Neshanic Reformed Cemetery
Hillsborough, New Jersey, USA
September 26, 2002
My father was getting buried on a Wednesday morning. His remains will be laid to rest on land far, far away from that of his birth, underneath ground that had remained as foreign to him now as it had when he first came.
Overnight clouds have rolled in, thick with moisture. The weather was overcast, the skies heavy above the tent that we stood under, alternating between shades of pewter and a sickly gray green. It contrasted with how everything else appeared around us, life practically seeping out of every corner.
Fall was in the air and everywhere I looked. The leaves had already begun changing their colors, shedding themselves off branches, already preparing for winter, drifting onto the ground.
My mother stood next to me, silently weeping. My sister stood on the opposite side of my mother’s, Matt to her other side, her sobs a little more audible. I was doing neither.
We each held a small bouquet of Philippine jasmine in our hands, their small blossoms glaringly white against the black clothing we donned. Its rich, heady scent was in the autumn day air; it was something I had not smelled since I was thirteen years old. Since the day I left my native country.
In the olden days it had been used by young couples pledging their love to each other. On this day we hoped that it would guide my father home.
I was told upon arriving at the hospital that my father had a stroke. One he survived. But a few hours later he had another one. That, he did not. The doctor said something about uncontrolled blood pressure and diabetes, triglycerides and plaque, though by that time I had already begun shutting down.
I didn’t need to know the technical aspects, didn’t need any explanations, not when the state of my knowing or not knowing doesn’t, wouldn’t, and couldn’t change the outcome.
I had fast forwarded myself into acceptance of the fact that he was gone.
After crying at the hospital for fear of the unknown, my mother’s face scaring me more than anything else, my tears have finally dried. I haven’t cried since. Not the day after, not the one after that. Finally knowing what was up seems to have dulled me out.
In the immediate aftermath of my father’s death, my sister, my mother and I had spent hours in the hospital by my father’s bedside, all holding separate vigils of our own. It was a ritual dictated by the Catholic faith, and my mother had stubbornly insisted on it. It seemed easier to agree than to argue.
The next few days were ensconced at the funeral home, at the mandatory wake, wherein people I hadn’t seen in decades came and went. I don’t even know how they knew so quickly, but I didn’t ask any questions.
If someone were to ask me how I felt, I would not even know how to answer. I doubted that my response would be one that they would accept without judging me. Because the truth of the matter was, that somewhere between then and now, whatever I might have been feeling about my father’s death had somehow turned into something else.
How will they understand that when I can’t even understand it myself?
People deal with death in different ways. My mother buried herself in doing trivial tasks. My sister buried herself in everything else. And I, buried myself in anger.
I could feel it over me now, a blazingly hot blanket of crimson. I wasn’t sure if I was angry at him or at myself. I wasn’t sure whether I was merely choosing to be angry, finding that to be the more acceptable, more tolerable alternative. I wasn’t sure of a lot of things, but it didn’t matter.
I found comfort in the anger, its flames licking over me. I held on to it as if it was the only thing keeping my head above ground. It encapsulated me in warmth, a fire I could almost be devoured by. It seems as if I’ve been cold since my father died, my hands shaking for no reason, my shoulders trembling uncontrollably.
I loathed the feeling of losing control.
Even now I dreaded the hours that will follow the burial, already detested the company of those who will descend upon my mother’s house, speaking about how great my father was, how funny. None of them will mention the truth of what he was, nor say anything about the children he’d borne out of his affairs nor ask about their whereabouts on this very important day.
There were always two occasions when people will almost always try to behave nicely: weddings and funerals. Today will not be an exception.
These strangers who cared not about him when he lived will speak as if they knew him well. They will speak about how much he will be missed, how much he was loved. My mother will be the grieving widow, and us the grieving daughters. We all had roles to play, especially today. We will all nod and agree, all unwilling to speak ill of the dead. Even if it was the truth.
My mother was a nurse. Is a nurse. As am I. My sister went to school for nursing also. We three were fully familiar with death, almost as familiar with it as we were with my father’s ways. Dying suddenly… it seemed almost fitting since that’s how he lived for most of his life. Without intention, regardless of how anyone felt about his actions. He always followed his whims without any thought of the outcome. You’d think we might have expected this of him, and yet he still managed to surprise us all.
The man deserved a medal.
In front of me stood Junnie, her fiance directly behind her. Her gaze would meet mine now and again, a question in her eyes. I offered no answers. I had none to give.
“We therefore commit his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in the sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.” The priest’s voice broke through the riot of my thoughts, solemn and somber.
It almost made me laugh.
My father had not attended church in almost three decades. He scoffed at organized religion, believing it to be the lifeblood of those who had nothing else. His apathy of it was as much a part of our childhood as our mother’s fervor of it had been. Had he been given the choice I could almost guarantee that this subdued affair would not have been what he would have chosen for his final rites.
It seemed in death my mother was finally able to do what she never could do when my father was alive. She was finally able call the shots. The irony was not lost on me.
The priest began the closing prayers, the casket sitting atop the burial plot on a some type of green fabric. I looked away. Overhead an avian squawked, but all I could focus on was the gravestone across the path from where we stood.
There was a vase in front of it. The water was brown and needed to be changed. Though I vaguely heard the priest’s voice, his inflection the weird combination of Tagalog and American English that most Filipino immigrants have and can’t seem to lose, not one word was registering.
I kept looking at that vase, and fought the urge to change the water myself.
My eyes wandered past the line of cars on my periphery, then back up to the sky. It appeared as if it would rain. The air felt heavy, restrained. I wondered if it would be able to wait long enough until we were in my mother’s house, or at the very least, until we were back in our cars.
I hoped so. The only thing worse than dealing with sympathetic people was dealing with drenched sympathetic people. Or, maybe not. Perhaps that would offer a refreshing change in conversation topic, one that veered far from my father, a man no one really knew, not even the ones supposedly closest to him.
A synapse fired, an image of the obituary my mother had posted in the local newspaper coming into view in my mind. ‘Loving father and husband.’ That made me snicker. ‘He leaves behind a wife and his two daughters.’
Even now it fascinated me that they had used the present tense. How can that be when the man was no longer able to do anything actively?
There should have been an obituary for the first time he left us behind, too. And he didn’t just leave us, but countless other of his children as well. I wonder if they even knew they were now fatherless, though I’m positive we had all been that for most of our lives. The words, respectfully written, meant to honor and remember, rankled. I knew who the culprit was… Even in his death my mother was protecting him.
I bit my bottom lip so hard I could taste blood on my tongue.
I could feel my mother’s eyes on me and I directed my gaze towards her, relieved that today she had worn her makeup. Things were already going back to the way they always were. She darted her eyes to my hands, and I’ve only now just realized that I was still holding onto my flowers and that she and my sister’s hands were empty.
I walked slowly towards the casket, its shiny bronze facade and gold painted trim looking almost frivolous considering its destination. Still, my father might have appreciated the aesthetic. He had always been one for appearance, after all.
Like my mother and my sister before her, I placed the flowers over my father’s casket. Unlike them, I did not lay a hand on it in an attempt for one last contact.
I did not need to say goodbye to a man I had mourned two decades before, a man I had grieved for over and over in my life.
My mother took my hand in hers, a gesture meant to comfort, but one that was utterly superfluous. I felt okay. I think I am okay. Maybe she did it for herself, since she took Maria’s hand too.
In any case, the funeral director walked towards the casket before motioning for a wire cage. He opened it and a dove was released back into the sky, its wings flapping gracefully in the air, its whiteness stark against the gray sky.
I hoped it would not get caught in the storm.
I stood a distance away from the cemetery, the green tent like a white flag in the grayness of the day. I relaxed my stance and put my hands in my trenchcoat, unsure of what to do, hoping that I was even at the right place.
A few days after I went back home, Shawn sent me a copy of a newspaper clipping. Elena had told me about Gia’s father’s condition, but I had not known that he had passed until I read the obituary.
And so I had dropped everything I was doing to make another trip halfway around the world. For once I was glad that I had money at my disposal. I was fully aware that I would not be able to do what I need to do had I not been as wealthy. Or self-employed.
I knew where I needed to be and it was here. For her. With her.
Though she didn’t know it, I wanted to be in this same space to share this moment. Out of respect for the man she called her father, whom I never met. Out of consideration to her mother and sister, whom she always thought of and missed. Out of my love for her. I was hapless, helpless, and I could do nothing else, but I could do this.
I watched as the cars came, a long envoy that stopped along the path opposite of where the tent stood, a black hearse leading the way. First I saw a small woman in black, her face hidden by a black hat, then a black haired woman, a tall man’s hand on her back.
And then I saw her. The black dress she wore was shapeless, her hair pulled back from her face. She looked like she lost some weight.
How long has it been now? Four months, give or take. I hadn’t seen her in four months, and now she and I were here under these circumstances.
I watched as the pallbearers carried a burnished bronze coffin towards the burial plot, the three women walking slowly behind it. The atmosphere was silent and still, the mourners respectful but distant.
Even now I could see that she stood alone. Her mother and her sister were walking with arms interlinked, but Gia walked by herself. It seemed that she was always alone. Was that her choice? How could she stand it?
When, at last, they were standing in place, they turned around and I was finally able to get a good look of her face.
She looked exhausted, but her color was good.
It was the first thing I noticed and it surprised me, but then I remembered that just a week ago she had been in the heart of Tuscany. I wondered now what she was doing when she got her sister’s call. How she must have felt. Even now I couldn’t help but worry, even retroactively.
I know how I would have been had the situation been reversed. And it wouldn’t have been good. Nor this controlled.
Gia stood a couple of inches away from her sister and mother, the other people framing her all around. I had to crane my neck a bit to see her; there was another tall man obstructing my view. Gia and the two women next to her held small clusters of flowers in their hands.
I could only hear jumbled words from where I stood, aware to some extent that the priest was saying the funeral rites. I probably could have made it out had I wanted, but I was too preoccupied watching her.
My heart was pounding in my chest, the sight of her so painful it was bittersweet. She looked exactly just as I remembered and yet nothing of the woman I loved at all. Whereas she always sparkled and glittered in the past, whether it be in anger or in passion, her iridescence had now dulled.
Or maybe it was just today.
I tried to remember what she shared about her father, only to remember the smallest of details. She thought her father a philanderer. She and her father did not get along.
That made this situation almost worse than what it would have been had they been close. I prayed that the two of them had reached a sort of resolution before this. I prayed that she got home in time.
I saw so many emotions mingling on her face: anger, grief, regret. Mainly anger. The others flitted so quickly but that one stayed. She was trying to hide it, could probably fool the rest of the people around her, but I saw all of it. I could almost always decipher all the ways she shows herself and all the ways she hides herself when we lived together. It had been a natural byproduct of having spent so much time looking at her.
And what I saw now was breaking my heart.
She tilted her chin up, the point on her jaw jutting out slowly. And I thought to myself that this woman was something else. So uncompromising. So strong. Even in the face of death. She looked defiant still, and had it not been for the sight of her biting her lower lip I would have thought her completely unaffected. But that little motion told the story that she wasn’t willing to tell.
I continued to watch as she and the rest of her family laid the flowers they held on her father’s casket, debating whether I should make my presence known. It only took an instant for me to decide against it.
Today was about her father and her family. The last thing she needed was for me to show up and complicate things even more.
I was willing to wait. If she needed me she will find me. If she wanted to hear my voice she would call. As much as I love her, I knew her well enough to know that she will come when she’s ready and not one minute before. And I still had some things to take care of.
Jae Joon had been right about many things but not about this. Na Jeong and Gia were as different as night and day. Gia didn’t need to feel crowded; she needed her freedom, some breathing room.
The best thing I could do for her was to give her time. The greatest of all commodities. My heart wasn’t even a part of the equation; she already had that.
From where she was standing I watched as a cage was opened and a dove was let out into the sky. I followed its trail with my eyes as it soared and flew.
I took one last look at the woman I love as she bid her father farewell then returned to my car and drove away.
I stared at the ceiling in my old bedroom. Upstairs there were a few stragglers left, and I wasn’t quite sure how my mother was managing to still interact after the day we’ve had. My sister retreated to her bedroom an hour after I did, claiming exhaustion. Junnie and her fiancé should be well on their way back to Singapore.
I felt tired and worn out, though the knowledge that there were strangers in the house kept me awake. There was the constant thudding of footsteps on the floors above me, the muffled conversations in both English and Tagalog. I lay on the bed still in my funeral wear, smelling vaguely of fried spring rolls and fish sauce.
I should have taken a shower, but I couldn’t be bothered.
I turned a lamp on, then sat in the side of the bed, perusing my surroundings. My bedroom was just as it was the last time I left.
The daybed, propped against the wall, in the frilly pink covers that my mother had sewn. An armoire across, bearing old coats and winter wear. A mirror next to it and a television set, a DVD player underneath. Scattered shelving had the books I had favored when I was younger: Nancy Drew, Sweet Valley High, as well as a few gifts from my first love and the ones that came after.
The room seemed frozen in time. Nothing has been touched or changed but for the pile of boxes that have come from my storage unit in San Francisco and my suitcases in one corner. I would have thought that no one has been here but for the lack of old fabric smell on my sheets.
Someone has been here, alright.
I locked eyes on the boombox on top of my vanity table and impulsively stood up, then pressed the power button, curious as to whether the last CD that had been loaded when I left was still here. I pressed the play button and sure enough, the accapella sounds of Boyz II Men filled the room. I stared in disbelief.
Talk about being taken back in time.
I hitched my dress as I sat down on the floor, my fingers drifting over my books. Then to my journals, just beside them. I picked one out and opened a page randomly, my young almost too girlish script greeting me. God, I thought as I flipped pages upon pages of writing, even then I didn’t know moderation.
My journal entries were like novels. I narrated my days with great detail, almost obsessively so, and I kept on reading, mortified and captivated by this version of myself I no longer recognized. It wasn’t until I heard the song change once again that I realized that I had been reading for almost an hour.
I was standing up and putting the journal back where I found it when the opening strains of voices began to sound from the boombox.
“Yesterday, all my troubles seem so far away…”
I paused what I was doing, the melody unlocking the vault in my mind. How many times had I played this song in my past?
This song was playing the last day I was here, I remember now. The admission brought about a slew of memories, memories I had not allowed myself to think of since I took my first step away from this house.
I closed my eyes.
Eleven years before…
I was trying to sleep when I heard the voices upstairs in the kitchen, rising and falling with each word. Having just worked a twelve hour shift the night before and forced to move back home after Marcus, this was the last thing I needed. I dragged myself out of bed dressed in scrub pants and a tshirt, my hair pulled away from my face and trudged up the stairs to find my parents locked in a confrontation.
My father’s voice was raised, as always, and my mother’s impassive and low. Even as I stood there, he continued to yell and scream, his words coming out hard with none of the lyrical intonation that was so embedded in our native tongue.
He was railing about everything: accusing my mother of sending all her money to her family, accusing her of being unfaithful. And she was responding, though her answers were meant to appease, to placate. It was a scene I’d seen too many times, my father wrapped in his anger and my mother in her submission.
“Enough.” I said the word without realizing it, then repeated myself when it did not hold.
My father stopped mid rant and turned to look at me, as if only now just realizing that I was here. I stood between them both, holding my hands up.
“How long are you two going to do this?” I asked. “I have to work tonight. Please, just stop.”
Neither of them responded, and I crossed my arms over my chest. I thought that was the end of it and turned around to go back downstairs when my father’s voice stopped me.
“Tell your mother that I know exactly what she’s up to,” he said. “Hiding things from me, going behind my back. I know everything.”
I tried to keep my composure, reminded myself that my father was projecting, the way he alway had. Darting my eyes towards my mother, I saw that her head was bent low in supplication, the way she always did. I fought the feeling of helplessness and bit my tongue.
This was their problem, not mine.
“Your mother is cheating on me,” he said, his voice furious. His entire face was red, his shoulders shaking in fury. As was his voice
“Why would you think that?” I asked softly, meeting his gaze, trying to keep my voice neutral.
I knew I had to tread carefully. My father has reached his anger threshold, and one wrong word can send him over the edge. I have been the recipient of that anger before, and it was an experience I would rather avoid.
“Why would someone who works night shift come home two hours later? She thinks I don’t see it… she thinks I’m stupid.”
I tried to keep my face expressionless as I looked at him. “Papa, I don’t think that’s true.”
“I knew you would take her side,” he said accusingly. “You people always make me the bad guy.”
“No one is making you the bad guy,” I said. “Not when you’re doing it yourself.” I muttered the second part to myself before I could even stop. I had hoped my father didn’t hear me, until I heard his voice.
“What did you say?”
“Nothing, Papa,” I said, attempting to diffuse the situation. “All I meant was…”
I barely got my explanation out when I felt a slap on my cheek and I brought a hand up to my face. I caught my father’s expression on the glass on the French door separating the kitchen from the deck and it made me cower.
“This is what I get for everything I had done for you?” He asked. “This is the respect I get for bringing you to America?”
I straightened my spine and faced him. My mother stood up, begging me with her eyes not to say anything else. She was clutching my arm and I shook her hand away from me.
“Mama brought us to America, not you,” I said, meeting his eyes directly. “Mama did everything for us, not you.”
What I said caught him by surprise; I saw the emotion flit over his face before he got even redder. “Is this how they teach you to speak to your parents in this fucking country? You dare to disrespect me?”
“I’m just telling you what I think,” I said dully. “But I’d forgotten… we’re not supposed to speak for ourselves or think for ourselves in this house. We’re supposed to take your word as law.”
“I’m your father. I deserve your respect.”
“Why?” I asked. “You’ve done nothing to earn my respect. You haven’t been my father for two decades. Isn’t it a bit late to be playing house now? Why don’t you play at being a father to your bastard children?”
That earned me another slap, except this time my fists curled instinctively, ready to fight back. I was no longer a child, no longer a teenager. I’ve experienced violence in the hands of another man before… never again will I allow that to happen.
“Anak…” My child, my mother said, her hand reaching to place a comforting hand on my cheek. I pulled away from her touch “Bumaba ka na.” Go back downstairs. Her voice was soft, the way she always spoke when confronted by my father.
Another set of memories. My mother fetching the remote control for my father when she was upstairs and he downstairs because he couldn’t be bothered, arriving home to see my mother washing my father’s feet, my mother justifying my father’s actions and making excuses for his behavior time and time again.
I was suddenly angrier than I’d ever been before. Towards him. Towards her. Towards this mess of a life that they dragged both me and my sister into.
“Don’t play high and mighty with me, not when we’ve bailed you out more times than I can count.” My father was shaking in anger, his hands balled into a fist. “Or, have you conveniently forgotten that you dated a criminal? That you lied and stole from us to keep him in his habit? That by the time you came home you were broke and beaten up? You are a disgrace to this family and I am ashamed that you’re my daughter. Get the hell out of here.”
My throat dried at his accusations, unable to defend myself. Not when he was telling the truth. I knew it already, but they seemed uglier coming from his mouth.
“Why do you think I am the way I am?” I asked, my eyes burning with tears “Do you not think that it has anything to do with the fact that I have a fucked up father? Is it not bad enough that you’ve ruined your damn life but you want to ruin ours too?” My father took another step towards me, and some part of my brain told me to stop, but my mouth wouldn’t listen.
“Take your shit and get out. Or I will drag you out.”
I turned my eyes to my mother, expecting her to offer some sort of protest. She didn’t. Just as she had every other time, she had taken his side.
I shook my head. Of course this time won’t be any different. Of course.
I had taken the first step down the stairs when I turned back around. “Do you know how much happier we were when you weren’t here? How much more functional we were?” My father’s eyes hardened. “You’re so fucking miserable here, then go back to the Philippines. Or, better yet, just disappear. For good.”
Without looking at either of my parents, I ran downstairs and started packing my stuff before I lost my composure. I threw clothing into suitcases, my most favorite of books into boxes. I was taking my bags off the bed, my emotions jumbled up and my thoughts in disarray when I turned around and saw my mother watching me, her eyes apologetic, her mouth fixed in a resigned line.
“Hayaan mo na ang Papa mo. May galit lang siya. Baka mamaya pwede ka ‘ring umuwi. Alam no naman s’ya.”
She was telling me the same bullshit that she had every other time in the past: not to mind my father, that he’s just angry, that maybe later I’ll be allowed back home. I’ve heard it all too many times before, the only difference was that this time, I was no longer willing to listen.
“Do you think I live here because I want to?” I asked, my voice breaking. “Do you think I want to see how he treats you? To be reminded of how wrong we’d had it all this time?” My mother said nothing. “I never should have moved back in.”
“Anak… kahit ano ang nangyari, kahit ano ang mangyari, ama mo pa rin s’ya.” No matter what happened, no matter what happens, he’s still your father.
“Mama…” I looked into her eyes, hoping that this time she would listen. “Hindi siya magbabago.” He’ll never change. “Tapos na ‘ko.” I’m done. “Hindi ko na kayang tanggapin ‘to.” I cannot accept this anymore. “Ayoko na.” Nor do I want to.
“Isang araw maiintindihan mo kung bakit ako’ng nanatili dito.” One day you’ll understand why I stayed. “Isang araw, matatangapin mo na lahat nang tao ay may kasalanan.” One day you’ll accept that everybody makes mistakes.
Her statement brought a bitter taste to my mouth. Having just faced the same situation with my ex boyfriend months before I knew how easy it would have been to make the same decision that my mother made, despite how bad the situation was. And what a mistake it would have been.
I understood. I only understood too well.
“I hope not,” I whispered. “I may understand but I will never accept it. Ever. I used to think you stayed for us. It was better when I thought that you felt you had no choice. But I just realized that you stayed despite us, and I can’t be okay with that.” I paused and took a deep breath. “Your relationship is toxic and as long as he’s here I will never come home. I’m already fucked up enough without having to deal with any of this. Tell Maria I’m sorry. I love you.”
I pressed a kiss to her cheek, my heart lodging in my throat as tears started falling down her face. I dared not look at her again knowing that if I did, I would waver. Neither did I look at my father as I left the house.
I didn’t know then that it was the last time that I was going to see my father. By the time my sister came home from school, I was gone. I handed my resignation to my manager that night and by the next day I was living in Brooklyn.
I opened my eyes and leaned back against the bed. I took a deep breath, and then another.
I had never looked back. Until now. The anger had sustained me, motivated me for many years, until it somehow transformed to indifference. But now, back in my mother’s house I was confronted with memories I had spent the last few years trying to forget. And it seemed that I was here to stay.
I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be in another life. A different life. I wanted to inhabit a different body, become a different person. I wanted to be back in Korea, back to being the woman that Jung Jin loved and have that be enough.
I wanted a lot of things. All of which I cannot have.
I pictured Jung Jin in my mind and wished I could see him. Hear his voice telling me that I was okay. That I’ll be okay.
I picked up my phone and scrolled through my numbers, my fingers hovering and hesitating when I found the one I was looking for. I pressed a button and put the receiver to my ear, holding my breath, unsure whether I wanted him to answer.
The call went straight to voicemail without any ringing. And then I heard his voice, the sound of which immediately bringing a pain so acute it was a relief I was already sitting down. I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or disappointed that the numbness I had been feeling did not apply to him.
“Message nenggyo jumyun, jeonhwa dashi deuril kkeyo.”
His voice disappeared just as quickly as it had begun and with some desperation, I pressed redial. One more time, I told myself. Just one more.
It felt as if my world had been thrown into chaos, though the truth was that I just resumed my rightful place in a life that had always been this way. I was trying to hold on to the last thread of sanity I had left and failing miserably. In the darkness of my old room, windowless and solitary, I realized that I had learned to shape my life around bargaining and rewards, compromise and sacrifice. No one gets anything for free, I thought. No one. To make sure I don’t hurt Jung Jin, I had to let him go. To be free of my father, he had to die.
When again the message ended, I hung up and called again, certain now that his phone was off, that I was in no risk of revealing how weak I had become. Or perhaps, how weak I always was. I listened to his voice and laid myself on the floor. When the message ended I called again. And then again. And then again, always with the promise that it was the last time, and then breaking that promise just as soon as I had made it.
I fell asleep with the phone still to my ear, my legs curled towards my chest, nowhere near ready to face another day.
October 10, 2002
I was walking down the street on my way to my car when the sight of a glass building stopped me short. I had been looking at houses with the realtor in Yongsan after watching Joon’s practice session earlier in the day.
I read the sign in front of the building, debating with myself whether or not to enter. For a second I thought about calling Shawn and posing the question, desperate for another opinion. Then I remembered that Shawn had some kind of tasting to do today for the wedding. Joon and Na Jeong are at a doctor’s appointment this afternoon. I don’t feel like speaking to anyone in my family, though I knew that they’d understand.
Left with no one I can or want to speak to, I grappled with the questions as I pondered my dilemma. At first telling myself that I was perfectly fine, that I was the last person to ask for any kind of help. And then acknowledging that yes, I did have issues but deciding against other people knowing about it.
Some part of my brain sighed. Then spoke.
It’s not just some other person… it’s a psychiatrist , and that’s part of the job.
It’s only a fear of heights, I tried to reason. With myself. And I already fixed my fear of dogs.
You know damn well it’s not just the fear of heights, the voice insisted. What about the fact that you don’t sleep? Or the fact that you have little to no coping mechanisms.
I do, too!
Acting like a fool is not a coping mechanism.
What would people think? What would people say?
The answer was instantaneous from the other side of my brain. The rational side. The sensible side.
People will think that you had gone off the deep end. People will say nothing to your face, but talk about you behind your back.
Great, I thought, now I am having a full on conversation with two warring sides of my brain. And I’m actually answering.
How would they even know? The crazy voice in my head continued. There is such a thing as patient confidentiality, you know. It’s not as if this is your first rodeo. If you had just kept going back to the therapist before you wouldn’t have to deal with this now.
I took a step towards the front entrance of the building before I stopped myself, almost doing a 180 and power walking my way back to my car. But then that persistent, annoying voice again.
What would Gia think? What would Gia say?
Those questions were also easy to answer. She would probably think that it high time I admitted that I needed help. She would probably say that it’s a good idea.
Dammit. I have to do it. If Gia thinks that it’s a good idea, I should probably listen.
I had my hand on the door when I heard one last question.
But what about the other people?
Fuck ’em, I said, and entered the building.
Hillsborough, New Jersey
It’s been three weeks since my father died. Two weeks since we buried him.
I was laying on my side, the pillow under my head feeling uncomfortably soft. I shifted my position and stared at the ceiling, wishing for the sleep that would never come. Nowadays I either sleep too much or not at all, but it didn’t bother me.
As long as I was tired I didn’t worry about anything. And if I was tired and sleep deprived? Even better. I had only enough energy to get through the day, enough to push me through to the next day, when I will assess and bargain once more.
My mother had gone back to work and my sister was asleep, upstairs in her room. It was as if we were back to where we were years ago. This was a scene that was repeated on a daily basis back then.
I was back with my family, though none of us spoke, our meals spent in silence. Korea seemed a long forgotten memory. I had even unpacked my bags.
I stood up from the bed, my footsteps taking me instinctively towards my bedside table where I knew the lamp would be.
Turn the light on or try to go back to sleep? I asked myself. I turned the knob that would illuminate my room.
I walked barefoot up the stairs to the kitchen, when the next question popped up.
Coffee or not? I filled a kettle and placed it on the stove.
As it heated I pondered my next question. Breakfast or not? I shook my head. It’s too early.
In the last few weeks I discovered that I was more comfortable making decisions when the choices were delineated to me, when my options were fixed, when I don’t have to come up with the answers. ‘Or’ questions generally fit that bill.
The water boiled and I turned the hob off, setting a styrofoam cup on the counter. My hands instinctively measured the instant coffee from its container, then tore open packets of creamer and sugar as I thought about my plans for the day.
Drinking the coffee in one go, I pulled my hair up and put it in a bun. Then I began to clean, just like I did yesterday. And the day before that.
In a life that seemed hellbent on taking me by surprise, I fell back into behaviors that have always gotten me through. There was something comforting about washing grime off tiles, seeing dirt disappear. There was something reassuring about putting things in their proper place.
The good part? It kept me distracted, focused. And the house stayed clean.
The bad part? I can’t remember being this obsessed with cleaning since Marcus. And I feared that rather than moving forward, I was going the other way, instead.
It felt as if my life had once again been put on pause. As if all the strides I had made in the last few years have been erased and I was starting from square one.
It was a wonder I hadn’t started sleeping in a sleeping bag again.
I began scrubbing as I pushed the thought, and temptation away.
I attacked the house in frenzy, using all my pent up emotions to make sure my mother’s house was spic and span. And it wasn’t the run-the-vacuum-swipe-a-dust-cloth type slicking-up, either. I dealt with the house with fury, toothbrush scrubbing the bathroom grout, scouring the oven, changing the AC filters. I even defrosted the freezer and went through all the contents of the refrigerator, discarding everything that was expired or about to.
The intense physical activity worked, and I once again forgot that I no longer had a father, that I had wished him dead. I didn’t have to think about the guilt that ate at me every minute, the regrets that are littering my mind but I refuse to acknowledge. I didn’t have to think about the fact that I have never seen anything through to the end. I didn’t have to think about Jung Jin.
For the next two hours, I knew I was safe. As long as I was doing something, kept moving, I was okay. Until I stopped.
My hands on my hips, my eyes drifted over the gleaming kitchen in my mother’s house, the floors smelling of lemon. Smiling with satisfaction, I felt a sense of accomplishment, of wholeness until I felt a tremor low in my chest. And a slight shaking of my lips.
Shaking it off, I dragged the vacuum cleaner to the living room and plugged it in. I had just turned it on when my sister appeared at the top of the stairs, her hair a wild frizzy halo around her face. I saw her mouth opening but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Motioning for her to wait, I pressed down on the lever to turn the vacuum off.
“What?” I asked. “Why are you screaming?”
“Sis,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “What are you doing?”
“I’m cleaning,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.
“It’s 5:30 a.m.” She turned around and started making her way back to her room. Thinking that I should probably wait a little before waking her up again, I had made my mind up to busy myself with the laundry instead when my sister reappeared, her hair in a high ponytail, her face washed. She put an arm around my waist before she smiled. “Need some help?”
It was well and truly morning by the time we were done. Sweaty and exhausted we both laid down on the L-shaped couch in the living room, much like we had always done when we still lived in this house together. She took the shorter arm, as she always did, and I took the longer end.
Our heads were side by side as we both stared at the ceiling. We each held bottles of water in our hands.
“So,” Maria started. “Got the itch out of your system?”
Thinking she was referring to my sleeping with Jung Jin I almost bolted off the couch. “What?” I asked. “Where did you hear that?”
She turned her head to look at me then shook her head. “Calm down, Sis. I only meant with the cleaning.”
“Oh,” I said, flustered, lying back down. “Yeah. Thanks.”
We were wordless for a few minutes until she cleared her throat. “Can you believe we’re both under the same roof again?”
“No,” I responded honestly, “I can’t. It’s been a long time.” Maria nodded. “Was Matt okay with you moving out for a while?”
I heard a bit of hesitation before she responded. “Yeah, I think so.”
My eyes met hers. “You think so?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “You came back home, so I thought we should all be together,” she replied. “Besides I don’t really feel like dealing with his family right now.”
She stopped speaking and I picked up on some tension, decided that I wasn’t going to push any more. I had enough to think about without worrying about my sister and whether or not she will speak to me about this.
We lay on separate pillows, the silence of the house deafening. Our mother is not due to come home for another two hours, at least.
“Do you want to watch TV?” I asked Maria and I felt, rather than saw, her shake her head.
And then again, the silence. I couldn’t stand it. I was about to tell my sister to talk about something, anything, when I heard her voice.
“Sis,” she started. “Do you remember when we took a trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina?”
The memory made me smile. “Yeah, I remember. We were on top of a mountain sifting for gold, right?”
“Yeah,” my sister said, chuckling. “Do you remember dancing in the rain at Disney World? We were wearing…”
“Those bright yellow ponchos,” I finished for her. “I think we have a picture of us dancing in Epcot somewhere.” I felt myself smile for the first time in weeks, the motion sudden and quick. Natural. “Do you remember when we had to stop in Virginia for the night and our parents couldn’t find a hotel and we ended up staying at an old cottage?”
“Oh my God,” my sister said. “We couldn’t even sleep at all. Every time the floor creaked we would jump out of bed and check to see where the noise was coming from. Do you remember? We were convinced we were in a haunted house.”
“I remember,” I said. “You were so scared you refused to get water from the kitchen and go to the bathroom by yourself ”
“I was eight!” Maria’s tone was defensive but amused, and our eyes met in mutual mirth. “Hey, do you remember the summer after you graduated uni and we were doing this no carb diet and we did it for two weeks?”
I nodded. “Fucking funnel cake,” we said simultaneously and erupted into laughter.
My sister was holding onto her stomach as she laughed, the sound coming from her belly. “We were doing so well,” she said mournfully.
“Yeah,” I teased, “until the funnel cake commercial came on, and we were like, we’ll go back after we eat the funnel cakes, and the next thing you know it’s three in the morning and we’re in Franklin, buying snowballs and whatever carbohydrate we can get our hands on, saying that we’ll restart our diet in the morning.”
“We were ridiculous,” Maria said. “Do you remember the night you got stopped by the cops and got ticketed because you were speeding?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Of course I remember that. You make it sound like I didn’t have an accomplice. You were in the passenger seat, remember? And I,” I paused for emphasis, “was only speeding because we wanted to go to the mall and it was almost closing time.”
“Of course,” my sister agreed, then sniffed, as if reproachfully. “Cops don’t understand. We have priorities. But the thing is… you got stopped and ticketed twice!”
“Yeah well… we really wanted to go shopping.”
What I said made her laugh again, making me laugh, too. It was one of those times when we are laughing so hard for so long that we’re not quite sure anymore what exactly we were laughing at, or whether it was even that funny to begin with. Every time we would just about stop, we would look at each other and then start laughing again. By the time we were done I had an arm to my middle in pain; tears were coming out of her eyes and she was dabbing at them furiously.
When at last the laughter had subsided, we both quieted down. I sensed the sadness that had descended over my sister and when she spoke again, her voice was slower, softer. “We were okay then, weren’t we?” she asked.
The change in the tone of her voice caught my attention and I turned to look at her. “What do you mean?” She averted her eyes from mine and kept them fixed on the ceiling.
“I mean, despite how hard we had it when we were young, we were happy once, right?” Her voice was thick with emotion, and I swallowed the sudden lump in my throat. I forced myself to stay relaxed. To stay right where I was. “There were times… when it wasn’t so bad, right?”
I didn’t answer either question, instead posing to her one of my own. “Why are you asking about this now?”
“I don’t know,” she said softly. “I guess… maybe… I think that with Papa… I never realized, I guess, that I would think back on those times and still manage to laugh.” She sighed and went quiet before she spoke again. “Have you…” I heard the hesitation in her voice, “have you thought about him at all?” I turned to look at her but she wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Did you think about him at all the whole time you were gone?”
“No,” I responded, my voice adamant, tight. “I can honestly say that I didn’t once think of him, not consciously anyway. Not willingly.”
“He cried for you, you know,” she turned her head and fixed sad brown eyes to mine. “The night you left… and many nights after, too. There were times that I would wake up in the middle of the night and he’d be sitting in the dark in the living room, crying.”
“Right,” I said, trying not to let the bitterness seep into my voice. “And yet he never once tried to stop me from leaving.” I sat up and Maria followed my lead before folding her hands over her lap. “Or even call me to find out if I was still alive or to ask how I was doing.”
My sister pursed her lips. “You know how he is.”
“Don’t you make excuses for him, too,” I said accusingly. “He was never there for us while we were growing up. He was selfish in life and now he’s dead.”
My sister blinked at me, taken aback. “When are you going to let this go?” She asked. “You can’t stay angry with him for the rest of your life.”
“I can be anything I damn well want to be for the rest of my life,” I said, standing up, my shoulders tense. First Junnie and now her. “I’m going for my run.”
I walked away and picked up my shoes, was in the process of lacing up my sneakers when I heard my sister’s voice. “You just cleaned for hours.” I straightened my spine once my shoes were properly laced up and gave her a look, as if saying, ‘so what?’ “You’ve been angry with him for so long you probably don’t even remember how it feels not to be, do you?” I responded with stony silence. “Have you ever stopped to think what this anger of yours has done to you? What it’s still doing to you?”
“You know what, Maria?”I replied, my temper rising to full steam, the anger coming back like a rush of hot air. I could feel a flush cover my cheeks and spread to my neck. “You ask me if I know what this fucked up relationship with our father has done to me; you don’t think I think about this all the time? There are some days when it takes everything I have not to think about it.” I stopped and took a deep breath, attempted to regain my composure. “I understand you had a different relationship with him, but don’t presume to know anything about mine.”
“Why? Was I not here, too?” Maria asked, the tone in her voice indecipherable. When I didn’t respond, she continued, her voice gentler. She tried to reach for my hand. “You have to forgive him, you know.”
I gave a humorless chuckle before I pulled away. “Papa never acknowledged anything he did, never admitted that he was ever wrong,” I spat out. “You can only forgive people who actually show remorse for what they’ve done, Maria. Death doesn’t automatically erase what a person did when they lived,” I said, my face impassive. “It doesn’t absolve him, doesn’t excuse him. Even if that’s what people want to do, it’s not what happens. All death does is magnify a life that was not lived well. All it does is shed light on the truth that a life has tried to bury in lies and illusions. That’s it; nothing more.”
My sister was not looking at me, her gaze fixed onto the floor, instead. She was so still I thought she had spaced out until she lifted her face, tears falling from her eyes. “You think I want you to forgive him for him?” Her voice broke mid sentence. “You need to forgive him for you.”
The anguished way she was speaking, the way she wrapped her arms around herself, weakened part of my resolve. She looked as if she was about to say something else but I no longer had the energy or the desire to talk about this.
“I’m going for my run,” I said, turning my eyes away from my sister’s tear streaked face and went out the door.
Mt. Yongmasan, Seoul, Korea
November 16, 2002
I can’t believe I’m doing this. Again. And this time, alone.
I secured the strap of my backpack over my shoulders, thankful that this time I wore the right shoes. On my feet were the matching pair to Gia’s sneakers, worn for the first time since she left. I looked down and the sight of them made me happy, then sad. Maybe a little bit of both.
Next to me, Dog trundled along on his leash, panting happily, his tongue wagging out as his legs quickly stepped from stone to stairs. I didn’t tell him that today was not an exercise for him but for me, and he seemed unaware that anything was amiss.
God bless dogs and their single-mindedness.
Luckily the path up the mountain was littered with people; if anything were to happen I knew that there was help. I chose a mountain in Seoul specifically for this purpose. That, and the fact that you can never really feel lost while hiking in a mountain within the city. If at any given time I feel like leaving or overwhelmed, I can just head down the mountain and I will be in the city center, where my car was parked near some apartments.
I had already passed the park half an hour ago, where I watched, along with other hikers and tourists, as water roared down over the White Horse, Blue Dragon and Yongma waterfalls. I had to keep a tight hold on Dog as he seemed intent on going through the fence and frolicking in the water. He had looked at me so mournfully that as a compromise I poured a half a bottle of water over him.
He seemed okay with that deal.
I wasn’t going to explain myself to him when I already knew it would take all of my energy to make it through this hike. As we walked up some steep rocks, the sounds of water faded, and I kept my eyes ahead, trying not to think about the way my heart had begun to beat erratically in my chest the higher up the mountain I went. I could already feel the sweat beading down my forehead though it was a perfect autumn day.
Lord, please help me. Thank God I skipped the caffeine this morning. I hope my therapist was right about this.
I had just stepped over another rock and onto a wooden platform to take the stairs all the way up the top when my phone rang in my pocket. I pulled it out and opened it, reminded myself not to look over the railings to the view ahead and below and muttered a curt hello.
“Sir?” I heard my assistant’s voice say as I dragged my feet quickly over a couple of flights of stairs, Dog leading the way. “I’m sorry to call you on a Saturday, but…”
“What’s the matter?” I asked, trying to catch my breath.
“There’s a new contract for Mr. Kim,” he said, apologetic.
“And this couldn’t wait til Monday?”
“You always wanted to be notified whenever a new contract comes in,” he explained, “and something was sent over by a skin care company late yesterday.”
“Again,” I said, “this couldn’t wait until Monday?”
“You said it didn’t matter what day it was before, Sir,” Ha Neul insisted. “Or what time.”
I racked my brain for recollection of saying any such thing, but it wasn’t cooperating. The altitude was messing with my head. Not wanting to admit to it, I changed the topic even as I continued walking. “What the hell are you doing at work on a Saturday anyway?”
“I work every Saturday, sir. You used to tell me that success comes with hard work and dedication, that greatness waits for no one,” he replied, as if reading from a script.
God, I was such a bullshitter. I cringed. Those days are over. That bullshittery was what I was trying to fix, what I was trying to change.
“Go home, Ha Neul-ssi,” I ordered, my voice firm.
There was a brief silence before he spoke again. “Did I do something wrong, sir?” His voice was nervous, flustered. “Am I fired?”
I sighed, climbing up the next flight of stairs. “No,” I answered. “I’m just telling you to take the rest of the weekend off. And every weekend too, actually, while you’re at it.”
“But you said that 100% commitment is required for this job, that you won’t tolerate le…”
I crossed over the next flight of stairs. “I know what I fucking said,” I practically barked. “What part of take the weekends off do you not understand? Go out, relax, see your family, have a life.”
“But you pay me to work all these hours, sir…”
“I don’t want to hear any more about things I used to say, things I used to do. Forget them. Forget all of them.”
“But… I would like to be like you one day, sir.”
Like me? I thought. Successful but alone? I shook my head. “Listen, you don’t want to be like me. I don’t even want to be like me,” I said, looping Dog’s leash around my wrist and running my fingers through my hair. “I was an asshole and you’ve always worked hard for me. Your job is safe.”
“Thank you, sir. Thank you.” I could hear the relief in his voice and I was almost embarrassed. “Thank you, thank you…”
He was still in the midst of thanking me when I spoke. “I swear to God, Ha Neul-ssi, you say thank you one more time and I will fire you.”
That quickly shut him up. “Okay,” he said. “I’m hanging up now.”
“Good,” I said. “I’ll see you Monday.”
I hung up the call and stopped walking. My back facing the view, I sat down on a stair and patted the seat next to me. Dog ambled over, then planted himself down on his hind legs. One hand on his head, I pulled out his bowl from my backpack and a bottle of water, along with a bag of grapes and a dog bone. I opened the bag of grapes and started munching, ignoring the begging looks Dog was directing my way even as he gnawed on his bone.
“Nuh-uh,” I said to him, wagging my finger. “Grapes are bad for you. Your Mom will never forgive me if you don’t live a long, happy life.”
I poured some water into his bowl and leaned back against the railing, closing my eyes even as the familiar feeling of nervousness came over me. I kept one hand on the dog and one hand on the platform, trying to ease my nerves, when the phone rang again.
“Hyung,” Joon greeted and I shook my head. I could hear people laughing at something behind him. “What’s up?”
“You tell me,” I said. “Why are you calling me on a Saturday afternoon? And on a rare day off no less. Where are you, anyway?”
“Na Jeong’s gone shopping with the girls so the boys and I are out,” he explained. “Actually, should I say in? We’re hanging out at the boarding house.”
“None of you are in college anymore,” I said.
“I know,” he said, then lowered his voice, “but you know we’re playing the Twins at the championship game.”
“Say no more,” I said, chuckling. “Your father in law may not allow you in that house after you beat his team.”
“Yeah, exactly,” he said. “Anyway, that’s not why I called.”
“Why did you call?”
“I needed your opinion,” he said. “What’s the best crib for a baby?”
“What?” I asked, packing up the dog bowl and securing Dog’s collar before resuming our hike.
“What’s the best crib for a baby?” He repeated.
“How the hell am I supposed to know that?” I asked incredulously. “I don’t have any babies, nor have I ever had any babies. Contrary to what you think, I don’t know everything. In fact, Gia would say I barely know anything, and especially nothing about little people.”
“I just thought since you have nephews and nieces and stuff…”
“I’ll ask my brother and sisters, okay?”
I darted a glance over the railing and turned my head quickly. I took a few deep breaths and tried to keep my mind off the fact that I was almost at the top. Even from this height I could already see the tops of skyscrapers. I gave myself a silent pep talk, just as the therapist told me to do.
“Is everything okay, Hyung?” I heard Joon ask. “You sound like you’re talking to yourself.”
“Yeah,” I said, questioning my decision to eat something. I really should have had an empty stomach for my first foray alone into conquering my phobia. “I’m fine.”
“Where are you?” Joon asked, oblivious. “You want to come over? There’s plenty of food.”
“There’s always plenty of food at the Sung household,” I mumbled. “Let me guess… Na Jeong’s Omma prepared food before they went out?”
“Yeah,” Joon said sheepishly. “But you didn’t answer my question.”
“I’m hiking,” I said, forcing my legs to keep moving. “Up Mt. Yongmasan.”
“You don’t like heights, though,” he said, sounding confused.
“I know,” I said. “Now can I continue trying to kill myself?”
Joon laughed outright. “If you change your mind, Hyung, you know…”
“…where to find you,” I finished for him. “I got it.”
Joon said a hasty goodbye and I continued my trek, thankful that my dog was by my side. As long as I kept my eyes on him, I was fine. I can do this.
I looked up ahead and saw that only two flights of stairs separated me from my destination. Giving Dog some encouraging words, we practically ran up the stairs to the top and it wasn’t until I was standing by a railing that I even realized how far I’d climbed.
All the buildings and houses, all of Seoul was spread out in front of me, and all I could think of was the lightheadedness that had suddenly come over me, the way my mouth had dried up. Shaky now I sat down on the ground while Dog sniffed the floor, then pulled out the deep breathing and meditation exercise book that the therapist had given me from my bag.
I opened the page I’d marked. Thank God I had a plan in place. Once I reached the top, I had planned to read my way into a more Buddha like state. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths, silently repeating to myself what the therapist had instructed me to do.
I am not afraid. I am one with Nature, Nature is one with me. I am fine. I am calm.
The phone rang in my hand. Dammit!
“What the hell do you want?” I yelled. My apprehension was making me jumpy. And irritable.
“Jesus, Ethan, you need to lay off whatever you’re taking,” Shawn said, chuckling. “What crawled up your butt?”
“I’m on top of a mountain,” I said.
“You don’t like heights, though.”
I lifted the phone off my ear and stared at it in disbelief. How many times was I going to hear this?
“If you must know,” I started. “My therapist gave me homework. I need to spend five minutes at the top of a mountain without passing out.”
“Ohhhhh,” Shawn said, “I forgot you were still in therapy. How’s that going?”
“Fine,” I replied impatiently. “He thinks I’m ready for exposure. Hence the hiking trip. I’m on Mt. Yongmasan, trying to achieve a sense of Zen, dammit.”
“Yeah,” Shawn said, sarcastic. “Because you sound so very peaceful right now.. you’re practically like the Dalai Lama.”
“You know what,” I complained. “You can shove your smart ass comments up your…”
“Now, now… is that how Buddha would speak?”
“What do you want?”
“Not much,” Shawn answered. “I just called because I wanted to know how your trip to New Jersey went, and because I was bored.”
I unzipped my backpack and took the dog bowl out again and poured some water for Dog. I laid a blanket out and started unpacking the food I had prepared to celebrate my climb up the mountain: a small bottle of makgeolli, a container of fruit and a thermos with hot water for ramyun.
“So…” I heard Shawn’s voice say, using the same tone that my friend always uses when there’s fishing for information going on. “What happened in New Jersey?”
“Shawn,” I said as I offered Dog a piece of kimbap. He took it without question and then sat by my side, slaying me with his puppy eyes until I gave him the whole thing. “What do you mean what happened in New Jersey? I was going to attend a funeral.”
“Did you see her?”
“Yeah, I did.” I poured some hot water into the ramyun cup as Dog laid his body down next to me and rested his chin on my lap.
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re so like a girl sometimes?”
Shawn laughed. “How did she look?”
“How do you think she looked?” I asked. “She just lost her father. She looked like someone who lost her father is supposed to look.”
“Was she crying?”
I thought about the question. “No, she wasn’t.”
“Don’t you think that’s weird?” Shawn asked.
“I don’t know…” I answered honestly, unwrapping the package of yellow radish. “She and her father had issues.”
“Who told you that?”
“Huh.” Shawn sounded surprised. I was about to ask the reason for the reaction when my friend spoke again. “Did you speak to her?”
“Damn, Shawn. The woman was burying her father. What was I supposed to do? ‘Oh sorry your Dad died but I love you and I know you love me so let’s get back together, get married and have some babies.'”
“Or, you know, ‘hi,'” Shawn said dryly. “Why are you jumping to marriage and babies already? Who said anything about marriage and babies?” I didn’t respond. “Anyway… you should have said something.”
“It wasn’t the right thing to do,” I said, taking a large slurp of noodles. “I know I was an asshole but I’m not that selfish.”
“Whatever.” Shawn audibly sighed. “Did you see her mysterious best friend?”
“Joon-ie?” I asked and I heard a grunt in response. “I didn’t look.”
“But… you were so obsessed with this person! I can’t believe you didn’t look at all. Who are you and what did you do with my petty but charming friend?”
“Joon didn’t even cross my mind.”
“Amazing. I never thought I’d see this day come.”
“You’re ruining my appetite,” I said. “I’m going.”
“Call me when you have some time,” Shawn said. “We need to figure out how much of your hard earned money you’re letting go of this year.”
“My girl is too busy doing whatever else she’s doing recently so I have a lot of free time,” my friend continued. I heard a bit of annoyance but concern at the tone as well, but too busy eating and trying to get off the phone, I could do nothing but answer in monosyllables.
“Yeah.” I finished the ramyun and speared an apple. “Are you done talking?”
“Yes.” I thought Shawn was finally done. I really thought I could hang up the phone, was about to do so when I heard a clearing of the throat. “Ethan?” I think I may have grunted in response. “Congratulations on growing up.”
“You know what, Shawn… sometimes I hate you.”
“No you don’t.” I heard laughter on the other end of the line. “One more thing…”
“What?” I said, wondering what it was now that my friend needed to speak about.
“You’ve been on that mountain for ten minutes.” The statement made me look at my watch quickly, not even realizing that that was true. “Good job, man. See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
Hillsborough, New Jersey
December 6, 2002
I wasn’t sure how it came to be that my sister, my mother, and I began to live together again, but it seemed that it was now the current situation.
Almost three months after my father passed, my sister was still living at home with no talks about moving back in with Matt, my mother had gone back to working all the time, and I was still cleaning.
No one had asked me what my plan was, nor was I sharing the fact that I didn’t have one. None of us spoke any more of feelings. None of us spoke much at all. Still.
The house had been divided into three corners: my mother’s bedroom, my sister’s bedroom, the basement for me. Like shards splintered off the same broken mirror, we came together as if being glued together by an unknown force to the kitchen during meals, but then we break apart once again as soon as the meal is finished back to our corners, unable and afraid to look at each other and getting too close, as if our sharp edges will wound each other.
It’s a bit of an irony that we had all spent so much time in the past resenting my father’s voice telling us what we can and cannot do and demanding us to do as he says, and yet now that it was no longer around, we seemed adrift and lost. If we had been limited by his presence, we had become stunted in his absence.
I was certain that I should leave, but something kept me here. Still, every day I was torn with the desire to leave, knowing that I would do nothing of the sort. Every day I was tempted to lock myself in my room, though I force myself to get up and do something. Anything.
And like every day, here I was, waiting for dawn, partly because I can’t stand the darkness of the night, where I would have nothing to face but my thoughts. And I’d forgotten how hard the mornings were, where the brightness of each day seemed a paradox from how I expect it to be.
So often I would wake up and feel no different, until something would remind me that things weren’t quite right. The peace that I had longed for most of my life, the peace that I thought would surely accompany my father’s permanent departure was not so peaceful after all.
The tenacity and stubbornness that had gotten me through the most difficult times of my life were nowhere to be found. It wasn’t that I felt defeated. Or spent, even. That would imply that I felt something at all, when, in fact, I didn’t feel anything.
Slowly, as it inevitably did, the anger has finally receded. My thoughts dwelled on newer things. Other Things. I embraced and welcomed each new idea with aplomb, grateful that it was taking me one step farther from my father’s death, though that was as far as the idea took me. Nothing had ever managed to materialize from all these ideas. They were all workings of a fanciful imagination.
Even still, my mind worked again. That was surely an improvement. Some days I could even believe that I was getting better. Not that the contrary would have changed anything.
I padded silently from the bedroom and up the two flights of stairs that would take me to my mother’s room. I stopped in front of my sister’s door and opened it, seeing her peacefully asleep on the bed, the moonlight glaringly bright over her sleeping form, her blinds wide open.
Some things have not changed. She had been terrified of the dark as a child, and even now she still had to sleep with some kind of light.
Reassured, I walked into my mother’s room and turned the light on, my eyes adjusting to the darkness. There were slivers of light coming through the blinds from the street lamp outside. I blinked as the room was illuminated, then released a breath when it came into view.
A desk, piled high with paperwork that my mother will not sort until the end of the year, in one corner of the room. A television, sitting on a small cart, always on the same channel when turned on. The same lacquer black bedroom furniture from many years before, from the headboards to the bedside drawer. The lamp with the pear shaped base and ecru shade that always looked dirty no matter how clean it was. Pictures of me and my sister as children. Pieces of paper with my mother’s distinctive cursive writing, exaggerated loops marking Ts and Gs sitting next to the bed. Her vanity table glittering with vials of half filled perfume, the same fragrance that she had used for decades and the bone china jewelry box I had given her when I was thirteen, filled with her jewelry.
It should not have surprised me that things here had not changed, either. Everything in this house, just like the people that were now back in it, whispered of a frozen moment in time. The three of us, living back in one place, doing things we always did. It would be laughable had it not been so sad.
But then, something different. My mother’s closet, doors slid to one side, the far left section left wide open, several boxes on the floor.
It had been my father’s side.
It always fascinated me that though my parents stopped sharing a bed many many years ago that they never stopped sharing a closet. In my memory, that side of the closet was always filled with my father’s mysterious things.
I always hated going in there, even if it had just been to put clothes away after laundry and ironing. I suppose I was always afraid of what I would discover. Or maybe it was that I was afraid of something in there finding me.
There was nothing scarier than something unknown. But now, it seemed harmless enough, with its empty hangers and shelves. All of its contents were folded neatly in the boxes: the shirts that my father favored with name brands over the front, the collared shirts in strange patterns that always used to embarrass me and my sister to no end.
Everything my father owned, now packed in brown boxes marked for donation. I pictured bumping into a stranger wearing my father’s clothes at a cafe or at the shopping mall, and felt a tightening in my chest. My fingers reached out to touch all the things that were in the boxes; my hands fought the urge to take them all out and put them back into the shelves.
I stopped myself before I could do any such thing. My mother had done what was necessary, as always. It was time to do this now.
I turned away, was about to walk out of the room, when a small wooden box sitting atop one of the boxes caught my attention. I recognized it, with its slightly crooked side and unevenly varnished surface. If I was to lift it up there would be a nail head improperly hammered in, a thick callous of wood glue used to cover it up. I would recognize the girlish scroll painted on its cover, knew what it would say before I even read it.
I knew when the box was made. And where. And for what.
I should know. I had made it for my father for father’s day, almost twenty years before, in my middle school shop class, a course I’d barely passed.
My eyes narrowed, my mind already questioning how it was that he still had it. I sat down on the floor and picked it up. Placing it on my lap, I slid my fingers over the top to open it, expecting resistance from years of disuse. I hadn’t done the measurements correctly to begin with, and it had never closed properly, not even when it was new. I fumbled with it when I demonstrated it to my teacher then it was so stiff. This time, however, the cover opened with no struggle.
It was strange.
Stranger still was the fact that the box was not empty, as I had been expecting, but appeared as if it was almost full. With only a lamp lighting the room, I could only make out a blank medium envelope on top, one I set aside hastily to see what the box was hiding.
My father had never been the sentimental sort and the thing was impractical. Too big to store anything one might want to hide, too small to keep anything of substance. It was also an eyesore. I wanted to know why my father kept my box.
I hesitated for a brief second, my fingers hovering uncertainly, apprehensive about what I might find, questioning whether I was ready.
What if I discover more of his children? More of his affairs? Even more of his indiscretions? What if I find things that would further worsen my father’s memory?
Screw it, I thought, before my hand started rummaging through what looked like a random assortment of items. It can’t possibly get any worse than it already was.
I pulled the first item out, a red string bracelet. Putting it to the side, I spied an origami flower, strangely familiar, before picking up a torn movie ticket, the printed writing almost faded all the way. There were others, too, things I didn’t recognize, though some I felt I should have. And then… one I did.
I dropped the keychain onto the carpet. It didn’t make a sound.
Twenty five years before…
I slurped on my chocolate milkshake as the movie played out in front of me. I munched on the popcorn on my lap, the salty butter melting on my tongue. My father sat next to me, gaze riveted to the screen, hand hidden in his own bucket of popcorn.
This was why I loved Papa. He knows I don’t share well. We always had separate snacks whenever we went to the movies, which was often. Some of my best days had been in movie theaters like this spent with my father, ensconced in another world.
Today was one of those days. Papa took me out of school early and we had lunch at Jollibees. Well, I had lunch and he watched. He didn’t even frown when some of the gravy from the rice and fried chicken dripped onto my checkered black and white bow. Even now the stain was still there. Pity that it didn’t fall onto my skirt, instead. At least it hadn’t been onto my pristine white school uniform. Oh well.
Nothing… not even that stubborn stain can dampen my mood. I had begged Papa to take me to see this movie for a long time, almost as soon as it came out in the theatre. He almost always gave in to all of my requests, except for this. This, he had saved until today.
In front of me ET, the weird looking but cute creature on the wide screen, used his mind to lift himself and other people into the air and towards the forest, where a spaceship glowed.
It was so cool. I want a friend like ET.
ET’s heart was glowing, and then it was time to say goodbye to the kids. I tried to blink hard to keep the tears from coming but some seeped out anyway, especially when he received a pot of flowers.
“I’ll be right there,” ET said, before pointing his glowing finger to his forehead.
I was in sniffles when he boarded the ship with his flowers, was practically bawling by the time the rainbow appeared after the spaceship had flown off.
My eyes were laden with so many tears that I couldn’t even read the closing credits, even with my perfect vision. See? Grown ups were wrong sometimes. Reading in the dark hadn’t made me blind.
I comforted myself by drinking my milkshake noisily, hoping that the sound would distract people from the fact that I was near hysterical.
I was glad that Papa didn’t bolt out of his seat as soon as the movie ended, like he always did, or else I’d have had to follow. I may be eight years old, but I still had some pride. I didn’t want to be seen with my red eyes and nose. I think people were leaving; one by one the theatre emptied, until it was just me and my father.
The lights were still only partially on, blanketing the room in a yellowish sort of glow. My father sat still, saying nothing.
It was my first indication that something wasn’t quite right. A funny, not altogether nice sensation lurched in my chest. I was nervous but I didn’t know why. I hadn’t been this nervous since I competed in the school wide spelling bee.
My father cleared his throat and I stopped drinking long enough to put my milkshake away. I looked at his face, shadowed and all of a sudden so much older than what I always knew.
My lower lip started trembling.
“The visa’s been approved,” he said quietly, his eyes unreadable. “I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”
Fresh tears spilled out of my eyes as my young mind processed his words. “You’re.. you’re leaving?” I asked, my voice pitifully small though I was trying to sound brave. “For how long?”
“Forever is the plan,” Papa said ruefully. “But you’ll be coming soon, too. As soon as your visa is approved, we’ll send for you.”
“You and Mama will be together?”
My father’s eyes became shuttered and drawn. “Yeah… Mama and I will be together.”
I wiped my tears away. “Good,” I said, trying not to dwell on the fact that I barely knew my mother, that my mother was more of an idea than a person. I can count on two hands how often I’d seen my mother that I can remember. And now I was losing my favorite person to her. I wasn’t sure how I felt but I don’t think that it’s fair.
The silence descended, and we stayed sitting where we were. Until my father nudged my shoulder and spoke, his tone light. “Hey,” he said. “Maybe you’ll get the baby sister you wanted.”
“Yeah,” I agreed.
Internally I still wasn’t quite sold on the idea, but Papa was trying to be light hearted and positive. I was trying to be strong; unfortunately my eyes hadn’t gotten the message. I continued to cry quietly, afraid of what’s about to happen, somehow aware that everything was changing all at once.
I was sad and scared. I don’t think I can ever watch ET again. Such a shame… I really loved the movie.
My father reached out over the seat rests to take one of my hands in his. He slipped something into my palm and I felt cold metal. When I opened it something gold shone, and I struggled to make out what it was.
A gold keychain, in the shape of Hello Kitty, with my name carved out underneath. I smiled despite my sorrow. Papa always did know me best. He knew Hello Kitty has been my favorite since I was young.
I mumbled a silent thank you before I made myself stop crying. My eyes felt heavy and puffy, and I was suddenly exhausted and wanted to go home. Papa seemed unwilling to leave, and so I contented myself with staying seated. He looked scared, too. And sad.
Weird. My father had always been the most solid person in my mind. I have never seen him this shaken.
His hand continued to hold mine, just as he always did whenever we walked. I trusted my father more than I trusted anyone else in my life, in my world. Holding his hand always made me feel safe and protected. Today it made me feel that way, too, though those good feelings were also tinged by melancholy.
“You’ll always be my little girl,” he finally said, his voice gravelly. “I’ll never leave you behind. Never.”
“Papa,” I choked out, my chest feeling tight and heavy. I clutched his hand as if I would never let go and my red bracelet caught my eye.
Filipinos were a superstitious lot. The color red was believed to protect children from spirits looking to steal their souls. I had worn a bracelet like this, replaced every year, since the day I was born, or so I had been told. It looked like a thin line over my wrist, another gift from my father when I missed the Menudo concert (I currently have a crush on Ricky Martin, which my father did not know about.)
In that moment I realized that my whole life was made up of pieces that my father made, that my father gave me. Everything that has ever happened in my life, mostly good, was connected to him.
And now it was about to change. After today, my life will never be the same again.
The memories came back all at once, the assault unforgiving.
I had been right.
Five years after that day I found out that my father was not who I thought he was. Little did I know then that twenty years after that, he will be gone forever.
That day marked the beginning of the end. Never again would I look upon my father with such favor and such love. There were few moments of brightness: the birth of my sister, an inside joke shared now and again.
But mostly what I remembered, what I wanted to remember, was the anger and the resentment. Until now.
With sudden urgency I lifted the envelope I had discarded, ripping into the sealed flap, my fingers shaking.
Hello Kitty greeted me, a party hat on her head, big letters saying Happy Birthday. I opened the card to see my father’s heavy blocky handwriting. He always wrote in capitals, never in cursive, except for his official signature. I would recognize that handwriting anywhere.
It was dated on my birthday, almost a year ago. I had been in San Francisco working, long before Teddy. Long before Jung Jin and Korea.
The words blurred in front of my eyes. It was written in our native tongue, somehow making it more honest. I can’t remember the last time my father addressed me in that language. I can’t even remember the last time he gave me anything for any holiday.
I took a deep breath.
How long has it been since you came home? It’s been so long now that I can’t remember anymore. Maybe a few years, but it’s been an even longer time since I’d seen you last.
The doctor tells me I have diabetes and high blood pressure. I take so many pills now sometimes I can’t remember which ones I’m supposed to take or not take. But I take them religiously, because my daughter is a nurse.
I’m getting older. I try to tell myself that I will live for many years yet, that I will be around to see both you and Maria married and to hold your children in my arms, but my body tells me that it might not be possible.
I’ve never been an expressive person. I have a hard enough time recognizing feelings in myself without trying to tell other people about them. But between you and I… too much time has passed, too many things left unsaid.
I will never forgive myself if I didn’t try once.
Have I told you how proud I am of you? How proud I am of the woman you’ve become?
I think I understand now why you had to leave, why you had to cut ties. I won’t make excuses for what I had done or not done. Everyone has a story, and I’ve never been ready to share mine. Even now. Except to say that I once loved your mother, and perhaps I still do, but not in the way that I could and certainly not in the way that I should.
Our marriage was over before it even began. You had a sister, did your Mama ever tell you that? Her name was Susan. She lived only for fifteen days. Losing her changed us. We never recovered. Maybe that should have been the first sign that we weren’t supposed to be together. I was ready to walk away.
But then you came.
I was nowhere near ready to be a father. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever be. I was never a person who took comfort in the constant and consistent, never liked the middle and ending of any story. But the beginning, that I was good at. That I liked.
And so I kept on trying to reenact the beginning over and over again. With different people. Searching for something even I myself don’t know.
Your restlessness reminds me so much of myself. It worries me that you can’t seem to stay in one place, and I wonder if, like me, you are also searching, or whether, unlike me, you are running away.
You must hate me for the things I had done. You must hate those parts of yourself that you think you got from me. But just like the bad, I like to think that whatever good I had in me left, I gave to you, too.
Your passion. Your drive. Your unbending tenacity. You got those things from me. I am proud of that, that because of me, maybe despite me, you are a good person. I never needed to contribute more good things to the world, when I had already given it my two precious gifts: you and your sister.
I hope one day you can look in the mirror and see that whatever has happened between us, you carry the best parts of me with you. And one day, I hope that you will pass it on to your children. And that they will pass it on to their children as well.
Rather than my sins, of which there are many, I hope that will be my legacy.
I’m sorry for everything, for the things I said, for the time we’ve lost. I will wait for the day when you and I can sit together again, just you and I, and talk quietly, just like we used to do.
Happy birthday, anak. I hope you get everything you wish for today and everyday.
Thank you for being my daughter. I am very proud of you. I love you.
I clenched my jaw as blinding anger overtook me, my hands wanting to rip the card that I held in my hands. Just when I thought that the feeling was lessening, it comes back full force, as if it never dissipated at all.
Did he mean for me to find this? And for what? To make me feel guilty for leaving? To make me feel sorry that I’ve not come home? To make me feel like it was my fault?
How dare he confuse me? How dare he try to get me to second guess myself? I did the right thing. I did the right thing for all of us.
Saying sorry doesn’t erase what happened. Saying sorry doesn’t undo shit. All it’s going to do is forever mock me and make me realize that all this time he had the ability to apologize, and yet he chose not to. It only told me that he was fully aware of everything he had been doing, and still he kept on doing it. Parents don’t get a free pass just because they die.
He wanted me to come home. This was still written just for him.
So many questions, and he dared die before they can be answered. He did not deserve pity from me. In the end he had reaped what he sowed… Surely he must have known that if he lived his life selfishly, that he would end up alone.
I was a person who understood logic. I specialized in cause and effect. And everything I had ever learned had taught me that a person will get back what they put in.
He doesn’t get to have do-overs. Not even in his death.
Resentment simmered inside me, as I struggled to close the box that held my childhood, snippets of a time and a person that no longer existed. My hands were shaking in rage and disbelief.
He was right, I did hate him.
I exited my mother’s room as if I couldn’t get away fast enough, determined to get as far away from this house as quickly as possible.
I was about to descend down the stairs when my sister stepped on the landing, a glass of milk in her hands. She took one look at me and concern marred her features.
“Sis,” she said, reaching out to touch my arm and I took a step back. She visibly flinched. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said, my voice tight. “I’m going for my run.”
She looked at the clock behind me. “It’s barely 4 in the morning. And you don’t look like nothing is wrong.”
She pursed her lips even as her eyes filled up with tears. “Sis,” she said, her voice small. “Please,” she begged, trying to take one of my hands. “I love you. Let me help you.”
“I’m fine, Maria. Go back to sleep.”
I heard her breath catch as I turned away, and I ran down the stairs before I could see her cry.
Jeju Island, South Korea
Shawn was next to me, dressed the way I had instructed, in pants and several shirts, wearing a thick bubble coat, as we walked up a well constructed trail out of the woods. My friend looked obviously disgruntled and uncomfortable, and I doubted any comment as to how practical the outfit was would be taken well. My oldest friend was just as picky as I was when it came to clothing.
“Where are we going?” When I didn’t respond, Shawn continued to grumble. “It’s winter now, you know. And we’ve been walking for hours. HOURS!”
“Where does it look like we’re going?” I asked. “You said you wanted to hang out.”
“I know what I said. This was not what I had in mind.” Shawn was scowling. “But did we have to go all the way to Jeju?” I gave my friend a smile and the frown deepened. “At least you could have just told me to meet you here. Why did I have to fly all the way to Seoul just to fly to Jeju?”
“I could use the company.”
I shrugged my shoulders but stopped walking anyway. Slinging my backpack to the front of my chest, I stuck my hand in and pulled out a couple of granola bars, holding one out for conciliation.
We had already eaten a cup of ramyun each (Shawn had protested loudly that ramyun was not part of a healthy meal,) shared a can of tuna and split a roll of kimbap. Still, Shawn took what I was offering grudgingly and I grinned. My friend could never resist snacks.
We ate the bars in silence before I started moving again. Though not without even more complaints, Shawn followed closely behind me. The ground beneath our feet already had patches of white snow, the air getting colder the higher up Hallasan we went.
“Yo,” Shawn called out behind me, “have you become like Mr. Outdoors man now that you’re not scared of heights anymore?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, every time I call you on a weekend, you’re hiking or something. Mount this, mount that. Aren’t you tired of climbing mountains yet?”
I chuckled. “My therapist told me it’s good to challenge myself every time. This happens to be my last homework,” I replied. “And… I’m not not scared anymore. I just have a better handle on things now. It helps that Dog is always with me.”
“You and that dog are inseparable,” Shawn said before making an indignant face. “Wait. Is that why I’m here? Because you couldn’t take your mutt on the plane?”
I blinked at Shawn and a leaf or something flew my way. “Will you please stop throwing shit at me?”
Shawn let out a huff. “I don’t like this kind of activity. How much longer do we have to go?”
“Calm down,” I said. “We’re almost there.”
“I promise to buy you some food later.”
“And drinks,” Shawn added.
I looked ahead of me and saw the mountain’s peak through the clouds, the sight bringing a sense of satisfaction through me. It seemed almost impossible that just a few months ago I was deathly afraid of doing this. And now…
I wished I could call Gia and tell her about it. I wished she was still here so she could come with me and we could see this together.
Patience, I reminded myself, trying to ignore the pinch in my chest.
“How’s Ji Soo?” Shawn asked, audibly out of breath.
“Fine.” I kept my eyes ahead, told myself not to look down.
“And your parents?”
“They’re good, too.” Only 150 meters more. Only 150 meters more.
“And your sib…”
“Jesus, Shawn can we talk about this when we get to the top? I’m having a hard enough time breathing without having to speak, too.”
“That’s precisely why we have to keep talking. If you don’t keep talking to me I might pass out. Do you know how many times I’ve avoided being dragged into hiking with my girl? I am too out of shape for this.”
“Your girl likes to hike?” I asked cheekily. “So does mine. Race you to the top!”
My steps quickened even as Shawn protested more loudly behind me, the goal in sight spurring me on. I ignored the ache in my left thigh and the quickening of my breath as I continued to climb the steep stairs. I didn’t stop until I was at the top, the clouds seemingly close enough to touch.
Within minutes Shawn was back at my side, breathing heavily and fixing me with a glare. I smiled as I pulled out a bottle of water then threw one towards my friend. We were quiet as we stood by the railing, finishing our water.
“What, exactly, did we come up here for?” Shawn asked and I stretched my arm over the surroundings.
The craggy, barren landscape had flattened with the turn of the season, and we could see below us snow covered fir trees. They stand like misshapen trolls, the summer guardians of Hallasan now frozen in time. Frost covered their stubby branches, encasing them in knobby white armor. Icicles hang from their limbs like crystal daggers. Their horizontal, windblown lines of snow salute the east, where the sun had long risen.
Over the snowy railing and signpost we could see Baengnokdam, a clear lake in the summer now frozen. A flawless blue sky outlined the crater’s toothed rim. Spines of snow-covered rock ripple down Hallasan’s edges, the pillars of ice enough to dissuade further passage.
The thought that I had finally made it up the tallest peak in Korea filled me with a sense of accomplishment, and I found myself grateful that at least Shawn was here to share this with me. Still, it did not lessen the feeling that it was supposed to have been someone else.
“You’re right,” Shawn agreed. “This view is worth it.”
I looked over at my friend’s face in profile, staring out into the distance and followed the line of sight. “It’s beautiful, right?” It was all I said before I quieted, my body here, but my mind and my heart always someplace else.
It seemed that Shawn noticed the change in atmosphere, because next thing I know, my friend had closed the gap between us and we were standing right next to each other.
“What are you thinking?” I heard Shawn ask.
I swallowed before a sad smile lifted one corner of my mouth. “I miss her,” I said quietly. “You’d think that after a while it would be easier, but it’s not. I don’t know of the fact that she loves me makes it better or worse. It’s been seven months.”
“Not that you’re counting or anything,” Shawn teased.
“My life is full,” I said. “It is. So it’s not because I’m looking to Gia to fulfill an empty spot in my life. I think that maybe that’s why it never worked out with anyone else. Kelsey, Hye Soo… all the other women that I’d been involved with. I never realized before how empty I felt then. I was in no position to be with anyone else. Gia opened my eyes, and sometimes I can’t help but wonder how much longer it would have taken me had she not come into my life.”
“You’re not stupid,” Shawn commented. “Just stubborn as hell. You would have gotten there eventually.”
“You think so?”
“I know so.” Shawn turned to look at me. “You had all of this in you all along. I would never have befriended you otherwise.”
“Hold on,” I joked, forcing my voice to sound light. “I thought I befriended you.”
“There may be some truth to that,” Shawn conceded. “It’s been so long now I can’t even remember.” I felt Shawn’s shoulder nudge mine. “Can I ask you a question?”
I nodded in response.
“Why her?” I raised an eyebrow, asking for clarification. “Why do you love her?”
“I’ve thought about this over and over, and you know, I don’t really even know why.”
“Is it because she’s so good?” Shawn asked. “You were once so enthralled with the fact that she always seemed so strong. Is it because of that?”
“Maybe it’s what interested me at first… that I couldn’t figure her out. But no, I don’t think that’s it.” I shook my head and released a breath. “Because I’ve realized since that I would still love her even if she wasn’t good or strong. I would still love her because she’s her.”
“I don’t want to be pessimistic but it has to be said. What if you don’t know her as well as you think you do?”
“I know her,” I said with certainty.
“You know what they say about rose tinted glasses and shit. It’s so much easier to believe things of the person you love when you’re no longer with them.”
“I know her,” I repeated. “I love her.”
“So you keep saying,” Shawn said. “But you still haven’t told me why.”
“Do I need a reason?” I countered. “I love her because she tells little white lies and can’t cook for shit. She almost burned my penthouse down. Did I ever tell you that?” Shawn said no. “She has a temper like you wouldn’t believe but she looks so fucking pretty when she’s mad that I can’t help wanting to make her mad all the time. I love her because she’s stubborn as a mule and speaks in circles and metaphors that don’t always make sense. She contradicts herself constantly, can be petty as all hell about trivial things, but stays grounded about the things that matter. ” I paused and took a deep breath. “Did I tell you what happened after we saw Hye Soo?”
Shawn looked at me, expression indiscernable. “You might have mentioned it.”
“Gia didn’t focus Hye Soo talking to her like shit, wasn’t angry that Hye Soo spoke to her like she was inconsequential. She kept her head together and put herself in Hye Soo’s shoes, to try to understand. Who else does that?” I asked. “Why do I love her? Because she tries so damn hard to always do the right thing, to always be a better person.”
Shawn sighed and looked away, “I hope one day she can see herself through your eyes. Everyone deserves to be seen through the lenses of someone who loves them.” Shawn’s voice was gentle and pensive. “Isn’t it so hard to wait?”
“Yeah,” I responded, looking back at the magnificent vista in front of me. “I’d be lying if I said it was easy.”
“So why do you do it?” Shawn asked. “You can have your pick of women; you’re not even sure if she’ll come back.”
“She’s the one I want. There will be no other. People speak of taking chances like it’s an abstract thing. An idea. An illusion,” I said, my voice soft. “Not me. My leap of faith has a face. My leap of faith has a name. I will always jump with her. I will always jump for her. Maybe she’ll come back. Maybe she won’t. I will always take the chance, over and over, with the hope that one day she will be able to, as well. I don’t believe in much, but I believe in her.”
The darkness lifted from Shawn expression and I finally saw a smile. “You’re both very lucky to have found each other. You both owe someone a great deal for bringing you together.”
“Fate?” I asked. “Destiny?” Shawn didn’t respond. “I’d repay it all back if she comes back to me.”
“We’ll see,” Shawn said before turning to me, expression more animated. “Are you ready to go down? I’m hungry and looking forward to the food you promised me.”
“Sure,” I said, looking around one more time before zipping my jacket all the way up to my neck. “But don’t get too excited yet, it’ll take us another five hours to go down, maybe less if you stop complaining.”
Shawn sent a dark look my way. “Shit.”
Hillsborough, New Jersey
In the absence of peace, running had always saved me. It wasn’t just a figurative sort of running that I did, either, none of that mental crap that people spoke about. My running was literal, to the extreme.
I ran from everything. From everyone. I followed where my feet wanted to go, finding comfort in the consistent, the sound of my shoes hitting the pavement, the feel of the Earth so solid beneath my feet, no matter where I was, no matter what was happening.
Whenever I feel shaken, there was nothing that grounded me more than the breeze in my hair, the world moving around me.
It always made me feel better. It always made me feel somewhat okay, or as close to okay as I was capable of feeling.
For someone who hasn’t allowed herself to hold on to anything, to believe in anything, so much so that half the time I felt like I barely existed, running made me feel alive. It made me feel like I was being proactive in a life that so often felt not my own, as if I was taking control of my destiny.
I ran away from my father, from my mother, from my sister. I left behind the people who made my life and severed the ties that were supposed to bind all of us for eternity. I ran away from bad relationship, bad lovers. I ran away from love.
It always worked. It was always supposed to work. And it always had, until the last few months. How did such a short amount of time destroy what had taken years to build? How does something that seemed almost like a blink of an eye decimate everything I had spent most of my life convincing myself that I believed?
Even now, I felt no reassurance from the burn in my legs, from my ragged breathing. I felt no more in control of myself, of my life, than I did hours before, when I sat on the floor of my mother’s bedroom, contradicting pieces of my father bouncing haphazardly in my mind.
I feel like a top that’s been spun out of control, haphazardly close to the edge of a table, waiting for gravity to decide whether I will stay firmly on its surface, eventually coming to a peaceful, inevitable stop, or whether I will crash down to the floor and crumble.
I had long prided myself on transforming into someone who no longer felt emotions in extremes. It’s an ugly realization to discover that all that had merely been an illusion, one that I was only too willing to believe.
In the end I was still a product of my parents. I was still my father’s daughter. I hadn’t been able to wash him off me no matter how much I tried.
And still here I am running, doing everything in my power to keep doing so. Even as some unnamed emotion pulsated so strongly inside me it threatened to take over completely. Even when it felt so big that it almost blinded my sight.
I wasn’t even sure if it was still anger, or if it was something else. Something I’ve been denying, trying to break out.
I was about to turn a corner when I heard a voice call out. I pulled one side of my earphone out as I slowed down to a stop.
“Miss?” I turned around and saw an elderly man pointing one end of his cane at me. “Your shoelaces are untied.”
“They are?” I looked at my feet, encased in the shoes Jung Jin gave me and saw that they were, in fact, untied.
He nodded sagely at me, a tooth missing from the smile that now formed on his face. I was about to say something else when my mind came up blank and stopped functioning altogether.
My father will never grow old. Not as old as him. He will never have a headful of gray hair. Or lose all his teeth. He will never walk with a cane. He won’t even get to walk me down the aisle. I will never see my father again.
My heart rattled, then imploded. I couldn’t say a word. I could feel my mouth opening and closing, but nothing would come out. My knees felt like they were about to buckle.
The old man looked at me worriedly, his bushy eyebrows furrowing, a wrinkled veined hand reaching out to steady me.
“Young lady,” he said, his voice gentle and understanding. “Are you okay?”
Grief was a very funny thing. It manifests itself in so many ways. I knew this. God only knows I had seen it so many times it was a wonder I didn’t see it in myself.
We go on about our lives after losing something or someone, thinking that we’re fine, believing it, even. We convince ourselves nothing had changed, look through eyes that refuse to see the difference. We can do this act for an indeterminate period of time, thinking that we’re moving forward just as the world has.
Who could blame us? It seemed easier to pretend somehow, to make believe that a loss was not so profound, because where would that leave us if we admitted how big it had been?
I wanted to be angry because the other option was unthinkable. I could have spent my whole life stewing in anger and resentment. And then in one moment, clarity. Not from seeing a sunrise or the stars, the feel of clothing that once belonged to the one you once loved. Not from the big things, but from something so little, something so trivial that it goes unnoticed by most human beings.
It was the kindness of a stranger that ended up breaking me. It was in that one moment that I realized that things have irreparably been changed, that no amount of being angry would ever revert it back. Such is the gift and punishment that small graces give.
I realized once again the truth in my words. A broken heart can still be broken. Over and over again. And it can be broken in so many different ways, some quickly and some over time, and by the same person.
In my mind I heard echoes of my father’s laughter, his voice telling me that he loved me, the safety that I once sought for in his hand.
I never even had the chance to say goodbye, to say I’m sorry, I love you. Wrapped up in anger and in bitterness I had allowed pride to keep me from him. And now I would never be able to.
Grief, sharp and unrelenting, slammed into me. It started in my chest, then taking over the rest of my body, as I struggled to remember, struggled to forget. I felt frozen with it as I wrapped my arms around my middle, the old man at my elbow, leading me to a bench.
I wasn’t sure how long the old man and I sat there together, but the silence lengthened even as the sun rose. He continued to look at me with worry in his eyes, though he didn’t pry.
His hand laid on mine, and I found solace in that. I found acceptance easier to stomach when it came from a stranger. Just like I could only seem to accept concern from one who did not know me. Weakness when shown to someone who can’t use it against you doesn’t seem like weakness then. Then it just felt like one single vulnerable moment. And that made it okay.
“Do you need me to call anyone for you?” He asked, interrupting my thoughts, and I shook my head slowly.
“No,” I said quietly but said no more.
He gave my hand a gentle squeeze. “Lucky I was already here,” he said, trying to lighten the mood. “My wife and I like to watch the sunrise together.”
“That’s sweet,” I said woodenly. “I’m sorry you missed it.”
He gave a noncommittal shrug. “Eh, what are you gonna do? I think she’ll forgive me this once.” He smiled at me, his eyes sympathetic. “If you don’t mind me asking, who did you lose?”
“How did you know?” I ground out.
“No one comes looking as lost as you do without having just lost someone.”
I swallowed before I responded. “My father. He passed away unexpectedly.”
“Ahh,” he responded. “It’s always difficult when life takes away just as it gives. I’m sure he knows how much you loved him.”
“I doubt that,” I said honestly. “I doubt he knew much of anything.”
“I’m sure he knows how much you loved him,” he repeated. “Parents always know.”
I stood up from the bench before holding a hand out. “I didn’t even get to say goodbye to him,” I confessed, my heart feeling crushed under an enormous weight. “I came too late.”
“It’s never too late,” he tsked. “Besides, you’re already here.”
“Look around you.”
I looked around in surprise, realizing only now that I had, indeed, found myself in the very place I had been avoiding for so long. Even without meaning to, I still ended up here.
“See?” The man said as he took my hand and rose from the bench, his cane hitting the ground. “Sometimes you end up where you need to be, where you are meant to be, even when you don’t intend to be there.”
He gave me another pat on the shoulder before he started walking away. “Where are you going?” I asked. “I thought you said you had to meet your wife.”
“I am,” he said. “She’s here.”
Understanding dawned and I gave him a searching look. A few feet stood between us, and he looked like an angel, with the light at his back. “You never told me your name,” I quickly said, unwilling to part ways so suddenly.
“They call me Teddy.” He grinned at me, then winked before walking away.
I watched as he disappeared in the distance, a little disconcerted. I didn’t believe in coincidences, but if this wasn’t one of them, then I didn’t know what was.
Once he was out of sight, I walked towards my father’s grave, my mood somber. I hesitated when I reached it, sitting down on the ground, uncaring that the grass was still wet with dew.
I was silent as I traced his name on the gravestone, regret lodging in my chest. I bit my bottom lip as I pulled weeds from the ground, uselessly putting them to my side. As I did so, another memory came, slowly. Sweetly. Perhaps the most painful of all. The ending to that fateful day.
Papa took his handkerchief, one of his fancy silk ones, and dabbed my tears with them. And I thought to myself then, what would I do without my father? How can I be without him when he loved me this much?
“One day,” I had whispered, trying to muster up a smile. “I’m going to marry someone just like you.”
My father had mirrored my smile, his eyes twinkling. “You know what I’ll tell him, what that time comes?”
I had shaken my head no.
His face sombered as he touched a finger to my cheek. “I loved her first,” he had said. “I loved you first.”
What was left of my anger dissipated and crumbled, remembered only the love. I took a deep breath before I cleared my throat.
“I…” My voice came out shaky and I cleared my throat again. “I don’t know what to say. I never thought that the next time we speak, it would be like this.” Emotion thickened inside me, my eyes filling with tears. “It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
“You said you’d give me away at my wedding,” I whispered. “You said that you would never leave me. You promised. You promised.”
I felt like I was eight again, begging my father for a little more time. And at the same time twelve, wishing that my father could undo the damage that he’d done.
It seemed like somewhere in the universe someone had made a mistake. There was a grave disparate between how things are supposed to be and how things are. And as with every mistake, I convinced myself time and time again, I should be able to undo it. Fix it somehow. Except this time I couldnt. I kept feeling like things have happened that were not supposed to, that I had displeased the universe by taking my destiny in my own hands.
I had walked into a door I was not meant to enter. I left when it was never in the plan. And now I can’t go back.
It seemed a waste of a revelation to realize that everything has changed, except nothing had. My father was still gone, as he had been for years. He was still alone.
The thought crashed through what was left of my resistance and the dam broke. Then I heard it: a keening cry, coming from someplace inside me. The sound was so alien I didn’t even recognize it as my own. And the pain inside my heart dug just as deep. Had I been able to do it myself I might have stuck my arm with a sedative in an effort to make it stop. It was both a wonder and a sin that I was still alive. That I was still breathing.
I cried for my father and all that we’ve lost. I cried for the times we can never recapture, everything we can never have again. I cried for the missed chances, the words unsaid, the thoughts never spoken out loud until it was too late.
“Papa,” I whispered brokenly as I tried to wrap my arms around his gravestone, as far as they could reach, resting my cheek on the cold slab of marble, the only thing of my father I had left. “Papa.”
I cried until there were no more tears left, until my eyes had been wrung dry. Eventually the adrenaline was gone from my system, and I curled on the ground, paralyzed with sorrow. I was more tired than I have ever been in my life. My body finally getting the release that it needed, I fell asleep where I was, in the shadow of my father’s gravestone, closer to him in death than I had allowed myself to be even when he was alive.
Jeju Island, Korea
It’s amazing how fast Shawn moved when food was promised. It was just as well… the winter season brought shorter days, and soon the darkness will blanket the mountain. With my connections I was able to bend the rules and talk the park rangers into letting us continue our climb to the mountain’s peak a couple of hours after the designated time. I doubted that nature would show me that same consideration.
We had just passed the first shelter, an hour away from the park’s entrance, when I heard Shawn’s phone ring. My friend was so focused on walking down the stairs that the call was ignored. After the fourth ring, the sound overly loud in the silence of our surroundings. I gave Shawn a pointed look and watched as the guilty phone was pulled out of a pocket.
Shawn’s expression brightened, then, finally, the call was answered. “Hey,” Shawn greeted. In English. Must be the girl. Shawn never spoke to anyone else in English except for said person.
My oldest friend’s smile disappeared within minutes, turning away as the conversation continued. I had paused in place, trying very hard not to appear as if I was eavesdropping, though I was. It’s very seldomly that Shawn tries to speak in private with me around.
I had just leaned into a banister to catch any part of the very serious discussion my friend was involved in when a pain bloomed in my chest. Tight and sharp, it made me bring my hand up, wondering if this was a case of delayed panic attack.
But it didn’t feel like any other panic attacks I’ve ever had. It felt… like my heart was breaking.
I sat myself down on a stair, my hand clutching the spot in my chest that continued to throb, trying to regain my bearings. Tears burned the back of my eyes as the pain continued, the feeling very much like deepest sorrow.
But from what?
I squeezed my eyes to breathe through it, unaware of anything else, when I felt a gloved hand on my shoulder.
“You okay?” Shawn asked, concern palpable.
“Yeah,” I started. “No. Something hurts in my chest.”
“You’re having chest pain?”
“Yes… no… it feels like chest pain, but it doesn’t feel physical. It’s something else. I feel like I just lost something important. It’s weird.”
A strange expression drifted through Shawn’s face and then it was gone. Next thing I know, hands were being reached under one arm, as I was helped up to my feet.
“Come on, let’s get you down this damn mountain.”
“I feel horrible, though,” I complained. “It’s the strangest thing.”
“I know,” Shawn said, patting my back. “You said pain reminded you that something mattered, right? Well, pain also means that things are changing, rebuilding. It might still hurt for a bit, but I think it’ll get better soon.”
Shawn nodded. “Either that or you’re about to die.”
I fixed my friend a glare. “Have I told you how much I hated you sometimes?”
December 31, 2002
I was standing in front of my closet, in the middle of packing my clothes and putting them in boxes scattered all over the floor. Dog was on the bed, chin over his paws, watching me owlishly. He lifted his head for a moment then sighed before putting his head back down, as if too tired to be trying to figure out what the hell I was doing. He was surrounded on the bed by several suitcases, already partially filled with shirts and pants.
The other rooms in the house held similar chaos.
Dog and I were moving after the 1st of the coming year, into a two storey house in the heart of Jongno, just a few minutes drive from my parents’. Complete with a two car garage, it had recessed built in bookshelves in every room, blonde hardwood floors and high ceilings. Every room had floor to ceiling windows, much like the penthouse, a modern bathroom with every amenity, and enclosed upper and lower floor decks. The railing on the second floor overlooked the rest of the house, and the bedroom held panoramic views of the city. But the best part… the best part was the fully manicured lawn and garden for Dog. It was what gave the house the advantage over the others; it was very rare to find a property in the city with such a prime piece of land. Work was a mere ten minute drive, Jamsil Stadium but twelve minutes away. The furniture movers were already scheduled to come on moving day, as were my brother and brothers in law.
It had been a logistical nightmare to try to figure out the necessities of my profession in relation to where my home should be, but luckily, the realtor I had worked with had been as good as my sister had promised. When we toured the house, I knew it was the one, and I made the offer before the tour was even finished. By the end of that day the offer had been accepted, and in a few days, Dog and I will be the new owners of an actual house.
Not that he cared, much.
He had already curiously sniffed around the boxes where his bed used to be, the crate long packed away. His toys were all packed up, too, except for the giant piece of rope that he favored.I had already transferred all of his food into wheeled plastic containers.
The kitchen was bare, all of the appliances and cookware packed away. The cupboards held only two of everything: plates, spoons, forks, chopsticks and cups.
I was almost done. I wasn’t even sure why I was packing; it wasn’t as if I was getting rid of this house. The realtor had danced, and not very subtly, about getting the penthouse listed, promising that it would sell quickly. Failing to do that, he had hinted that he would be open to even putting it up for rent. I said no. I was in no rush to get rid of the penthouse, nor did I need the money. Besides, I was considering giving it to Ji Hee Noona and Kye Sang Hyung as their newlywed house, or, if they don’t want it, to Ji Soo when she finishes her studies.
I heard my ringtone go off from somewhere in the bedroom, and I looked around. Dog stood up and gave his body a shake before pawing at a pile of socks. I ruffled his fur as one hand dug around the pile, feeling my handphone at the bottom. I opened it as I saw my youngest sister’s name pop up and was immediately greeted by loud music.
“Oppa?” Ji Soo’s voice was muted by the other sounds, and it seemed as if she was screaming.
“Hey,” I said, sitting down on one side of the bed. Dog looked at me curiously before getting up, then toddling over towards me. “Where are you?”
“Your future hometown,” she said. “Where are you?”
“Home,” I answered. “Packing.”
As I waited for her to say something else I noticed the photo album that Shawn had been asking about before, the one that I was sure was in the guest bedroom, but ended up being in mine, instead. I leafed through the first page, seeing the first pictures I took of the university we both attended, its semi-circle glass paneled pillared entrance glistening in the perfect New York City autumn day.
“What are you doing tonight?” Ji Soo asked over the noise.
“Nothing,” I said, as I saw pictures of my first dorm. “Fried chicken and beer. Dog. Home.”
I flipped a page and saw a picture of me and Shawn, glasses on both our faces, my hair longer than it’s ever been since. I shook my head. Why did I think that was such a great idea? I saw a distinctive fountain behind us, realized that it was the day we were at Central Park. I had let Shawn talk me into going with the impression that someone else was going to be there, a double date of sorts. I was wrong. I ended up spending the day with Shawn and another girl, feeling entirely out of place.
“You’re so boring sometimes, Oppa,” Ji Soo complained. “Was this what you did last year?”
“No,” I said distractedly. ‘I was in San Francis…”
My words trailed off as I remembered exactly what I was doing last year. Gia. New Year’s Eve. The first kiss that didn’t count. The way she looked with her eyes clouded with passion, her lips bee stung. My heart clenched and somersaulted. I shut the album close with a resounding thud.
“I know what you were about to say,” Ji Soo said teasingly. “You were going to say you were with Gia Unnie, right?” I gave a noncommittal grunt. “God, I can’t wait til she gets back so that I can tell her what a saddo you became when she left.”
“I did NOT become a saddo,” I protested.
“Does that mean you were already one?”
“What is up with the people in my life calling me just to give me a hard time?” I asked. “Is this why you called me? I swear, you and Shawn are reading from the same playbook.”
“No, actually, that was just the icing on the cake,” she said, laughing. “Oppa, I called to tell you that you don’t have to keep sending me flowers.”
“You know… since my accident, you started sending me flowers. First in the hospital then at home. You stopped like three months ago, but then I got a bouquet of flowers today.”
“What does the card say?” I asked, confused.
“There was no card, just like every other bouquet you sent me. There wasn’t even information on the flower… usually it had a pamphlet with the country that has it as a national flower, how to take care of it and stuff like that, but this one didn’t,” she said. “Can you please tell your assistant that’s super rude, by the way?”
Crap. I forgot to tell Ha Neul that while appreciated, all those flowers were no longer needed. My sister was finally one hundred percent recuperated. She had even begun playing at the Bittersweet Cafe again.
“I’ll talk to him.”
“Call,” she replied. I was about to tell her that I had to get off the phone so that I could continue packing. when I heard her speak again, this time her voice in a whisper. “But Oppa, don’t you think your selection this time was a bit inappropriate?”
“You sent me red roses,” she said. “Red roses. Like, you didn’t even give Unnie red roses. You always gave her white flowers. So why would you send that to me?”
“For the record, Gia loves white flowers, which is why I always sent that to her.”
“Fine. That’s fair enough, but please… stop with the flowers already.”
I didn’t even know I was still sending the damn flowers, but I wasn’t going to tell her that. “Fine,” I said. “It’s done.”
“Oppa, my friends just got here. I have to go.” Her tone was harried. “Happy New Year, by the way, if I don’t speak to you later.”
She hung up the call before I could even finish. Making a mental note to tell Ha Neul to cool it with the flowers, I realized that for some reason, I hadn’t seen any of those charges in my credit card or deducted from my bank account. I’ll have to ask him about that, too.
By the door leading to the deck, Dog was standing, paw banging furiously. I put my phone down and let him out, shrugging into my coat as I followed him, thoughts about Ji Soo, her mystery flowers, and the missing numbers from my account forgotten.
Hillsborough, New Jersey
December 31, 2002
As it always did, life moved on from all my fateful days. The day I lost Teddy. The day I left Jung Jin. The day I lost my father.
The days blended together into nights, making it hard to believe that it’s only been a year. And now that year was ending, except this time I was out of resolutions.
I had only one goal for the coming year: to live each day as it comes. It seemed almost simplistic and juvenile, but it was the only thing I could bear to do.
I had finally decided to move my life along, to pick up where I left off. I bought a car. I got a job. I even have a plant.
I had, finally, decided to stay.
I was sandwiched between my mother and sister on the couch in the living room, a big pot of chicken and rice noodle soup on the table in front of us. As was Filipino tradition, the house was spic and span, the doors unlocked and ready to be opened when the clock strikes midnight.
Christmas had been a quiet affair with just us three. We went through the routine of putting a tree up, taking the lights out, and celebrating the holidays, though there wasn’t much celebrating that actually happened. Still we put on a brave and united front, something I was sure my father would have been proud of.
“Have you spoken to Matt?” I asked my sister when my mother went to the kitchen to get some bowls.
“Have you spoken to Jung Jin?” She asked in response.
Though her tone had been light, her eyes stayed glued to the television, where the annual Times Square New Year’s festivities were under way, with a focus that I had rarely seen. Dick Clark was on the screen, looking exactly as he did even years ago. There was nothing so fascinating that she wouldn’t look at me while I was speaking to her.
“That’s completely different and you know it,” I said. “You two were cohabitating.”
“So were you,” she answered blandly. “And you even had a dog.”
“It’s been eight months,” I said. “I’m too busy to think about him.”
“Yeah,” she said dryly, munching on a shrimp cracker. “That’s why you still have his picture in your bag.”
“Too much has happened for us to go back to how we were. Too much time has passed,” I said. “And can you, at least, look at me while we’re talking?”
She finally turned her head, her eyes defiant. “You always have an excuse,” she muttered. “I wish you’d talk about him.”
“No,” I said, as our mother came back into the room.
“What’s Matt doing tonight?” Mama asked and I shot my sister a pointed look.
“I don’t know,” my sister answered distractedly. “I think he’s with his family.” She sighed. “I think I’m going to break up with him.”
“What?” I asked. “Why?”
“I don’t know.” Maria sounded tentative, unsure, even as she picked up a spring roll and dipped it in some sweet chili sauce. “We’ve been together for years and I don’t see a proposal in sight. The last time I asked about it he told me to stop pressuring him.”
“Were you?” I asked. “Pressuring him?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe,” she said. “But I think I deserve to know where we’re going.”
“Is that why you came home?” I asked and she lifted her eyebrows in question. “Because he hurt your feelings?”
I was trying to bite my tongue, to keep myself from telling her that she had someone who treated her well, someone who valued her. She didn’t have my issues. There was nothing holding her back from being in a happy, functional relationship. She didn’t have to make my mistakes… she managed to get it right the first time around. And she was ready to give it all up because of a ring?
“Are you even ready to get married?” I asked.
“That’s not the point.”
“What is the point?”
She frowned at me. “I don’t think someone who has made such a mess of her own love life should be questioning mine.”
Her tone was so sharp even our mother, who had been calmly eating her soup, turned her head.
“All I’m saying is that you have someone who lets you breathe, lets you grow and loves you anyway. Do you know how many people would kill for that? You shouldn’t give him up so easily.”
“You mean like you did with Jung Jin?”
“Who’s Jung Jin?” This from our mother, spoon frozen mid-air.
“The guy Sis is in love with.”
Mama gaped at me. “You’re in love?” She asked. “That’s… wonderful.”
“Why?” I asked, crossing my arms over my chest. “Being in love was never an unnatural state for me. I’ve been in love many times before. I have always been the one who held held a relationship together, who loved more. For once I would like someone who will be defined by his love for me and not the other way around.”
“You won’t get that by running away every time,” my sister muttered under her breath.
I scowled at her. “What is your problem?”
“What is your problem?” She barked back.
I stood up. “Did you just raise your voice to me?”
She fixed me a hard look. “You’re my sister, not my mother.”
Behind me I heard the countdown begin, even as I tried to figure out why Maria was being like this. It had never been her way to be so defensive or confrontational.
The seconds counted down as the New Year arrived as it inevitably did, and instantly my sister’s face was transformed. Her eyes lit up and her mouth broke into a wide grin, making me forget that just a minute ago she had been speaking so callously.
Still confused but not wanting to stir the pot and start the New Year off badly, I willed myself relax. I watched as she opened the door and ran out in her pajamas, waving her hand for me to follow.
“Sis, come on… let’s jump!”
Another superstition. Children who jumped when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve were supposed to grow taller. It was was a tradition we practiced in this house every year, until I didn’t live here anymore.
Maria was already jumping on the deck, as if she was on a trampoline, her face caught in an expression of pure joy it was contagious. I found myself walking outside in my pajamas and mimicking her actions.
“Maria,” I said, shaking my head. “We haven’t done this for years.”
She blinked at me even she continued to jump. “Maybe that’s why we’re so short.”
Yonsei University Hospital System
January 1, 2003
I stepped off the elevator as I ran a hand through my hair, trying to smooth it down. I wasn’t entirely sure what happened, but the last thing I remember was eating fried chicken with Dog and drinking some beer while watching a movie as we waited to ring in the New Year and then I was passed out amongst boxes and boxes of stuff. It’s funny how I never realized how much I had until they were all in boxes. Almost all, anyway… I hadn’t even begun to tackle my office or the guest bedroom yet.
I was woken up by the loud beeping of my phone, indicating that a text had arrived as I slept. I had seen Joon’s name and was in the process of calling him back when I read his text message and I drove to the hospital as quickly as I could. Thank God it was already a couple of hours past midnight. Though the streets were littered by people and there were pojamangcha still up and running wherever I looked, there were hardly any cars on the road. The festivities had already begun winding down.
I looked at Joon’s message to confirm what room I was looking for then realized that I was already standing in front of it. Knocking softly on the door twice before opening the door, I walked in to see Joon on the couch, half awake on a recliner chair, remote control in one hand. Na Jeong was sleeping on the hospital bed, her long hair in a braid over one shoulder, a thick blanket covering her. I was about to turn back around and let myself out when Joon opened one eye and gave me a drowsy smile.
He held his pointer finger over his lips as he stood up, tucked the blanket more closely around Na Jeong’s shoulders and placed a tender kiss on her forehead, He turned the television off and dimmed the lights, before leading me out of the room wordlessly.
“Hyung,” he finally said as soon as we stepped out into the hallway. “Thanks for coming. I hope I didn’t wake you… I just wanted to share that the baby was born.”
I wrapped an arm around his shoulder, gave him an affectionate pat on the back.”Congratulations, Joon-ah. How did Na Jeong do?”
He smiled. “She was amazing,” he said wondrously. “Seriously though, you’re right… women are so much stronger than men. She finally fell asleep an hour ago. It was a bit hectic earlier with our families and friends around, then she had me go out and get some food. Thank God it’s New Year’s Eve or I wouldn’t have been able to find a stall that was still serving ddukbokki.”
“That’s Na Jeong,” I commented. “Why am I not surprised that she wanted to eat as soon as labor was done?”
“She ate three portions,” Joon deadpanned. “I swear, I don’t know where my wife puts it. She can eat.”
“So… how does it feel to be an Appa?” I asked.
Joon ‘s eyes instantly disappeared into little slits as he smiled from ear to ear. When he responded, his voice was gruff and held a softer timbre. “It’s still so surreal. He’s perfect. He has all these teeny tiny fingers and toes, and he has the most perfect face. I thought for sure I couldn’t fall any more in love with Na Jeong than I already was, but now it feels like it’s doubled, tripled. And now we have this little perfect person, and I love him just as much.” He nudged my shoulder. “Do you want to see him?”
“Of course,” I said. “Are we even allowed to go see them this late?”
I followed Joon as he made a few turns on the ward before coming to a long hallway, one side enclosed in glass. He didn’t stop walking until we were almost right at the middle, then he turned around to address me. “That’s him,” he said, pointing to one of several babies in the nursery. I looked in puzzlement and he caught my confusion. “Ahh, the third… no, the fourth baby from the right.”
I peered into the glass and saw… a baby. He was very cute, with his blue bonnet and mittened hands, To be honest, part of it kind of felt anticlimactic, but it wasn’t really the baby’s fault. I mean, they aren’t very exciting creatures, are they? They don’t do much besides sleep, eat, and go to the bathroom.
I was pondering the right response to give Joon without making it sound like I wasn’t that impressed with his child when a nurse, wearing hospital scrubs, a robe and a face mask came out.
“Mr. Kim,” she greeted. “Have you come to see your son?”
Joon nodded sheepishly. “Uhmm, my Hyung came,” he said, darting a glance my way, “and I wanted him to see Seonnie.”
She smiled at me. “Well, then, in that case, you should come in,” she said, not waiting for a response before letting us into the nursery. She pointed to a shelf with gloves and masks. “Both of you need to put on masks and gloves, but if you sit right there,” she continued, pointing to a chair in the corner, “I will bring him.”
Joon started dressing, and I did, as well, even as I tried to formulate an excuse to try getting out of holding the baby. Truthfully, babies weren’t really my thing. I enjoyed children more once they started talking, walking, interacting. Plus I didn’t have to worry about dropping them. Having grown up with an all too clumsy nature, my family knew better than to allow me to hold their newborns, even now. Before I could bow out, however, Joon had plonked me down into the chair and the nurse had returned, holding an almost impossibly tiny human being.
I held my arms awkwardly, the way I had been instructed by my sisters in the past, the way I had seen them do in the movies, and she gently placed him in my arms. Out of the corner of one eye I saw Joon beaming happily at me.
I glanced at the infant in my arms, noting that up close, he didn’t look all that different than he did from a distance. I was still pondering what the big deal was all about, when in the midst of using my finger to adjust the thing that swaddled around him, his tiny fingers somehow managed to find mine.
I felt the gentle grip even through the fabric of his gloves, and I swallowed. His eyes remained stubbornly shut, but I could have sworn he was smiling at me. His hand continued to hold on to my finger, his mouth pursing innocently, as if he was puckering for a kiss. Instinctively I found myself leaning in to take a closer look and caught a whiff of his baby smell. Amazing… one little person, holding the promise of a new beginning, a new life. So much on his little shoulders, and he’d only been alive for not even three hours. And then I felt it, a sudden warmth to my chest, and I knew that I was a goner.
I was afraid of heights, and now I wasn’t. I was afraid of dogs, until I had one. And I didn’t like babies, but I like this baby. Maybe I’d like mine, too.
The paradox made me shake my head. Had I been wrong about myself this whole time?
“He’s cute, right?” Joon asked behind me, and I smiled.
“Yeah,” I answered. “He’s not too bad.”
The Four Seasons
New York City, New York
April 23, 2002
After all the groveling and begging, after all the drama, Ji Hee Noona decided that Paris was not where she wanted to go, after all. Oh no. She said it was too beautiful a spring to go shopping in a city that she’s been in before, that she would rather go someplace she hadn’t been for a while. Besides, she insisted, no one in their family spoke any French. It would be so much nicer to go somewhere where we could speak the language. Remember the nightmare with the subway in Paris? she said. Remember the cow brains? No, she told me. She changed her mind about France. She wanted to go to New York City, instead.
And so here I was, waiting for her at the lobby for the Four Seasons in Manhattan ready to take her out for the last day of a two day shopping trip. Though my elder sister had been able to take the week off work, Kye Sang Hyung had not, so we had to be back in Korea by Friday morning, Korea time. I had suggested that we postpone the trip, but my sister had been insistent.
My phone rang this morning, an alarm I had set almost a year ago, reminding me that it was Gia’s birthday. April 22nd.
The only time we were together on her birthday we had ended up fighting. And then making up. I wasn’t entirely sure when I fell in love with her, but if I was to pinpoint an exact moment, it would be that night.
I don’t really think I should be in the United States today, much less in the vicinity of New Jersey. Being a stone’s throw away from where I knew she was is an exercise in self-control.
She will come to me when she’s ready, I reminded myself. I shouldn’t pressure. And calling her on her birthday after eleven months of success at allowing her her freedom was definitely hovering.
Joon waited seven years… Surely I could make it through one.
I readjusted my suit jacket again, then looked at my watch. Where were they? We were supposed to take the ferry to go to Liberty and Ferris Island today, having, I thought finished all of her shopping yesterday on Fifth Avenue. Having to resist the urge to go over to New Jersey right now made me feel uneasy and edgy.
I was about to walk back to the elevator to fetch them myself when my phone rang in my inner suit jacket.
“Jin-ie,” Ji Hee Noona said when I answered the call. “Can you come get us?”
“No problem,” I said. “I was just about to get on the elevator.”
“No, no…” she said sheepishly. “Kye Sang and I decided to go shopping in New Jersey earlier.” She laughed awkwardly. “You know… follow your advice about locals knowing it’s where you go if you want bargains and that.”
“O-kay…” I said, searching my mind for information I knew of shopping malls in New Jersey. It took a while… it’s been more than a decade since I lived here. “Which one did you go to?”
“Uhmmm…” It was the only response my sister gave.
“Jersey Gardens? Newport Center?” Both were a half an hour bus ride from the city. Still, my sister could not give me an answer and my temper flared. “How the hell am I supposed to find you if you can’t even tell me where you are? Do you know how many malls there are in New Jersey?”
“I know where I am,” she said defensively. “And it’s easy. I have a rental car in the hotel garage… we were supposed to drive to the shopping center but we decided to take public transportation, instead.”
I ran my fingers through my hair. “That doesn’t help me when I don’t have the address to enter into the GPS.”
“That’s what I’m saying, Jung Jin.” I heard her ssshhh someone before speaking again. “We plugged the address in before we left. All you have to do is get in the car and drive.”
“Do you know how insane that sounds?” I asked. “Do you not realize how bad the traffic is in Manhattan?”
“That’s why we left the driving to you, little brother. You did live here for a few years.”
“Why can’t you take the same way back that you took there?”
“Uhmm… we spent all our cash and neither of us brought credit cards. My wallet is in the hotel room.”
“Noona…” I said, frustrated. “You travel all the time. How can you go anywhere without at least one credit card and your ID?”
“Jin-ah, please save the lecture after you get us,” she said sweetly. “But please…” Her voice became firm. “Get in that car and fucking drive.”
An hour later and I was still listening to the droll, British sounding voice on the satellite navigation. Lincoln Tunnel already seemed a memory away, New Jersey Turnpike seemed just as long, and I’ve just made the exit out of route 78 into route 287.
I have no freaking clue where I was going. The route seemed familiar somewhat, but that didn’t surprise me. New Jersey was a small state and the airport was the one I flew into when Gia’s father died. Surely all roads leading out of the airport and straight onto one of the state’s main roadways looked the same.
I relaxed into the seat of the car, opened the window and kept on driving.
It wasn’t until I passed the Duke Estate that I began to have real suspicions as to where this car was taking me. This was further reinforced when I saw the high school right ahead of me, one of the things I noticed when I was on my way to the cemetery.
“Turn right,” the voice on the GPS said.
Okay. That part was different.
I made the right turn, and then another into a road called Bloomingdale Drive. Identical looking houses on both sides of the street materialized in front of me as I rounded the curve. Well fronted houses with picture patio doors onto a curve, high chimneys, paved walkways cutting through grass to front doors by wide decks. The houses weren’t big but charming. Individual cul-de-sacs made up of several townhouses, each row with end units.
I was so busy looking at the houses, wondering why I was here, when the GPS gave its next order.
I turned, confused, into what looked like the backs of the houses, garages greeting me. Most of them were closed and only a handful of cars were sitting on the driveways. There was no one in sight
I exited the cul-de-sac and made a left, navigating the car into an empty parking space on the opposite side of the street. Putting the car on park, I pulled my phone out of my pocket and dialed my sister’s number.
“Noona,” I said as soon as she answered the call. “What the hell is this?”
“You didn’t honestly think I needed to go shopping in New York City in April that badly, did you?” She said.
“That’s certainly how it appeared yesterday.”
“I’m a multi-tasker,” she answered cheekily.
I looked around, fighting the urge to duck down and hide. I felt like a freaking criminal.
“What am I doing here anyway?” I asked furiously. “And where are you?”
“Honestly, Jung Jin? Kye Sang and I are having a spa day at the Four Seasons,” she said. “You were really going to let today pass without seeing her, or trying to see her?” She sighed audibly. “I know you know it’s her birthday.”
“I know it’s her birthday, but how did you know?”
“Shawn told me and I thought to myself, ‘what better time to come visit?’ You’re welcome, by the way.”
“Noona… I just can’t show up at her house for no reason,” I said. “I’m going to look crazy!”
“You’re not showing up at her house randomly, you have a reason,” she said slowly, as if I was an idiot. “It’s a special occasion. You came to wish her a happy birthday.”
“From the other side of the world?”
“Distance is relative,” she answered. “Besides, we were already here!”
“How did you know her address anyway?” I asked. “I never even told you where I went last time, and I don’t think Gia shared that fact either.”
“Shawn gave it to me.”
“Shawn? Again? I’m gonna kill h…”
“Calm down, Jung Jin. You’re about to see the woman you love. You don’t really want to look all red and mad and stuff. You’re so much more handsome when you’re cool as a cucumber.”
“Noona,” I said, trying to make her understand. “Gia isn’t the type to be impressed by these grand displays of affection.”
“Every woman is impressed by grand displays of affection. What have we taught you?”
“I’m not doing this.”
“Suit yourself,” she said. “But don’t you want to see how she’s doing? Even if she’s not ready to talk, imagine how much better you’ll feel to just see that she’s okay. And you can remind her that there’s this perfectly handsome, funny, sometimes dorky, kind man still waiting for her.”
“This is crazy.”
“Love is crazy. You’re driving us insane with your anti-social behavior. You’re not as sad as you used to be anymore, but frankly looking at you makes me upset sometimes. This was the only thing I could think of to make it all better.”
“I appreciate this, Noona, but really…”
“She needs to see you, Jung Jin. She may not admit it but after the few months that she just had, she needs to see you. She may not even know it yet.” She paused and I heard her release a breath. “Do what you want, but in case you grow some balls, her cul-de-sac number is 30 and the house is 21. There’s a bottle of your cologne in the glove compartment and a birthday cake in the trunk. I suggest you eat the damn thing if you don’t get out of that car because I will more than likely smash it on your face when you get back for being such a coward.”
Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital
New Brunswick, New Jersey
April 23, 2003
“What a day,” I said as I sat myself down on one of the chairs at the nurses’ station. “Five hours in and I hadn’t even eaten yet.”
“No?” Laura, a fellow nurse asked as she sipped on a cup of coffee. “You’ve been busy.”
I shook my head as I logged into the computer system, finding time only now to begin documenting. If I don’t have any distractions, I might be able to get five hours worth of charting into one hour of uninterrupted work. I rotated my neck, straightened my shoulders, and began to type.
Half an hour passed before I heard another sound, the phone next to my screen ringing, no internal number flashing on the caller window. I took a deep breath and cleared my mind. No caller identified almost usually meant one thing: an outside call, more than likely family. If I was lucky it would be someone just asking for an update in their loved one’s condition. If unlucky I could kiss at least ten minutes goodbye.
I gave myself a silent pep talk before I answered the call. “Cardiovascular Intensive Care Unit, this is Gigi, how may I help you?”
“Happy birthday!” I heard Junnie’s voice say brightly and I looked at the time on the computer screen. “I can’t believe you’re working on your birthday.”
“I can’t believe that you’re up,” I said. “Isn’t it 3 in the morning in Singapore?”
She giggled. “I’m not in Singapore. The fiancé decided to bring me to London for the weekend.”
“It’s only Wednesday.”
“It’s a weeklong weekend,” Junnie said smartly. “Aren’t you going to thank me for calling you?”
I took a sip from my water bottle, then shook my head no as Laura offered a twizzler. “Thank you,” I finally said.
“God… you haven’t changed,” my best friend teased.
“You know me.”
Junnie sighed. “I do know you.” I heard conversation in Chinese, and assumed that she was speaking to her fiancé, and resumed charting while I waited for her to come back on the phone. “Listen… I need to go back to Korea next month, and I wanted to know if you wanted to come.”
I stopped mid-sentence. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Jun.”
“It’s been almost a year,” she said after a pregnant silence. “Do you not want to see him?”
I didn’t have to ask who to know which who she was referring to. One mention of him, even an indirect one, brought an image of him so clearly in my head I had to lay my forehead on the table just to push it away.
Of course I wanted to see him. I want to see him all the time. I want to speak to him and laugh with him. I want to kiss him and hold his hand. I want a lot of things.
My feelings hadn’t changed, and I suspected that they would never change. No matter how much time passes, no matter what happens. No matter if he meets someone else or I meet someone else. My heart will always know Jung Jin. My heart will always love Jung Jin.
“Yeah, I do,” I said softly.
“So what’s the problem?” Junnie insisted and I didn’t respond.
She wouldn’t understand. Junnie always had something that I never did: freedom.
Now that my father was gone, I had to take my place back in my family and in my life. I didn’t have the luxury of just leaving now. And perhaps I never really did.
Not wanting to get into it with Junnie while I was at work, I forced my voice to stay light when I answered. “It’s no use. He’s in Korea. I’m in America. It’s an impossible situation.”
Junnie was silent for a while before she spoke again. “I don’t think that’s the reason.”
I was tempted to deny it, but I could not.
I knew the reason why I can’t go back, had known for a while… why it was that even when I wanted nothing more than to leave, I somehow managed to make myself stay. I had known the reasons for quite a while, since the day I finally cried for my father. As I walked home that day I came to a few realizations, as if every step was taking me closer to the truth. My truth. My not always beautiful, frankly often ugly truth.
The first was that all these years, I thought I had been running from Marcus. I thought I had been running from my past. But I was wrong It was only then that I realized that it was the memory of my father I was running from, the contradiction of what I remember against what I have come to believe. And even more strangely, I realized that just as I had spent most of my life trying to escape my father, perhaps I had spent just as long searching for him, too. The father of my childhood, the man in my memories. Before he became the man who broke my heart he had been the center of my universe. Was that man still somewhere in the world, waiting to be found?
The second: I realized with utmost certainty that my father was gone. All the versions of my father that I loathed and loved at the same time were gone. There would be no more questions, nor answers, because he has ceased to be. It was a hard truth that I had to swallow, something I had an impossible time wrapping my head around. The harshest reality. Even harder still was the fact that my answers came too late. I finally found him, only to lose him all over again. The only good thing I suppose was the fact that it wasn’t just him that I found in the darkness of sorrow. I found me, too. And in doing so, the gravest truths appeared in front of me, refusing to be ignored.
I finally admitted that my leaving Jung Jin had little to do with my fear that he would hurt me. Or with the fear that he would change his mind.It was only when I was forced to really examine the situation over the last few months (which I had, over and over again, almost to the point of exhaustion,) that I was able to see that while a small part of me thought that Jung Jin will be just like everyone else, that I will forever pay for my father’s sins, that had not been the problem.
The bigger part, the stronger part, the most important part, feared that it will be those whom I love who will pay for my mistakes. With my father’s blood flowing in my veins I could succumb to the same weaknesses and follies, like I had done so many times in the past.
I was capable of hurting those who loved me. Irrevocably. Sometimes irreparably. Just as my father had done.
My leaving Korea without saying a word to Jung Jin was proof of how much thoughtlessness, callousness and cruelty I was capable of. My leaving home and not coming back proved the same thing. It was the saddest irony that in the end, I realized that it was in accepting my father that I finally began to accept myself. All the individual parts. The sum of those parts. And accepting meant admitting. Admitting meant accepting responsibility. Accepting responsibility meant making the necessary changes.
If there were two things that had been ingrained in me since I was old enough to understand, it was the concept of duty and of sacrifice. In love, I had taken practiced both to the extreme, both with my family and the relationships I had been in. In my mind I learned that to love someone meant I was duty bound to be responsible for them: for their well-being, for their happiness. To love someone meant that I would protect them at all cost, even if it meant protecting them from myself. It meant that I would sacrifice everything, even my own happiness, for the sake of theirs.
I had restrained my volatility to a point that I could live with, to the point that would shield those I loved. I had suppressed the side of me that my father had given, aware that it was that side that could cause absolute destruction.
Those made up the foundation on which I built myself. I may have freed myself from my father, but I can never be free of myself.
Even more than love, those were the principles that reigned over me. It was maintaining the integrity of both that drove me.
I needed to protect everyone who loved me. My family, by staying. Jung Jin, by keeping away. As long as I was home, I could give my mother the time back that we lost. I could be there for my sister, in a way I hadn’t been for years. As long as I was gone, Jung Jin can move forward in his life.
“This is not the time to be noble” I heard Junnie say, as if reading my mind. “You deserve to be happy.”
Did I? I asked myself. And at what cost?
“What people deserve is not always synonymous to what they should have.” Tears sprang to my eyes and I shut them tightly before I opened them again. “I have so much work to do, Junnie,” I said. “I’ll call you later.”
“Okay,” she replied, her tone resigned. ‘I love you, you know.”
“I do.” A call light went off and I nearly sighed in relief. “One of my patients is calling me, Jun, I have to go.”
“Can I just tell you one more thing?”
“Fine,” I said, and proceeded to listen.
Hillsborough, New Jersey
A black Honda pulled up on the curb as I walked the second time around the townhouses. I could have sworn I’ve seen all the houses in this particular cul-de-sac, but I couldn’t have since I haven’t found the house number I was looking for.
My sister would never let me hear the end of it if I didn’t at least get out of the car. And what was the harm anyway? It would be good to know where the house was if ever I came again. The fact that I can’t even find it now was further proof that I needed to practice.
So that’s what I’m doing. Practicing. That’s it.
I was trying to convince myself of this whilst walking around, passing the same gnome that I just passed minutes before. I was about to do my walkabout the opposite way when I felt a finger on my back.
I turned around and saw someone behind me, sunglasses over her face. Long black hair was pulled into a ponytail, a striped tote bag over one shoulder. There was a loaf of bread hanging over one edge. She was dressed in a long cardigan and a shirt, leggings tucked into flat knee high boots.
It wasn’t until I saw the frown on her lips that the resemblance clicked. She bit her bottom lip and I couldn’t help but stare. She looked just like her sister.
Ji Hee Noona should have told me that I was going to Gia’s family’s house. I wasn’t sure why but I just assumed that she would be living on her own. She spoke so seldomly about her family it was almost as if she’d been alone all her life.
My musings were Interrupted by the woman in front of me clearing her throat. She did not look pleased.
“May I help you?” Her tone was clipped, short.
Okay, she was not pleased. Either that or everyone from this part of the world sounded pissed all the time. Actually, upon closer examination, Gia had that same pissed off tone in her voice the first time we met. The memory brought a goofy smile on my face.
“May I help you?” Question repeated, her tone even more curt.
I slid the sunglasses off my nose and pushed them up to my head. I smiled sheepishly at her before I responded.
“I’m looking for someone,” I explained. “Maria, right?”
She eyed me suspiciously while holding her bag closer to her. “Who are you?” She asked, narrowing her brows at me. She seemed to have figured something out because the next thing I knew, her face had broken out into a smile. “Are you…” she stammered, “are you Jung Jin Lee?” Before I could confirm my identity, she had gotten hold of my arm and was leading me towards the house behind her. “You’re the manager, right?”
“Yes,” I said, puzzled as she whipped a set of keys out of her purse and opened the door.
“Mama!” She bellowed at the top of her lungs when we were both standing at the foyer of the house.
From where I stood I saw a sloped high ceiling, vertical buttercream blinds behind the double patio doors. There were two couches in the living room, a television set in one corner. To my left was the kitchen, the various bottles of different colored condiments on the counter and the rice cooker in one corner reminding me somewhat like my parents’. Behind the living room was what looked like a dining room, with a gigantic china cabinet to its side, the table overflowing with snacks. Overhead was a loft with thin railings overlooking the living room, much like how it is in my new house. Directly in front of us was a set of stairs, another set leading downstairs visible through its gaps.
The house wasn’t extravagant but it looked cared for. It looked like a home. My eyes traveled to the wall to my right, where various pictures were hanging. Both looked almost identical, the backgrounds the same black, the poses the same. School pictures.
The lower one was of the woman currently holding my arm captive, her hair parted to one side and slung over her shoulder, a bright smile on her face. The higher one was of Gia, looking no different than she did the last time I saw her. Except different, too.
Her hair was a dark brown, thick and straight over her back. Her eyebrows were thinner then. But those magnificent eyes were the same, except maybe not so shadowed. And her lips, also the same, almost identical to her sisters’, except her smile was but a whisper. It tugged at one corner, as if dying to break out, but stayed cool, controlled. I shook my head. My woman was a picture of restraint, even such a long time ago.
“Mama?” I heard her sister say next to me, her voice insistent. “Where are you?”
I was just about to tell her to not worry about it, that I’ll meet their mother another time, when, from the corner of my eye, I saw a woman come out of one of the upstairs doors and stand on the landing at the end of the stairs.
She had her hands on her hips, the house coat she wore entirely too long. She cocked her head to one side as she looked at me and then her daughter. “Sino yan?” The words flew out of her mouth, lyrical and melodic, her voice soft and calm.
“His name is Jung Jin Lee, Mama,” Maria responded, her voice making it sound like her mother should recognize my name. She took her sunglasses off and bemused dark brown eyes looked at me. “He’s here for Sis.”
“Is he?” Gia’s mother had reverted to English. “Here for my daughter?”
I tried to decipher whether it was curiosity or sarcasm that I heard in her voice, but it made me feel as if I should have brought something at least. A peace offering of sorts.
She started descending the stairs, so light on her feet that they barely made a sound, and didn’t stop until only steps separated us. Her skin was a bit lighter than both her daughters, her hair cropped short.
I met her gaze and felt my heart stop. Now I knew where Gia got her eyes. Hers were the same shape, the same tilt, a light brown as opposed to Gia’s hazel, but the gold flecks were the same. The intelligence. The slight glint of humor. Even wearing that damn housecoat, she was exquisite. Just like her daughter.
I quickly averted my gaze, my hands shaking under the cake I was currently carrying. “Good afternoon, Ma’am.”
I chastised myself as soon as the greeting came out. I wish there was a word that implied a closer relationship than the word Ma’am in English as it does in Korean. Calling her ma’am was almost equivalent to calling her ahjumma, and that’s not what I want to call her. I wanted to call her Omonim, but saying the word mother in English before I had the opportunity to introduce myself seemed improper.
“So,” she said, after a brief moment of silence. Her mouth remained unsmiling, stern. “Jung Jin Lee.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” I felt like I was eleven and felt a blush travel to the tips of my ears.
“Are you the man my daughter loves?”
Her question seemed unassuming enough, but the tone in her voice made it sound loaded. It made me raise my head and meet her eyes.
“I’m the man who loves your daughter.”
And then she smiled.
Gia’s sister sat with me, on one corner of the L shaped couch and I on another, directly opposite of her mother. Her mother had since changed into a pair of trousers and a light sweater, though her feet remained in slippers.
The cake I had brought was now sitting in the refrigerator. On the table sat a coffee service set, my own long gone. I had declined the second cup, realizing that another jolt of caffeine may not do me any good. Gia’s mother had also graciously offered a meal, which I also refused. I was already nervous enough as it was… the last thing I needed was to throw something up.
“As you may have presumed already,” Gia’s mother said as she delicately nibbled on a cookie, “my oldest daughter is not here.”
“Where is she?” I asked. “San Francisco?” She didn’t respond. “Somewhere else?”
She laughed. “I see that you already understand my daughter.” She shook her head. “But no… she’s here, in this country, in this state. She’s at work.”
“On her birthday?” I asked.
“Right?” Maria said next to me. “That’s what we said this morning too. But… I’m sure you know. She’s sooo hardheaded.” Maria broke the endpiece of the baguette in her bag and started chewing on it.
“Maria,” her mother said, nodding her head in the direction of the stairs. “Didn’t you have something to do in your room?”
“No,” Maria said, sending a beaming smile my way. “I want to be here for this.”
Her mother blinked at her. “Upstairs. Now.”
She scowled and appeared as if she was about to say something else but stopped herself. With one last look my way, she marched up the stairs.
When I heard the door shut, I directed my attention back to the woman sitting in front of me. And again I was speechless… it was uncanny how much Gia looked like her mother.
I cleared my throat. “I understand you recently lost your husband,” I said. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
The hand that was holding the cookie shook slightly. “Thank you.” She poured some coffee into her cup before spooning a couple of teaspoons of sugar and a doll of milk. “Gia was very close to her father and she took the loss hard.”
“She was?” I asked and the woman in front of me gave me a knowing smile.
“When she was younger, my oldest daughter adored her father. I think she may have loved him more than she loved me. Did she tell you about him?”
“A little,” I replied.
“That’s more than she’s told anyone else besides Joon-ie.” She took a sip of her coffee. “My daughter is not one to let others in, Mr. Lee. Even we have to break her down to even get to her most times.”
“I am fully aware of Gia’s stubbornness.”
“She seems hard,” her mother continued, “but you have to understand that it’s not just an act. You know how some women pretend to be tough but they’re really not?” I nodded. “My daughter is not like that. She’s strong. Uncompromising most times, almost to the point of coldness. But she wasn’t always that way.”
“She wasn’t?” She must have heard the surprise in my voice because she smiled.
“Surprising, isn’t it?” She took a deep breath. “My daughter was a hopeless romantic when she was a kid. She loved fairy tales, made her Barbie doll marry her Ken doll and even got teary eyed when she held their wedding. She loved love songs and romantic movies. She cried when she found out that Santa wasn’t real, and that the tooth fairy is a myth. She was that kind of little girl, always lost in the stories, her head up in the clouds.”
Her voice was tender with remembering, her eyes soft.
“So what happened?” I asked before I could stop myself.
“Everything,” she said, looking at her hands. “She found out that marriages break and relationships end. That parents aren’t perfect, and neither are people. She learned that promises are broken all the time and dreams don’t always come true. She learned that good doesn’t always triumph over bad and that love isn’t always enough.” She lifted her face and met my eyes. “In other words, she learned life, and at times in the harshest way possible.”
“My daughter feels things differently than other people. I always said she was the fire in this family. She feels things but always in the extreme. It’s led her to moments not only of euphoria but intense grief as well. She gives so much because she believes so much. She believes so much because she loves so much. It’s always all or nothing with her, nothing in the middle. But she lacked the one thing that would make living a life like that easy.”
“The ability to let things go. She’s not careless or thoughtless. She’s not someone who can just leave things be and never think of it again. She’s someone who runs on emotions but still wants things to make sense. It’s a terrible paradox for someone to always find themselves in.”
“Is that why she is the way she is now?”
Gia’s mother put her coffee cup down and appeared to be thinking carefully of what she was about to say. With a sigh, she said, “Going with what her heart was telling her to do always seemed to lead her astray so she decided to follow her head instead. She found comfort in logic and sense, learned to favor things that have shape and substance. She trained herself to differentiate things into two categories. If you’re not with her, then you’re against her. If you’re not good, you’re bad.” I watched as she turned her face away to look at Gia’s picture on the wall. “It was much safer for her, and I have to admit for us, too, but it cost. She was so busy looking in black and white that she missed all the beautiful shades in between. It hurt her too much to look at the rainbow so she just chose to see through lenses that will only show her what she wants to see. And who could blame her? It was the only thing she could do.”
“To move on?” I asked.
“To survive.” She met my eyes. “If Gia hadn’t learned to live her life that way, heartbreak would have killed her a long time ago. She’s so hard on herself that she internalizes everything that goes wrong because while she cannot change a situation or a person, herself… herself, she can change. It’s so much easier for her to blame herself because at least, then, she doesn’t have to admit that sometimes, life just happens.”
All the pieces I knew of her, from her, all began to make sense. It was as if the puzzle pieces were coming together and I was beginning to see the whole picture. Why Gia was the way she was, why she did the things she did. I sat in silence, digesting the information that I had just been given, but not knowing why her mother would feel the need to offer me that information. After a brief hesitation, I asked that question out loud.
Gia’s mother smiled. “I have seen more changes in my daughter in the last year than I had in the last decade. I wondered what caused it, and I just recently discovered that it was not a question of what but of who. Besides, it’s not every day that a man flies from halfway around the world just to greet a woman happy birthday when he can express the same thing via phone. I think… I hope that you are different.”
“She’s amazing,” I said, then flushed.
“She is that,” her mother agreed. “But she’s difficult and not always easy to love.”
“I find her very easy to love,” I replied. “If she would only let me.”
“My daughter likes to take her time, Mr. Lee. I hope that you can hold on until she can decide on you.”
“Please, call me Jung Jin,” I said softly. “If we were in Korea I would call you Omonim, but I don’t quite know how to address you. Somehow I feel like I did things out of order, again.”
“Omonim,” she repeated, as if trying out how the word sounded in her ears, then she grinned. “I like it. Is that what you call your mother in law in Korea?”
I nodded, all of a sudden bashful. I stood from the couch and straightened my spine, resting my hands just above my navel, the right over the left. Gia’s mother was watching me with a bemused expression on her face, though she said nothing. I raised my clasped hands over my chest before dropping to my knees onto the ground. From my periphery I could see Omonim bring a hand to her chest in surprise, before standing up quickly.
“Jung Jin! Are you o…?”
I lifted my eyes and smiled at her. “Please, Omonim… I already messed this meeting up. I would like to offer you my bows.”
“Your bows?” she asked, puzzled. “Do I have to do it, too?”
I chuckled. “No… no. It’s a form of respect, from your son-in-law to you.”
She looked at me dubiously. “Is this something you’ll have to do all the time?”
I shook my head. “No… just the first time, and maybe on special occasions.”
“Okay.” She sat herself back down and folded her hands primly on her lap. “You may proceed.”
I reclasped my hands before I dropped my head to the ground, allowing myself to stay there for a few seconds before sitting back up, resting on my calves. By the time I looked at her again, Omonim’s face was beaming with pleasure, her eyes filled with a happy glow. I felt myself soften with sudden affection. So much joy, from something so little. Just like her daughter. I swear… the women in this family will be the death of me.
I looked at my watch and with sudden reluctance, I stood up and offered her both my hands. Another thing I messed up. I was supposed to do this in the beginning, dammit. But high on adrenaline from the prospect of seeing Gia again and meeting her family for the first time.
“Do you have to go?” she asked.
I nodded. “Our flight back to Korea is leaving tonight,” I responded. “We have to leave for the airport in a few hours, and I still have to drive back to Manhattan.”
She waved a hand towards the front door before walking with me. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Jung Jin,” she said softly as we stood back on the landing. “Do you want me to tell her you were here?”
I thought about her question before I gave a response. “No,” I said, “I don’t think so. I don’t want to seem like…”
“A stalker?” Gia’s sister piped up from the landing.
“Yeah, that,” I mumbled. “Anyway, I just wanted to make sure she was okay.” I cleared my throat. “She is, right? Okay?”
Omonim gave a delicate shrug of her shoulders. “No one ever knows with my daughter, Jung Jin. But she’s getting there I think.”
“Good.” I could think of nothing else to say. “Good.”
She opened the front door and I pulled my sunglasses out of my pocket. I had just put them on when I heard her clear her throat. “Jung Jin, can I ask you for a favor?”
“Of course.” I looked at Gia’s mother and I nodded slowly, wondering what kind of favor she needed from me.
She seemed to hesitate before she responded. “I lived for thirteen years without my daughter, then the last seven years without her coming home. I would like to not spend the coming years without her.”
“Of course,” I said. “If she and I are together, the distance will never be an issue. But I’m starting to believe she won’t be coming back.”
“She’ll come back,” Omonim said with a certainty I wanted to believe. “My daughter likes closure and resolutions. Her nature will not let her not come back.” She smiled again. “By the way, I like you with the tiara, too.”
What was she doing? Showing that picture around? I felt myself blush to the tips of my hair.
“Thank you,” I said. ” Was there anything else?”
“Yeah,” Maria said, her voice in a warning. “You hurt her and we’ll kill you.”
I looked at them both, standing at least a foot and a half shorter than me, and weighing much less. Neither of them looked like they could hurt a fly, but somehow, I believed them.
Hillsborough, New Jersey
May 23, 2003
My sister, my mother and I were sitting down for dinner, a fairly simple affair made up of tamarind stew with pork belly and bok choy and white rice. I was still in scrubs, having just gotten home from work a few minutes before. It was one of my mother’s rare days off work, and my sister had been out all day. It was the first time all day that we were all able to sit together.
I spooned some broth into my mouth as I looked at the two of them, the sound of utensils were making almost obtrusive in the silence.
“Mama and I decided to donate all of Papa’s stuff to charity,” my sister said as she helped herself to some fish sauce from the table.
“Okay;” I said chewing on my rice, trying not to fall asleep on my face. I was so exhausted it took everything in me just to sit through this meal. “I knew that already.”
“We think we’re also going to sell his car.”
“Okay.” My eyes stayed focused on the table, the stiffness in my right shoulder making me cringe. Definitely bed and bath after dinner, I thought. My body is falling apart on me.
“Is that all you have to say?” My sister demanded. “Okay?”
I put my spoon down and took a sip of water. “What do you want me to say?” I asked. “Do whatever it is you have to do.”
“So that’s it?” She asked. She stood up and looked at me and our mother before speaking to her. “You said she was getting better but I don’t agree. How long are you going to let her live like this?”
“Calm down, Maria.” I said. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m talking about you living your life like a zombie. Like you’re a fucking robot,” she said, hands flying agitatedly.
“Not everyone of us have the luxury of going with whatever it is they feel. Some of us have responsibilities. Some of us have obligations. We can’t just give in to every whim and every emotion.”
“Responsibilities? Obligations? Is that why you came home? Is that all you can talk about? God… what the hell happened to you? You’ve become this cold stranger.” She said. “You didn’t even cry at Papa’s funeral. Do you not feel anything?” I said nothing and her face crumpled. “You don’t even think you owe me the courtesy of a response?” Maria paused and took a deep breath. I didn’t respond. “Of course not. You know,” she continued, an angry gaze my way, “I think I preferred you the way you were before. You may have thought you were weak, but at least you had a heart.”
Part of of my control snapped and I stood up, my heart clamping inside my chest. “You don’t know know what the hell you’re talking about,” I said, my voice low. “My heart? What the hell do you know of my heart? I was the one who had to pay for everything he did. I was the one who had to sacrifice my life because he couldn’t be bothered. All my fucking life I’ve done my duties, everything that was expected of me. I’ve tried to do the right thing for all of you, and still I live my life buried in apologies and regrets. If you’ve seen what I’ve seen, if you’ve had to give up everything that I have, you might understand just a little.” My voice was so hard, even to my own ears. “And now you want to make me feel even worse because I choose to protect you from my feelings? Because even now, I am still putting all of you first? I promise you… if I wasn’t so busy trying to just get through every single fucking day, maybe I can manage enough proof of a broken heart. Even for you.”
My sister flinched as if I’d slapped her, and then her eyes welled up with tears. She brushed her tears carelessly with the back of her hand before she left the kitchen, her footsteps sounding like nails being hammered into a coffin.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, holding my head in my hands. Our mother, silent this whole time, finally spoke, her voice firm. “Sit down, Gia.”
“Mama,” I said, trying to rise from my chair. “I am too tired for this. Can we talk in the…”
“Sit. Down.” Though unwilling to, I sat back down, my eyes glued to the wall behind her. “I want to you to go.”
My head snapped up as I met her eyes. “What?”
“You’re not happy,” she said softly. “I can’t stand it. I suspect you haven’t been happy for years, but at least when you weren’t here I could pretend that it wasn’t true. I could make believe that you’re somewhere else, doing what you wanted, finally getting the happiness you’ve so long fought for.”
“I’ve kept my mouth shut for years, because it’s you. I thought for sure that you could handle whatever life threw your way. And you did, maybe not in the healthiest way possible, but you did. And so I’ve let you just do whatever it is you needed to do. But it’s gone on too long.” Her fingers were on the table, thoughts about our meal long gone. “You must hate me and your father a lot.”
I felt something chip away at my wall and I softened. “No, Mama… I don’t hate either one of you. I never did,” I said. “I was angry, really angry, but I’m not anymore.”
“If it’s not about me or your father, then why do you hate yourself so much?” She asked. “In all my life, I’ve never met anyone who tried so hard at being good as you, even when you already were.”
“I’m just doing what needs to be done.”
“That’s commendable, but not exactly a recipe for a happy life.”
I swallowed. “I’ve given up on happiness a long time ago.”
“Why?” My mother sounded genuinely puzzled.
“Why?” I repeated. “Because I have no idea what I’m doing. I’m no longer willing to do what people have to do to be happy. I make mistakes all the time. And every time I made a mistake, it cost. It hurt people. It hurt not just me but everyone around me. You, Maria, Junnie… everyone I loved. I don’t want to spend my life making mistakes.”
“A life spent making mistakes is better than a life spent doing nothing,” she said, grabbing hold of my hand. “You always do the right thing, without any condition. Even if it hurts you too, even if it hurts you more. That’s an honorable thing, but it’s also incredibly lonely, too.” She released a breath. “There is no goodness without mercy. No virtue without forgiveness. Stop using your past and your fears as a brick wall to keep others out. Forgive yourself. Let it go.”
“Mama,” I choked out, my eyes welling with tears. “I don’t know how to.”
“Of course you do. You’ve just forgotten.” My mother shifted her seat and put her arms around me. “We are all works in progress. None of us come complete. The most we can do is grab hold of whatever happiness we can have at any given moment. You can spend your life running and running away, not ever letting yourself be loved. And what a shame that would be. Because there is no one more worthy and more deserving of it than you. If you keep moving on to the next moment, what happens to the one you’re already in?” She smoothed a tendril of hair from my forehead. “You have to choose happiness, my daughter. Each and every time. And love. You have to choose love.”
“Is that why you stayed with him?” I asked, my voice small.
“I stayed with your father for a multitude of reasons, but yes, that was one of them.” She sighed but didn’t break her gaze away from mine. “People who make mistakes deserve love, too. I know it’s hard to understand, but when I married your father, I meant my vows. For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health. I had made mistakes too… maybe not like he did, but I did. Relationships aren’t perfect, but once upon a time we nearly were. I think it was the memory of that that kept me going.”
Thinking back now, I wasn’t always sure that my parents had ever really been in love. I had a hard time picturing them as she described, wasn’t even entirely sure that I believed her. It almost seemed as if they never loved each other at all. All I know was that whatever that had been, it was broken.
It was all I remembered. It was all I knew.
“What are you so scared of?” Mama asked.
“I have a question…” I whispered. “If two people who loved each other, even just a little bit, can become hateful to each other, indifferent even when that love doesn’t last, what could happen to two people who really, truly, genuinely loved each other? I didn’t want what you and Papa had. I understand that it was your choice. I just don’t think I could survive that. It would be disastrous. Unimaginable. Unthinkable. The end of the world; the end of my world as I know it. It will destroy me.”
“You’re not your father. And you’re not me. Our fates are connected but not intertwined. You can still change it. You can break free.”
“It’s too late,” I said, shaking my head. “I waited too long.”
“It’s never too late. Great risks come with great rewards. You still have to try. Don’t you think he’s worth that? You tell someone they’re loved not for yourself, but because they deserve to know.” My mother cupped my cheek. “Love requires the biggest leap of faith, and you mustn’t be afraid to jump.”
“And if he doesn’t catch me?”
My mother smiled as she rested her forehead against mine. “Then we will.”
May 24, 2003
I was researching a good gift for Young Seon, having been caught by surprise when his 100th day celebration came around. The upside? The kid chose a baseball. Joon can say all he wants to say, but I may have a future client to represent.
And then the phone started ringing.
“Jung Jin-ah,” Ji Min Noona greeted. “What’s up?”
“Not much, Noona,” I said, glancing at the clock. “Why are you calling me this early?”
She laughed bashfully. “No reason,” she said. “But listen, are you doing anything tomorrow evening?”
“No reason. Okay, I have to go!”
The ringtone beeped its continuous sound before I could even say goodbye. That was weird. Tomorrow… tomorrow… what was the big deal about tomorrow?
Ah, I thought, my birthday. I hope to God that they’re not thinking of doing something like a surprise party or something. I hate that shit.
It wasn’t but a few minutes later that my parents called, asking the same exact thing, and then all my siblings. Jung Yoon Hyung was a bit more original and actually asked me what I wanted before backtracking and asking me the same question. Mi Rae Noona must have been listening.
It was about quarter past eleven when Shawn called.
“Hiiiiii!” Shawn was unnaturally cheerful and it raised my hackles. “What’s up?”
“Not much,” I answered suspiciously. “What’s up with you?”
“Not a lot. I’m just really happy,” Shawn answered. “How did your visit to New Jersey go?”
“How did you know about that?”
“Uh-uh… a little birdie told me, but I’m not naming names.”
“Okay… only one person could have told you. I didn’t even realize that you spoke to my sisters as often as you do.”
“I have my ways, you know. You always underestimate me,” Shawn complained. “But you haven’t told me what happened.”
“She was working,” I answered. “But I met her mom and sister.”
“And they’re lovely.” Shawn huffed. “What exactly did you want to know?”
“Did you, at least, get their seal of approval?”
“I think so.” Ha Neul waved at me from outside my office and I motioned for him to come in. He carried a cup of coffee in one hand and a plastic bag in the other from my favorite deli in Seoul.
“Good,” Shawn said. “So not a trip wasted, then. You’ll never get anywhere with Gia if you don’t get the approval of her family.”
I frowned. “What did you say?”
“I said… you’ll never get anywhere with Gia or any woman without the approval of her family.” That was not what Shawn said the first time around but I let it go. Everyone who comes from an Asian background knew that already. “Anyway, can you meet me at your house at exactly 5 p.m. tomorrow?”
“I thought you were going to the States?”
“Plans change. I’m going to Seoul instead.”
“So why don’t we meet up for dinner?”
“We are… at your house.”
“I meant outside.”
“Uhmm, no,” Shawn stammered. “We have to do it in your new house. I haven’t seen it yet.”
“Okay, Shawn, what’s going on?” Ha Neul sat on one of the seats in front of me and placed the bag on my desk.
“What? Nothing… nothing’s going on.”
“You’re acting suspicious.”
“You’re just being paranoid. I’ll see you tomorrow. The lucky person who agreed to marry me just arrived and we’re going for lunch, so…”
Again, the call was hung up. The people in my life are rude. I opened the bag and pulled out my sandwich and a bag of chips even as Ha Neul stayed sitting.
I took the first bite before addressing him. “Did you need help with something?”
He smiled, a little too cheerfully for my liking. “Sir, are you free tomorrow evening?”
Shit, I thought. It’s confirmed. My family is throwing me a birthday party. You know what’s even worse than having a surprise birthday party? Having to pretend that you didn’t know. Shit.
Newark, New Jersey
May 23, 2003
“Can I just tell you something else?” Junnie’s voice echoed in my ear.
“Jung Jin Lee is turning 35 on May 25th.”
In the car the sounds of Reba McEntyre filled the air, a song that I always loved playing. My mother’s hands were tight on the steering wheel, her eyes darting to the windshield mirror occasionally. My sister stayed on the lookout for cops waiting for motorists to speed, while at the same time barking orders from the backseat.
“Jesus…” My sister muttered, “What the hell are all these cars doing out at 11 p.m. on a Wednesday night?”
“Language, Maria,” my mother said quietly. “Besides, we live in New Jersey. The state has as much insomnia as the city.”
I didn’t have to ask which city she was referring to. There was only one city, as far as this part of the country was concerned.
“I think that’s the exit, Ma,” I said, as a long stretch of road veered off the New Jersey Turnpike. “I’m not sure this is a good idea.”
“Stop wimping out, Sis. We’re already here.”
“I didn’t even have a chance to pack,” I said as my mother paid the toll. “I only have, like, five sets of clothes. And one pair of shoes.”
“Not a problem,” my mother said. “Your sister sent Junnie an email and she assures us that if we send all your stuff tomorrow it will be there in a couple of days. And whatever we can’t send, you can buy.” She looked up at the signs indicating terminals and airlines. “Which airline do you want me to drop you off at?”
“I don’t know,” I said, my heart thrumming in panic. I have never done anything this spontaneous since I was a teenager. “I flew United last time. I doubt there are any direct flights.”
“There are none,” my sister said. “I looked before we left. United has the most flight selections. The first one leaves around 4 a.m. with a stop in San Francisco.”
“United it is.”
My mother entered the airport garage for short term stay and quickly found a parking spot close to the terminals. I checked for my passport, my debit card, and my ID as my sister hefted my luggage off the trunk.
We all walked briskly in silence towards the airline terminals, my heart pitter pattering in my chest. My mouth was so dry it felt as if I had swallowed cotton. I was slightly nauseous. I kept my eyes on my mother’s back as she navigated the airport and almost bumped into her when she came to a sudden stop.
My mother tapped swiftly on the airline counter until an airport employee came, a smile on her face. “May I help you?”
I stepped forward. “I need a ticket to Seoul.”
She nodded. “For when?”
“For now,” my mother answered for me. “As soon as possible.”
The woman nodded again, typing some things into the keyboard. “We have one seat left from Newark to San Francisco, then San Francisco to Seoul, for…” she narrowed her eyes at the screen, “… $1874.00.”
She must have seen my surprise because she keyed in more Information before lifting her eyes again. “There’s another that’s a few hundred dollars cheaper…”
“Good,” I said.
“… but it has three stops and won’t arrive in Seoul until Saturday night.”
“No, no, no,” my sister insisted. “She’s flying to Seoul to get to her kind of boyfriend’s birthday. She’s going back to win him back. Don’t you understand? She’s doing this for love.”
Trust my sister to be so dramatic. I cringed but the attendant, Michelle, merely smiled. My eyes traveled to her ring finger and saw a bridal set. My sister must have seen it too. Nothing like using romance to try to get what she wants.
“She’ll take the first flight you talked about,” my mother said decisively, pulling her wallet out of her purse. “We’ll take the money out of your father’s account.” I intercepted it before it could land in Michelle’s fingers.
“I don’t want to hear it,” she said. “This is what your father would have wanted.”
“Can you give us a minute?” I asked and she nodded. Pulling my mother and sister in for a little discussion, I said, “Maybe I can fly in on the cheaper flight. Maybe I don’t even have to fly out now. I can plan better and make arrangements for you guys.”
“No, absolutely not,” Maria said. “You haven’t gone with any flow in a decade. We must seize this moment before you can convince yourself all the many reasons why you shouldn’t fly back to Seoul.”
“If I could physically carry you on that plane myself I totally would,” my sister said.
“Are you sure?” I asked. “Are you sure you’re okay with this? I’ve only just come back and now I’m leaving again.”
“Sis,” she said, grabbing my face with both hands, “I love you. Mama and I will be fine. And I’m all grown up now. You don’t have to protect me anymore.”
“No buts,” she argued. “I know how much you did for me. I know how much you gave up. You practically raised me and I’m thankful. I owe you for everything. You deserve this. You deserve him.” She hugged me tight, her arms strong around my shoulders. “My happiness can never be complete without yours. You have to be happy.” She pulled back . “You have to be happy.”
“You’ll forgive me for leaving?” I asked.
She smiled. “I’ll never forgive you if you don’t.”
“Promise me you won’t give up on Matt.”
She avoided my eyes. “Matt and I are fine. I just wanted to get a reaction.”
“What is wro..”
Her eyes were fixated behind me. “Mama just gave that lady her credit card.”
What she just said had me turning back in alarm. I walked back to the counter and realized that in the midst of my conversation with my sister, my mother had sneaked back. Her credit card was back in Michelle’s hand, and she was currently spelling my name out.
I put an arm around my mother’s shoulders as the airline employee typed in my information.
“Mama… are you sure?”
She smiled at me, her eyes determined. “You need to go to Seoul.”
“But my car. And my plant.”
“Listen to me,” she said. “You’ve already given up too much of your life. It’s your time now. We’ll take care of the rest.”
“Excuse me,” Michelle said, her eyebrows furrowed.
“Is there a problem?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “I just need to double check something. Do you have your passport?” I nodded and handed it to her. Her eyes traveled between the passport and the screen for a few seconds, and then she handed my mother back her card. “It appears that everything’s been taken care of.”
“Did someone just book the last seat?” My sister asked, her voice rising. “Oh my God, how did this happen? Who needs to fly to Seoul so early in the morning? We already said our dramatic goodbyes and everything.”
“Maria, hush.” I looked at her in disbelief. You would think that she was the one about to confess her love for someone the way she was acting.
“No,” Michelle said patiently. “I just meant that there was already an open ticket purchased for you.”
“There is?” I asked, surprised.
She nodded. “Yes. I confirmed all the information and it’s your ticket.”
“When was it bought?”
“I can’t tell from the information I have. But essentially it’s a ticket that you can use anytime, from here to Seoul. It doesn’t matter the date or time, or even the layovers, as long as your final destination is Incheon international Airport.”
“Can you tell who purchased the ticket?”
Michelle’s eyes darted back to the screen. “The credit card charged belonged to a Miss Sarah Chen.”
I closed my eyes. How did Junnie even know that I would go back eventually? What am I saying? Junnie knows everything. A fact, I’m sure, that she would gleefully rub in my face.
“Did you want to use it now?”
“YES.” My mother’s voice was firm and unyielding.
“Can I just ask something?” I asked and she nodded. “Can you change the location of the layover? I think I have a visit to make before I go to Seoul.”
May 24, 2003
I rang the doorbell to Junnie’s apartment, a small paper bag in my hands. I left my luggage at the airport and proceeded to the longest stopover ever at my best friend’s place. I’m not due to leave for Seoul until the afternoon tomorrow. My boarding pass is already printed; I just needed to get to the airport on time.
The door opened and I saw Junnie’s face, her eyes widening in surprise before she launched herself at me.
“Oh my God,” she said. “You’re here.”
“I know,” I replied. “It’s good to see you, Jun.” She fingered my hair, expression baffled.
“You’ve cut your hair.”
“Yeah, well… I had a couple of hours to kill at the airport before my flight,” I said. “New me, new hair. Do you think they cut it too short?”
“No. You look beautiful,” she commented. “Younger. Happy. Not how I’d expect someone to look after a thirteen hour flight.” She grabbed my bag and ushered me in, pulling me by the hand to sit on her couch. “I’m so surprised that you’re here.”
I chuckled. “You can’t be that surprised. You booked that damn ticket for me.”
“You’re going to Korea?” She asked with an exaggerated raise of the brow. “YOU’RE GOING TO KOREA?” She wrapped her arms around my neck. “I’m so happy for you.”
“This is a bit premature,” I said. “I don’t even know how he’ll react. For all I know he’s moved on already. He more than likely hates me.”
“But you’re going to Korea. On your own. And not under duress. It’s such a huge step for you. That counts for something,” she said. “When do you fly back out?”
“Tomorrow at 1 p.m. It gives me just enough time.” I pulled a piece of paper out of my bag and handed it to her. “I do have to ask you for another favor.”
“A list of stuff I need from the store. I would get it myself but I don’t have time to get my money exchanged.”
“Are you trying to cook for me?” She asked, not even looking at the list.
“No, it’s for a birthday cake.”
“For the manager?” I nodded and she shook her head. “I can’t believe you’re going to use a kitchen appliance.” She nudged my shoulder. “Hey… you should have given me some warning, at least.”
“I thought Maria emailed you?”
“Yeah but she didn’t say you were leaving now. It was all very general.”
“I have to tell you that I have to work in the morning and I’m flying out straight after.”
“Among other reasons,” she said. “The door will lock automatically, but please do not burn my apartment.”
I looked at her face and felt a tenderness come over me. All the years we’ve shared, all the things we’ve been through. Every tear I’ve shed, every joy I’ve had, she’d stood by me. All this time… and I never had to do it alone, as I once thought. Impulsively I grabbed her hand and she looked at me in surprise.
“Junnie, I wanted to thank you.”
“For being you. I don’t know what I would have done without you.”
“You would have been fine,” she said. “I mean that. You’re so much stronger than you give yourself credit for. Besides, you would have done the same for me. You have done the same for me. No matter what happens, I got your back.”
“I can’t believe I jumped on a plane just to be in Korea for Jung Jin’s birthday.” I curled my legs under me. “That’s such a crazy thing to do.”
“I know,” Junnie teased. “It’s so spontaneous and romantic. Best be careful, this new you is starting to remind me of a girl I used to know.” She followed my lead and lifted her legs on the couch and pulled her hair in a loose ponytail on her neck. “So what’s the plan?”
I took a deep breath. “Confess love. Give him cake. Wish him happy birthday. Hope to God he’ll give me a chance. Not necessarily in that order.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“Then I guess I’ll just have to… court him?”
“What about the distance and your job?”
“I already left my manager a voicemail and sent my resignation through an email. My family will sell my car if I’m not back in a month. I guess I’ll stay in Korea until he gives me a definitive answer.”
“Wow… you’re really in it. That’s like balls to the wall hardcore.”
“I don’t do shit half-assed.”
Junnie laughed. “The man doesn’t know what’s coming. You can be pretty persistent when you put your mind to it.”
“What have I got to lose?” I shrugged my shoulders. “It may take me some time to figure shit out, but I’m like super glue… once I’m sold on an idea, no one will be able to pry me loose. You know me.”
“Yeah, I do.” Junnie gave me a wink. “I think we need to celebrate. Want some wine?”
“I never say no to wine,” I said. “That reminds me… when do you want me here next week?”
“Remember? You’re getting married?” I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear. “It’s bad enough you didn’t let me help you plan the wedding. The least I can do is give you moral support… or be the getaway car, whichever is applicable.”
“Your man might not like it,” Junnie teased. “You’re going back only to leave so soon again.”
“Number one, I don’t have a man yet,” I said. “And number two, before I had a Jung Jin I had a Junnie. There is no way I won’t be here. Besides, I think it may be time I give the man the most important tip for everlasting happiness with me.”
“Oh yeah?” Junnie asked. “What’s that?”
“If he wants to be with me, he needs you on his side.”
Jongno, Seoul, Korea
May 25, 2003
I parked my car at the end of the street and allowed myself to look around, trying not to laugh at the row of cars on the opposite side a few meters away, recognizing the various license plates. My family is horrible at planning surprise parties.
I supposed it didn’t help that there were just so many of us. How many cars can they hide?
I spent a full day at work, tried to get Ha Neul to spill the beans to no avail. That guy could keep secrets like a spy. And I still for forgot to tell him to stop sending my sister flowers or ask which card the charges were made on. Meetings took up most of the afternoon, and I had to cut one short to make it home in time.
Draping my suit jacket over my arm, I walked up to see Shawn sitting on the stairs, hair mussed by the wind. Overhead the sky turned gray almost instantaneously and it felt heavy with moisture. I rolled up the cuffs of my sleeves as I continued walking. Now would usually be the time that I would hear Dog barking, but he was silent. Of course. He only barks when he’s alone.
Shawn smiled at me as soon as our eyes met and I decided to extend the game a little bit longer.
“Hey,” I said. “You made it.”
“Yeah,” Shawn responded, standing up.
“How did you get my new address anyway?”
“Simple,” Shawn said. “All I had to do was call one of your siblings and they were more than happy to give it to me.” Motioning for me to get closer, Shawn said, “Are you ready?”
“You know what?” I asked. “I really feel like eating sushi tonight. We should just go out. I have absolutely nothing here.”
“Liar. I know how much you love to cook so don’t even give me that nonsense.” Shawn grabbed an arm and practically dragged me to my door. “Come on.”
With a deep breath I punched the pass code in and reminded myself to fix a smile on my face when I entered. Can’t have the party ruined by me. Shawn stood directly behind me, a hand on my back, I guessed in case I decided to leave.
I heard the beep from the door unlocking and stepped in. The house was covered in darkness, until someone walked over carrying a birthday cake, the long candles lit up like twinkling stars.
“Saeng-il chukhahamnida… Saeng-il chukhahamnida… Saeng-il chukha uri Jung Jin-ah… Saeng-il chukhahamnida.”
I kept the surprised look on my face as the various faces of people I’ve known, people I’ve loved, came into view, demanding that I make a wish and to blow the candles out.
I closed my eyes and made the wish I always made, on everything I could make a wish on, for Gia’s happiness. I opened my eyes just as the light was turned on and Ji Soo ran to my side.
“Oppa, you were surprised, right?” She asked excitedly. “We did a good job, right?”
The old Jung Jin would have told them that he had known the score, that they were terrible with secrets. But this Jung Jin saw the expectant and happy looks on all the people in the room, recognized the amount of effort it took to put this together, and appreciated it. It’s amazing what a difference a year makes. It’s amazing how much difference the love of a good woman makes.
“Yeah,” I said as I pressed a kiss on her cheek. “I was totally surprised. You guys are awesome.”
A few hours later and the meal had been eaten, a lavish spread of all my favorite things, including seaweed soup made by my eldest sister for myself and for our parents. Ji Hyun Noona now sat next to Ji Min Noona and Omma, the kids running around and playing with Dog, who was lapping up all the attention. I could see their husbands and Appa on the lower deck of the house, a votive candle lit, dusk on the horizon. The clouds still felt full, as if waiting to open.
Joon sat next to Na Jeong, Young Seon on her lap, in a discussion with In Sung and his wife, as well as Ji Hee Noona and Kye Sang Hyung and Mi Rae Noona, my newest nephew napping in her arms.
At the dining room table sat Ji Soo on one end, picking at a rice cake, Ha Neul on the other, making a show of looking at his phone, both curiously avoiding looking at each other.
Shawn was standing at one corner of the room, speaking to Jung Yoon Hyung, beer in both their hands.
Everyone was here. All the people in my life. All the people that made my life as full as it was. All except one.
I felt a wave of sadness come over me, tried to convince myself that it wasn’t so bad. It didn’t work. I felt the loss of her so keenly it was almost as if I couldn’t breathe.
This will pass, I told myself. This, too, will pass.
I walked over to the fridge and grabbed a can of beer before striding to where my oldest brother and my oldest friend stood. I came just in time to hear words like ‘due diligence’ and ‘going concern.’ It was no wonder I didn’t go into law as my family had wanted and expected. I’d only been here minutes and I was already bored.
“Are you guys talking shop at my party?” I asked.
“I have to use your brother’s mind whenever I could,” Shawn said.
“He’s your lawyer. You talk to him every week.”
“True, but I very rarely see him.” Shawn took a sip of beer. “He was giving me advice on how to proceed with my business interests here, in Korea..”
“Really?” I asked. “I didn’t realize you were thinking of expan…”
“Oppa…” Ji Soo appeared at my elbow, a dark scowl on her face. “Can you tell Ha Neul-ssi that it’s okay to fess up to the flowers?”
I turned to see Ha Neul next to her, looking confused. “Ha Neul-ssi… it’s okay. You can tell her.”
He looked genuinely baffled. “Tell her what?”
“About the flowers.” I frowned at him. “You started sending flowers on my behalf since she was hospitalized.”
“I didn’t send flowers then.”
“Of course you did,” Ji Soo insisted. “They always came every morning that you visited and brought me food.”
“I brought the food, but not the flowers.” He visibly withered under the scrutiny of four pairs of eyes. “I swear.”
“What about the flowers from a month ago?” Ji Soo asked. “Are you going to tell me that Oppa didn’t have you send those, either?”
“No,” Ha Neul shifted uncomfortably. “I sent those.”
“You did?” Ji Soo’s mouth formed a small ‘o.’ Ha Neul blushed before nodding and looking away. “But why?”
“This is really not how I imagined this to go,” he muttered. “Ilikeyou.”
“What?” Ji Soo said. “I didn’t hear you.”
“I LIKE YOU, OKAY?”
Silence descended upon the room as everyone turned to look. Even Shawn was watching closely. My friend only spoke serviceable Korean but seemed to understand that last part. Everyone, including Shawn, started laughing.
“So,” Hyung said after he cleared his throat. “If he didn’t send the flowers then who did?”
“Who else knew you were in the hospital?” I asked my sister and she ignored me.
“You like me?” Ji Soo asked Ha Neul, her voice soft. They kept looking at each other as if none of us were here and I rolled my eyes.
“Listen,” I said, stepping between them, “this is all very strange and sweet but did did your friends know you were at the hospital? Could any of them have sent the flowers?”
Ji Soo finally looked as if she woke up from a trance and shook her head slowly. “Oppa, we’re college students. None of us have enough money to buy flowers frivolously like that.”
I turned to Shawn. “Did you do it?” I asked, reverting back to English.
“What did I do?”
“Send my sister flowers at the hospital and at our parents’ house.”
“No,” Shawn said. “I’m not a big flower fan.”
“So if none of you sent it, then who did?” I asked, looking around. “It has to be someone who knew where she was and had access to our parents’ address.”
Ji Soo looked alarmed. “Oh my God… could I have a stalker? I mean, granted, the stalker has great taste, but still… what if I had a stalker?”
“I’ll protect you,” Ha Neul said seriously.
Ji Soo smiled at him and he smiled at her and I looked at them incredulously. “You,” I said, pointing a finger at my assistant, “I can’t believe you’re using my party as a way to confess,” I turned to my sister, “and you, think about who else you could have given that information to.”
“Did it come from the same florist?” Shawn asked. “You find the florist and you’ll find your culprit. It’s too bad it’s been too long now and the packaging might have been thrown away already.”
Ji Soo’s eyes widened. “Hold on,” she said, running to the dining room table and grabbing her purse before coming back, pulling what looked like index cards out. “I have these,” she offered.
“What are those?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “The information card for the flowers,” she answered, turning them over to look at them. “It only has the name of a country and how to take care of it, though. I don’t see a florist’s name.”
“Why would you keep those in your purse?” Hyung asked.
“You know… ” Ji Soo said shyly. “I heard Ha Neul-ssi was going to be here, and I thought it would be a great icebreaker.”
“Hold on… What did you say?” I asked, grabbing the cards from her hands.
“I thought it would be a great icebreaker?”
“Before that,” I said impatiently, looking at the cards in question. “You said it had names of countries?”
“Yeah,” Ji Soo said. “That’s why I thought they had to be from you. All but the one from a week ago were from countries you visited before.”
“How do you remember what countries I’ve been in?”
Ji Soo appeared as if she was thinking. “Uhmm, I saw your album. All those countries were the ones you visited on your trip around the world. All except the bouquet from last week.”
“Where is your album?” Shawn asked. “She did say something about an album, right?”
“Fuck,” I said. “The album is still at the penthouse.”
“What in the world is it still doing at the penthouse?” Hyung asked. “You should really sell that place.”
“No… I can’t. If Gia was to come back that’s the first place she’d go.”
“Uhmm,” Shawn said. “What the hell good is that if you’re not there?”
“That’s it! How could I not have figured this out until now?” Ji Soo said, grabbing my hand. “Unnie!” Four ‘hmms’ responded as all my sisters and sister in law stood up. Ji Soo looked at all of them, beaming. “I meant Gia Unnie. She knew I was hospitalized. She knows Appa and Omma’s house.”
“How would she have sent flowers?” Ji Hee Noona walked towards us. “She hadn’t come back to Korea.”
“Maybe she didn’t,” Ji Hyun Noona reasoned. “I use a local florist all the time when I need to send flowers to someone here. All you need is a phone and a credit card and you can pretty much do anything from anywhere in the world.”
“But why would she send different flowers from different countries?” Ji Min Noona asked.
“She did say Japan was her first stop,” Na Jeong called out. “So maybe she was sending bouquets every time she went to a new place?”
“I hate to say it, Jung Jin, but it makes sense,” Hyung said. “Ji Soo was getting it more frequently right after the accident and then it slowed down, almost to a stop when Gia went back to New Jersey. It all fits.”
“That is so romantic!” Ji Soo said, a hand over her heart. “It’s like Unnie was sending you a love letter through me… telling you where she is. It’s like a map to her heart.”
Everyone cringed at Ji Soo’s sickly sweet description, except for me. I liked that sort of thing. It’s just the kind of dorky thing I would do. It’s the kind of thing I wished someone would do for me.
Was it possible? I thought. Could she have been telling me this whole time to find her and bring her home?
Heart beating so hard in my chest it felt as if it was about to explode, I grabbed my car keys from the counter and caught my father’s smile.
“I’m going to the penthouse for my album,” I declared to the occupants of the room. “I have to know for sure.”
I left to a smattering of incredulous laughter and maybe some applause.
I sat on my couch, my hands shaking, as I opened the album on my lap.
On the table were all the cards laid out for comparison, ten in total. Next to it was a world map, one I had to rummage for in the study, and a set of post its for flagging.
I took a deep breath before I looked at the first card, the cherry blossom, the national flower for Japan, and sure enough, there was the picture of me by the bamboo forest, my first stop after the recovery from my accident.
The second was the ratchaphruek, the national flower of Thailand, and I flipped a couple of pages to see it, but I saw a picture of myself standing under one of the distinctive trees, a smile on my face.
Next was the rhododendron, Nepal’s national flower, a place I didn’t have to see the picture of to know I was there.
On and on it continued, as I kept looking and comparing, placing a post it on every country that was represented by the flowers. The lotus for Vietnam, the plum blossom for China, the jasmine for Indonesia, the acacia for Australia, the sowhai for New Zealand, the Tudor rose for the UK, and lastly, the white rose for Italy.
And then it stopped. Of course. Italy had been her last stop before her father’s untimely death. I leaned back against the couch as I looked at the map, now marked with post its, a trail of my travels, along with hers. I felt incredulous, overwhelmed.
Before I could even process what I was feeling, I heard Na Jeong’s voice, Elena’s voice, her mother’s voice, talking about a picture of me, everywhere she was. The shoes that I had given her, on her feet wherever she went.
I released the breath I hadn’t known I was holding as realization dawned: she never forgot me. She never forgot. Even when she had been running she had taken my memories, and the memory of me, with her. She never forgot. She never left me behind.
I closed my eyes and imagined her as she had been that night, her beautiful eyes regarding me in wonder and in fear. I remembered the way she shielded her eyes from me, even as she was revealing the darkest parts of herself. I recalled her face as she stood at her father’s burial, even then not wanting to show anyone else how much pain she was in.
She always hid herself away. Always cried alone. Except with me.
She gave herself to me in bits and pieces because it was the only way she knew how. Like an offering from the universe, a puzzle only meant for me to solve.
Humbled beyond belief and with a new resolve, I grabbed my jacket and keys, not bothering to put anything away. I pressed the button to the elevator, intent on seeing her as soon as possible. Impatiently I pressed the button over and over, wondering what the hell could be taking it so long. Unwilling to wait any longer, I broke into the stairwell, only meant for emergencies, telling myself that this is an emergency.
As I made my way down, I pulled my phone out and decided to call Gia, wanting to hear her voice, wanting to tell her to stay put, that I’m coming. Granted a surprise probably would have been more romantic, but unfortunately, surprises rarely worked (for good) when someone is coming from another country. The worst thing that can happen is that I get there and find out that she was once again at work or, worse yet, that she had left yet again.
My woman had itchy feet. And I loved her for it.
The call went straight to voicemail, the message on it not even personalized. With a muttered curse I hung up and dialed Shawn’s number as I reached the three quarters point of the stairwell.
God, what the hell was I thinking getting a place at the top of a building? What if there had been a fire or something?
I heard Shawn’s voice at the third ring. “Who the hell leaves their own party?”
“Someone who has somewhere he needs to be,” I said. “Tell everyone that they’re more than welcome to stay as long as they want and to eat and drink whatever they want.”
“We were doing that anyway,” Shawn muttered. “You’re not coming back tonight?”
“I’m going to the airport.”
“Ethan,” Shawn stammered. “That’s a bit rash, don’t you think? I thought you were all about patience and…”
“That’s before I realized that the woman I love has been looking for me this whole time.”
“Looking for you?”
“She retraced my steps, Shawn. Retraced them all over the world. She shouldn’t have to do that alone. She’ll never have to do that alone again.”
“My mind’s made up. Can you watch Dog for me?” I opened the door out of the stairwell. “I don’t know how long…”
I paused and caught my breath as I stepped out of the stairwell. I looked all around to make sure no one could see me, embarrassed that I was so out of shape, and then my breath stopped altogether.
My flight was delayed.
There had been a problem with the tarmac at the airport from torrential rain, and the pilot was instructed to fly all around while we waited for our landing strip to be available. And then we waited again for a gate to open.
It’s a good thing that there was a florist inside the airport or I would have been even more delayed. And flowers were essential.
No one does any courting without flowers.
I adjusted my hold on the cake in my hands, the box drenched with rain, even as the strap of my purse kept falling off. My suitcase sat on the floor, also dripping wet. I hadn’t even had time to change my clothes, having rushed straight from the airport into a cab, afraid that any more delay and I would have missed his birthday altogether.
That would not do. Because then I’ll just be this weird person who gives random cakes for no reason.
I perused myself on the elevator door as I waited, cringing at the image that I made. I was in hospital scrubs and a sweatshirt, my sneakers muddy due to an unfortunate incident with a puddle as I rushed into the building. It was lucky that someone was getting out as I was approaching or I would have been locked out. The makeup I had so carefully applied was long gone, and my hair hung in wilted, wet strands around my face.
I looked like a mess. Not the most ideal of situations but the man had seen me worse.
Jesus, I thought, what was taking the elevator so long?
I took a deep breath, telling myself to calm down, to take this time to figure out a strategy. Despite what I told Junnie I wasn’t quite as confident of my plan as I made it seem as if I was.
There were other factors to consider. The first being, what if he changed his passcode? I am not above breaking and entering but the penthouse has no lock I could pick or window I could smash.
Besides, that would be crazy.
He might not even open the door for me. Or… he could open it and slam it in my face. What should I say first? I hope I’m not so lame as to just say hi. Or do something as utterly nerdy as wave.
There were so many things to think about, and I was running on adrenaline and about five cups of coffee. My mind kept running through all the scenarios, wondering exactly how he would react, what he would say. I was so busy thinking and talking to myself that I didn’t realize that I was no longer alone.
Until it was too late.
I spied another person on the elevator door in front of me and turned around in alarm. Jung Jin standing next to me, his handsome face impassive. He looked better than the picture, better than even I remembered. Better than any fantasy I could conjure up. Just… better.
He wore a black suit, his white shirt unbuttoned at the top. The black trousers he wore slung low over lean hips, his long legs made even longer by the cut of the pants. Italian loafers graced his feet. His hair was mussed, the way it always looked when he’s been running his fingers too much through it, his dark eyes looking at me with an unidentifiable expression. His dimple was nowhere to be found.
It’s not fair, I thought, as I was reminded of what a mess I must look. He always looks like that and I always look like… this. All I was missing was a face mask and my mortification will be complete.
Impulsively I brought the flower arrangement up to cover my face, until I realized how silly I must appear. Bringing it back down I mustered a smile that I’m sure looked more uncomfortable than welcoming, and died inside a little bit more.
“Hi,” I said, and waved the flowers. Fuck! SHIT! Why did I have to do the things I swore I would never do?
I coughed and cleared my throat, trying to remember the speech I had written and memorized. My mind came up blank. My body was betraying me yet again. I cleared my throat, again.
“Hi,” I started before I began berating myself. Do not under any more circumstances, say that word again. His eyes narrowed at me and I withered, almost lost my nerve. I wanted to leave. To leave and just never come back.
Except I didn’t. What I wanted was to run into his arms, wet clothes and all, and beg for forgiveness. Neither option was acceptable, so maybe I should start by speaking instead.
“Surprise!” I cringed at how awkward I sounded. “I bet you never expected to see me here. You didn’t, right?”
He stayed standing where he was, neither making a move towards me or away from me. I chose to take that as a good sign, though the absence of any expression on his face was anything but. Even so, there was no turning back now.
“You’re probably wondering why I’m here. I know that you’re probably mad,” I paused and looked for a reaction, anything for confirmation. “Angry?” Still, nothing. “Livid.” I took a breath, “I wanted to apologize for leaving so abruptly. I know it was thoughtless and cruel, and hurtful… not that I’m assuming that you were hurt because it’s okay if you weren’t, I’m just saying that I know it wasn’t right. The thing is… the thing is that I was really scared that if I didn’t leave then, that I would never be able to. That I would never want to. I was so happy here. I’ve never been that happy before and it was more frightening than any other time when I’ve been unhappy. Because that, I knew. That, I was used to. I never wanted to hold on to anything, but I found myself wanting to hold onto you.”
Jung Jin remained silent and stiff, his reaction unreadable.
“I wanted to thank you, for everything you’ve done for me. And not just the whole letting me stay here thing, though that was certainly appreciated. You made me want to hope again and believe again. For so long I didn’t know who I was… I didn’t like who I was, but you changed all that. I liked who I saw in your eyes. I liked her so much. I want you to know that it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t because you were lacking or I didn’t feel enough. I’ve taught myself to be okay with just enough. I’ve taught myself to rely on logic, on cause and effect. What I felt for you seemed entirely too much. And you and I… didn’t always make sense.”
I knew I was babbling, but I couldn’t stop, the words spilling out of my mouth before I could think about what I was saying.
“I don’t sleep in a sleeping bag anymore. I wanted to call you and tell you, but I wasnt ready yet. But now, I think I am. I wanted to see you. And Dog. And maybe speak to you, too. I understand how selfish I must sound, appearing back without warning, and I would understand if you said no. It’s totally okay if you don’t want to speak to me now. I’ll come back tomorrow, too, and maybe you’ll want to talk to me then,” I caught the expression on his face, “or not. But I’m going to keep coming back, every day. I’ll wait for you, until you’re ready to speak to me. Because you deserve that. And one day, maybe, you’ll let me share a meal with you again, maybe take you out on a date, even. Like a real one, preferably to a place where none of your exes are. I’ll even pay.”
Even cracking a joke didn’t work. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t even chuckle. What I just said was so far removed from the eloquent, slightly emotional speech I had prepared for this moment.
“Anyway.” I cleared my throat. Again. “I’m glad to see you. I brought you these,” I said as I offered him the flowers but he made no move to take them. “They’re roses, like the kind you always gave me, and wildflowers, too. You said they were your favorite, so…” The silence was almost deafening, and I think I may have already said too much. It’s best to make my leave before I made any more a fool of myself. “Anyway, I baked you a cake,” I continued, the sentence sounding as if it was just word, as I held out the box that no longer resembled a box. He didn’t even meet me halfway. “Okay. I’ll just put these here.” I bent down and placed the flowers and cake on the floor by the elevator. “Happy birthday,” I said softly as I straightened my spine, meeting his eyes. “I didn’t miss it this time. I really didn’t want to miss it this time. Okay… I won’t take up any more of your time.”
Even after all that, he still didn’t speak, and I felt the tears burn the back of my eyes. I turned away before they fell, and grabbed hold of my suitcase, willing my feet to walk away before he could see me cry.
“You did good,” I told myself silently. “Tomorrow’s another day. You can try again.”
Though I tried to believe the words, it did nothing for what I felt now. This was more painful than the first time around. At least then I knew he loved me. But now… now… I felt my breath catch and I started walking, my feet getting heavier with each step.
And then I heard his voice.
“You were missing from me.”
She cut her hair. It was still long, but significantly shorter than the last time we met, the strands lighter. It was all I would allow myself to look at, afraid that if I looked at her face I might lose all sense of reason.
I felt like I should say something, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of anything to say. The air felt as if it’s been sucked out of the atmosphere, as if the world had stopped revolving. I could hear the rain pouring outside, could feel the tension in my shoulders.
For a second I wondered if I was dreaming, if my mind had created an apparition of her, but the apparition spoke, and I knew it must be real. That voice of hers was the stuff of dreams, but no dream could recreate that sound. No imagination can, even. Believe me, I’ve tried.
The smile looked frozen on her face, but it didn’t have the deception it did in the past. It looked genuine. Uncomfortable, but genuine.
She looked like she was having an internal dialogue, except everything she was thinking was showing on her face. For so long I had wondered how she might look when she stopped trying to disguise how she felt, and now I didn’t need to wonder anymore.
She was beautiful. As I always thought she would be.
She was apologizing, then thanking me. Though I heard the words, my brain was having trouble processing why she was saying sorry and why she was thanking me. I should be the one doing both.
“I don’t sleep in a sleeping bag anymore.” Her face broke out in a sheepish smile. “I wanted to call you and tell you, but I wasnt ready yet. But now, I think I am. I wanted to see you. And Dog. And maybe speak to you, too. I understand how selfish I must sound, appearing back without warning, and I would understand if you said no. It’s totally okay if you don’t want to speak to me now. I’ll come back tomorrow, too, and maybe you’ll want to talk to me then… or not. But I’m going to keep coming back, every day. I’ll wait for you, until you’re ready to speak to me. Because you deserve that. And one day, maybe, you’ll let me share a meal with you again, maybe take you out on a date, even. Maybe. Like a real one, preferably to a place where none of your exes are. I’ll even pay.”
Her mouth lifted in an uneven smile. She looked exquisite, painfully ill at ease as the words came out of her mouth. I was so intent on looking at her that I couldn’t formulate an appropriate response. I was afraid of speaking, afraid to say the words I wanted to say, afraid to scare her off again.
She kept shifting her weight between her feet, the things she was carrying so obviously heavy. I would have taken them off her hands but for the fear that I would take her in my arms before she could finish whatever it was she felt she had to say.
“Anyway.” I heard her clear her throat for the second time in the last five minutes. “I’m glad to see you. I brought you these. They’re roses, like the kind you always gave me,” she said as her hand extended to give me the flowers but I was too afraid to move. Her face deflated for a second but she kept speaking “… and wildflowers, too. You said they were your favorite, so… AnywayIbakedyouacake. Okay. I’ll just put these here.”
I was so taken aback by the fact that she had made anything that it didn’t hit me until she’d retracted her hands that she wanted me to take the box, and by the time I realized, she had already placed both items on the floor and was now standing back up.
“Happy birthday,” she said softly as our eyes collided, her green brown eyes lit both by determination and a bit of disappointment. “I didn’t miss it this time,” she whispered. “I really didn’t want to miss it this time. Okay… I won’t take up any more of your time.”
Her voice sounded heavy as I heard a breath hitch. With one last smile though her lower lip started trembling, she turned away. It wasn’t until she turned that I saw her reflection on the glass wall. Her face crumpled, her eyes squeezing tight, and when she opened them again, I saw a sheen of tears.
It jolted me into action. I vowed to myself a long time ago that never again will I let anything come between us. I promised never to make her cry.
I thought of the right words, in the space of that moment, the right words to express how I felt. That I missed her. That I need her. That I loved her.
And then a memory of another time, the woman I fell in love with speaking, her voice dreamy.
“… Like living without your soul or living with half a heart. It encompasses absolutely everything. Longing… need… love. All those emotions, in one single phrase.”
She began to walk away and I took a deep breath, hating the sight of her walking from me yet again. The words came out without preamble, without hesitation, my voice gravelly. “You were missing from me.”
She stopped in her tracks. Turn around, I willed her, turn around and let me see your face. Slowly, she turned on her heels and she took a deep breath as our gazes met.
“What?” She asked shakily, her arms around herself. “What did you say?”
“You…” My eyes grew blurry with tears as I beheld her face, hope and fear mingling over her features. “… were missing from me.”
Tears spilled from her eyes as I took the first step towards her. She broke her eyes away from mine even as I lifted her chin to take a closer look at her.
“Don’t look at me,” she said. “I’m like, falling apart and I don’t even know why. Don’t look at me.”
This was so not how I imagined this. I must look hysterical, emotional, mentally unstable. But I couldn’t help it. As soon as I heard the words, something broke inside me. I can’t believe I ever left this beautiful, precious man. I gotta hand it to him. He may not have said much through my whole diatribe, but when he did speak, he made it count.
“Don’t look at me,” I begged. “I’m like, falling apart and I don’t even know why. Don’t look at me.”
He kept his hand on my chin as he looked at me, his eyes traveling over my face like a tender caress. A small smile played on the corner of his mouth and his dimple appeared.
“Don’t you order me around,” he said, his voice stern. “If you’re going to do that, at least promise to stay with me forever first then order me around.”
He meant to make me laugh but I only cried harder. It made it so much more difficult to speak but I felt the need to explain myself, realizing that I hadn’t even said the most important part. The part I came back specifically to say.
I cleared my throat. “Saranghae.”
His face broke out in a grin, happiness all over his features. He pressed his lips to my forehead and the sensation made me close my eyes.
“Nado?” I whispered against his chest, my eyes still closed. “What does that mean?”
“I thought you learned Korean?” He teased, pulling away just enough that I caught the twinkle in his eyes.
“I only know that one phrase,” I admitted, chagrined.
“Me, too,” he said and it confused me.
“But… but you speak fluent Korean!”
He chuckled, and I felt the rumble over me, a warmth all the way to my toes. “It means me, too,” he whispered, a hand on my cheek. “I love you too.”
“You do?” I asked and he nodded. It made the tears start again and I hid my eyes in embarrassment. “I’m not even a crybaby normally so I don’t know why I’m like this right now,” I said between sobs. “It’s just…” My fingers curled into a fist and I banged on his chest. “Where the hell were you? Why did it take so long for you to find me? You should have come before!”
“I should be asking you the same question,” he said, taking my fist in his hands. He opened my hand and placed a kiss directly on my palm. “If it was up to me we’d have met a decade ago.”
I shook my head. “I was just so sad and stressed and now I’m so happy and I don’t know what to do with myself. Or you. I don’t know what to do with you.”
“You do what?” I asked.
He wrapped his arms around my waist and pulled me closer. “I know what to do with me. And you.”
He nodded before tracing my lips with his thumb, his eyes never leaving mine. And then he did something I never expected. I felt his fingers brush away my tears and smooth my hair down, then he pulled his handkerchief out. and had me blow my nose. With his bare hands. Without any hesitation.
And I realized. He loves me that much. Still.
Humbled and grateful not just for him but the people who have loved me until I was whole again, I sent a silent prayer of thanks to the universe for having given me another chance.
I won’t waste it. Not this time. Never again.
My arms wrapped around his neck, and I breathed him in, his smell as familiar to me as my own, the scent wrapping over me like the softest, warmest blanket. A feeling like love, and even more than love came over me as I saw the eyes of the man I love looking at me as if I was the most precious thing in the universe. My fingers weaving through his hair, I stood on tiptoes in the shoes he gave me and pressed my lips to his.