AMC: A LEAP OF FAITH THIRTEENTH STEP

Thirteenth Step

Seoul, Korea

May 25, 2003

10:30 p.m.

Jung Jin

“Don’t you order me around,” I said, trying to keep my voice as firm as possible. “If you’re going to do that, at least promise to stay with me forever first then order me around.”

It was supposed to make her laugh, but it only made her cry again. I held back a chuckle. I couldn’t help it. She looked so adorable crying and I was so happy I felt like a lunatic.

She looked up at me with her red rimmed eyes and red nose, looking so forlorn I couldn’t help but quiet down. It would not do to laugh at a woman who made the journey from across the world just to be here for my birthday.

“Saranghae.”

The phrase came out so naturally from her mouth it was as if she’d been saying it all our lives, but it took me aback. Something about the fact that she said it in my native language made it feel more loaded, weighted somehow. I struggled to keep my face  composed; it felt like I was about to burst from happiness.

Still, I felt my mouth lift up in a lopsided grin, joy filling every surface of my body. I placed my lips on her forehead and leaned in, savoring the feel of her against me, the smell of her hair, so foreign again now and yet still so familiar.

How did this happen? Was this really happening?

How was it that just a few minutes ago I was trying to get to the airport so that I can get to her not realizing this whole time that she was on her way to me?

Was this fate or serendipity? I asked myself. Fate, I thought. Definitely fate… And really good timing. Thank God.

So many things could have gone wrong. I could have not come back to the penthouse. Her flight could have been delayed. I could have already flown out before she could catch me. Even such a small thing as the elevator coming a second earlier or later and I could have missed her altogether.

But it didn’t and I didn’t and she didn’t. And now she was telling me she loved me. And I still hadn’t answered her back.

“Nado,” I said, my lips still pressed on her forehead.

“Nado?” Her voice bounced off my chest and I wrapped my arms more securely around her and rested my chin on the top of her head. “What does that mean?

I pulled away so that I could look at her face. “I thought you learned Korean?”

“I only know that one phrase,” she said sheepishly.

“Me too.”

“But you speak fluent Korean!”

I chuckled as a blush covered her face, painting her cheeks a rosy red. “It means me, too,” he whispered, a hand on my cheek. “I love you too.”

Her eyes widened in genuine disbelief. “You do?” I nodded and watched with a bit of concern as her eyes filled up with tears and she hid her face against my shirt. “It’s just…” Her fingers curled into a fist and she banged on my chest. “Where the hell were you?” she asked. “Why did it take so long for you to find me? You should have come before!”

“I should be asking you the same question,” I said, taking her fist and placing a kiss directly on the center of her palm. “If it was up to me we’d have met a decade ago.”

I felt her shake her head. “I’m not even a crybaby normally,” she mumbled against me, “so I don’t know why I’m like this right now. 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.”

“I do.”

“You do what?”

She was still sniffling and I resisted the urge to pinch her cheeks she was so cute. I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her closer. “I know what to do with me. And you.”

“You do?” Her eyes glinted with suspicion and had to smile. It seems the old Gia was still in there somewhere, cakes and flowers aside.

I nodded as my thumb drifted over her soft lips, my eyes taking in the look in her eyes, something I hadn’t seen for what seemed like an eternity. My fingers traveled to her cheeks, where they fanned to brush her tears away, my other hand touching her hair tenderly. I pulled the handkerchief out of my suit jacket and ordered her to blow her nose, and as she did, her eyes looked at me all wide eyed and dewy, as if she’d never seen me before.

Didn’t she know? Even now… that I would do anything for her?

She continued to look at me with that sense of marvel in her eyes, but I also saw something else lurking behind the greenish hue of her irises: determination.

The next thing I know she had wrapped her arms around my neck and I felt her fingers lightly touch my scalp as she ran her hands through my hair. I closed my eyes almost instinctively. The sensation was euphoric, and I felt it all the way to my toes. But that didn’t even compare to how it felt when I felt her lips, soft and yielding, her breath mingling with mine.

She tasted of love and laughter, of pain and sorrow. Everything that made life life and made love worthwhile. Everything all at once. Too much and still not enough. She nibbled on my lips leisurely, as if she had imagined this as much as I had. Our tongues met slowly and languidly, the sensation not quite adequate; I drew her closer to me.

I felt like a man who’d finally found my oasis, and no taste will ever be enough. I felt her fingers over my cheeks, drifting lazily and softly, and was surprised to see that her eyes were as wide open as mine were. Our gazes stayed as connected as our lips were, and I felt my heart quake inside my chest. Her hands tightened over my shoulders even as my fingers dug into the swell of her hips. Chest to chest I could feel her heart pounding against mine and was filled with an almost overwhelming feeling of love.

I felt a rush of blood to every part of me that I was almost lightheaded, as if the only thing grounding me to this moment was the feel of her hands on me, her taste and her smell all around.

It felt as if my whole being had come back to life after having been in slumber for so long. In fact I wondered now if it had ever come to life. In all my relationships there had been an inequality, where one loved more than the other, until now.

I had found my partner, my equal, my muse, my north star.

She’d pull her lips away from mine only to smile against my lips, before going back in. She met me with the same intensity, her nails scoring my back. I heard a low moan from her throat as my hands traveled over her spine. All I knew was the feeling of this woman in my arms, her heart pounding racing, her skin warming and softening to my touch. I felt her mouth latch onto my neck and thought I was going to pass out. I felt like I was burning in place, afraid that if I loosen my arms for just a minute she would disappear. I felt her tug her mouth from my neck and travel back to my mouth as everything blurred and faded, the walls and lights and floors a distant memory.

It felt like we kissed for all the time we’ve been apart, for everything that’s happened since, for all the mistakes we made the first time around. We might have stayed kissing by the elevator, hands wandering restlessly, until we heard someone clear their throat loudly.

We turned to see a group of people not far from where we stood, mouth agape. Behind the doorman stood two men and two women, all holding plastic bags and cans of beer. The men were watching closely, the women blinking, though one was fanning herself with her hands.They all looked very red. We quickly broke apart.

“Mr. Lee,” the doorman said, looking at everywhere but us, “I wasn’t expecting you.”

I looked over at Gia to see her pursing her lips, as if trying not to laugh. The color rode high on her cheeks, her hair wild on her head. I was tempted to take her back in my arms, until the doorman spoke again.

“Mr. Lee?”

“Ah, yes,” I responded in Korean, pasting my most charming smile on my face. “Pardon us.”

I pressed the elevator button to go back to the penthouse, and the doorman went back to his post. It felt as if people were staring at us the whole time we were waiting (which they were,) but thankfully no one spoke. Gia stayed next to me, her face stubbornly facing the elevator, refusing to meet my eyes. When the elevator came, I grabbed hold of her suitcase and the flowers as she scooped up the box of cake from the ground. She stepped in the elevator after the other residents, and then turned around. Meeting my eyes, she smiled and held out her hand as I was about to follow.

I tucked the flowers under one arm as I clasped her hand to mine before taking a step inside. Our fingers interlocked as we both faced the door, I was hit by a sense of deja vu, and I found myself thinking about how many times we’ve done this before, except every other time, I had been the one to reach for her, and now it was the other way around.

I turned my head to look at her, but her expression remained neutral. It wasn’t until the other occupants left the elevator that I saw her relax. Her eyes traveled slowly over my face, then down my neck and chest, and then back up to mine. She raised an eyebrow.

“Jung Jin,” she said, her voice husky. I felt a tingling all the way to my toes. “It seems that I’ve given you a hickey.”

I lifted a hand to my neck self-consciously, feeling the tender spot where her mouth had latched on, knowing that it would more than likely be an angry, furious red. In the past I always hated when women tried to mark me, when they tried to show some ownership. But not today.

I grinned, and then we burst out laughing.

*****

Gia

He hadn’t changed the passcode to his penthouse. I let that fact stew in my head as I tried to come up with an appropriate comment. In the midst of everything that’s happened, somehow I felt the need to lighten it up. The intense way the man was looking at me made me feel like I was about to jump out of my skin.

I stepped out of the elevator, my hands still intertwined with Jung Jin’s, as the light in the penthouse went on automatically. He placed my suitcase against the wall before setting the flowers on the hallway table. Within the blink of an eye, Jung Jin had pulled me back to him, his arms steady and strong. Taken by surprise, I hilariously perched the cake over my head in an attempt to keep the box steady while being swept off my feet, literally.

His dark hair bent down as his mouth met mine, his teeth latching onto my lower lip, his hands splayed on the small of my back. His fingers danced over my spine, under the shirt that I wore, his touch light and unassuming. He tasted of love and home and everything I’d ever wanted. I was frustrated at the fact that I couldn’t do anything as I held the cake. I wanted to get closer and closer still, and I could not. His tongue tangled with mine, his hand lifting my hair over my neck, the fingers warm and sure. They drifted over my collarbone and my sternum, and just when I thought he was going to go lower, his hands went back to my waist. I moaned against his mouth in protest and he chuckled. Then pulled away.

I opened my eyes and looked at his face, even as he licked his lips, his eyes never leaving mine. “I like this,” he said.

I blinked. “Like what?”

“This,” he said, grinning lazily. I didn’t miss the glint in his eyes as he rubbed a thumb over my lips. “You, not being able to do anything with your hands, even as mine are free to do whatever they want.”

A sigh formed in my throat as I closed my eyes, expecting him to reclaim my lips. He did, but only for a second. He placed a loud peck on my mouth before reaching up and taking the cake from my hands, whistling as he brought it to the kitchen counter. I stared at his back in disbelief, convinced that the man was toying with me. He disappeared into the kitchen and I shook my head.

“Are you hungry?” I heard him call out from the kitchen, as I heard cupboard doors being opened.

“A little,” I responded, and it was only then that I noticed that the penthouse I left was not what I came back to.

First of all it was sparse. Though the couches were just as I left them, the piano was gone. The table was currently hidden under cards and a photo album, a map with post its all over it strewn to one side. But the rest of the furniture were gone, including the television. The second thing I noticed almost made my heart stop. It was quiet. Too quiet… the way a house would sound without a dog.

“Jung Jin,” I said nervously, wondering where our dog was, what I would do if my worst fears came to light, “where is Dog?”

*****

Jung Jin

I was pulling some plates and some utensils from the cupboard, patting myself on the back silently for having the foresight and conviction to keep some kitchen things here, when I heard her voice. She sounded hesitant and apprehensive.

“Jung Jin,” I heard her take a breath, “where is Dog?”

I walked to the dining room, plates in my hand and laid them on the table before I approached her and wrapped my arms around her waist. Her back to my front, I pressed a kiss on her shoulder before I responded. “He’s not here.”

I felt her stiffen and she turned around, her eyes narrowed, a frown on her pretty lips. “You got rid of him?” she asked, her voice rising with each word. “How can you GET RID OF OUR DOG?”

I pinched the tip of her nose even as she flushed in anger, confirming only to my eyes how lovely she looked when she was angry. “Come,” I said, taking her hand as I led her to the kitchen with even as she resisted. “I’ll tell you all about it.”

She sat down on a chair and folded her arms over her chest, but not before she pulled the cake box to her side, obviously holding it hostage until I told her where the dog was. She blinked at me even as she stubbornly lifted her chin, her mouth pursed shut.

“Really?” I asked, “you tell me you love me and now you won’t talk to me because of the dog?”

“I do love you,” she said and I can’t help but grin as I heard those words again, “but you and Dog come as a package deal. I came back for both of you.”

“I can’t even have my cake?”

“No.”

I shook my head as I planted myself on the table, the side closest to her, making note of the fact that her flush only just turned a deeper pink, making her eyes look even more vivid. I took her hand and kissed it, even as she averted her gaze.

“Dog is at my house,” I said. Annoyed greenish brown irises met mine.

“This is your house.”

“No,” I corrected her, “this is my old house. He’s at the new house.” I reached over her, letting myself take a whiff of her hair, as I pulled my cake back.

She appeared as if she was processing the information before she spoke again. “If you have a new house, does that mean we’re trespassing in this house?” She got up and started looking around. “OhmyGod… does someone else live here now?”

“I doubt the owner will call the cops,” I teased, easing her back into the chair. “He’s very understanding. He also happens to be very charming and handsome.”

“Shawn?” She asked. “Did you rent this out to your friend?”

I smirked. “Shawn is not handsome, though I must admit that my oldest friend is not devoid of charm or understanding. But no.” I fluttered my lashes at her. “I meant me.”

She did not take the bait and furrowed her brows. “If you have a new house then why do you still own this house?”

“I thought, correctly I might add, that if you were going to come back, that you would come here first.” I waited for the show of gratitude and appreciation. There was none.

“So,” she continued, “if you wanted to keep this house, then why did you buy a new one?”

“So many questions,” I said, crossing my legs at my ankles. “The answer is simple… Dog needed a yard.”

She lifted her eyes to me in surprise, then joy. Before I knew it, she had risen from the chair and launched herself at me, planting kisses all over my face, her fingers burrowing into my hair. “I can’t believe you did that,” she whispered, “thank you. Thank you.”

It was just so like her to be so happy about something I did for someone else, but not even bat an eyelash at something I did for her. It may have already been a year and she may have changed some, but in some ways she still stayed the same.

Her arms still around me, she pressed one last kiss on my lips before I managed to speak again. “Can I have my cake now?”

She smiled awkwardly before nodding her head, pulling her arms away and sitting back down. I rubbed my hands together as I looked at the cake box, mouth already watering.

There was nothing quite like homemade cakes. I found that they were lighter, fluffier, and the icing not as sickeningly sweet as commercial ones.

The box looked a little worse for wear, but that was no surprise. It’s been raining since I arrived at the penthouse. I couldn’t contain my excitement as I pried the flaps loose from their corners.

In the process of doing so, I remembered that she didn’t even cook, much less bake. She must really love me, if she was willing to actually make something in the kitchen. That brought another goofy smile to my face, and I sneaked a glance to hers as she waited for my reaction to her cake.

“You know,” I said, before I opened the box, “I really appreciate you doing this… I bet this will be the most delicious, beautiful cake I will ever…” I looked at the cake as the lid was lifted “…what the hell?”

*****

Gia

He looked as excited as I felt. This was the first cake I ever made. Ever. His fingers were practically trembling. “You know, I really appreciate you doing this… I bet this will be the most delicious, beautiful cake I will ever…” He lifted the lid and looked at what he had just uncovered, his smile turning into a frown so suddenly I thought something was wrong. “What the hell?”

I rose. “What?” I asked. “What’s wrong?”

I looked at the cake and found nothing untoward. It looked fine to me. Better than fine. Not bad for a first effort, definitely.

“Did the cake get wet or something?”

“Why?” I asked, looking at my creation again, trying to figure out what was wrong. “Why would you ask that?”

He cocked his head to one side, reminding me so much of Dog, and in the best way possible. He pointed to the cake. “Look,” he said, “It’s gone all uneven at the top, and it looks like some of the icing had come off. The chocolate on top looks really funny too. I definitely think the cake got wet.”

He made his observations and I was trying to follow, still confused. “No,” I said, shaking my head. “It looks exactly as it did when I first made it.”

“Oh.” He closed his mouth as if he couldn’t think of any more words to say. “It looks… interesting.”

I found myself standing up and grabbing the cake. “You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to.”

“I want to eat it,” he protested, pulling it back. “I’m dying to eat it.”

“No,” I said, grabbing it closer to me. “You obviously think it’s terrible.”

“I love it,” he said, taking it back again. “Almost as much as I love you.” Abandoning the serving set, he grabbed a piece and shoved it into his mouth. “See?” He asked, his mouth full of cake. “It’s delicious.”

He chewed for so long it made me cringe. I took a small piece and put it in my mouth. Almost as soon as I tasted it I spit it back out and made a face.

I must have done something wrong. It was so salty… almost as if I had mistaken salt for sugar. The chocolate was so bitter it brought tears to my eyes. And the sponge was like cardboard… it was so hard that I thought I damaged a tooth filling just trying to chew it.

And still Jung Jin chewed and swallowed. Then took a second bite.

I watched as he smiled as he did it, softening. This man, I thought, though I could have sworn my heart sighed.

My bipolar heart.

Wasn’t it just an hour ago that all this was in the air? It seemed almost unbelievable that things happened so fast, again. It was as if we just picked up where we left off. As if the last year never happened.

But the last year did happen, I reminded myself. I can’t discount that it happened. I was not the same person that left. I was still not sure which version of me Jung Jin loved, whether it was who he thought I was or who I actually was.

I have no plans of running away anymore, but I needed to make sure that both of us know what we are getting ourselves into. It’s only the fair thing to do. The adult thing to do.

I kissed a piece of cake off the corner of his mouth before I looked into his eyes, our faces but a breath apart. “We still need to talk.”

He nodded his head, his gaze searching. “Then let’s talk.”

*****

Jung Jin

She sat on the couch next to me, her back stiff. I could practically see the wheels turning inside her head. As usual, my woman thought too much.

“What’s all this?” She started, her voice nervous. She waved a hand over the map and cards on the table.

“This,” I said, taking her hand, “is the reason why I was here when I was.” She looked at me questioningly. “I didn’t realize until today that you had been the one sending Ji Soo flowers.” She said nothing to deny or confirm what I just said. “Why did you do that?”

“I didn’t get to say goodbye to her,” she said softly. “I guess it started as soon as I was in Thailand… I saw the flowers and wished that she could see how beautiful they were.”

“Just her?” I asked teasingly.

She looked at me somberly and tenderness swept over me. So serious, she was. “You, too,” she said quietly. “I always thought of you. I thought you should know but I didn’t know how to tell you… or if you would even speak to me.”

“Did you know?” I asked. “That you were everywhere I was?”

She shrugged her shoulders, then tucked a strand of hair behind her ears. “Not at first, ” she said. “At first I just knew that I needed to keep moving. As soon as the feelings became too much, I had to go somewhere else. Somewhere new. Somewhere that didn’t remind me of you. Except everywhere did. And then I found myself relishing it, the feeling of being someplace you were, touching the things you touched. I had to be close to you, even if it was just that much. I couldn’t ask for your forgiveness. Not then… What I did was inexcusable.”

“Why did you leave?” I asked, my voice was barely above a whisper. “Why didn’t you just talk to me?”

“I guess…” she said, taking a deep breath. “I guess… I didn’t know what to say. I’ve thought about that moment over and over again in my mind, and I don’t understand it either.” She pulled her gaze away from mine, and just as quickly looked back down again. “I’m lying,” she admitted. “I know why I left but I’m not sure I’ll be able to say it without making myself sound like a coward.” She bit her bottom lip. “The thing is… you said you loved me and it scared me.”

“Scared you?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if you loved the illusion of me or if you loved the real me. It’s been so long since anyone has really loved me, and even then, I wasn’t entirely sure that they really did, that the idea of you loving me seemed so unreal. I didn’t want to hurt you, or disappoint you. Because that’s something I always seemed to do to the people who love me. I didn’t want that for you. And I couldn’t even blame you if you were under false impressions… how were you supposed to know me when I didn’t even know me?”

“Were they?”

“Were they what?”

“False impressions?”

“Not entirely,” she said. “The woman you knew here was me… just a part of me, but me nevertheless. I just wasn’t sure if the rest of me would be up to snuff. ” She took a deep breath. “I have a past.”

“So do I,” I said lightly, trying to put a smile back on her face. “As you already know. I was kind of a man whore back in the day.”

She cracked a smile and it seemed like a ray of sunshine peeked through in the darkness of the penthouse. “I was an emotional slut,” she tried to joke before the smile disappeared. “I’m pretty sure I’m worse.”

“Does it matter?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean,” I said as I wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “I have a past. So do you. We both have histories, some not so good. But our past doesn’t have to dictate our future.” I felt her relax against me and I continued to speak, my head resting over hers as her head lowered to the crook of my neck. “The woman I love said once that there’s always hope. There’s always an opportunity to improve and change.”

I lifted her face and she wouldn’t meet my eyes. “Look at me,” I said. “Look at me.” She finally did, her eyes open and vulnerable, flashes of which I had only ever seen in the past. “So we’ve both made mistakes, but who hasn’t? Who you were, who you are, who you’re going to be… they’re all okay. You know why?” She shook her head no and I smiled. “Because no matter who you were or who you are or who you become, I will love all those versions of you. No matter what happens, I will love you. In any world. In any universe. In each and every version of this life.” Tears sprang to her eyes and I kissed them away. “Even if you don’t believe me now I’ll keep telling you and showing you until you do. I have all the time in the world to do it. I’m self-employed, you know.”

She chuckled at my attempt at a joke before she pressed a soft kiss on my lips. “I love you,” she whispered. “I will also love you. I always did.”

“Even the not so good parts of me?” I teased.

“Especially those,” she said.

“Really?” She nodded. “Then say it again.”

“Say what again?”

“You know…” I looked at her pointedly. “In Korean.”

“Saranghae,” she said, kissing the tip of my nose. “Saranghae.” Another kiss to my cheek. “Saranghae.” To my other cheek.

I was more than happy to just let her kiss me and keep saying it but then she pulled back, looking at me as I was the only one that mattered. I felt time slow down and stop, wondering how much more I could possibly love this woman. How anyone could have ever given her up, given this up.

If the way she was looking at me was any indication of the kind of love she would give, then I was set for the rest of my life. I would never need anything else.

“Do you want to be my girlfriend?” I blurted out, embarrassed.

“I don’t need labels,” she answered, her hand over my heart.

“I do.”

The exchange we were having reminded me so much of how we used to be that it made me laugh. I was so busy laughing that I didn’t even realize that she’d given me an answer.

“Fine,” she mumbled against me.

“What did you say?”

“I said okay, okay?” She sighed. “Do you… do you want me to call you by a nickname?”

“Jagi works.”

“Jagi?” She repeated. “You want me to call you please?” I blinked at her and she winked before breaking out into a smile. Then she straightened. “If you’re here, and Dog’s in your other house, shouldn’t we go there?”

“Don’t worry… Shawn and my family are there.”

“They are?” She asked and I nodded. “Why?”

“I left in the middle of my party.”

She playfully smacked my arm. “That’s so rude. We should go.”

“Nope,” I said, wrapping my arms more firmly around her. This time there was no resistance as her body molded to mine, soft and warm, as it was always meant to. “I don’t want to share you yet.”

“Okay.”

“Shawn said Dog will be taken care of,” I added.

“Okay,” she said, her voice sleepy.

“We’ll go tomorrow.”

“Okay.” She was trying very hard to keep her eyes open.

“Since you’re being so accomodating, I should probably tell you that you should have sent me some flowers, too!” I complained.

Her eyes drifted open. “I’ll do better,” she said somberly and I chuckled.

I looked down and saw her eyes drifting close, her lashes fanning over her cheeks. Soft breath blew out from slightly opened lips. “Are you tired?”

“I think I’ve been tired for the last decade,” she complained without opening her eyes. “All the excitement in the last two days hasn’t helped.”

I shifted my weight so that I was lying down and she followed suit, her head resting on my chest, her arms wrapped around my waist.

“I know,” I said. “The flight from New Jersey was long, huh?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “But how do you know?”

I cleared my throat. “Ji Hee Noona wanted to go shopping in New York City last month.”

“You were in New York?” I looked down at her and saw that her eyes were closed. “You should have visited me.”

“I did.”

“You did?” She propped an elbow and looked at me through drowsy eyes.

“Yeah… you were working.” I smoothed a hand over her brow and watched the way her eyes closed then opened, intent only on watching me. “Or, at least, that’s what your family said anyway. Unless, of course, you told them to lie.”

She shook her head slowly. “You met my mom and my sister?” I nodded and she shook her head.

“I brought you a cake.”

“So that’s why they were so insistent on eating cake that night,” she said. “They never told me.”

“I asked them not to,” I responded. “I figured if you were ready to see me, you would. I was okay with waiting.”

“That seems too ambiguous for someone who likes certainty.” She blinked hazel eyes at me.

I grinned. “I know… who would have thought, huh?” She nodded before putting her head back on my chest.

“So… What did you do this past year?” She asked.

“Hmm,” I answered. “Tied up loose ends, settled some affairs, dealt with some things I should have dealt with a long time ago.”

“No,” she said, “I want to know details. I want to know everything. I missed so much.”

“It’s a long story, jagi.”

“Yeah?” She replied, scooting up over me until our mouths were this close. “I like your stories.” She gave my mouth a slow kiss before she pulled away. “Besides, we have all the time in the world. I’m not going anywhere.”

*****

May 30, 2003

10:00 a.m.

Jung Jin

“So… did you make your way to the States?” I heard Shawn ask from the other end of the line.

“No,” I said happily, surprised that even five days later, the remembrance of Gia’s return still made me giddy. “She came back.”

“She came back?”

“Yeah,” I said. “She was at the penthouse.”

“Ahhh…” Shawn said knowingly, chuckling. “Say no more. THAT’S why you didn’t go back to your party. I’m surprised you even managed to drag yourself out of bed to come to work.”

“Shawn,” I chided.

“Is make-up sex all it’s cracked up to be?”

I tsked. “Gentlemen don’t kiss and tell.”

“You’re not a gentleman,” Shawn quipped, “and I doubt it was just kissing that you were doing.”

Actually, I thought, Shawn was both right and wrong about that. I may not always have been a gentleman, but yeah, all we were doing was kissing, and maybe a bit more.

Gia fell asleep first, on the couch, even as I lay there, watching her. She didn’t fall asleep too long, waking up almost every hour, blinking at me with those pretty eyes as if making sure that I was still with her and then going back to sleep. At some point overnight I moved her to the guest bedroom, still untouched since she left, only to have her wake up again, wanting to talk.

I told her about Hye Soo, therapy, my family and what happened with Dog. She listened intently, her face changing with her emotions, but didn’t get angry. Nor did she judge. As I expected she asked how Hye Soo had reacted, how the therapy had helped, how I was now with my family, and how Dog and I were coping. I assured her that everything has been well and truly settled, that everything was okay.

She had nodded somberly, wrapped her arms around me and told me she was proud.

We spent her first morning back mostly in bed, until, at her insistence, we got up and went to my house to get Dog. That reminded me…

“Where did you go anyway?” I asked, recalling just now that Shawn was no longer at the house when we arrived. “I thought you were going to watch Dog?”

“I do have a job, you know,” Shawn said. “I had to fly back home for an early meeting on Monday. Ji Soo and Ji Hee were more than happy to stay.”

I heard my friend chewing on something. “What ARE you eating?”

“Breakfast,” Shawn said. “I just woke up.” I heard my friend take a sip of something before I heard the conversation resume. “So… if your girl came back on Sunday, what the hell have you been doing this whole damn time? The censored version, if you please.”

“Just… things,” I replied, leaning back on my office chair. “Going to the park with Dog, going places, eating. Dating. You know, the shit we didn’t get to do the first time around.”

“Sounds… nice.”

I heard the sarcasm in Shawn’s voice. “You make fun of it all you want, but we fast forwarded through all that before. I am not going to waste this chance to actually date my woman. Even if I was already in love with her. We are not like you… getting into an accident one minute and then getting married the next. We… are actually normal.”

“Normal?” Shawn snorted, then started laughing. “Yeah, okay.” I smiled as my friend kept laughing, until the noise stopped. “Anyway… I wanted to call to make sure that you were coming tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” I asked, then remembered the invitation that had been waiting for me at the house when Gia and I got there. “Of course… Joon is having a game tonight, so I’ll fly out first thing in the morning. Will that be a problem?’

“No,” Shawn said. “Not at all.” I heard a pause. “The reception won’t finish until late, so I already took care of your hotel room for you. Just drop your overnight bag off at the front desk of the hotel and they’ll make sure that it gets to your room.” Shawn paused and took a deep breath. “Listen… I had been planning on setting you up with someone I know, but I guess that you don’t need that anymore?”

“I will never need any of your matchmaking skills ever again, my old friend,” I said with a bit of satisfaction. “My girl said so herself, she wasn’t going anywhere.”

“So where is she now?”

I pursed my lips, then frowned. “She flew back out yesterday night.”

Shawn burst out laughing. Again. “So much for not going anywhere.”

“Her best friend is getting married, okay?”

“When is the wedding?” Shawn asked.

“I’m assuming today, since she was insistent on being there last night.”

“Where is the wedding?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know… I didn’t ask.”

“Wow,” Shawn said. “I didn’t realize that you had this side to you.”

“I’m her boyfriend,” I said. “I don’t need to know where she’s going when I know who she’s coming home to. Besides. she asked if I wanted to come along, but I knew I was coming to see you.”

“And she didn’t have a problem with that?”

“Of course not. She’s even more a fan of freedom than I am.”

“You two sound like a match made in heaven.” I wondered for a second if my friend was being sarcastic again. “Anyway, what are you doing for the rest of the day?”

“I don’t know,” I said, tapping my pen against my cheek. “Think up ways to convince my girl that we need to live together again.”

“Hold on… I thought you said she was staying with you?”

“She is, but said we were dating. She’s staying in the penthouse, and I’m staying in the house.” I gave a frustrated sigh. “I don’t even really understand the reasoning, either. We’re together every night. The only difference she is that sometimes Dog stays with her. It’s really making Dog miserable.”

‘It’s making the dog miserable?”

“Yeah,” I said, adamant. “It is.”

“You do realize that he’s a canine and can’t possibly be miserable about nuances of a brand new reclaimed relationship. I don’t know about your dog, but a lot of dogs I know are only concerned about a few things: food, home, sleep, walk and love. I don’t see how your separate living arrangements could possibly be affecting his feelings.”

“Say whatever you want to, but I’m convinced he’s even more depressed about it than he was when she left. Gia said he threw up last night. I’m sure it was from missing me.”

“Or… you know… from eating something bad,” Shawn said, amused. “Who’s going to be watching this sensitive creature while you and your girl are gone?”

“Jung Yoon Hyung is taking him for a weekend with the kids.”

“Maybe THAT will cure your dog’s depression.”

I didn’t appreciate the patronizing tone in my friend’s voice. “Whatever,” I responded. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

*****

Singapore

May 30, 2003

7:45 a.m.

Gia

Junnie sat on a high backed chair in front of a mirror, her make up set. Behind her a hairdresser stood, inserting pearl pins into an ornate braid on the back of her head, matching the set already on her lobes and around her neck.

“You know… I really should be mad that you never called me after you got to Korea,” she complained, her image frowning at me from the mirror.

We were currently in her old bedroom in her parents’ house, waiting for her groom. I was already in the dress  for the tea ceremony in both houses and the wedding, the dress Junnie had picked out. I was in the process of fastening the ivory corsage on my wrist when I heard her.

“It’s been hectic,” I said. “We’ve been… busy.”

Junnie smirked. “Uh-huh… I bet.”

I shook my head at her. “It’s nothing like that,” I said.

“Nothing like what?” She asked. “Nothing like you two humping like rabbits?”

Laughter broke out in the room and I scowled at her. ‘What?’ She mouthed.

“I don’t think the bride should be talking like this on her wedding day.”

“I want to know what you did,” she said petulantly. “I’m your best friend. You need to tell me. My groom doesn’t want me to be too concerned about the wedding and I want to know about you. I want to know about the sex.”

“Junnie…”

“Tell meeeeeeeee. Tell me. TELL meeeee.”

“Junnie!” I said, just wanting to shut her up, much to the amusement of the other people in the room. “Nothing’s been going on, okay?”

“WHAT?” She sounded shocked then appeared as if she was thinking very hard about something. Then she spoke. “How old is he again?”

“36. He just turned 36.”

“That’s not too old,” Junnie said. “Is everything alright with his… system?”

“Yes…” I said. “His system is perfect. Functional. It’s allllll good.”

Junnie rolled her eyes. “Really?” Her lips curled in a smile. “Tell me more.”

“There’s nothing to tell.”

“If it’s been a year since the two of you were in the same room and nothing has happened, then there’s something wrong. I think… ” Junnie said, peering into the mirror and practicing a smile. “I think you’ve lost your mojo.” She turned her chair around to face me. “You two are acting like you’ve been together for like a million years and completely not taking advantage of the honeymoon period, wherein you act like sex starved people and just let loose.”

“First of all,” I argued. “I have not lost my mojo. And second of all, why are you insulting people who have been together for a long time when you’re about to get married?”

“I’m just saying,” she responded. “I still think you should have had your out of this world make up sex already.”

“Junnie!”

“This is why,” she said, frowning at me. “You’re so tense.”

“I am not tense.”

“Of course you are. You’re as tightly strung as a bow and arrow,” she commented then grinned.  “You know what cures tension?” She asked. “Sex.”

I cringed. “Please, for the love of God, Junnie… stop saying the word sex while you’re dressed in that lovely dress. It’s just not becoming. If your mother heard us right now she’ll think I’ve wrongly influenced you.”

“Okay,” she said. “If I can’t call it sex, what should I call it?”

“I don’t know. Anything. Knitting. Knitting sounds innocent.”

“Fine. You guys should definitely knit. Knitting is so… much fun!” She giggled. “So if you haven’t been doing any knitting, what have you been doing?”

“We… talk,” I replied and she smirked. “We kiss. We kiss A LOT!” I swear, if Junnie rolled her eyes any more they would be permanently stuck to the top of her head. It made me feel defensive. “There’s nothing wrong with taking it slow,” I protested.

“That’s all good if you two hadn’t already done it before,” she said. “But you did. Quite well, actually, if I recall correctly. In fact, it was so good you had to get the hell out of not just his house but the whole of Korea. Plus the man is quite dashing. You can’t tell me you didn’t want to.”

“Of course I wanted to,” I said loudly, not realizing that I had almost yelled it out until the words were out of my mouth. “I’m in love with the man. He’s very sexy. Believe me, I have tried to jump him time and time again. But he’s insistent on doing things right this time, so what am I supposed to do?”

“You can always just start when he’s asleep or something,” Junnie said.

“Jun… a bride should definitely not be suggesting something akin to rape in most countries on her wedding day.”

“It’s not rape if he’s willing and just won’t put out.” She patted her lips as she leaned towards the mirror. “I am really beginning to worry about you two.”

“Jun,” I said. “Just shut up.”

“See? ‘I’m not tense’ my ass. You need to get laid.”

I closed my eyes and told myself not to strangle her, reminded myself that I love my best friend very much. It didn’t work. Change the topic, I told myself. Change the topic. I opened my eyes and met hers. “Don’t you think we should talk about Shawn before the groom gets here?”

“Oh,” she said, standing up and making a show of smoothing her dress down. “I think the auspicious time is here! You should get out of my room now before my groom comes.”

I knew what she was doing, knew her distraction techniques. I was about to tell her so when all the words dried on my tongue as I got a good look at her for the first time.

Junnie wore a kua, the striking two piece red suit a perfect complement to her complexion. Worn to symbolise luck, happiness and bountiful blessings, the ceremonial dress was fitted perfectly to Junnie’s petite frame. Embroidered with a dragon and a phoenix on the front, there were also peonies running the length of her dress in gold and silver threads, their center blooms adorned in matching sequins. Her makeup was subdued, her skin glowing. Her hair pulled in a braided chignon, the jewels glinting in the sun.

She looked more beautiful than I have ever seen her before.

I felt a thread of affection go through me and I swallowed the tears that burned the back of my eyes. After fourteen years of friendship, one of us was finally getting married. I always guessed it would be Junnie first, but I never thought it would take her this long.

I didn’t realize that I was still staring until Junnie was in front of me, a hand on my shoulder. “What?” She asked. “What’s wrong?”

I smiled at her. “Nothing’s wrong,” I said, realizing for the first time in years that it was a true statement. “Everything is perfect.”

*****

Goodwood Park Hotel

May 30, 2003

6:00 p.m.

Jung Jin

I strode through the front doors of the hotel Shawn had directed me to, my shoes echoing on the marble floors. The domed light fixture shone overhead, the couches in the lobby plush and comfortable. There was a black piano on one side, a suited man playing a classic. My eyes drifting very briefly over the details, I went straight to the front desk and put my overnight bag on the counter.

“Hi,” I said. “Ethan Lee. I believe arrangements have been made for me.”

The front desk clerk smiled and nodded, then typed some details on the computer before her. “Ah yes… your room is ready,” she said, looking back at me. “There’s a note here that we would need to deposit your luggage in your room. Do you have anything else to drop off besides this overnight bag?”

“No,” I replied. “That’s it.”

“Great. If you would just give me a minute, I will get your room key ready for you.”

I looked at my watch, noted that I was cutting it close. The flight from Incheon had been delayed, and I already missed the solemnisation ceremony. The reception was due to start soon.

“Here you go,” she said as she slid a card over the counter, “the reception is going to be the Windsor Ballroom. All you would have to do is follow the signs and make your way down to the end of the hallway. The ballroom will be on your left.”

I said my thanks and went in the direction she had given, not realizing until I was more than three quarters of the way that she had not told me my room number. For a second I stopped and briefly wondered if I should go back when I saw Shawn’s parents standing in the hallway.

Shawn’s father broke into a smile when he saw me, immediately extending a hand. “Ethan,” he greeted, “it’s been a long time.”

I nodded as I took his hand in both of mine. I greeted Shawn’s mother with a respectful bow. “It’s good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you two also,” I said. “How have you been?”

“Good, good, you know,” he said heartily. “Just relieved to be marrying Shawn off.”

I chuckled. “Yeah,” I said. “Who would have thought it, huh?”

More people arrived and I breathed a sigh of relief. Much as I liked Shawn’s parents I really needed to see my friend before this wedding happened. Before they could walk away, I spoke.

“Would you be so kind as to tell me where I would find Shawn?”

“Of course.” Shawn’s father pointed to a door at one end of the hall. “Bridal suite at room 203.”

“Thank you,” I said and walked, my eyes fastening on the names on the doors.

I knocked before I entered the room, surprised to find it full of people. I craned my neck to look for Shawn, when I saw someone I hadn’t been expecting.

She was in a strapless ivory duchesse satin knee length dress, her hair in a loose chignon on the nape of her neck. A draped bodice graced her neckline, red floral embroidery running up the length of the dress’ one side. She wore black pointed pumps on her feet and held a glass of champagne in one hand. Her lips were shiny and red, the same shade as the flowers sitting on her hip, where my hands longed to be. She drew her head back and laughed at something her companion said and the earrings that dangled from her ears shook. She tucked an invisible strand of her, her fingers drifting over her neck, and I felt a sensation start at the base of my spine. I flushed, then frowned. Gia knew better than to flash her charms to some other man besides me, though I knew that she couldn’t possibly know how beautiful she was.

What is she doing here? And who the hell is he?

Almost as soon as my mind voiced the question, I came up with the answer and shook my head. There was only one reason why she would be here today, dressed as she was, laughing with a tall, handsome man as if they’d known each other forever.

Dammit, I thought, as I ran my fingers through my hair in an effort to appear a little more civilised, I really wasn’t prepared to be meeting Joon-ie today.

I knew I should have gotten a haircut.

*****

Gia

“I’m going to the restroom,” Junnie said as she gave me her champagne glass, picking up her dress. “Watch this for me, will you?”

Before I could respond she had given her new husband a kiss on the cheek and disappeared into the bathroom.

We had all been sequestered in the bridal suite, waiting for the reception to begin. I had already changed my dress and shoes into the ones that I’d chosen for the occasion.

It’s been a long day and my feet were feeling it. After Junnie was picked up from her parents house in a Ferrari, the rest of the bridal party and her parents were piled in Jaguars and brought to her groom’s parents’ house for the first of tea ceremonies. We had a quick lunch before heading to the venue where the wedding photos were being taken, then back Junnie’s parents house.

I helped Junnie into a traditional white wedding dress with a sweetheart neckline, a crimson band over her neckline, and then again in an elegant line down her spine and widening onto a train. A corset style bow was tied on the small of her back, white flowers adorning the length of red, meeting with another band circling the dress’ hem.

After the second tea ceremony, we were brought to the venue for the actual wedding, thankfully a shorter, all things considered, affair. I had finally walked down the aisle, albeit for my best friend’s wedding and not my own.

And now we were here. Aware that the bridesmaids and groomsmen were not going to be walking out with the newly wedded couple, I was just about to ask Junnie, who had been in a conversation with her husband, where I was supposed to go when she decided to leave the two of us alone.

I had met him again yesterday, of course, during all the wedding preparations, but didn’t get a chance to speak, and I was mostly grateful for that.

I cleared my throat awkwardly. I’ve had to watch my mouth whenever I had been anywhere near him, afraid that I would end up asking him about Shawn and Jung Jin. Of course there was a big possibility that I could just be overreacting. Maybe Junnie didn’t want to talk about Shawn because she didn’t know anything about him. After all… how likely was it that she was marrying Jung Jin’s best friend? So unlikely it was almost impossible. Besides… It didn’t matter now anyway. Jung Jin and I were back together and Junnie was married to someone who was more than likely someone other than Shawn.

For a minute I regretted rushing so much that I didn’t get to look at the signs posted outside the reception venue. Surely that would assuage all my suspicions since that shows not only the bride and groom’s Chinese names but their English ones as well. Dammit. No… it didn’t matter now but it would be nice to know for sure.

Junnie’s husband fixed dark brown eyes on me, as if sensing my discomfort and smiled. “So… you and Sarah have been friends for what… ten years?”

“Fourteen, actually,” I corrected him as I took a sip of Junnie’s champagne. “And you’ve… known each other longer?”

“Our parents have known each other since they were children,” he said and I nodded. Though I had been unsure of how they had really known each other, Junnie had since then told me that they had not been complete strangers when they reconnected. “My parents emigrated abroad when I was younger, and we only just came back to Singapore a year and a half ago.”

I nodded. “I bet you didn’t expect to meet her again.”

“Actually,” he said, “I did. But I didn’t expect to meet her again by hitting her car.”

The way he said it made me laugh and he started chuckling as well. I was still trying to quiet down when I saw the most beautiful man walking towards me, a frown on his face.

The sight of him sobered me right up and I silenced as I watched him close the gap between us, his strides long and confident. Dressed in a classic black suit, there was no one more handsome. His male beauty was as magnetic as it was intimidating. I sighed inwardly, watching as he ran his fingers through his hair, wishing that it was me doing it instead.

He barely looked at me as he got to where we were standing. He locked eyes on Junnie’s husband, arm outstretched and I got my confirmation regarding this mysterious Shawn.

Here I had been trying to reason my way out of my suspicions, when I had been right all along. Damn Junnie… she’s been lying to me this whole damn time.

*****

Jung Jin

I walked towards Gia and Joon, trying to form in my mind the most appropriate way to greet her best friend, unsure whether he was a groomsman or a guest. A groomsman, definitely, I thought when I saw his tuxedo. Maybe he knew Shawn somehow.

I could see Gia looking at me as I approached them, her eyes watching closely, probably wondering if I was going to lose my cool in front of her best friend. I wish now that I hadn’t shown so much jealousy in the past. She probably thought I was going to attack him.

She’s about to be surprised. Joon may be her best friend but I had her heart.

I stretched an arm as I greeted the two of them, making sure to look her best friend in the eye, telling myself not to look at her, in case I get distracted.

“Congratulations,” I said, as he took my hand. “It’s nice to finally meet you. Joon, right?”

*****

Gia

“Congratulations,” Jung Jin said as the men shook hands. I was proud of how polite he sounded, his voice all husky and sexy. I wonder if I can convince him that we should consummate our relationship tonight. I mean the timing is perfect; weddings conjure up such romantic… “It’s nice to finally meet you.” What? “Joon, right?” WHAT?

“Jagi?” I asked, taking hold of his arm. “I thought he was Shawn?”

Jung Jin looked around, his eyes looking at me as if I’d lost my mind. “I don’t see Shawn anywhere but I assure you this is not Shawn.”

“Of course he is,” I insisted, confused. “Otherwise who would he be?”

“Junnie,” he said, then turned to Junnie’s husband. “Aren’t you the best friend?”

“Uhmm, I’m someone’s best friend,” he said, looking at both of us amusedly, “but not hers.”

“I don’t understand this,” I said. “So if he’s not Shawn, then why are you here?”

“I was just going to ask you the same thing. Why are you in Singapore if this is not Junnie?”

The bathroom door opened and I breathed a sigh of relief. Junnie walked towards us, eyes averted from mine, and for a second I was afraid that she would turn right back around. I narrowed my eyebrows. Jung Jin followed my gaze and looked relieved as he looked at her.

“Shawn!”

Junnie didn’t respond but grinned sheepishly. I shook my head, unable to understand why Jung Jin was calling her Shawn.

“She’s not Shawn,” I said, pointing to her husband. “He is.”

“Actually…” Junnie said before Jung Jin interrupted her.

“No,” he insisted. “This is Shawn. My friend from university.”

“No,” I said, my voice just as firm. “That’s Junnie, my best friend from uni. How is she Shawn? That’s a boy’s name. That doesn’t even make any sense.”

“What kind of name is Jun for a woman?” Jung Jin countered. “I’m telling you…”

“Uhmm, Ethan…” Junnie said, her eyes darting between me and Jung Jin, looking as if she wasn’t sure what was going on, either.

“I’m confused,” Junnie’s husband said. “Who is Ethan?”

Junnie nudged her head towards Jung Jin. “He is.”

“No,” I said. “His name is Jung Jin. What kind of name is Ethan anyway? I hate that name.”

“Hey,” Jung Jin said defensively. “I like that name.”

“I don’t,” I said, frowning. “I think it makes you sound like someone who’s trying to be cool.”

Junnie, to my irritation, began to laugh. “That’s what I said, too,” she said between giggles. “A long time ago.”

“I don’t understand what’s happening,” I said crossly, glaring at Junnie.

“Neither do I,” Jung Jin looked at her, too, his expression unreadable.

Junnie looked at both of us as her husband took her hand. “I didn’t think it would come to this,” she said, her voice serious, apologetic. “But I think I have to explain.”

*****

New York City, New York

August 14, 1988

4:00 p.m.

Gia

I shielded my eyes as I looked at the building in front of me, the sunlight so bright on this summer day.

Next to me were a suitcase, a bed in a bag set, and a paper bag full of groceries, stuff I’d hauled from my mother’s car onto the train into the city, then again from Grand Central Station to the 8th Avenue station, then the C line downtown to 4th Street and finally through the two blocks walk that would take me to my destination.

Goddard Hall. New York University. Finally… I had arrived.

Through the glass door I already spied some students loitering by the entrance, and others right outside. Though some were in groups, most were by themselves, all wearing the deer in the headlights look that most people sported when they find themselves for the first time in the Big Apple.

They must be from out of state, I thought, as I tried to maneuver my possessions into the double doors. I could understand, though. I felt that way too the first time I visited. But now, the city seemed  as much home to me as Hillsborough was.

I dragged myself towards the elevators, adjusting my off shoulder shirt. I pressed the button for the seventh floor, then looked at myself on the elevator door.

The hair that I had so carefully teased before leaving the house has lost some of its height. I could feel how limp it was on top of my head, even as I reached a hand up to try to smoothen it, making the plastic moon shaped earrings I wore jiggle. At least my blue eyeshadow, the same color as my shirt and my high top sneakers, hadn’t started running. Neither had my blue mascara.

I wanted my roommate to have a good first impression of me.

Sarah Chen. I hope that she’s nice.

I stepped out of the elevator and walked down the hallway, looking at the room numbers. I finally stopped when I reached 714, fishing the key out of my pocket that I had picked up a few days ago, when most of the students moved in.

As I had expected, my parents wanted to wait for me to move in until last minute. To be honest they didn’t even want me to live on campus, and had my scholarship not covered the cost, they probably would have insisted that I commuted. Or gone to another school, one that was closer to home.

If it was up to me, I’d have followed Andrew, my boyfriend of four years, to Auburn in Alabama. After spending the span of our relationship with him in Texas and me in New Jersey, college would have been the perfect opportunity for us to finally be together. My father would have probably had a heart attack.

Still, thank God I was here. The taste of freedom, so seldomly allowed me, was sweet. It finally felt like I was in control of my life.

I opened the door to see our room, two single beds parallel to each other, though one was already made up, one side of our space already decorated and filled. I walked in slowly and placed my possessions in one corner, going straight to the windows, curious to what our view was.

It wasn’t much, I noted with some disappointment. Only other buildings.

I approached my roommate’s side when the corner of my eye caught the pictures already hanging on her wall. There were images of a place I had never seen, of a group of girls smiling at the camera, of one face from that picture is another, this time surrounded by an older couple and a young man. I smiled. They looked happy.

I had just leaned in to take a closer look at one of the pictures featuring a lion statue when the door opened, and in walked a pretty girl with long straight hair and dark brown eyes, wearing a black skirt and a button down blouse. An eyebrow raised as she looked at me, and I straightened self-consciously.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Gia, your roommate.”

“Hi,” she said, smiling politely. She walked over to where I stood and offered a hand. I extended mine and she took it in a firm, almost businesslike grip. “It’s nice to meet you.”

*****

October 25, 1988

11:30 p.m.

Gia

I had just entered our dorm room when I noticed that it was dark. After an eight hour shift at the hospital doing nurses’ aide work, all I wanted to do was take a shower, heat up a cup of ramen, read my lecture notes from class earlier and then go to bed.

I turned on the light to see my roommate lying on her side, her back to my bed. It was strange. Sarah was usually up at this time, studying or talking on the phone. We didn’t have but one land line in our dorm room but I didn’t mind… I went home to New Jersey every weekend and I worked a part time job. I very rarely spent time here.

I didn’t know much more about my roommate than the basics: she’s from Singapore. She hated clutter. She was a lot worldlier than I was, though she didn’t tell me that. That’s what I deduced from seeing all her pictures on her wall. She was close to her parents and her only brother.

I put my backpack down on my bed, trying not to make any noise, as I reached into my drawer and took a ramen cup out, putting it under an arm. I picked up my shower caddy, towel and flip flops and was about to leave the room when I heard a sniffle.

I looked back and saw Sarah shift on her bed, and I turned the light on to see her wiping her tears away. I dropped what I was carrying as I approached her, standing over her form on the bed.

“Sarah?” I asked, my voice quiet. “Sarah?”

“Go away,” she mumbled. “I don’t want to talk to you.”

I sat down tentatively on her bed. “What’s wrong?”

She didn’t answer for a minute, wasn’t even sure she heard me. I was about to repeat myself when she sat up and looked at me, her eyes sullen.

“Why do you care?” She asked.

“What do you mean? You’re my roommate.”

She wouldn’t meet my eyes and it was only now that I saw that her eyes and cheeks were puffy, her nose red. There was a pile of tissues next to her. She was wearing a sweatshirt with the hood over her head.

“Why would you care?” Her voice was angry. “You’re never here. You’re always somewhere else… and when you are you don’t even talk to me.”

“Uhmm…”

“Do you know how hard it is to live so far from home? Do you know?” I was struck into silence by how angry she was. At me. “You’re so inconsiderate. I don’t even have any friends in this country and I get stuck with a roommate who’s never here. So go away. You’re the last person I want to talk to.”

I blanched at her accusations, a small part of me aware that this probably had nothing to do with me, but getting angry nevertheless. I was too tired to be worrying over a temperamental roommate.

I stood up and dragged my gaze away from hers. “You won’t have to tell me twice.” I turned around and was in the process of picking my stuff back up, her words echoing in my ears, and I found myself walking back to where she was.

“Not that it matters to you, but I’m never not here because I don’t want to be. I have to go home every weekend because I have a ten year old sister and I have to look after her so my mom can work. I work 32 hours at the hospital because my parents never wanted me to go out of state for uni and my scholarship doesn’t cover living expenses and I can’t ask them for more money. I have a boyfriend that I never see because I’m technically not allowed to date. Just so you know, I’m never here not because I don’t want to get to know you or I don’t care,” I said. “And… for the record, just because your home is all the way in Asia and mine is just next state doesn’t make you any more lost than I am. And I don’t have any friends either so believe it or not, I know exactly how you feel.”

A tense silent beat passed and she kept looking at me in stony silence and then she began to cry. “That’s the most you’ve said to me since we met,” she said, her arms crossed over her chest. Another beat passed and I was about to walk out the door when I heard her voice.  “My brother,” she choked out, “my brother just called. My mom has cancer. She has to go for surgery and she’s there and I’m here and I don’t know what to do.” She sniffled. “I’m sorry I snapped at you but I’m just so frustrated. What can I do when I’m all the way over here? What am I supposed to do? I can’t lose my mother.”

I released a breath and went to her side, realizing that I have never seen her this emotional in the last two months (not that I saw her all that much.) Sarah always looked so put together it took me aback. I sat back on the bed and awkwardly put my shower caddy down.

“Is she having surgery?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” she said, holding tissues to her eyes. “He didn’t tell me any details yet. I don’t think he even knows.”

“Can you go home?”

“I can’t,” she said but offered no other information. She looked down at her hands.

Silent I kept asking myself why she wouldn’t be able to and won’t tell me the reason, when understanding dawned. We’re college students. She probably didn’t have the money. I wasn’t sure what her situation was at home, or what kind of background she came from, but that didn’t matter. I knew what I had to do.

“Of course you can,” I said without hesitation. “Family comes first. I have $3000 in my bank account. It’s yours to use if you need to fly back home.”

“You would do that?” She asked, sounding as if no one has ever done anything like that for her before, like she was genuinely surprised. “Why would you do that? I wasn’t even nice to you. Why would you do that?”

“I have it, you need it. It’s not that complicated,” I answered. “Besides… I know where you live, Sarah.”

“Junnie,” she said, mustering up a smile even through her tears. “My friends call me Junnie.”

*****

NYU STERN SCHOOL OF BUSINESS

New York City, New York

September 5, 1990

10:30 a.m.

Jung Jin

I tapped my writing pad with a pen, my backpack by my feet. I self consciously ran my fingers over my hair when I realized that it was still short, the only reminder that I still had from my two year military service, just ended months ago. I pushed my glasses up the bridge of my nose, looking around the room.

There were only a dozen students here, mostly Caucasian and a few African American. I was the only Asian person in the room.

I flushed. Then gave myself a silent pep talk.

I had nothing to feel inferior about. I had finished first in my high school class, and magna cum laude in my undergraduate studies. Seoul academia was pretty damn competitive, and I knew I had the goods.

I had left Seoul a month ago, been living in a hotel until a couple of weeks ago, when I moved into campus housing. Before that I had spent weeks acclimating myself to my new city, doing the tourist-y things, getting to know the campus.

I am a person who thrives on preparation.

I had known almost before I even graduated from Yonsei University that I was going to go abroad for my graduate studies. The choice had been between Stern and Insead in France, but since I spoke no French, the choice had been clear. My family did not like either option, but my mind had been made up.

I needed to get out of Korea, out of the shadow of my family. Becoming successful and happy was a tall order for a younger son, especially when he’s already defied his father and older brother’s expectations by refusing to study law as all the male members of his family had done over generations.

I loved my family but I needed to find myself outside of the dreams and hopes they harbored for me. And the only way I knew how was to leave.

I looked at my watch, wondering when the class was going to start, whether the other students would notice that I was a couple of years older than they were. It was with some dismay that I was told upon meeting with my advisor that I should take this refresher course on business law. It’s funny… Even when I turned my back on law it still haunted me.

I glanced as I saw someone enter the door quickly and sat on the second row from the front. From this angle all I could see was ink black straight hair and pale skin, complexion almost close to mine.

My musings were interrupted by the professor clearing his throat, an attempt at a friendly smile on his face. He looked like he was in his early 40’s, wearing a corduroy suit and thick rimmed glasses. With his hair in a ponytail, be looked more like a cross between a hippie and a yuppie than a university professor.

“Good morning,” he said then nodded when we all mumbled a silent good morning. “My name is Paul Brown, and I will be your professor for this semester of Business Law 301. We’ll have plenty of hard work for the next few months so I thought I’d start the class by doing something a little more unconventional.”

He paused for effect, as if waiting for a reaction. He smiled again. “I want all of you to bring your chairs and form a circle in the middle of the room. Now, please.”

All the students looked at one another and followed his instructions. We all sat around the circle, some alert and some barely awake, much less oriented, and waited for the professor to speak again. He sat on one side of the circle and crossed his legs.

“Since we have a pretty small class size, I thought it would be nice if we introduced ourselves to one another before the work begins,” he started. “I would like all of you to introduce yourselves, where you’re from and one interesting about you. Don’t overthink this.” He secured a pile of papers on his lap. “I will begin. You already know my name, and I’m originally from Buffalo, New York. I am deathly afraid of spiders.”

The class laughed. “See how easy that was?” He asked. “We’ll go clockwise.”

I only listened vaguely as the students started to speak, lifting my eyes from the table when I heard someone called Michael speaking in a British accent. Next up was the last addition to our class, and I waited to see if the person was going to speak with an accent, kind of hoping that I won’t be the only Asian person in class.

“Hi,” the person said, smiling shyly. “I’m from Singapore and uhmm… an interesting thing about me.” There was pause as if the person was thinking. “My father calls me Shawn, even though that’s not my real name. He really wanted a son.” Another smile, this time with teeth. “Oh, I almost forgot the first part. My name is Sarah Chen.”

*****

GREENWICH VILLAGE

NEW YORK CITY, NEW YORK

April 9, 1991

7:00 p.m.

Jung Jin

“How was spring break?” Shawn asked as she deposited a cup of tea in front of me. “You went home, right?”

I nodded, looking around her apartment. Shawn had mentioned that she lived in an apartment in Greenwich Village, not far from our university, but she didn’t tell me that she lived somewhere this nice.

The walls were painted a creamy ivory, large windows on every surface, framed by taupe colored floor length curtains hanging on black ornate rods. She sat on a built-in bench on the shorter end of the living area, and I on a cushioned seat across from her. She was flanked by floating bookshelves on both sides, filled with books of every subjects and several trinkets. Above us were recessed lights.

Behind me was a sage colored easy chair and to my right was a modern looking couch with a quilted back. Throw pillows in varying shades of purple and dark orange in floral patterns occupied both. The coffee table was a polished oak in the same shade as the hardwood floors, sitting on an Aubusson rug.

The whole place was tasteful, beautiful, and looked entirely too expensive for a college student.

“How do you afford living here?” I asked.

Shawn smiled. “I never mentioned that my father owns a huge business in Singapore?”

“Ah, no.” I can honestly say that in the seven months that we’d been in the same class, in all the times that we’ve studied together and even shared meals, in the space of time when we went from just being two Asian people in one class to genuinely being friends, that she had never told me that. “I’m pretty sure I would have remembered if you told me you were a chaebol.”

Shawn laughed. “It’s not something I like to share.” She took a sip of her own tea. “You never did tell me how your trip home went and why you needed an extra week off.”

“Kelsey went home with me,” I said.

Shawn raised an eyebrow. “Kelsey? Your American girlfriend?” She said. “Haven’t you guys just been going out for like five months?” I gave a noncommittal hmm. “How did that go?”

“Ehh,” I said. “It was okay.”

“So, not good.”

“It was okay.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Not good.” Shawn pursed her lips. “Don’t you think it’s a little premature?”

I tensed at the question that Shawn just asked but she wouldn’t understand. Kelsey was a catch. Beautiful, smart, cultured… I was as surprised as everyone else when she set her eyes on me.

Our meeting seemed auspicious. Fated. I was in the dining hall late on Halloween studying when she walked in all dressed up, obviously from a night out, and planted herself across from me, her lips painted a red. She had a stick on mole over her lip. Her hair was crimped and teased, her green eyes smoky. She had fingerless lace gloves on her left hand, plastic necklaces and matching earrings, an off the shoulder cropped shirt, a black tutu and fishnet stockings over long legs. She looked like Madonna.

I tried to ignore her at first, was pretty damn sure she wasn’t my type. I have never had a girlfriend, but I knew what I liked. And she seemed too… over the top for me. But she had spoken, and I was surprised to realize that she was articulate and smart. Even her words dripped of wealth and private school. And she was interested in me. Skinny, clumsy, awkward me.

It had been a no brainer.

Five months on and I thought I was in love. I’ve never been in love either but I’m pretty sure I was it. I was also no longer a virgin. The last five months with her had done more for my confidence than my whole entire youth. She made me feel like I was something.

“No,” I answered Shawn. “Not at all.”

Shawn shook her head but said nothing else. In annoyance I flipped a page on her notebook, the reason why I was even here to begin with. The extra week in Korea cost me a week of classes and I needed her notes. In my haste I slashed a finger, and I drew back as a thin line appeared, the gash deceptively small. But it stung.

In front of my eyes the blood started to seep and Shawn stood up in concern.

“Jesus,” she said. “Are you okay?”

I waved her off. “Shawn… I’m fine. I just need a band-aid.”

Shawn wrinkled her nose. “Why do you insist on calling me Shawn?”

I didn’t respond, knowing that telling her how it started would make me sound like a wimp. The truth was that I had lied to Kelsey when she asked if I had any female friends, afraid that Kelsey would get jealous, and so I called Sarah Shawn, fully aware that the name was so ambiguous and sounded like it belonged to a man. The last thing I needed was Kelsey telling me I can’t be friends with Sarah, not when she was my only friend here.

“Hello?” She said. “Why do you keep calling me Shawn?”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said, trying to change the topic. “What kind of name is Shawn anyway?”

She glared at me. “What kind of name is Ethan?”

“Hey… I like that name,” I said. “I chose that name.”

“Yeah, ” she said. “It makes you sound like you’re trying too hard to look cool. What Korean person is called Ethan?” I didn’t respond. “None, that’s who.”

“You know what,” I said, ignoring her. “Just… tell me where the band aids are. Please.”

“There’s a box in the bathroom, on the right straight down the hall.”

*****

Gia

Mariah Carey’s voice sounded through my headphones as I stepped into my bedroom after my shower. I passed by the picture that sat on my bedside drawer, one of me and Andrew together in the summer after our Senior year, tanned and happy, thinking we were going to be together forever, and placed it frame side down.

Five damn years. We made it through five years of being together long distance, made it through the trials and tribulations of high school. Even made it through our first year in college together, and now… nothing.

I felt the ache in my chest, and ignored it by focusing, instead, on the beautiful New York day setting just outside my window. From here I could see the NYU campus and Washington Square Park, little dots of people still out and about.

What a beautiful city. Even after almost three years of living here part time I still hadn’t fallen out of love.

It’s too bad Andrew hadn’t felt the same way about New York. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite dismiss the feeling of loss away.

The last straw had come so unexpectedly. He was supposed to come back to Hillsborough for spring break and we were supposed to spend some much needed time together reconnecting and reaffirming our commitment to each other. He chose, instead, to stay in Alabama and party through the break, even breaking the promise he made me not to pledge for a fraternity. But the thing was… it had nothing to do with the fraternity and everything to do with the promise he broke.

It was the last one in the string of promises that he’d broken over the last few months. Not calling when he said he would. Not coming home when he assured me he was. I was tired of waiting for him to keep his word.

Realizing that I’ve become maudlin, I shook it all off and brightened when an upbeat song came on in my ears.

And then I did what I always did when I was feeling especially depressed. I danced.

*****

Jung Jin

I grasped the handle of one of the doors that I could have sworn Shawn had directed me to and opened it, already looking to my left for the light switch, expecting darkness. What I walked into instead was a room bathed in fading sunlight, the curtains wide open.

For a minute the glare was too much, and I shielded my eyes. That is, until I realized that there was a woman standing in front of me.

She stood by the windows, headphones on her ears, swaying to music that only she could hear. Long dark brown hair, so dark it was almost black, trailed behind her, wet and dripping on the floor. Creamy golden skin peeked out from the top of the towel wrapped around her, well defined legs tapering to slim ankles darting from the bottom.

I could only see her face her profile as she kept herself turned towards the windows. But even from where I stood slack jawed, I spotted a pert nose and plump lips, curved into a smile. Those lips, I thought, were unforgettable. Those lips could bring a man to his knees. They begged to be tasted; they begged to be kissed. My eyes followed droplets of water as they trickled down her skin, traveling over her face, down her neck, and then staying on a collarbone.

Oblivious to her intruder she continued to sway, her hips moving gracefully under the towel, which appeared as if it was dangerously close to falling off. I was vaguely aware of time passing, time changing as I stood there, knowing I should leave but somehow feeling unable to. Blood pounding in my ears, I forced my legs to move and closed the door quickly.

As soon as she was out of sight, I rested my back on the door, my hand over my heart, not really understanding what just happened. Confused as to why I’d been with Kelsey for all this time and yet she never incited this sort of reaction.

Something was wrong with me, I thought. But Jesus. Who the hell was that?

Quickly I entered the bathroom next to the room I just opened, feeling a bit shaken. And maybe a bit nauseous. I switched on the light and turned the faucet to open, then set my glasses aside and washed my face. Looking at myself in the mirror I studied what I saw.

Slender face framed by long hair, an indent over the bridge of my nose where my glasses had sat. Decent lips, decent nose. Not bad.

I wondered if the girl next door would think so too.

I silently chastised myself as I washed my cut, and then again when I was putting my glasses back on and again when I was applying the plaster on my finger. Taking a deep breath I exited the bathroom and walked back to the living room, attempting to keep my face composed. I thought I was doing a good job, too, until I saw Shawn’s face.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” She asked, tsking. “Don’t tell me you have a thing with blood.”

“Blood?” I repeated, not following.

“Your finger?” She said, giving me an odd look. “You cut your finger?”

“Ah, no,” I said, sitting back down. “Listen…” I paused and forced my voice to sound even. “… I thought you lived here by yourself?”

“Where would you get that idea?” She shook her head. “No, I live here with my best friend.”

I looked at her, puzzled. I could have sworn she’s never mentioned this best friend before. Or was I not paying attention?

“Yeah,” I said, “I think I bumped into her.” I looked down at my hands, still a little shaky and wondered what the hell was wrong with me. “Does she have a boyfriend?”

“No.” Shawn’s eyes narrowed as she looked at me then she rolled her eyes. “Oh no… we are not even going to go there.”

“Go where?” I asked, still not meeting her eyes. “It was a simple question. We’re just having a simple sharing of information.”

“You’re a horrible liar,” she said. “You’re so transparent it’s not even funny. And… the glint in your eye tells me this is no mere simple sharing of information.”

I lifted my eyes. “What?” I asked. “It’s not like I’m asking you to fix me up or anything.”

“Good. Because I won’t.”

I stared at her, dumbfounded. “Why?” I asked. “Am I not her type?”

Shawn fixed me a look. “I didn’t say that.”

“So why?”

She sighed. “First of all, you have a girlfriend. Second of all, my best friend just broke up with her boyfriend recently. And third of all, you have a girlfriend. I know I’m not Kelsey’s fan but I’m an even lesser fan of infidelity.”

“She just broke up with her boyfriend?”

Shawn blinked at me. “Trust you to focus on that and not anything else I said. But to answer your question, yes, she did. While you were introducing your girlfriend to your family, my best friend was breaking up with her boyfriend.” She frowned. “What an asshole he turned out to be. She just wasted five years of her life with that guy.”

“They were together five years?” I asked, amazed.

Shawn nodded. “They were high school sweethearts. She was, like, loyal to the point of ridiculousness. Like not once did she even consider going out with anyone else, or even think about breaking up with him even when he kept on doing whatever he wanted to do. She stayed with him through military school and Auburn, and he just ditched her. What a fucking idiot. ” Her voice was rising with agitation, and she flushed in anger. As if just realizing that she shared too much information, she pursed her lips. “So no… Even if you were my best friend’s type, which I’m not saying you are, I would not fix you up with my girl at this moment in time. She’s too fragile and you’re too… attached to someone else.”

“Fine,” I said, forcing my eyes back on the notes in front of me, trying to push aside the image of the woman I just saw. “Will you, at least, tell me her name?”

“No. If you two are meant to meet, you will. Somehow,” Shawn said, voice firm. “Besides, I’m not going to do anything that might incur your girlfriend’s wrath. She’s pretty controlling, right?”

“She’s… okay.” I caught Shawn rolling her eyes. Again. “Why would you think that?”

“Oh… I don’t know. Maybe because you do everything she tells you to do,” she replied cheekily. “By the way, I know why you call me Shawn; I just wanted to hear it directly from your mouth.”

****

Central Park

New York City, New York

November 18, 1991

1:00 p.m.

Jung Jin

I walked over Bow Bridge in Central Park, tugging the flannel shirt under my bubble coat lower over my jeans. The boots I wore made no sound on the pavement as my view changed from flowers to woodlands, the sunlight cheerful and bright over our surroundings. I placed my hands on the concrete railing as I reached mid-bridge, and I craned my neck to look for Shawn.

Thank God she called with a distraction. God knows I probably would have done something I would have regretted.

Kelsey had called earlier and asked to meet. I had yet to give her an answer. Truthfully I was almost… relieved when she said it wasn’t working, that she needed a break. She wants me to do everything she says, and as long as I did, we were happy. But the moment I said no, we ended up embroiled in weeks of cold shoulders and arguments.

I’ve always been the one to give in and I’m tired of it. And still I keep on going back, without even knowing why.

I shook my head as I secured my hold on the wine I had brought. Shawn assured me that I didn’t need to bring anything, but it was bad form to attend a picnic without bringing anything. Especially when her best friend may be here.

First impressions are very important.

I felt a thread of anticipation run through me at the thought of seeing her again. Finally meeting her. Shawn has repeatedly refused to give me her name, even. Who knew she was so stubborn?

I descended the bridge and was making my way to Cherry Hill when I saw Shawn and another girl, sitting on the ground. The other girl had her back to me, her long dark hair flowing on her back. It certainly looked like her best friend. I smiled, then frowned as I noticed the pattern on the blanket they were sitting on. Jesus, I thought, I matched the damn thing.

My feet stopped moving and froze in place. I considered running back to the dorm to change my shirt, had almost convinced myself it was the right thing to do when Shawn spotted me and stood up, waving her arms in the air.

I walked slowly towards them, wishing I could disappear into the ground, hoping and praying that Shawn’s best friend would not notice that I was wearing the exact replica of the blanket. I held my breath as she stood up, brushing off the leaves that have stuck to her legs.

I held my breath. And then she turned.

*****

Greenwich Village

New York City, New York

November 21, 1991

9:00 p.m.

Gia

Junnie and I were both at home, a pile of Chinese takeout cartons on the coffee table in front of us. The smell of beef broccoli, egg rolls and kung pao chicken permeated the air. We had just finished watching ‘Thelma and Louis’ on VHS and now we were vegging out, as we usually did on any night when I was off work from the hospital, sitting on opposite sides of the couch, our legs side by side. A throw lay carelessly over us, and charcoal masks on our faces. The wine we had been drinking had long been transferred from wine glass to plastic cups, and we were both sipping from straws.

It was perfect. The first night that was cool enough that we were able to light the fireplace, and now our apartment was blanketed by a yellowish orange glow.

I felt good. Not drunk, but tipsy. Relaxed. As if the weight of the world has been taken off my shoulders.

“So, what did you think of the film?” She asked, taking the cucumber off her eyes to look at me.

“I thought it was good,” I said. “We could totally be Thelma and Louise.”

“Except, you know, the robbing and killing and stuff,” Junnie said, laughing.

“Oh hell no… I don’t like getting my hands dirty. But then again,” I added, “Brad Pitt.”

“True.” Junnie sighed.

“True.”

I took a sip of my wine and lay my neck back, wondering if there was any moment more perfect than this. The fall semester was drawing to a close, soon the city will be bustling with the holiday season, and Junnie and I are half a year short of graduating.

I was dozing off, my eyes already closed, when I remembered something and sat up. “Hey,” I said. “What was that message you left me on Monday about meeting you at Central Park?”

“Just what I said,” Junnie said. “Me and a couple of my friends didn’t have class and were meeting up for a picnic at the park and I wanted you to come.” She sat up and looked at me quizzically. “Where were you anyway? You don’t have lectures on Mondays and your calendar said you were off work.”

I shook my head. “Ahhh… one of my co-workers couldn’t find a babysitter or something. I agreed to switch with her for tonight. I must have forgotten to mark it on my calendar. What did you eat?”

“All your favorites,” she teased. “Cannolis from Ferrara’s in Little Italy, Korean fried chicken, dim sum from Chinatown, cheese and pate from Lamazou on 3rd, a stirato from Sullivan Street Bakery and a bottle of white. ”

“Damn,” I said, regretful. “That sounds nice. And it was such a beautiful day, too. Were there a lot of people there?”

Junnie stifled a yawn. “No… not many. Just Stephanie, my study partner in class and Ethan.”

“Ethan?” I asked and she nodded. “He’s still around?” I asked, leaning towards the table and trying very carefully to maneuver a piece of broccoli into my mouth with the chopsticks. “I thought you mentioned that he was transferring to Columbia for his MBA?”

“He is. I think he’s finishing the year here and then going.”

“That’s awesome. Good for him,” I said, then remembered something. “Is he still with that girl?”

Junnie brightened. “Actually no… they’re like on their third break since they’ve been together. I’m crossing my fingers that it’ll stick this time.”

“Why?” I asked curiously. “Do you not like her?”

“That’s an understatement.”

“You don’t normally have such extreme reactions to people,” I commented, picking up my wine. “Do you like him?”

The whole time we’ve been friends Junnie had never mentioned any interest in a guy, but she constantly talked about him. Ethan this, Ethan that. I once thought that she maybe had a crush on him but one look at her face dispelled all thoughts about her harboring any kind of romantic interest in her friend.

“Ugh,” she said, making a face. “No. He’s practically related to me. Like an older brother.”

“The guy would probably be heartbroken to hear that he’d not only been friend zoned but brother zoned as well.”

Junnie snorted on the wine she was drinking. “I highly doubt that.”

I drank more of my wine, then picked up a half eaten egg roll. “How come I’ve never met him anyway?”

“I don’t know,” Junnie said vaguely. “You’re never here when he’s here, and when you are, he’s off doing something with Kelsey.”

“Yeah, but you’ve never even shown me a picture of him or anything. How am I supposed to know who he is?”

“I don’t know,” she said, shrugging her slim shoulders. “It’s possible that you could have bumped into him on campus or anything.”

“How could that be?” I asked. “Unless he’s taking nursing classes secretly we would have no reason to bump into each other.” I smiled at her. “To be honest, for a while I thought he was your imaginary friend or something.”

Junnie chuckled. “Do I look like the type to have an imaginary friend?”

I thought about it. “Actually, no. You’re probably too pragmatic for something so silly. I, however, am not.”

“Do you want to see a picture of him?” She suddenly asked, standing up and running to her purse before I could even give her an answer. She sat back down and pulled me to a sitting position before placing a picture in my fingers. I squinted my eyes to take a closer look, the light from the fireplace and lamp doing nothing for my line of vision. Or maybe it was the wine.

I blinked at the picture, focusing on the man who had a long arm wrapped around Junnie’s shoulder, his smile wide but uncertain. His hair was neither long nor short but thick, his eyes hidden behind a pair of glasses. He had a strong jaw, high cheekbones, straight nose. He’d break hearts once he filled and grew into his gangly frame. I peered at the picture and noticed a detail I had missed the first time I looked.

He had a dimple on his left cheek. It looked almost out of place in an otherwise handsome face made up of over exaggerated features. It made him look warm, boyish. Entirely too pretty. I frowned as I felt a thrum of interest go through me and almost immediately blamed the wine.

I put the picture down. “Yeah,” I said. “I definitely have never met him.” Junnie nudged my shoulder.

“So… what do you think?” She wiggled her eyebrows.

“About what?” I turned my eyes away and feigned ignorance.

“Ethan,” she said. “What do you think?”

“He’s okay.”

She frowned, I think. It was a little hard to tell with the mask on her face. “Just okay?” She asked and picked up the photo, then started waving it in my face. “Look at it again,” she ordered. “Take a reaaaallllyyy good look.”

“Fine, fine…” I conceded, swatting her hand away. “He’s… acceptable.”

“Ohmygod,” Junnie said, her eyes wide. “You think he’s cute.” I said nothing. “You do! I mean,” she continued, looking at the picture again, “I could see why you’d think that, I guess… but don’t you think he looks a bit dorky?”

“No,” I said. “I think he looks… fine. He looks kind and smart. He looks like a good guy.”

Her eyes bore into mine and she grinned, her teeth freakishly white against the blackness of the mask on her face. “Do you want me to fix you two up?”

“No,” I said, not sounding entirely convincing even to my ears. I tried again. “No.”

“Why?”

“He’s in between breaks with his girlfriend,” I said. “One he has a pattern of going back to. Besides… I don’t shit where I eat.”

“What does that even mean?”

“It means I follow the rules. Don’t mess friendship with love and that.”

“Who said anything about love?” She asked. “I just asked if you wanted to go out on a date. And… the rule states never to mix business with pleasure.”

“Whatever,” I argued. “It doesn’t matter. Anyway, I met someone.”

“You did?” She asked, surprised. “When?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “A couple of days ago. I stopped at a record store on my way home and he was just there.”

Junnie released a breath. “Well… what does he look like? What does he do?”

“He dj’s,” I said. “He break dances. Goes to school part time.” Very part time, I wanted to add but held my tongue. “He’s tall, has black hair and bright green eyes. He’s very urban. Very handsome. We’re going out to the movies tomorrow night.”

“What’s his name?”

“Marcus King,” I replied. “Sounds promising, don’t you think?”

“That’s too bad,” Junnie said, deflecting my question. “You and Ethan are perfect for each other.”

*****

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

December 19, 1992

11:30 p.m.

Gia

I ran and ran, my breath catching with each step, as I took my first few steps away from Marcus. My legs seemed to grow stronger as I ran, my shoes hitting the ground with such force that it made a sound, bleak and final, as I tried to get as far away from where I had been as quickly as possible.

For two months I’d lived in a cheap motel room, Marcus watching my every move. The room had no bars and had a door but make no mistake, it was my prison.

For two months the days melded into nights as I was buried in a cycle of violence, behind closed doors and threadbare curtains. No one bore witness as my boyfriend turned into my warden, as my dream of love became a nightmare. Nobody knew. No one knew but me.

I should have known when within a month of dating Marcus had began pulling me away from Junnie. I should have questioned when he had accused my best friend of not wanting me to be happy. I should have left as soon as he insisted that I ‘share’ my salary with him, as soon as his first slap had landed. But he said it was me and him against the world. That we had to stay together, that no one else would ever love me more.

How could I leave, he asked, when what we had was so intense, so real? This was love, he insisted. The best kind: all passion, so big, enough to kill for, enough to die for. The kind anyone would want to have.

I believed him.

I was a fool. This was my fault and now I had to pay the price.

But did I have to pay that price with my life?

My heart tightened and I felt my breath hitch as air stopped moving in my lungs. I stopped and placed my hands on my thighs, my head bent low as I tried to breathe through the pain. Sweat poured from my forehead even on this cold winter night, my body burning up even though I wore only a long sleeved shirt and jeans.

A light drew my attention and I lifted my head, a payphone booth the only thing illuminated in the darkness, almost as if it was a beacon.

I dragged my feet towards it and picked up the receiver as soon as I closed the door, then immediately almost putting it back down before I stopped. Who can I call? Who should I call? Who did I have that I knew would come to my aid no matter what?

I dug into my bag for some coins as I dialed a number from memory, then breathed a sigh when I heard the familiar voice.

“Hello?” My best friend greeted. “Hello?” A lump formed in my throat. “Hello?”

“It’s me,” I said softly. “It’s…”

“Gia?” She asked. She didn’t sound angry, as I had expected. She sounded worried. And sad. “Is everything okay?”

What I heard in her voice shattered a part of me. This was my fault. My fault. I did this. I always hurt the people who love me.

“Gia?”

“Jun,” I said, my voice breaking. “I need help.”

*****

Brooklyn, New York

December 20, 1992

1:45 a.m.

Jung Jin

I had been asleep when I heard the phone ring. I thought I’d been dreaming, thought to ignore it at first. It’s the middle of the damn night. Who the hell would call at this time?

The phone kept on trilling even as I shifted position, grateful for once that Kelsey was turned the opposite way. Her dark hair lay flat on the pillow behind her, her eyes tightly shut. She had her mouth scrunched in a frown.

“Shut it up,” she mumbled. “Ethan… shut it up!”

I reached over her to the bedside table, reminded yet again why I had needed to buy another table. Still smarting from my parents’ disapproval of Kelsey, I had refused all help with my tuition and lodging. As a result I ended up living off campus, in the smallest and cheapest studio that I could find, in a rougher part of town, all the things that Kelsey loathed.

She always did prefer the finer things in life, and this apartment was not it.

The phone rang again even after the answering machine had clicked, and I groggily picked it up. Before I could even say a greeting, I heard Shawn’s voice, urgent and concerned.

“It’s me,” she said. “I’m so glad that you haven’t flown home yet.”

“I’m flying out later today,” I said. “What’s wrong?”

I heard her take a deep breath. “My best friend,” she choked out, “my best friend is in trouble. It’s bad.”

“What?” I asked, sitting up on the side of the bed, alarming Kelsey enough that she was at my back, a hand on my spine. I covered the receiver and mouthed ‘Shawn’ before getting out of bed. I walked to the bathroom and closed the door. “What’s going on?”

“I’m not sure yet,” Shawn said, and I could tell that she was trying to calm her nerves. “I only have the smallest of details. She’s in Philadelphia, at South Street Diner, between South Hancock and 2nd Street. She doesn’t have any money and she needs to get out of there.” I had already walked to the kitchen, grabbed a piece of paper and pen and started writing the information down.

“Ethan,” Shawn said, her voice shaky. “She’s scared and alone. Please go get her. Please. I know it’s the middle of the night, but she’s…”

“I’m getting dressed now,” I said. “Don’t worry. We’ll get her.”

“You can take her to my apartment in Greenwich Village. There’s an extra key on top of the doorframe. Can you call me once you have her?” She asked. “You can reach me at my flat. You have my number, right? ”

“Yeah,” I said, pulling a beanie over my head. I was in the process of shrugging into my coat when I heard Shawn speak again.

“Ethan.”

“Yeah.”

“No matter who you see or whoever tries to stop you once you have her, just drive. Do you hear me?” She asked. “No matter what happens, do not stop.”

*****

On a good day, a person can make the trip from Brooklyn to Philadelphia in two hours, give or take. On a night like tonight, when there are flurries threatening to fall and the wind was so gusty it almost felt like my skin was being blown off as soon as I stepped out of the apartment, the trip would have taken three hours.

I made it in less than an hour and a half, speeding through three major highways and the New Jersey Turnpike, not even bothering to turn the radio on. My mind was in chaos, trying to reconcile the only memory I had of Shawn’s best friend to the woman I was about to encounter, alone in a strange city in the middle of the night.

I had taken the exit for Columbus Boulevard, then another right to take me south. I made a right on Christian St. and another on Ross Street before making a left on South Lombard and then 2nd. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Thank God I consulted the atlas before I came.

I slowed down as I looked for the building. Luckily a brick building came into view, with the name I was looking for posted right in front in bold white letters, the light still lit from within. God bless America and their 24 hour diners.

I parked the car in front (another benefit of arriving in the middle of the night,) and ran through the double doors, almost bumping into a waitress.

“Did you need a table, honey?” She asked, her bouffant hair bobbing.

“No,” I replied. “I’m looking for a girl.” I searched my mind for her image, but could only remember certain details, all of which failed to create a whole image. I don’t even know what her eye color is. “Long hair, small nose… plump lips. She’s short…”

“I haven’t seen anyone like that here,” she said, “but I just came on shift a few minutes ago. Feel free to look but there’s no one here with the weather like this, only our regulars.”

I mumbled my thanks and ran around the diner, checking every booth and every table to no avail. Dammit. I exited and looked again at the entrance, and still I saw no one. Did Shawn tell me the right diner? Did I come too late?

I trudged my way to the payphone on the corner of the street, and pulled some coins out of my pocket. I entered the booth and lifted the receiver, was about to insert the first coin, when I spied a small figure on the side of the diner, sitting on the curb.

Could it be her?

I left the booth and approached carefully, reminded of Shawn’s words. As I got closer I noticed that the person was holding a cigarette, taking deep puffs. I didn’t stop walking until I was but a few steps away.

“Hi,” I said awkwardly, and there was no response. It’s only now that I realized that to this day, Shawn had never told me her best friend’s name. “Uhmm, Sha…Sarah sent me.”

The person stubbed the cigarette on the ground and gingerly stood up, and it was only then that I got my confirmation. Her head was covered with a baseball cap and her eyes covered with sunglasses.

It was no surprise the lady at the diner didn’t recognize her by my description. I could barely recognize her myself; that is until I looked at her lips. Though dry and chapped now, I would recognize those lips anywhere.

I saw that she wore only a long sleeved shirt and a pair of jeans, ragged sneakers on her feet. She had only one duffel bag on one shoulder. I quickly shrugged out of my coat and tried to put it on her shoulders, only to have her cower, like a wounded animal, terrified of the next blow.

I wasn’t sure what the hell happened here, but I knew then that it should never have. I had four sisters of my own, and if I found any of them like this… my fist closed involuntarily.

She walked slowly in front of me as if there was a heavy weight over her. Her beautiful hair, always long in my memories, was shorn just above her shoulders, the ends uneven, as if she had cut it herself. Her whole body was shaking, her arms wrapping around herself. Unable to bear seeing such a sight, I caught up with her and spoke.

“Look,” I started, “I’m just putting my coat on your shoulders, okay? I’m not going to touch you. Just let me put this on you and we can be on our way.”

She stood as still as a statue, neither giving or denying permission. I wrapped the coat over her shoulders, and she turned her head away as I leaned in, her sunglasses shifting. I saw traces of black and blue over her left eye, extending down to an otherwise flawless cheek. Up close I could also see that her lips were swollen on one side, the tender flesh puffing up as if with air. As if realizing that I had seen, she lifted a hand over her mouth to cover it, her wrist covered with bruises in the shape of fingers. She pulled on a sleeve immediately, the motion so vulnerable I felt something in my chest creak.

No woman should ever be touched in violence, with the intent to cause pain. The girl who danced with her eyes closed, her mouth in a pensive smile, had lived through such a thing.

I swallowed as a burst of anger shot through me, resisting the urge to demand the name of the person who did this. Stopping myself from taking a fist to the nearest wall. Knowing that I couldn’t do either, I took her bag and walked quickly to the car, opening the door to the backseat.

I waited as she made her way towards me, folding her body into the car, then I shut the door after her, looking around to make sure we were not being watched. I entered the car and turned on the ignition, then reversed out of the parking space and eased the car into the road.

The silence in the car was heavy and somber as I drove out of the city and onto the first of the major highways that would bring us back to the city. She was motionless and still had not spoken a single word. It wasn’t until we crossed the state line into New Jersey that I saw her visibly relax from the rearview mirror, as if finally able to breathe.

And then I heard her speak. “Thank you,” she said, her tone low and gravelly, the voice of one who had either shouted too much and hadn’t been heard, or one who’s been silenced for too goddamned long.

I had a feeling I knew which one applied.

*****

San Francisco, California

August 24, 2001

8:00 p.m.

Gia

I rang the doorbell and waited for a response, wondered what Junnie could possibly be doing here. I rotated my shoulders as I stood, then my calves.

I was still in scrubs, having just gotten out of work a few minutes ago. I retied my hair in a bun as a buzzer went off and I grasped the door handle to enter the apartment. I took a hesitant step in, my hands automatically going to the patterned walls in the color of rich cream. I followed the hallway and my fingers drifted over the solid wood table by the door, a pile of bubble wrapped items on its surface.

Though it was almost 8 p.m., the sunlight was still out, painting the living room with its multifaceted glass walls in an reddish glow, the same shade that the city, the sight of which was currently spread before me, now wore.

There were blankets covering the furniture, and I put my purse down, my hands feeling the solid marble counter. The kitchen was outfitted too, in the best and most modern gadgets, all the appliances a celebration in chrome.

That particular beauty is lost on me, though. I can’t cook, don’t cook, won’t cook. I wouldn’t know what to do with a kitchen like this even if I had one. Which I don’t.

I am still living in Junnie’s loft, the way I have the last five years. Much like this, actually, I thought as I saw the boxes and boxes of personal belongings. Except the state of my life is constantly like this.

“Gia?” I heard Junnie call out and I followed the sound, trying to figure out where she was at. As if reading my mind, she called out again. “I’m in the bedroom.”

I backtracked my way to the closest door, slightly ajar, and opened it to find my best friend sitting on the floor, a box marked fragile in front of her. She had a roll of bubble wrap and tape next to her, a pair of scissors in her hands.

“Hey,” I greeted as I watched her roll bubble wrap over a framed picture. “Why did you call me here?”

She snipped a piece of tape and secured it before answering me. “I thought we’d have dinner out when I’m done. And I’ll be done much quicker if I had a helper, aka my best friend here with me. You’re the expert packer.”

“So that’s why you dragged me here?” I asked, joining her on the floor. “It looks like you’ve done most of the work already.”

“Yeah,” she answered. “I’ve been here since noon. Thankfully Chilbong doesn’t have a lot of stuff.”

I picked up a framed photograph from the counter and held it for Junnie to see, but not before I had a glimpse of the woman in it. She was stunningly beautiful with her moss green eyes and bright smile. “Is this Chilbong?”

Junnie shook her head. “No, that’s Chilbong’s girlfriend.”

I frowned. “Who is this Chilbong anyway?” I asked,, handing the photograph.

“Ah,” she said, placing the bubble wrapped parcel in the box, along with the rest of its similarly wrapped companions before taking the fram from me. .”Ethan’s client.”

“Ethan?” I asked, and felt a flush form on my cheeks. “I haven’t heard that name in a long time.”

“Yeah, well, he’s kind of my client, so I talk to him all the time, but I didn’t want to freak you out, so I just stopped mentioning him.”

“Freak me out?” I asked defensively. “I am not freaked out.”

“Is that why you had to make an excuse just to run away on New Year’s Eve?” She asked, rolling her eyes.

“I didn’t run away.”

“Yeah, okay. That’s why you’re In the bathroom one minute and then home the next.”

“I didn’t run away,” I repeated more adamantly. “But I didn’t feel right meeting him when just minutes before I was kissing someone else.” I stopped speaking when I realized what I just said and belatedly remembered that I never told Junnie about my kissing that mysterious stranger.

Junnie stopped what she was doing. “What?” She asked. “What did you say?”

“Nothing,” I responded, standing up and opening the armoire behind me. “Have you finished with this stuff yet?”

“Don’t change the topic,” she said, standing up. “Who the hell did you kiss that night?”

“I don’t know his name.”

“Where is he from?”

“I don’t know.”

“What did he look like?”

I gave her a hard look. “Damn, Junnie… you know as well as I do that it was so dark in that bar that night and I was practically sloshed. How the hell am I supposed to know all that? We didn’t exactly have a conversation.”

Junnie grabbed my arm and turned me to face her. “What were you thinking kissing a stranger?”

“Some jerk was hitting on me and he wouldn’t stop no matter what I said. I saw the guy by the counter, I pretended he was my boyfriend and kissed him before the jerky guy could kiss me when the ball dropped. No big deal.”

“That would be considered sexual assault in this country.”

“He didn’t exactly fight me,” I said, remembering the way his hands drew me closer, his lips molding to mine. The way he smelled. Ugh… all of a sudden I wanted to stick my whole face in the fridge. “Anyway, it was a long time ago and you’ve said nothing about Ethan since.”

“That’s because he left not long before you did, running out of the damn place like his ass was on fire.”

“Weird,” I thought. He must have met someone too. “Who’s his client anyway? This place looks swanky.”

“I don’t know the kid,” she said. “Ethan’s very funny about confidentiality and all that.”

“Sounds like an upstanding guy,” I said, peering into the last drawer, already empty.

“He is,” Junnie said. “I told you. He’s awesome and you’re missing out. Although…”

She stopped speaking and cleared her throat. “What?” I asked. “Finish your sentence.”

“I don’t know. I noticed even a few years ago that he wasn’t exactly like the Ethan I knew… he’s sleeker now, sharper. He’s got this edge that he didn’t have in uni. I’ve just been noticing it more and more in the last couple of years. Like I don’t really know him as well as I think I do. I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Well,” I said, trying to be supportive even as I pulled some clothes out of the drawer. “People do change, you know. You’ve handled me changing, surely you can handle him changing, too.”

“I didn’t say I couldn’t handle it,” she said hotly. “I just don’t understand why all my friends feel the need to change when there was nothing wrong with them to begin with.”

I chuckled. “Of course you won’t think anything’s wrong with us,” I said lightly. “Bet you’re glad you were unsuccessful at fixing us up. It might have been a disaster and whose side will you take?”

“No.” Her eyes were adamant, determined. “I still think you two are perfect for each other.”

“You keep thinking that if it makes you feel better,” I said, laughing.

“You need to date.”

“No one needs to date,” I said, using the counter to fold the clothes and passing it to Junnie.

“You do.” She huffed. “When was the last time anyone asked you out?”

“Men don’t always have to ask women out now, you know. We are living in the 21st century.” I heard her sigh. “And… just so you know I get asked all the time.”

“By who?” Junnie asked with her hands on her hips.

“Some guy I work with,” I said and she smirked, probably thought I was making Marc up. “A manager for a baseball player.”

“What manager?”

“Just some manager,” I said dismissively, hoping she won’t catch the interest in my voice. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Please tell me you said yes.”

“No. Absolutely not. I don’t go out with clients or their relations.”

“If he’s the manager then he’s not related to your patient, is he?” She asked. “There’s your logic out the window.”

“He’s a player,” I said. “And I don’t go out with players.”

“But…”

A baby blue box caught my attention and I interrupted Junnie from saying whatever she was about to say. “Ah… Jun…”

“What?” She said, joining me by the armoire.

I lifted the box out and opened it, and was almost instantaneously blinded by the enormous rock sitting inside. “Did Ethan say anything about an engagement ring?”

“No,” she said, “he did not. But his client’s been with the same girl for a while. Maybe he was about to propose.”

“Good for him,” I said. “And her, judging by this diamond.”

“Yeah,” Junnie agreed, sounding all of a sudden melancholy. I wanted to ask about her dating but nothing riled Junnie up more than any mention of her personal life. I knew it weighed on her that her parents were expecting her to marry soon, and I think that may be why she refused to date.

It was unexpected to see Junnie rebel about anything.

The state of my dating life was momentarily forgotten as we both pondered different things and continued to pack.

*****

Seoul, Korea

February 4, 2002

4:00 a.m.

Jung Jin

I lifted Hye Soo’s arm from my chest, her arm pale against the moonlight. I got in the shower and dressed quickly, making sure to leave the gift I had bought her somewhere she would see it first thing when she wakes.

She wouldn’t be expecting me here. That’s never been our thing. The only difference now was that I was the one who left and not her. It was much simpler this way. Just the way I liked it.

I stepped off the elevator and quickly settled the bill, then strode to the valet stand and handed him my stub. As I waited my mind ran through everything I needed to do, satisfied that I have taken care of everything.

Everything but my car, that is.

To date I’ve heard nothing from any buyers about my car in San Francisco. It wouldn’t be such a big deal had it not been for the fact that I wanted everything in San Francisco settled, like, yesterday.

The attendant came back with my key and I went into my car, pulling my phone out as I eased into a parking space directly in front of the hotel. Pressing the speed dial for Shawn’s number, knew that she would already be up at this time. As she always was. I waited to hear her voice before I spoke.

“Ethan?” She asked groggily. “What’s wrong? Where are you? San Francisco?”

“No,” I said. “I’m back in Korea. Why do you sound like that?”

“Late date last night. And you’re back in Korea already?” She asked. “What happened?”

“Well, my client was back in Korea and there really was no reason for me to stay in San Francisco.”

“That wasn’t what you said last time.”

“I don’t really feel like talking about that now,” I said testily. “That’s not why I called.”

“You’re already so tense so early in the morning,” she commented. “God, go drink some coffee or something. Now, what can I do for you?”

“When are you going back to San Francisco?”

Shawn was silent before she responded. “I’m not sure yet. But my girl’s not answering her phone so it might be sooner than anticipated. Maybe within the next couple of weeks. Why… what’s up?”

I latched on to what she said as opposed to the question. “I didn’t know your best friend was in San Francisco.”

“You don’t know a lot of things.” She was laughing then suddenly stopped. “Do you still have a crush on my best friend?”

I shook my head. “No. I was just asking.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I don’t even know what she looks like so how can I have a crush on her?”

“Uh-huh.”

“I don’t have a crush on her.”

“Okay.”

“Shawn…”

“What?”

“Shut up.”

“I love riling you up,” she said, giggling. “She would probably die if she found out.”

“There’s nothing to find out!” I said. “How can I have a crush on your best friend when I was actively pursuing a woman not your best friend?

“What woman?”

“Forget it,” I muttered as the image of Gia floated through my mind. And then the image of her waiting for that surgeon’s kiss. I bit back back a curse.

Shawn was still laughing. “This will never not be funny to me.” She took a deep breath and released it, as if calming herself down. “Anyway… what did you need me to do?”

“My car in San Francisco needs to be sold. I listed it before I left but no takers so far. Can you check on it for me?”

“Sure,” she said. “Just send me the details and where it’s at so I can look at it when I fly back.”

“Thanks.”

“No problem,” she said. “The funds went to the bank for the crash site and the hospital, by the way. It cleared last week. I meant to call you but I forgot.” Shawn stopped speaking as if she remembered something. “Listen… do you have the phone number for that place where you bought the chocolate in San Francisco? I think I may have done something to the one stored in my hand phone since the last time I called I was told it was the wrong number.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think I may have it somewhere.”

I thought hard about where I could possibly have it, remembered that I hadn’t even had the chance to enter it on my phone and I recently cleared my logs.

Where could it be?

“Well…” Shawn said “…can you get it?”

“I can’t right now,” I said then stopped as an idea formed and fleshed, the memory of my shoving the piece of paper in a particular jacket, one whose possession I no longer had.

“Why not?”

“It’s in one of my jackets.”

“What is the problem with that?” Shawn asked, sounding confused. “Go get your jacket.”

“I’ll get it another time.”

“Ethan… what’s the big deal? It’ll take, like, minutes. I do favors for you all the time. Just grab your jac…”

“I just don’t have it, okay!” I sounded defensive, even to my ears. “I’ll find the number and send it to you. Okay?”

“Fine… fine,” Shawn finally said after a moment of shocked silence. “You really need to take a chill pill, Ethan. If I didn’t know you better I would think you’ve gone off the rail.”

I didn’t have the confidence to correct her. Since that woman came into my life, and even after she’d gone, I’d been convinced of the same thing.

*****

San Francisco, California

February 15, 2002

11:30 a.m.

Gia

“It’s good to see you,” I said as I pulled away from Junnie. “Why are you here?”

She shook her head at me. “I had something to do in San Francisco,” she answered, unwrapping the scarf around her neck and unbuttoning her coat. “How are you?” She asked, her eyes looking at me in concern.

“I’m fine,” I responded absently.

And surprisingly, I was. After what happened with Teddy and Marc and Jung Jin, the haze of the last few months was finally lifting and I was beginning to feel like myself again. I had learned to push away memories of Teddy’s death as soon as it came up and spent no time thinking about anything else besides my future.

Now, at least, I had another ten months’ worth of reprieve before the holiday season and the cycle begins once more. Hopefully by then I’ll be somewhere else, somewhere new… somewhere far far away from here.

“You sounded rough the last time I spoke to you.” I heard Junnie say as she walked over to the fridge and looked over its contents, settling on a bottled water before she plopped herself down on a chair. “And you haven’t answered the phone the last few days I called. Are you really okay?”

“Yeah,” I said, sitting down across from her. “You know me.”

“I do know you.” Her brown eyes traveled over my face in concern. “That’s why I was worried.”

“I’m fine.”

“I thought you would say that.” She sighed. “Anyway, I got tired of playing phone tag.”

“You know I went home for Maria’s birthday.”

“Hotel?” She asked, knowing full well what I was going to say.

“Where else?” I replied drily. “My father and I can’t stay under the same roof. Not unless you want someone killed or disowned within twenty four hours.”

“So you did see your dad?” She asked carefully. “I’m surprised.”

“I didn’t say that,” I said. I stood up and made a show of washing my hands, the sound of the tap running muffling my response. “I didn’t see him at all.”

I dried my hands on some paper towels before grabbing the last bottle of water from the fridge and sitting back down. I followed her eyes to the two suitcases and a cosmetic case by the door, as well as some boxes, all already taped up and ready for shipping.

“What’s that?” She asked with a frown. “Why are all your stuff by the door? Unless, of course, you’re moving someone in without telling me?”

“You hungry?” I asked, trying to change the topic. “It’ll take me just a minute to change…”

“… out of your hip hop princess outfit?” She finished, her eyes travelling up and down over me. I looked down and noted my denim overalls over a tank top, then smoothed a hand over my bandanna covered head. “You’re not answering my question. Why are your suitcases by the front door?”

“I can’t afford to live here anymore, ” I answered with a shrug. “Going home, realizing that there was no way I could live near my parents, made me seriously think about what I’m going to do next.”

“And what’s the verdict?” She said, uncapping the bottled water and taking a sip.

“I don’t know yet,” I answered truthfully.

“I’m thinking of just renting a car and driving cross country back to the east coast. Maybe on the way back I’ll get to scan some other places and figure out where I’ll want to stay next.”

“You’re seriously planning on staying in the middle of nowhere,” she said disbelievingly. “You don’t even know any of those states.”

“I do, too.”

“Name one, then.”

I tried to visualize the map of America in my head, trying to pinpoint one of the states in the middle. My mind was coming up blank so I pictured my driving route back to New Jersey instead. Jackpot.

“Nebraska!” I declared triumphantly.

“See?”

“You’re going to work in Nebraska,” she said, blinking at me. “It’s called the cornhusker state.”

“So? I like corn,” I said, defensive. “I’ve husked corn.”

“You’re a city girl,” she said. “You can’t live in Nebraska.”

“I didn’t say I was going to stay there forever,” I said. “I was thinking of doing a couple of contracts while I figure out what to do.”

She continued frowning as she checked her phone. “I still don’t know why you don’t just stay here,” she said. “I’ve told you to take your time.”

“I’ve overstayed my welcome here. Besides, I can’t keep mooching off your generosity, Jun,” I said. Upon seeing that she was about to protest, I held up a hand to silence her. “I told you I would only stay here until I got my retirement contributions out and then I’ll go. The funds were in my checking account as of yesterday, so I need to get a move on.”

“I still don’t think Nebraska is the answer,” she insisted.

“You’re more fixated on Nebraska than I am,” I teased. “What have you got against that state?”

I got up to put the spray of Lysol away and when I came back, I saw Junnie standing up as well, holding Jung Jin’s jacket in her hands by the bedroom door. The last time I saw that had been when I took it off the morning after Teddy’s death, all of sudden remembering my unanswered message to him. I snatched it off her before she could say anything and dropped it on top of one of the boxes, a detail she didn’t miss as she raised an eyebrow.

“Tom Ford?” She remarked, impressed. “I didn’t realize that the surgeon had such good taste. Do you have news, then? I knew you were being too quiet. Is the drought over then?”

“Junnie, don’t be crude,” I said. “It’s nothing like that. And it’s not Marc’s.”

“I don’t get it,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

“Marc and I stopped seeing each other almost three weeks ago. I thought I mentioned this to you.”

“No, you didn’t tell me,” she said with a shake of her head. “I told you it wasn’t going to work.”

“Don’t start with the ‘I told you so,’ Junnie. That it didn’t work out bears no reflection on his character. He’s a great guy.”

“I didn’t say he wasn’t,” she said. “He just wasn’t for you. So… spill the beans. Who is the owner of the jacket?”

“You know who the owner of the jacket is. He left it on New Year’s Eve.”

“The manager?” She asked, a grin on her face. “Tell me more.”

“There’s nothing to tell, Jun.” Her smile widened even more and I threw a towel at her. “Cut that out. I have other things to worry about besides the state of my love life, or my lack of one.”

“If there’s nothing to tell then why are you still in possession of his very expensive jacket?” She asked.

“I never got the chance to return it?” I replied, walking to the bedroom with her closely following behind me. “I would have sent it to him but I don’t have his address and he refuses to give it to me.”

“Uhm… ever heard of the yellow pages?” She asked, sarcastic. “And barring that, the Internet!”

“He doesn’t even live in San Francisco,” I said. “The yellow pages has no information on him. And I doubt that the Internet will track down a Korean address.”

“Why Korean?” She asked curiously. “Has his client been transferred?”

“No,” I said, looking back at her. “He lives in Korea.”

“And his client? Is he Korean too?”

“I thought I told you this,” I continued. “Both he and his client are Korean.”

“I would have remembered if you told me,” she said. “Is he Korean American or Korean Korean?”

“Why does it matter?” I asked. “Would it make a difference if I said he was Korean Korean?”

“No,” she said quickly before looking away. “I was just curious.”

*****

Park Hyatt Hotel

Seoul, Korea

February 19, 2002

12:10 a.m.

Jung Jin

“What’s this?” I asked before picking it up.

“The reason why I wanted to meet up. I sold your car.” I gave Shawn a smile before I pocketed the check. “Aren’t you even going to see for how much I sold it for?”

“You know I’m rich, thanks to you and your genius brain,” I said with a thumbs up. “Why are we meeting so late anyway?”

“My girl’s asleep,” Shawn responded. “And I was bored.”

“You actually came here with someone?” I asked, surprised. “You’ve gotten softer with old age, my friend.”

“I’m seeing someone now. I never have to travel alone again,” Shawn responded. “Besides, I’m two years younger than you.”

“Whatever,” I teased. “And sneaking out no less? I didn’t realize you were the type.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Shawn said with a shrug. “Hey, do you still have an account with the Bank of Korea?”

“Yup,” I answered, wiping my mouth with a napkin. “Why?”

“I need a favor.”

*****

The next day…

Jung Jin

I stopped by the Park Hyatt on my way to work, reading the text that Shawn had left as I took a sip of my coffee. I walked towards the lobby, then stopped when I reached the counter.

“Morning,” I said. “I’m looking for Sarah Chen.”

“Hold on one second please, Mr. Lee.”

It was no surprise that the hotel staff knew me by name. This was a hotel that Hye Soo and I used so often they might as well name the room after us.

“Miss Chen left for the airport this morning,” he said, lifting a piece of paper that has been taped to the counter, as well as an envelope, and slid it over to me.

“What’s this?” I asked.

“What she left for you,” he answered before greeting the person behind me.

I stepped aside and looked at the envelope, the flap not even sealed. I read Shawn’s note, written as always in print, my friend long aware of the fact that I had never mastered the art of reading cursive.

Please keep this in a safety deposit box at your bank. Feel free to open it…I know you’re going to anyway, nosy ass. Who knows? You might find something that will surprise you.

I chuckled, my finger hovering over the flap, curious as to what it could be holding. Damn Shawn. She knows just how to dangle things in my face without actually giving me anything to work with.

Just like her past attempts at fixing me up with her best friend.

Like a cookie wrangled in front of my eyes for years and I was never meant to have, that woman had eluded me for years. She was as mysterious as Gia was.

The reminder of the woman I met, kissed and lost to another man rankled and I ran my fingers through my hair. The memory of seeing her practically inviting him to kiss her, chin upturned in expectation, still stung harder than I liked.

It’s a good thing I was back in Korea. At least here I had Hye Soo to keep me distracted.

I was tempted to open the envelope I was holding in my hand, knowing that that was what Shawn expected me to do. With a sigh I placed it in my pocket, unopened. along with the note, whistling to myself.

There was nothing that I loved more than proving Shawn wrong than seeing her reaction when I tell her I hadn’t done something she wanted me to do. Again.

*****

Seoul, Korea

March 2, 2002

3:00 p.m.

Gia

“Did you meet the manager?” Junnie’s tone was insistent, nosy.

“I don’t need to. I have his address… I will just mail it while I’m here,” I said. “When am I flying back out?”

“You can’t fly back out unless you meet with him,” she answered stubbornly. “That’s that. It’s out of my hands.”

“What does that mean?” I asked.

“Nothing… nothing,” she replied.

“And if I don’t? You can’t keep me hostage here forever. I’m pretty sure that they have visitor time limits on how long I can stay.”

“It’s six months for American citizens, so that’s not an issue.”

“JUNNIE!”

“I guess you’ll be staying then. But you’ll have to stay someplace else.”

“But you only left enough cash for fourteen days,” I argued. “How am I supposed to stay here much longer?”

“I gave you more than most people earn in Korea in a month. I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” she said calmly. “Of course this process would be a little easier if you asked someone in Korea where to look for someplace to stay.”

“This is manipulation and you know it,” I said, sitting up.

“I gave you my terms, and you didn’t follow it,” she responded. “You can’t get your ticket unless you see him.”

****

Seoul, Korea

May 7, 2002

8:45 a.m.

Jung Jin

“So, did you open it?” Shawn asked as I placed the envelope on my desk to pass to her.

“What do you think?”

“I don’t know,” she said, watching for my reaction carefully. “Probably not, then.”

“What is it anyway?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing…” she said, placing the envelope in her purse. “Just something to do with your favorite topic: my best friend. Bet you’re regretting not opening it now, aren’t you?”

“No.”

I cringed when I realized that my denial didn’t sound very convincing. Is it considered cheating when I’m still curious about a woman I’ve never met even when I was already in love with a woman? Would Gia consider it cheating?

I turned my chair around and looked out at Seoul, wondering if any man has ever been this happy. I felt a goofy smile form on my face as I thought about Gia, what she could be doing, if she was thinking about me.

“Ethan?” Shawn asked. I heard a tapping noise coming from somewhere and I turned my chair around, a half smile on my face. My friend waved at me when our eyes met. “Hello? Penny for your thoughts?”

*****

Goodwood Park Hotel

Singapore

May 30, 2003

6:15 p.m.

Jung Jin

“So…” Gia spoke first after Shawn stopped speaking, looking so shocked that she had to sit down on one of the couches in the bridal suite. “Let me get this straight. Just so I understand completely. You’re telling me that all this time… all these years… the Ethan you’d been talking about is my Jung Jin?”

I felt a happy flush on my cheeks as she used the possessive ‘my,’ remembered that I had been so focused on impressing Joon, or, er, whoever he is that I completely forgot to kiss my woman. I will be fixing that, and soon, when she looks that beautiful, even when she was so obviously angry.

“I can’t believe you were lying to me this whole time!” She turned green eyes towards me. “She was lying to us this whole fucking time!”

Oh no. The curses have started flying from her mouth. She must be really upset. I’d discovered in the last few days that unrestrained, Gia cursed like a sailor. I think back now on how polite she was when we first met and realized that she hadn’t been lying. That was her professional voice. This… was the real Gia.

I didn’t respond, wasn’t sure what to say. My mind was not processing this right. I know I should probably be angry at Shawn, but for some reason I was not. I was more relieved that everything fit into place now. And here I thought Shawn had some inner superpower that gives her closer access to information about Gia that I didn’t. Apparently she was just her best friend.

I shrugged my shoulders in response and got a glare. I averted my eyes and looked at Shawn, more than amazed that she managed to keep this shit from me for so long.

“I know this seems bizarre,” Shawn said, her hands up in the air, splayed wide. Her husband stood behind her, his face volleying between both women in confusion. I know exactly how he feels. “The thing is… the thing is that you two always wanted to meet and then could never seem to, so I just thought when you did, to help it along…”

“Help it along?” Gia asked. “HELP IT ALONG? Is that what you call telling the man to send me Amedei Chocolates? Is that what you call kidnapping me to Korea and stealing my money and passport so I can’t leave? That’s not helping things along!”

“What?” Shawn asked with a stubborn tilt of the chin. “You loved those chocolates, if I must remind you. And had I not taken you to Korea, you would still be meandering about trying to figure out what to do.”

“How could you have kept this from me this whole time?” Gia asked, her voice shaking in fury, glowering at her best friend.

A deep pink covered her cheeks and her neck. I followed the color with my eyes and swallowed. She looked practically edible.

“Don’t look at me like that!” Shawn said, sounding amazingly serene. “It’s not as if I didn’t give the two of you plenty of opportunity to find out that it was me. I swear, for two smart people you two were either incredibly distracted or incredibly stupid not to see them. I will give you credit and think it’s the former, because why the hell would I be friends with such dumb people?”

“What opportunities?” Gia asked. “You never gave me any indication that you could be Shawn. Or that you could even know Jung Jin, even!”

“Uhmm,” Shawn said. “The chocolates, which you already know about. I told him my girl loved these chocolates. Obviously you were my girl. I’ve been referring to you as my girl since uni.” She stopped as if deep in thought. “Your passport and wallet. I gave it to him for safekeeping in Korea.”

“What?” Gia said, her eyes turning to me accusingly. “You had my passport and credit card that whole time?”

“I didn’t know,” I said. “I didn’t…”

“Before you tear his head off, that was my point. I gave it to him, didn’t even tape it or seal it or anything. But did he open it?” Shawn asked. “Noooooo. This man chose that moment not to be nosy. Imagine how it all could have just come together then.”

Gia blinked, held her tongue and Shawn continued to speak. “And I tried to fix you up on your birthday!”

“What do you mean?” Gia asked. “The jerk you set me up with never showed up.”

“The jerk I set you up with is that jerk right there,” Shawn said triumphantly, pointing at me.

“Don’t call him a jerk! He’s not a…”

Gia’s passionate defense of me made me smile and Shawn didn’t miss the expression that’s come over my face. She gave me a sideways grin before resuming the conversation. “Anyway, who’s the idiot who didn’t answer his phone that night? I called him like eight times to tell him to meet you, but did he pick up? Helllll noo. He hung up every time and then turned his phone off!”

“You were setting me up with her?” I asked and she nodded at me.

“How do you think I knew where to go when I returned your documents?” Shawn asked Gia. “How else could I have known Ethan’s address?”

“Don’t call him that!” Gia said hotly. “His name is Jung Jin.”

Shawn ignored her. “You didn’t give me his address. And… Did you honestly think I just pulled that forest in Japan out from my ass?” She asked and Gia didn’t respond. “And you,” Shawn turned to me, “it’s almost impossible to find out where anyone had gone on vacation, you know. How the hell was I supposed to know she was in Italy?”

“I don’t know…” I said uncomfortably.

“What about the fact that I knew when his birthday was and told you?” She asked Gia. “Or the fact that I knew when your dad was getting buried and told him? You two had so many chances to find out. How is it my fault that you two couldn’t put it together?”

“All these fucking lies,” Gia said. Her eyes blazed with anger as she looked at her best friend. “I feel so manipulated.”

“Oh boohoo,” Shawn argued. “Manipulated? Manipulated? Yeah,” she scoffed. “That’s exactly what happened. I manipulated you into falling in love.”

“You did!” Gia said. “You made me stay in Korea!”

Shawn blinked at her. “To return his fucking jacket! I thought you’d return it, go out on a date or something. Maybe talk. You know… like normal people. How was I supposed to know that you two would live together and open a zoo?”

“Actually,” I said, clearing my throat. “Technically we need more than one animal to be considered a zoo. And maybe like some exotic ones, I don’t think a domesticated dog counts for…”

I shut my mouth when Gia directed a look that could kill my way.

“I’m just saying…” I said, defensive, “we only have one dog.”

“Besides,” Shawn continued. “Both of you hate commitment, so I never thought you’d end up living under the same roof. And he,” she said, pointing at me again. “He hates dogs!” She shook her head at Gia. “I’m not the only one who hid things. You never told me you met him in Hongdae, or that you two were in some kind of pretend relationship. You never told me about going on your first date. If anyone should be mad, it should be me. You two were dating happily, and did anyone think to invite me and my boyfriend along for a double date?” Neither Gia nor I responded. “Noooo. So you should be giving me credit, not subjecting me to an interrogation, like I was some sort of a criminal!”

“If it looks like a duck and it quacks like a duck…” Gia said.

“You know what?” Shawn asked. “I didn’t even talk about how hard I had to work when you two ‘broke up’. I was supposed to be planning my wedding! And what was I doing? Flying here there and everywhere just to make sure you both are okay! He’s being all emo and acting up. You’re all like ‘I feel nothing and I don’t want to talk about it.’ Do either of you know how much work you both are when you’re being stubborn? If not for me, who knows how much longer you two would have waited until you two finally got your shit together? I got tired of waiting, so I took things into my hands. So what?”

“It’s just so underhanded, Junnie,” Gia said. “Why couldn’t you just fix us up again?”

“Hello? Have you not been paying attention? I’ve tried that so many times before. Also, the last time I did that, you almost bit my head off,” Shawn said. “The first time he met you and he was all googly-eyed, you just broke up with Andrew and he had Kelsey. Then he and Kelsey were on a break and I tried to invite you to the park with us, even bought all your favorite foods to leave you two to date without me, but you had to work and then had a date with Marcus. Then after Chris you outright refused to be set up. Don’t even get me started on New Year’s Eve. Every single time I’ve done it right I’ve failed. You know how much I hate to fail.”

“What about New Year’s Eve?” I asked, remembering the woman who kissed me and left. What happened on New Year’s Eve?

“You two were supposed to meet officially,” Shawn answered. “But did you?” Gia and I both looked away. “No… She was busy kissing some other guy and you were doing whatever the hell else you were doing not to meet her.”

I felt a flare of jealousy at the mention of my woman kissing someone else. Until I remembered I had been, too. I kept my mouth shut.

“Who knew?” Shawn asked Gia. “Who knew that putting some red streaks in your hair was going to make you all impulsive? It was like a time machine… you hadn’t been that crazy since uni.”

“Shut up, Junnie.”

“You had red streaks in your hair?” I asked Gia.

“Don’t tell me to shut up!” Shawn said before Gia could respond to my question. “You shut up.”

“No, you shut…”

“You two need to calm down,” I said, going between the two of them. They were more like sisters than best friends. I looked at Gia. “You had red streaks in your hair?”

*****

UCSF Medical Center

San Francisco, California

December 31, 1998

8:00 p.m.

Gia

“Are you going to make me ask you again?” Marc Stevens, MD, third year surgical resident, said as he sidled up next to me.

“Ask what?” I was standing by the counter, writing out a telephone order on a chart, when I looked at him. He was still wearing his surgical cap and boots, and flashed a smile at Jennifer as he handed her a chart.

“If you’d go out with me,” he said petulantly and I shook my head.

“You know what my answer is,” I responded. “I don’t mix…”

“… business with pleasure,” he finished for me and then put his hands up, palms open, as if in surrender. “I know.”

I dropped the chart off on the rack before walking towards the break room. Marc followed me.

“So, what are you doing tonight?”

“I don’t know,” I said distractedly, “my best friend’s in town. Maybe just dinner and home.” I turned to see his blue eyes watching me closely, the way he always did. He had a grin on his boyishly handsome face and I found myself smiling back. He really was so sweet. “What are you doing here anyway? I thought you said something about going to a New Year’s Eve party earlier?”

“Just finished the rest of my rounds,” he said. “Plus I thought I’d be able to convince you to go with me.”

I smiled but said nothing else as we stood by the break room door. I haven’t gone on a date since Chris and I broke up. Haven’t even thought about it. It’s been two years.

Truthfully I was beginning to embrace my solitary existence.

“Ah,” Marc said, his head turning towards the nurse’s station. “I think Jennifer wants you.”

I turned to look and saw Jennifer motioning with her hand for me to come. I walked back briskly only to see Junnie standing behind her, holding up a garment bag and a paper bag, a tote bag over her shoulders, wearing an indigo colored cocktail dress. She wore her hair down, sapphire earrings dangling towards her shoulders. She waved at me with a smile and I approached her after excusing myself from Marc.

“Jun… what are you doing here?” I asked, confused.

“I got tired of waiting for you.”

“I thought we agreed to stay at the loft?”

She gave me a sly smile. “On New Year’s Eve? I think not.” She tucked a clutch under her arm. “Did you think I would fly all the way to America just so we could stay home?”

“I don’t really feel like…”

“I don’t really care about what you feel,” she said. “We’re going out. Ethan’s in town. I want you to finally meet him. You do remember him, don’t you?”

My mind automatically went back to the image in the picture, the only one I ever saw of him, back when we were in uni. He probably looked nothing like that boy now. Even so that did not stop a flush from forming on my cheeks.

Junnie’s mentioned his name many times since then, had even offered to fix us up after my engagement and his (supposedly) almost proposal. I was always amazed that he and Junnie had remained friends all these years; in fact, had gotten even closer since our days in uni. And still we’d never met.

I don’t have any memories of him. Not really. Except for one.

I remembered his kindness, the night I left Marcus. His steady hand, his gentle voice, that he spoke to me without judgment and without questions. I had never ever felt so low, and he made me feel safe, for the first time in as long as I could remember at the time. I couldn’t remember then how it felt to be treated so tenderly even without physical contact.

It was what I still remembered, even now. Even when I can’t even really remember how he looked.

It would be nice to finally meet him.

“Fine,” I said. “But I’ll need a shower.”

“I thought about that… there’s a shower here, right?”

“But my toiletries and my hair things…”

“Don’t worry,” Junnie reassured me. “I got you covered.” She looked at her watch. “You best hurry though because we have a dinner reservation at La Folie in Russian Hill in 45 minutes.”

She dragged my arm towards the break room. “Are you allowed to use the bathroom here?”

“Yeah, but…”

“Enough with the buts,” Junnie chided. “For once I wish you’d just do what I say.”

“But… What am I going to wear?” I almost cried out. I was meeting Ethan for the first time. I wanted to at least look halfway decent, not like I did the only time he saw me. I have to show him that I’d gotten better, moved on. I needed to thank him for his kindness. “I am not wearing scrubs to dinner.”

“What the hell do you take me for?” Junnie frowned at me. “Would I ever let you go out looking like a mess? I told you… I got you.”

*****

W San Francisco

San Francisco, California

Jung Jin

9:45 p.m.

I walked up to the lobby of the hotel and placed my overnight bag down before I tapped on the counter. The hotel employee smiled at me before speaking.

“May I help you, Sir?”

“Jung Jin Lee, checking in.”

She nodded as she looked up my reservation. She asked for my credit card and I slid it to her along with my ID. As she printed the contract for the room I looked around the hotel lobby, with its purple lights and it’s modern design.

I ran my fingers through my hair. What the hell was I doing here?

I haven’t been back in the States since I left after Kelsey. Haven’t even thought about coming back since I bankrupted her lover (it’s amazing how much money can accomplish even from thousands of miles away.) Quite a few things had changed since then.

Joon was now playing in Japan, and quite successfully at that. I now had a couple of nephews and a niece. My business was growing. I was no longer the boy who left with his tail tucked between his legs, wanting to forget.

I had found my strength.

After the crash I realized that I needed no validation from anyone else. That though I might not deserve it, this life was mine, to do whatever with as I pleased. It’s a dog eat dog world, and those who don’t become predators become prey. I’ve learned that not everything is about love and doing the right thing.

Sometimes it can just be about success.

I’d cut my hair, gained some weight, learned to dress like I was someone who mattered. There were no traces of the boy I used to be save the pair of glasses still on my face.

It was a great feeling to come back and under these circumstances.

The front desk clerk placed a piece of paper onto the counter and instructed me to initial and sign. After doing so, she handed me a key and a piece of paper, the latter I picked up questioningly.

“Ah,” she said politely. “Miss Chen left a message for you.”

“She did?” I asked and she nodded.

I did the same in thanks, pocketing the paper before picking up my bag and heading towards the elevators. One look at my watch told me I just had enough time to shower and order some room service before I have to meet up with Shawn. I pressed the button for the 26th floor.

It had never been in the initial plan to come to San Francisco for New Year’s Eve, but it just so happened that Joon decided to stay in Japan for tonight. Besides, the woman I was currently involved with had something else to do; a bone of contention between us two. That left me with nothing to do.

Shawn had mentioned that she was spending the holiday in San Francisco. I didn’t even get a chance to ask why, though it seemed quite obvious. My old friend had begun investing in property, and a San Francisco loft was her first. I was actually surprised that she had not invited me to see it yet.

So here I was.

I figured that by making this trip I was killing two birds with one stone. I get to see Shawn, and I could further Joon’s success, and therefore mine, as well. With Joon’s Japanese contract ending at the end of the season, it was time for us to figure out his next move. With my contacts and connections I was able to secure a meeting with the San Francisco Giants in a couple of days. We will see if they are ready to catapult Joon into worldwide fame.

I entered and placed my bags on the bed, walking towards the windows covering two walls of the room. Opening the shutters I could see all of the San Francisco skyline already lit up, the Yerba Buena Gardens not far. I sat down on the built in banquette in the nook and took my jacket off even as I turned the television on.

Feeling inexplicably restless I stood up again and walked towards the refreshment center and took out a small bottle of wine, uncorking it and drinking straight from the bottle. I listened distractedly to the news on television as I unpacked and then went into the bathroom to turn the shower on.

It wasn’t until I had already taken my shirt off that I even remembered to check the message Shawn left me and walked back to my jacket and fished the piece of paper out. I unfolded it and read, smiling at the tone of the message.

Ethan-

At La Folie for dinner. You’re welcome to join if you land early enough. Otherwise I’ll see you at W XYZ bar upstairs in your hotel to ring in the New Year’s.

Take a shower, will you? Can’t have you stinking when the New Year comes.

Yep, sounds exactly like the Shawn I know. I chuckled, had almost discarded it when I saw the addendum at the bottom of the note.

P.S. My girl’s coming, too. Are you smiling?

Even now, I thought, shaking my head. Even now, she still refuses to divulge her best friend’s name.

I sat on the side of the bed and pondered said best friend, someone I had thought of many times since the first time I laid eyes on her, and even more times than I could count after the second time.

How was it that even after all this time, all I remembered of her were the bits and pieces that I knew and some that I was pretty sure I made up myself?

In the few weeks following that fateful first day, I was half convinced I was infatuated with her. Or, at the very least, the idea of her. Had I not been with Kelsey I might have even made more of an effort to find out more about her.

The memory of that last time, in the middle of the night, also stopped me.

How did she end up there? I had asked Shawn a few times in the past only to get evasive answers and I had since given up asking altogether. My curiosity was the smallest priority in the scheme of things when the risk was too high.

I might have still pursued it had I not understood that with Shawn as her best friend, this was not to be any just mere affair. If somehow or another I did pursue her and I ended up messing up, Shawn will never forgive me.

I had to accept that we missed our chance eight years ago, when we were still college students. Timing, as always, sucked.

Besides, she was probably nothing like I imagined. Probably nothing like I even remembered. How long has it been now since I drove like a mad man to Philadelphia to retrieve her?

Six years. It didn’t seem like much. But six years was enough to almost get me killed. It was almost enough to get her married. It was enough to change her. To change me. In that sense, six years was almost akin to a lifetime.

All this time she’d been out of my reach. That will change tonight.

It could go one of two ways. She could be nothing like I thought she would be and I would finally let go of this crush that had plagued me all these years. Or… she could be exactly who I think she is and I will find eternal love. I shook my head. It’s unlikely. I haven’t yet dated a woman who was exactly as she seemed. Kelsey taught me that. As did the others that followed.

I doubted she would be any different.

*****

W XYZ Bar, W San Francisco

11:30 p.m.

Gia

Another martini was deposited in front of me and I smiled at the server before I picked it up. I think I smiled anyway. I’d forgotten how many I had already consumed and my face could be doing all kinds of things it shouldn’t be. I licked my lips as the briney taste of olive hit my tongue, the sour salty combination something I could never resist. I sat on one of the square white ottomans in one corner of the bar, wondering where Junnie went. She was just here one second, and then her phone rang.

Right, I thought, as I remembered where she could be. She was probably outside, on the phone with Ethan, who was supposedly on his way here.

The reminder brought back the nervous fluttering in the pit of my belly, and I was conflicted between running to the bathroom and throwing up or to just keep drinking. I chose the latter. I downed the rest of the martini and ate the olives before motioning for the server to bring me another one. He was just dropping another one off by the time Junnie returned and sat back down.

She grinned as she crossed her legs, running an assessing eye over my form. She said something and I shook my head, unable to hear.

‘WHAT?’ I asked.

“HE’S ON HIS WAY!”

“Oh.” I took a swig of the new drink and fiddled with my hair, grateful that Junnie had the foresight to bring my flat iron. The hoop earrings I wore dangled over my shoulders, and I forced myself to look around the room, noting with disinterest that since we arrived, the room had almost filled up to full capacity.

“That dress looks great on you,” Junnie shouted and I met her eyes. “When did you put the red streaks in your hair?”

“Ah… not too long ago.” Restless and wanting a change but unable to leave San Francisco, that had been one I was able to do to keep myself from going nuts. I self-consciously ran a hand to smooth the dress over me, wondering if the square neckline went too low, if the spaghetti straps were too thin. I was just glad that it was at least knee length and not short. I licked my lips in apprehension and then drank again.

“Any New Year’s Resolutions tonight?”

“I have a whole list,” I said quietly.

“Not sleeping in that sleeping bag would be a great start.”

“Yeah.” I said nothing else and took another swallow of my drink.

“Are you…” Junnie said, her eyebrows furrowing, “… are you nervous?”

“No,” I feebly responded. “NO.”

“Really?’ she asked. “Because you look like you’re about to pass out.”

“I’m fine.”

She chuckled. “Don’t be nervous. You and Ethan have known each other for a while.”

“No.” I corrected her,”we have known of each other for a while, but we’ve never officially met.”

She lifted her wine to her lips as she looked at me over the rim. “That’s what I’m trying to fix. You’ll be fine,” she said. “He’s a great guy. You’ll like him.”

That’s not the problem, I wanted to say. I know he’s a great guy, and I already like him. Without ever really meeting him. I thought I was past this whole making up identities for people in my head before I really get to know them, but apparently not. And he… probably just remembers me as this mess of a girl he had to pick up from another state.

“Oh, I think he’s here,” Junnie said, standing back up, interrupting my thoughts, “I think I see him.”

“He is?” I asked and stood up as well, my legs practically quaking. “You do?” I grappled with my hands and sat back down. Then stood up again. “I’m going to the bathroom.”

“Now?” Junnie asked.

“I’m already on my sixth martini, Junnie,” I said.

“But…. It’s almost time for the countdown.”I could see her frown at me, even in the lights that have now dimmed. “Can’t you hold it in for a few more minutes?”

“I really don’t feel like peeing on myself the first time I meet Ethan,” I said. “I’m going to the bathroom.”

*****

11:58 p.m.

Jung Jin

I ran my fingers through my hair as I entered the dimly lit lounge, followed the server as she led me to where Shawn was. I walked through the crowd of people filling the space, craning my neck to see where I was going. I smiled when I saw Shawn, wearing a navy dress, her hair down, looking more like a woman in the last decade that we’ve known each other. She didn’t have glasses on, the way she always did when we were in uni. My friend had certainly grown up, too.

Though we had remained in contact for the last few years, we hadn’t seen each other since I finished Columbia and gone back to Korea. I did not allow her to visit me in Japan during my recuperation, and she had been too busy taking the reins for her family business. I had since then given her most of my money to invest, necessitating our weekly phone calls, but other than that, it’s been a long time since we had even been in the same country, much less the same room.

“Hey, stranger,” she said, when I reached her side. I leaned down and engulfed her in a bear hug, uncaring that there were a million strangers surrounding us.

“Wow,” I said, exaggerating my surprise. “If I didn’t know better I’d think you were really a girl or something.”

She playfully punched my arm as she laughed. “Shut up.”

I didn’t notice anyone else beside her, though I did notice the half empty martini glass on the table. I casually looked around, trying my best to appear nonchalant. Shawn caught what I was doing and gave me a knowing smile.

“Who are you looking for?” She asked.

“No one,” I lied, putting my hands in my pockets.

“Well… no one is in the bathroom.”

She motioned towards a seat, the one across from her. I sat down and tried to compose my thoughts, aware that she probably already knew how long I’d anticipated this moment.

“You look good,” Shawn observed. “Gained some weight, huh?” I nodded then tried to look around for a server to get a drink. “You should really switch to contacts, though. I think it’ll make you look even better.”

I shook my head. “You haven’t seen me in years and that’s one of the first things you want to talk about?” I asked.

“I don’t think your eyesight is as bad as you say it is,” she said.

“Actually, it is.” I am almost blind as a bat without my glasses, only able to make out shapes and fuzzes of color.

“And you really should cut your hair,” she added.

“You don’t like my long hair?” I asked and she shook her head no. “Well, I like it.” I looked at her as she rolled her eyes. “You are so obsessed about me doing what you want me to do. You know what you need?” She shook her head and I stuck a tongue out. “A boyfriend to nag.”

“Whatever,” she said. “And I only order you around because you never do what I want you to do.” She blinked at me. “Even when it’s for your own good.”

“I never do what anyone wants me to do,” I said softly. Not anymore. Since Kelsey I had learned never to let another person have that much hold on me again.

“How are you anyway?”

“Good,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “You know me.” I looked around again in search of a server and still with no success. There were just too many people here. “How about you?” Shawn’s question took me by surprise and I turned my head to see her watching me, her glass of wine halfway to her mouth. “Are you seeing anyone right now?”

I thought of Hye Soo, with her perfect face and body. Hye Soo, with her Daddy’s riches behind her. Hye Soo, a perfect match. It was unfortunate she didn’t want to commit. The last time I brought it up we had been in bed (only two weeks ago) and she outright laughed at the suggestion.

“You know that’s not my thing, Jung Jin-ah,” she had said, her lips making a path down my chest. “But this… this is my thing. Why ruin what’s not broken?”

Hurt a little more than I would care to admit, I left. I hadn’t heard from her since.

In the present my eyes grazed over the martini glass and I responded. “No,” I said. “Not really.”

Shawn raised an eyebrow. “So you mean yes, you are.”

“I said no.”

“Your face said yes.” She put her glass down. “You should have told me this before I brought you and my best friend in the same space.”

“This was a friendly meeting,” I protested. “A New Year’s Eve get together. Nothing wrong with that.”

“Yeah,” Shawn said. “But the timing is horrible. As always. I was finally ready to fix you up.”

“You were?” I asked.

She sighed in response. “Do you want a drink or something?” she asked. “I think the servers are too busy and I have a feeling I’ll need another one before this night is over.”

“I’ll get it,” I said and rose, spying the bar a few feet away. Shawn stood too, motioned for me with one finger. I leaned down to hear what she was going to say when she snatched the glasses from my nose. “What are you doing?”

“See?” she said, a blurred face in front of me. “You look infinitely better.”

Not wanting to argue and badly in need of another drink, I turned and walked towards the direction of the bar, hoping to God that when I get there I would at least be able to count my money. Maybe she was right… I haven’t been without my glasses for any length of time since I got them. Maybe my eyesight wasn’t so bad, after all.

*****

11:58 p.m.

Gia

I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror, elbowing my way to the only available spot amidst the crowd of women. I pulled my lip gloss out of my clutch and applied it on, fixing my hair and pinching my cheeks.

It was such a bad idea to go party after working a twelve hour shift.

It’s too late to back out now, I thought, as, satisfied, I made my way out of the bathroom.

The room that had been dimmed just a few minutes ago was now almost entirely dark, and I knew the countdown was near. I felt someone grab my arm. I turned and saw a good-looking man smiling down at me, his alcohol laden breath too close for my liking.

“Hi,” he slurred, his eyes traveling to my decolletage. “Can I buy you a drink?”

I looked at the hand currently holding mine captive, the tan line ending where his wedding ring, I was sure, normally was. I pulled my hand away, brought my clutch up to my chest. His grin got even wider.

“No, thanks,” I said, making a show of looking around, as if I was in search of someone. “I came here with friends.”

I tried to give him a polite smile, but I was afraid that it did nothing to hide the disgust I felt. I wanted to roll my eyes and tell him to go home to his wife. “Come now,” he said. “Friends won’t kiss you when the clock strikes midnight. And who refuses a free drink?” He placed a hand on the small of my back and I stepped away from him.

“My boyfriend will kiss me,” I said, walking away. “And I don’t need anyone buying me drinks when I can but my own.”

I felt his eyes on my back as I left, the crowd in front of me blocking me in towards the direction of the bar. I was almost by the counter when I felt someone behind me, his body uncomfortably close to mine.

“I’ve been watching you all night,” I heard the same voice whisper. “And you didn’t come here with a boyfriend.”

On the big screen in front of the bar, the countdown was starting. I tried to step left, and then right, to no avail. I was squeezed in with a roomful of strangers, some guy seemingly hellbent on kissing me at midnight. I tried to look for Junnie but couldn’t see her anywhere, though between the alcohol that I had drunk and the room being so dark, it was almost impossible to make anyone out. For a second I was tempted to pull my phone out and text her, but I didn’t want to risk being distracted, not when this pervert was trying very hard to get my attention.

I tried to look for any way out, my eyes frantic, when my gaze latched on to a man standing at the bar, a few heads ahead of me. He was tapping his finger on the counter, looking as if he was also in search of someone. From this distance I could only pinpoint light flashing through high cheekbones and a strong jaw, his dark hair almost shoulder length.

He looked vaguely familiar though I wasn’t sure why.

Him, I thought, surely he would cooperate. Surely he would take pity on a tipsy woman on some strange blind date with her friend’s friend being accosted by a semi-drunk married man. I made my way towards the bar without answering the man still behind me, hoping that he would take the hint.

He didn’t.

“5…”

I could still feel him following me as I walked quickly, the people in the room counting down.

“4…”

I stopped directly in front of the man with the long hair, his eyes looking at me questioningly as the room went even darker. I couldn’t make out any of his features though, the way he towered over me the only thing registering.

“3…”

“Baby,” I said to him, trying to make sure that the man behind me heard me. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

“What?” I heard the man in front of me say.

“2…”

“Miss,” I heard the man by the bar stammer when I pressed even closer, his arms adamantly fixed on his sides, his gaze averted.

“1…”

The crowd excitedly held their breath, the room almost swept by a contagious excitement. I could hear my heart pounding as I looked up at the man I was now pressing against, my chest flattened against his even while I couldn’t see his face.

“Happy New Year!”

The room dimmed to complete darkness as cheers flew around me. The man behind me, unperturbed by my claims to have a boyfriend attempted to grab my arm again, and I launched myself at the man in front of me, my arms going straight around his neck. My weight pushed him against the bar as I locked my lips to his. I felt his weak attempt at pushing me off, the way he resisted, until all at once he softened and relaxed, the lips underneath mine yielding, a strong hand pressing on my hip. I closed my eyes.

Awareness sparked in the pit of my belly as his tongue met mine, the taste of mint heavy on his breath. The smell of bergamot and tangerine hit my nose, then gentling to the fragrance of jasmine, rose and persimmon, the smell reminding me of the water and the woods all at once. I bit into his lower lip and feminine satisfaction filled me when I felt him tense, the muscles against me bunching up in controlled strength. A sigh escaped my lips, the sound ringing like a bell to my muddied consciousness.

I pulled away as I heard fireworks start going off. I blinked in confusion, wondering what the hell just came over me. This was the reason why I don’t get drunk in public on New Year’s Eve. Because of this… because I did things like this. I practically assaulted the man.

“I’m sorry,” I said, then turned away.

By the time the lights came back on, I was already gone.

*****

Jung Jin

“Baby,” I heard a woman say, “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

I ignored it, was too distracted by someone pressing up against me, thinking that there was no way in hell that voice could be speaking to me.

“What?” I asked, confused, when the body got even closer. I’m sure she was mistaken.

“2…”

“Miss,” I said, cursing Shawn for having taken my glasses. I could barely see anything, and the dimmed lights aren’t helping at all. I kept my eyes fixed on the wall in front of me, seeing nothing but blurred figures.

“1…”

I could feel the excitement in the air, the expectation in the people surrounding me. I really need to get back to Shawn and her best friend. I was hoping that I could have at least met the woman before the New Year hit. And now…

All thoughts disappeared as I was pushed against the bar counter, the surface digging into my back, a pair of impossibly soft lips on mine. I vaguely heard cheers and whistles around me, greetings of ‘Happy New Year’ ringing in my ears. Somewhere in the crowd people started singing ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ though I was finding it hard to concentrate on much.

At least, concentrate on anything else when there is a woman (I hope) stubbornly kissing me, her breath sweet and salty, tasting both of strawberry and olives at the same time. Her arms were around my neck, her fingers holding the back of my head in place.

For a second I was tempted to push her away, but then her mouth opened as she drew a breath, her heartbeat hammering against my chest. Instinct won over intention and I found myself gentling, curious about this woman who was so bold as to kiss a stranger.

My fingers pressed against her hip as I drew her closer, her spine bowing towards me. The scent of vanilla, lilac and magnolia hit my nose, the fragrance intoxicating. It was all over the woman that I currently held in my arms. On her long hair, the tips brushing against my hand, on her skin, the scent getting stronger as she warmed to my touch.

She bit into my lower lip and I resisted the urge to devour her mouth, uncaring how crazy it was that I was kissing a stranger. I heard a moan escape her throat and I stiffened, the sound making the blood rush through my whole body. I was frozen, in arousal and desire, and I didn’t even know who she was.

I felt her pull away even as I opened my eyes, her face blurred in front of me, the only thing I could make out a streak of red on the top of her head. Her mouth moved, but I could not hear her, was about to tell her so when the light flashed again.

Within a few seconds the lights have returned, and my arms were empty. I cursed in frustration.

“Ethan!” I heard Shawn say before my glasses were placed back on my face.

Vision clear I started looking for the stranger who just a minute before was kissing me, but there were too many people everywhere.

“I was wrong,” Shawn said. “You are totally blind without your glasses.” I nodded distractedly, uncaring. I would have been willingly and voluntarily blind forever if that woman kept kissing me.”

“Who are you looking for?” Shawn asked, looking around as well. “You missed the countdown!”

“Why are you here?” I asked her, my voice short. Did the strange woman leave because of Shawn?

“You were taking forever getting the drinks,” she said. “I figured you were not really lying about how bad your eyesight is, or you got waylaid and needed rescuing.”

I said nothing, my eyes still looking around. That was crazy. And intense. I’m pretty sure I have never had a kiss like that. Ever. Not with Kelsey. Not with Hye Soo.

Shawn pulled her hand phone out as it vibrated, then looked at me.

“My best friend left,” she said mournfully. “I just got a text from her saying she wasn’t feeling well and decided to go home.”

“She did?” I asked, feeling especially bad now that I was supposed to be meeting the woman of my fantasy when I was kissing someone else.

“Yeah.” Shawn tsked. “I guess you two are just not meant to meet.”

I fixed my eyes on the exit to the left, a woman standing by the door, long hair streaked by red behind her in pin straight tresses. She didn’t even look behind her and I excused myself from Shawn, to her protests.

I made my way through the throng of people quickly, determined to catch at least a glimpse of the woman who just left, convinced that it was the stranger whom I just kissed.

I saw her step into the elevator as I was exiting the bar. Before I could say anything the door closed and she was gone again, without me ever having had the chance to see her face.

I did see something though, something that I was sure I would remember for life. A dark swirl over her right scapula, the symbol for ohm.

*****

Goodwood Park Hotel

Singapore

May 30, 2003

6:15 p.m.

GIA

I was still reeling from shock and anger, unable to process how in the world my best friend of fourteen years managed to hide this shit from me this whole time.

“…Don’t even get me started on New Year’s Eve.” Junnie stopped speaking, as if taking a breath.

“What about New Year’s Eve?” Jung Jin asked, his breath furrowing as he looked at me.

Oh God. Why did Junnie have to speak about New Year’s Eve? Please don’t say anything, I begged her silently. Don’t say anything.

“You two were supposed to meet officially” Junnie kept speaking, as if finally glad to get everything off her chest. “But did you?” Jung Jin and I both averted our eyes. “No… She…” Junnie looked at me accusingly. “…was busy kissing some other guy and you,” she said, glaring at Jung Jin, “were doing whatever the hell else you were doing not to meet her.”

He didn’t want to meet me? I looked at my man in a new light. Why didn’t he want to meet me?

“Who knew?” Junnie turned back to me. “Who knew that putting some red streaks in your hair was going to make you all impulsive? It was like a time machine… you hadn’t been that crazy since uni.”

“Shut up, Junnie.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“You had red streaks in your hair?” Jung Jin asked, his tone indiscernable.

“Don’t tell me to shut up!” Junnie shouted back. “You shut up.”

“No, you shut…”

“You two need to calm down.” Jung Jin’s voice was firm as he stood between the two of us. He looked at me again. “You had red streaks in your hair?”

“Yeah,” I said softly, trying not to cringe, almost afraid that he saw me kissing some guy on that night. Except it wasn’t just some guy. And it wasn’t just some kiss. The reminder brought my defenses back up and I added, “It was a phase, okay?”

“Are we talking hairstyles now?” Junnie asked. “Maybe,” she said, talking to Jung Jin, “maybe… if you cut your hair just like I told you to, she might have been kissing you!”

“Wait, what?” I asked. “You had long hair?”

Junnie answered for him. “Yeah, almost shoulder length. He looked like a hippie.”

“The guy I kissed had long hair,” I said to no one in particular.

“The girl I kissed had red streaks in her hair.”

Jung Jin and I looked at each other in shock, identical expressions on our faces.

“So you…” we both said simultaneously, “so we…”

“See? You were already making out with each other before you even knew.” Junnie declared, satisfied, clapping in delight. “All I had to do was put you in the same room and fireworks would explode! I knew you were perfect for each other! I knew it!”

“But you were still being sneaky,” I said to her, hurt. “I never would have kept a secret like this from you.”

“You would and you have,” she responded. “Getting information from you is as difficult as breaking into Fort Knox. And believe me, if the situation hadn’t escalated as quickly as it did, I would have stayed out of it.”

“No, you wouldn’t,” Jung Jin said.

“That’s true,” Junnie conceded. “But only because I knew you two were meant to be together! Is it so wrong for me to want to see my two best friends happy? If you still think so, then sue me.”

“I might,” Gia said, scowling. “I’m pretty sure that I have grounds.”

“Fine,” Junnie said. “You want to talk to my lawyer? He’s here as one of my guests. His wife, too.” She turned to look at Jung Jin. “You know him, right?” He looked at her questioningly. “Your brother is my lawyer. Let’s see what he says.”

“That’s not even going to fly, Shawn,” Jung Jin said. “He’s your corporate lawyer.”

“Don’t call her that,” I said testily. “Her name is Junnie.”

They both ignored me. “You know who’s a family lawyer, though?” Junnie asked Jung Jin. “Your father. I could totally retain his services if she,” she shot me a dirty look, “wants to sue me.”

“True.”

“Seriously… Where is the gratitude?” Junnie complained. “You should both be bowing to me in supplication now what with everything I had to do. You owe me your first kid, by the way.”

I blinked at them both, convinced that they’d both lost their damn minds. How could Junnie look so smug after all she’d done? And how could Jung Jin be so calm? How is he not even as mad as I am?

“So that’s it? I’m just supposed to be grateful?” I asked them both and Jung Jin turned amused eyes my way. If I wasn’t so mad I would have totally melted in a puddle at his feet, his gaze was so warm and so full of love. Get your mind right, I told myself. Keep your eye on the ball. I grilled him with my eyes. “Are you really not even annoyed?” I asked him. “She did all these things to get us together and you have nothing to say?”

He grinned at me, his left dimple sinking into his cheek, then walked over and pressed a loud kiss on my lips. Before I could ask him what he was doing, he had wrapped his arms around Junnie, his voice mumbled. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said. “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank…”

“SERIOUSLY?!” I cried out. “Seriously? You two are ganging up on me now?” I resisted the urge to stomp my feet in frustration. “I’m done with you both.”

“You best not be,” Junnie said to me, her eyes going wide as saucers. “Not me. And not him. You still have to share a hotel room with him after the wedding.”

“Shawn,” Jung Jin said, hugging her. Again. “You’re the best.”

“JUNNIE! Stop pimping me out. And you,” I said to Jung Jin, “please take your hands off her.”

“Who’s pimping you out?” Junnie asked, sounding offended. “Me?” She gasped incredulously. “Now you’re just being a drama queen. This… is why you need to knit.”

I shook my head at her.

“Knit?” Jung Jin said, baffled. “What did she mean by that?” I answered him with stony silence. “Shawn… What did you mean by that?” Junnie did nothing but smirk.

“Will you please stop calling her Shawn?” I said, trying to change the topic. “Her name is Junnie. JUNNIE!”

“Sarah…” Junnie’s husband finally spoke, his tone apologetic. “We have to go to the reception.”

“We’ll continue this discussion at a later time, when everyone’s calmer. Preferably when I’m not wearing a humongous white dress. I swear… the shit I do for the two of you,” Junnie said, looking pointedly at me. “And you,” she said to Jung Jin as she peeled his arms off her with a frown, “are welcome.” She walked to the mirror and fixed her hair. She brought her shoulders back before picking her dress up and marching to her husband, regally offering a hand. “Now, let’s get to MY WEDDING!”

*****

May 31, 2003

1:00 a.m.

Jung Jin

“I can’t believe you just stood there and said thank you,” Gia said as we walked into our hotel room, flinging her bag onto the king sized bed. “She lied to us.”

“Jagi, what did you want me to do?” I asked as I unknotted my tie. “It’s her wedding. Did you want me to yell at her?”

“YES!”

I chuckled. “You were doing enough yelling for both of us.” I looked at her and studied the pretty picture she made, especially whenever she was passionate about anything. Passionately happy, passionately mad. How I could have ever thought this woman to be cold was beyond me. She was as cold as an active volcano. “Besides, what’s so wrong about her wanting to get us together? You know and I know that it would have happened anyway. I’m just grateful that we didn’t have to wait until we were old and gray.”

“Still…”

“Have you forgotten that it wasn’t actually her that got us to meet after all? We met in the hospital, after Joon’s injury. That had nothing to do with Shawn. New Year’s Eve happened without her, too…”

“Will you please stop calling her that?” She sent a glower my way. “Her name is Junnie. Or Sarah. Who is Shawn? Who the hell is this Shawn?”

She had begun pacing, the dress she wore shimmering over her curves. She bent down and took off her shoes, and my eyes followed the trail her fingers made as she unbuckled the straps, than as golden skin on her calves bunched. Her nails were a deep blood red.

I swallowed.

“I still don’t understand how you can be so… composed about this,” she said, turning her head to look at me, a strand of honey blonde hair falling out from her chignon.

“I will never not be thankful for anything that brings you to me.”

“Even if it includes deception?”

“She wasn’t being deceitful. Sure, she may have been having fun at our expense, but her heart was in the right place.” I walked towards her and didn’t stop until she was right in front of me. “It doesn’t change the fact that we were meant to meet when we did, were meant to fall in love. So she was wrong about that one thing. She wasn’t the only one responsible for what we have. This, between us, is our choice and it just happens to coincide with what Sha… Sarah wanted. Destiny is destiny.”

“You don’t believe in destiny,” she said stubbornly. “Neither do I.”

*****

Gia

“You don’t believe in destiny,” I said, my voice resolute, firm. “Neither do I.”

I tried to walk off to the bathroom, only to be pulled back, strong arms wrapping around my waist. I felt Jung Jin behind me, his chest solid and warm, as he leaned in and rested his chin on the crook of my neck.

“Jagi,” he whispered, his voice warm and husky, meant to comfort and to calm. All it did in my hyperemotional state is make me want to jump him. “After all that’s happened,” he pressed kiss to my neck, his lips soft, “after everything we’ve been through,” another kiss to my shoulder, “you still don’t believe in destiny?” His lips drifted to my ear, his voice rumbling through me, and I felt goosebumps erupt on my skin. “Because I do.”

I turned around and saw the way his eyes were watching me, molten and chocolate brown, my favorite color. He had taken his suit jacket off, was only standing in a white shirt and black trousers, his hair mussed. I bit my lip and resisted the urge to undress him right now.

“You’re getting soft, Mr. Lee.” To my mortification my voice came out husky and low, an invitation.

“Say it again,” he said, teasing, as he leaned in and took a whiff of my hair.

“What?” I asked, all of a sudden shy and nervous.

“Mr. Lee.”

I drew a short gasp when his fingers started traveling over my neck, then rested on my waist. The dress I wore felt so thin all of a sudden, too fitting. I was having trouble breathing.

“Mr. Lee,” I stammered out. It felt as if he was about to pounce, but then he kissed my lips and then walked off, sitting on the side of the bed.

Feeling like I had just been set up only to be disappointed again, my anger came back full force and I faced him, hands on my hips.

“Now that you know I was the girl you picked up in Philly, do you see me differently?” I demanded.

“Were you worried about that?” he asked, staring at me as if I’d gone nuts. “And no, I don’t love you any less. I don’t want you any less.”

“I don’t think you want me at all,” I muttered under my breath. “Junnie was right about one thing.”

“What?”

“We… have lost our mojo.”

Jung Jin looked at me, a smile playing on the corner of his mouth. “Our what?”

“Our mojo.”

“Okay,” he said, shaking his head. “I don’t even know what that word means.”

“Our mojo,” I said, hands moving frantically. “Our passion. Our magic.” I frowned at him, remembered something. “You haven’t even really kissed me today and you haven’t seen me in days.”

“I did, too. Earlier.”

“That doesn’t count.”

“Of course it does. And it has been two days, four hours, nine minutes, and,” He looked at his watch, “thirty nine seconds, if you want to be exact on how long it’s been since we’ve been by ourselves.” He stood up but kept his eyes away from mine. “You worry too much. We already know we’re in love. We’re just taking our time… what’s the rush, right? It’s what we wanted.”

I snorted. “It’s what you wanted,” I said. “And I loved you so much I respected it. But God,” I said, trying to reach the back of my dress, eager to get this night over with, “before you I haven’t even had sex in years and even longer since I’d made love. And now I have to abstain. And you,” I said, shooting daggers his way, “keep looking the way you do!” The zipper got stuck and I screamed in frustration. “What the hell is wrong with this?” I asked, tugging the zipper down. It was not cooperating. “I swear to God, I’m about to flip out.”

“Calm down, jagi.”

“Calm down?” She asked. “Calm down? I’m madly in love with a man and he won’t sleep with me. I’ve been downing drinks all night because I just found that I’ve been getting played like a puppet. My best friend is getting married. I’m highly emotional, ridiculously volatile and extremely horny. I am NOT going to calm down. This is horrible. We have lost it.”

I blinked and turned away, afraid that I would start crying. The next thing I know Jung Jin had closed the distance between us and stood behind me. He had one hand on my spine, where the zipper was stuck. On the window in front of us I watched as his eyes locked on that same spot, his other hand tracing the tattoo over my right scapula gently.

“Do you know what I thought when I first saw your tattoos?”

I closed my eyes as his fingers continued to touch my skin reverently. “I wanted to kiss them,” he said. “Lick them.”

“You did?” I said, swallowing.

“Uh-hmm,” he answered. “If it’s true that I met you thirteen years ago, though, I don’t remember seeing these then.”

“I had one,” I ground out, forcing myself to speak. “It was on my left arm.” I turned my head to look at him. “When did you see me?”

He smiled, the hand holding the zipper easing it down. I felt cold air as it met skin, but his hand was right back to the spot so quickly I felt myself tremble.

“You were standing by the window in the apartment in Greenwich Village, wearing nothing but a towel, and I knew, even then, that my life was changed. It was the first time a woman had taken my breath away,” he said, licking his lips. “The second time was when I met you, in the hospital, looking all professional and judgmental of me.” He smiled. “All this time, all these years, I’ve thought of you without even knowing it was you. I ended up falling in love with the same woman twice without realizing it was the same woman.”

“That’s funny, really, when you think about it,” I whispered as his hand came to a stop on the underside of my breast.

“That’s what I’m saying,” he said. “There was a reason everything about you felt familiar. I had carried the memory of you with me all these years. Everything has happened the way it’s meant to.”

His lips trailed a hot blaze over my neck and my back, butterfly kisses down my spine. I had to rest my hands on the glass window ahead of me just to stay standing.

“Yeah,” I moaned. “You’re right. What we have is more special than just sex. Besides, we can do… other things.”

“You think that’s what I’m doing?” He asked, as he turned me to face him. He towered over me, his face leaning towards mine. “You think I’m trying to convince you that this is worth waiting for?” I nodded and he chuckled. “No… not at all. I’m trying to do something else.”

“What?”

“Well,” he said with a wink. “Can’t have your best friend thinking we’ve lost our mojo.” He stood in front of me and started unbuttoning his shirt, giving me a tantalizing view of his chest.

I was going to ask if he was just setting me up again, but he didn’t give me a chance to say anything else as he pushed me against the wall, his body steady and solid against me. He pulled my dress down and I sighed as skin met skin, his lips hungry over mine, his hands pulling out the bobby pins holding my hair up.

“So pretty,” he muttered as the weight fell over his arms, the words almost guttural. The need I heard in his voice resonated in me, and I began to shake. “So goddamn beautiful.”

I claimed his mouth with mine as he lifted me up and wrapped my legs over his waist, his arousal insistent against my core. He carried me to the bed and gently put me down, his touch tender.

“Does this feel like we’ve lost our mojo?” He asked as his mouth performed magic on my lips.

“No,” I sighed against his lips, watching as male satisfaction lit his eyes. “But…” I said, “are we going all the way?”

He chuckled again, his eyes twinkling in love and laughter. “Oh yeah,” he said, as he reached between us and started taking off his trousers. “You and I… we are going allllll the way. And then when we’re done, we’ll do it all over again. And again. I have a reputation to uphold. I am a player, you know.”

I looked at him incredulously, tried to look stern before I pulled him back down. “Just… shut up and kiss me.”

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6 thoughts on “AMC: A LEAP OF FAITH THIRTEENTH STEP

  1. Maria says:

    Wow… Daebak… I didnt see it comin… At first i got confused that i needed to read the part about shawn and junnie are one twice. I cant wait for the next pne 😉 this story is awesome.

  2. arlanadya says:

    What a super genius idea of Shawn and Junnie!! I keep my hand all day from clicking chapter 13 until the 14th is released to prevent myself from waiting, and I failed. I finished this and the next one isn’t here. Hopefully it will come very soon:(

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