I brushed them off angrily.

“Love changes everything,” Junnie continued. “Love…”

“Don’t you dare talk to me about love,” I said scornfully, derisively, “Love… has made my mother stay with a man who can’t be faithful to her for over thirty three years. Love makes people cheat. Love makes people want to possess another being so badly that they will resort to violence. Love makes people stay for no good fucking reason with people who continue to hurt them. Love would have me forgiving every mistake and believing any lie.” My voice cracked as pain broke out in my chest.

“Love doesn’t do that; people do,” she said gently.

I ignored her. “Love…” I forced out, detesting the way my voice sounded: hurt, disillusioned, terrified. “… would have me on my knees, begging for any scrap of affection, accepting whatever morsel of attention is given to me like a fucking dog!”

At the mention of the word I started crying harder. Not a day, not an hour, a minute or a second had gone by that I didn’t mourn the fact that I didn’t even say goodbye to my dog. When I left Jung Jin, it wasn’t just him I left behind. I left them both. And perhaps, myself, as well, or at least the part of me that still hoped and that still believed. The only part of me I ever really liked.

Without hesitation, Junnie came to my side, running a comforting hand down my back.

“It’ll be okay,” she said. “I’m here. You’ll be okay.”

Her words brought about a memory of Jung Jin saying the same thing, and I closed my eyes as the wave of pain intensified. The remembrance wrangled sobs out of me and I began to cry in earnest. Junnie stayed wordless for a few minutes, allowing me my space, just as she had done a million times before.

“You’re crying.” Junnie said, the tone in her voice indecipherable.

“I know,” I said. “All of a sudden I have feelings and they have nowhere to go but out of my eyeballs.”

Junnie chuckled, providing the much needed levity to this moment. Even so, my tears didn’t stop… if anything they started coming down more forcefully, my chest feeling so tight I felt like I couldn’t breathe. Junnie stared at me amazedly, as if dumbstruck.

“What?” I asked, seeing the way she was looking at me.

“It’s just so…” She looked as if she was struggling to find the words. “… weird seeing you have a normal reaction for once.”

“As opposed to an abnormal one?”

She shook her head. “As opposed to no reaction at all, which has been your modus operandi for the last five years. You didn’t even cry this much when you broke off your engagement.” Her eyes were wide as saucers, still looking at me like I was some kind of alien creature. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” she said softly, “but I’m kind of glad to see you so emotional.”

“That’s a horrible thing to say,” I complained. “Why?”

She squeezed my hand before she replied. “Because for the last ten years I’d felt as if you had no fight in you left. I thought that your fire had been extinguished. You were breaking my heart,” she paused and took a deep breath. “You and Jung Jin aren’t children. Neither of you went into this with your eyes closed.”

“He thinks I’m strong,” I whispered. “He thinks I’m good. How will he cope if he finds out that I’m not always strong and I’m not always good? How can he really love me if he doesn’t know me?”

“He loves you?” Junnie asked, blinking at me. “How do you know?”

“He said so. He didn’t think I understood, but I heard him say it.”

“He didn’t think you understood? What does that even mean?”

“He said it in Korean,” I said dismissively. “Anyway… I can’t even take care of my damn self. I don’t even know what I’m doing with my life. How can I be responsible for him?”

“Jung Jin’s not a child. Neither are you. And you… ” Junnie said softly, running a hand down my hair and I shook my head in denial. “… ARE all of those things. The fact that you recognize how weak you are and that you aren’t always good is a testament to that. There is strength in knowing your weaknesses, and goodness in admitting that you’re human, too. Like I said, I don’t think either one of you went into this blindly.”

“He did,” I insisted. “He did. I don’t want to be there when the day comes that he realizes that I am not as kind as he thought I was, that I wasn’t the person he thought he fell in love with. I can’t be there to see him fall apart when the reality sets in and he starts hating me. I can’t watch him walk away from me.”

“The truth won’t destroy him.”

“No,” I agreed. “But he’ll live his life believing those things about me and I’ll live my life trying to be the person he believes me to be just so he’d continue to love me. You’re right… The truth won’t destroy him; it will destroy us both.”

I felt Junnie’s hand on my hair, taking a good long while before she spoke again. “You can’t destroy what’s already broken. You can only put it back together, make it stronger. Make it better. The sooner you come to terms with that the better it will be, and I pray that it won’t be too late.”

“You’d think that,” I said. “But that’s untrue. What’s already broken can still be destroyed and decimated even more, until it no longer exists. I can’t let that happen to either one of us.”

“It’s not your choice to make those decisions,” she said sharply. “You’re looking for guarantees and I can’t give you that. Neither can he. No one can. You’ll never know unless you try.”

Feeling as if I had only just chipped the first layer of all my issues and too exhausted now to argue my point and to defend my actions, I just put my head in my hands in resignation. Junnie understands a lot, but she doesn’t understand everything.

How can someone who grew up surrounded by love understand how it feels to have no fucking idea how love is supposed to be or how it’s supposed to feel? How can someone who always knew how her life was going to turn out ever really understand what it’s like to be faithless? How can someone who has never felt disappointment know the struggle of one who trusts nothing, not even herself?

When my tears stopped Junnie led me to the guest bedroom and put me to bed, just as she had done in the past. I knew that she was hoping that a good night’s sleep would be all I need to gain some perspective, just as she thought it did in the past. I also knew that she would want to speak about this some more in the morning.

Life is made up of patterns and routines. People do it to bring comfort and take control over a life that is so often ungovernable. Didn’t I tell Jung Jin that once?

I had always fallen apart and she had always somehow managed to keep me together. That’s what we always did. We had our roles to play. Hers was to be the understanding best friend and mine was to be the one who always messed up.

It should have been reassuring for me to realize that this had not changed, but strangely, worryingly, it was not.

 

*****

Seoul, Korea
9:00 p.m.

Jung Jin

A few hours after my sisters left I had finished off the bottle of whiskey before dragging myself to the bathroom. Some way or another I managed to wrap a bandage around my hand before falling asleep on the bathroom floor, my back against the wall.

I woke up with my mouth feeling like sandpaper, a persistent knocking on my head. As in, my whole head. It felt like it was about to explode. The stiffness on my neck made me wince, as did the throbbing on my thigh. I stood up slowly, using the toilet to prop my weight up. Laying my hands against the counter for support, I took a deep breath before I opened my eyes, the glare from the bathroom light unnaturally bright.

Little sparks appeared behind my lids and my eyes tried to adjust to the light as I grimaced at my reflection on the mirror.

I looked like hell.

My eyes were bloodshot, my hair standing up in some places. There was a two day stubble on my chin and over my lips, blood on my shirt. I looked pale, unhealthy… nothing like myself, or at least, nothing like the myself that I had cultivated over the last six years.

I had reverted back to the lovesick fool I was six years ago. All the hard work dedicated to erasing any remnant of that boy undone in two days. All over one fucking woman.

Pathetic.

I gargled with some mouthwash and brushed my teeth with a lot of concerted effort, trying not to move my head too much. Peeling my clothes off I stepped into the warm spray of the shower and leaned against the wall.

The water sprayed over me comfortingly, and I closed my eyes. I was convinced that i still smelled like her, like this whole fucking house smelled like her. I pushed the thoughts to the back of my mind, letting the water wash them away. I scrubbed my skin raw off her, with the determination of one who was trying to erase a stubborn stain from fabric.

The pulsating, paralyzing anger had turned into a thick, dull numbness in the less than a handful of hours I slept, and for that I was grateful. Though still clouded it felt like my mind was able to function once more. By the time I stepped out of the shower and went about the task of shaving, it felt like I was one step closer to the man I was before she came into my life.

Standing by the sink my fingers set about to doing what they always did. I shaved quickly and efficiently, my eyes never leaving my face on the mirror. Though my eyes still looked empty, at least I looked the part of the man who didn’t give a shit.

She didn’t, so why should I?

I walked to my closet and pulled out a fresh shirt and trousers, as well as a matching jacket. I dressed emotionlessly, feeling stronger with each piece of clothing I donned. When I was done I stood by the mirror, my eyes traveling over the picture I made, searching for anything that might give away the fact that while I may look as if I was okay, I was actually empty inside. Just a shadow. Just like she was.

Two can play this fucking game.

Satisfied that my image was as it should be, I went about my life the way I’d always done. I made some coffee and drank it while reading the paper. I did some work while the television played on the background. I returned work emails and calls, my voice convivial and courteous, the way I had always been.

Still I tried not to notice that I had twenty eight missed calls, varying from all the members of my family and Shawn.

Speaking of Shawn… the phone vibrated and my friend’s name flashed on the screen. I silenced it immediately, not bothering to even pick up.

The last thing I needed was to hear ‘I told you so.’ And I was in no mood to be trying to examine where that woman was coming from. It was already too late for that… whatever her reasoning and her intentions were, none of those things mattered anymore.

I tried to be that guy… the guy who was thoughtful and understanding, and it backfired on me once more. She had criticized me for being who I am, for always reverting back to my old ways so thoughtlessly when she does exactly the fucking same.

There’s no way I will let one woman transform me into a miserable, pathetic shell of a man. I always thought that the power in any relationship lies with the one who loves less. Unless, the one who loved less was someone like me.

There is no fucking way that I will allow her to leave me behind like I was some kind of insignificant baggage. If she moved on with her Joon, I will move on too. With whomever is willing, and I know there are plenty of women who are.

I stepped into the elevator and went down to the first floor. Barely sparing a glance at the night doorman, I pulled my handphone out of my pocket and pressed the speed dial button for my cleaning service.

Before anyone could answer I spotted a cab and hung up the phone. Not meeting the cab driver’s eyes, I gave a hoarse command to take me to the nearest bar even as my brain was full to exploding with what I had to do to reset my life back… whatever I had to do to erase and obliterate any and every memory of her.

I had no use for them now. She can go to hell.

 

*****

YH Wine Cellar
Seoul, Korea
10:00 p.m.

Jung Jin

I sat on one corner of the long bar area, on my second drink. I stared at the scotch in my glass before lifting my eyes to look at the people around me.

The details of the bar that I had frequented and always quite enjoyed before were lost on me today. There was only one reason and one reason alone that I even ventured out of my penthouse tonight.

I lifted my drink to my lips as my eyes collided with another pair two seats from me. Dark brown eyes stared at me unabashedly, lips curved into a blatantly interested smile. I let my eyes wander over the dress she wore, barely skimming the top of her thighs. Creamy skin peeked out of the slits on her shoulders; she brushed a hand over her hair alluringly before looking away. I let my mouth lift in a smile, and signaled for the bartender.

He looked at me in question and I motioned for him to lean down. “Another of what the beautiful lady in black is having.”

He smiled and nodded before getting to task. I watched as he deposited the drink in front of her and began the countdown in my head.

I know what most women see when they look at me: precisely what I wanted them to see… a man unattainable, in control, someone who could give them what they want. They don’t care about anything else, and I was good with that. All I had to do was slap a smile on my lips and flash a few bills and they will come running.

I give her ten seconds.

She slinked over in four. I almost laughed at how predictable it all was, except my broken heart found solace in that fact right now.

I wondered as she walked towards me and sat herself on the seat next to mine how long we would have to pretend to have a conversation before we take this elsewhere. I wondered if she would be coy or bold, whether she would make it seem as if she wasn’t interested in the same thing I was. I wondered how many drinks I would have to pay for before she lays a finger on me.

I didn’t have to wonder long. Almost as soon as she sat down she turned to me and put a hand on my forearm, her touch casually intimate. My first instinct was to pull away, to tell her that I was already accounted for, except I wasn’t, was I? I had every right to do what I wanted to do, with whomever I pleased. Just like she was doing.

I looked at her perfectly manicured hand, its long tips dipped in glittering amethyst. It was soft and lady-like, the fingers slender and bejeweled, so unlike that of the last woman whose hand I held. Her hands were small and functional, almost utilitarian, dotted by callouses and hardened skin. They were bare and unadorned, her only accessory the color of her nails, which was as changing as the weather. And her feelings.

This hand was definitely preferable. Definitely. I was so busy trying to convince myself of this that I didn’t realize the woman in front of me had already spoken.

I lifted my eyes to look at her, her painted mouth in an artful frown. “Oppa,” she murmured, her tone offended. “Have I bored you already?”

“No,” I said, my hand lifting to brush an imaginary speck off her face. She blushed prettily before licking her lips, her invitation clear. “Not at all.”

“You’re Lee Jung Jin, right?” She asked, bringing her face uncomfortably close to mine. “Kim Jae Joon’s manager?”

I smiled before I responded, forced myself to stay still. “Yeah. Are you a fan?”

“Of him?” She continued, tracing a finger over my collar. “Just a little bit. Of you?” She fluttered her lashes at me. “Absolutely.”

“You barely know me,” I said.

“Does that matter?” She asked, bringing her face closer to mine. “Did you know… that this place is right behind a hotel?”

“Is it?” I asked, though I knew perfectly well that it was.

She nodded before putting her lips on mine. At the contact I felt nothing, not even a spark of interest, something that she didn’t pick up on as her teeth latched onto my lower lip. I pulled away and my eyes locked on hers. Taking my wallet out of my pocket, I placed a handful of bills on the table and stood up. My phone vibrated in my hand and I glanced down to see Shawn’s name. I powered it off.

I gave the woman in front of me my trademark smile and led her out of the bar, my palm firmly on the small of her back, uncaring that I had yet to find out her name.

 

*****

Montebleu, Singapore
May 23, 2002
12 a.m.

Gia

I was lying on my side, unable to sleep. Junnie was already in bed; it seemed that she was just as exhausted as I was after our talk. I sat up and brought my legs up, tucking them under Jung Jin’s shirt, the one I still hadn’t been able to take off. I looked over at the shoes that I had worn when I left Seoul, the shoes that I guessed Jung Jin had planned on giving me.

My eyes fixed on the scene outside of the windows, I remembered the moment I found it, mere minutes before I saw the earrings, as well as his words on the note that he had written.

You’d be wondering why I’m giving you shoes, it had said. But I knew that you giving you what you needed was more important than giving you what you wanted. I know how much you value your freedom, and I don’t want to infringe on that. I just want to love you.

So run… run if it’s what you want, run if it makes you happy, run if you must.

I only ask one thing. Let me run with you. It doesn’t matter if I ran behind you or beside you. Just please… let me go where you go. Not just today, not just tomorrow, but for the rest of our lives.

In the present the words in my memory blurred as I blinked back tears. The other box had held the same shoes in his size, the male counterpart to mine. Two identical pairs, meant to run together.

It was… perfect. Better than the diamond earrings that he bought, the ones whose sight of prompted my hasty departure.

He told me he loved me. And I wanted that to be my truth. Whatever the cost.

I guess it didn’t occur to me until at that moment, with my heart erratically beating in my chest and my hands shaking, how much I wanted it all to be real. I’d been told that I was loved many times in the past, but I don’t think I ever wanted to believe it as badly as I did at that moment.

Seeing the earrings was like being doused by a bucketful of ice cold water. It reminded me that Jung Jin had not changed at all… that just like me, he is still bound by his routines and his patterns. It told me that no matter how much we both try, the fantasy that we were happily living inside of was precisely just that.

And then I remembered… why I chose to live my life the way I did. Why it was was so necessary for me to give him up.

It felt like my whole life had been building up to that moment, when I was given a glimpse of everything I thought I wanted, when I was shown how good it can be, when the thing I wished for hung perilously close within my reach, that I was reminded how dangerous it was to feel that much and why I chose not to hold on to anything.

When you have nothing for so long, you forget the terror of having something to lose. And terror was the best, no, the only way to describe what I felt.

Rather than risking the chance that I may lose him because of something I can’t control, whether it be because he doesn’t love me anymore or because of something else, I chose instead to lose him on my terms.

Before I was way past the point of never being able to.

Junnie was right. I had become a coward.

For the first time in a long time I realized I had no idea what to do with my life. I was directionless, unfocused, my whole being devoured by emotions. I don’t even have any idea who I am anymore. Was I the person that Junnie thought she knew? Was I the person that Jung Jin thought he loved?

I tried to remember what I would have done had I still been the person Junnie believed me to be, and I couldn’t remember. That person was as distant to me now as the voice that always guided me in times of hardships.

Had I come so far from where I began that there was no going back? How many more people must I hurt before I get my shit together?

I thought about my best friend and a montage of all the times she had rescued me came to my mind. For so long I thought that I was carrying my burden on my own when I wasn’t. My best friend hurt alongside me, cried alongside me, grieved alongside me.

It wasn’t fair. I hadn’t been fair to her for a long time.

In our friendship our roles always seemed to have been set in stone, firmly established not long after we met, when she chanced upon me after a class, crying my eyes out because Andrew had broken my heart. It was the first time she made me chilli crab noodles. The gesture made me feel better, and it was only the first out of many times that she would be making them for me in the next decade.

How I wished it was still that simple now.

I realized that as long as I was a live wire that I would continue to be a danger to everyone I loved, that for as long as I chose to not deal with my issues head on, that scenes like this will keep happening over and over again.

I’m so tired of it. Tired of myself, tired of my life, tired of moving on. And I think it might be time that I do something about it. It occurred to me that for me to even get a semblance of happiness I would need to find my own way. Alone.

Walking barefoot on the floor, I hefted my suitcase onto the bed and started packing. Again. I planned on leaving sometime soon, despite what I already knew Junnie will say. I was in the midst of folding Jung Jin’s jacket, something I had reclaimed without his consent, something else to add to my list of wrongdoings, when the sight of the gift that Ji Soo gave me caught my eyes.

At the memory of Ji Soo my heart tightened, my conscience racked by guilt. She would see my leaving as a betrayal, but how could I admit to not wanting to say goodbye? Neither to her, not to the life I had spent in Seoul, and most especially not to him.

I wasn’t ready to say it, not then and not now. Goodbye seemed so fixed and so permanent. Better for me to think that ours was a road open-ended, a sentence ended in ellipses. I want to believe that he and I will meet again, somewhere down the road, even if it’s many years from now, even if it’ll only be a passing glance. I needed something to hold on to, even if it was just that hope.

I lifted the framed picture of Jung Jin, his face caught in a moment of joy, and a heaviness settled over me so deeply it felt like it was coming from my bones. Powering on my phone I quickly scanned the menu until I found what I was looking for: pictures of Dog. I looked at both side by side, filled with such sorrow I almost couldn’t stand it. I sagged back onto the bed, holding both to my chest, as if in doing so I could hold onto them both for one more day, one more hour, one more second, even.

I missed them both already, though it hadn’t even been a couple of days, and it was in the admission of that that the gravity of what I had done really sunk in.

I always told myself to never look back. That’s the first lesson I learned, and one that actually stuck. But the night I left, for some reason, even as every particle in my body told me not to, that I’d only regret it, I found myself looking back anyway.

I only turned my head. One little motion, something even my cervical spine realized was an anomaly. And I saw him, sleeping peacefully, the picture of blissful ignorance. He was still, silent, motionless and yet I heard echoes of his voice, saying the three syllables that I thought never to hear again, much less in a language that I wasn’t supposed to understand.

At that moment all I could think of was how much I didn’t want to leave him, how much I didn’t want to give it all up. For once I wanted to hold onto something, keep something selfishly for myself.

I was frozen, stuck between an illusion and reality, and disturbingly it didn’t matter at all. The terror of realizing that I would have given him anything, everything, and that I would have settled for anything, everything, was what jolted me into action, to do what I always did. To leave as I always did.

I realized how much I loved him. I loved him more than I had ever loved before which seemed almost laughable now since I always believed myself in love with the others as well. I had let others get away with so much more even as I loved them less than I did Jung Jin.

How much would I let Jung Jin get away with? How much would I forgive? How much of myself did I have left to invest in a relationship with a man who will demand everything of me?

But still, until the moment I actually let myself into the cab, I fought the desire to look back at every turn, and it was then that I began to cry. I cried because I knew then what I was giving up. I cried because I knew that this was more than just about two people trying to make a relationship work. I cried because more than anything I wanted to believe that I was worth loving. I cried because I knew my leaving was inevitable, a way for the universe to right itself again, a way for both he and I to be able to one day start afresh, as different people, next time. As better people. As people who deserved each other.

Most of all, I cried because even as I was leaving, I knew I would never completely be able to walk away from him. Not then. Not now. Not ever.

I will remember this. I will remember him.

Still, it had been so nice just to live in the moment, to keep them both close to me, to pretend for a little that we all belonged together.

It was a relief, really, that Dog came into our lives. At least they had each other, I thought. Whatever else happens to me, at least they had each other.

 

*****

Renaissance Seoul Hotel
Seoul, Korea
4:00 a.m.

Jung Jin

My eyes were fixed on the ceiling, the woman next to me completely unaware as she burrowed closer to me on the bed, her silky skin brushing mine. My city shone with blinking lights out of the windows; life moving on as it always did, the new day already hovering in the distance.

I had done it. I had undone her. When I think back on the last woman I touched, it will no longer be her name that will come to mind. I didn’t know why that was so important to me, but it was.

It was so easy… to slip back into my life before she came along. It was so easy to forget that just days before I was in love, dreaming of a future that could never be.

Dreaming was for dreamers, not doers like me. As if I needed any more reminding.

A strand of black hair brushed over my chest and I withdrew from the sensation. Lifting my bed mate’s arm off of me, I stepped out of the bed, not even bothering to turn the light on, and headed straight to the shower.

I stood under the water impassively, feeling nothing at all. There was no satisfaction that I had gotten even, no pleasure even at having been able to accomplish what I’m sure she thought I would not. Just nothing.

I dressed in the same vein, my actions guided only by habit, with no intrinsic thought and no real intention. Not having had the foresight nor time to buy something for the woman I just slept with, I took what was left of my cash and placed it on the bedside table. She continued to sleep, oblivious to my departure.

I didn’t leave my number. I didn’t need to… not that she would even mind. We both got what we wanted from each other. She wanted me and I… wanted to forget, if only for a little while.

That is what people do. It’s what grown ups do, despite what she believed otherwise. It’s certainly what she did. She was just better at pretending that she was doing the opposite.

I left the room and shut the door behind me, not even waiting until I was in the elevator until I pulled my phone out of my pocket.

“Renaissance Seoul Hotel In-room Dining.”

“This is Lee Jung Jin, from Room 1504. I would like to place an order for breakfast for 9 a.m. sharp.”

“It’s been a long time, Mr. Lee,” the person on the other line said warmly. “Same breakfast as always, sir?”

 

*****

Montebleu, Singapore
May 28, 2002
8:30 a.m.

Gia

“I’m going to leave in a few weeks,” I said quietly. “I’d be gone already but I’m waiting for all my funds to clear.”

Between Junnie and I sat a platter of eggs, bacon and toast, almost the same western type breakfast that Jung Jin cooked for me on an almost daily basis. I’m drinking from real cups with real utensils, just as I did in Korea. And it didn’t bother me at all.

I’ve been sleeping on a bed since I got here, and though I barely sleep, it’s not because of where I’m sleeping that’s the culprit. I haven’t thought of sleeping in a bag in almost a month… not since Jung Jin and I slept on the floor in the mountains.

After the foggy grayness of the first few days when I got here, it felt like some of the clouds were lifting at last. But it hasn’t stopped the deluge of thoughts about Jung Jin from coming over me, and in the most random of times, as well. Everything reminded me of him; I would see something or hear something and I would feel such an urge to call him and share it, though I always managed to stop myself somehow. He was not here at all, and yet I can’t seem to shake the memory of him loose. Dog, too.

I had started running again, and though the voice in my head had started quieting down some, it had not disappeared completely. It helped that I was so distracted every time I ran… I can’t seem to resist the urge to stop every time I see a dog on the street and pet them, much to their owners’ chagrin.

It’s really embarrassing, actually, seeing as by the time the owners take their dogs back, I am almost always in tears. It’s more than a little awkward, for them and for me. They couldn’t seem to understand why this weird foreign girl keeps bursting into tears while petting a dog and I couldn’t even stay calm enough to try to explain.

What the hell would I say anyway? I left my man and my dog because I have issues?

I shook my head inwardly.

“Why?” Junnie asked, her fork suspended mid air, the fluffy eggs looking like clouds.

“I just have to, Junnie.”

“Where are you going?” She asked, her eyebrows furrowing.

“I have some money saved up from the retirement thing… I was just going to travel for a bit. I’m thinking here in Asia first before heading to Europe. Maybe visit Elena. I figured that it was time.”

“I’m glad you’re finally going to travel,” she said. “If you wait three weeks I can free up my…”

“I’m traveling alone, Junnie.” My voice was decisive, non-negotiable. “Like you said in Korea, we’re in two different situations. You have a fiancé and a business to run.”

She looked at my face searchingly and I shoved a slice of bacon in my mouth.

“I know,” she said hesitantly. “But…”

“You’ve been on and by my side for the last decade. As much as I want you with me for this, too, this is something I really want to do on my own. You’ve rescued me enough times… I think it’s time I start learning to rescue my own self.”

“I don’t know where this is coming from all of a sudden.” Her voice was uneasy, tentative. “If this is about what happened about couple of nights ago…”

“No,” I interjected. “This has nothing to do with that at all.” I took a sip of coffee before I met her eyes. “I think it’s time that I get my shit together and stop being the broken one in all of my relationships. And for me to do that, I have to do it without you.”

Junnie said nothing; she was buttering her piece of toast repeatedly, her teeth biting onto her lower lip. She put it back on her plate before she met my eyes, her gaze concerned. “I’m your best friend,” she said softly. “It’s my job to help you through times like this.”

“I know,” I said with a smile. “And you’re an amazing best friend. But we’ve been doing the same thing for ten years to try to help me get over my shit, to try to get me past all my baggage and nothing we’d done had actually accomplished anything but just push it under everything else. Maybe I need to try something new. Maybe I need to do something different. Maybe… I need to do it alone.”

Junnie kept her eyes on my face, her gaze hidden. I took a deep breath before I continued. “I know how much you love me, and I know more than anyone else, that if love can fix whatever is wrong with me, just your love alone would have done it already.” My voice broke, thick emotion running through it. “I’m so grateful to have you in my life; I am. And you’ve supported all of my decisions; I hope this time will not be an exception.”

Junnie’s face softened. “Of course I’ll support you. You know that.” She brought her cup of coffee to her lips and took a sip before she put it down. “So what exactly is the plan?”

“I’m going to take this time to get reacquainted with myself, maybe learn to re-like myself too.”

“There’s a lot to like,” Junnie said, a small smile on the corner of her mouth. “Finally… you’re making real decisions.”

“Do I have your blessing, then?” I teased and she chuckled.

“Do you need it?”

“No, but I want it.”

“Then you have it.” She winked at me before taking another slice of bacon. “Do me a favor, will you? When booking your hotels use my card at least. If you’re going to be gallivanting around the world without me, the least you can do is help me rack up my points.”

I laughed outright. Junnie, the consummate opportunist and businesswoman. “Done,” I said. “You’re the best.”

“I know,” she said cheekily. “I’m just glad you didn’t run out on me, too.”

I huffed in indignation before throwing my piece of toast her way. Our eyes met and in one brief second I remembered all our years together and apart, our lives so interconnected I couldn’t quite pry them apart anymore.

That’s the thing about best friends. You always have someone who will support your decisions, even the bad ones. But just because they support your decisions, it doesn’t mean they won’t make fun of you for it. Not for the first time in my life I realized how lucky I was, in more ways than one.

It was the thought of Junnie and my family that saved me from the clutches of death once, but now more than ever I knew that I had to think of me, too, to have any chance at all of bringing myself back to life.

 

*****

Seoul, Korea
June 19, 2002
4:30 a.m.

Jung Jin

I walked into my penthouse and almost got a heart attack.

I had just deposited my keys on the kitchen counter when I spied a figure asleep on my couch. From the distance I couldn’t tell if it was a man or woman, and for a second I wondered if a burglar had broken in. Looking for something that i could use as a weapon, I walked around the kitchen restlessly, until my stupid heart piped up that it could be her. That she might have come back.

I blinked at the thought. Is it possible? Did she return?

The question was a sobering one and I stopped and considered the possibility when the person sat up, as if hearing my arrival and stood up, looking at the watch on his wrist pointedly before crossing his arms across his chest. His face glowered with displeasure as he looked at me, his eyebrows raising in question.

“I had promised my wife that I would never spend a night away from her, Jin-ah,” he censured. “Of all the women in our family, I never ever once thought that the first time I would do so would not be because of them but because of you.”

I met his eyes directly and sighed. “What are you doing here, Hyung?”

He walked past me and pulled a couple of beers out. From my fridge. Without my permission. “Let’s talk, Jung Jin-ah.”

“Beers at this time, Hyung?”

“I know you’d rather drink alone, but you won’t get to do so, not this time. You’ll need some type of alcohol for this. I would give you something stronger but you smell like you don’t need any more of that.”

“Hyung, I need to go to sleep, and so do you. You need to go home,” I said, my tone resolute. “I don’t need…”

“Sit down,” he said, his voice louder, and I frowned. “Or I’ll make you sit down.”

I recognized the stubbornness in my brother’s voice, and as much as I didn’t want to do what he said, I couldn’t help but do it anyway. Korean culture works in a strange series of hierarchy and echelons, and despite the fact that he was in my house and no matter how much I resented it, my older brother was telling me to sit down. And so I sat.

Damn this pecking order.

He placed a beer in front of me before sitting himself down across the table, running fingers through his hair. He rubbed his eyes a few times before he popped open his own can, then took a sip before he actually spoke.

“Do you know how worried we’ve all been about you?” He asked, his dark brown eyes traveling over my face. “Do you think that Omma and Appa need to be worrying about you too when Ji Soo is still in the hospital?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “There was no need to worry. As you can see, I’m fine.”

“Fine doesn’t mean good,” he replied. “You haven’t been answering any of our calls.”

“I’ve been busy,” I said smoothly. “Work keeps me busy.”

“As do other things, apparently.” He looked at me in concern. “Is it working?”

“Is what working?”

“Whatever you’re doing to forget Gia.”

At the mention of her name I found myself balling my hand into a fist, the anger searing. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s not, then.” He blinked at me then shook his head. “Don’t lie to me. I was young like you once. I’d also been hurt like you, once, too.”

“Hyung, really… I’m fine.” Even to my ears, my statement sounded vacuous, unconvincing.

“I’m sure you think you’re fine, but everything you’re doing tells me you’re not fine at all. You are becoming a hazard to yourself.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

He regarded me with knowing eyes. “Don’t think that what you’re doing out there is not getting back to me. I hope you’re using protection.”

I stood up quickly, already defensive. “Are you having me followed? What right do you…”

“Calm the fuck down, Jung Jin. And sit your ass down, too.” My brother’s voice rose angrily and he gave me a hard look. Like the one he always gave me when we were younger and he wanted no argument from me. “If I want to have you followed I am perfectly well within my rights as your brother. You don’t think I know everything you’ve been doing these last few years? If you had just answered your goddamn phone I could have let you be to handle this the way you know how to, but you just doing whatever has made our parents worried, our sisters worried. You have my pregnant wife worried. How the hell was I just going to sit back and leave it alone?”

“What I do with my time is my business and my business alone.”

“Not when you belong in a family, Jung Jin. Not when you belong in a family that loves you and wants the best for you and don’t want to see you go down the path of self-destruction.”

“What self destruction?” I asked. “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

“Do you?” He asked flatly. “Then why is it that you haven’t been going to work? None of us could get in touch with you for your birthday, even.”

“There was nothing to celebrate,” I muttered. “Besides, I work for myself for a reason.”

My brother raised an eyebrow. “Word around town is that Lee Jung Jin is on the prowl for the next woman to warm his bed. It seems to be the only thing you’re doing. You’ve always been more discreet than this, Jung Jin-ah.”

“Who told you all this shit?”

“No one had to tell me all this shit. You of all people should know that as a public figure people are watching you all the time.”

“Why does it matter now, all of a sudden? I’m just doing what I’d always done.”

“Really?” He asked. “Not showing up to work functions… Taking a different woman to a different hotel every night, not even having any idea who they are… You have never been this careless before. You’re not acting like someone who was just going back to how he did things in the past. You’re acting like a man who’s throwing a tantrum. You’re not doing anything but making yourself look like an asshole.”

“You’re wro…”

“Did you think this was going to get you closer to forgetting her? Or are you trying to get back at her?” he interrupted. “Let me guess… You think if you slept with enough women that you’ll forget the way her eyes looked and the way she smelled, that with enough attention from other people you’ll convince yourself that you no longer need her, that you no longer want her. You think that with every woman that falls for your charm that you’ll banish the image of her away, that you’ll wipe away the memory of how she felt in your arms. You keep yourself surrounded by people who pretend to like you, people who pretend to want you, because then you won’t have to think about how you had it all once and you no longer do.”

“This has nothing to do with her at all.”

“Cut the bullshit, Jung Jin-ah. I always thought Omma and Appa let you get away with too damn much since your accident,” he said sternly. “Actually… we can all be blamed for this. We were just so grateful that you survived that we didn’t take too much stock in the fact that you had developed some unhealthy habits since Kelsey cheated on you.”

He paused and took a deep breath. “I didn’t get you followed, if you must know. But I didn’t have to to know what you’ve been up to. You’ve been doing the same thing for years.”

“I haven’t.”

“You have,” he insisted. “You replace one woman with another. You substitute sex for love, sacrifice integrity for success. You’ve been bartering yourself for years and it has to stop.”

“That’s not true,” I argued. What the hell did he know of my struggle and of my life? Who is he to tell me what I’ve been doing?

“It is true,” he answered quietly. “The thing is… none of this makes any kind of sense.”

“What?”

“You and this complicated relationship you have with love. You grew up in a good family, surrounded by it. You don’t even have the excuse of being able to say that you don’t know how it’s supposed to be. When you were younger I thought for sure that you were just sowing your wild oats, getting it all out of your system, but now… I don’t know.”

“I don’t understand what you’re talking about,” I said. And I didn’t. Why was he talking about this now?

“It is easy, when you are young, to believe that what you desire is no less than what you deserve, to assume that if you want something badly enough, it is your God-given right to have it,” he said quietly, the words ringing familiar to me. “Kerouac said that, in his book.”

“Okay.” My brother was pissing me off with his abstract conversation. Of all the times to be quoting literature, why did he have to do it now?

“You don’t get it, do you?” He asked and I shook my head no. “As I thought.” He sighed. “You wanted Gia so you had to have her. You wanted love but only on your terms, on your own time. You think you deserve it, so it has to happen now. Whatever else may be going on.”

I stayed silent and he kept talking. “Did it ever occur to you that just because you want it, just because you think you deserve it, just because you think you’re ready for it that she might not be in the same place as you? It may not even have anything to do with you at all, but herself. Did you even once since she’s been gone, wonder about what could have possibly forced her hand to make the decision she made? You say you love her, and yet I bet you didn’t even think for one second what could have been going on that she felt like she had no choice but to leave.”

“I don’t need to know what was going on. She doesn’t love me.”

“Really?” He asked. “Because the way I saw it the woman was in love with you, too. Conflicted. Scared. But in love. Your sister in law deduced as much, and she is far more perceptive than I am.”

“She loves someone else.”

“Did she say that? Did she say ‘I’m leaving you because I love someone else?'”

I dismissed his question without another thought. “Anyway… she said she couldn’t trust me.”

“When?”

“She found out about someone I had been involved with before her. There were some words exchanged between me and that woman. She said it bothered her how easy it was for me to be vengeful and cruel to someone I once cared about.”

“That was a couple of weeks ago, right?” He asked and I nodded. “And yet she didn’t leave then, either.” My brother stared pensively at me. “So it wasn’t that.”

“I told her I loved her.” The admission came out in a whoosh.

“You told her you loved her.”

“Yeah. Kind of. I said it in Korean but yeah.” I took a big gulp of beer.

He leaned back against his chair, as if just now realizing something. “Yeah, well, then I get it now, why she would have been scared shitless.”

“Why?”

“I’d be scared too if I knew that the person I was with would fly off the fucking handle if something didn’t go his way or if things didn’t go as he planned. In fact I’d be terrified if I knew that I was in love with someone who, as soon as he’s hurt or disappointed, would think nothing of being hurtful or getting revenge. What person would want to be with someone like that? It’s too much pressure for anyone to handle.”

“That’s not fair!” I said.

“Is it not?” My brother asked. “Well, yeah, look at you. Not even three weeks since she’d been gone and you’re running around doing crazy shit and acting like the world has ended. You’re not the only one whose heart has ever been broken, Jung Jin.”

“Why does everyone keep telling me this?” I asked hotly. “I don’t care about anyone else’s heart being broken!”

“That’s precisely my point,” he continued, studying my face. “You want to be in a grown up relationship with a thinking, functional, emotionally intelligent grown up woman. And you expect her to put all her faith in someone she can’t even trust to handle himself in a grown up manner when problems happen, someone who has no qualms about hurting anyone and everyone just because he’s hurting. I would run away too. As far away from that person as possible.”

“I haven’t hurt anyone.”

“Really? You haven’t visited Ji Soo since she came to the hospital. Chilbong hasn’t been able to get a hold of you in over a week. You haven’t been to work in almost two weeks. Shawn called me and said you’ve gone off grid. Our parents are worried sick about you. Our sisters came home crying, saying that they have to take your dog to the shelter because you don’t want him anymore. In your foggy mind… do you not see any of this? You’re hurting everyone.”

I looked at my drink and struggled to find words to say. My brother continued to drink wordlessly, his eyes focused on the table. After a few minutes he got up and straightened his shirt, as if he was preparing to leave.

“Gia,” he started, “is not like one of your women, not like Kelsey. She wouldn’t have done anything unless she had good reason for it. I’m sure it would be easier had she just been like everyone else, but she’s not. She’s complicated, layered… you’ll understand her better not by listening to what she said but what she didn’t say, instead. You want someone like that to seriously consider being with you, you need to man the fuck up.”

I lifted my eyes to his in surprise. Very rarely had my brother raised his voice to me in the recent years; in fact I don’t recall him ever doing so since I became an adult.

“How do you know so much about my woman?” I asked.

“I knew a girl like that, once,” he answered wistfully. “She made me miserable, drove me up the fucking wall. She challenged me and questioned me and I was always torn between throttling her or kissing her. I wasn’t ready for her when we met and she gave me almost as hard a time as Gia is doing to you now.”

“Were you in love?” He nodded and smiled. I cleared my throat before I continued. “How did you get over her?”

“I didn’t,” he said, before giving my shoulder a reassuring squeeze. “I married her, instead.” He picked up his suit jacket from the arm of my couch and started walking towards the elevator, leaving me sitting where I was. “Think about what I said, will you?” He called out. “And answer your fucking phone!”

*****

Seoul, Korea
June 25, 2002
9 a.m.

Jung Jin

“Good… good morning, sir,” Ha Neul said uneasily. He stood up at his post, looking very much surprised to see me.

I flushed uncomfortably; I know I hadn’t been in the office for a couple of weeks. But in my defense, I still got work done. From the comfort of my own home. Before I started drinking.

I could feel the flush traveling to my neck. It felt like he was judging me. He is my employee… he has no right to judge me. At all.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” My question came out in a bark and Ha Neul blanched. He soon recovered and hid his expression, busily looking at something on his desk without answering my question.

I entered my office and closed the door with a resounding thud. Taking my suit jacket off, I sat down at my desk and powered my computer on.

While waiting I turned my chair to look at my city before me, bathed in resplendent and glorious sunshine.

Even my fucking city is mocking me.

My thoughts in disarray, I thought back on what my brother said a few days ago, mulling over his words. I understood where he was coming from, could even understand why he and the rest of the family were worried. His advice was fine and well, except his and Hyungsoonim’s situation was completely different.

They were in love. I’m still unconvinced that she felt anything for me besides gratitude. And maybe a little attraction. I was her pity fuck. I was her something.  I would give an arm and a leg to be able to ask her why she would do that when she already knew she would be leaving.

But she’s gone and I can’t.  Now I will never know. The question will remain unanswered, like something hanging off the edge of the unknown.

I felt the stirrings of animosity. It seemed almost a mockery that life had gone on even in the wake of my pain. And still, the anger had become my friend. I had come to remember how motivating it was to keep moving when you feel your lowest.

Ha Neul entered my office and I turned around to see him bearing a cup of coffee in one hand and an armful of files on the other. He dropped them off on the table without saying a word, was already on his way out of the door when he turned around and looked at me.

“How are you, Sir?’ He asked softly, carefully.

“I’m fine.” I said, more to myself than him. “I’m fine.”

“I’m thankful to hear that,” he said softly before he spoke again. “Kim Jae Joon has been trying to get in touch with you, sir. I delivered your wedding gift to their house myself after their wedding, as you instructed.”

“Thanks.”

“Just doing my job, sir,” he replied. “How is your sister, sir?” His voice was tentative. He stood at the door, his face expectant but downcast.

“Which one?” I asked and he looked at me, as if surprised.

“Ji Soo-ssi,” he said softly. “I heard she was in an accident.”

Ji Soo, my sister. The one I hadn’t visited since she came into the hospital. The feeling of guilt came, heavy but fleeting; it was an emotion that I was used to. I gave Ha Neul a blank look and clenched my jaw.

“She’s fine,” I said curtly. “Go back to your desk.”

He nodded before closing the door behind him. I tried to focus my eyes on the files in front of me, the words blurring. Images of Ji Soo lying in the hospital bed were running through my mind, and I pulled my phone out of my pocket.

I powered it on and stared at the screen, ignoring the message and voicemal icons blinking at me, as well as the number of missed calls. I debated with myself for a few seconds before putting it back down.

I’m not ready to talk to her. Or any of them, for that matter. I’m not ready to apologize… and why do I need to apologize, anyway?

None of this was my fault. If someone should be apologizing, it should be her.

I had just opened my email when from the corner of one eye, I saw the light on my office phone blinking a solid red. I considered ignoring it; the people who really want to get in touch with me know to reach me via my handphone unless it was an emergency.

But then again I’ve had my handphone off for the better part of the last two weeks.

With a sigh I picked up the receiver and pressed the voicemail button. There was only one message, left just yesterday. The first few seconds were silent, and I turned up the volume. I was about to press the button to erase the message when I heard Ji Hee Unnie’s voice.

“Jung Jin-ah… it’s been a few weeks. I waited as long as I could, but I just dropped Dog off at the animal hospital. The vet there said that they’ll try to find a new home for him, but the chances aren’t good. He’s not a puppy anymore and what with the number of stray dogs…” I heard Dog’s name and felt a lump form in my throat. I swallowed it down and kept listening, despite my desire to hang up the call. “Anyway… they said they’ll keep him until tomorrow, but if he stays unclaimed…” she paused for a minute, as if taking a deep breath, and when she spoke again she sounded as if she was crying. “If you don’t come back for him, they’ll have to put him down. I’m sorry.”

The message ended and I stayed sitting with the receiver to my ear, feeling something heavy settle on my chest. As if dazed I placed the receiver back on its cradle, and closed my eyes.

Without alcohol dulling my system memories flowed back into my consciousness in a steady stream. Memories of her, memories of Dog, memories of us, assaulted me.

There were flashes of her the day she brought Dog home, standing on the deck, holding him in her arms. Watching her asleep, her fingers outstretched into his crate, his head lying trustingly on her hand. The many times he and I sat on the couch at night, trying to stay quiet so that she could sleep. The two of us on the bench, wearing almost identical sweaters, looking at the night sky.. waiting faithfully for the woman who changed both our lives, the woman who brought us together, the woman we both loved.

I tried to block all of them out even as I felt tears burn the back of my eyes. I was almost successful too, until I heard her voice: scornful, condemning, heartbreaking in her conviction.

“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. The world owes you nothing, Mr. Lee. Open your eyes. And grow the fuck up.”

I opened my lids and my emotional tether snapped, the memory of her eyes, disappointed and weary, greeting me. She expected so much of me, wanted too much from me. I could never have risen up to all those expectations.

Her derision of me has set me up to fail.

And yet… I heard a faint sound too. The same angry voice gentling as she called me out of my nightmare, softer still as she slowly unveiled her secrets, joyful as I held her in my arms. Her judgmental eyes looked at me with traces of hope, threads of pride, little bolts of tenderness.

What was real and what wasn’t? How can she give so much of herself away without actually giving anything at all?

And then another memory appeared, less fuzzy, a bit clearer. The weight of Dog in my arms, his head resting on my chest innocently. I remembered puppy kisses as I slept, waking up to big brown eyes blinking at me with glee. I remembered his yelps of happiness whenever I came home, the way he bounded towards me in enthusiasm, his squeaks of distress as I sent him away.

Whatever her feelings may have been for me, whatever the reasons she may have had to flee, there was one thing that could never be denied: she loved Dog. She treasured him and took care of him, treated him like he was someone precious and valuable and wanted. And in my anger I undid it all. I had done to him precisely what she had accused me of, reverted back to the type of man she believed me to be.

My brother was right. How could she entrust herself to me when I couldn’t even be entrusted with myself?

Sometimes you can repeat something so many times it becomes the only thing you will allow yourself to do. And… sometimes you can keep doing something so often it becomes a habit. Like settling. Like telling myself that what I was settling for was precisely what I wanted.

I am the expert on that.

I had always prided myself on being the best in everything I did, knew that I could have whatever it was I wanted. This desire to be the best and to have it all even extended to simple things, matters that are of no consequence in the grand scheme of life.

Yes, everything done frequently enough becomes a habit,  as comfortable as the skin you’re in… that includes things that will eventually destroy me. Especially those. Those habits are what made up the basis of who I am.

I am the master of the taking and  bartering of emotions and expectations. Without ever having to put any of my own out. Without risking myself. I prided myself on this, until her. Until now. Because the first time I put myself out I had convinced myself that she would just fall like I did. Because it was what I wanted. Because I thought it was what was owed me.

The feeling of shame choked me, not only for what I did, but the realization of what I had become. I had thought that she didn’t know me at all, but she did. She actually did.

She thought I was selfish, cruel. She thought I placed myself on a higher level than other people. She thought I was like Hye Soo. And she was right.

I was everything no good woman would ever want to be with. And she still gave me a chance.

She may have left, but I didn’t exactly give her a reason to stay. I wanted to blame her, my family, the dog. I was more than ready to place the blame on everyone but myself. I placed my face in my hands as the dam broke, my throat clogging up with silent sobs.

What can I do? What should I do?

In spite of the helplessness that threatened to overwhelm me, I realized what Gia had been saying all along. That everything I decide to do, that the manner I pick in which to live my life had been my choice all along. I can transform myself at any given moment. I can choose the outcome of my destiny.

Do I indulge in self pity and destroy what good I have left in me, or actually, truly, make the change to be better and be the man she hoped I would be?

I wiped the tears from my face and stood up with renewed energy, grabbing my jacket from my chair. I walked past Ha Neul and walked straight to the elevator, my mind already running down the list of where I’d have to go to find my dog.

I can’t do anything about her being gone, can’t predict whether she will ever come back. But my life is still mine. Dog is still mine. In reclaiming him I will reclaim myself. I just hope and pray that it’s not too late.

*****

By the time the cab pulled up in front of my parents’ house, I was frantic. Giving the driver a handful of cash and telling him to keep the change, I dashed out of the backseat and ran through the front door, not even noticing that my parents had not bothered to lock it.

I ran into the empty living room, my mind getting number with worry with each minute.  I looked around quickly for the telltale movement of any animal, the excited sounds he would make whenever he saw me. There was none.

I pulled the phone out of my pocket and was about to call my elder sister when I noticed my parents at the dining room table, along with said sister and her boyfriend, their chopsticks mid air, gaping at me.

Omma recovered first. “Jung Jin-ah! You scared us.” She put her chopsticks down and stood up.

I looked my sister in the eyes before I spoke, my voice tight with tension. “Where is my dog?”

My sister blinked at me but didn’t offer a response. She calmly picked up her spoon and drank some soup, her boyfriend looking at her like she’d gone insane.

“Noona,” I said warningly. “Where. Is. My. Dog?”

She lifted her chin defiantly, her eyes boring holes through my head. “What dog?” She asked, her voice biting in its politeness. “You don’t have a dog. Gia had a dog. Gia’s gone and  you sent her dog away, remember?”

Her boyfriend was moving his head back and forth, in the same direction of our exchange. He kept darting his eyes at her, even as she leisurely took a drink of water.

“Noona, I don’t have time for this,” I said. “Where the fuck is my dog?”

“Language, Jung Jin-ah,” Appa said, his voice commanding. “Ji Hee-yah… what’s going on?”

“Nothing, Appa,” she said, giving him a sunny smile.

“What dog?” Omma asked. “The dog…”

“Don’t worry about it, Omma,” she told our mother. “I’d handled it, seeing as your son was too busy being an asshole to worry about his dog until now.”

“Noona, I swear to God…”

“What?” She asked, her voice rising as she stood up from her seat. “What are you going to do? Yell at me? Disown me?” Her eyes traveled over me coldly, her eyes unamused, lacking any of the affection that she always looked at me with. The sight of her eyes, looking at me with the same disappointment that I saw in Gia’s was so uncannily familiar that I found myself flinching. “You’re over your pain now, so we’re supposed to just disregard that you’ve been acting like a jerk? You’re ready to have a dog now, so I’m expected to just hand him over?”

Her words rang too close to what Jung Yoon Hyung said and I fastened my gaze onto hers. “Just tell me where my dog is.” I tried to sound conciliatory, tried to disguise the panic I was feeling. It wasn’t working.  The request sounded more like a command, and her gaze sharpened even more.

“You’re so selfish,” she said, putting her utensils down with a clang.

“Fine,” I said. “You’re right and I’m wrong.”

“You think I want to be right?” She asked. “I would give anything not to be right about you being selfish. You’ve learned nothing from almost dying.” Her voice was eerily calm.

“What are you talking about?” I asked. “I just want to get my dog back.”

She shook her head at me. “You don’t get to dictate what happens in life and no one will wait for you to get your shit together. And you know what? They shouldn’t have to. When you lose sight of the things that matter, someone always pays. Someone always gets hurt. Let this be your fucking lesson.”

The silence in the dining room was so loud it was deafening. Omma pursed her lips and Appa was also avoiding looking at me. Kye Sang Hyung placed a reassuring hand on my sister’s back, a silent show of support. My sister continued to glower at me until he whispered something in her ear and she visibly relaxed, though she offered no additional information.

We were locked in an impasse and I gave an audible sigh. I already know she won’t give in until I actually said what she wanted to hear.

“Noona,” I started haltingly, running my fingers through my hair. “I’m sorry.”

She said nothing, at first, her eyes assessing.

“I’m sorry,” I repeated, hating how small my voice sounded. My throat thickened with regret. “Please help me get my dog back.”

She still stayed silent but after a few beats and a pointed cough from our father, she spoke, her tone not as harsh as it had been.

“I did what you told me to do,” she finally said. “I left him with the vet.” Omma whipped her head around to look at her, her mouth opening. “Isn’t that what you told me to do?”

Panic rose inside me as I tried to control the urge to yell. Again. Forcing my voice to stay calm, I asked, “which vet?”

*****

I stood in front of the animal clinic, looking up at the sign. Slowly I walked towards the window, peering through the blinds to see if there was anyone inside.

I was already exhausted, the confrontation with my family having sucked all the fight out of me. My sister finally softened after a few more minutes; she never did learn to master staying angry at me for any length of time. Especially not when I was practically groveling at her feet.

I may have promised to accompany her on a shopping trip. In Paris. Much to Kye Sang Hyung and my parents’ amusement.

I had my hands over my eyes, my face almost pressed to the glass, when I heard someone’s voice behind me, slightly puzzled and bemused.

“Did you need some help?”

I straightened quickly and smoothed my suit jacket, letting my eyes travel over the young vet. Dressed casually in a plaid shirt and jeans with his white coat on, he looked more like a teenager playing at being a doctor than an actual one. He gave me a smile and I felt a hum of annoyance.

“My sister told me that she dropped Dog off yesterday,” I said, fixing a smile on my face.

He blinked at me. “Dog?”

“Yeah.” I coughed. “You know… the dog that Gia brought home.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding. “He’s not here.”

“Where is he?” I said, opening the door to the clinic and looking around.  There was nothing, except the black and white cat sitting on the windowsill, eyeing me suspiciously. “Where did you put him?”

He followed me, his hands on his pockets. “He’s gone.”

I whipped around quickly and grabbed hold of his collar. “You fucker. What is wrong with you? How can you get rid of him not even twenty four hours after you got him? I thought vets are supposed to be kind and shit? ”

“And I thought managers were supposed to be good at talking to people…” he said, prying my fingers loose from his shirt. “… and shit.”

“Don’t talk,” I ordered him. “Don’t talk to me anymore.”

He ignored me. “He’s your dog,” he remarked, taking a step away from me. “What kind of owner just lets his dog be taken away like it was garbage?”

I met his gaze and winced at the judgment in his eyes. Flushing involuntarily, I looked away. “I wasn’t in my right mind. I wasn’t thinking.” I knew I was making excuses, wasn’t even sure why I felt the need to someone so inconsequential, but the words just kept coming out my mouth, even as I tried to stop them. “Gia’s gone.  I lost my head.”

“Gia left?” He asked, sitting himself down on a chair. The surprise in his tone puzzled me.

“Yeah. She just left without telling me. It must have been her plan all along. I bet she wasn’t even upset to leave.” I shut my mouth as soon as I realized I was babbling. ” Anyway…”

He shook his head. “I don’t think that was the plan,” he said. “She didn’t give the impression of someone not upset to leave.”

“When did you see her?” I asked. “How can you say that?”

He appeared as if he was thinking. “Maybe a few weeks ago.” Hr turned his chair around to look at the calendar behind him. “I had come to the clinic because I couldn’t sleep and forgot one of my books here.”

Could he have seen her the day she left? “What time?” My voice was low, tense. “What time did you see her?”

“It was early. Like 4 in the morning. She was in a cab. I tried to wave at her but she didn’t see me. Maybe because she was crying so hard.” His face remained expressionless though I caught the the stray gaze he sent my way.

“She… ” I pictures how she must have looked that dawn, crying as a cab took her away and felt my heart clamp in my chest. I coughed and cleared my throat. “She was crying?”

He nodded slowly. “I thought you two had a fight.” I said nothing as memories of her that night descended on me, her eyes looking at me as if she loved me, her voice whispering my name reverently, as if it was her lifeline. “You know… typical girlfriend boyfriend fight thing.”

“She said I was her boyfriend?” I asked dumbly and he chuckled.

“She said you were her landlord roommate friend person,” he replied. “So I assumed you were her something.”

My mind chewed over what he said slowly, my brain having a hard time processing his words. It’s probably not a good idea to be trying to make sense of all this while someone was watching me. The vet kept his eyes on me but said nothing else. Overwhelmed, I banished all thought of her away as I tried to focus on why I was even here.

“Where is my dog?” I asked and he flushed. Again.

“I told you,” he said. “He’s gone.”

 

*****

Takamatsu Airport, Japan
June 28, 2002
10:00 a.m.

Gia

“I can’t believe that you would insist on coming on this trip when I already told you that I would be traveling alone,” I muttered. I blew a strand off my hair out of my eyes as I hefted my luggage off the carousel. “You are meddling way too much, Junnie.”

Junnie eyed me amusedly as I stood up and looked around. “Just because I’ll let you travel the world on your own doesn’t mean I won’t at least accompany you on your first destination.”

“Yeah,” I said. “That’s fine and well but did you have to drag me out of Singapore in the middle of the night and pick out where you think I should start?”

“I thought you were all about the spontaneity nowadays… doing things differently… all that shit?” She asked, putting her sunglasses down on her nose. “So don’t bitch and moan now. Anyway, we’re here.”

“Here is where, exactly?” I tried to search for any signs in English giving me an idea where we are but couldn’t find any.

“Takamatsu, Japan,” Junnie said.

“That means nothing to me, Jun. You said in Taipei that we were heading to Tokyo. I still hadn’t forgiven you for disappearing while we were in Taiwan.”

“I had to meet someone quickly.” She waved a finger at me. “And nuh uh.” She shook her head vigorously, sending her long dark hair flying all over the place. “I said we were going to Japan, not Tokyo.”

I stared at her back as she walked away from me, giving me no choice but to follow. She stopped and exchanged Japanese greetings with a suited man standing next to a black town car holding up a sign. The man looked at me and bowed; I did the same before he opened the trunk of the car and lifted my luggage without my permission. Junnie pushed me into the backseat before I could ask what was going on.

I fastened my seatbelt as the chauffeur came into the car, looking at me from his windshield mirror. He turned the key on the ignition and I looked at Junnie, leaning into the car and waited for her to come in and sit down.

“I’ll see you in a few hours,” she said, smiling, before she closed the door with a resounding thud.

“Wait, what?” I asked, pressing the button to open the window. “What are you saying?”

“I have some business to take care of.” She wiggled her eyebrows. “Fiancé business.”

“Is he here?” I shook my head at her. “I thought you were coming here for me.”

“I’m a multi-tasker,” she answered. “Anyway, I’ll be back in no time.”

“Junnie…” I said warningly. “I don’t speak Japanese!”

“I always did tell you to learn other languages,” she commented.

“Junnie!”

She looked taken aback by the tone in my voice. “Jeez, calm down. Don’t worry… the driver speaks serviceable English and you have a tour guide who is fluent waiting for you.”

“Waiting for me where?” I narrowed my brows at her. “Will you tell me what’s going on?”

“The driver will take you about two hours away from here, to one of the forests in the area. The tour guide will show you around.”

“A forest?” I asked. “What the hell, Junnie? All this trouble for a damn forest?”

“What?” She blinked at me innocently. “You like the forest. And mountains and sea. Trust me, you’re going to like it.”

“How can I trust you when you keep doing things like this? You know I hate it when you do this.”

“I replaced the Sim card on your phone with one that works abroad,” she continued, completely dismissing what I just said. “Your original one is in your purse. Call me if you need me, but don’t blow up my phone!”

“Junnie… when I get my hands on you again I will…”

Before I could even finish my sentence the chauffeur eased the car out of the parking space and began driving away. I looked back at Junnie from the back window of the car and saw her on the phone. As if realizing that I was glaring at her, she waved at me enthusiastically with the phone still against one ear, looking way too happy to be putting me in yet another situation I can’t control.

I watched as her form became smaller and smaller, then turned to the front of the car when she disappeared out of view.

“Trust me, she says,” I muttered. “Famous last fucking words.”

 

*****

Seoul, Korea
12:30 p.m.

Jung Jin

I was in the middle of reading another CF contract when my phone buzzed. Seeing Joon’s name as the caller, I hesitated for a brief moment before picking it up.

“Chilbong-ah,” I greeted uneasily, aware that we haven’t spoken in a few weeks, the longest amount of time we had gone without doing so since we had started working together years ago.

“Hyung,” he responded, no tension in his voice. “I didn’t expect you to answer.”

“I know,” I said, closing the file. “Listen… I’m sorry I haven’t been around much. It’s been…”

“You didn’t come to the wedding,” he said quietly.

“I’m sorry for that.”

“Hyung,” he said, frustrated. “How can I give you a hard time when you’re so quick to apologize?” He sighed in frustration. “I’ll forgive you this once, because I would never hear the end of how petty I am from my wife.” He chuckled. “Can you believe I just said that? I have a wife. Sung Na Jeong is my wife.”

I smiled involuntarily at the wonder in his voice. “Congratulations, Joon-ah. I really mean it.”

“You’re not allowed to miss our next wedding,” he teased.

“How many weddings are you having?” I asked.

“Just two. The next one is in a couple of weeks, at my Appa’s house in Chungju. You’ll have to promise to come to that one, okay? Or else my wife will never forgive you.”

“I got it,” I said. “How’s the honeymoon going?”

“It’s good. Na Jeong liked Tokyo a lot. But Hyung,” he continued. “That’s why I called. We wanted to thank you for your gift. It was too much.”

“What gift?” I feigned ignorance.

“You know what gift. Na Jeong loves it, though. That was a good call. Just what we both needed.”

“I’m glad you like it. Anyway, what are your plans today?”

“She said you told her about some forest around here so we actually ventured out there today.”

“Where is Na Jeong anyway?” I asked, trying not to dwell on the fact that they will be going to the forest where my plane had crashed. The forest was big and the crash site so remote it would be inconceivable that they would even find it by chance.

“She went to the women’s restroom. Morning sickness strikes again, except for Na Jeong it seems like it’s an all day sickness thing,” he said. “Anyway, we’ll be back in Korea by Sunday.” He seemed to hesitate before speaking again. “Do you want to come over on Monday for dinner?”
“Yeah, sure,” I said before I heard my phone vibrate mid call, indicating the arrival of a new text message. “Joon-ah, I have to go. Give my love to your wife.”

“Will do,” he said. “I’ll see you soon, Hyung.”

The call ended and I checked the message, already pressing the speed dial on my phone before I finished reading the whole thing.

“Shawn,” I said as my friend answered the call, already bracing myself for the never ending interrogation. As soon as my friend spoke, however, it seemed I needn’t have worried.

“I’m in town,” Shawn said in a harried voice. “Take a half day at work.”

What the hell? My friend didn’t as much ask me how I was doing. “You know I always have a lot of work to do on Fridays, Shawn. I can’t.”

“Ethan, I’m telling you. You will want to take a half day for this.” Not waiting for me to respond, Shawn spoke again. “I’ll meet you in your penthouse in a few minutes.”

“But you still haven’t told me why…”

Shawn hung up the call before I could even ask why it had to be now. I didn’t even have the chance what my old friend is doing in Korea. Or how, if we had never been in my penthouse together, Shawn even knows where I live.

I shook my head even as I started shrugging myself back into my suit jacket. I really should stop questioning why and how Shawn manages to do everything. I have a feeling I don’t really want to know anyway.

 

*****

Shikoku, Japan
12:35 p.m.

Gia

I followed closely behind the tour guide as she led me through the forest, wondering it it would be impolite to ask her if I could wander on my own.

After spending the hour and a half journey here, I still wasn’t quite sure why Junnie would book a tour guide for me when she knows damn well that this is not the way I would choose to travel on my own. Nor can I afford it.

The forest was beautiful, I have to give her that. It was a shame I couldn’t visit it at night, when I was told the mushrooms glowed. Even so, it was hard to believe that just an hour ago I was someplace that could be considered a small city, and now I was here in the forest, surrounded only by trees. I wondered if Jung Jin would have liked this, or if he had even been here. Dog would have definitely liked this, I thought, as I imagined him bounding along on his leash, smelling all the plants.

I sighed. I would have loved to have seen this with them.

The guide was about to turn when I spied the universal sign for restrooms just to my right. Tapping her back with my finger, she turned and I gave her a smile.

“I’m just stopping to use the restroom. You go on ahead,” I urged, hoping that she wouldn’t see that I was lying. I brought my purse closer to me protectively. “I’ll be right behind you.”

She looked at me dubiously but gave me a polite bow anyway. Breathing a sigh of relief as she began to walk away, I kept my eyes on her as I headed towards the bathroom, barely noting the man sitting in front on a bench, his back to me as he spoke on the phone. I was so busy looking at my guide that I didn’t realize someone was coming out until I bumped into another person.

My purse dropped off my shoulder and fell onto the ground as all my stuff came spilling out. I bent down to pick them up, as did the other person, and we both started gathering my things.

Before I could even look at the person’s face, I spied the slim platinum wedding band on her ring finger, topped by another ring with a huge diamond. It wasn’t until she had handed me some of my stuff that I looked up and saw who had helped me, her complexion ashen, as she gave me a hesitant smile as she held my passport.

Still, despite her pallor, her moss green eyes looked at me merrily, winged eyebrows arched. She had a pert nose in the center of her face, her skin flawless. Slim shoulders were covered by a simple t-shirt, her long legs visible from the shorts that she was wearing. She looked vaguely familiar to me, though I couldn’t place from where.

She looked at the passport she was holding, and smiled even wider. I stood up and I realized she was at least five inches taller than me.

“American?” She asked and I nodded in response.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I wasn’t looking.”

“I’m sorry, too. Traveling?” I nodded again. She looked around as if searching for someone and frowned when she was unsuccessful. “What part of America are you from?” Her tone was congenial, her English only subtly accented. “I traveled there a couple of times two years ago.”

“Oh yeah?” I said, her friendliness making me feel instantly comfortable. “What part?”

“San Francisco,” she said. “My husband worked there for a couple of years.”

“I lived in San Francisco for a few years. Small world, huh?” I said. “Your English is great.”

She smiled with pleasure at the compliment. “I don’t get as much practice speaking it nowadays, but I worked in Australia for a couple of years,” she explained, then looked around again before sighing in resignation. “Where the hell is Joon?” She muttered to herself more than me. “I could have sworn that he was just here a minute ago.”

“Is this home for you, then?” I asked.

She looked at me confused. “Japan?” She asked and I nodded before she let out a laugh. “Goodness, no. My husband and I are here on our honeymoon. We’re Korean.”

“Congratulations,” I said sincerely. I caught the smile on her face before she laid a hand on her abdomen, her face paling even more as we spoke. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she said sheepishly. “I’m pregnant and the morning sickness is… how do you Americans say it? Kicking my ass.”

I chuckled even as I searched for the small pouch of medications that I kept on me at all times. Where the hell was it? I started pulling out the things that just minutes ago I had shoved back into my purse and she laughed.

“Do you need a hand with that, Unnie?” What she just called me reminded me of how Ji Soo always addressed me and I felt my eyes burn and my throat tighten. “Oh, sorry,” she said. “You probably don’t speak Korean. That means…”

“Older sister,” I finished and met her eyes, even as she nodded. “And yeah, sure,” I said, looking away and handing her my umbrella, a poncho, a water bottle, and a protein bar. She let out a small chuckle as I started piling her arms with just… stuff. “I don’t know why I travel with so…” I had just handed her a bag of dog treats, a book on dogs and Jung Jin’s framed picture when I heard her laughter stop and I lifted my eyes to see her looking at Jung Jin’s picture, an odd expression on her face.

I clutched the pouch of medications as she looked at me, her expression indiscernable. “Oppa,” she finally breathed out and I took the frame back possessively.

Did she date him, too?

I thought that label was reserved for older brothers only until dramas taught me that that was something that Korean women used to address their boyfriends or close male friends also. I looked at her with new eyes, considering that she did look quite a bit like a woman that he would date as well. Jealousy sprang its ugly head and I stopped myself from asking her how she knew Jung Jin.

It’s none of my business, anyway. Besides, at least she was nice. And married. She couldn’t have loved him that much if she married someone else.

“I’m Sung Na Jeong,” she said, studying me for any reaction. She extended a hand and I stared at it suspiciously, surprised by her show of friendliness. The last time I dealt with one of his exes had been traumatic. I took her hand and gave it a shake, albeit after a few tense seconds. “I’m married to Kim Jae Joon.”

I nodded in acknowledgement but wasn’t really sure why she told me her husband’s name. It meant nothing to me. I hadn’t met anyone else in Korea and even if I did, the surname Kim was so common. I knew several Lees and one Kim, but his name was JJ.

I extended my hand and urged her to give me back my things. Without much hesitation she surrendered them all. I put them all back in my purse, keeping the pouch of medications out.

“Do you know Jung Jin Oppa?” I heard her ask as I opened my case and pulled out the small bottle of zofran. Her tone was curious, interested; I thought about her question before I responded.

“Yeah,” I said softly, sadly. “I know him.” She looked baffled at the tone in my voice, cocking her head to one side, her lovely eyes searching mine. “Take one pill for your nausea every six hours as needed, at least 30 minutes before a meal if you’re going to take it before eating,” I said, handing her the bottle of medication. “Make sure to stay hydrated and don’t overwork yourself.”

She glanced at the bottle before looking back at me, her expression guarded. “I probably shouldn’t be taking pills from someone whose name I don’t even know.”

“I know,” I said casually. “But I promise you, they’ll help with the nausea. I can vouch that that’s safe for pregnant women.” She still looked dubious and I gave her a tight smile. Just because she dated Jung Jin doesn’t mean I shouldn’t help. “I’m a nurse.”

She smiled at me genuinely then and I was struck again by how beautiful she was. She was like a model, with her long legs, her pale skin and her perfect face. God, why did he have to date such beautiful women?

“You should meet my husband,” she said suddenly. “I’m sure he’ll be very pleased to see you.”

Her statement sounded genuine enough, but I had no idea why her husband would want to see me. I was just about to make an excuse about having to leave when I saw my guide from the corner of my eye making her way back to the restroom area.
“Miss Flores?” She said, and I turned away from Na Jeong and smiled at my savior. “Are you ready?”

“Yeah,” I answered. “It was nice to meet you, Na Jeong.” Strange, too, that I would bump into another one of Jung Jin’s exes at a damn forest in another country, but I wasn’t going to tell her that.

“Will you be staying in Japan long, Unnie?” She asked, waiting for my answer very keenly.

“No,” I replied. “Not at all. This is only my first stop.”

Surprisingly this Sung Na Jeong launched herself at me, her slim, surprisingly strong arms enfolding me in a tight embrace. Before I could tell her that this was not at all appropriate, I heard her voice.

“You’re a great nurse, Unnie. Thank you for everything that you do. I feel like I know you so much already.”

I awkwardly pulled away. “I just gave you some pills,” I mumbled. “It was no big deal.”

She said nothing else but gave me another of her dazzling smiles, and with one last look at her I started walking away. I was almost in the clear from this very strange ex of Jung Jin’s when I heard said ex’s voice again.

“You never told me your first name, Unnie!”

I turned around to answer her. I mean, the woman had already hugged me. What’s the harm in telling her my name now, after all?

“It’s Gia,” I said. “My name is Gia.”

 

*****

Seoul, Korea
1:00 p.m.

 Jung Jin

“Where are you?” I barked into the phone as I paced the front lobby of my apartment. “Tell me I didn’t just hurry home so you can make me wait.”

“Hold your horses, Ethan,” I heard Shawn say. “I’m right behind you.”

“You are?” I asked and turned around to see my old friend step out of the elevator.

I gotta hand it to Shawn, no matter the amount of traveling, no one would ever guess it with one look. Shawn always remained impeccable, no matter the occasion.

“You look sickly,” Shawn observed with a wry smile. “Is that…” My friend leaned in to take a closer look at my chin. “Is that a stubble?” I heard my friend emit a chiding sound. “You are a mess, my friend.”

I gave Shawn a glare. “Did you come all the way to Korea to give me a lecture?” I asked. “If you did I’m going back to the office.”

“You’re something else, you know that?” Shawn complained. “I don’t know why I do half the shit I do for you.”

I walked towards the elevators and Shawn followed on my heels. It wasn’t until we were both safely inside the elevator and I had pushed the button to my penthouse when I spoke again.

“What brings you to Korea?” I asked, keeping my eyes on the buttons above the door.

“I figured if you weren’t answering my calls that I should probably come,” was the answer. “Plus, your siblings wouldn’t stop calling me, asking me to come speak to you.”

“Really?” I asked, turning my head to look at Shawn. “Because Hyung said you kept calling him.”

My friend blinked at me. “We were all calling one another.”

I turned my attention back to the buttons as we arrived on the top floor. I went straight to the kitchen and started making coffee, ignoring the bottle of whiskey that was sitting on the counter, as it had been since the day that I found out that Dog had been adopted out.

For a few minutes each day, usually when I first come home, I bring it with me to the living room. I hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol since that day, though I still felt the temptation. It seemed so much easier to self-medicate, to numb myself, but in truth, it really wasn’t. Being sober while hurting is painful, but at least that way I could acclimate myself with the pain; as opposed to how I was doing in the beginning, when I would convince myself that I was okay, and then the dullness would wear off and the pain hits me like a ton of bricks.

The silence of the house was the hardest. I had gotten used to seeing her face when I came home from work, looking forward to whatever it was that she found for us to eat for dinner, and hearing about her day. I had gotten used to being greeted by Dog, whose suspicion of and animosity for me had turned to affection and almost and begrudging fondness.

They say the moment you miss things and people is the moment when they’re really gone. I suppose they’ve both been gone, then, the minute Gia left and I sent Dog away. Because there was no moment since then that I didn’t feel the loss of either one of them not being in my life.

If I could turn back time, I thought, I would have tried to take it all back. I would have told Gia I loved her as soon as I knew, would have done everything in my power to see past my heartbreak and hold Dog a little bit closer to me.

Hindsight must be laughing his ass off at me right now. And I know if hindsight had a gender it would have to be a man. Only a bastard would find my situation amusing.

The sound of the coffee machine beeping jerked me back to the present and I quickly poured two cups. I brought it to the dining room table, where Shawn was already sitting.

My friend eyed me silently before lifting the cup of coffee to take a sip. Shawn’s eyes widened as the taste registered, then fixed me a questioning gaze.

“How did you know how to fix my coffee?” Shawn asked with a curious tone.

“I didn’t,” I said. “I just fixed it for you the way…” Gia took hers, I was going to say, but stopped speaking as soon as I realized. Correcting myself, I said, instead, “I just fixed it for you the way people liked it.”

Shawn didn’t miss what I was about to say and continued to look at me searchingly. “I have a couple of presents for you.”

“You do?” I asked and watched as if seemingly out of nowhere, a bag appeared.
Shawn smiled and handed it to me. “Something to make you feel a little better. Your sister asked me to give it to you when I came to see her.”

“Which sister?” I knew Ji Hyun Noona was still in Taiwan, and I also knew that she was nowhere near ready to speak to me. Ji Soo was in the hospital, probably still angry at me too. Ji Hee Noona has been answering my calls but I doubted that she felt enough goodwill for me to actually give me a present. Which only leaves one person. “Ji Min Noona?”

Shawn nodded and gestured for me to look at what’s in the box. “What is it?” I asked.

My friend answered me a shrug of the shoulders. “How would I know? She didn’t tell me what it was, only for me to bring it to you.”

“Jesus, Shawn,” I said. “The last time I saw Ji Min Noona she was ready to kill me. What if it’s a bomb or something?”

“You honestly think that your sister will send you a bomb?” Shawn’s voice was tinged with sarcasm.

“Who knows what she would send me? She was pretty pissed off.”

“Well, from what I heard, you were pretty fucked up.” Shawn looked me up and down. “To be fair, though, you look a hell of a lot better than I was expecting.”

“What were you expecting?”

“Oh,” Shawn answered drolly. “I don’t know, locked in a room somewhere, your head buried in drink. Or,” my friend continued, “taking a different woman to bed every night.”

The assessment of the situation was so accurate it was unnerving. I had no choice but to stay silent; I wasn’t going to agree, but I didn’t want to lie, either. Shawn merely gave me a smile. “How did you know?” My voice was gruff, guilty.

“Because it’s what you did after Kelsey,” Shawn responded lightly. “I certainly did not expect you actually going to work and functioning like an adult.” A finger reached out to point at the bag I still held unopened on the table. “You ever gonna open that?”

I reached inside and pulled out a compact disc with the words “Watch Me” on it. Shawn looked at me in bafflement and I shrugged my shoulders.

“Hey,” Shawn said teasingly. “At least it’s not a bomb.”

“Shut up.”

Shawn laughed outright. “How are you, really?”

“You know,” I started, tempted to lie, then decided against it. I made a promise that I wouldn’t lie anymore; even if she wasn’t here anymore, the least I could do was honor my word. “I feel like shit. I was angry but now I’m just sad. I used to not care either way about who would be waiting for me to come home, if anyone would even be waiting. But now that I’ve had it, now that I know how it feels to have the woman I love here, it feels even worse. ” I took a deep breath; Shawn stayed silent. “We had a dog… did I tell you that?”

Shawn looked dumbfounded. “You’re afraid of dogs, though…”

“Yeah, I know,” I said softly. “It surprised me, too.” I sighed, stared at my coffee in my cup, its shade the exact color of Dog’s lightest fur. My ears rang with the sound of his barking and I shook my head as Shawn started coughing. Was I going crazy again? Silently I told myself to keep it together and not look like a loon in front of my oldest friend. Shawn already thinks I have enough issues as it is.

“What’s wrong?” Shawn asked.

“Nothing. It’s just I thought I heard…” I hesitated. “Know what? It was nothing. Anyway… I miss her. I miss my dog. I feel like someone would feel if they were run over and left for dead. That’s how I feel.”

“I know your girl is gone,” Shawn said. “But where’s your dog?”

I met my friend’s gaze, feeling more shame than I had in the recent years. “I sent him away. I did a horrible thing, and I deserve whatever judgment everyone might have of me.”

Shawn’s expression of amusement disappeared, replaced by one of concern and surprise. “I didn’t expect that.”

“What?”

“You telling me the truth,” my friend said. “And you owning up to your mistake. I thought for sure that you would gloss over it, like you had for most of the things that happened in your life. When Kelsey cheated, you said you were about to dump her anyway. When you almost died, you said it was no big deal. I guess I had unfairly assumed that you would do the same with this.”

“It’s not unfair to to think that I will do what I had always done.” I leaned back on my chair and met Shawn’s eyes. “And no,” I sighed resignedly. “I’m done bandaging things and glossing over it. It hurts, but you know… I prefer it this way. I’d rather feel hurt than feel nothing. Pain reminds me that she was here, that they were both here, that it had been real. Pain means that I had something that mattered. If all I have left of them both is this pain then I’ll take it.”

I expected Shawn to laugh at me, to make fun of me, but all I got was a sympathetic gaze. We were silent for a few minutes, both lost in our own thoughts, drinking coffee. Shawn spoke first.

“I’m sorry it didn’t work out with her,” my friend said quietly. “For what it’s worth, I thought  you two were going to make it as well.”

“You did?” I asked and Shawn nodded. “Well, it didn’t and now I hadn’t just lost her but my dog, too.”

“Do you know why she left?” Shawn asked. I was in the middle of flipping the CD case in my fingers when the question stopped me.

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I don’t know. I moved out after that fight and left her by herself, and then she and Ji Soo got into an accident. I found her talking about her job, I think, and then crying like she would never stop. And then…”

“You found her? In the street or something?”

I shook my head no. “I found her here. In front of the building.”

Shawn appeared thoughtful. “And then what?”

“And then…” I continued then paused abruptly. I found myself not wanting to tell Shawn about me and Gia making love; I wanted to keep that little part to myself, to keep it distinctly mine. “…and then I thought we were moving forward and the next day I wake up and she’s gone.”

“Do you remember how you felt after the plane crash?” Shawn asked softly. I nodded, not really knowing getting why we were talking about this. “Sometimes… people move forward, not necessarily from the bad things in their lives, but despite it. There are people who don’t allow themselves to grieve, who don’t let themselves realize what they lost, for fear that they wouldn’t be able to handle it. They bury it, instead, under other things. They try to forget. But you know, forgetting doesn’t work and it all comes back someday. Somehow. Maybe it was one of those things. Maybe… it had nothing to do with you.”

I didn’t know what to say. Shawn seemed to understand this as well and gave me a small smile. “The good thing is, that she came back here when she needed someone the most. That must mean something, right?”

“I thought so too,” I said. “To be honest I don’t know what to think about anything. I thought for sure she left because she was in love with Joon, but the vet said…”

“Hold up,” Shawn interrupted. “She’s in love with your client?”

“Not my Joon, her Joon.”

“She has her own?” Shawn regarded me in disbelief. “What kind of guy is he?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I never met him. But I’m assuming that he’s rich, handsome, funny and kind. That’s the type of guy she once said she likes.”

“She likes them rich and handsome? She actually said that?”

“Well… no. Not really. I just assumed so because…”

“You think that highly of yourself, do you?” Shawn smirked.

I was tempted to throw something at my friend.

“I don’t know when I started hating that fucking Joon name,” I muttered. “All of a sudden I’m surrounded by Joons.” I stopped, remembering something. “Hey… didn’t you have a Joon in your class in uni?”

Shawn looked at me inquisitively, then pondered pondered my question. “No,” was the response, accompanied by a shake of the head. “I don’t recall meeting a Joon. But you don’t have to keep saying his name as as if he’s a contagious disease. You know a Joon. You like a Joon. You work for a Joon, remember?”

“Anyway,” I said, ignoring my friend’s sarcasm. “I thought this Joon person had to be a factor but the vet said he saw her when she left and she was crying, so I’m not sure now.”

“What vet?”

“The vet that was interested in her,” I said lightly.

Shawn looked baffled and just a little impressed. “Jesus… all this happened in the two months she was here?”

“Believe me, I know.” I ran my fingers through my hair. “Anyway, she may not have loved him, but she didn’t love me, either.”

“You sound sure.” I didn’t give my friend a response. Shawn leaned over the table suddenly, eyes keen. “Hey, do you still have our album with our college pictures?”

“Yeah,” I said, getting a bit of whiplash from the change in topic. “It’s in the guest bedroom, I think.”

“Do you mind if I go look for it?”

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “But why now?”

Shawn was already walking towards the guest room before calling out a response. “I just wanted to check something. Like if I knew a Joon and forgot.”

I shook my head, confounded as to why my old friend would want to walk down memory lane right now. Shawn headed to the guest room and I decided to use the time to figure out what my sister had sent. Shoving the blanket that I had been using to sleep to one side of the couch, I had just powered on my laptop and inserted the disc when I heard Shawn’s voice.

“Ethan! Are you sure it’s in here? I can’t find it anywhere.”

I stood up and went straight to the guest bedroom, still amazed that Shawn already knew where it was without my saying it. I hesitated for a brief moment before entering; I hadn’t been here since the day I realized Gia left.

It hurt to see that the room looked as it always did. As if she was never here. As if she was never mine.

“I can’t find it.” Shawn stood up from the bookshelf with empty hands. I said nothing, trying to breathe through the pain that has broken out in my chest. Shawn, unaware, walked towards the window and smiled. “This view is great.”

“Yeah,” I said, a lump in my throat. “I like it.”

Shawn continued to gaze out the windows then looked at something on the floor. “What’s this?”

“What?”

“This.” Shawn pointed to the floor again and I rounded the bed’s corner to look. What I saw left me speechless. I don’t believe that I even realized that was there. The last time I was here, I couldn’t bear to walk past the bed. “Didn’t you say Gia slept in a sleeping bag?” I couldn’t respond. I felt just as surprised as my old friend sounded. “Didn’t you say Gia can’t sleep without her sleeping bag?” Shawn repeated.

“I don’t know. She must have forgotten it. I don’t know.” Shawn continued to look at me, unconvinced. “Anyway, if the album is not in here then it must be in my bedroom.”

Trying to get Shawn out of the guest room as quickly as possible before I was bombarded with even more questions, I thought nothing of it when I heard footsteps behind me, knowing that my friend was following me. Nor did I even think twice when I saw Shawn from the corner of my eye walking towards the table, one I hadn’t touched or even looked at since Gia left.

In truth it was the first time in weeks I was coming in here also, having grabbed a blanket and pillow from the linen closet in the bathroom and sleeping on the couch since the second night after she left. Though I knew it was only my imagination, I swear that I could still smell her on my sheets. I could still picture her as she lay on her side, minutes after we made love, looking at me with her bottomless eyes.

I knew that if I stayed here, I would just immerse myself in the memory of her, in the illusion of her. It may not have been real but I would have been happy. Out of my head, but happy. Not sleeping in that room was as much a punishment as it was an act of self-preservation.

I stalked straight towards my closet, determined to find this album once and for all. I had just slid the wardrobe door open when I heard Shawn’s voice behind me.

“Please… tell me you didn’t try to give the woman diamond earrings.”

I turned around so quickly I bumped my elbow into the wall. “Fuck!” Cradling it in my hand, I walked over to where Shawn was holding the box of earrings, staring at them outright. “Give me that,” I said, taking it back. “So I bought her a pair of earrings… so what?”

My friend tsked loudly, the sound accompanied by another head shake. “What did I tell you about giving her gifts that you give other women?” Shawn fixed me a ‘you’re-hopeless-and-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-you’ look. “Remember what happened every time you gave her flowers? If she had seen these she might have again thought that you’re only trying to sleep with her.” At her implication I found myself flushing inexplicably. “Or,” Shawn added, “that you’re about to get rid of her. I swear.”

“That wasn’t my intention at ALL!” I protested. “It was more of an ‘I love you’ gift. What is so wrong with that?” I flung the box of earrings into a drawer and walked back to my wardrobe.

“Nothing… Except you know your woman doesn’t react well to traditional, reserved for your lovers gifts,” Shawn muttered. “I can’t believe…” My friend stopped speaking and I heard a sharp intake of breath. “Now this…” I heard Shawn say, “… is more like it.”

Wondering what had my friend so fascinated, I looked behind me to see Shawn staring at the two boxes of shoes.

Dumb… dumb.

I berated myself for the sentimentality of my gift, wondering when it was that I became so fucking soft. Shawn lifted the card that I had so carefully written after waffling for an hour, debating about what to say. Much good that did me.

People say to never give the person you’re with shoes. Ever. Because they’ll walk out of your life wearing the damn shoes that you bought.

Does that still count when I didn’t actually give the shoes?

I was thinking about the answer to this question when I heard a clearing of throat, and I turned around to see Shawn standing by the table, hands on hips.

“You’re an idiot,” my friend said. “Seriously.”

“Shawn, really?” I asked. “It’s not bad enough that I’m in this mess and now you’ve resorted to calling me names?”

“You said she didn’t love you.”

“She doesn’t.”

Shawn harrumphed. “Have you even looked, I mean really looked, in this room since she left?” I shook my head no. “Then I guess you didn’t see that her shoes are missing.”

“WHAT?”

I rushed over to where Shawn was standing to see the almost identical boxes side by side on the table. My pair was still in the box, and hers were gone. I tried to remember when the last time was that I saw them, recalled that I hadn’t touched the bag since the night of our date.

“Do you know the reason why people who feel like they’re in danger don’t have to pee?” Shawn’s voice was strangely flat, and I turned my head, puzzled as to how we went from speaking about shoes to bodily functions. “It’s because the body knows to save all their blood for their vital organs: the heart, the lungs and the brain.”

I gave my friend a frustrated look. I’ve had enough of people speaking in similes and metaphors. And I really didn’t see why I needed a lesson on the pathophysiology of the human body now.

“Yeah, so?” I asked, unperturbed.

“If a woman who is used to leaving actually does leave, she would think to take the things that she needs, the things that she’d always depended on. The most important things.” Shawn smiled at me, eyes twinkling. “Like her sleeping bag, for example, if that has made her feel protected in the past.”

“So?”

Shawn gave me a look that’s part incredulous and part disgruntled, as if I was a stranger. A dumb, imperceptive stranger. “You are so obtuse.” The statement was delivered so blandly I was left with no doubt that it was meant how it sounded. “Why would a woman who wants to forget you take the shoes that you hadn’t even gotten around to giving her and leave her sleeping bag, something that you had insisted she could not sleep without, behind?”

“She probably just forgot it,” I insisted. “Like I said.”

“Sometimes there is honesty in the things we end up doing even as we consciously know to do something else. Just like the truth always comes out when a person is drunk. Just like a person involuntarily looks away when they’re lying. Sometimes you learn about a person and what is important to them when they are backed into a corner. Gia, whether she likes it or not, whether she even knows it or not, loves you.”

“But…”

“Did you ever consider that she might not have left because you loved her but because she realized that she might love you back?”

“That’s crazy talk,” I argued, hating myself because even as Shawn spoke, I was already half hoping that it was true. “Why would being in love make her want to leave? It didn’t make me want to leave. And I’m not exactly the committing type.”

What I said was met with a resounding hmph, as well as rolling of the eyes. “Uhm, you live here,” Shawn said dryly. “Tell me, has there ever been a time when she did what you would have done in any given situation?”

“No.”

“Then why did you expect this time to be different?”

I mulled over the question. Why did I expect this time to be different?

“It doesn’t even matter anymore whether she does love me or not,” I said, dashing the hope that had newly sprang inside me. “She doesn’t want to love me. She doesn’t want to be with me. What actually happened trumps whatever the reasoning or intention. She left. That’s it.”

“And you’re giving up?” Shawn chuckled for no reason that I can comprehend. “If she doesn’t come back, I won’t blame her. Why would I want to be with anyone who would give up on me so easily? Listen,” Shawn said, walking over to me and resting a hand on my shoulder. “I’m going to tell you this once and whatever you decide will be up to you, okay?”

I nodded.

“As your friend, I believe that you two probably need this distance anyway,” Shawn started, silencing me as I was about to protest. “The way you two got together was kind of crazy. Fast and crazy. But… no one ever said that love comes when it should. But just because it was inconvenient doesn’t mean it wasn’t right. And just because you can’t have it right now doesn’t mean it’s not yours. You guys need some time apart.”

“I don’t know why you would say that,” I said. “If anything we should be together if we’re in love.”

“I get why you would think that,” Shawn responded. “But what you feel for her right now is based on need… it’s blinding, exciting, all encompassing. It’s like the fire that burns higher and bigger than anything else you’ve ever imagined. But the thing is, though, those flames are fragile and easy to extinguish. Sooner or later, they die out. Love based on need is almost as bad as love based on fear. And we saw what happened when the thing you most feared actually happened.”

“What?”

“You acted like a damn fool,” Shawn responded. “That’s the thing about that kind of love. It literally makes a sane person do not so sane things. How long do you want to be with this woman?”

“Forever.” The answer was simple. Even now.

“Then don’t you want a love founded on choice? Love based on freedom will give you the certainty you both seek, when you’ll know that even when the flames have been put out by tears and by time, the embers will continue to burn, even without your guidance. I know it hurts like a bitch to be away from her, but the pain won’t last. Not as long as the love will. Give yourself time. Give her time.”

“So what am I supposed to do now?” I asked, putting my head in my hands.

“You keep living,” Shawn responded adamantly. “Just like she will. And maybe one day, you will meet her again, and then the right love will be at the right time, when you’ll both be ready.”

“And I’m supposed to be okay with this?” I asked, my voice hoarse. “Just letting her go like this?”

“It’s not up to you,” Shawn said gently. “What’s yours is already yours, whether or not she’s here . No one will take her away from you, not when it’s you that she loves. Time will only strengthen something that is true. Distance will only make tangible that which is real.”

I stayed silent, unknowing what to believe anymore.

“I know your mind is probably going a million miles a minute but I have a question,” I heard Shawn say.

I lifted my head and looked into the dark brown eyes of my oldest friend, grateful for the company and counsel.

“Did you ever find out what happened to your dog?”

“Someone took him,” I said, surprised at the sadness the thought still brings. It was bittersweet, this feeling.

“Are you okay with letting him go?”

I blinked away the tears that came to my eyes. “The vet assured me he was going to a good home. I’m glad.” The semi-truth came out of my mouth and left a bitter taste behind. I swallowed it down and kept speaking. “He’s a good boy; he deserved more than me.”

“Will that be enough for you? Even if you don’t get him back.”

“I love him,” I said. “If he’s happy, then I’ll be okay. Even if I don’t get to have him back.”

He raised his eyebrows, surprised at my answer. “I didn’t expect that.”

“Yeah, well, you know,” I said uncomfortably.

“You see?” Shawn asked. “There is power in letting go, my friend, and allowing those you love to soar. You’re already changing, and you didn’t even know.”

“I haven’t done anything, yet.”

“But you’re trying. Someone told me once that as long as a person is trying, they’re already on their way to transforming.” My friend gave me a small smile. “And just for that, I have another present for you.”

I followed Shawn out of my bedroom, the footsteps leading straight to the guest bathroom. My friend opened the door and I held my breath, unknowing what to expect.

A bundle of white and tan fur came scurrying out of the bathroom, little feet tapping on the marble floor. I heard excited screeches as big brown eyes met mine, and embarrassingly, I felt my eyes well up with tears.

I found myself dropping to my knees as Dog jumped into my arms, pink tongue peeking out to give me kisses on my face. The action brought me back to all the other times he had welcomed me this way, and my heart filled with a love so big it felt close to exploding.

My dog was back, and it felt like he brought back some of the warmth that had disappeared since Gia left. I held him close to my chest, relishing the feel of his small body, life practically bursting out of him. He gave me a few more playful licks before jumping out of my arms, as if eager to re-explore his home.

It was only when he had walked out of my sight that I saw all of his belongings in my bathroom, my friend standing next to them, looking a little surprised but pleased nonetheless.

I gave Shawn an impulsive hug before pulling away. Affection has never been a language of choice for either one of us.

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you. Did you get him?”

“With the request of your family,” Shawn said. “They deserve credit for understanding you more than you realize, and for loving you anyway. You’ve given them a hard time; they thought this was the only way for you to learn your lesson.”

Shawn kept speaking, but I only listened distractedly as I watched Dog for a few minutes. He was reacquainting himself with the house, stopping every so often to sniff a piece of furniture, and to look around. Even as he did this he kept peeking behind corners, going from room to room, as if searching for someone.

I know who he’s missing. I miss her, too. He and I are more alike than I thought.

She may no longer be here, but we both remember her. We both love her. She bound us to each other, and now that she’s gone it seems that each other is all we’ll have in the foreseeable future.

“Besides,” I heard Shawn continue saying next to me. “None of us were too eager to be the ones to explain to your woman where her dog had disappeared to.”

“She’s probably not coming back anyway,” I said this in a barely there whisper, afraid that if I said it any louder thatI was going to make it come true.

“Maybe,” Shawn said. “Maybe not. But if you’re capable of being someone that even I didn’t realize you were, she might be capable of doing something that you didn’t think she is, either. Both your destinies have already been written. The only question now is whether they will one day again intersect.”

*****

Shikoku, Japan
3:00 p.m.

Gia

The beautiful stranger who once dated my man was forgotten as I followed the guide in front of me, and I wondered whether she was punishing me for daring to explore on my own earlier. We had been walking and climbing for the last hour and a half, and I was tempted to ask her how much longer we had to go. The determined expression on her face made me zip my mouth, though; I don’t want to piss her off any more than I already had.

I was pretty sure that her pay didn’t include babysitting a sullen, rebellious, out of shape thirty three year old woman.

As we walked into the dense foliage of the forest, I wondered why we were even here. The path had already disappeared about forty five minutes ago. I already finished my water bottle and ate my protein bar fifteen minutes before.

This is more hard core than I was ready for.

Rays of sunshine filtered through the trees, bright beams giving enough light through the darkness. I could spy the mushrooms glowing hazily in the shadows, and I couldn’t even enjoy it I was so out of breath . I think I was becoming delusional.

My guide continued silently for another hour and I thought I was going to cry. On the upside at least my shoes were holding up. Jung Jin’s face flashed in my mind and I breathed through whatever physical pain I was feeling.

You can do this, I told myself. You were able to walk away from the man you love; you can certainly finish a damn hike.

Nodding silently, I trudged my feet behind my guide. Thankfully, within minutes she stopped in a clearing and I looked around, confused. I don’t know if I was expecting a welcome center of some sort or maybe even a statue of some kind of mythical Japanese creature, but it wasn’t this nothingness.

The ground was flattened, about fifteen hundred square feet. The fact that it was surrounded by the green lushness of the forest made it seem even more vast, its emptiness more pronounced.
The guide turned to me and started speaking, her voice in a monotone. “In March 1996, a Boeing 757-200 crashed on this site, en route from Tokyo to Seoul on an overnight flight. Two hundred and twenty eight people, including 8 crew members and two hundred twenty passengers perished during the crash.”

I listened quietly as she spoke, her English seamless, fluent. The facts she was spouting sounded familiar somehow, and something clicked in my head: Jung Jin’s voice, describing his accident, his tone flat and distant.

Could it be? How did Junnie know?

“Japanese civil aviation authorities report that at the time of the accident, all navigational beacons were fully serviceable and that the aircraft voice and data recorders did not indicate any aircraft problems,” the guide continued. “Further investigation by the Japanese National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the crash was caused by pilot error.”

I turned to my guide. “So it was a person that caused the crash?” One person. One mistake. So much grief from one misstep.

I was walking in the space, touching the leaves hanging on the trees on the perimeter of the crash site. I marveled that despite the life that surrounded the site, the area where the plane had crashed was barren. There was nothing growing here. It’s as if all energy has been sucked out of this place, replaced by something else that transcended the universe, even.

It was hallowed ground. Silence descended, its reticence sacred.

She nodded somberly and I turned away. I continued to walk the edge of the site, mind racing. Looking up I could only see slivers of sky through the intertwined foliage overheard, when a glint bouncing off the ground caught the corner of my eye. I could hear the guide’s voice behind me, still speaking, and I pushed a thicket away to take a closer look.

There was a large rock, a brass plate over it, engraved in English and Japanese.

“In Memory of Those Who Perished. May They Rest in Peace.”

The two lines were followed by a list, the names in long, neat rows. Every one of them, each a person in their own right. Mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters, friends. All those lives lost. I traced their names with my fingers, hoping beyond hope that they are all resting in peace.

These were the people Jung Jin was with. His name might have been on this as well, had it not been for some weird stroke of luck. My eyes blurred in front of me, the tears coming so fast even I was surprised.

There were flowers in front of the rock, fresh ones, and I allowed myself a touch of one of their petals when I heard someone behind me.

“You found it,” she said. “The memorial was paid for by the lone survivor of the crash. His name is…”

“Lee Jung Jin,” I said, standing up and brushing my tears away.

She nodded, as if surprised. “I was told you are acquainted with Mr. Lee. Miss Chen insisted that you see this site.”

I gave her a tight smile, my throat clogged with emotion.

“It took emergency services ten hours to find him. It might have taken them longer had this site not been a part of a national park.” She paused and let me digest the information, taking in the shocked look on my face. “It was a wonder he managed to survive he sustained so many injuries.”

“Who brought the flowers?” I asked shakily. “Has… has he been here?”

She cocked her head to one side. “He hired a local florist years ago to bring a new bouquet every month.” She extended a hand over the area. “He pays for the upkeep of the land, as well, and donates quite a bit to the park every year. Osaka Hospital, also.”

“Osaka Hospital?”

“The hospital they brought him to,” she said, sounding as if she couldn’t believe I didn’t know this one detail. “He spent months there, I believe, after his surgery, doing intensive rehabilitation.”

It wasn’t only the detail that I didn’t know. I didn’t know a lot of things. I didn’t even try to understand, either.

“How long has been donating?” I asked.

“For at least four years, I would say,” she said. “It has never been disclosed to the public, but it has been widely speculated that he donates at least a couple of million yen per year. They built a new wing in in the hospital with what he had given them.”

“Named after him?” I didn’t know why I even asked… I knew damn well how donors and foundations worked in a hospital.

“No,” the guide said. “I believe he requested that it be named after another passenger, a man who perished in the crash. He was sitting next to Mr.Lee in the plane.”

I shook my head. The whole time he had let me accuse him of being unkind, of being inconsiderate. He didn’t even correct me. And he… was doing all this.

In bits and pieces the memories came back, of every kind thing I had ever seen him do. Not just for me but for others also. How quickly I dismissed all of them, convinced that he had only been doing them to impress me. And I accused him of thinking the world revolving around him.

Regret lodged in my throat, the tears falling again at their own volition. I was so hard on him. I was so judgmental. Not for the first time recently I felt shame, anger at myself.

I really have to do better. I have to get better. I need to get myself in order so that I could see things clearly.

“Miss Flores?” The guide said and I turned around. She pulled a pack of tissues from her purse and handed them to me. With a grateful smile I took them and dabbed at my eyes.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m sorry for being emotional.”

“It’s okay,” she answered. “It’s completely understandable. I apologize, but Miss Chen had given strict instructions to get you back to the airport by 8 p.m. She said you had a flight to Thailand to catch.” She blinked at me. “Are you ready?”

 

*****

Takamatsu Airport, Japan
8 p.m.

Gia

It took another three hours to make our way back out of the forest, and another one to drive me back to the airport.

I was silent the whole way back, pensive. By the time I saw Junnie waiting for me in the same spot where I left her, I was exhausted, a product, I was sure, of having traveled all day and the emotional upheaval I just went through.

The chauffeur stopped and popped open the trunk before he unlocked the car door and allowed me out. I gathered my stuff and stepped out of the car, my actions slow and subdued.

“Hey,” Junnie said quietly, taking one of my bags.

“Hey.”

“Did you have fun?”

“I had something,” I said as we walked slowly towards the airline counter. We both checked in, me for my flight to Thailand, my original first destination, and she back to Singapore.

We didn’t speak about anything of substance again until after we were past the departure hall, after we had gone through security.

We were stopped at the flight board to check our gates when I turned to her. “How did you know about the forest, Junnie?”

She regarded me slyly. “Did you honestly think that I would let you live with a man without thoroughly investigating him first?” she asked. “And besides, does that even matter right now?”

“I don’t know how you know the things you know,” I complained as we started heading towards the direction of my departure gate.

“You are a big fan of perspective, so I gave you perspective,” Junnie said, meeting me stride by stride. “To understand how he got to where he is, you have to know where he came from. Your Jung Jin had battled through a lot to become who he is. Surely it’s understandable that he would make some mistakes along the way. He may not be a saint, but he’s not irredeemable, either.”

I turned to look at her. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because,” she said. ‘Your instincts may have failed you before, but not this time. This time, you might have just fallen in love with the good guy, disguising himself as a not so good one.”

“He’s not going to change,” I said somberly.

“That may be true,” Junnie said. “But you already love him as he is. That’s not changing anytime soon, no matter how much you hate it.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I know.” I nudged her shoulder. “I’ve been a little judgmental, huh?”

She made a gesture with her pointer finger and her thumb. “Just a little.” Junnie shrugged. “The man knew it and still fell in love, though, so you couldn’t have been that bad.”

Arriving at the gate, I chuckled at her words as I rummaged through my purse for my passport and boarding pass then stopped abruptly when what she said registered. “How do you know that he knew it when he fell in love with me?”

She looked behind me and averted my eyes. “They already started boarding your flight. You should go.” She shoved my tote bag towards me.

An idea formed in my head, and then stuck. Something was not quite right here, and I was going to get to the bottom of this.

“Junnie,” I said in a low voice. “What is your fiancé’s English name?” She didn’t respond. “Junnie…”

“This is the last call for boarding for flight 661 with Asiana Airlines, non stop from Takamatsu to Tokyo,” the PA system announced and Junnie practically shoved me towards the gate.

“Is it Shawn?” I asked her, shaking my arm loose.

“Shawn?” She asked innocently. “Where did you hear that name?”

“It is Shawn, isn’t it, Jun? Your fiancé’s English name is Shawn.”

The airline attendant at the gate was watching us amusedly as Junnie handed her my boarding pass. I vaguely heard a ding as it was scanned and given back to me.

“It is, right?” I asked Junnie over my shoulder even as I was getting directed towards the tunnel that would lead me to my plane.

She continued to dodge my question even as she threw her arms around me. “Stop focusing on those trivial things. So what if, and I say if very loosely, his name was Shawn? Does that really change anything?” She didn’t wait for a response before she planted a loud kiss on my cheek. “Go do what you have to do. Have a safe flight.”

I was in the walkway and being led into the plane before I could protest. It wasn’t until I was properly buckled into my seat that I realized that my best friend had once again managed to answer my question without actually answering it.

 

*****

 Seoul, Korea
8:30 p.m.

Jung Jin

It wasn’t until a few hours after Shawn left that I was finally able to sit down. Dog had finished his exploration of the house and was once again ensconced next to me, his head stubbornly on my lap.

I opened my laptop and leaned back on the couch, draping a blanket over Dog. He gave a loud groan before he relaxed, his eyes slowly closing.

The first window that opened was a prompt, asking me what I wanted to do with the disc in the drive. It was only then that I remembered what my sister had sent and clicked on the command to open it.

The first thing that greeted me was a picture of the hanbok that Gia was wearing the night of our first and only date, hanging over the door in the guest room. Curious, I sat forward, watching as picture after picture of her started playing. There she was, at a shoe store, trying on a pair of heels. There she was, in a salon, her hands caught in motion, as if telling the stylist how she wanted her hair done. And then again at another station, getting her makeup applied.

There were several pictures of her with my sisters and sister in law, talking about something, her generous mouth caught mid laugh. There was one of her and the dog, sitting on the bed, in a silent conversation only the two of them understood. There was one of her standing by the mirror, looking at herself, her lovely eyes incredulous at her reflection.

Her dress was as beautiful as I remembered, and I vaguely wondered whether she had taken it with her when she left. Her long hair hung behind her, a cascade of browns and golds, threaded in and out of loose braids, crowning the back of her head. The expression on her eyes were soft and open. There was a picture of her putting her earrings on, looking shy.

And then a picture of her in profile, standing by an opened door. Her eyes were searching, teeth biting onto a lower lip, her expression vulnerable. The last picture of her was the same as the one before, except this time she was half smiling, her eyes warm and tender, as if she had finally found what it was she was looking for.

The disc stopped playing, the last image frozen. I pulled my phone out from my pocket and dialed Ji Min Noona’s number, thinking about what to say. The call was answered in two rings.

“Jung Jin-ah,” she said, her tone a bit reserved.

“Hi, Noona,” I said, my voice awkward and I berated myself. I cleared my throat. “Uhmm, I’m… I’m sorry.”

“What, exactly, are you apologizing for?”

“For being an ass,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

She sighed. “You sound so pathetic I have to forgive you, I think, or I would look extremely petty,” she replied. “And I thought that disc was the least I could do.”

“Thank you,” I said hoarsely. “I appreciate it.” My eyes strayed to the picture still on my screen. “Noona, can I ask you a question?”

“Does it have to do with us keeping your dog from you?” She asked and I chuckled before I said no. “Then sure, ask away.”

“What was Gia looking at, in the last picture?”

“Really, Jin-ah?” She asked. “You really don’t know?” She sighed. Again. “She was looking at you.”

“M… me?” I stammered. “She was looking at me?”

“Yeah,” she said softly. “I thought you should see it.” I couldn’t say anything, my eyes fixed on Gia’s reflection, the expression on her face taking on a whole new importance. “Do you understand now? ”

“It was a good moment, Noona. Thank you for capturing it.”

She gave a chuckle before she spoke again. “No, Jung Jin, it’s not just one moment,” she said softly. “You should have seen the way she used to look at you when you weren’t looking, the way she used to look for you whenever the door opened. Whatever her reason may have been for leaving, it wasn’t because she didn’t love you back.”

I heard a conviction in my sister’s voice that I had never heard before, and it made me believe too. It made me believe that Gia does love me. It made me believe that what we had had not been a figment of my imagination.

It felt like a road had opened up in front of me, one that I had never seen before. It was foggy and hazy, and I could only see it as far as my next step, but I felt grounded again, more like myself. Except it’s the version of me that I hadn’t seen in a long time: someone better, someone stronger.

But still without her.

“She could have spoken to me,” I whispered. “She could have…”

“You know how they say some people are born with an ‘old soul?'” She interjected and I murmured a soft yes. “Well, some women are born with a free soul. A soul that’s unfettered, unable to be chained by anything in the world, even love. It takes time for a woman like that to succumb to destiny and accept love and all of its obligations. But the good news is that when a woman like that loves, she gives everything, I mean everything, even if it kills her. Gia seems like one of those women. Now you have a choice to make.”

“Do I?” I asked.

“Of course you do,” she chided. “You can wait or not wait. Would you rather take the chance and hold out for the best thing to ever happen to you to come back, or do you settle for what you can have now, instead? That’s still up to you.”

“I don’t want anyone else,” I replied. My voice was thick, gravelly.

“I always knew you were a smart one,” she said. “I have to go. Your brother in law is calling me to start our movie.”

My sister hung up the call with a soft ‘goodbye’ and ‘love you,’ and I stood up, needing some air, startling the dog. I opened the deck door and stepped out, Dog closely on my heels. We both walked onto the deck, him traipsing ahead of me, his feet making soft noises on the floor.

I sat down as he continued to sniff the ground, my back against the wall. After a few minutes he sat down next to me, his paw on my leg. I absent-mindedly patted his head as I thought back on everything that Shawn and my sister had told me, scolding myself for not having had the perspective to see the big picture.

She loves me. It seemed unbelievable but she did. She didn’t like it, either, that much I knew to be true, as well.The question now was whether she would come to accept me or if she would be successful in forgetting me.

I directed my eyes to the clear Seoul sky, the stars winking at me. The last time I had sat out here had been with her, the night she kissed me a night like this. And suddenly I remembered her voice telling me that the next time she kissed someone it would be because she feels like she would die if she did not. She could have kissed anyone… the surgeon, the vet, but she kissed me.

I wish I could write them all down, all the memories I had of her. I didn’t want to forget. I didn’t want to one day not remember her.

A plane flew overhead and I stared at it, wondering if there would ever come a time that it would again bring her back. Was she in one of them, on her way home? Or was she on her way to another strange place? What is it that she is seeking? What does she need to make her whole again?

I need time, too; I know this now… to become a better person, one that would be worthy to stand next to her, to run with her. To become someone she feels that she could lean on, someone she wouldn’t have to justify loving.

The stars had aligned for us several times before; I hope that we had not used up our chances. Even if we had, it made no real difference to me. I had defied the fates time and time again.

But whatever is destined, this much was true: I will love her for the rest of of my life.

“Please let her be happy,” I whispered to the sky. “Please keep her safe. Please let her find what it is she’s looking for. If you can help her find her way back to me, I would appreciate it, but if you can’t that’s okay, too. As long as she’s happy. I won’t ask for more. As long as she’s happy.”

I sent a silent wish to the universe that somewhere, she would be listening, thinking of me, of Dog, of everything she had left behind. Maybe one day she’ll think of me and remember that though imperfectly, she had been loved.

*****

Gia

A whisper of a breeze woke me up from my slumber, a butterfly kiss across my cheek. I opened my eyes and warily looked around, reorienting myself. Slowly I remembered that I was on a plane, on my way to Phuket. I straightened my neck as I looked down from the window, the darkness greeting me, only broken by puffy clouds, white pillows against the night sky.

I leaned my head against the plane’s wall, imagining Jung Jin and Dog on the deck, the last night we were all together, everything that I left behind coming back to me. I forced my eyes close as the pain ripped through me, told myself that this was what I needed to do.

Until I owned myself I would never have enough to give the person I loved, no matter how much I loved him. Until I could believe that I was worthy of love I would never allow myself to be loved.

I know all this. I understand all this, so why does it feel as if my heart was still breaking inside my chest? As if it hadn’t stopped breaking since the moment I left?

Unable to find the answer, I forced my eyes back close and took a few deep breaths. My fingers were inside my purse, clutching something solid. I pulled it out and looked at what it was I was holding onto so tightly, even in my sleep, and saw the picture of Jung Jin.

Pressing a kiss on the frame, much like I find myself doing whenever I see it, I closed my eyes and sent a prayer to the universe that he be happy, and that he gets whatever it is he wants the most.

I owed him this, I told myself. It’s too much to expect him to wait, especially when I don’t even know whether I’ll eventually get better. He deserves to be happy, even if it’s not with me.

I wondered if we would meet again, one day in the future, in another lifetime, perhaps. Would we look at each other, a light of recognition in our eyes, and share a smile that belies all that we had gone through together? Or would we, perhaps, go back to where we started, as strangers?

My heart clamped tightly in my chest in protest, the pain bringing tears to my eyes. In time this too, will pass. As everything does. I kept telling myself this, a way to assuage the loss, even though I already knew… that even if he doesn’t love me for the rest of his life, that I will love him for the rest of mine.

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9 thoughts on “AMC: A LEAP OF FAITH TENTH STEP

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