July 10, 2002
I paced the hallway outside Ji Soo’s hospital room, a giant bouquet of flowers in my arms. Similarly I also carried a half dozen balloons, in differing bright colors. On my other arm was a bucket of fried chicken, the kind my sister liked, along with the imperial samgyetang that she favored whenever she was ill.
If I had managed to find a giant stuffed animal I might have brought that as well, but thinking back now I realized that might have been a bit overkill.
It was bad enough that I felt like I was trying to buy my sister’s forgiveness.
I looked at my reflection on the glass of a framed artwork on the wall, noting that though I still had bags under my eyes, at least I looked normal. Clean shaven. Ji Soo would never know that I had spent the first four weeks after Gia left in hell unless our siblings already told her, which I had no doubt they did. It’s taken me another two weeks to work up the courage to actually come see her, knowing that she would ask me questions, or, God forbid, treat me with an indifferent silence.
I almost half expected my younger sister to blow up my phone, just as Shawn and the rest of our family had done in the immediate period after Gia left. That she had not was more upsetting.
In my life I have been adored by many women, but the only one that ever really mattered was Ji Soo. I had always managed to shield her from the truth of my life, somehow always managed to keep my image clean and sparkling for her. The age gap between us assured me that it would always be so, until now.
She would blame me for what happened with Gia. She had already said she would never forgive me if I fucked that up. I dreaded the feeling of accusation and guilt, but she can’t possibly make me feel worse than I already did on a day to day basis.
I had already taken responsibility in what I did to contribute to her leaving, as well as what I did after she left.
What was another person blaming me for all this?
I had gloriously, and decidedly, fallen from grace.
I supposed that if one had to do it, it might as well be worth seeing. And God only knows that I had done just that.
I continued to pace, keeping my eyes averted from the industrial cream that covered the walls.
I had always hated being in a hospital; it was a bleak reminder of my first few months after the crash. The negative feelings were further reinforced by Joon’s injury. But now, I didn’t mind it so much, even though being here reminded me so much of Gia that it felt like the wind has been knocked out of me, like I’d been punched in the gut.
But then again, everything reminded me of her. It seemed as if I had learned to live my life feeling like a punching bag on a daily basis.
Missing her had become a part of my DNA. Thinking about her was now a part of my habits; it was what I did when I first wake up and when I go to bed. I wonder how she’s doing as I brush my teeth, I worry about where she could be as I drive to work in the morning. All this thinking, all this wondering and worrying had become as instinctive to me as breathing.
People will say I haven’t moved on, that I haven’t even made the effort to try. But how can I get over something that was in my blood? How do I stop loving someone when loving that person has become the best part of who I am?
Besides, strangely, I didn’t mind the pain. It almost felt like it kept the memories of her, the memories of us, alive. Here. Anchored in this space, where I still have to be and yet she no longer was.
The thought didn’t seem right, somehow.
A couple of nurses passed behind me, directing curious glances my way. I flushed. They were probably wondering what I was doing standing in the hallway, perusing myself still when I was told minutes ago that Ji Soo had already finished physical therapy and that she was allowed visitors.
With a sigh I brought my hand up to the door and delivered three swift knocks.
“Come in,” I heard my sister call out and I slowly opened the door, my head peeking in first, trying to gauge what her reaction would be to seeing me here for the first time in over a month.
My sister was reading a magazine, her arm still in a cast. She lifted her eyes as I took the first tentative step into her room, and I braced myself for her anger and disappointment.
God only knows I should have enough practice by now, having learned the definition of the term ‘grovel’ in the last two weeks just to get back into my family’s good graces.
Weirdly, disturbingly, her face brightened and she gave me a big smile, her expression guileless. I processed her reaction quietly, wondering if she was only just trying to make me feel comfortable just so she could rip into me later.
I walked towards her bed, vaguely noting the multitude of flowers on every flat surface in the room. Some appeared as if they were the regular run of the mill florist flowers, but I think I saw a bouquet of ratchaphruek in a basket, vases of jasmine and rhododendrons. Flowers I had not seen since my trip a few years back.
There were also a vase of cherry blossoms, their petals a pretty pink, and on her bedside table sat an artful arrangement of plum blossoms, their violet hues a welcome brightness against the hospital walls around her.
“Oppa,” she said, smiling. “You came.”
“Yeah,” I said, leaning down to give her a kiss on the cheek before I placed everything I had brought her on the table.
I pulled a chair from against the wall as soon as my hands were free and brought it a safe distance from the bed. You know, just in case she was still pretending to be happy to see me and had thoughts about hitting me with her good arm. The Lee women were notorious for their violence in their anger.
I wasn’t going to take any chances.
“How are you?” I asked. “Are you in a lot of pain? ”
Ji Soo made a show of closing her magazine before she answered. “Yeah,” she replied. “I feel okay. I take pain medication right before physical therapy but other than that I’m good. The surgeon said that in a week they’ll be able to take my cast off and then send me home. He said my concussion had not gotten worse and is pretty sure that it has resolved on its own. By next week I should be able to go home.”
“Are you going to be okay at home?” I asked. “There are stairs and stuff there. What are you going to do about school?”
She smiled at me through drawn brows. I was making small talk, my conversation a bit awkward. I felt decidedly uncomfortable, probably more uncomfortable than I might have been had she just railed and yelled at me. I was still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“My professors have been notified about my accident and are giving me some time to make up what I had missed when I come back,” she answered, her eyes never leaving mine. “In the meantime my friends bring me notes from lectures that I had missed and I try to go over them each day.” She shrugged her slim shoulders. “I don’t want to get too behind.”
I nodded before pushing the bag of food I had brought towards her, already taking the utensils out before she could even ask me what I was doing. “Are you hungry?” I asked, looking away. “I brought you some fried chicken. You know,” I babbled when her eyebrows shot up in question, “from the place you liked. I also got you some samgyetang with the seven herbs or whatever. I was going to buy you juk but then…”
“Oppa,” she said softly. “What’s wrong?”
“What?” I asked, straightening my spine. “What do you mean?”
She frowned at me. “You’re acting all funny.” She made a face. “I mean you know I love fried chicken and food but you’re talking and not looking at me, and you look like you’re about to pass out from nerves or something. Your voice sounds weird.”
“Nothing,” I stammered. “Nothing’s wrong.” She looked at me, suspicious, and I cleared my throat. “Fine,” I said, sitting back down. “I wish you’d just yell at me and complain… you being all nice and polite and shit is making me feel like you’re about to explode.”
“But why would I do that?” She asked, confused, and I wondered if the pain medication she was taking was making her a little doped up.
“I haven’t visited you in a month.”
She blinked at me. “Yeah,” she said quietly “I noticed that. But… you sent me these flowers!” She gestured over several flower arrangements.
She nodded. “This,” she said, pointing to the arrangement next to her, “came just this morning.” At my expression she gave me a chiding look, as if she can’t believe that I didn’t remember. “And you’ve been sending me food every day since my surgery.”
“I have?” I recognized that I was beginning to sound like a moron, but I couldn’t remember doing any of that. Unless, of course, in my drunken stupor I had managed to do one thoughtless, decent thing.
“I was actually surprised that you delivered it yourself today.”
“Why?” I asked. “Who’s been delivering them?”
She shrugged her shoulders before responding. “I don’t know. It’s almost always here already after I’m done with therapy.” She looked away, a pretty pink suffusing her cheeks. “I guess… I guess I just always assumed that your assistant brought them, on your orders.”
“Yeah,” Ji Soo responded, almost shyly. “Ha Neul-ssi.”
Of course, I thought. Of course.
Ha Neul has worked for me long enough to anticipate what I might have done had I been in my right mind. Silently I reminded myself to give the boy a raise, even as I tried to quell my concern at my youngest sister having a preoccupation with my employee.
I was the last person to try to dispense any kind of advice. And certainly the last person to try to act as if I knew better than either one of them.
I decided to let it rest, for now, mildly relieved that Ji Soo was not angry. And just a little bit nervous. Still. Even though she appeared oblivious to my anxiety.
My sister had a spoon in her mouth, tucking into the samgyetang I had brought. I cleared my throat and she looked at me quizzically before putting it down.
“Oppa?” Her tone was inquisitive, worried. “Was there something else?”
I reached over the table and took her hand, preparing myself for the onslaught of tears once I tell her that Gia was gone.
I cleared my throat. Again. “Ji Soo-yah… Gia,” my throat thickened as I said her name for the first time in weeks, “your Unnie left.”
She chewed what was in her mouth slowly, as if trying to digest what I just said. “Yeah,” she said finally, after a few seconds of tense silence. “I know.”
“Who told you?” I asked.
“My nurse.” I dissected her expression, trying to gauge if she was trying to hide how she really felt, but I couldn’t suss out any falseness.
Huh? “Your nurse?” I parroted. “What nurse?”
“My night nurse told me before she left that morning that some woman came in the middle of the night, asking about me and requesting that I be told that she came. I had assumed that it was Unnie.”
I was quiet for a minute. “Why would you think that?”
“Because she promised,” she said simply. “Unnie told me she would come and she did.”
“And you’re not upset?” I asked.
“No,” she responded blandly, looking at me like I was an idiot. She picked up her chopsticks and helped herself to some kkakdugi. “Should I be?”
I must be missing something because her reaction was confusing the shit out of me. Did she… did she not like Gia after all?
“I thought you liked Gia,” I said dumbly.
She shook her head. “I don’t like Unnie; I love her.”
“So why aren’t you more upset?” I blurted out.
“Oppa,” Ji Soo said, her tone even, “what’s the big deal? So she left. She’ll come back.”
I folded my hands over my lap, stopping myself from fiddling with my fingers. I was more anxious about this conversation than she was, especially now that I just realized my sister’s mental condition had, perhaps, been affected by her concussion worse than anyone even realized.
“Ji Soo-yah,” I said gently. “I’m not sure she’ll be coming back. You know she lives in America and…”
“Of course she will,” she interjected decisively. “She told me.”
I lifted my eyes to hers in alarm. Was she having hallucinations now, too? “She told you?” Ji Soo nodded. “When?”
My sister thought about my question before she answered. “Before we went out. The day of the accident. She said she wouldn’t not say goodbye. She never said goodbye so it means she’ll be coming back.”
“It might not be that cut and dry,” I tried to explain. “It’s not that simple.”
“You’re the one who’s making this more complicated than it has to be,” Ji Soo said. “She promised. Unnie always does what she promises.”
“How can you have that much faith in her word?” I asked.
“How can you not?” She replied back. “Unnie said she’ll stay for the birthday party and she did. Unnie said that she’ll come to the hospital and she did. She’s always done what she said she’d do.”
Could it really be that simple?
I asked myself this question and could not come up with an answer, at least not while my sister was looking at me anyway.
Ji Soo, as if realizing this, merely gave me a smile before resuming her meal, and talks soon turned to more trivial subjects, such as her request for Fin.k.l’s new CD and a reminder to let her people at the Bittersweet Cafe know that she’ll be out of commission for a few more months. Within minutes she had ordered me out of her room, insisting that she needed a nap.
I was riding down the elevators on my way out of the hospital when I allowed myself to think back on Ji Soo’s words. How was it that my sister had more capacity to trust Gia and the value of her promise than I did, who had lived with her and had seen her on a daily basis?
Did I really love her when I don’t back that love up with trust, real trust, as well?
Did I really believe that the woman I fell in love with to be capable of leaving so carelessly, or was it my past that had made me believe that she was? Had I judged her based on my interaction with every other woman before her, just as I tried to treat her like I had every other woman before her?
As I walked I combed through the memories I’ve had of her from the time we first met as objectively as I can. I remembered the way she had taken care of Joon, the way she had spoken to Gertie. The way she had treated that halmoni at her house, her agreeing to pretend to be in a relationship with me for my family’s sake. The way she always was with Dog, even the way she handled Hye Soo.
Gia was a lot of things, and she wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t cruel. She wasn’t vicious. If she felt the need to leave, it would have been because she felt like she had no choice.
And it didn’t not hurt her, if the vet had been right about her crying in the cab.
I had done her a grave injustice by jumping to conclusions in the first few weeks, when, eager to place the blame on everyone else, I had used that as an excuse to lose my mind.
How could I have been so blind? Did she recognize this weakness in me just as she had everything else?
With a shake of my head I realized that everyone was right. And cursed my fortune that I only just realized this when she was already gone.
“So I went and visited Ji Soo at the hospital, you remember her, right?” I said as I chewed on a piece of pork belly before grabbing another piece from the table grill and putting it on my companion’s bowl. He spared no time before he ate it up and I chuckled. “Don’t worry,” I continued, “Ji Soo was fine.”
Dog and I were sitting in the living room, me by the table manning the grill and he, by my side with his bowl, dry kibble still in it, waiting for the next piece of meat to come his way.
“So how was your day?” I asked him.
I wrapped a piece of pork in lettuce and smeared on some gochujang before placing it in my mouth. He cocked his head at me before walking away from his bowl and sniffing the plate next to mine, the plate I had set out for Gia.
When his pink tongue came out to lick the plate, I picked him up and deposited him back at his bowl.
He regarded Gia’s plate curiously, as if he didn’t understand why it was there and I shrugged my shoulders. To my dog.
One can never be too ready. What if she came back?
I still had yet to change the pass code to the penthouse or pack up her sleeping bag from the floor. I leave the light in the living room on, in case she came back at night, and kept her slippers by the door. The coffee cup she always used stayed by the coffeemaker, like it always did, and I always made sure there was food in the fridge, as well as rice, in case she came back from wherever she was at hungry.
And just like now, I always put a plate out at every meal.
The first few times I had done so had been unplanned, unintended. And then it wasn’t so unplanned or unintended. She had criticized me in the past of doing things without intention, only letting instinct guide me in my every action and decision.
People who see me doing this may accuse me of being crazy and delusional, but at least I can rest with the knowledge that I was intentionally crazy and delusional.
Just because I don’t really believe that she’ll return doesn’t mean that I can’t ‘fake it til I make it.’ Besides, I felt a certain kind of warmth seeing her place the way it’s always been.
And it was her place. Still is. Always will be.
“So,” I told Dog as he sat across from me, finishing cooking the rest of the meat and not so evenly partitioning it between his plate and my bowl. I took a few bites before I continued speaking. “You and I never talked about what happened.”
Dog, as if understanding the gravity of what we were about to talk about, lowered his hind legs on the floor and waited expectantly, giving the meat on his bowl a trial lick. He kept an eye on me even as he picked up a piece with his teeth, holding it between his paws, appearing as if he was waiting for me to berate him.
I cleared my throat when he ate the piece, and then another. And then another. “I’m sorry, okay?” I said, even as he kept his gaze averted from mine, eating the pork belly single-mindedly, as if I wasn’t speaking. Or apologizing, even. “I was a jerk to you and I am really sorry. You didn’t deserve it.”
Dog’s ears twitched whenever I spoke, and I was convinced once more that this creature was, indeed, a genius. What other dog reacts so well to both English and Korean? I have never never known a bilingual dog.
It did nothing for his attention span, though, realizing that in the midst of his devouring the meat on his bowl, that he seemed to have missed my whole apology altogether. He seemed to know that he had missed something entirely once he finished his food, sitting again in front of me and pawing at my hand, as if asking me to repeat myself.
“I guess you didn’t hear what I said, did you? What with the chewing and stuff?” I finished my food and laid a hand on the top of his head, finding his favorite spot behind one ear. He leaned into my hand as I began scratching at it. “I’m sorry for sending you away. I didn’t mean it. I don’t want any misunderstandings between us. After all, you and I are left on our own now.”
He cocked his head to one side before bringing his face closer to mine, and then gave me a little lick. Right on the nose.
And just like that, all was forgiven.
He sidled closer to me and continued to rain kisses over my face, the expression in his eyes gentle and without reproach. I swallowed the thick emotion in my throat. Holding his small body to me, I allowed myself to hold him closer even as I blinked the tears back from my eyes.
I looked longingly at the last piece of pork belly before feeding it to him.”You’re a good boy,” I said, my voice gravelly. He licked my fingers in response.
Now more than ever I marveled at this animal’s capacity to forgive. To love. He didn’t bear any grudges, despite the challenging life he started out with. He still trusted people, even when they’ve let him down over and over again.
And I thought humans topped the animal hierarchy because of their intellect and emotional intelligence?
Perhaps that was an impediment and not a boon. Because all that thinking, as I had realized time and time again, actually gets in the way of just doing what feels right.
Did Gia know, when she brought Dog into this house, how much I had needed someone to teach me about selflessness and forgiveness? Had she realized that she was giving me something I never even knew I needed, someone who will always accept me and believe in me?
I had all of it already, I’ve had it all these years… with my family’s unending love and Shawn’s friendship, except I never realized it or appreciated it.
Was that, perhaps, what she was looking for? How long will she look before she realizes that she had it all along?
I imagined her in my mind, searching for this same unconditional love, for unquestioned absolution. My heart squeezed inside my chest. I would have given her that. I would still give that to her, if I was given half a chance.
Dog broke away and laid another paw on my hand and I chuckled.
“You ready for your walk?” I asked and he gave one bark before running towards the kitchen, where he knew I kept his leash.
This animal certainly was a creature of habit, I thought as I stood up and followed him. Just like we all were.
Mt. Huashan, China
July 11, 2002
What am I doing?
In through the nose and out through the mouth. In nose and out mouth. Just a few more steps. Just a few… maybe more than a few more steps.
I kept my eyes open and fixed on my knuckles, almost bone white. I held onto the iron links in front of me as if it was my lifeline, because, well, it is currently my lifeline.
I’m up on a mountain, almost 70 meters high in fact, taking very slow steps on a wooden plank. And here I thought that the 999 steps I took was going to be the hardest. Turns out that wasn’t so bad.
My knees shook and I gave myself a firm talking to. Now is not the time for nerves. I should have really thought about this before I opted out of taking the cable car to the first peak, the first peak where I thought the tea house was, until I arrived there and was informed that no, the tea house was on another peak, and that it would be unlikely that I would get there before night falls.
How many damn peaks did this mountain have?
The sun was descending to my left, painting the sky in oranges and reds, a sight I couldn’t even bring myself to enjoy I was entirely focused on staying alive. I overheard a tour guide telling his group that this mountain suffers at least 100 hiking related deaths in a year. Why would he do that? Why would he tell his charges that right before they get on a plank?
Plank walk, I thought to myself, and gave a dry chuckle. Many a pirate had seen their deaths on a plank walk. Just like this one.
I mentally scolded myself. Now was not the time for humor.
I could feel my shirt sticking to my back, tendrils of hair on my forehead. I was dying for some water, water that I had left with my bag at the park entrance, wanting not to hinder myself with more stuff as I climbed up. On my back was a cinch bag containing only a ziploc bag with my essentials. I gave myself a silent pat on the back for having had the foresight to pack it, at the very least. The rest of my belongings were stowed safely with my luggage, in a lock box at the Westin in Xi’an, merely minutes away from where the mountain is.
Except now it felt more like a world away. I indulged myself for a second with the thought of a massage when I return.
Should I, somehow, manage to return.
I took another deep breath, even as my heart wouldn’t cooperate. In my chest it continued its palpitations, as if it just realized that I, we, were both against one side of a mountain, a misstep away from death. Inside my abdomen my stomach was doing acrobatics. Or maybe it was my liver. Or my spleen. Hell, judging from the nausea that was now threatening to overwhelm me, all my internal organs might as well have been having a party. Without my approval or consent.
Why was I here again? Why had I left the metropolitan comforts of Beijing to go to a mountain more than twelve hours away?
I was determined to accomplish something, but unsure what. I struggled with these questions even as a neglected, oft pushed aside image unveiled itself. Jung Jin of the laughing eyes and the dimpled smile. Jung Jin with his contradictions. Jung Jin, who I love and left behind.
At the thought I felt the familiar surge of regret, of anger. And a renewed sense of determination, as well.
You came here to find yourself, I told myself. You came here to challenge yourself.
Yeah, I argued in my head. But did I have to find myself standing on precariously high ground?
I shook my head inwardly. How can Jung Jin, who is afraid of heights achieve this feat, and you, who supposedly has no such fear, not be able to? You were able to leave the man you love… Surely you can climb a fucking mountain.
I was still giving myself a little pep talk when the somber utterings of the man currently standing on the plank next to mine roused me from lecturing myself. He appeared to be praying, his hands clutching the railings even more tightly than I was. Our eyes met for a brief second and I gave him a nod, trying to send a message of commiseration and encouragement.
I thought he was nodding too, until I saw him pointedly look at the plank and then behind me, and I realized that I was holding up his climb.
Right, I thought, as my internal conflict and struggle was forgotten and I continued my steps, this time more assured. Nothing quite like being reminded that standing on one side of a mountain and reflecting is fine and well unless there’s someone else behind you worrying about their lives, too. Especially not when that someone looked even more afraid and anxious than I did, and the only thing keeping us both from the chasm below were planks of wood and some iron links.
The guy looked torn between wanting to throttle me while I was in the midst of self-reflection or passing out. I hoped by my speeding up that he would veer towards the former.
The last thing I needed was someone else needing medical care. I was still on vacation, dammit.
Five Cloud Peak Hotel
I shivered as I dragged my towel covered self from the small bathroom straight under the covers, padding barefoot on the hotel room carpet. I hadn’t realized that it would be so cold on top of a mountain at night, even in the summer.
On the small bedside table sat a cup of noodles and a few bottles of water. Not having had the energy or determination to sit through a dinner with strangers, even for an actual meal, I had opted instead for something quick and easy, something I could eat in the privacy of my room.
The room was not much to speak of. A twin double in a hotel just steps away from the Golden Lock Pass, I was lucky that the occupants registered to this room did not show up. I was currently sitting on one of the beds, the linens spartan and white, but soft. The room was sparsely decorated, but the magnificent views of the mountain just outside the window, I was certain, more than made up for it. Too bad it’s nighttime and the only thing I could see was the sky.
It’s a good thing I loved stars.
My jacket was lying on the bed opposite, my clothes folded next to it. My shoes were by the door. My ziploc bag contained a change of clothes, a toothbrush, a single tube each of moisturizer and lotion, money, my passport, a comb, my cell phone, its charger and a current adaptor. It also held Jung Jin’s picture, out of its frame, looking strangely vulnerable.
I shook its contents out carefully and plugged my phone before powering it on. The green light was accompanied by a blinking text. Or texts in this matter. One from my sister, randomly asking about where I had ordered the bouquet I had sent our mother for mother’s day. Five from Junnie, since this morning, enquiring regarding my plans, my health and my day. In succession.
Must be a slow day at work.
I put my phone down without replying to either.
I downed a bottle of water, ate my noodles after blowing on them for a considerable amount of time, and drank another bottled water. I slathered on moisturizer on my face and lotion on the rest of me then combed my hair.
All the while thinking of Jung Jin. Then Dog. Then Jung Jin and Dog. What they’re eating, what they’re doing, how their days have been. It was a common occurrence at night, no matter where I was.
And just as every night, I tried to push the thoughts away. Unsuccessfully. I had this whole routine down pat.
By the time I was finally done, my mobile had managed to charge to fifty percent. The cup of noodles were empty, my hair lying in wet tendrils down my back. I had aches and pains on my legs and on my back, and I almost sighed with pleasure as I rested against the pillows behind me.
Picking up the phone I answered my sister’s text, realizing only now that it would be morning in New Jersey. I sent the name of the florist along with a promise to call sometime soon. I was surprised to get a quick response. My sister’s succinct ‘okay’ and’love you,’ along with no other elaborate questions or narrations of recent happenings assured me that all was well on the home front.
Good. One task tackled.
I dialed Junnie’s number and stared at Jung Jin’s picture as I waited for her to answer, for once glad that I didn’t have to calculate time zone difference. Not yet, anyway. That will soon change again.
“Hello,” I heard Junnie answer, a bit breathlessly, and I wondered if she had ran to answer her phone.
“Hey, it’s me. Why do you sound like that?”
“I was working out,” she answered testily and I chuckled. Exercise has never been one of my best friend’s favorite activities. Nor mine.
“At 9:30 at night?”
“I’m getting married next year,” she said. “I want to look hot.”
“You’re already hot.”
“Never too early to start getting hotter. How is the Great West Mountain?” She was referring to the mountain’s English name. “It’s been a long time since I’d been there.”
“Oh, I’m sure it has stayed the same, Junnie. You know these mountains, they’re quite immutable, aren’t they?”
“You’re a smart ass,” she complained petulantly. “If you had only let me come with you…”
“And risk the wrath of your parents for taking you away on a vacation when so much seems to be on your shoulders?” I asked incredulously. “Have you forgotten that you have a business to run and a wedding to plan?”
“Whatever.” I heard her make a sound of frustration before she spoke again. “How are you, anyway? I haven’t spoken to you since Japan.”
I heard the worry in her voice and almost felt bad. It’s true that we hadn’t had a proper conversation since I left her at the airport in Takamatsu. I had sent several texts, though, reassuring her that I had landed safely in Phuket, and then again at Kathmandu, and then, more recently, in Saigon. I had spent two to three days in each country, doing non-touristy touristy things and then moving on again as soon as thoughts and memories of my time in Korea, still a bit too close for my liking, boggled me down.
It was just like my routine for the past five years, except this time it was my routine on steroids.
Realizing that I had not answered Junnie yet, I forced my voice to stay even before I spoke. “I’m okay, Jun,” I said. I wasn’t sure if I was lying or telling the truth. “I’m good.”
She was quiet for a time and I heard the sound of drinking water. “I’m glad,” she said. “But aren’t you tired of looking at mountains and forests yet?”
“I don’t just look at them sometimes,” I tried to answer flippantly. “Sometimes, I even walk through them. And sometimes, I even climb up them!”
“Again, you are a smart ass,” she replied, sounding frustrated. “Did you like seeing Huashan?”
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s pretty.”
“Are you back at Xi’an already?”
“No, not yet,” I said. “I’m going back in the morning.”
“So if you’re not at your hotel in Xi’an, where are you?”
I debated with my answer. Junnie had advised me NOT to climb up this mountain, saying that it was too dangerous just to have some tea. To get her off my back I had agreed. And then did the opposite. Damnit.
“Uhmm, I’m…” I cleared my throat. “I’m-still-at-Huashan-and-will-be-going-to-the-teahouse-tomorrow.”
“You heard me, Junnie. I won’t repeat myself again.”
“You’ve gone crazy,” she muttered. “Really… You’ve gone insane. First you go riding on an ATV. In a jungle in Thailand. And then you decide you’re rock climbing in Nepal.” I cringed as Junnie started listing the things that I had been doing, her tone incredulous. “And then… you go kayaking in Ha Long Bay. Alone. What the hell? Do you have a death wish or something?”
“No,” I said. “I need to conquer my fears. Jung Jin always faced his fears head on. I should do the same.”
“Listen… I’m all good with you doing this dealing with fears shit but at least do things that won’t get you killed,” she said reproachfully. “Why are you really doing all this?”
I fiddled with Jung Jin’s picture, unwilling to tell her the truth. Unable to, even. It doesn’t make sense, even to my mind.
Fear, you see, has one redeeming quality. It drives away pain. It drives away fatigue. It drives away everything else. When I am doing things that make me afraid, I don’t have the capacity to think about anything else. Or anyone else. Including him. At that moment I have just myself and the beating of my own heart, my mortality right at my fingertips.
I don’t have to think about Jung Jin and Dog. I don’t have to think about my life and what I’m doing. I don’t have to think about my family. I don’t have to think about the fact that for the first time in a decade, I didn’t know what the plan was.
I tuned in just in time to hear Junnie still speaking, after having given up waiting for me to respond. “… anyway, where are you going after this?”
Relieved with the change in topic, I eagerly answered her question. “Bali,” I said. “You’d be happy. This time I’m going to the beach.” I didn’t add that I was scheduled to go white water rafting there, too.
“I’m thinking Australia and New Zealand, then off to the UK before going mainland Europe. And then maybe Africa? I don’t know yet.”
I frowned at Junnie’s response. “What?”
“This sounds like a conversation I’ve had before,” Junnie mumbled, more to herself than to me.
“We’ve never had this conversation before,” I said, frowning. Was Junnie getting batty from all the wedding planning?
“Yeah, I know, but this really is like deja vu,” she said. “I could have sworn I’ve heard your itinerary…” She stopped abruptly as if realizing something.
“What?” I asked, tone insistent. I, too, would like to know when we had this conversation. I mean I am someone with a history of making crazy phone calls in the middle of the night when I’m drunk. Except I hadn’t been drinking on this trip at all.
“Nothing,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”
Her evasive tone sparked a sense of deja vu in me as well, and I remembered our botched conversation at the airport.
“Uh-oh,” Junnie said, “I haven’t heard you call out my full name in thirteen years. What’s up?”
“What is your fiancé’s name?”
“His name is He Yi Chen…”
“His English name, Junnie. I want his English name.”
“What is your new obsession with my fiancé’s English name?” Junnie asked dismissively.
“You’re changing the topic again,” I said. “Your outright delay tactics just confirmed to me that his name is indeed Shawn.”
Junnie giggled. “There’s that name again. Shawn… that’s so random. Why are you fixed on my fiancé being Shawn? Who is Shawn?”
“Don’t act stupid,” I said, my tone low. “But I’ll play along with you for a minute and pretend as if you don’t know exactly who this person is. Shawn is Jung Jin’s college friend.”
“And what makes you think I’m marrying your manager’s friend?”
“Because,” I said stubbornly, “there are too many things that are not adding up. Too many things that have happened that are too unlikely to happen that have happened.”
“Hello?” Junnie’s voice was amused. “Ever heard of coincidences?”
“You know as well as I do that I don’t believe in coincidence. Who is he?” I asked. “You’re not the only one who can find this shit out, you know.”
“Go ahead, then,” she replied, tone resolute, as if she knew that I had only been fibbing. Junnie was always the one with almost sleuth like skills, not to mention the one with enough money to buy that information should she need it. “You’ll find nothing.”
“I have to go now; my workout awaits! Call me when you get to Bali!”
She hung up the call before I could protest, and I stared at my phone in resignation. Picking up Jung Jin’s picture, I touched his face before I spoke.
“Why is she being so secretive?” I asked softly, as if he would respond.”Who is your friend?”
No answer was forthcoming; how could a picture reply back?
“I miss you,” I said to the picture before putting it on top of the bedside table.
And suddenly I was lonelier than I had ever been. The feeling gnawed at me, clawed at me, and I felt its tentacles reaching up towards my chest and my heart. Definitely time to leave China and go somewhere else.
Loneliness was the barometer that tells me when I needed to move on. And though the feeling was one I was familiar with, it has been coming on faster and faster recently, therefore the spontaneous trip around the world.
Like I said. It was my routine. On steroids.
I rose from the bed and stood by the window, trying to take comfort in the sight of the mountain and the sky. Things that have always made me feel better, made me feel more like myself. Except this time they didn’t. All they did was remind me of Jung Jin and the night we spent together on another mountain, an eternity ago.
I closed my eyes and let myself reminisce for one minute before I pushed the memories away.
My life has become a delicate balance of permission and rejection. I let myself think about Jung Jin and then I make it stop. I let myself miss him and then I don’t think about it anymore. What was left of my sanity still relied on exercising this control, and I held onto it as tightly as I could.
When I opened my eyes again, the only thing I would allow myself to focus on was Junnie and her secrets. I frowned, my emotions quickly changing from confusion to determination.
I will find out who this Shawn person is. I will confirm that he is Junnie’s fiancé. I will connect the dots between him, Junnie, me and Jung Jin.
And then heads will roll.
July 27, 2002
I parked my car at the end of a long driveway, the line of cars covering my view of the house entirely. I got out of the car and straightened my jacket before putting my sunglasses on.
The day was bright and sunny, with nary a cloud in sight. It was as if the universe was also celebrating Joon and Na Jeong’s wedding. Their second one anyway; as far as I know their first one had also been a hit.
As Joon liked to remind me, I was not around to attend that one.
I looked around for any sign of the bride, the groom, their family or friends and could not find anyone I knew. There were plenty of other people, though, some in traditional clothing, some in formal clothes, walking up the same path that I was walking now. They all waved and smiled at me warmly as they passed.
It was not until I had driven through the large apple orchard that I realized I had never been here before. Not necessarily Chungju, but Joon’s father’s house, in all the years that I had been handling his affairs. Thinking about it now I remembered that I had never met his father, either, though I was acquainted with his mother, by way of mine.
It seemed almost funny that Joon and Na Jeong were having their traditional wedding a month past their modern one, though I knew that they would have done this much earlier had it not been for Na Jeong’s extreme nausea and Joon’s game schedule. But, considering how important it was for both of them to have a wedding at Joon’s father’s village, I supposed that late was better than never.
Not that it bothered either of them much, since, as Joon told me over the phone, their marriage was already witnessed and registered. And, as Na Jeong cheekily added, ‘the bun was already in the oven.’ I found myself chuckling now as I approached the house, then stopped when I remembered that Na Jeong had asked to speak to me in private, after the ceremony.
Her request made me nervous; I still remembered the last time Na Jeong asked to speak to me in private. To this day Joon still bristles at the fact that I got scouts to come to the Yonsei charity game without his permission.
I had to cancel dinner at their place right after they came back from Japan due to dinner with Ji Min Noona and her family, and had yet to receive another invitation.
It’s been a busy few weeks for all of us.
I passed a kennel on my way to the house, its yellow medium-sized owner sitting just outside. He stretched as he perused the people coming and going before sitting down and primly folding his paws under his body. He met my gaze as I walked by, his brown eyes inquisitive, as of pondering a great canine mystery. The somber expression on his face made him look like a serious old man, and it reminded me so much of Dog that I had to walk over and greet him.
I reached a hand out before him, careful not to look directly into his eyes from this close, as the dog handbook instructed me to do. I had read that book front to back as I was preparing to take Dog to the dog park and it seems that it has paid off. This dog sniffed at it suspiciously before laying his chin down on my palm and I gave myself an invisible pat on the back.
“Hey, buddy,” I said as I scratched his chin, “you having fun yet?”
He blinked his eyes at me and I smiled, thinking back on Dog at home. It was the first time I was leaving him alone, but, luckily, Ji Hee Noona and Kye Sang Hyung were available and offered to watch him. It was a relief, really. I was still smarting with guilt from having sent him away; at least this time I knew that he was in good hands.
The dog in front of me was still leaning his head into my hand more forcefully when I heard someone clear their throat behind me. I straightened myself to an upright position as I turned around and saw Joon’s mother looking at me with her arms crossed over her chest.
I had heard that Park Mi Sook was a beauty in her time, and that has not changed. Joon’s mother, to this day, remains as one of the most beautiful women I had ever met. It struck me as I met direct and unflinching gaze just how much Joon resembled her, from the shape of their faces to the same tilt in the almond shaped eyes. It was disconcerting to see the face of my client on his mother’s features.
She gave me a small smile before she spoke, her tone just as formal and gracious as I remembered from many years ago. Dressed in a blue hanbok and her hair pulled away from her face, she was as lovely as any of the olden Korean princesses that we learned about in school.
Almost as beautiful as Gia was, even. My throat tightened at the memory, and I silently scolded myself.
Do not think about her, I thought even as my heart constricted inside my chest, the feeling of missing her so acute that I felt as if I was an imposter, half a person posing as someone whole. Do not think about her today. Today is about happiness and beginnings, not the past and regrets. Today is about Joon and Na Jeong.
“Lee Jung Jin-ssi,” Joon’s mother started, thankfully interrupting my thoughts. “Do I need to call a medic?”
Her tone was dry and amused, and I thought I detected a twinkle in her eyes. It was gone so quickly I was sure I only just imagined it. Her question registered and I looked at her in confusion.
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“From what your mother had told me, you were deathly afraid of dogs.”
Understanding dawned. “I was…” I replied with a wry grin. There were a lot of things I used to be before Gia came into my life. “…but not anymore.”
Joon’s mother walked with me to the house, politely enquiring regarding the health of my parents and informing me that she, too, had only just arrived, having had a last minute hiccup to her plans. I still wasn’t quite sure the extent of her relationship with my mother or how they even knew each other in the first place. I had thought to ask my mother in the past but it always slipped my mind. I would have asked her now, but something stopped me.
Though she was nothing but courteous, speaking to Joon’s mother was a very awkward experience. Whereas Chilbong was and had always been warm, his mother was not. At all. She gave off a distant, almost frosty, exterior and had I not known that she was Joon’s mother already, I would have had a difficult time believing that she was anyone’s mother at all.
As we walked I studied her face in profile even as the silence lengthened. I searched my mind for any information that I knew of her to try to start some kind of safe conversation topic but came up with not much more than scant pieces.
A professor of Art at Korea University, I remembered that she held several degrees in art and archaelogy, as well as the fact that she had been featured in many publications. She was considered an expert in Korean antiquity. I knew that she and Joon’s father divorced before Joon was ten years old, and that she had remarried years ago.
Her wedding ring glinted in the sunlight and I was tempted to ask her if her husband was coming to the wedding but one look at her face silenced me almost immediately.
She stopped walking and stared up ahead, her expression so vulnerable and open for one second that even I was taken aback. Her mouth opened just slightly and her eyes softened, making her look even years younger than she already did.
I turned to look at what she was so fixated upon only to see a hanok, made up of three wooden structures on a stepped platform forming an L shape. All had wooden pillars, beams, rafters and tiles on the roof. It was framed by a mountain in the back, as well as a small stream to the very front of the property, just as traditional houses were meant to be positioned.
There was no denying that the house was very beautiful, but that didn’t explain the way Joon’s mother was looking the way she was. Just as it had been when she first spoke to me, her face held an unguarded expression that I can’t quite put my finger on. She almost looked hurt, and the sudden humanity on her formerly untouchable facade made me curious. It was almost as much a mystery as Gia’s expressions had been.
There she was again, popping out of a corner when the last thing I needed to be doing was thinking of her. I clenched my jaw in frustration. Stop it, I told myself sternly. Stop.
Something shifted on her face and it was as if a mask had been pulled down and the same icy woman stood next to me, the woman she was just seconds ago gone again. Her eyes hardened and I looked back at the house and saw a man exit out of the front door, dressed in a tailored suit, a boutonniere on the left side of his chest.
I straightened my posture even more as it hit me that the man in front of me was Kim Kang Ho, Joon’s father. It was once rumored that no one could cut a business suit or a business deal like he once did, until he retired and was never heard from again. I had read paper after paper chronicling his rise to the top when I had been pursuing my degree, and for the first time in my life, I was awestruck.
His hair was barely gray at the temples, still thick. A few inches shorter than Joon, his shoulders were still broad and he showed not one ounce of fat on his frame. He stopped walking when he saw us and I could have sworn his eyes narrowed at me before lingering longer than what was proper on Joon’s mother.
He closed the distance between us and looked at me inquiringly, assessingly, and it felt as if I was about to be pounced on. The silence tensed and thickened and I cleared my throat before I spoke.
“Mr. Kim,” I said, holding a hand out. “We have never met. I’m Lee Jung Jin, Jae Joon’s manager.”
He took my outstretched hand and shook it, dragging his eyes from his ex wife to look at me. “Nice to meet you,” he replied, his voice gruff but relaxing visibly. “You’ve done great work with Joon’s career. I have never thanked you properly.”
“Ahh… it was no…” My words trailed off when I realized that I no longer had his attention and he was fixated once again on Joon’s mother, who was, interestingly, looking at everywhere but him.
“Park Mi Sook-ssi,” he said softly and I was struck by the reverence in his voice.
I thought that they hated each other? Joon had told me in the past that his parents had a contentious relationship, that they despised each other… but with the two of them in front of me, I wasn’t quite sure if that was the right way to describe their dynamic. They certainly felt some kind of way about each other, but I don’t know what it is, exactly.
Whatever it was, it made me decidedly uncomfortable, and I wanted to get the hell out of there. Joon’s mother continued to stay silent next to me and his father the same way and I cleared my throat. Again.
“Ahh,” I said, my voice unnaturally bright. I was already overcompensating for the tension I was feeling between the two. “Would you be able to tell me where Joon is?”
“Na Jeong is at the main house with her family and Joon is right through that door,” Joon’s father said, pointing to the larger of the two structures.
I nodded my thanks and then walked towards the direction that he pointed me to with a great deal of relief. I slid the door open and saw Joon’s friends from uni first, including his cousin. Na Jeong’s older brother figure was also there, as well as In Sung. They were all sitting around, chatting and drinking makgeolli, but stopped and stood up to heartily greet me as soon as I was spotted.
Refusing the offer for drinks, I had just sat down on one of the chairs when Joon came out of a room in his wedding splendor. Dressed in a blue hanbok, he also had on a top outer coat, hat and boots. His face, looking a bit stressed, broke out into a smile when he saw me.
“Chilbong-ah,” I greeted, giving him a smile. “You look like a proper groom.”
He smiled happily. “I’m already married so why does it feel like it’s my first time?” He flushed self-consciously. “Have you seen Na Jeong yet?”
“No,” I said. “I thought I’d see you first. Was there anything in particular that you needed me to do?”
Galileo Galilee International Airport
I hefted my luggage into the trunk of the small rental car, grateful that I was finally in Italy. After traveling for more than a month, I was exhausted. That, in addition to the fact that I had never quite gotten used to sleeping during a flight, has made me a combination of irritable and restless.
At least that’s what I kept on telling myself.
I read over the address that Elena had given me, wondering if I should have called first. I powered on my phone and was disappointed to see that it was dead. Dammit. I should have definitely bought a new charger in London.
Climbing onto the driver’s seat, I sent a silent prayer of gratitude for the fact that at the very least, Italians drive on the same side as Americans do. I stopped counting how many times I had veered off the other side of the road as I drove in England, always anxious that my limbs would not do as they’re supposed to when having to deal with not only driving on the other side of the road but also while on the other side of the damn car.
Junnie would be glad to know that I didn’t do anything risky in the UK… I think, maybe, that driving on those small roads while not knowing what the hell I was doing was adventure enough.
I gave myself a silent pep talk as I punched in the address written on the paper.
You managed to leave the man you love behind, I told myself, surely you can drive in Italy. I mean, all I needed to do was drive from Pisa to, I looked at the piece of paper, Borgo a Mezzano.
Borgo a Mezzano. It sounded nice.
I let myself imagine staying in a small apartment, eating Italian pastries and espresso in the morning in the center of town. With nothing to do but people watch.
The thought gave me a familiar thrum of anticipation. The prospect of being somewhere new always did incite the same emotion. It was like the first throes of love, when the excitement was almost too much to bear, the butterflies fluttering in my belly so quickly I was in a constant state of vertigo.
This was my expertise. I never had any problem falling in love. It was the staying in love that had always been my downfall. Or, more accurately, keeping the person I loved in love with me.
I had only ever chased the feeling of unconditional love, even as I knew that to have it I would actually have to stay someplace. With someone. My past failures with love, however, had made me wary.
I feel as if I had lived my life after Marcus constantly looking over my shoulder, even as I tried to run as fast as I could the opposite way.
I need to slow down. And stop looking back. I knew what I needed to do even as I was unable to fight it.
The honking of a car behind me startled me and I lifted my hand in apology before I shifted the gear into drive and pressed on the accelerator. The small car lurched forward and the voice on the GPS started speaking. In Italian.
Jesus, I thought as I stopped the car and tried to shift the control to English. I may well be on my way to self discovery, but it hasn’t improved my driving skills.
I stood on the far side of the tent, watching the proceedings before me. The front was already set up with a straw mat covering the whole floor area and a screen panel behind the head table, which was covered in blue and red tablecloths. Both of Joon and Na Jeong’s parents all sat in front on blue and red cushions, facing us and the couple.
There were date towers in front of both fathers, dried meat bundles in front of the mothers, and nine varieties of fruits, nuts and sweets in a colorful tray. On the center of the table sat two wooden ducks facing each other, and on the right side of the table was a carafe of wine, also covered in red and blue silk facing both sets of parents.
Joon and Na Jeong had already given the elders their bows, and were now pouring the wine to offer their parents. Na Jeong looked luminous in her pyebaek attire, her skin glowing with happiness under the red dots on her cheeks. There was a bit of confusion as she and Joon poured the wine into a cup even as Na Jeong tried to hold it steady under the long embroidered white apron covering her hands.
Na Jeong froze for a second when some of the wine spilled, and Joon whispered something in her ear, making her laugh. The jokdoori she wore shook as she giggled, and Joon brushed a hand over her cheek before resuming the proceedings. Their parents all watched indulgently, used to the show of affection by now, though Na Jeong’s father did shake his head a few times.
I supposed that some things never change. Na Jeong could still do no wrong in Joon eyes. Even from where I stood I could see adoration in his gaze and Na Jeong soaked it all up, looking back at him with the same intensity. The love they had for each other wrapped the tent and all its occupants up in a warm and joyful glow.
I watched it all from a distance, marveling at the fact that I had seen Kim Jae Joon grow up from an insecure, uncertain kid who only ever thought of baseball to this… man, husband and soon to be father.
I was extremely proud of him. I was happy for both him and Na Jeong.
Even so, it felt like I was watching the scene with some sort of detachment, unable to stop thinking that Gia would have loved to see this. I could imagine the look on her face as she watched, the way she would have smiled at Joon and Na Jeong, the way she would have tried to fit in with the roomful of strangers.
I wondered if this was how I was going to be living my life, imagining her at every corner, in every place. I wondered if I would ever stop feeling as if some part of me was missing. I wondered if she would ever come back.
I watched my client and his wife bow their heads down as the elders dispensed words of wisdom, though I don’t think anyone else but me saw that Joon had sneaked his hand under the apron to hold Na Jeong’s.
I already knew that he would never let that hand go. For the rest of their lives.
Kim Jae Joon only ever wanted love and had to get everything else before he got it. I remembered the nights in Japan and then San Francisco, when he was doing practically everything to get over Na Jeong, and failing miserably. I remembered the grief in his eyes when he finally accepted that she would never love him back, unable to do anything but keep him focused on baseball to ease the pain.
But then a miracle happened: Sung Na Jeong fell in love with him, too. And now here they were.
Miracles are possible. I just hope that it would be for me as well, though I knew my chances were slim. Unlike Joon and Na Jeong, Gia and we didn’t have mutual college friends who would always try to keep us in each other’s lives. Our lives were not intertwined as theirs had been. We didn’t have the history that they did.
Was it time to let it go? Was it time to let her go?
Unable to find the answer, I could only watch for a few more minutes before heart heavy, I had to walk away.
Somewhere in Italy
I think I may have taken a wrong turn somewhere. I could have sworn that the GPS said it was only 40 kilometers from Pisa to Elena’s town, but I’d been driving for two hours. And now I had somehow or another taken a road I was not supposed to since I was now driving on a small country road as opposed to the main motorway.
Damn these fucking roundabouts.
I stopped the car on the side of a country road, trying to reconfigure my route. I powered on my phone again to see if I had enough juice to call Elena, but I was shit out of luck.
I was in Italy for the first time in my life, and I can’t even enjoy it. I was too busy looking for where I’m supposed to be going that I can’t even enjoy how I was getting there. It was just like how I’d been living my life for the past decade.
I can’t believe I just realized that the Italian roadside system had become a metaphor for my life.
But… what to do? I could stay here, bemoaning my luck, indulging in self pity but not actually making any steps towards my destination or… I could actually try to do something about it.
I’m going to get some help. That’s it. I need to get some help. Could the solution be that simple for my life as well?
Before I could ponder this question I saw another vehicle coming from the car’s side mirror and quickly unbuckled my seatbelt. I jumped out of my seat and stood in the middle of the road, my hands out in front of me, praying to God that I wouldn’t get hit.
It would just be my luck that in my quest towards self-discovery I end up dying in a foreign country.
It was a few hours later, after most of the guests have left, that I found myself sitting on the steps in front of the main house, a bottle of beer in my hands.
The pyebaek had proceeded without any real issues, the couple having caught a sufficient amount of dates and chestnuts on the apron towards the end of the ceremony. There was a bit of competition when the two had to feed each other jujube from their mouths, but with Na Jeong’s father’s intervention, all ended well. With the couple still married.
The bride, no doubt thinking of the life she carried inside her, had foregone the piggyback ride from her groom. Joon, unperturbed, opted to give both his mother and new mother in law piggyback rides, instead, much to the former’s consternation and the latter’s delight.
We dined on noodle soup and endless amounts of dok. Most of the wedding guests had already left except all of the couple’s friends who were sitting around scattered tables on the floor, bottles of makgeolli, soju and beer at each table.
Joon’s father certainly pulled out all the stops for this wedding. It appeared as if all the villagers had been invited. Even now candles still glowed from each table and there were still plenty of food around.
As I sat nursing my beer, I remembered that I still had to speak to Na Jeong. I would have asked to speak to her already had she not been so busy. Even now she was at a table with several women, including her mother and mother in law, speaking animatedly. Joon was at another table, talking to several of their friends, In Sung at his side.
Surely what she had to say can wait. Today is a day for celebrating.
“May I join you?” I heard a voice say behind me and I turned around to see Joon’s father, giving me a wan smile.
He was still in his suit, though he had taken off his tie and loosened the top button of his shirt, holding a bottle of makgeolli and two cups. I nodded and moved to one side of the porch and he sat next to me.
“Jung Jin-ssi, I don’t recall seeing you at their first wedding,” Joon’s father started, offering me some makgeolli. I held my cup out, a hand under my right arm as a sign of courtesy, and accepted the drink.
“That’s because I wasn’t there.” I turned away from him as I drank the wine in one go. “It was the first and only event in your son’s life that I missed in the last seven years. I regret that.”
Joon’s father turned to me, his face devoid of any emotion. “It is indicative of a man’s strength how willing he is to admit his regrets and his mistakes, Lee Jung Jin-ssi,” he said, his voice neutral. “Besides, your statistics are better than mine. I missed too much.”
I was surprised by the unexpected candor, chalked it up to the sentimentality of the day and perhaps the liquor we had all been imbibing. Sombered by the flash of guilt I saw in his eyes, I felt the need to lighten the moment.
“If it makes you feel any better, your wi… ex wife did as well.”
He didn’t react for a few beats, staying so silent that I was convinced I had said the wrong thing altogether. But then after a few terse seconds he gave a chuckle. “It’s the first time in twenty years that she and I actually did things the same way. It’s a wonder the boy turned out as well as he did.”
Though I could hear the amusement in his voice, I heard something bittersweet in it as well. It was a contradiction to everything I knew about Joon’s parents’ relationship and I struggled to pinpoint what was not ringing true.
He poured me another shot of makgeolli before pouring himself another. We sat wordlessly on the steps, both lost in our own thoughts, looking at the festivities in front of us, as if neither of us belonged.
The sky was clear tonight, the stars fully in sight. There was a cool breeze in the air, and even now I could smell the richness of the land that surrounded me and the flowers all around. It was a perfect night.
I wished Gia was here, talking all crazy about stars and the planet and the sky. I wished I could go back to the night we spent at the mountains and looked, just really looked at her. I wished that I had spent less time when we first met waffling about what to do. I wished a lot of things.
It’s amazing how much you think of the beginning at the end. I took the shot of makgeolli as Joon’s father drank his as well.
“Who is she?” I blinked at him. How could he have known? As if reading the question in my eyes, he shrugged. “It doesn’t take a genius to see that you might have been here for my son and his wife, but your heart is somewhere else. There is only one reason for that, and it’s usually a woman.” He brought a cigar out of his pocket and lifted it up to me. “May I?” I nodded mutely and he lit up, took a drag and blew out smoke before he spoke again. “Who is she?”
“Just some…” I stopped when I realized that I was still trying to dismiss her importance to me, to make the pain less, somehow. It was so much easier to say she was just this person, and not someone who meant more to me than anyone else I had ever known. “Her name is Gia. She…” I cleared my throat. “She took care of your son in San Francisco. That’s how we met. But somehow she ended up here.” In my world. In my life. In my house. It had been unexpected, further proof that she was meant to be with me.
I knew on an intellectual level that it hadn’t been the long. Barely a year had passed since that fateful day. But it didn’t change the fact that even as I spoke, it felt like I was speaking about another lifetime. That’s how distant she felt from me now.
“And where is Gia?” Joon’s father asked.
I shook my head no. “I don’t know. She just left.”
“Without a word?”
I nodded. “Without a word.”
Joon’s father let out a sigh. “I hate it when they do that,” he said. “Does she love you back?”
For once I had no doubts. “Yes.”
He met my eyes directly. “The I’ll give you one piece of advice, Lee Jung Jin-ssi, if I may. Finding the woman you want to spend your life with is one thing, but having her love you back is another. When those two things happen, it’s a piece of magic that you cannot give up so easily. So… If you feel like this woman is the one for you, don’t let go. Wait if you have to, wait as long as you can. And when you feel like you can’t possibly wait anymore, just wait a while longer.”
He sounded as if he knew what he was talking about. And then I remembered that he did.
“Did you wait?” I suddenly asked, remembering the strange interaction with Joon’s mother before the wedding.
He put his cigar out before he answered. “Sometimes I feel like I’m still…”
His words quieted as something caught his gaze and I followed his eyes. Or someone, in this case, as I saw who he was looking at. Joon’s mother stood, not far from us, an arm over her waist and speaking on the phone. The faint light bounced off her hair, now down from the severe hairstyle she wore earlier, though she still wore her hanbok. She was walking towards the back of the house, her expression inscrutable.
I turned to look at Joon’s father and recognized the look in his eyes. Regret. Sorrow. Love?
How long had it been since they parted ways again?
Before I could ask the question out loud he had excused himself, risen from the porch steps and disappeared. In the same direction that Joon’s mother had just gone.
Chilbong said his parents’ relationship had been done and dusted, but I don’t think so. I poured myself another drink and was just about to drink it when someone came out of the door, surprising even me.
Sung Dong Il sat next to me and drank straight from the bottle. He already smelled as if he’d already drunk more than enough. He didn’t say a word even after he drank and wiped his mouth, and I wondered how much of our conversation he heard.
“Lee Jung Jin-ssi,” he began, sounding very very serious. “If it’s any consolation, Chilbong waited for seven years.”
I guess I got my answer.
Borgo a Mezzano, Italy
This… was not what I expected, I thought as I killed the ignition and stepped out of the car. I held a hand over my eyes to shield the glare of the sun as I looked at the house before me.
Thanks to my good Samaritans I found out that I had taken a completely different turn altogether, as I suspected, and had gone two hours more than I was supposed to. Going the opposite way. In short, what should have been a less than hour drive to Elena’s hometown took me four.
I almost cried from relief when I saw the bridge that my saviors had told me about: Ponte della Maddalena. I knew its English name, too, but I refuse to call it that. Its Italian name sounded nicer, prettier, and not so evil.
I drove on the bridge and its still water underneath. I passed terraced houses painted in bright yellows, blues and muted reds, the Tuscan mountainside as a backdrop. Thankfully the GPS seemed to have gained its bearings as well and proceeded to tell me, in English this time, how to get to Elena’s without any more incidence.
I turned a few more times along streets whose names I can’t pronounce, then down a long dusty road. The red arrow on the monitor indicated that the house was at the end of the road, and buoyed by my imminent arrival, I had gunned it down the tree-lined driveway as if someone was coming after me.
And now, here I was. I scrutinized the large stone-built farmhouse before me, olive groves on its side. Situated near what looked like a valley, the house was postcard perfect.
Did I arrive at the right place?
I searched my mind for any morsel of information that Elena had given me about her home only to realize that she’d given me none.
This may or may not be her house.
I smoothed a hand over my hair before trudging to the front door. I hesitated for a moment before picking up the heavy iron knocker, berated myself again for not having called beforehand. I knocked twice and heard a woman’s voice, too muffled to definitively say that it’s Elena, speaking in Italian.
I shifted my weight to my other foot as I waited, then held my breath. The door opened and Elena stood just inside it, her expression a mixture of surprise and delight.
Not so much with me. The sight of her face brought back my memories of Korea, sitting at the coffee house after I crossed Jung Jin’s path again.
Jung Jin in the sunshine, in the rain, in the snow. Jung Jin handing me a fork and transferring food into plates. Jung Jin cooking me breakfast. Jung Jin playing with Dog, holding me close. The smell of him, the smell of home being one and the same.
The memories were so lovely, so perfect, that it was almost too much to bear. Perfect memories are perfect simply because they are just that. Only memories.
My eyes burned with tears and I swallowed, unable to say a word. The exhaustion and fatigue that I had long dismissed and pushed aside came back in one blow. It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me and I dissolved into tears.
I awoke a few hours later, to the sound of church bells ringing, and sat up wearily. The first sight that greeted me were the exposed beams on the ceiling, the fading sunset filtering through gauze curtains.
I’d fallen asleep, but fitfully. Even now I still felt the fatigue deep in my bones. But at least I knew where I was. At least I knew I was on a bed. Beats the hell out of waking up on a plane on my way to another place.
The mattress under me was firm, the covers over me light. The house was silent.
Vague recollections of how I ended up in bed on my first day in Tuscany came slowly, then all at once. Elena had stood frozen even as I had a meltdown at her doorway before taking me into her arms and comforting me with copious amounts of coffee. She hadn’t asked any questions or demanded any explanations. Unable to explain myself and unwilling to speak, she led me to one of the guest bedroom before picking up my luggage and bringing it in with me.
Then she put me to bed. She and Junnie must have taken the same Comforting Gia In The Midst of A Crisis 101 class, since the both of them seemed to think that sleep would do me some good. The sleep was well-intentioned but unsuccessful.
I felt worse for wear.
I sat on the side of the bed, laid my bare feet on the tiled floor. Next to me the clock read 6:00 p.m. and my tummy grumbled, reminding me that it’s been over twelve hours since I last ate. I located my purse on the bedside table, and was rummaging around for a granola bar when I felt the frame holding Jung Jin’s picture.
I pulled it out and looked at it a good long while before placing it on the table, his smile facing the bed. I had just tucked my legs against my chest when I heard a couple of knocks on the door.
“Come in,” I called out and Elena entered, a hesitant smile on her face. She was carrying a carafe of water with lemon wedges and a cup.
“Hi,” I said, mustering up a smile. “Sorry for earlier.”
She gave a dismissive wave. “It’s fine. You brought a level of excitement that I don’t usually have living here.” She sat down next to me. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “It’s a long story.”
“I knew you would say that,” she said teasingly. “Did you come from the States?”
I shook my head no. “I came from the UK.”
She turned her eyes back to me, puzzlement in her features. “After you went home?”
“No,” I said. “I was in Seoul until the end of May.”
“May?” She asked and I nodded. “And then what?”
“And then…” I shrugged my shoulders. “Everywhere.”
“Do you want to talk about it yet?”
“No,” I said. “Not yet.” I played with one corner of the covers. “Listen, I know my visit was unexpected and I would totally understand if you can’t accommodate me…”
“Nonsense,” she interrupted. “You will stay here for as long as you need.”
“What about your parents?”
“They live in Florence, and I doubt they’d have a fit over a girlfriend staying over.”
“And your job?”
“I work from home doing mainly translation work,” she said. “You will not be a bother. Besides, I could use the company.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking her hand and giving it a squeeze. Her eyes were glued to the picture on the table, her mouth forming a small ‘o.’
“Who’s the hottie in the tiara?”
“Jung Jin,” I said, the sound of his name on my tongue coming out hoarse.
“Jung Jin Lee? Jae Joon Kim’s manager?”
I nodded absent-mindedly, the name of the player ringing familiar, though I could not pinpoint why.
“Wow,” Elena said. “Who knew the man was hiding that face under that ghastly baseball cap he was wearing in Hongdae?”
I said nothing else and Elena got the message.
I was looking at the picture myself, wondering how a man could look that at home wearing a tiara and participating in an imaginary tea party when my tummy rumbled again, and I gave Elena a sheepish smile. Hunger waits for no one. Hunger cares for nothing. Not even a broken heart.
“I’m a horrible hostess,” Elena said, standing up. “Are you hungry?”
I nodded yes before standing up as well, slipping my feet back into my shoes before following her out the door. “Don’t worry about preparing anything big. Some bread and chee…”
I stopped speaking as I saw the feast laid out on the dining room table, the industrial looking chandelier’s light glimmering over platters and platters of food.
“I don’t want to hear it,” she cut in. “The prospect of having a guest with whom I can converse with overrode all common sense. What kind of Italian welcome would it be if I just fed you the bare basics?” She waved a hand over the table. “Ribollita soup, cheese souffle, penne with walnut raisin sauce, wine braised pork with olive sauce, and ravioli with duck ragu. There’s some tuna and canneloni in the fridge, too if you want to eat fish.”
“No,” I said, putting a hand on her arm in gratitude. “This is more than enough.”
“Don’t get used to this,” she warned in a light voice. “I only reserve this special treatment to emotionally volatile women who show up at my doorstep without warning.”
“Got it,” I said as I sat down. She immediately poured me a glass of white wine before sitting down herself.
“Shall we eat?” She asked and I nodded.
The rest of the meal was spent in blessed silence.
September 20, 2002
“What kind of property are you looking for, Mr. Lee?” The realtor in front of me asked, pushing his glasses up over the bridge of his nose. “And were you trying to stay in Gangnam or move to some other area?”
I glanced at the map between us, even as I tried to formulate a response. I looked at the nameplate sitting on his desk. Kim Myeong Min. The CEO of one of the most affluent real estate agents in Seoul.
I had taken off from work early to meet with him from the recommendation of Ji Hyun Noona, having used his services for her and her husband’s move to Taiwan. I think that it’s time for me and Dog to get a move on.
“My parents live in Jung-gu. I would like to find a property closer to them than where I am now,” I answered. “As for the type, I would really like to find a house. The size doesn’t really matter as much as it having a decent sized yard.”
He looked up at me in surprise, eyes brimming with pleasure. “Are you getting married, Mr. Lee?”
I blinked at him, felt the beginnings of a flush on my neck. “No,” I said. “I have a dog. I want to live somewhere where he’ll be able to run around and enjoy his life.”
The man made notes on the folder in front of him. “I didn’t realize you were an animal lover, sir.”
“I’m not,” I said, my voice coming out more curtly than I intended. “But I love my dog.”
He smiled at me and it made me shift in my seat. I wondered if I should say something brash now; I had a feeling I was gaining reputation, and not one that I wanted. With the amount of dates I have rejected in the last month, soon I might be known in town as a lovesick man who adores animals. That won’t do at all. I can’t lose my edge.
Before I could think up something sufficiently more like what Lee Jung Jin ‘the manager’ would say, the man spoke.
“I think there might be some properties in Yongsan that are available, and Jongno as well.” He added another notation to his file before he closed it. “I should have a list and a packet for you by the end of the week.”
I nodded before I rose from my seat, closing the button on my suit jacket. The meeting had lasted quicker than I had anticipated. Checking my watch I realized that I still had enough time to eat before going home. Not having eaten lunch and not looking forward to another meal eaten with only Dog as company, I decided to grab a bite to eat while out.
I departed the office with a firm handshake of the realtor’s hand and walked out to a smattering of rain. Standing just outside the large building’s lobby I considered calling Ha Neul and asking him to meet me for dinner and was about to do so when I saw a familiar figure turned away from me, shoes tapping impatiently on the pavement.
For a minute I debated saying anything; it’s been a few months since we’d spoken. I always knew, however, that we were bound to run into each other at some point, just like I always knew that we would have to speak. We had too much history to leave things as they were.
Why now? I thought, before I corrected myself. Why not now?
Mind made up I relaxed my stance, surprised that I wasn’t more nervous. I tried to conjure up the feeling of resentment and anger, two emotions that we shared and threw at each other the last time we’d been in the same room, but could not feel either. I wondered whether I had grown up or gone numb. Before I could decide which one I preferred, intelligent brown eyes met mine and my mouth curled into a rueful smile.
“Lee Jung Jin-ssi.” The greeting was distant, polite.
“Kang Hye Soo-ssi,” I responded, just as politely. Just as distantly. “It’s been a long time.”
Borgo a Mezzano, Italy
“What is Italy’s national flower?” I asked Elena as she broke off a piece of pane toscana.
I watched as she lathered it with butter and chestnut spread before taking a hefty bite. I shook my head as she sipped her cappuccino, still amazed and just a little disappointed that Italian breakfasts were not as I imagined they would be.
After the first night’s feast I realized that my gluttonous carbohydrate aspirations were about to be banished into thin air during my Italian holiday. Elena had matter of factly informed me that Italians, in fact, do not eat pasta morning, noon and night. She laughed outright when I asked her the next morning where all the savory food were.
“My friend,” she had said, “you are no longer in Asia. Or America, for that matter, where you are able to get sweet and savory or both at any given time. This is Italy. Breakfast is coffee, and if your host is feeling especially generous, cereals and pastry.”
After much negotiation she had conceded and bought me some ham, salami and capiccola to eat with breakfast. The ricotta and strawberries were my finds from yesterday’s farmers’ market forage. Even now she wrinkled her nose at the food in front of me as she thought about the answer to my question.
“White lily,” she finally said, licking her fingers as she opened her laptop. “Why?”
“Nothing,” I said, spearing a few pieces of meat and sandwiching it between my two slices of unsalted bread. “Just curious.”
I had just opened the book that I had purchased at the airport to start reading when I glanced over at Elena. Her brows were furrowed in concentration, the silence at the breakfast table broken only by the clicks made by her mouse.
I lifted my eyes questioningly when she made the noise, wondering what it was now that had her so fascinated. She smiled at me across the table before turning the laptop so that the monitor would be facing me.
I glanced at it and saw several pictures, though the writing was too small for me to read. I directed my attention back to my book.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Jae Joon Kim got married. Again.” She rose from her seat to point at the pictures. “Your manager’s client, right? This is him and his wife, at their traditional wedding. I must have missed this news because this happened two months ago.”
“Did they?” I said, trying to stop myself from eagerly looking at the pictures. Would Jung Jin be there? Would he be in the pictures as well?
“Yep,” Elena said. “It’s short, more like a pictorial.”
I feigned disinterest and looked back down to my book. I read one line about ten times before I spoke again. “Why are you reading the Korean news anyway?” I asked.
“I like their dramas.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I like to keep up with the news.” She turned the laptop towards her. “It’s not really a news story, though, more like a blurb, thanking fans and that.”
I cleared my throat. “Is there… is there anything on there about his manager?”
Elena sent me a sly look before shaking her head no. “Why? Who’s asking?” When I didn’t respond she pursed her lips at me. “The girl who still won’t talk about what happened in Korea?”
“Nothing happened in Korea,” I said.
“Are you still sticking to that story?” Her voice was wry, rueful. “You can talk to me, you know.”
I sighed before I closed my book. One look out the big windows in the dining room showed me Tuscany in all its glory, the sunshine kissing the olive groves and the parallel lines of Elena’s small vineyard, a mountain beckoning just behind. The sky was a clear blue, the same blue as the waters on the Pacific Ocean.
It was a beautiful day. As most of them had been since I had arrived almost two months ago.
I had thought that being here, being in the company of someone familiar was going to quell my restlessness. I believed that it would dull out the emotions that had plagued me since I left Korea.
It hadn’t worked.
If anything it seemed that I fell back into my old habits. I filled my days with useless activities to keep my mind distracted, to keep my heart distanced. It’s been almost two months since I’d been here and I felt no different than I did right when I left Korea.
I should talk to someone. Who better than one who has only known me for a short time?
Objectivity is lost when there is history, when there is sentiment. Honesty is often cushioned when you have a friendship and a relationship to protect. Though we were friends, Elena doesn’t know about my past. She would be able to give me advice on just this one particular situation. Or, if she was unable to do that, she would be able to listen without trying to figure out how this fits with the rest of my life.
“I fell in love.” Elena delicately put the bread she was holding down on her plate, wiped her mouth leisurely before looking at me.
“You make it sound like that’s a horrible thing,” she said. “Aren’t people in love supposed to be happy?”
“I was happy. I was so happy I didn’t know what to do with myself. I was so happy I had to find reasons to be unhappy because it’s not right for anyone to be that happy with somebody. It made me forget, you know, that I was hurt once. That I lost once. It made me not care that I could hurt again, that I could lose again,” I said quietly, my fingers drawing figures on the table. “I thought that I had trained myself to think before I fell. I thought I had conditioned myself to be okay with just enough. I realized I was wrong. I was still selfish. I was still greedy. I wanted all of it, all at once. I reverted back to the person I vowed I never would be again.”
My friend studied me for a minute before she spoke. “Again, you make that sound like a bad thing.”
“I have a habit,” I started, “of falling in love too quickly and too hard. I get myself in situations that I can’t control, all in the name of love. I give everything I have even when I know the man I love doesn’t deserve it because somehow I always believed that I could love him enough to change him into a better person.”
“You can never love someone enough to make them change,” Elena said. “Even I know that.”
My mouth lifted into what should have been a smile. “See, that’s the thing… I know that, too. But I keep trying anyway,” I paused and took a deep breath. “No matter how much I try not to, I revert back to that girl when I’m in love. I don’t like it.”
“That wouldn’t be an issue if you fell in love with a good man.”
“I don’t know who’s good or who’s bad, that’s another part of the problem. I’ve led myself astray so many times I can’t possibly trust myself anymore.” I shook my head. “I keep thinking about it and thinking about it some more, but I don’t understand why I am this way.”
Elena took a sip from her cup. “Everyone gets a little batty when they fall in love. You know what they say… in the beginning you fall in love with the illusion, and then you fall in love with the person.”
“And if the person turns out not to be who you thought you fell in love with?”
“Then you cut your losses and break it off.”
“See?” I said. “I don’t. Ever. I stick to the person I love no matter if he’s a liar, a cheater, a beater. Somehow I find a way to make it acceptable. I wonder now if I liked it.”
“Liked being the good one in the relationship,” I said softly before biting my lip. I looked out the windows once more, but my eyes stayed dry. Fatigue had wrung dry the last of my tears. “Jung Jin showed me that maybe I could have something beautiful, something worth holding on to. Something that could be mine,” I continued. “I used to believe that loneliness was this transient thing… but now I think it can be tangible, permanent. I never realized… that it was possible to feel lonely and happy at the same time, and with the same person.”
“Were you lonely in Korea?” Elena asked and I nodded. “Why?”
“Because it always felt like what Jung Jin felt for me hung on one condition… that I be the person he believes me to be forever. As long as I was her, he would accept me. I will be loved.”
“And who is that?” Elena asked gently.
“Someone who has her life together. Someone who knows what she wants. Someone who knows who she is. Someone I’m not.” My heart constricted inside my chest. “He said he loved me.”
“He did?” Behind me Elena’s voice sounded incredulous.
“He said he loved me, and I couldn’t understand why. I don’t even love me. I don’t even like me.”
“You’re a wonderful person,” Elena said, taking my hand in hers, and I attempted a smile. “Nobody’s perfect.”
“You look at me and you don’t see, right?” Elena raised her eyebrows in question. “That I’m damaged. He didn’t see, either. A long time ago, I was led to believe that I was worth nothing. That my love was worth nothing. That I was not deserving of anything good. That I would be lucky to have someone accept me. When the words did not hold, it was beaten into me. Over and over,” I said. “Until one day it finally did. And I think, maybe, that it hasn’t let me go. I think part of me still believes that is am not worth loving.”
Elena stayed silent as she processed what I told her, squeezing my hand a little tighter. “That’s not true,” she said softly.
“You would think that by now I would be over it, but I’m beginning to realize that some things stay with you forever.” I sighed. “I guess, maybe, that’s what I’m trying to figure out still. I’ve tried it before, this figuring it out thing… but there was always something else to do, somewhere else to go. I kept falling in love and then back into the same patterns before I could find any answers. I thought it was hard before, but now trying to get to the bottom of this seems damn near impossible.”
I wasn’t even sure why I was saying everything, but it felt as if I was confessing, knowing that there’d be no resolution, that there’d be no absolution. Maybe I was hoping that by unburdening myself that I could finally start somewhere.
“You should probably go home,” Elena said. “I know for me, there’s something grounding about being back with my parents, back to where you grew up.”
I thought of my sister. My mother. It was true that I wanted to see them, that I missed them both more than I can bear. Unfortunately, with thoughts of my mother inevitably came those of my father. And I found myself stiffening.
“What’s wrong?” Elena asked, picking up on my tension.
“That’s another can of worms that I don’t even think I can handle right now,” I said. “My parents’ relationship is more complicated than my life even is.”
Elena refilled my cup before she spoke, her tone careful. “Divorce?” She asked.
“I wish that was the case,” I half joked. “Even worse. Unhappy marriage, more than three decades old, replete with affairs, illegitimate children and more drama than even some Korean dramas.”
“So…” she said. “… is it fair to assume you don’t have a good relationship with your parents?”
“My father is my father. He’s a selfish man and he will never change.” I stopped speaking, unwilling to sat any more.
Elena caught my silence. “And your mother?”
I hesitated before responding. “I love my mother, but I don’t understand her. I refuse to believe that she’d stayed with my father despite everything he’d done out of love.”
“Why?” Elena asked quietly. “You did the same for the men that you loved.”
I digested what she said for a minute. “Those are completely unrelated,” I protested. “My mother is strong and capable. She’s very calm and controlled. As far as I know she only has one weakness and that’s…
“Love?” Elena asked. “Like you, then. You and your mother may not be exactly alike, but from what little you’ve told me, I think it’s safe to say that you’ve both made the same choices and the same mistakes. If I didn’t know that your life and your mother’s were separate I would have thought that you were speaking about the same person.”
“I hope not.” The sentence came out in a half whisper, what Elena had said my greatest nightmare come to life.
“My mother passed onto me her love of travel and her disdain for apples. My father passed onto me a love of books and a head for language,” Elena said. I looked at her questioningly, confused at the sudden change in topic. “Did you not know?” She gave me a rueful smile. “There is a reason why you are the way you are. Like it or not, every person’s story starts with that of her mother’s. But every woman’s story starts with that of her father’s as well.”
I didn’t respond.
“Your parents form the basis of what you believe, of who you are. You can credit them, you can blame them, but it doesn’t lessen that effect. You can’t get any answers unless you ask some questions. You’ll never be able to understand the present without looking at the past: And that starts with your parents.”
“How?” I asked. “How do I do that?”
Elena shook her head at me. “I don’t know. I barely understand my own parents,” she teased. “But you’ll never have the chance to even start from the other side of the world.” She sighed. “Something tells me that you might have to stop running.”
Realizing the sense in what she was saying but unwilling to accept it, my throat tightened and I was only able to say two words.
“Don’t wait too long,” Elena advised. “Life has a way of moving forward when all you want is for things to stay the same. And I hope you figure it out soon before you lose your man.”
I shook my head. “It doesn’t matter now, anyway. Jung Jin will never forgive me for leaving.”
“He won’t. He’s probably already thinking up ways to get back at me, if he hasn’t already.” I gave her a small smile.
“What makes you think he’s not looking for you?”
“I know him,” I said. “Him looking for me is like snow coming in June. He isn’t the type to let something like this go easily. I hurt him.The man doesn’t know how to turn the other cheek. It’s one of his rules.”
“You people and your rules,” Elena complained. “You two are more alike than I realized.” She gave me a smile. “Have you figured out the meaning of what I told you yet?”
“Ogni regola ha un’eccezione.”
“No,” I said.”I don’t know what that means.”
“You don’t, yet,” she said with a smile. “But I hope that one day you will.”
Cafe Healing 616
Gangnam, Seoul, Korea
I stared out of the glass walls at the coffee house as the server delivered two cups of Americano on ice. Hye Soo and I were at the basement of the cafe, in a corner alcove.
“Did you want to order anything else, Sir?” The server asked and I directed my eyes to Hye Soo in question. She shook her head no.
“No, thank you.”
The server nodded and left. I looked at Hye Soo and marveled at the fact that though she looked as beautiful as she always did, that I felt none of the flutterings that I did when we first met.
She was dressed today in a white pantsuit, her hair brushed away from her face into an artful chignon. Her hands were sitting on the table that separated us, one of her fingers drumming a silent beat.
“You know,” she started, smiling slightly, “I don’t believe you and I have ever been anywhere during the day.”
“No,” I agreed. “Those were part of your rules, remember?”
Her eyes sharpened at my words, though she soon recovered and gave me a patronizing smile, like one would give a child who was acting up. I never realized until now that our relationship had been dotted with many of such moments in the past five years, where she treated me tolerantly, condescendingly, as if I was still the boy who met and fell in love with her so long ago.
Her face was now fixed into a cordial smile. “So,” she said. “Where is she?”
“Who?” I asked, feigning ignorance.
“That American girl.” Though her voice sounded as cool and composed as it always did, I could hear the distaste in her voice. It was official, though I had always known it to be so. Kang Hye Soo is a snob. It made me irritable.
“She has a name,” I said, my words short. “Gia. Her name is Gia.”
She met my eyes directly. “And the others?”
“The ones who came before her,” Hye Soo responded. “You always forget their names, so I never bothered to remember.”
“That would have hurt me had I actually told you any of their names,” I said tightly. “But I know for a damn fact that I had not.”
She took a sip of her coffee. “It doesn’t matter anyway,” she said dismissively. “Where is she?”
“It’s none of your business where she is, Hye Soo.” And none of mine, either, though I didn’t add that.
“She is gone.” A statement, and not a question. Hye Soo delivered the line magnificently before smirking over her glass. She put it down and tried to reach for my hand and I pulled away before she could make contact.
The rejection didn’t dampen her mood, however, as she smiled at me, like I had just delivered the best news. She took one last sip of her drink before she stood up.
“Things,” she said as she secured a purse on her shoulder, “should be back to normal, then. I knew it would be so, sooner or later.”
I laid a hand on the table and met her gaze, trying to keep my emotions in check and out of my face. “There was never a normal between us,” I said. “You know that, too.”
“Jung Jin-ah, you were perfectly happy with whatever abnormal we had,” Hye Soo said, straightening her shoulders. “I don’t understand why you are still acting this way… do you still need more time? I must say, you’re really holding on for longer than I even thought you were capable.”
I shook my head. “This was not just a phase, Hye Soo. I told you… I love her. That has not changed.”
“She is not worthy of you,” she said. “Where is she from? Where are we from?”
“I’ve told you this before… those things do not matter to me, not when you are not the one I love.”
“Of course it does,” Hye Soo said. “Because they would matter to me. My parents. My people. That’s the stuff that matters. Can she enhance your portfolio? Can she help further your career? Can she give you the backing and the influence that you need? You are a smart man, Lee Jung Jin-ssi. You and I think the same way. We have the same habits. We are compatible… the perfect couple. I tolerated the others before her, and I can hold on this time, too, until you get over this infatuation and you come back to me. Love?” she asked derisively. “Love, too, will fade.”
“Not mine,”I said. “You and I are not the same person, Hye Soo. We never were. My feelings will not change.”
“Of course they will. People don’t change. Humans are creatures of habits. You will still find yourself doing the very same things that you had always done. You can’t handle pain, so you will try everything in your power to make it go away. Your feelings will change, and then I will be the one you will be looking for.”
“No,” I said. “I will change. I want to change. Gia taught me that as long as people have the will and determination, they can be better. I would rather believe that.”
Hye Soo snorted. “And you actually believe her?” I answered her with silence. “She’s more naive than I thought and now she’s passed it onto you.” She made a derisive sound. It grated on me, though I said nothing. “And what if she doesn’t come back?”
“Then she doesn’t come back.” I found myself standing as well. “But at least she will leave me a better man than the one she met. That’s worth something.”
“You are a fool,” Hye Soo said, shaking her head. “You’ve learned nothing from me.”
“I disagree,” I said. “I think I learned too much. I became what you wanted me to be and I had forgotten who I was. I am not the man you think I am. Perhaps I never was.”
Hye Soo sent a hard look my way. “No,” she said, adamant. “This is a phase. Soon you will be back to normal and all of this,” she said dismissively, “will be behind you. Call me when that happens.”
“I won’t go back, Hye Soo,” I said, just as adamantly. “This is the end for us.”
Hye Soo, at first, responded with an icy silence, her eyes giving nothing away. She must have heard some sort of finality in my voice though, because I saw the way she clutched her purse closer to her body. It was imperceptible to anyone else, but to my eyes, who always saw Hye Soo as close to being untouchable by nothing, it was an unexpected show of vulnerability.
Hard as I tried not to, I softened. Contrary to what I would have others believe, I do not enjoy hurting other people, especially one I respected and admired. And yes, once even cared for.
Hye Soo had acted out of spite, and maybe, just as Gia had said, out of love. She didn’t deserve this kind of ending. Neither of us did.
“I’m sorry,’ I said softly. “I am sorry if I hurt you. I should have been honest from the get go. I should have told you that I loved you when I did. I should have told you when my feelings changed. I should have ended this a long time ago before we made this of each other.”
“I don’t need you to be sorry,” she said, lifting her chin up. “I don’t need your apologies.”
“You are a remarkable woman, Hye Soo-ssi. You deserve to be with someone who can love you in a way that I can’t.”
“Love has made you soft.” Her voice was taut with tension and a muscle ticked on her jaw in anger. “The old Jung Jin would not have apologized.”
“I’m not him anymore,” I said. “And love… has made me human. I’ve made mistakes, but now at least I can start fixing them.” I pulled a check out of my pocket and offered it to her. “I’m starting with this. I’m returning your investment in my firm with interest.” I met her eyes as I firmly continued. “Let’s not meet again.”
“So, Oppa, how’s work been?” Na Jeong asked in between mouthfuls of rice, kimchi and galbi. Not all at the same time.
I had left the coffee house after meeting with Hye Soo still hungry but feeling less weighed down than I had been in months. That talk had been a long time coming, and though I knew that Hye Soo was still angry, at least now I know that I had done right by both me and her. I’ve done what I should have done a long time ago.
And now, for the first time in as many years as I could count, I was single. I’d finally broken one of my habits: that of skipping from one bed to the next, bandaging a broken relationship with one woman with another.
It felt liberating. And just a little scary.
I had received a call from Joon as he left the stadium on my way home, asking if I wanted dinner. After calling Ji Min Noona to see if she could let Dog out and getting a confirmation, I had agreed.
It’s been a while since I’ve shared a meal with my only client and his wife. And there was still that pressing matter of Na Jeong needing to tell me something.
She was still waiting for a response, her chopsticks in her mouth, when I looked at her and I smiled. Next to her sat Joon with a pack of ice on his right shoulder, eating with gusto. There was enough food on the table to feed a small army, and God knows that Na Jeong was certainly eating enough to give it a go. The woman was barreling through the meat as if she was carrying a whole nation in her belly and her husband just kept putting more on her plate.
It was cute. Then I remembered her question.
“Work’s been good,” I replied, taking a bite of the kkakduggi she had laid out. “Your husband keeps me busy.”
God, this was delicious, I thought as I perused the radish kimchi on the table and helped myself to another bite. For a minute I was tempted to ask if she had given me the right recipe when I had asked for it since every time I’d tried to make it, mine never turned out like this.
“And your family?” Na Jeong asked. “Has your sister recovered from her accident?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Ji Soo is still going for physical therapy but otherwise she’s almost completely recovered. How are you? How far along are you now?”
“I’m fine,” Na Jeong answered happily. “The morning sickness had thankfully passed but now I get to have difficulty sleeping and indigestion. I swear, if it’s not one thing it’s another.” She was complaining though her voice held nothing but joy. A protective hand came came to rest over her bump, the action more instinctive than casual. “And the baby is almost…”
Before Na Jeong can finish her sentence, Joon spoke. “The baby is almost twenty four weeks old,” he said, producing a picture from the jacket hanging behind his chair to show me a grainy black and white picture of something. I hoped it was their baby though I couldn’t be sure. “The doctor said he’s the size of an ear of corn now.”
“That’s amazing.” I looked at the picture and the wondrous way that Joon was looking at it and shook my head. To this day I haven’t quite reconciled that he was about to become a father. Speaking of which, “Have you two thought any more about the offer for a pictorial with the baby?”
A magazine had offered an inordinate amount of money for an exclusive with Joon and his family once the baby made three and they had yet to give me an answer. Might as well ask now… better to have these things settled before the baby comes.
“Yeah, Hyung,” Joon said. “Na Jeong and I talked about it.” He looked at his wife. “Our kid will have a hard enough time growing up with people knowing who his father is; we don’t want his face plastered all over anything as soon as he is born. So we’ve agreed on not doing it.”
“Got it. I’ll tell them tomorrow.” I took a drink of water then realized what he just said. “Hold on… did you say he?”
Na Jeong beamed at me and I found myself mirroring her smile. “Yes. The last ultrasound showed that we are having a boy.”
“Na Jeong-ah, chukhae,” I said sincerely before offering a handshake to Joon. “Dare I hope that there will be a future pitcher in your family?”
“Maybe,” Joon said. “Maybe not. He can be whatever he wants to be… I just hope he inherits Na Jeong’s brain.”
I chuckled as I helped myself to another piece of galbi when my hand phone vibrated in my pocket. Taking it out I saw an unknown number and briefly considered not answering.
Until I saw the first three digits on the caller’s number. 001. I know that country code. America. I only knew one American.
I pushed my chair away from the table and picked up the phone so quickly I caught Joon’s look of concern before I even spoke.
There was silence on the line, a pause of hesitation and I repeated myself.
Someone cleared their throat on the other line and I held my breath, not altogether knowing if I wanted it to be her. If I was ready for it to be her.
“Mr. Lee?” I heard a female voice ask and I could barely tamp down on my disappointment.
“Yes, this is he,” I said, my tone more formal. More polite. I was wondering what business I had left unfinished in America that anyone would call me in Korea. “How may I help you?”
“Uhmm…” Again the hesitation. “I left a voicemail on your machine last night, err, I guess this morning Korea time, but you never responded, so I thought I’d try your cell… oh crap, Sis said you call cellphones handphones.” Her words were coming out fast and I’d wondered if she was nervous. “Anyway, my sister gave me your hand phone number but gave me strict instructions never to use it unless I absolutely had to. And since you never called me back…”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but who are you?” Sis? Who the hell is Sis?
“Maria?” I repeated dumbly, trying to remember where I had heard that name before.
The answer came at the exact time that she responded. “Gia’s sister.” She waited for a sign of recognition. “He probably doesn’t know who you are,” she mumbled to herself. I wasn’t positive if she had intended for me to hear.
“I know who you are,” I said softly. “Your sister told me about you.”
“She did?” Her voice held a touch of incredulity.
“Yes, she did.”
“You have to excuse my surprise, Mr. Lee. It’s just that my sister doesn’t like to share a lot of information so I just assumed…” She didn’t finish her sentence. “Anyway, do you know how I can get in touch with her?”
“You can’t get in touch with her?” I asked, my brows furrowing. “I thought she’d gone home?”
“No, she hasn’t,” Maria said. “My sister kind of likes to disappear sometimes, Mr. Lee.” She paused and I heard a sigh.”I guess she didn’t tell you she hasn’t been home in almost six years.”
“She didn’t tell me a lot of things.”
“Don’t take it personally. My sister likes her secrets even as she detests having them. She doesn’t tell me everything, either.” Again, another pause. “I tried to get in touch with Joon but I haven’t received word yet. I really need to speak to her.”
“She’s not with Joon-ie?” I asked. Where the hell was she?
“No,” she answered. “That’s why I’m trying to find out if you knew where she was.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I hadn’t heard from your sister since she left Korea.”
“Dammit.” Maria said the word and I heard a sharp intake of breath. And then a sniffle. Was she crying? “It was worth a shot,” she said, her voice now shaky. “Thank you anyway. If you hear from her will you tell her…”
“Give me a few hours,” I said, my mind already racing. Shawn knew people. Shawn had connections. If I got in touch with Shawn I might be able to get some help.
“Give me a few hours and I’ll see what I can find out for you. Should I call this number back?”
She sounded surprised. “You don’t really have to do all that, Mr…”
“Please, call me Jung Jin,” I insisted. “And really, it’s the least I could do.”
“I… and our family would really appreciate it,” she said. “Thank you.”
I quickly hung up the phone to see Na Jeong motioning for me to sit back down. How can I think about eating when no one seems to know where Gia was?
Jesus, I thought she was leaving me to go home. Or at the very least to go to Joon-ie’s. Not this.
Where the hell was she???
How does this woman still manage to make me worry even after she’d trampled my heart to pieces?
I paced the dining room as I pressed the speed dial for Shawn’s number. I could feel two pairs of eyes alternating between watching me and speaking quietly between themselves.
Shawn answered on the third ring.
“Hey,” my friend said. “What’s up?”
“A few years ago, you knew this computer person who managed to track your friend down… the one who was in trouble, do you remember?”
“Yeah, why?” Shawn’s voice was unnaturally reluctant and I wondered why. I know my friend doesn’t like to speak about that time.
“How fast do you think he can work? I need to track someone down.”
“Depends,” Shawn said. “What information have you got? Bank account number? Credit card number?”
“Not much,” I said. “A name. And a hand phone number.”
“I can try in the morning…”
“No, you need to call him now,” I demanded, trying to keep the panic from my voice. Where the hell was she? “If you don’t then I will.”
“Exactly what is this about, Ethan?” Shawn asked. “Who are we trying to find?”
I ran fingers through my hair and again I could see Na Jeong waving at me. I held my hand out to her, asking her to wait a minute before I responded. “Gia.”
“I thought that you said you would give her her space?” Shawn asked, tsking.
“I did. I am,” I said vehemently. “But this is not about me. Her sister called. Said that she needed to speak to her.”
“Okay you’ll call him or what?” I clarified.
“Okay I’ll see what I can do.”
“Call me back whatever you find out,” I said.
“I mean it,” I warned. “I tried to call you a couple of days ago and you never responded.”
“Ethan, are you my guardian or what? I’ll have you know that my plane just touched down literally an hour ago from Kuala Lumpur. I’ve been away on business. No reception in any of the warehouses I was at. I’ve been unreachable for two days.” Shawn sighed. “I’ll call you back.”
Shawn ended the call without so much as a goodbye and I looked at my phone in frustration. I can’t be expected to stay here and finish dinner as if my woman was not out there somewhere without anyone knowing where she’s at.
Feeling helpless, I continued to pace as I tried to figure out what I can do with the limited amount of information I had myself and realized this will not do. Surely there was something else I could do, someone else I could call.
I grabbed my jacket from the back of my chair. “Joon-ah, Na Jeong-ah… I’m sorry to do this, but I have to go.”
Joon looked at Na Jeong pointedly before drinking his water.
“That’s why I was trying to get your attention, Oppa,” Na Jeong said quickly. “Was that phone call about Gia Unnie?”
“Yeah,” I said. “No one knows where she is. No one has seen her.”
Na Jeong smiled. “I’ve seen her. That’s what I was going to tell you before.”
“What?” I asked. Na Jeong had never even met Gia, so what was she talking about?
“I saw Unnie,” Na Jeong said. “I guess about three months ago now? I saw her on our honeymoon.”
My heartbeat kicked up a notch. “Where?” I asked. “Where did you see her?”
“In Japan.” At my questioning look she continued. “You know… the forest you told me about. It was the most random thing. I went to the bathroom and there she was. I never met her so I wouldn’t even have known her, but we bumped into each other and all her stuff came flying out of her purse.” I urged her to continue when she paused. “And then I saw it.”
“She had your picture in her purse. I thought she was like a stalker fan or something but then she didn’t recognize Joon’s name. And then she mentioned San Francisco and being a nurse and I just put it all together.” Na Jeong gave me a sly look. “You didn’t tell me that Unnie was so pretty.”
“Yeah,” I said. “She is.”
“Anyway,” Na Jeong continued. “I digress. She said she was traveling. Apparently Japan was just her first stop.” She stopped speaking, as if lost in thought. “But how did she know about that forest?”
I was pondering the same question myself when my hand phone vibrated in my hand. I saw Shawn’s number and quickly picked up.
“I have a number and address for you,” Shawn said, not bothering with any greetings. “Do you have a piece of paper and pen?”
“That was fast,” I said as I covered the mouthpiece and asked Joon for a piece of paper. He handed me a post it and I stood at the ready.
“My people are good,” Shawn said dryly. “Plus I know you. God only knows what you would do if I didn’t get you this information.”
Shawn gave me an address, as well as a phone number. I wrote it down and read it with a but of incredulity before I spoke. “She’s in Italy? What the hell is she doing there?”
“Who knows? But yes, she is… now. Your girl’s been a lot of places, apparently.”
“How did your person find her?”
“Does that even matter?” Shawn asked. “Besides, I don’t question the hows as long as I have the answers I seek.”
“Thank you, Shawn. Really. I owe you.”
“No shit,” Shawn replied. “And you bet your ass I’ll collect.”
I said a hasty goodbye before ending the call. Sitting back down, I placed the paper on the table just as Na Jeong excused herself and went to the bathroom. Once she was gone, I caught Joon looking at me, a question in his eyes.
“You know where she is now?” He asked and I nodded. I leaned back on the chair, my eyes still fixed on the piece of paper. Finally. I knew where she was. I cleared my throat, conflicted about what to do next.
“You know there’s a difference between passively waiting and actively waiting, right?” I didn’t respond, was barely paying attention. “The whole time I was waiting for Na Jeong I wasn’t just sitting on the sidelines waiting for her to change her mind about me.”
“Joon-ah,” I said. “I don’t really think this is the time…”
“I made sure that she knew that I was there, made sure that she knew how I felt. I wasn’t going to leave anything to chance. I showed up. I called,” he continued, ignoring me. “Sometimes, the right thing does not have to involve self-sacrifice. I love her. Why do I have to keep her away from me just because she’s not ready? Who said that being persistent was a bad thing for the person you love? I’m a doer. I would have regretted it if I didn’t at least make the effort.”
“If we’re meant to meet again then we will. Have you forgotten that she left me?” He said nothing. “I’m going to look pathetic.”
Joon shook his head. “That’s fine and well, but sometimes you have to be an active hero in your life. Isn’t she worth fighting for? Isn’t she worth putting your pride down for?”
“What are you saying?” Our eyes met.
Joon smiled. “Now that you know where she’s at, are you actually going to keep sitting here or are you actually going to do something about it?”
Borgo a Mezzano, Italy
I was out sitting on a bench, reading my book and soaking up the warm Italian sunshine when Elena came home from whatever errand she was running. She parked her red Fiat before coming out wearing a sundress, sandals and a big floppy hat on her head.
Her outfit, coupled with the gorgeous Tuscan countryside behind her made her look like a movie star.
She waved at me and I had barely called out a greeting before she disappeared into the house with an armful of flowers and a shopping bag. I tried to resume my reading but could not help looking around, amazed that even now, the summer here didn’t show any signs of slowing down.
It was still hot now, but soon I know the autumn winds will come again. Another season will begin.
Elena came out of the house bearing a pitcher of lemonade and a platter of crusty bread and prosciutto, some melon and olives, along with a small bottle of olive oil. She handed me a small bag before she sat herself down on the table in front of me and waved me over.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“I was in town and I got you a phone charger,” she said. “Your people must be worried. You’ve been MIA since you got here.”
“Thank you,” I said, opening the bag. “You’re a godsend. Were you able to…”
“Yep, it’s done,” she said, wrapping a melon in prosciutto and taking a bite. “I picked up some chrysanthemums and irises as well, since they’re in season.”
I took a piece of bread and dipped it into the olive oil. Between bites we spoke about her work and the book I was reading. Anything else but Jung Jin and my family.
It was a relief. This morning’s conversation still weighed on my mind. Inside the house the land line rang and we both ignored it. We continued to eat until we were both full, languishing in the beautiful weather, until the phone rang again.
“Must be my mother,” Elena complained. “No one else calls consecutively like this.” She got up and went inside the house, leaving me at the table sipping on my lemonade. I had just poured myself another glass when she came out holding the cordless phone, her eyes a bit worried, and handed it to me.
What was it? Why did she look like that? Who was calling and why did they need to speak to me? Could it be…?
My brows furrowed in confusion, I studied her face before I placed the receiver up to an ear.
“Hello?” I said hesitantly, hopeful and worried at the same time about whose voice I was about to hear.
“Sis, thank God. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.”
“How did you get this number?” I asked, surprised. “Why didn’t you call my phone?”
“Junnie gave it to me. And I called your phone a million times,” she said, her voice tight. “Your phone is off.”
“I’m sorry.” I just remembered that my phone had been dead for the last two months, hence the need for Elena’s gift.
My little sister stayed quiet and I felt a deep sense of foreboding. Maria never calls out of the blue unless it was emergent.
Two beats of silence. “Papa had a stroke.” She’d barely uttered the four words before my sister began to cry. “He’s asking for you. You have to come home.”
And just like that, my sojourn was over.
Borgo a Mezzano, Italy
September 21, 2002
I stepped out of the rental car and let my eyes wander over the picturesque countryside before I looked down at my paper to double check that I had the right place. I hoped to God that Shawn’s contact was as good as I’d been told. I might just flip a lid if I went to Italy for nothing.
Not exactly what I needed after traveling for almost eighteen hours.
I spent all night tossing and turning, unsure about what to do, until I finally gave in and did what I wanted to do. After leaving a curt message for Ha Neul telling him I had to fly out urgently, I called my brother for a ride to catch the 930 a.m. flight.
Despite knowing for a fact that I had called him while still in bed with Noona, I heard no grumbles from my older brother, not this time. After briefing him in the car once he’d picked me up, he merely spent the whole drive to the airport slightly smiling to himself and at me. I think, if my eyes hadn’t been fooling me, that he also looked proud.
Strange. My brother hadn’t seemed proud of me in a long long time.
And so it came to be, that after a grueling twelve hour flight to Paris on barely any sleep, a quick layover, another two hour flight to Florence and an hour drive to this town, I was finally here.
I looked around again as I knocked. I gotta hand it to the girl, though. If there was a place to run, this would be it. The place was like as postcard come to life.
There was no response from inside the house. I knocked again.
This time, success. The door opened and a familiar face greeted me, the same one that I had seen and I thought I imagined when Gia first came to Seoul. Her eyes widened in surprise.
“You may not remember me,” I started, “but we’ve met before.”
She covered her mouth with her fingers before she nodded. “I know who you are,” she said sheepishly. “I’m sorry, but I didn’t recognize you.”
I straightened my suit jacket self-consciously, aware that the first and last time this woman had seen me I looked like a hip hop wannabe. “I know,” I said. “My sister wanted me to fit in that night and dressed me in that outfit. The cap didn’t help.”
“I wasn’t talking about that,” she said. “I only meant you looked different without the tiara.” At me puzzled glance, she continued, “your picture? With the tiara?”
I shook my head. I still had no clue what she was talking about.
“Gia had a picture of you with a tiara,” she explained.
“She did?” I asked. “What was your name again?”
“Elena,” she replied, offering her hand for a shake. “And yes, there was a picture of you with her the whole time she was here.”
I broke into a smile and ended up shaking her hand a bit more vigorously than I had previously intended before I caught what she said . “Was?” Dammit. “She’s not here anymore?”
She shook her head no. “You just missed her. She left for the US not long after her sister called.”
Worry edged out curiosity and I almost banged my head against the wall. Why didn’t I ask her sister what the matter was? I can be really obtuse and ignorant at times.
“What happened?” I asked.
Morristown Medical Center
Morristown, New Jersey, USA
September 21, 2002
It was the first time I was stepping foot in a hospital since the day Teddy died. I felt the familiar pang of pain with the memory even as I stepped into the elevator, then pressed the button for the second floor, where I knew the waiting room for the OR was.
I hadn’t been here in almost ten years, I thought, as I stepped off the elevator when it opened. Everything looks completely different. I can’t believe that I was back where I started my nursing career.
I can still remember when I began as a new nurse, nervous but excited, eager to learn. Even then I knew that I was embarking into not just a profession, but a vocation. Not one day has passed since then that I didn’t understand the magnitude of the work I was doing and its importance. It was those same things that I think eventually wore me down, the weight of responsibility becoming too heavy for me to bear.
It hadn’t been just Teddy’s death, though I am sure that didn’t help the case.
I once loved being a nurse. And now it’s almost been the months since I took care of a patient.
Have I lost my way? Will I ever be able to go back?
Work was the one thing I was always assured I had under control, no matter what was happening in every other aspect of my life. It kept me focused but it distorted my vision as well. As long as I kept my eyes on my job I didn’t have to deal with anything else.
It was a recipe for disaster. As the last few months had shown me, as soon as I was taken out of my work, I can’t handle anything else. I only ever approached my life in the past decade the way I approached my job. Like an observer, involved but distant.
Until Teddy. Until Jung Jin.
My thoughts were heading down a dangerous path, and I halted them before they could get there.
Now was not the time.
The first pair of eyes that greeted me were my sister’s, relief practically pouring out them, and some other unnamed emotion. She practically ran towards me and I was enfolded in a tight hug. I pressed a kiss on the side of her head, not even noticing that her normally sunny face was subdued, or that her shoulders were shaking.
“You okay?” I asked. She neither gave me an answer, nor did she pull her arms away. Over one of her shoulders I saw my mother stand up from her seat.
My mother stood only a foot away from me, looking a bit older than I remembered but no less beautiful. Though she was as lovely as she had always been, though, she appeared exhausted, drained. Her eyes, a brown so light it was almost the color of honey, were shadowed, red-rimmed. They clashed with mine as she met my gaze. She lifted a hand to brush hair away from her face, and for a second she looked so vulnerable I felt something clench in my chest. Her fingers were ringless, her face bare.
Something wasn’t right. My mother always wore her jewelry no matter the occasion. And makeup was always her armor. So why wasn’t she wearing it now?
I don’t know why but I began to cry.
She walked towards me, laid a hand out on my cheek. I closed my eyes as my mother’s perfume wafted over me. The fragrance incited complex emotions that I had been expecting, but surprised me nonetheless: drop by drop, streams were falling on my face, one for each emotion i was feeling: anger, sadness, and regret. It also felt as if the tears stood for everything I knew I was losing, or knew I was about to lose: happiness, time, and the feeling that things will ever be right ever again.
They were all there. All within the bubble of that one olfactory memory. It unlocked something in my mind, and somehow I knew that I would remember this moment forever.
It felt like time was moving in slow motion. When I opened my eyes I saw the fluorescent light in the waiting room, one bulb fading away. I heard the noise from the PA system though I can’t make out the words. The sound was muted, as was the colors in front of me. In my periphery I saw people, some lying on chairs, some reading magazines. I felt the chill from the air conditioning, though my palms were sweaty, clammy. My heart thundered in my chest and all of a sudden my legs were shaky, though I had my feet flat on the ground. In front of me my mother’s image blurred, as my breath caught in my throat.
“Nandito ka na.” You’re finally here.
It was the only thing my mother said before she took me in her arms. And I knew that I had come too late.