July 7, 2003
“Jagi, we’re here.”
I entered the penthouse and dropped my keys on the entryway table before I bent down and ruffled Dog’s head. He looked at me somberly as if he himself was getting tired of this and took his leash off. He sat in front of me, head cocked to one side, as if waiting for instruction and I chuckled.
Dog knew what the routine was. We have the smartest dog in the world.
“Go,” I said, “go see your Mama.”
He panted, his head pushing against my hand, before scampering off in search of Gia. Or, maybe, something to eat. It’s hard to tell with him sometimes. Sometimes instincts override his best intentions. Just like me.
My query was answered when I heard happy yelps, and then my woman’s voice.
“Hi, baby,” she cooed, her voice happy and light. “Have you missed me? Have you?”
I turned the corner and saw Gia and Dog, on the kitchen floor, she scratching his belly, and he, gazing adoringly at her, eating up all the affection. The sunlight was only now just fading from the windows, painting them both in reds and oranges.
Gia had her hair down, the shimmering strands even more golden in this light, over one shoulder. She was wearing a tank top and linen pants, her feet encased in slippers.
No matter the day or time, she always takes my breath away. Two months of idyllic, almost surreal bliss after our reunion, and my feelings had not dulled one bit.
Her face lifted as if realizing that I was watching her, and our eyes met. Her lips curled into the smile that I’ve begun to recognize as one that was only meant for me. Unlike all her other smiles in the past, unlike all the smiles I’ve seen in pictures, this one was wide, open, all teeth showing. Her eyes reflected the same joy, the same happiness.
I had been right. Showered with love and affection she would blossom.
She set Dog off with a decisive pat on his bottom and he scampered off to the deck, his short legs quick on the floor. Gia straightened and walked towards me. It was only then that I noticed the apron she wore, as well as the food that’s already been laid out on the table.
“Hey,” she said, wrapping her arms around my waist as she gazed up at me. “How was work?”
“Good,” I said softly, my fingers pressing onto her waist as I tightened my hold. “It was good.”
She nodded and stood on tiptoes, her mouth inching closer to mine. Her hands have already begun untucking my shirt from the trousers I wore, her fingers impatient against my back. I grinned before I leaned down and kissed her.
Her mouth was sweet and inviting, tasting faintly of mint and chocolate. Irresistible. I nibbled on her lips, her hands traveling between us to unbutton my shirt. My fingers danced on her side, feeling the patch of skin between her shirt and her pants, before I untied the apron from her waist and slid it over her neck.
Our mouths still connected I lifted her as she wrapped her legs around my waist. The contact made me groan and her sigh, and the sound made me senseless; I pressed her against the nearest surface I could find. She had taken my shirt off and flung it to the side, her mouth traveling down my neck and my shoulders, her teeth nipping playfully.
Our chests were separated merely by one piece of fabric (something I planned on rectifying very soon.) We were kissing languidly, then desperately, practically clawing at each other to get closer when she suddenly stopped and opened her eyes.
I had a glimpse of passion filled, molten brown irises before they darted towards the elevator. I narrowed my brows as I leaned in to kiss her again except this time she giggled against my lips before she spoke.
“Jagi… we may need to stop.”
I licked her bottom lip, watched as she closed her eyes. “Why?”
Her eyes opened, twin circles of pink on her cheeks, her long hair flattened against the wall. How the hell does she want me to stop when she looked like this?
Her eyes darted back behind me and I frowned. What could be taking her attention that she now thought we needed to stop? I turned my head to look over my shoulder when the sight stopped me short.
My oldest brother and his wife. My youngest sister and my assistant. All were standing by the elevator, trying to appear as if they were not there. Jung Yoon Hyung had a pot in his hands, Ha Neul carried one as well. Mi Rae Noona had flowers. Ji Soo brought nothing but a sheepish look on her face. Dog, oblivious to what was going on, had his paws on her legs.
“What the hell are you guys doing here?” My question came out as a growl and silence descended. Someone cleared their throat, though I wasn’t sure who.
My brother spoke first. “You invited us to dinner,” he replied, raising an eyebrow at me. Mi Rae Noona was trying not to laugh. “Ji Soo-yah… we shouldn’t have used the passcode.”
Ji Soo scowled at him. “I told you we shouldn’t! But you kept saying…”
My brother coughed. “Anyway… we’re sorry to barge in.”
I shook my head at him even as Gia started laughing, and it was only now that I remembered that we were both partially unclothed and that I still had her pressed up against the wall, her legs around me. There would be no question as to what we were just up to.
Ha Neul looked as embarrassed as he possibly could be even as he walked ever so casually to the dining room, not far from where we stood, and deposited the pot on the table.
“I’ll… uh…” He stammered awkwardly. “I’ll just put this here.” He stole a glance over at Gia and I felt a lick of irritation.
“Lower your eyes,” I practically barked and he did so immediately.
Ji Soo patted his back as he returned to her side. My oldest brother did the same with the pot he was carrying, his eyes averted the whole time.
“We’ll… ah… we’ll come back later. An hour, maybe?” I glared in response. “We’ll take Dog for a walk, too. Where is his lea…” His words trailed off as I continued to scowl at him. “Who needs a leash, right? I’ll just… uh…” He picked up Dog then gave me a lopsided smile. “Right… we’ll be back in one hour. So… yeah. Continue.”
It was so silent in the penthouse that we could have heard crickets chirping, if there were any crickets. Gia continued to muffle her laughter against my shoulder, her warm breath tickling my ear. The elevator sounded its arrival and identical expressions of relief came across our intruders’ faces before they all piled in without saying another word.
I turned to look at the woman I held in my arms as her laughter erupted full force, her eyes tearing up. She could barely take a breath and I marveled that this was the same woman that just a year ago held back every emotion and every thought.
Everything that we’ve been through, everything that we’ve seen… all the years that we’ve missed each other… it only made this moment more meaningful.
People are right when they say that life has a way of wearing people down, that pain has a way of wearing love down. But they’d forgotten that both life and pain can transform as well.
The woman I love didn’t save me, but loving her did change me. Loving her changed me into a better version of me. A version that would be proud to stand next to her. The me that would be deserving of her love.
She sobered when she saw the expression on my face, fingers wiping away her tears. I ran my hand over her cheeks, over her jaw, resting on the plump pillow of her lower lip.
“What?” She asked, her eyes furrowing in concern. “You look very serious all of a sudden.”
I shook my head. “I just… love you.”
She smiled, her fingers drifting over my brow. “I love you.”
She lowered her face and pressed her lips to mine, her fingers running through my hair. I held her closer to me, savored the weight of her in my arms.
“Jagi?” She whispered as she broke off our kiss.
“Hmm?” My lips were on her neck, relishing her fragrance, made even stronger by the heat between us.
“Don’t you think we should take this to the bedroom?” She asked, her voice teasing. “We don’t want a repeat of what just happened, do we?”
“We have an hour,” I said.
“Yeah,” she teased, the twinkle back in her eyes. “If we get started now, we’d still just be cutting it close.”
She started laughing again and I reclaimed her mouth, lifting her from the wall and making my way to the bedroom. Her laughter turned to sighs as I kicked the door squarely shut.
One and a half hours later…
“You know… we don’t usually eat dinner this late,” Mi Rae Unnie started to say as she wrapped a piece of kimchi around a pork rib. “But since the two of you…” she looked up at me and Jung Jin and her words stopped mid sentence, “anyway… it’s nice to be out with adults once in a while.”
We have all piled into the living room, various pots and dishes transferred on the coffee table from the dining room. Jung Yoon Oppa and Mi Rae Unnie had brought the pork ribs with kimchi, Ji Soo had cooked the jap chae, and by the time they returned, Ha Neul had arrived with a basketful of fruits, now sitting on the kitchen counter.
Jung Jin had made cooked weird sort of purple looking rice, dotted with green peas and I… I had provided the side dishes. Well… provided, perhaps, gave me more credit than I deserved, since all I did was buy them from the mart nearby (one of my newest favorite places) and bring them back home, whereas Jung Jin had actually made the rice; to this day I had yet to tackle that task again (my first effort had traumatized me.)
Jung Jin sat next to me, cross legged, eating more side dishes than he is main dishes or rice. The man was loyal to the point of ridicule. Still… he looked so earnest and focused eating that I leaned over and pressed a kiss on his cheek, making him turn and look at me in surprise. I smiled when our eyes met and I spooned some of the pork with kimchi on top of his rice, before offering him some noodles from my chopsticks. At first he shook his head no, until he saw me frown, and then he opened his mouth complacently. After he chewed and swallowed, I wiped his lips with a finger and gave him a quick peck.
He smiled from ear to ear. It was almost impossible to believe that just an hour and a half ago we were rolling around naked in bed.
The remembrance brought a warm flush to my cheeks and I dragged my eyes away from his. Around us the conversation flowed, half in Korean and half in English; our visitors unaware of what just took place (or so I would like to believe.) I took Dog, who was curiously walking around and begging for scraps, in my arms, petting his rough and giving him a small piece of pork. When I looked up I saw that Jung Jin was still watching me, a grin on his mouth.
Ji Soo cleared her throat. “Unnie,” she said, “thanks for coming with me to my gig every Friday.”
“No problem,” I said as I took a spoonful of rice. “I love that cafe. And you’re doing great. You’re better every time I see you.” I picked up some potato and apple salad with my chopsticks. “Is your arm bothering you anymore?”
Ji Soo made a face. “Ehh,” she said. “Sometimes it feels a little tight and achy, but for the most part it’s good as new.”
I looked at Ha Neul, whose gaze was firmly ensconced on the film on the screen, and watched Ji Soo do the same. She nudged his shoulders and he gave her a smile, a bit restrained. I wondered if he still felt awkward dating in the presence of her older brothers.
“Ha Neul-ssi,” I said, having learned the proper way to address people in Korean. “Thanks for coming. I haven’t seen you in a long time.”
He nodded, still clearly uncomfortable with trying to communicate in English. Thank goodness he understood, at least, better than he spoke. I was still rubbish at speaking Korean.
“I see him all the damn time,” Jung Jin muttered under his breath before directing another dark look Ha Neul’s way, still obviously miffed that his assistant had confessed months ago at his birthday party. Ji Soo and Ha Neul had been inseparable since.
I frowned at Jung Jin. “Be nice,” I mouthed.
We all continued to eat as the movie played on, my selection, at the request of the women. They had been curious about Filipino films and I had managed to find one that had English subtitles, at least.
The film was almost over, and the couple on screen was still separated. The scene changed to one in the house, where the leading lady was entertaining a bunch of suitors, when the sound of someone singing drew her family’s attention. We all watched as her family came to the window to see the male lead’s family singing outside the window.
“What are they doing?” Mi Rae Unnie asked me, pointing her chopsticks at the goings on on screen. I darted a glance, picked up my glass of water before I answered.
“It’s like this old Filipino tradition…” I answered. “.. called harana. It’s when suitors come to the house and sing outside the window. Except,” I added as I saw the whole family singing, “I think that all the people in his family is doing the singing for him.”
The male lead appeared in the house then, singing the same song, and his family followed behind him. Mortifyingly, tears sprang to the back of my eyes as they continued to sing. It was just so… romantic.
“What does that mean?” Ji Soo asked, as the song drew to a close and the men bowed after saying a phrase.
“What?” I asked, dabbing at my eyes, much to Jung Jin’s amusement.
“What they just said.”
I grabbed the remote and rewound a few seconds to look for what Ji Soo had been referring to.
“Magandang gabi. Namamanhikan po ‘kami.”
“Ahh,” I said. “It means that their family has come to ask her family for permission to marry.”
“So like a pyebaek?” Ha Neul piped up and I nodded.
Jung Jin had explained that whole ritual to me before after having seen it in a drama. “Yeah,” I said. “Kind of. Not as formal though. We Filipinos are not as big on bowing as Koreans are. But the sentiment is the same.”
“Do Filipino Americans practice the same traditions?” Jung Yoon Oppa asked, reaching over the table to grab another can of beer.
I thought about his question. “No, Oppa… a lot of them don’t. I would imagine that many people might call the cops if someone showed up at their window, singing with a guitar.”
Everyone laughed. “It’s a little sad, though,” Jung Jin commented. “That people don’t do that anymore.”
“Who knows?” I asked. “Maybe they still do in the Philippines. At least in the movies anyway.”
The movie ended and still we were eating, Mi Rae Unnie most of all. I watched in fascination as she ate her fourth bowl of rice and then her husband’s. I sent a quizzical look Ji Soo’s way, and she shrugged her slim shoulders.
“Unnie,” she said to her sister in law. “Did you not eat all day or something?”
Mi Rae Unnie’s spoon stopped mid-air and she smiled, bashful. She and Jung Yoon Oppa shared a look before he broke out in a boyish grin, the dimple on his left cheek deepening.
“We’re pregnant,” he admitted.
“Again?” This from Jung Jin and Ji Soo, simultaneously.
“Congratulations!” I said sincerely, beaming at them both. “How far along are you?”
“When did you come back?” Mi Rae Unnie asked me in response.
“A couple of months?” I responded.
“What does that have to do with anything?” Jung Jin posed the question as he picked up a pork rib and bit into it. I grimaced as the sauce went all over his face, and shaking my head, I wiped it off with a paper towel.
“Well,” Mi Rae Unnie said thoughtfully. “We were,” she coughed, “inspired by your reunion, so…”
“She’s about that far along,” Jung Yoon Oppa finished for her, and Ji Soo hid her face in her hands in embarrassment.
“Ewwww Yoon Oppa…. that’s way too much information!”
“You people asked.”
“Chukhahamnida,” Ha Neul said, offering his hands to the couple before Ji Soo pulled him back.
“Anyway, I’m happy for you,” Jung Jin said. “As long as other people in this family are having children, Omma and Appa won’t get on my back about having one of my own.”
Ji Soo looked at me. “Speaking of that,” she said, “are you guys going to get married?”
I choked on my beer.
August 15, 2003
“So,” I started as I took a piece of chicken from the bucket between us, “how are things going with Ha Neul?”
Ji Soo beamed a smile at me, taking a chopstickful of kimchi before responding. “It’s great,” she said, bubbly. “He’s great.” She helped herself to a piece of chicken. “He’s thoughtful and sweet. A bit too serious sometimes, but you know…”
“What?” I asked, urging her to continue as I wiped some sauce from my mouth with a paper towel.
“He works too much.” She pursed her lips.
“A man who thinks of his future is never a bad thing.”
“I know,” she said and then sighed. “But he’s kind…”
I smiled at her. “Kindness is important. Kindness makes up for a lot.”
“… and he’s a great kisser!” She squealed before covering her face with her hands, her fingers still clutching a chicken drumstick.
“Being one of them makes up for a lot, too.”
She lowered her hands and let out another high pitched squeal and the sight of her pinkened cheeks made me smile. And then blush, remembering that her brother is also a very very good kisser. I may never have squealed as enthusiastically or as openly as she had (I am thirty three years old, thank you very much,) but it doesn’t mean I didn’t do it internally.
I wiped my fingers clean before I spoke again. “Yes. The dinner, remember? He’s very handsome.”
“Very,” Ji Soo said with some measure of pride. “It’s weird because I never saw it myself and it might sound really, really weird, but in some angles he kind of looks like Oppa.”
I looked at her in surprise. “Which Oppa?”
“Jung Jin Oppa,” she said, scrunching her nose. “I didn’t even realize until a couple of my friends pointed it out.”
“That’s not a bad thing, right?”
“Yeah.” Ji Soo said nothing else and continued to nibble on her chicken, and I did the same, trying to ignore the dog currently trying to give me his best puppy eyes in the hopes that I will soften and give him some of our food.
Our eyes accidentally met and I took in his molten chocolate brown eyes, so dark and pathetic, and I felt my resistance crumble. Smart dog. He knew me so well.
I tore off a piece of chicken breast and wiped some of the sauce off then offered it to him on my palm. He took it without hesitation and gave me a lick. I thought Ji Soo was fully ensconced in eating until I saw her still just nibbling on her food, darting glances at me more often than what was normal. I turned my attention from the dog to her.
“What?” I asked. “Do I have something on my face or something?”
“No,” she said quickly.
“Then why do you keep looking at me like you want to say something?”
“No reason.” Her mouth was saying one thing but her eyes said the opposite.
“Lee Ji Soo,” I said firmly. “Out with it. Now.”
She hesitated for a brief moment, her mouth opening and closing a few times before she took a resigned breath. “Unnie…” she began, “… how did you know you were ready to have sex?”
I blinked a few times, then forced myself to swallow the water that I had been drinking. I thought about her question and felt like I was experiencing some kind of deja vu. I could have sworn I had this same conversation with Maria not too many years ago.
For a moment I was torn between taking the protective big sister route and the friend route, aware that Ji Soo would take whatever I say very seriously. Unable to make my mind and loving her too much to not give her the information she so obviously seeks, I decided to do both.
“Well…” I said carefully. “… there is no set time for anyone. Everyone’s different and only you and your partner can decide if it’s the right time for both of you.” I met her gaze and gave her a small smile. “Why? Are you thinking about it?” She nodded. “Is… is Ha Neul pressuring you?”
She shook her head vigorously. “No…. no,” she insisted. “He’s the perfect gentleman. But the thing is… I’ve had boyfriends before but I’ve never felt like this. I think it could be love.” I looked at her face and she looked dreamy, her eyes glistening with tenderness as she thought of her boyfriend. “I’ve just been wondering about it, that’s all.”
“Sex…” I said, treading very slowly over this treacherous subject, “sex… can be very special and very beautiful, between two people who care about and respect each other very much. Sometimes it’s the perfect manifestation of love, the best way to express with our bodies what our hearts are feeling.” I took a deep breath. “But, it’s not something to be taken lightly, especially if it’s your first time. You have to be sure. It’s something that only happens once and you can never get it back.”
Ji Soo was listening intently, her chicken back on her plate and over the knees crossed in front of her.
“This is going to sound really cliche and cheesy, but a man will treat you the way he sees you treat yourself. A good man will follow your lead and treat you well. The best man will treat you as the precious and valuable person that you are. There are so many things, other things that foster intimacy for a couple. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be physical. The person who loves you will wait until you’re ready.” I scooted closer to her without breaking our gaze, and ran a gentle hand down her hair. “And the fact that you’re asking me how you know when you’re ready tells me you’re not.”
She gave a delicate shrug of her shoulders then wrapped her slender arms around my neck impulsively. “I’m so glad you’re back, Unnie,” she said, relief apparent in her tone. “You’re the best.”
I gave a low chuckle and peeled her arms away from me, laughing outright when she protested loudly. I let her stay hugging me until she was ready to let go, and pressed a reassuring hand over her back.
When at last she let go, I watched as she sat back on the floor, her back against the bottom of the sofa. “You didn’t feel like you could speak to your sisters?” I asked.
She shook her head. “You’re the only one I felt I could talk to, who would actually tell me the truth rather than just telling me not to do it.” She wrinkled her nose. Again. “They’re very protective.”
“As they should be,” I teased. “You’re the baby in the family, after all. I guess speaking to either of your brothers was out of the question?”
Her eyes widened. “Are you kidding?” She asked. “They would break my boyfriend’s door down and beat him to a pulp.”
I imagined both Jung Jin’s brother and Jung Jin and realized that Ji Soo’s apprehension was called for. “You’re right,” I said.
“Plus you’re the closest to me in age, so…”
An idea formed in my head. “You know… if you want someone to talk to and you don’t want to talk to any of us, you can talk to my sister. She’s only a couple of years older than you and only a phone call, or even a webcam away. I’ll ask her the next time I talk to her if I could give you her number, but I really don’t think it will be a problem. You guys are very similar.”
Ji Soo broke out into a smile as she nodded enthusiastically. “That would be awesome! It’ll feel like we’re a real family already!” She lowered her voice and gave me a shy, hesitant smile. “We will be really a family one day, right?”
“We’re already a real family.” I looked at her searchingly, trying to determine what she was getting at.
“You know what I mean,” she said. “Officially. Neither you nor Oppa responded when we asked whether you will get married.”
I lowered my eyes and fingered the strands of thread peeking out from the hem of my jeans. “I probably never told you, but my parents didn’t have a good marriage. Their relationship kind of made me see marriage as a not so good thing.”
“So what does that mean?” Ji Soo asked. “You’ll never marry Oppa?”
“No,” I said gently. “I didn’t say that. All I’m saying is that just because people are married doesn’t guarantee that they’ll be happy. Relationships are about so much more than just making it official. It takes real commitment and the same amount of effort from both people involved to make it work. I think if those two things are present, whether or not you’re married is neither here nor there.”
Ji Soo looked at me as if she didn’t believe me. “Even if one part of the equation wants to get married?”
I tried to read her expression but couldn’t figure it out. “Has your Oppa told you he wanted to get married?”
“No,” she said slowly. “But he didn’t have to. He was engaged before, you know.”
“So was I.”
Ji Soo frowned, her displeasure apparent. “So you would marry that guy but not Oppa?”
I sighed. “It was after that relationship that I realized how I really felt about marriage,” I said. “Official vows mean nothing if neither people are willing to give everything they have. If anything it just becomes a hindrance and an excuse for people to stay in a relationship that is no longer functional or progressive.”
Ji Soo looked at me in confusion, and I realized that I was babbling to disguise my discomfort about this topic. She stood up and put her hands on her hips before addressing me. “So will you or will you not marry my Oppa?”
“I don’t know yet,” I said honestly. “I don’t know if I’ll marry anyone.”
“This conversation makes me want a drink,” Ji Soo declared as she walked towards the fridge and pulled out the bottle of white wine that she had brought with her.
As I sat waiting for her to come back, I started thinking about what she just said. Jung Jin and I have never spoken about marriage, choosing, instead, to enjoy every day as it comes. It hasn’t been long since we reconciled, and we were both still being very careful.
Was marriage what he envisioned with me? Is that where he sees this going?
I understood that it was one of the predictable steps in the progression of a relationship but I could honestly say that I have not thought about it at all. Maybe I should talk to him about it. Maybe we needed to lay our cards on the table before this went any further. Maybe…
“Unnie,” I heard Ji Soo call out, interrupting my thoughts. “Where is the corkscrew?”
“Drawer next to the stove,” I said, rising to my feet. “It should be…”
I stopped speaking when I saw Ji Soo standing by the drawer, a piece of paper in her hands. She was smiling.
“Unnie,” she said, giving me a knowing look. “Is that what you and Oppa do?”
I walked over towards her and took the piece of paper she was holding. Recognizing Jung Jin’s handwriting, I barely suppressed a smile when I read what he’d written.
I love you.
I shook my head and spoke to Ji Soo. “Where did you find this?” She pointed to the drawer. I grabbed the cordless phone from its base. “Give me a second. I’ll be right back ”
I walked to the bedroom and didn’t dial Jung Jin’s number until I had closed the door behind me. He answered the call after the third ring.
“Hey baby,” he said. “I was just about to call you.”
“I just found your note,” I said. “When did you write this?”
“This morning before I left for work, right after you went for your run. I thought for sure that you would find it earlier. ”
“What are you trying to say?” I asked, giggling. “Why would I need a corkscrew during the day? Are you saying I’m an alcoholic?”
“No,” he said and I could hear the smile in his voice. It made me smile as well. “There are other things in that drawer as well. A can opener. Some post its and some pens. Your eyedrops…”
The earnest way he was reciting the contents brought a warm happy glow to my face. He’s so silly sometimes. I really, really love this man.
“I love you,” I said impulsively, interrupting his speech.
I heard him emit a low chuckle and felt it rumble through me, awareness coming on full alert. Almost instantaneously more than a decade ago I was attracted to this man, and the last three months had not changed that one bit. If anything it’s only deepened, broadened. Somewhere between here and now attraction and love came to stand side by side, more than frequently interlapping and intertwined.
“Hey,” he said, “I’m about to take a shower but can I come over after?”
I was tempted. Very tempted. But I had suggested that we spend some nights apart, to try to keep this relationship as normal as possible. He very tentatively agreed. Though it sounded ludicrous I had to insist upon it. I only knew how easily two people can begin to feel crowded when they spend too much time together too quickly. Because I wanted to make this relationship flourish and last, I was willing to give both of us some space. It was a decision I promised myself I would try my best to stick with, one I was regretting now.
“Ji Soo’s here,” I said. “She’s spending the night.”
“Dammit.” I could hear the frustration in his voice. “So you’re not here and Dog’s not here. I’m gonna be soooooo lonely.”
“I have to go,” I said, ignoring his plea. He’s not going to make me waver. “I’ll call you before I go to bed. I love you.”
“I love you.”
I hung up the phone before he could say any more, knowing fully well that if I stayed on the phone all my good intentions will be forgotten.
August 16, 2003
. Jung Jin
I was tossing and turning in bed, unused to not having either Dog and Gia beside me. I had gotten so used to having them both with me that I had forgotten what it was like to be back on my own, and how difficult sleeping had been.
It’s amazing how quickly one gets used to new patterns and routines.
I rested my forearm over my head, my eyes fixed on the ceiling.
I understood why she insisted on having some nights apart. We had gotten together so quickly after thirteen years of just missing each other and she wanted a semblance of normalcy. A small part of me also knew that it was only with the best of intentions and not because she wanted to maintain some sort of distance.
Gia, as a girlfriend, was everything I thought she would be. Funny and generous, loving and affectionate. If I had doubted her before, I no longer had any doubts. The woman was as crazy about me as I was about her.
It only made this mandatory “alone time” even more difficult. Especially since I knew that come three months’ time we will be back to the drawing board about where we will be taking our relationship.
The thought brought on a nervous fluttering in the pit of my belly.
I rolled over to my stomach and folded the pillow underneath my head and forced myself to close my eyes. I was still in the process of calming my thoughts when I heard the beep of the front door bell.
Sitting up I glanced over at the clock to look at the time. Wondering who it could be at this time of the night and already worrying whether something had happened, I didn’t bother to put a shirt on before walking out my front door. I headed straight to the gate without looking at who it might be on the monitor just inside the house.
I heard the sound of a vehicle pulling off just as I was unlatching the gate door, and almost had a heart attack when I saw who my late night visitor was.
Her back was turned to me and she was dressed in a tan trench coat, her shoulder length hair in wavy tresses. Her feet were in nude pumps, one toe hitting the ground impatiently. I cleared my throat and she turned, her plump lips curving into a warm smile. Her eyes looked at me assessingly, one of her eyebrows raising in barely feigned interest.
“So,” Gia said, her voice low and husky, “are not you going to invite me in?”
My heart started racing in my chest, my lips dry. This was so… unexpected. Surprising. Who knew that capable, sensible, logical Gia would have this side to her?
I didn’t say anything as I opened the gate wider, my arm holding it open as she bent underneath it to come inside. Her eyes met mine as she did so, and I felt an undercurrent of sensation. It was there, just under the surface of my skin as I looked at her face, bare but for a sheen of lip gloss and mascara.
She was so beautiful and so unaware, which perhaps made her beauty all the more alluring. The familiar scent of her wafted over me as I closed the gate door and turned around.
A grin played on one corner of her upturned mouth, amusement dancing in her eyes.
“Where’s Dog?” I could barely eke the words out, the blood pulsating inside me as I avoided looking at her, knowing we were still outside.
“He’s at the penthouse,” she said, her voice like a caress. “Ji Soo is finally asleep. I’ll get back to the penthouse before the sun is up.”
I nodded and licked my lips.
“Is this the greeting I get?” She asked, pouting. “I came here because I didn’t want you to be sad and I don’t even get a hello? I came alllllll this way and you want to talk to me about…
I strode to her and took her in my arms, planting my lips on hers before she could say any more. I tasted the faint smell of mint on her lips, her mouth soft and pliant under mine. I pressed her against the gate even as her fingers gripped my shoulders, her hands already at my hair.
I lifted my lips off hers. “Hello,” I said, the word coming out as a growl.
“Hi.” I felt her lips on my jaw before wandering to my neck. “Jagi,” I heard her say, “do you like my coat?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “I’d like it better off.”
She giggled. “You can’t do that yet.”
I opened my eyes and looked at her. Her eyes were gleaming merrily, color on her cheeks. She leaned down and whispered something in my ears, the sound of which made me pick her up and take her inside the house as quickly as I could muster.
I could still hear her laughing as I struggled to remember the house code in my haste to get us away from prying eyes. The idea that Gia came up with something like this on her own made me question what else she could be hiding. Once we were inside I pressed her against the wall and she covered her face with her hands, as if she couldn’t believe she was doing this, either. My heart filled with love for this confounding, confusing, surprising woman. I guided her hands down and gazed at her face, as the embarrassed smile disappeared from her lips and was replaced with awareness.
My hand on the belt that held her coat together, I didn’t bother turning the light on before I tugged it open to see if she had been telling the truth.
Maybe there was something to this time apart thing, after all.
September 18, 2003
“Sir,” Ha Neul said as he closed the file in front of him. He had just finished giving me a briefing on a baseball player from Yongsei University who was scouted by a Japanese team. “You need to return Kim Byung Hun’s father’s phone call.”
“Kim Byung Hun?” I asked. as I placed my pen back into my pocket. “The pitcher from Sungkyunkwan?”
Ha Neul nodded. “He’s not in Sungkyunkwan anymore.”
“I know that,” I said. “Joon played against his team all throughout the 2000-2001 season. Isn’t he still playing in Arizona?”
“That’s the reason why you need to return his father’s call,” Ha Neul explained. “Apparently, Omonim bumped into his mother at the beauty salon and they were talking. It seems they’be been trying to reach you for days, but you haven’t returned their call.”
“I never got a mes…” I stopped speaking when I remembered that I have been unable to locate my handphone for the last couple of days, my brain latching on to what he just said, instead. “Omonim?” I asked for clarification. “Whose mother are you speaking of?”
Ha Neul cleared his throat. “Yours,” he said. “I was there for dinner last night and she had mentioned it.”
I stopped myself from enquiring about why he was at my parents’ house for dinner. By all accounts, my assistant and my little sister dating hadn’t been as much of a hassle as I thought it would be. Ji Soo seemed happy every time I spoke to her, and Ha Neul was still doing his job as efficiently, if not better, than he always had. Still, though, every time I see him I am reminded that he is dating my little sister. It didn’t help that Ji Soo has been making a habit of showing up at our workplace to take him out to eat for lunch. I wish my sister wasn’t so unguarded and so obvious in her liking him.
I, of all people, know how men behave when they’re dating, especially young men. What thoughts run through their heads. I flushed then bit my tongue. It’s none of my business. Besides, Ji Soo would flip a lid if she found out that I got all big brotherly on her.
“Anyway,” I said, running my fingers through my hair in frustration, “what did they need to talk to me about?”
“I’m not sure,” he responded. “Omonim wasn’t entirely sure of the details. I do, however, know that his contract with the Diamondbacks is ending this year.”
I raised an eyebrow. I always kept up with news of Korean baseball players anywhere in the world but didn’t realize he had been as well. Maybe I did train him better than I realized.
“Anyway,” he said. “It would probably be good if you actually returned their call. Maybe he’s looking for a manager.”
I was silent as I thought about what he said. “The last time I checked he was managed by a company, no?”
“Yeah, but maybe he changed his mind.” Ha Neul stood up and gathered his files and his coffee.
“I already have a client.”
He smiled at me. “You have said yourself that it never hurts to keep those lines of communication open, in case you ever wanted to expand or something.”
“I have no plans of expanding.” I didn’t. I was perfectly happy where Joon and I were.
“Well,” Ha Neul said. “I was just saying.” He was halfway to to the door when I realized that it was, at the very least, the polite thing to return a business call.
“Ha Neul-ssi,” I called out and he turned around, one eyebrow raised enquiringly. “Please find Kim Byung Hun’s parents number and give it to me. I will return their call today.”
“Got it,” he responded, flashing me a smile. He exited the door and was about to close it behind him when he poked his head back into the office. “By the way, Miss Chen called earlier.”
“Shawn called?” I asked. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“She had called before you came in and said she’ll be in a meeting until late afternoon. She, too, has been unable to reach you on your handphone.”
I frowned. My oldest friend and her husband just found out they were a few weeks pregnant not too long ago and she showed no signs of slowing down at all. “Did anyone else call?”
“No, sir, no one else called.” Ha Neul smiled at me knowingly. He knew I was asking if my woman had called me at all. Like I did every day at work. With one last grin he closed the door behind him.
I opened my desk drawer and took out a piece of chocolate, unwrapping it and popping it in my mouth. I was still chewing when my office phone started ringing and I picked up the call in annoyance.
“Dear God, I certainly hope that you don’t answer your business calls that way.”
Shawn’s sardonic tone made me shake my head. “Ha Neul never lets any calls in without warning unless it’s you, Joon or my family.”
“What about Gia?”
I may have made an exasperated sound. “She never calls me at work. She never just pops in and takes me out to lunch. She never just leaves me notes telling me she loves me or… anything.”
“Are those… are those things you do for her in the hope that she would do the same for you?” Shawn began to laugh. “You are so soft. What are you… a teenager or something?”
Her insistence on teasing me grated on my already sensitive nerves. “What’s up, anyway?”
“Not much,” she said. “I just wanted to remind you that in two months your woman’s no visa status will expire in Korea.”
“I knew that already,” I said. And I did. I thought about this fact every single day. No 24 hours had gone by without me thinking about the very same thing. It’s become my newest obsession, in fact. But Shawn didn’t need to know that. “What about it?”
“What are you guys planning on doing?”
“I don’t know yet,” I responded, trying to contain the familiar thrum of anxiety that went through me. “We’ll figure it out.”
Shawn huffed over the line. I recognized that it would be much easier if I just let Shawn navigate some of our relationship hurdles, seeing as, you know, I was dating her best friend, but Shawn had done enough. Surely Gia and I can handle something by ourselves.
“I hope so. I don’t want to have to worry about either one of you.”
“Why would you worry?” I asked.
“Uhmm, because neither one of you are acting like you normally do in relationships.”
“I know,” I said. “But being hotheaded and impulsive had always backfired on me, or, when it worked, always worked out for all the wrong reasons. This time I’m being careful. Meticulous.” Shawn muttered something under her breath. “What did you say?”
She sighed before responding. “Nothing,” she replied. With a defeated sigh, she asked, “What are you guys doing tonight anyway?”
“Probably nothing,” I said. “Watching television.”
“You two watch TV together?”
“No, I meant me watching television all by myself.” I tried to hide the irritation in my voice but didn’t quite succeed. “The woman still insists on some nights apart.” Mind you that hasn’t always been a bad thing. The memory of the night she showed up at my house still made me smile. “But she also still insists on paying rent. Do you know how weird it is to be taking money from my girlfriend every month?”
Shawn chuckled. “I can only imagine.”
“I don’t like it.”
“Have you told her?” I didn’t respond. She let out an exasperated sigh. “Let me ask you a question. Why do you think I thought that you two would be perfect for each other?”
“Beats me,” I said.
“Surely you didn’t think that I thought so because I thought you would do everything she wants you to do.”
“What does that even mean?”
“Figure it out,” Shawn said. “I’ll talk to you soon.”
September 18, 2003
“So what are you guys going to do?” I heard Junnie ask through the computer.
I stopped petting Dog long enough to look at her and clocked the frown on her face. “What do you mean?”
She rolled her eyes and sighed in exasperation. “I mean what are you two going to do?”
I picked up the cup of coffee sitting by the laptop and took a sip before I responded. “I heard what you said; what exactly are we supposed to be doing something about?”
Junnie pursed her lips. “About you staying in Korea.”
“Ah,” I commented as understanding dawned. “Now I get it. We haven’t spoken about it… it’s been a bit busy.”
“Oh yeah,” Junnie said knowingly. “How was your first Chuseok?”
The memory of the slightly surreal day I spent with Jung Jin’s family made me smile. They were loud and at times argumentative, but so openly affectionate and loving it was like a breath of fresh air. I had only wished that my mother and sister had been there with me.
I wonder what they would have thought of the hanbok I wore, a matching one to Jung Jin’s as I offered my bows to the elders.
“Hello?” My best friend said. “How was Chuseok?”
“It was good,” I replied. “I ate an ungodly amount of food. Jung Jin’s family is great.”
“Aren’t they, though?” She mused with her hand under her chin. “But the holidays are over so you need to talk about your future now.”
“I think it’s still a bit early to be worrying about that now. I still have two months left.” She raised an eyebrow in response. “A lot can happen in two months.”
“I can’t believe that you guys haven’t spoken about what happens after the two months are over.”
“No.” I flushed when sighed. “Why should we?”
“Uhmm… because you don’t live in Korea. Immigration will demand that you leave no matter what after the six months.”
“So I’ll leave and we’ll figure it out.”
“It’s all so simple for you.” I detected the sarcasm in my best friend’s voice and I glared at her.
“What, exactly, are you getting at?” I asked. “I want to know why you have such an interest in what happens after two months.”
On the screen I watched as she crossed her arms over her chest in defense. “I like certainty. The fact that you’re not talking about what exactly you plan to do with each other is bothering me.”
“Hold on,” I interrupted. “What is up with everyone asking me about this recently?”
“Who else has been asking you about this?”
“You, Jung Jin’s sisters…” I complained remembering the not so subtle interrogation at Jung Jin’s parents’ house. “I don’t know why everyone is bothered by this issue. Shouldn’t it be bothering me?”
“I just want to make sure I’m backing the right horse.”
I shook my head in bafflement. “Okay,” I said. “Now you’ve lost me. Who are you backing and who is the horse?”
“It doesn’t matter.,” she replied dismissively. “I am a business woman by nature. So is your man. You can’t possibly tell me that Ethan is not thinking about it.”
“I wish you would stop calling him Ethan. His name is Jung Jin.”
“Not to me.” I saw her smirk. “Anyway, love is a lot like business in many ways. Anyone would want to know that they are investing in something that will eventually bring a return. Ethan,” she said emphatically, “is also a businessman. He would understand what I’m talking about.”
I shook my head. “So ask him about it.”
“I did,” she answered. “He said it’s for the two of you to figure out.” Junnie didn’t even bother to hide the irritation in her voice and I suddenly got it. My best friend, above all else, liked control. The fact that her two friends are dating with no real solid plans for the future must be weighing on her mind, and now that she is no longer privy to anyone’s thoughts… I smiled at her fondly.
“Listen,” I said gently. “It must be weird to all of a sudden to have us be together and feel like we are keeping you out of the loop. I can’t vouch for Jung Jin, but you know that if anything were to happen or any big decision was made that I would let you know. ” She wouldn’t meet my eyes over the camera and I softened. “Bet in all the time that you were trying to get us together, you never actually thought about how things will change if we did finally get together, did you?”
There was a brief moment of silent before she spoke. “No,” she admitted. “That’s not it. I just don’t want either one of you to be hurt.” She lifted her eyes and caught the incredulous look on my face. “I mean… hurt any more than you both have been already.”
“I’m fine, Junnie…” My reassurance fell on deaf ears.
“I’m not worried about you,” she said accusingly. “You’re not the one who fell apart the last time you two broke up.”
“Hey! I didn’t exactly have such a great time, either, you know.”
“I’m just saying,” she continued. “You handle stress and emotions better than he does. At least you give yourself time to recognize and acquaint with your feelings; you let yourself get comfortable with it before you think about it and process it in a logical, adult way. Ethan just imploded.” She released a heavy breath. “You didn’t see him after you left. He was a wreck. You have to know that he’s always been the more fragile of the two of you. Don’t hurt him.”
“And you seriously didn’t think about this before you insisted on doing everything to get us together.”
“I’m just saying that you probably need to have this conversation sooner rather than later.”
“Are you asking me about my intentions?” She dIdn’t respond. “Listen, Jun…” I began carefully, “… I’ve done the planning thing before. I’ve lived the last ten years carefully thinking over everything I will do, the consequences, the effects, before I even did it. It never worked out for the better for me. For once I want to just do things spontaneously and without thought. Enjoying every moment. You know.”
“I know,” Junnie said. “You’re my best friend. I understand you. But let’s face it… you’re resilient. You’ve always been that way. Emotionally savvy. You have far more experience with relationships than he does. Whatever intellect the man has in spades he still kind of lacks in emotional intelligence, especially when dealing with the woman he loves. He may be well versed in being a playboy but he’s still fairly a newbie when it comes to love.”
“You seem to be under the impression that I would chew him and spit him back up,” I interrupted. “I understand that you’ve known him for a long time, and I acknowledge the person you met fourteen years ago may have been like that, but I assure you, he is no longer that way. I will have a conversation with him and find out what he thinks. We will discuss our future like adults in love, which, I assure you, we very much are.”
Junnie snorted. “And then will you tell me about it?”
“No,” I tried not to laugh at her not so obvious demand. “We,” I said, “and by we, I mean me and him, are in a relationship. We, and this time I mean you and I, are best friends. You, and by that I mean you and him, are friends. We all need to draw the line somewhere, don’t you think?” She didn’t respond. “I love you, but you’re a married woman now. And pregnant, may I add. Do not worry your pretty head over us. It’s not as if he and I don’t ever say what we mean. We are pretty good at that.”
“You two are good at saying what you both mean?” Junnie asked in return, her eyes going as wide as saucers. “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
It was the last thing she said before she broke out in loud peals of laughter, leaving me wonder, as I sat and listened to her, if she knew something that I didn’t know.
She stopped laughing after a few minutes and looked at me worryingly over the monitor. “But… are you okay?”
I ran a self-conscious hand over my hair. “Yeah, I’m okay. Why do you ask that?”
“You look… tired.”
I mustered up a bright smile. “I’m fine, Jun. I’m okay.”
“But your father’s death ann…”
“I’m fine, Jun.” My best friend looked surprised by my interruption, then concerned. “Really… I’m good.”
September 19, 2003
I leaned my back against the tub, the porcelain hard against my neck. Languidly I wondered if anything could be better than this.
I have to give my woman this: despite her stubbornness about keeping her space hers and mine solely mine, whenever we were together, she was always in the moment. I never had to doubt that she was fully with me, physically and mentally.
It was a relief to have her with me now. She’d been quieter recently, noticeably so in the last couple of weeks. Like something was weighing on her mind. Tonight, at least, she seemed better.
Warm bubbles tickled my feet, the smell of lavender permeating the bathroom. The woman in front of me had her hair in a low bun behind her, her back right in front of me. Rivulets of water played over the swirly black symbol over her right scapula, and I leaned down and gave her a quick kiss where her neck met her shoulder.
“Mmm,” she said. “That feels good.”
“Yeah?” I asked as she leaned back against me and I wrapped my arms around her waist.
The water rippled as she placed herself in a more comfortable position, resting her head on the crook of my neck.
“Did you get a new phone today?” I heard her ask softly.
“No, not yet,” I answered. “I’m still hoping to find my phone. I’ll get one tomorrow, I promise.” I lifted my hands from the water and placed both of them over her back and began to knead in firm strokes.
“Your hands are amazing,” she said, her voice sounding sleepy. “Did you have a good day at work?”
“It was okay.” My eyes were fixed on her back, intent on what I was doing. “I spoke to a pretty well known ballplayer about switching to my company once his contract ends.”
“You did?” She asked. “I thought you said JJ was enough?”
“Yeah, but his mother knows mine,” I said. “You know how it is.”
I rewrapped my arms around her. One of her hands met one of mine underwater and she lifted it, planting a small kiss on my palm before interlinking our fingers. I looked at the woman I held in my arms and saw that her eyes were closing, her face fixed in an expression of utter bliss. I tightened my arms around her and watched as bubbles drifted over her collarbone.
It felt like time slowed down as the silence lengthened. But it wasn’t a tense, uncomfortable silence. It was warm and familiar. Comforting. Steam rose from the tub and my eyes followed its path in the dimly lit bathroom.
“Jagi,” I heard her say, her upper teeth latching onto her bottom lip.
“Are you worried about me having to leave in a couple of months?”
Her question took me by surprise and I tensed before I could stop myself. “Where did that come from?”
She opened her eyes and our gazes collided. It was difficult to discern her expression under only the light of a smattering of candles.
“I was talking to Junnie earlier and she gave me the impression that you might be feeling some sort of way about my possibly having to go back to the States.”
I tried to force myself to relax before responding. “Well,” I started, still unsure about what to say, “is there a plan?”
“For the record,” she said, “I have no problem with long distance relationships. I was in one for three years before and I was pretty damn good at it. Annndd… that was before instant messaging and cell phones.”
I tried to formulate a response even as I remembered the last time I was in a long distance relationship. In one instant I recalled missed phone calls, the lack of communication, Kelsey’s betrayal. I waited for the familiar bitterness to go through me even though I hadn’t felt it for a while.
There was no bitterness anymore. It seemed I had closed that door to my past already, though the heavy feeling of apprehension persisted.
“I wasn’t good with the one long distance relationship that I was in.” The admission came out in a whoosh of words. I hated admitting that failing.
“With Kelsey?” I gave a noncommittal hmm and I felt her sag against me. “From what I heard from Junnie what she did had nothing to do with you. People will find a way to cheat if that’s what they really want to do. I know this. I’ve been through the same thing.”
“With your high school boyfriend?” I asked, remembering what Shawn had told me the first day I laid my eyes on Gia.
“No, with the one I almost married, remember?”
“We have emails,” she said softly, “and phone calls, and webcams.”
“I don’t want anyone else,” she continued. “You know that, right? No amount of distance will change that. No amount of time will change that.”
“Same for me,” I said sincerely. “I will do whatever it takes to keep you.”
She took her hand out of mine and turned around again. Hand on my cheek she pressed her lips to mine. “I’m already yours to keep.”
I ran a hand down her hair and kissed her forehead. She smiled at me before resting her head back on my shoulder.
“Jung Jin?” I heard her ask, and the hesitation in her voice brought about a slight feeling of trepidation.
“Are we ever going to talk about our long term plans?” She asked. “Your sisters have been asking me, and Junnie has been asking me and I’m never quite sure what to say.”
Long term plans? A picture of her in a wedding dress came so suddenly even I was surprised. Not wanting to scare the woman who always wanted her space, I ignored the fluttering in my stomach and feigned ignorance.
“What, exactly, are you talking about?”
She pulled away from me and went to the opposite side of the tub. She offered me a smile before she said one word.
“What, exactly, are you talking about?” Jung Jin sounded genuinely confused as to what I was saying and I fought the feeling of anxiety that all of a sudden has come over me.
Wanting to see his face as we spoke about This Very Important Subject, I waded to the other side of the tub and turned around.
“Marriage,” I said, surprised that I even managed to say the word without choking on it.
“I’ve never thought about it,” he said easily. His face was devoid of any emotion, as relaxed as he looked before I brought the subject up that I had no choice but to believe him.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay.”
“Besides, we’ve only been dating for a few months.” He flashed me a grin and I mustered one of my own, though, I was sure that mine came out more as a grimace.
“So there’s no issue?” I asked. “You really have not thought about this at all?”
“Nope,” he replied. “Not at all.”
I realized that I should be relieved that I didn’t need to give him my spiel about marriage and commitment. I should be glad that he hadn’t been insistent and I would have had to let his expectations down gently. I should be happy. And I was.
But I’d be lying if I said that a tiny part of me wasn’t disappointed. I chalked it up to the vulnerability of the moment and quickly dismissed the feeling.
Marriage was antiquated and unnecessary. I have seen too many couples, once in love and perfectly happy, implode with the weight of obligation that marriage brought. And all because they wanted to make it official.
There was no sense in fixing something that wasn’t broken. And what we had was not only not broken but very, very good. Who needed marriage when I can have it this good?
I closed the gap between us, slinking my way through the soapy water until my chest connected with his. He watched me with his pretty, pretty eyes, his gaze shuttered. I wrapped my arms around his neck, our legs tangling together. He continued to say nothing even as I caressed the dimple on his left cheek.
“What?” I asked. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“No reason,” he responded. “I’m nuts about you.”
His response made me chuckle. “And here I thought you were just nuts,” I said dryly before I broke out in a smile. “In any case… the feeling’s mutual, Mr. Lee. If you’re crazy then I am, too.”
September 20, 2003
“He’s in a meeting,” Ha Neul said and I stood up.
“Do you know what time he’s going to be done?” I asked as I walked to my closet and pulled out a black dress. I bent down and grabbed my pumps before walking back to the bed.
For a second I wondered if Ha Neul didn’t know the answer to my question or whether he didn’t know how to say it in English, remembering just now that Ji Soo’s boyfriend was not fluent yet.
“Ha Neul-ssi,” I said, not wanting to make him self-conscious, “please don’t worry about it. It’s not urgent.”
I checked my watch and said a hasty goodbye, realizing that the cab was due to arrive any minute now to take me to the airport. I folded my dress and placed it in my suitcase, then my shoes on top of it. I grabbed my makeup kit from the bathroom as well as a handful of toiletries. I checked my purse for my passport and my identification.
I was ready, though it felt as if I was sleepwalking. I had long wondered how I would feel a year after my father’s death, and it seemed I was to get my answer today.
I woke up feeling heavy, an ache settling in the marrow of my bones. That Jung Jin had already left for work by the time I got out of bed didn’t help any.
And then my sister called, telling me that our mother had decided to do something in remembrance after all.
So, a few phone calls and a thousand dollars poorer later, I was packing again to make my way back to New Jersey. Though I had long grieved my father’s passing, that it was one day before his death brought back all the pain that I still live with to this day.
I’d forgiven him for his mistakes and myself, too. But it will not make the next few days any easier.
I walked to the kitchen and unplugged all the appliances. I closed the blinds in the living room and straightened the pillows on the sofa, the actions intent but mindless, my head fixed only on making my way back to New Jersey and all the things I had to do. I had taken out a piece of paper and a pen from my purse to write Jung Jin a note when the house phone rang.
It was the doorman, telling me that my cab was here. Note forgotten, I ran to my suitcase and picked it up, only remembering last minute to make sure all the lights were turned off.
“Jagi,” I called out as soon as I stepped out of the elevator. “I know it’s not our night together so I’ve come to take you to lunch.”
I shrugged out of my jacket, and sat down on the couch, noticing only now that the blinds have been closed. I placed my new handphone box on the coffee table and realized that there was no one here. There was no response coming from anywhere in the house and I stood up, suspicious, and went to the outside deck.
Still there was no response. I frowned and walked to the bedroom, half expecting Gia to come out and berate me for surprising her, a small dose of panic already beginning to form at the base of my spine.
Only silence greeted me as I opened the door slowly. It felt like deja vu as I looked at her bed, all made up, and I realized that she might have left. Again. Urgently I scanned the room for her suitcase, which I was unable to find.
I tried to stay calm even though my heart had started racing in apprehension, my mind already remembering the last time I found the penthouse like this. I reminded myself that last time and this time were different, that she and I were in a different place, a better place, but it was almost impossible to stay rational when panic takes over.
I continued to walk around the penthouse, checking the bathroom for her toiletries and her make up bag and found neither. By the time I picked up the phone to call Shawn, my hands were shaking. Emotion trumped any logic and any sense i may still have left. Adrenaline pumped through my veins as I struggled to control my nerves.
“Hey,” Shawn answered. “Two phone calls in three days? Are you bored or something? Didn’t we just speak a few days ago?”
“Where is she?” My voice came out gruff, hoarse. My mind was all over the place and as hard as I tried to keep my shit together. All I could remember was the last time she left without a word. “Where the hell is she?”
“What do you mean where is she?” Shawn asked, her voice surprised. “Have you not checked your messages?”
My eyes strayed to the box still on the coffee table, the new handphone I had bought still uncharged. “No, I haven’t. Did she leave me again?”
Shawn was silent for a moment before she responded. “Now why would your mind automatically take that route?”
I ran my hands over my hair as I stood by the windows, my eyes skimming over the city before me. “I don’t know,” I said. “I came back to the penthouse and she wasn’t here. Her suitcase wasn’t here and for some reason I thought she may have changed her mind.”
“Why would she change her mind?”
“I don’t know. We were talking about marriage the other night and I said I haven’t thought about it at all.”
“Have you not, then?” I didn’t answer and Shawn took my silence as my response and sighed. “Why the hell did you not just tell her you were when you were?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I didn’t want to scare her off. I didn’t want her to…”
“My best friend does not get scared off that easily,” she said. “And the fact that she even brought it up should have told you that this was something you two needed to talk about. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. That has nothing to do with why she’s not in Korea.”
“You spoke to her?”
“Yeah. You do remember what tomorrow is, don’t you?” I searched my mind for a clue. Besides the fact that Gia had been noticeably quieter over the last few days (something I only attributed to thinking about this whole marriage issue,) nothing came to mind. Something nagged at me, a detail I can’t seem to remember. Shawn released a frustrated breath. “It’s her father’s death anniversary. You know where you’ll find her.”
The fact that I didn’t remember such an important day shocked me into silence. The fact that Gia didn’t even think to let me know that that’s where she was going shocked me even more. Irrationally I felt angry and hurt. Feelings Gia and I will have to talk about at a later time, when the next two days have passed.
“So?” I heard Shawn ask, breaking through my thoughts. “What are you going to do?”
Hillsborough, New Jersey
September 21, 2003
“You should eat something,” my mother said, looking at me in concern. “You’ve been running around all day.”
“I’m fine, Mama. I don’t really feel like eating now… ” I reassured her. “Besides, there was too much to do.”
I didn’t elaborate. After an almost sleepless night, I got myself up out of bed even before the sun rose, doing my usual run. And then straight out of the house to do what needed doing: picking up flowers, going to the caterers. Anything that kept me out for as long as possible. Anything to keep my mind off why I was here to begin with.
I stood up. “I’m going to the bathroom.”
I escaped before my mother could ask me any questions and made my way to the bathroom.
“Sis, hurry,” Maria called out from behind me. “Tita Francie wants to show us something.”
“I’ll be right there,” I replied as I made a mad dash away from the throng of people.
My mother’s house was overrun with people: friends my family considered family, partly due to their association, but mainly due to our shared nationality. I have lost count over the years how many people I had to call aunt or uncle, despite their having no blood relation to me whatsoever. It didn’t matter much as we only saw them on holidays, but today…. today it grated on me.
I understood why my mother wanted to remember my father in this way. I knew that had it been her choice, she would have just kept today between us. But this is what my father would have wanted.
It seemed death had not tampered with her loyalty.
I no longer felt any anger about them or their relationship; there was no bitterness anymore, though it still felt bittersweet. Acceptance was a hard pill to swallow, especially when I knew that it well and truly meant that my father was gone. A year later and I had finally accepted it. Just as my acceptance of him came slowly, so did my acceptance of his death. But I have done it.
I now live my life treating every day as if it was my last. I hoped that it’s what my father would have wanted for me.
Some days are good. Some days are better than good. Until today.
Today, I felt the loss of him so acutely it brought tears to my eyes. It felt like a heavy, stifling weight over my chest. For the last two weeks I had felt it, long before I even left Korea but ignored it, chalked it up to fatigue and homesickness. Had it not been for Jung Jin I might have already fallen apart.
I took a few breaths in the bathroom, running the water over the sink and washing my face. Enough to get my composure back. Enough to get a hold of myself.
I had just exited the bathroom when I heard my father’s voice singing. The sound was one that brought me back to the happiest times in my childhood, to the few happy memories he and I shared. Where was it coming from?
Almost dazedly I walked towards where the sound was originating, my feet walking slowly, ignoring the wellwishers I passed. My ears were deaf to the other noise surrounding me, my focus only on his voice. I didn’t stop until I saw my father on the television in the living room, older than the last time I laid eyes on him. His hand on a microphone, his smile big as he swayed to the music.
Grief, pure and undiluted, came over me. Instantaneously my eyes welled up and blurred my vision. My breath caught in my throat, the lump of regret thick and impossible to ignore. The feeling was so sudden; the room spun and I closed my eyes to try to get a hold of myself. It felt like my knees were about to buckle underneath me.
I had just reached my hand out for the nearest wall when I felt strong arms wrap around my waist, a familiar scent hitting my nose. I opened my eyes and looked behind me to see Jung Jin’s face, his mouth in a wry smile. The relief and gratitude came quickly and he narrowed his brows, his expression worried.
“You’re okay,” he said softly. He rested his lips on my forehead. “I got you. You’re okay.”
The sound of his voice brought me out of the sadness, the tender way he was holding me making me believe that I was okay. Or that if not, that I will be. I rested my head on his shoulder and allowed myself to cry.
“Thank you for having me, Omonim,” I said as I bowed to Gia’s mother. Gia was standing by a closet, putting a light sweater on. “I’m sorry I didn’t give you more notice.”
All of the guests have long left; the only people left in the house was Gia’s family and her sister’s boyfriend. Gia’s mother smiled at me warmly. “I’m the one who should be sorry. If my friend wasn’t here from Canada, we would have had more than enough room to let you stay in the house.”
“I already made my reservation at the hotel,” I assured her. “So please don’t worry about it.”
“We’ll see you for breakfast tomorrow?”
I nodded as Gia turned to her mother. “Mama, I’ll come back in a couple of hours.”
“Okay.” Her mother took her in an embrace and I waved at Maria and her boyfriend, sitting around the kitchen table.
“See you later, Sis!” She called out, “You too, Kuya Jung Jin!”
I smiled at her though I had no clue what word it was that she just called me with. Gia took my hand as we exited her mother’s house, and we walked side by side in silence as we walked towards her mother’s car, the keys to which Gia now held in her hands.
“Are you okay to drive?” I asked quietly as she pressed a button on the keychain to open the doors and sat down in the driver’s seat.
I sat myself down after fastening my seatbelt and she turned to me, her face tired. Even from this light I spied the bags under her eyes. She looked even more haggard now than she did when I saw her earlier. Whatever annoyance or irritation I may have felt at her unannounced departure dissipated in the instant I saw her, struggling to keep her emotions in check at a time when she would have been perfectly in the right to be emotional.
Some things have not changed. And yet some things have, as well.
I didn’t miss the expression that I saw in her eyes when she opened them and saw me, her relief almost palpable. Or the way she didn’t fight my arms around her, melting into me, instead.
“Yeah,” she said softly. “I’m okay.”
She reversed out of her mother’s driveway and drove out of the cul-de-sac. As soon as she had maneuvered the car to the street, her right hand reached out over the middle console for mine. I took hers wordlessly until we reached the hotel, barely saying a word. It wasn’t until we had reached the room that she turned to me and spoke, her voice low.
“How did you know?” She asked.
I walked over to the bed and placed my overnight bag before replying. “Shawn.”
The corner of her mouth lifted into a small smile. “You mean Junnie.”
I mirrored her grin. “Shawn.” I sat myself down on the side of the bed, and looked at her as she leaned back against the small table in the room.
Our gazes clashed and for one second I was tempted to break mine away, afraid that my eyes will show the hurt that I have been trying to hide all day. Hurt that I hadn’t been invited, hurt that I had to find out from Shawn.
She may have let me into her heart, but when will she let me into her world? When will she give me open access to everything she’s feeling… not retroactively, but as she’s feeling it?
A part of my brain find that we should speak about this when we get back to Korea, after today is over. She’s had a long, tough day and I was certain that the last thing she needed to do was to speak regarding relationship matters when there was still so much intense emotion running around.
“What’s wrong?” She repeated her question when I didn’t answer. With a frown she walked over to where I sat and lowered herself next to me. “It looks like you’re not telling me something.”
“I don’t know,” I said, tentative and hesitant to tell her. “We’ll talk about it later, once today is over.”
“No,” she said, her eyes boring into mine. “If something’s wrong, we should talk about it now.”
I stood up and began to pace, wanting to just bury this issue until we no longer had to talk avoid it. I’ll get over this, too.
“I’m really tired, so…”
“Oh no,” she said, gaze sharpened. “We’re not going to do this avoiding thing.”
I stopped pacing and looked at her. “I feel petty for worrying about this on a day like today.”
“What?” She asked. “If you’re feeling some sort of way then you should tell me. Want to be sad? Then be sad. Want to be mad? Then be angry. But you sit your ass down and tell me. If you don’t tell me then I can’t address it.”
I ran a hand through my hair and sat my ass down, as she had so eloquently ordered.
“What’s wrong?” She asked.
I knew that she would not let me be unless I told her. It left me no choice but to, though it was the last thing I wanted to do. “Why…” I swallowed and licked my lips, “…why did I have to hear that you were here from Shawn?”
She looked momentarily puzzled and cocked her head to one side, her eyes guileless. “You didn’t. I called you first. Before I spoke to her I called you.”
The way he was pacing was making me nervous.
“What? If you’re feeling some sort of way then you should tell me. Want to be sad? Then be sad. Want to be mad? Then be angry. But you sit your ass down and tell me. If you don’t tell me then I can’t address it.”
I watched as he ran a hand through his hair before sitting back down next to me.
Jung Jin averted his eyes and appeared as if the last thing he wanted to do was speak. I rested a hand on his cheek and forced him to look at me, surprised by the genuine hurt that I saw in his eyes. “Why…” he paused and licked his lips “…why did I have to hear that you were here from Shawn?”
His question took me aback. What? “You didn’t,” I said. “I called you first. Before I spoke to her I called you.”
“I didn’t mean that,” he countered. “I meant why did you not tell me about your father’s death anniversary? Was I just supposed to stay in Korea and let you come here by yourself?”
I took a deep breath, considered my words carefully. “You were working, first of all. And second of all, yeah, I guess. This is not exactly a happy event.”
“Did you not think that I would want to be here for the not so happy times, too?”
I felt my shoulders sag, realized that there was a chance he might have taken my leaving as me still rejecting his presence in my life. “I’m sorry that I made you feel like I didn’t want you here,” I started. “But to be honest I didn’t even think to ask you. No one I’ve ever been with had ever really wanted to get that involved in that aspect of my life.”
He clenched his jaw. “I’m not them.”
I scooted closer to him on the bed until our legs were touching. “I know that,” I said sincerely. “You’re not them, but I’m still me.”
“Why didn’t you just ask me?”
I blew out a breath and shrugged my shoulders, realizing only now that it never even occurred to me that he would want to be here.
“I don’t know. I thought the message I left would have been adequate. That in itself was huge,” I said, trying to tease a smile out of him. It didn’t work. “Do you know how long it has been since I’ve let myself be accountable to someone?” He lifted his eyes to mine. “It’s been over six years since I’ve been in a relationship. I’m not just going to magically turn into this perfect relationship person overnight. But I’m trying. And I wanted you here. There was no one else I wanted to be here more badly than you.”
“Really?” His voice was doubtful and it made me chuckle.
“Yeah, really. But you can’t expect me to just blurt things out as I’m feeling them. That’s not me. It might be, one day, but not yet. It doesn’t mean that I love you any less or that I don’t see you as a vital, important part of my life. It just means I’m still working through it myself. You know that, right?” Jung Jin didn’t answer. “Surely… surely you didn’t think that I was just going to disappear like I did last time?” Again, he didn’t give me an answer and I sighed, knowing fully well that I can’t penalize him. My man is very smart; it was no fault of his that he based what he thought on what he considered a history of past behavior.
I shook my head and rested my hand over his. “Let’s make a deal.”
He looked at me questioningly. “What?” He asked. “When you make one of these deals I almost always end up on the losing end.”
“So suspicious,” I chided as I leaned towards him. “How about I stop treating you like you’re just like every other person I’ve been with and you stop treating me like I was an apparition that would leave at any given time?” He didn’t give me a response and I continued to speak. “I love you. No matter what I do sometimes, or what I say or don’t say, none of those things change that. I love you. That will always stay the same, no matter the shit we go through. We’re not going to get it perfect right away… I’m almost new at this and you…
“I love you,” he interjected before i could finish my sentence, no doubt to stop me from bringing up his less than savory past.
“Are we good?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He gave me a smile before he seemed to remember something and it disappeared. “Are you okay, though? You didn’t look so well earlier.”
I shrugged my shoulders again. “You would think it would be easier a year later, but turns out, it’s not.”
“Do you want to tell me about him?”
I considered his question, hesitated for a nanosecond (old habits die hard,) and nodded. “Yeah, I think so.”
We lay fully clothed on the bed, on top of the covers, our arms around each other. She rested her head on my chest with one of my arms wrapped around her shoulders, her hair loose over the pillows. Only one lamp in the hotel room was on, the curtains closed.
I felt Gia take a deep breath before she began to speak. “My mother and father met in uni,” she started. “They dated for a year, I think, before she got pregnant with me and they had to get married. By the time I was one my mother was already abroad, working as a nurse in Saudi Arabia. She was only able to go home every few years and for all that time, it was just me and him.” I said nothing and hoped that my silence will urge her to continue. “My father was very handsome, very charismatic. He could sell ice to eskimos.”
“What does that mean?”
I felt her chuckle rumble through me. “It means that he was a great salesman, so much so that you want to believe everything he says. For the first few years of my life I thought he was the best thing in the world. No one could have told me any differently. And then one day, I found that that he had another family… several, actually, and that I was not one out of two children but one out of many. To think that I have so many half siblings that I don’t even know about…” She stopped speaking and cleared her throat. “Anyway…it was all good until I came to America.”
“How old were you when you came?”
“Thirteen. Too young to really understand what happened, and old enough to know that I felt some sort of way about it. It didn’t help that my parents stayed together. I wish that they had just divorced and left it at that. Instead my sister and I spent our formative years pretending that we had a perfect family to everyone else, when we both knew damn well that we were the furthest thing from that. We were stuck in this surreal, dysfunctional bubble. So as soon as I could get out, I did.”
“Uni?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Until I left Marcus I managed to not live in that house again. But I’m fast forwarding. For as long as I can remember I somehow blamed myself for what happened to them because if they didn’t get pregnant with me, they wouldn’t have had to marry, and if they never married, none of the other stuff would have happened. He thought so, too.”
I narrowed my brows. “That’s not true.”
“Of course he did,” she said softly. “He told me so himself. Anyway, I think I may have taken that guilt with me ever since. I believed that it was my fault that their marriage didn’t work. Every time something bad happened, every time something went wrong with any of my relationships, I always thought it was my fault. I was his daughter, so I was convinced I was fated to spend the rest of my life either paying for his mistakes or making those same mistakes.”
The bits and pieces that her mother had told me came back to me and I was immediately saddened for the girl who blamed herself for everything wrong that happened, who thought herself worthy of every pain inflicted upon her. How grave the responsibility must have felt for her to always try to overcome the part of herself she deemed weak.
“In any case, I thought I found a solution. If I became what the person I’m with wants me to be, then it has to work out. If I could control myself, I could control what happens to me. If I just always chose to do the right thing, surely I will be forgiven and I could live some sort of life, as long as I paid for my mistakes every step of the way. I’ll sacrifice myself in payment to everyone whose lives I destroyed, exchange my happiness for those whom I’d hurt. I thought I was good with that. Until you came along, I had somehow managed to make myself believe that I was okay with that.”
I looked down and saw her bite down on her lower lip. “It wasn’t until I fell in love with you,” she continued, “that I realized I wanted more. I was tired of putting myself last. I wanted to be loved for everything I am, and not just the illusion that I portrayed. I was tired of pretending. For once I wanted someone to know me.” She looked at me. “I wanted you to know me. I wanted you to love me.”
I ran a hand down her hair and saw her take another deep breath. “For so many years I thought I hated him. Because it was so much easier to deal with that. It was easier to point the finger at him and say ‘you’re the reason why I’m so fucked up, you’re the one I’ve had to overcome all my life.’ than to just admit that he was the one I once loved most, and he broke my heart. But unlike boyfriends, I couldn’t just break up with him. He’s my father. No matter how I feel about it, he’s a part of me. In my smile, and in my voice. In my temper and my blood. I had to accept that before I could come back to you. There was no way I would have let you anchor yourself to me before then. I was likely to sink us both. I would have dealt with that the way I had dealt with everything else, but I didn’t want that for you. For only the second time in my life, I found someone worth protecting.”
“Who was the first time?” I asked, and she propped herself up on one elbow to look at me.
“Ah.” I nodded. No wonder she and Maria were so close. “Did you get to speak to him before he…”
She shook her head and placed it back on my chest before I could finish my question. “That was something else I had to make peace with. I hadn’t seen him, not the way he always was in my head, until I saw that video today. I couldn’t believe that I didn’t even get to say goodbye.”
Her voice cracked at the last sentence and I felt a warm trickle over my shirt. I tightened my hold on her. “I’ve never lost a parent, so i can’t imagine how it must feel. I don’t know how that feels but I know you. So I’ll tell you now what you once told me. It’s not your fault. None of this is. You’ve made mistakes. So had he. Wherever he is now, I’m sure that he just wants you to be happy.”
“But the words we spat at each other the last time…”
“People say things they don’t mean when they’re angry. You know that. You and I have said things to each other when we used to fight.”
“But now I will never be able to tell him how I really felt.”
“He didn’t, either. As long as you hold onto that regret, you will never let him rest in peace. I’m pretty sure that he wouldn’t want that for you. And you don’t want that for him.”
“How would you know?”
“Because no one who truly loves would want the worst for the person they love. Losing you taught me that. That’s how I knew I really loved you. I would have been okay with being without you if that meant you were happy. And you better have been, since all my wishes were spent on all of yours coming true.” I felt her take one of my hands and place a kiss on it. “Do you… do you think your father would have liked me?”
I felt her chuckle. “Yeah, he would have. And it would have annoyed me to no end and I would have tried to find something wrong with you to avoid dating someone so accepted by him. Maybe that was the reason you came into my life when you did.”
She looked up at me again, her eyes red-rimmed, tired. But honest; less heavy, somehow. “Are you flying back out tomorrow?”
“I’ll fly back to Korea whenever you do.”
She smiled then rose up the bed until our faces were inches apart. Tracing my lips with her pointer finger, I was certain that she was about to kiss me when she opened her mouth. “Want to come to the cemetery with us after breakfast?”
It didn’t take but a second for me to realize that she was finally reaching a hand out. I didn’t hesitate. “I’d love to.”
November 2, 2003
I looked at my only client, his normally placid face tired. He was resting his face on his palm, his elbow on top of the table and was almost falling asleep. I held back a chuckle as I perused his appearance. He managed to get himself dressed in a simple button down shirt (though it was slightly wrinkled), and his hair looks like it’s been barely combed through.
I took a sip of my coffee before I spoke, and he practically jumped up when he heard my voice, opening his eyes and looking around as if he didn’t know where he was.
“Rough night?” I asked, and he grinned at me sheepishly.
“Yeah, Hyung… I swear I didn’t know babies were so much work,” he said. “I don’t know how Na Jeong did it all those months when I was in season.”
“Last time I spoke to your wife she said your son is a perfect baby,” I said, remembering my last conversation with his wife.
Joon wrinkled his nose. “He may be a perfect baby, but he turns to a little Houdini at night.”
His answer was delayed as the server came back, dropping off our whole meal, normally delivered course by course, but one I requested to be delivered all at once. My client has become more in demand recently, and his client was a precocious 11 month old giving his mother hell at home.
Joon smiled at the server as he picked up his chopsticks and helped himself to some sashimi. “I found Young Seon climbing out of his crib,” Joon said. “In the middle of the night.” He cringed at the memory. “You can imagine Na Jeong’s reaction.”
“I bet,” I said as I spooned some scallops and sweet pumpkin into my mouth.
“Since she’s back at work now and I’m off season we’re taking shifts with the baby,” he said. “Omonim takes care of him in the morning while I train. Then Na Jeong picks him up after work, and I take over at night. You’d think it was the easiest shift but it’s not. Apparently my kid turns into the devil at dusk.”
I couldn’t resist laughing. Who would have thought that one of Korea’s best baseball players, one who took his team to triumph at this year’s championships, would be just like every tired, overwhelmed father in our country?
“My wife is a saint,” he said, taking a spoonful of rice.
“So she is.”
I took a drink of water and Joon smiled at me. “Anyway,” he said. “How are things with you and Gia Noona?”
“Good,” I replied. “Ji Hyun Noona is in town so they all went out to lunch.”
Joon smiled at me knowingly. “Which is why you called me out of the blue?” he asked with a smirk. “You never like feeling left out.”
“I’m not judging. I used to do the same to you.” He lifted a piece of steamed hartail into his mouth. “Did Noona tell you she gave Na Jeong medication in Japan?”
I shook my head no. “She didn’t tell me much about bumping into Na Jeong.”
“Yeah, apparently Gia Noona is a walking pharmacy. Had it not been for that medication, our honeymoon might have been a bust. Needless to say you will never have to worry about medication.”
“Perk of dating a nurse, I suppose,” I said.
“Call it whatever you want, but Na Jeong loooovvveesssss your girl,” Joon said. “She thinks you should make that permanent as soon as possible.”
I said nothing, not wanting to share that I had been thinking about the very same thing for weeks. The fact that she might have to leave soon didn’t escape my knowledge. She had ended up staying in New Jersey for another couple of weeks after her father’s death anniversary, and that managed to delay her departure by another couple of months. Sooner or later that clock will run out and we will be left with no options than to marry or to have a long distance relationship. And while the idea of the latter was not so loathsome to me as it might have been months ago, I still didn’t like it. The few weeks we were apart did nothing but solidify my feelings, making them even more real than they have ever been.
There was that other option, but the last thing I wanted was to propose out of context. I don’t want to propose and have her ever think I only did it for her visa. That’s not it, at all.
I want to propose now because it felt right. Never mind that it hasn’t been that long since we began dating. The truth is that for so many years in my life I didn’t want to be responsible for anything, for anyone, not even myself. I mastered the art of letting others shine, and, by the same token, letting others shoulder either the blame or obligation, whichever one applied. For the first time since my accident, I was ready to be accountable, for myself and my actions, and more importantly, for her…. her health, her happiness and well-being.
It was a responsibility I would gladly embrace for the rest of my life.
By the time I looked up from my plate, Joon had already started on the fruit with milk cream dish on the table, eating as if he won’t eat ever again. He grinned at me broadly over his chopsticks before he spoke. “What are you thinking?”
I smiled back. “I’m thinking Na Jeong may be right. Again.”
I straightened my jacket as I stepped into the brightly lit store, the black clad staff watching courteously. I let my eyes wander over the dazzling display of jewelry in their cases, not stopping until I saw the engagement rings.
From the corner of my eye I saw a suited man come out of a door, smoothing a hand over his tie clip as he approached me.
“Mr. Lee?” he asked. “I’m Shin Ye Han. We spoke on the phone.” He extended a hand and I took it. “I didn’t realize when you said that you were coming in to look at rings that you would be coming today.”
“Yeah?” I smiled. “Do you know how long I waited to find this woman?” I asked jokingly. “Believe me, now is as good a time as any.”
The manager smiled and directed me to a seat with his hand before turning to me. “Would you care for some champagne?”
“No, thanks,” I said. “I just ate.”
He nodded before striding to a locked cabinet behind him, directing several women behind him to pull out cushion after cushion of rings. When at last they had all placed them in the empty display on his desk, he went back around and sat down, then turned the light on.
It was a strange feeling, doing this again. I was more nervous now than I had been then, but more determined too. I had no clue then what I was getting myself into, just going along the motions of what was expected of me, the next logical step in our relationship. I had been unsure of the woman, but sure of what her answer would have been.
This time had nothing to do with what was the next logical step and more about what was right. This time, I was certain of the woman, just not her answer.
“So,” the manager said, forcing me to lift my eyes to look at him. “Does anything catch your eye?”
I looked again and the first ring caught my attention. A band of channel-set round brilliant stones on either side of one round diamond in the center. It was beautiful but still simple. Classic. Just like the woman I love.
I pointed over the top of the desk. “That one.”
“Good choice,” he remarked, pulling the ring out so that I could take a closer look. “This is the Tiffany setting with a diamond band. We can use any metal for the ring, as well as your clarity of choice.”
“Platinum band, as colorless as possible,” I said without hesitation.
“And the carat size?”
“I think she might beat me If I go higher than a 2. So even if I wanted to, I can’t,” I said lightly. The manager nodded and wrote down the details I requested. He wrote the price on a piece of paper before sliding it over to me. “That’s fine,” I said. “Will you take a credit card?”
“Of course,” he answered before adding, “And when do you need it by?”
I grinned at him, already pulling my card out of my wallet. “Today. I need it today.”
I had just sat down on the couch when I heard the ping of the doorbell, and I walked to the front door. It was my night to spend at Jung Jin’s, and I wasn’t told to expect any guests.
Jung Jin’s older sister greeted me with an embrace before walking in with a big paper bag in her hands, her boyfriend right on her heels.
“Ji Hee Unnie,” I said, “Didn’t we just see each other a few hours ago?”
“Yep,” she said, looking around then turned to me with a sunny smile. “We miss Dog. We’re borrowing him for the night.”
“Dog?” I asked as said creature came bounding into the room, tail wagging.
Kye Sang bent down and ruffled Dog’s fur before picking him up. Before I knew it, he had Dog under one arm and had grabbed his favorite stuffed toy and his bed. He was halfway to the door when I spoke up.
“Hold on,” I called out. “Does Jung Jin know about this?”
Kye Sang darted out the door and Ji Hee Unnie put the bag she was carrying on the table and walked towards me before enfolding me in her arms. “Yes,” she said happily. “He knows.”
“Okay…” I said quizzically wondering what the hell was up with the sudden outpouring of affection.
“We’re leaving,” she declared. “We’ll bring Dog back tomorrow.”
“Sure…” I didn’t know what else to say. To be honest their coming was like a freaking hurricane and I was still trying to keep my wits together.
She opened the front door and it was only then that I saw that she had forgotten to take the bag she brought with her.
“Unnie…” I called out. “Your bag…”
“That’s for you,” she said. “I brought you guys dinner.” She gave me another smile, and from this distance she appeared as if she was about to cry. “You two have a great night.”
She was out the door before I could ask her what she meant, then walked over to the dining room. Not recognizing the name on the bag, I untied the ribbon holding the handles together and began pulling items out.
A large platter of antipasto, a container of soup, what looked like risotto with eggplants and octopus with couscous. There was a medium sized Styrofoam container with tiramisu. Mouth watering, I pulled out two containers of pasta, one with red sauce and one with white. I spied another two platters containing beef and pork belly separately. A bottle of Berolo and crusty garlic bread wrapped in parchment paper came out last.
I perused all the offerings on the table, noting the unnatural amount of food. For a second I wondered if there was a special occasion I didn’t know about. Maybe Jung Jin acquired another client. Maybe there was some good news.
Oh well, I thought, as I walked to the kitchen cupboards to pull out some dinnerware. I’ll find out soon enough.
I tucked Gia’s ring into my trouser pocket knowing that I’d have to take my suit jacket off once I arrived in the house. This whole proposal thing was tricky enough without having to search for the ring when the time comes.
I took a deep breath before punching in the door code, giving myself a silent pep talk for encouragement.
As soon as I opened the door, I was hit by the smell of vanilla and eucalyptus, and I walked in slowly. There was a piano piece playing out of the speakers in the living room, and I took my jacket off and placed it on the door rack, already aware that Gia was here.
The house always smelled different when she was here. It felt different too. Like home.
I was walking towards the living room when I stopped. There was a veritable feast on the table, one I easily accomplished by placing a call to my ever efficient older sister, but that’s not what my eyes were drawn to. I saw Gia by the dining room table, leaning over it, her face illuminated by candlelight as she poured the wine.
I watched silently as she did so, then as she stepped back and looked at the table in satisfaction. A smile played on one corner of her mouth and I felt my heart clench.
This is the vision that I want to see every day. Her here, waiting home for me.
As if feeling my eyes on her, she looked up from the table and saw me, her face breaking out in undiluted joy. I smiled as I loosened my tie and walked towards her.
She met me halfway and I wrapped my arms around her, lifting her in a tight embrace. I rested my nose on her hair and breathed her in.
“Smells good,” I said, and she lifted her head.
“Ji Hee Unnie brought us dinner,” she said. “Everything smells amazing.”
“I meant you, but that looks good too.”
She pressed her lips to mine before taking my hand and leading me to the dining room, sitting me down on one end of the table. It wasn’t until I was taking a sip of the wine that I even noticed that she was in a black dress, her hair down in straight tresses.
She noted my expression as she saw down, then blushed self-consciously. “I thought there was a special occasion so I dressed the part,” she said sheepishly, an unadorned hand fiddling with her earring. “Is there?” She asked. “A special occasion?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You could say that.”
Jung Jin ate quietly, more quietly than I have ever seen him. Besides a few compliments regarding the dishes between bites, he didn’t speak. At all. I almost wished Dog was here just so the silence could be broken.
I took a nervous swallow of wine as our gazes clashed. He quickly looked away and cleared his throat.
Maybe he wasn’t feeling well, I thought, as I looked at him. He was pallid, looking as if he was about to throw up. But he seemed perfectly fine when he first came home.
I don’t know. But something wasn’t right, though I couldn’t put my finger on it.
His silence was making me so anxious I just about speed ate through the dishes and it wasn’t until I had started on the tiramisu that he finally decided to say something.
“I was thinking,” he said. “About what you asked me before you went back to New Jersey.”
I looked at him, blinking. “We talked about lots of things,” I said carefully. “Would you care to be more specific?”
He took a gulp of wine before responding. “Marriage.”
I took a bite of tiramisu. “What about it?”
I hoped my voice did not betray my nerves. Was this why he looked like that? Was the prospect of marrying that appalling to him? I completely understood. I remembered the explanation I gave Ji Soo and nodded to myself.
He stood up and straightened his shirt, then sat down on the chair next to me, taking my hand, as if he was about to deliver bad news, and not good news, as I previously thought.
“The thing is,” he said slowly, “Marriage is a very serious thing. It’s something really sacred.”
“Okay,” I said, wondering why my hands were all clammy.
“People need to get married for the right reasons.”
“And not just because one person is about to thrown out of the country.”
I said nothing as understanding dawned. I certainly hoped that he wasn’t getting himself worked up because he thought I was expecting a proposal. That could not be further from what I was expecting.
“I love you and I want to be with you forever,” he continued. “But that’s…”
“You’re right,” I interjected, partly to allay his obvious discomfort and partly to stop this weird conversation from going any further. “I love you too,” I said. “But really, this discussion is not necessary. I don’t believe in marriage anyway.”
“The thing is… Marriage is a very serious thing. It’s something really sacred.” I held her hand reverently, hoping that I get my proposal right.
She only said the one word and already the words were freezing in my throat “People,” I said, “need to get married for the right reasons.”
“And not just because one person is about to thrown out of the country.”
Why did she have to look so pretty sitting there looking at me? I feel like my words are getting muddled. I can barely think straight.
“I love you and I want to be with you forever,” I began, getting to the meat of my proposal. “But that’s…”
“You’re right,” she said before I could utter the next part of my sentence, telling her that that’s not the only reason I wanted to marry her, but also because I wanted to build a life with her. “I love you too,” she said and I breathed a sigh of relief that she and I were on the same page. One of my hands traveled to my pocket to pull the ring out when her next words stopped me. “But really, this discussion is not necessary. I don’t believe in marriage anyway.”
It felt as if water had just been doused on me and I pulled my hand back and rested it on the table. Trying to tamp down on my disappointment, I hoped my voice was even when I managed to speak again.
“You don’t?” She shook her head no. “How long have you felt this way?”
She wouldn’t meet my eyes as she chewed the tiramisu. “For most of my adult life, I suppose.”
“But you were almost married once.”
“Yeah,” she said. “And we saw how that ended.” She licked her lips and took a swallow of wine. “I’ve come to realize that marriage and commitment do not necessarily go hand in hand. They’re not mutually exclusive of each other. If anything I think marriage kind of ruins a relationship.”
“Why would you say that?” I poured myself another glass full of wine, hoped that my hands weren’t shaking.
“I mean,” she said. “It takes something that’s supposed to just be enjoyed like being with another person and burdens it with obligations. If two people love each other, why do they need a piece of paper dictating to them what they should and shouldn’t be doing?”
“That’s true, to some extent,” I said. “So what does that mean?”
“It means that I will be just as committed to you without the ring, if not more so, than I would be with it.”
I looked at her face, tried to see if any of what she was just saying was untrue. I could not see any deception, her eyes honest and sincere.
“My parents were perfectly fine until they got married. Who knows how many other people were perfectly content until they tied the knot? And the worst part too is that once you’re in it, it’s a lot harder to get out.” She squeezed my hand. “Every relationship should be allowed to end when its course has run. No one should be forced to stay in something that is no longer productive or beneficial. The most important thing is for people to make the choice to love each other every day, for two people to do that not because they’re obligated but because they want to.”
“I’m not saying that’s not right,” I said slowly. “But there are exceptions. Look at my parents.” I took a deep breath. “But the two people getting married will bear witness to each other’s lives… those days that are good, those that aren’t so good. The accomplishments and the mistakes. They’ll always have someone to see them with, someone who will love them no matter what.”
“Again, people in love can still do that for each other even without marriage,” she argued. “It’s certainly not worth all the ceremony. For one day? It seems like too much trouble.”
“The ceremony itself is just a detail. And marriage is not just a piece of paper. It’s true that every relationship, at one point is another will feel like it’s run its course. But the vow two people make… it’s not just for that day. You’re not just vowing to stay with that person for the rest of your life. You’re also promising that you’ll fight, even when it feels like the easiest thing is to do is give up. What you see as a duty… is really a promise. That no matter what happens, there will be another chance. To fall in love, over and over again, with the same person.”
“Wow,” she said, sitting back on her seat. “I didn’t realize that this was so important to you.”
“I want to get married,” I said, not even bothering to sugarcoat it. “It doesn’t have to be now. But one day… I would like you to be my wife.”
“Whatever you think marriage will bring to our relationship, we can still have without it. For as long as I live I will love you. Isn’t that enough?” She didn’t wait for a response before she continued to speak. “But,” she said, her eyebrows frowning. “Why are we arguing about this now? It’s not as if you were going to propose, were you?”
“No,” I said, feeling immeasurably deflated. “Of course not.”
“Jagi, are you coming?” I heard Gia ask from the living room. “The movie’s about to start.”
“Yeah, just give me one second.”
I closed the bedroom door and walked to the dresser, unbuttoning my shirt. I sat down on the side of the bed and pulled the ring box out of my pocket then opened it.
The diamond glinted in the light, still so beautiful nestled in the white cushion. Gia’s words came back to me and I tried to convince myself that it was only logical that she would think that way about marriage. She came from a broken home, after all.
My woman was more self realized that anyone else I knew. Since she came back she hasn’t lied to me. Whatever she says now I have to take at face value.
I was disappointed but not angry. I should have spoken to her about this before I bought the ring all willy nilly on my own. It wasn’t her fault that the idea of marriage wasn’t so attractive. If I had seen what she’d seen I might think the same exact way.
“For as long as I live,” she had said. “I will love you.”
Wasn’t that declaration as binding as a marriage vow? There was intent to it and a purpose. I believed her. She always does what she says will do. She didn’t say that she would never get married, just that she didn’t believe in it.
“That’s enough, right?”
Her question had hung suspended in the air. I wasn’t even sure if I had answered it. I wasn’t even sure what my answer was.
Is it enough?
I loved her, that much I knew to be true. The woman I fell in love with has her own mind and her own beliefs. To expect her to all of a sudden change her mind about beliefs she’s long held to be true is like expecting her to become a different person altogether. And to do that is not love.
Is it enough?
Yes, I thought, closing the box and slipping it in my top drawer. It will have to be.
November 25, 2003
“Thank you for the flowers,” my mother said on the phone. “I just got them.”
“Happy birthday, Ma,” I said, barely able to suppress a cough. My head was pounding, even after the two Tylenol that I had taken. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be there.”
“Don’t worry, anak. You were just here. Of course you can’t fly back out,” my mother assured me. “But why didn’t you call on Skype?”
“I couldn’t be bothered with the laptop, Ma,” I answered. “Besides, I look terrible. I don’t feel so good.” I reached for a tissue and blew my nose.
“What’s the matter?”
“Just a cold,” I told her. “The weather here has gotten much colder. I guess I’m not used to it anymore living all those years in San Francisco.”
“Do you have medicine?”
“Yeah, I’m good. I’m just like you, you know. I have everything I need.”
“Tell Jung Jin to bring you some soup.”
My mother comes from the school of thinking that food should fix everything. If I didn’t feel so miserable I might have laughed about it.
“He’s out of town on business,” I said. “His client is playing a couple of charity games in Busan. It’s six hours away. I’m a nurse anyway. I can handle this.”
November 26, 2003
By dawn, my cold had turned into a full blown fever, and I woke up trembling. The penthouse felt too cold, even with Dog by my side keeping my company, and I slid him closer to me.
He opened his eyes and looked at me dolefully, and I patted his fur, trying not to sneeze. My head was throbbing even worse than it did last night and my mouth felt like sandpaper.
I dragged myself to the side of the bed, cover wrapped around me, and stood up weakly. Dog followed me as I walked to the kitchen and then again as I walked to the bathroom with the glass of water I had poured.
Opening the bathroom cabinet with shaky hands, I pulled out my medication pouch and took out my thermometer, sticking it in my ear. I wasn’t surprised to see that I was running a very high temperature. Instinctively I pulled out a dose of flu medication along with some Tylenol for good measure, and took all of it with a gulp of water.
Dog was leaning against my leg and I bent down, almost fell from how weak I felt. I held a hand to the sink and petted his fur, my voice coming out in a groan.
“Mama will feed you when she wakes up, okay?” I said to him and hoped he’d understand. “I just need to sleep a little bit. Just a little.”
I made my way out of the bathroom slowly, not even bothering to turn off the light. I adjusted the thermostat to its warmest setting and crawled back into bed. Dog followed my lead and went by my feet.
I only had just enough energy to give him another fond ruffle before I gave in to sleep.
Dog came out of the bedroom as soon as the elevator doors had opened, his tail wagging. The penthouse felt like a sauna and I walked to the thermostat, wondered if Gia had set it up incorrectly. I adjusted it to a few degrees above what it was and looked at Dog.
“Hey you,” I said as I bent down to greet him. “Have you been keeping your Mama company?”
He gave my face a playful lick and then toddled off to the bedroom. The penthouse was quiet and dark as I followed him. The only light I could see was the one in the bathroom, which I turned off before walking to the bedroom.
There was no greeting from Gia as soon as I came in, as she usually did (unless she’s disappearing here there and everywhere,) and I was surprised to see her still in bed. I turned the bedside lamp on.
I sat down on the side of the bed and expected her to open her eyes, but she did not. I allowed myself to watch her before she woke up, long lashes on her cheek, her mouth blowing soft puffs of air as she slept.
I had driven from Busan just to make sure that she was okay, and here she was just passed out in bed. Maybe she had drunk some wine. It didn’t take much to get her inebriated after all.
I chuckled as I ran a tender hand on her forehead, then realized that she was burning up. It was only now that I even saw that she was drenched in sweat, her body shaking under the covers.
“Aishhh…” I muttered. “This woman. Why didn’t she call me?”
I went to the bathroom and got a basin of warm water, as well as a few washcloths. I dipped a cloth in the water and wiped her forehead, despite her protests even in her sleep. I ran the cloth over her neck and her arms, trying to cool her down.
I grabbed a bottle of medication from the medicine cabinet, as well as some water from the kitchen, and placed both on the side table. I had just walked to the closet to grab some dry pieces of clothing to change her into when her handphone started vibrating on the table. Seeing her mother’s picture pop up, I answered the phone.
“Omonim,” I greeted warmly. “It’s Jung Jin. Gia’s asleep.”
“Is she?” I heard her ask. “Did she take my advice and call you then?”
“Ahh, no,” I replied. “She didn’t answer my call last night and I got worried so I drove back.”
“But it’s only 7 in the morning there, isn’t it?” She asked. “Gia said that Busan was six hours away. Surely… surely you didn’t drive all night?”
“Yeah,” I said sheepishly. “It was no big deal.”
“I see,” she said and I could practically hear her smile on the phone. “Is she still sick with a cold?”
“She has a fever now, but don’t worry. We have medication here and I already gave her a sponge bath to try to lower her temperature. I’ll try to wake her up in a couple of hours and get her to take some medication and drink some water.”
“Well it sounds like you know what you’re doing. You’ll be nursing the nurse,” Gia’s mother said, chuckling. “It may be a good thing that she’s passed out. She’s a horrible patient.”
“I believe you,” I said. “But Omonim… should I make her eat something, too?”
“If she wants to eat, it’s best that it be some soup or something. I always made her and her sister sopas whenever they were sick.”
“Sopas?” I asked. “Is that like soup or something?”
“Yes,” she replied. “With macaroni and carrots and ground beef rather than chicken. You put milk with it too. She loves that soup. I’ve tried to teach her how to make it more times than I can count, but you know how she is in the kitchen.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “If you tell me how to make it, I could probably make it for her.”
“I’ll do you one better,” Omonim said. “Give me your email address and I’ll send you the recipe.”
I was having the best dream. I dreamt that Jung Jin had come back, and he was running something deliciously cool on my skin. Wherever he had touched, it almost immediately felt better.
I dreamt him grumbling as he took something stifling off of me, then his voice, this time warm and tender, as he placed something soft over my head.
I dreamt that he was here and that he was with me, his presence though imaginary, warming me from the inside out. I snuggled deeper in the bed, closer to the heat. I didn’t feel so cold anymore.
Even in my dreams I would recognize his scent and it wrapped over me now, making me feel safe and loved. My chills subsided and I smiled.
I went back to the bedroom after feeding Dog and letting him out. I had also already cooked the sopas that her mother suggested. Realizing that she had been sweating the fever off, I repeated the sponge bath and changed her clothes before I laid down next to her.
She was still shivering and I pulled her body closer to me and wrapped myself around her. I placed my lips on her forehead as I held her tightly, willing her to sleep peacefully.
It only took a few minutes for her shaking to subside but I didn’t pull myself away. I closed my eyes and fell asleep to the rhythm of her heart.
By the time I woke up again it was already night time. I wiggled my toes under the sheets before I opened my eyes, relieved to realize that though my head still felt heavy, that there was no more of that incessant pounding. My sinuses still felt congested but I felt like I was finally able to breathe.
I saw Dog watching me from the foot of the bed and sat up, suddenly remembering that I had forgotten to feed him and let him out to use the bathroom. I sat on the side of the bed, wondering if I had brought the medication and water with me when I woke up at dawn. I couldn’t remember doing any such thing, but apparently I did since both were sitting on the side table.
I shook my head and stretched my arms over my head, slipping my feet into my slippers on the floor. Wearily I walked to the kitchen to fix Dog something to eat when a familiar smell assaulted me.
I could have sworn I could smell the soup my mother always made for me whenever I was sick. Confused I walked to the kitchen and saw that there was a pot on the cooker, though I don’t remember putting one there.
I peered in and saw the distinctive macaroni and beef soup, with even the little Itty bitty carrot cubes, diced perfectly.
Did Jung Jin come home? The evidence was right in front of me, though there was no sign of him still being here. Maybe he had forgotten something and came and found me sick instead.
Yes, I nodded to myself. That was very likely. It was also very logical that he would have left again after cooking the soup. He said he needed to take care of the press conference after Joon’s game after all.
My heart softened as I pulled a bowl and a spoon out, then some more as I sat myself down to eat. Though I didn’t feel like eating, I knew that I needed to be able to tell him that I ate something when he calls. He would never get off my case otherwise.
I bundled my scarf around my neck and pulled a cap over my head before securing Dog’s leash in my hand. I slipped wool covered feet into my boots and Dog and I headed out to the elevator.
Jung Jin would probably get angry that I decided to take a walk with Dog after having just been so ill but I haven’t been out of the house in two days and I was starting to feel claustrophobic. Besides, I had only planned on walking around the park once, twice, maybe, and then making our way home.
Dog seemed pretty happy, as well, as he trundled out of the elevator when we reached the first floor. I greeted the doorman with a wave and he me with a bow before we exited the apartment building and started making our way to the park.
I took a deep breath and savored the fresh air as soon as we arrived there, already enjoying the sight of the outside after having been inside for what seemed like forever. There were still people out and about, walking their dogs, like me, or on their way home. I could smell ddukbokki in the air, and already there was a pojamangcha within a stone’s throw from where I stood.
Dog and I set off at a leisurely pace, giving him plenty of time to walk and explore. He had just stopped to smell a bush when an elderly couple walked past us, both dressed in several layers of clothing.
The grandmother had her arm looped around the grandfather’s as he walked with a cane. Dog and I walked quietly behind them and I found myself unexpectedly watching how they interacted.
I gasped when the grandfather almost tripped but the grandmother’s hold on him merely tightened as she scolded him. He waved off her concern with amusement even as he took her hand in his. Something in me knotted as I watched the way he looked at her and the way she smiled back at him before resuming their walk.
I stopped where I stood as I watched them leave, frozen on the spot as Jung Jin’s words came crashing back to me.
“Marriage… is the promise that there will always be a chance to fall. Over and over again. With the same person.”
I swallowed the unnamed emotion that’s come over me, a feeling very much like longing. But for what?
I watched the shadow of the older couple disappear and received my answer.
For the promise of forever in a life that’s dictated and shortened by time. For the promise of a hand to hold through it all. For the vow that whatever happens, someone will fight for me, that no matter what, I will be loved.
“I want to get married,” I remembered him saying. “One day I want you to be my wife.”
An image of Jung Jin as a groom popped into my head suddenly; dressed in a suit and waiting for me at the end of the aisle. And then him as a father, holding our child as tenderly as he’d always held me, a slip of a smile on his face. And then I imagined the way he might look many many years from now, his thick hair peppered with gray, wrinkles in the corner of his eyes. My breath thickened and I placed a hand over my heart, wondering what it was trying to tell me.
Wondering if I was ready to take this chance. On love. On him. On us.
My heart loosened as I arrived at my answer.
Of course. After all the chances he’d taken on me, it was my turn.
I arrived to a completely different penthouse that I left. I had woken up and gone to the store to pick up more supplies and when I came back, the place was awash with light, with neither Dog nor woman anywhere.
I blew out a frustrated breath as I looked out the windows, wondering where she could have gone at this time of the day.
She was so freaking stubborn. The woman will drive me out of my mind.
At least she ate something, I noted with relief as I noted the bowl in the sink. It’s not going to save her from the scolding I’m about to give her, though. She needs to rest when she’s sick. That was a given, dammit.
The elevator sounded and I turned around, and already I was mentally preparing my lecture. The words died on my lips as she and Dog entered the apartment and I took a look at her, her cheeks pinkened from the cold, her once again long locks disheveled under her cap, as if she had run home.
She looked as surprised to see me as she dropped Dog’s leash and our eyes met. I was just about to tell her that she looked awfully well for someone who was just recovering from an illness when she launched herself into my arms.
November 27, 2003
“You better have a damn good reason why you’re calling me at this ridiculous hour of the day,” Junnie complained as she answered my call.
I stared at the door in front of me and then darted a look at the guest bedroom, debating which one to go through to have this conversation in private. Impulsively I chose neither and went into the hallway closet, huddling to the farthest corner. The last thing I saw was Dog’s head cocked to one side before I apologetically closed the door and turned my attention to Junnie’s question.
“Shh, Junnie… don’t be so loud.”
“Is Ethan there?” She asked. “Why the hell are…”
“Yeah, Jung Jin’s here… he’s asleep.”
“So if he’s asleep why are you up?”
“I wanted to talk to you. In private.”
Junnie was silent at first before she resumed speaking, this time her voice laced with concern. “What’s the matter? Have you two been fighting?”
“No, no…” I whispered, putting a hand over the receiver. “But I haven’t slept yet.”
“Weren’t you just sick for the last couple of days? Ethan texted me, said that you might be out of commission for a few more days.”
“I was sick, but I’m not anymore,” I said quickly. “But that’s not why I called.”
“Are you sitting down?” I asked.
“No,” Junnie said skeptically. “Should I be?”
“Yes.” I paused. “No. Maybe. Is He Yi asleep?”
“He’s snoring his nose off while I’m besieged by morning sickness, that jerk.”
“Junnie… please, do me a favor and go somewhere where he can’t hear you.”
My best friend muttered something under her breath. “I wish you’d just tell me what’s going on,” she grumbled. “I don’t understand why we have to be so covert. We’re not spies.”
I giggled. “Are you somewhere private now?”
Junnie sighed. “Yeah I am. Thanks to you I’m sitting in the closet. Now… will you tell what is going on?”
I took a deep breath before I spoke. “I want to get married.”
There was a beat of shocked silence before my best friend erupted in an ear piercing squeal. “OHMYGOD!”
“I know!” I said, covering the receiver with my hands.
“OHMYGOD! He proposed so suddenly, that Ethan! I swear.. I must not have given him as much credit as he deserves. Tell him I said he’s cool.”
“I want to hear all the details! Where he did it, when. Did he drop down on one knee? And the ring! Why didn’t you send me a picture? I’m so hap…”
“Junnie… hang on,” I said, cringing. “He hasn’t proposed.”
“Is he going to?” She asked, puzzled.
“I don’t know. I just decided this yesterday.”
“Ermmm…” Junnie started. “Shouldn’t you be having this discussion with him?”
“That’s the thing,” I said. “Just two weeks ago I told him I don’t believe in marriage.”
“Which is a fact,” she said. “You’ve felt like this for years.”
“So,” she said, “what’s changed?”
Nothing, I thought. Everything. “I just… I just realized that I want to be with him for the rest of my life, whatever that means. Whatever that entails. And I want to stand up in front of the people who love us and tell him so. You know…” I said, “…the whole shebang. For better or worse. For richer or poorer. In sickness and in health. I want him to know that. I want all of you to know that.”
“This… is big.”
“I know,” I said. “So… this is why I need your help.” I licked my lips in nervousness. “If I want to marry that man, I think I’m going to have to propose.”
After having a lot of time to think about what Gia had said on my way back from Busan yesterday, I decided on some things.
Number one: I am okay with not being married, as long as I’m notmarried to her. And number two: she and I cannot go around the whole immigration process, so I will have to figure out another solution if we want to be together.
I almost latched onto the second realization, relieved that at least this was one thing I could do something about. It was a solid issue, a tangible one, with clear solutions. Unlike the first.
But day by day I was beginning to make peace with that one as well. Although at some point Gia and I might have to consider cohabiting again. Surely… surely when she said she won’t marry, she didn’t mean that she wouldn’t live with me either.
That’s another issue to tackle on another day.
Today, I need to make my move on getting our unmarried life started.
I took out my handphone and pressed the speed dial for Shawn’s number. I heard her voice, harried and out of breath, after the second ring.
“Hey,” I said. “Why do you sound like that?”
“Gia said that maintaining my activity level during my pregnancy is perfectly safe for the baby so I’m on the treadmill.”
“Ah. I thought you’d be at the office. I’ll call later.”
“I am at the office,” she said breathlessly. “I had them bring a treadmill. My father’s so happy that he’s about to be a grandfather that he would just about give me whatever I ask. He should be glad that I didn’t ask for a new house.”
I chuckled. “As if you need his help anyway. You and your husband are both loaded.”
Shawn didn’t even have the shame to try to deny it, only just laughing in response. “So, Mr. Lee, what can I do for you so early in the morning?”
I cleared my throat. “Is everything set for the transfer of funds to Japan?”
I heard Shawn drinking water before she responded. “Of course it is,” she said. “Like it always is. Unless your bank account changes or their bank account changes it kind of has stayed consistent over the last few years.”
“Ah,” I said. “Good.” I fiddled with my pen and spun my chair around as Shawn seemed to wait in we expectant silence. She said nothing as I formulated the real reason I called. “Listen,” I said. “How much do you know of the real estate in New Jersey?”
“Oh thank God,” Junnie exclaimed. “I was getting nervous for a minute. Why are you asking about New Jersey real estate all of a sudden?”
I stopped spinning my chair and stared out at my city. “I want to buy a house. In Hillsborough, preferably.”
“Near Gia’s family?” She asked. “Have you spoken to her about this?”
“Not yet,” I responded. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“Please tell me it’s an engagement present or something.”
“Not you, too.”
“I’m just saying… when are you making an honest woman out of my best friend?”
“Never,” I answered. “If all goes to plan.”
“What?” Shawn sounded shocked.
“She doesn’t believe in marriage and at first I had that same exact reaction you had just now. I love her and if that’s what she wants, then as the person who loves her it’s my job to give that to her. Besides, it’s not as if the idea has no merit. I already know that I will be with her for the rest of my life so married or not married doesn’t matter at all.”
I gave myself a pat on the back for sounding convincing. Though I, for the most part had made peace with the decision that Gia had made, it seemed my heart needed a bit more time adjusting.
“That’s very adult of you,” Shawn said sarcastically after a few seconds, “but I doubt Immigration would be so open minded.”
“Which is why I wanted to buy a house in New Jersey. I’m thinking that we could split our time here and there. I could do my job from anywhere so we could be there for a few months and then back here. I haven’t worked out the kinks yet, but…”
“And how, may I ask… is she supposed to get a job while you’re doing all of this?” Shawn asked. “She’s perfectly fine right now since it’s only been a few months but you can’t expect her to stay at home forever.”
Dammit, I thought as I ran my fingers through my hair. I didn’t even think about that at all.
“We’ll figure it out,” I finally said, though I had no clue what the resolution to that will be. “We’ll figure it out.”
“Listen, Shawn, we never had the chance to speak about this before, what with all the confusion and everything, but I think that we need to have some lines drawn,” I said, a bit uncomfortable about what I’m about to say. I took a resigned breath. But it has to be drawn. “With both me and her being your friends separately, I think it would be a good idea if what you and I discuss stay between us, and what you two speak about to be between you two.”
Shawn chuckled. “Funny… I almost had this same exact conversation with her not too long ago.”
“See?” I said. “This is what I’m talking about. Even something casually like that. I don’t want there to be a conflict of interest for you. I also would like to feel that she and I are finally doing this the way we should have done it to begin with. Like two normal adults.”
Shawn snorted. “I would hardly call either of you normal.”
“Whatever,” I said. “But from now on you’re Shawn, my old friend from uni. And Gia will have Junnie, her best friend. Just because the two are one and the same doesn’t mean that we get to take advantage of your double agent powers.”
“I’m serious, Shawn. I don’t need to know your conversations with her. And she doesn’t need to know that I’m buying a house in New Jersey or that I’m planning on bringing my whole family to speak to hers.”
“What did you say?” Shawn asked.
“I’m buying a house in New Jersey. You already know this.”
“I meant the second part.”
“My whole family wants to meet hers. I’m planning on bringing them over to make this non-marriage official.”
“To meet her family.”
“In the US.”
“Yes!” God, why was Shawn speaking as if this was the most preposterous idea ever?
“Oh boy.” Shawn said only the two words before she lapsed into another silence. She coughed and cleared her throat before she spoke again. “You do realize that this kind of visit is usually reserved for after an engagement.”
“Well we’re not having one of those, so this will have to do.” Shawn said nothing. “What now?”
“Nothing,” she replied.
“It doesn’t sound like nothing.”
“Listen… didn’t you just give me a lecture on private conversations and drawing lines?”
Shawn laughed. “Do you want my honest opinion, as your friend?” She took my non response as acquiescence. “I think for a guy who claims to be okay with not making anything official you’re certainly going about this very officially.”
“I’m an official kind of guy.”
“Whatever you say,” Shawn said. I didn’t appreciate the condescending tone in her voice. “Can I just ask you a question?”
“Why don’t you just propose to her?”
I chose my words carefully before responding. “I don’t want to be the guy that expects her to change,” I said. “I love her as she is.”
“I’ll say one thing and nothing else and you have to listen to me, as your friend: an unchanging woman can still change her mind.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. Does she know something I don’t?
She didn’t answer my question. “In any case, I will find you some appropriate properties in New Jersey. I’ll call you soon.”
“I can’t believe that you flew from Singapore in your condition,” I said to Junnie as she sipped on decaf coffee. “It wasn’t that urgent.”
She raised an eyebrow at that. “It’s not every day that my best friend decides that she’s getting married.”
“But why didn’t you just come to the penthouse?” I asked. “Why did you make us come out?”
I looked beside me to see Dog sitting on the ground, head over paws, looking adorable in his sweater.
“If you’re going to plan such an event, then we needed to be out of earshot from your intended victim,” Junnie said. She gave me a smile before depositing a stack of magazines on the table.
“Research materials,” she answered lightly. “If you’re going to do this, then you need to do this right.”
“It’s only a proposal. Won’t I just need a ring or something?”
“Yeah but proposals are usually followed by weddings,” she said. “And it’s never too early.”
“Yeah. I’ll need to look at my finances to see if I can even afford one of those,” I said, nibbling on a piece of biscotti.
“You know that the town hall wedding is always an option. In Korea it’s much simpler than it is in America,” Junnie told me. “But if a big wedding is what you want, you can afford it.”
“No, I can’t.”
“Of course you can.” I was about to argue some more when she took something out of her purse and slid it to me on the table.
“What’s this?” I asked, taking the envelope and slipping my finger under its seam. “I don’t know why you…” I pulled out the contents and my eyes practically bulged out of their sockets. “…holy shit! Junnie… where the hell did this money come from and why are you giving it to me?”
Junnie took a serene bite of her muffin before she smiled. “2500 dollars a month for rent on my loft in San Francisco, minus 500 dollars per month for water, utilities, phone and Internet then multiplied by 60 months. I invested it for six years and voila!”
I sat with my mouth half open, completely unaware that she had been doing all this. “You were supposed to take the money as my rent.”
“Did you honestly expect me to take my best friends money and pocket it?” She asked. “What the hell do you take me for?”
“I invested what was left every month after the bills, knowing that you might need it one day for your dowry or your retirement, whichever came first.” She winked at me. “For the record… I’m very happy that it’s for the former and not the latter.”
“Junnie…” I couldn’t say anything else, touched.
“I know, I know, I’m the best,” she said dismissively. “So with almost a quarter of million dollars you can very well have whetever damn wedding you want. Whenever even. You can even have it the same day that you propose if you want.”
I almost laughed at her suggestion before it started to take shape and then took hold. Junnie caught the look in my eye and began to laugh in earnest.
“You can’t possibly be thinking of doing both on the same day.”
“Why not?” I asked. “Is it really that crazy? I’m already planning something. It would be highly efficient if I can just do it all at once.” Junnie stopped laughing and looked at me wide eyed. “Do you know how many people never make it to the altar because wedding planning is so stressful? I would know. It’s happened to me.”
“I’m just saying.”
“People usually need that time to really see if they want to get married, etc.”
“If you don’t know about whether or not you want to be with the person you’re planning a wedding with before you even agree to marry them, then that’s a problem,” I said defensively. “I’m not changing my mind about Jung Jin.”
“He won’t know what’s coming,” Junnie said. “He might have a heart attack.”
“Well,” I said brightly. “It’s a good thing I’m a nurse.”
“This is crazy!” She exclaimed.
“Like bad crazy?”
“No… just crazy. I like it.” My best friend slid her chair closer to me. “And it will solve the whole immigration problem.”
“That’s true,” I agreed, though I wasn’t even thinking about that. Another point for my crazy idea. I looked up to see Junnie studying my face, affection apparent in her features. “What?” I asked. “Do I have something on my face or something?”
“No,” she said, tearing up. “I just… I can’t begin to tell you how happy I am to see you like this.”
“Coming up with crazy ideas?”
“No. Yes. That and just… taking chances fearlessly, the way you always used to. Doing what you want. I knew that with the right person that you would be like this.”
I nudged her side. “Is this why you thought Jung Jin and I would be perfect?”
She took my hand and gave it a squeeze. “Ethan… is great on paper,” she began. “He’s handsome and settled, and despite how he thinks of himself he’s really a good guy. But those things don’t hold any weight if I had any doubts about how you two felt for each other.”
“And now?” I asked. “What do you think?”
She wiped her eyes with a napkin before smiling at me sheepishly, as if embarrassed to be so emotional. I was about to tell her that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman what with all her hormones all over the place to be like this when she answered me.
“Now I’m more convinced more than ever that there is no one else I would entrust you with.” I leaned my head over her shoulder. “So,” she said brightly, “when is this big event going to happen?”
“I don’t know,” I said softly. “In three weeks?”
Junnie gave me an exasperated look. “You certainly know how to just do things all in, don’t you?” She asked and I grinned.
“I love you, Junnie.”
She glared at me. “I best tell my husband that my best friend will need me in Korea for the next few weeks.”
Hillsborough, New Jersey
December 1, 2003
I stood up and shook the hand of the realtor and the attorney after the documents were signed and exchanged.
“Congratulations, Mr. Lee. You’re now the proud owner of this beautiful house.”
I smiled as I placed the information sheet of the house I just bought on top of my closing files and let my eyes wander over the pictures.
4700 square feet with 5 bedrooms and 5 1/2 bathrooms, only just a few minutes away from her mother’s house. A spacious kitchen for me, two large walk in closets for her. A library for both of us. Enough rooms to accommodate all the members of my family if they wanted to visit, and with enough land to build on if we decided we needed an addition. And, of course, a big enough yard for Dog to run in to his heart’s content.
Yes, I thought, she’ll definitely like this.
I placed the piece of paper into my file before I exited the room, feeling immensely proud of myself.
I slipped my sunglasses on as soon as I stepped outside and was greeted by my whole family, sans spouses besides Mi Rae Noona, who insisted on coming along.
“Is it done?” My father asked, dressed in a sharp suit, looking like the attorney he still very much was.
“Yes,” I said, ushering him, my mother, Ji Soo, and Ji Hee Noona into the SUV I had bought yesterday.
I waved at my brother as he went into the rental car parked next to me, Mi Rae Noona already on the passenger seat, Ji Min Noona and Ji Hyun Noona in the backseat. Between them were piles of gifts that my mother prepared for the occasion, my protests falling on deaf ears as soon as I had asked that they all accompany me on my visit.
I rolled down the passenger window of my car, urging my brother to do the same.
“Follow me,” I said to him and he nodded.
I eased the car out of the parking lot and made the few familiar turns that I knew would take me to Gia’s mother’s house. This was the main reason why I had chosen this realtor to begin with. I didn’t want to be getting lost on such an important day.
When we entered the subdivision, I remembered to park my car on the street and my brother followed behind me. We all got out of the car and stood on the sidewalk as my mother started directing who was going to be taking what.
“Ji Hee-yah,” she said, like a general in a pink suit. “You take the ginseng box and Ji Min-ah… you take the hanbok for Gia’s Omma and her sister.”
She distributed the gifts onto everyone’s arms, saving the gigantic baskets she insisted we had to buy for my father. When at last we were all holding… something, she looked at us in satisfaction and slipped her purse over her arms.
“This is when it’s nice to have so many children,” she said happily before turning to me. “Jin-ie, are you ready?” I nodded. “Then lead us.”
As I walked I wondered what people would think if they saw all of us in suits and dresses, holding multiple brightly colored packages in our arms in the middle of the day. We must look like a colorful posse. The thought made me laugh and my mother shot me a glare.
“This is very serious, Jung Jin,” she chided. “Not the time to be laughing.”
I nodded somberly even as my sisters exchanged amused glances, Ji Soo barely holding her laughter in.
“Omma must be nervous,” Ji Min Noona whispered to me. “Look at her playing with her hair for the umpteenth time since we got out of the car.”
“I know,” I said. “I told her it’s no big…”
My words trailed off when the door to Gia’s mother’s house opened and her sister came out, running towards us and stopping short when she caught sight of all of us, her eyes widening like saucers.
“Hi, Kuya Jung Jin,” she said, her eyes traveling over everyone in front of her. “Hi… everyone. I’m Gia’s younger sister… dongsaeng,” she added proudly. “I learned that word so that I could tell you in Korean though Kuya Jung Jin said you all speak English. You all look really nice by the way… I feel a bit under dressed now to be honest and maybe I should change. Anyway,” she stopped as if realizing she was babbling and again I was struck by how similar she was to her sister. Her wide smile faltered and she bowed awkwardly. “My name is Mar…”
“Maria Unnie!” Ji Soo squealed as she ran towards her before I could even tell her to be careful.
“Ji Soo?” Gia’s sister said as she opened her arms and welcomed my sister. The two girls embraced and jumped all around as if they’ve known each other for years.
My other siblings began to laugh in amusement, as did my parents, until Gia’s mom appeared by the doorway, dressed in a floral baby blue dress, the eyes I so love on my woman looking out at us in a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.
“Jung Jin?” She said, her voice soft.
I bowed in greeting. “Omonim.” I walked forward until I was standing in front of her, my parents trailing behind me. “These are my parents,” I said even as my mother took a step forward.
“Hello, Mrs. Lee,” Omonim said courteously, offering a hand.
My mother appeared to be conflicted at first as to how she should greet Gia’s mom, when, as if following Ji Soo’s lead, she bravely advanced and enfolded her in a warm hug.
“Sadon,” she said, already using the Korean term for in law. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
“Jagiya,” my father said, flushing to the roots of his hair. “I’m not really sure that you greeted her prop..”
Omma stopped his words with one determined glare. She gave all of a beatific smile before she placed an arm around Gia’s mother’s shoulder.
“When in America we should do as the Americans do,” she declared.
For one second a very small part of me wanted to scold my mother, seeing as Omonim looked completely overwhelmed, her eyes frozen in a deer in headlights look. But it seemed the mother of the woman I love was very similar to her daughter too, in terms of taking things in stride and going along with it. Her face broke out in a smile before she began to laugh and I breathed a sigh of relief.
A few minutes later we were all sitting on the couch, Ji Soo and Maria on one end of the sofa that Gia’s mother sat on, chatting away happily. I sat across from them on the longer couch between my father and my mother. The rest of my siblings filled the rest of the space as they all drank some coffee or tea and munched on some Filipino cookies.
The introductions were finally completed. And thankfully Gia’s mother did not run away in fear when she saw the amount of gifts that we had brought. It seemed she was thinking the same thing since by the door now stood bags of bags of gifts that she had given us.
I wondered how long it took her to get everything together. I gave her hardly any notice when I called earlier in the week as soon as Ji Hyun Noona confirmed that she will be able to fly out.
“So, Jung Jin,” Omonim began warmly. “What brings all of you to New Jersey suddenly?”
“Our son,” my father said, “just bought a house a few minutes away from here. We would have taken care of that as his parents, for their gift, but Jung Jin likes to do things on his own.”
If Omonim was confused, she didn’t show it, as she nodded and gave us a smile. I cleared my throat. I knew my father had been referring to the traditional wedding gifts given by the groom’s family. Maybe I should have had a conversation with my family about what this trip was about before today.
“We want you to know that Jung Jin is very financially stable. He’s very kind and he will make your daughter very happy.”
“That’s…” Omonim responded, “…great.”
I cringed when she darted a glance at me even as my siblings started chuckling amongst themselves. Even Ji Soo and Maria were listening to the conversation intently, identical expressions of bemusement on their faces.
“I guess,” Omonim began, “I guess I should first ask if my daughter is aware of you buying a house here or your visit.”
“No, Omonim,” I said even as I saw my mother’s head whip around from the corner of my eye. “It’s meant to be a surprise.”
Maria raised an eyebrow. “The house or the visit?”
I grinned at her. “Both.”
“My sister doesn’t like surprises though.”
“Maria,” Omonim said warningly and Maria zipped her lips.
Silence descended over the room and Jung Yoon Hyung cleared his throat. I was suddenly nervous and apprehensive, clamminess breaking out in my palms. I felt many many pairs of eyes on me as everyone waited and I ran fingers over my hair.
“I should probably tell you why we’re here,” I finally said.
“Thank God,” Ji Hyun Noona said. “That would be a great start.”
“I,” I said, “we… I…”
“Jin-ie for goodness sake just say it already,” Omma whispered furiously.
“Omonim,” I said, meeting Omonim’s eyes directly. “I would like your permission to officially not marry your daughter.”
My mother’s face, settled into a serene smile once I finally began to speak, broke out in a glower as my father stared at me in exasperation.
“What?” They both simultaneously asked.
“Lee Jung Jin!” Jung Yoon Hyung stood up and began to pace.
“What did he say?” I heard Mi Rae Noona ask in Korean. “What did he say?”
“He said he won’t marry Gia,” Ji Hee Noona answered, glaring at me. “Officially… whatever the hell that means.”
Ji Soo and Maria exchanged confused glance; only Omonim looked as if she was not about to have an apoplectic fit.
“I thought we were here for the in law meeting,” my mother said dazedly, appearing as if she was getting ready to hit me.
“I thought we were doing that Filipino thing of the groom’s family meeting the bride’s family and asking for permission before the engagement,” Ji Min Noona said mournfully. “But what is this?”
“Jin-ie…” Ji Hyun Noona said, shaking her head at me. “Why would you have everyone, especially Gia’s family go through all this trouble to say something like this? Badly done, Lee Jung Jin. Badly done.”
I noticed through the noise that my very large family was making that the only two people who didn’t look fazed or even surprised were the two members of Gia’s family. Maria and Omonim sat, one’s hand clutching the other’s, smiling at me.
“Ah, sadon,” my father said as he stood up, “I will apologize for my silly son.” Each word was punctuated with a hard look my way and I tried hard not to flinch. My father was already bending down to bow in remorse when Gia’s mother finally spoke.
“You really love her, don’t you?” she remarked, her voice thick.
I smiled at her. “Yes. Yes I do.”
“If you love her so much why would you not marry her?” Ji Soo asked. “That makes no sense.”
Omonim dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief and Omma elbowed me.
“Look what you’ve done,” she growled. “You are a bad son.”
“Omma please.” I turned my attention back to Gia’s mother. “Omonim?”
“I’m sorry,” she said to all the people in the room, her eyes traveling over all of us. “I’m just so happy.” Puzzled faces broke out into awkward smiles; everyone honestly looked as if they had no clue what was going on. “My daughter, Gia, has long declared that she didn’t want to marry.”
“She has?” The question came from my Hyung, who has sat himself back down.
“Yep,” Maria said, grinning goofily before breaking out clapping. “Oh this is so romantic.”
“Jung Jin,” Gia’s mother said with a fond look my way, “could have probably said it a bit differently, but I believe that what he was only stating a declaration of intent, no?”
I smiled at her appreciatively. “Of course, Omonim. You understand my heart. I only meant that I wanted your permission to be with her. I would like your blessing to spend the rest of my life making her happy and being responsible for her. Just like a husband would, except without the title. I wanted to do it responsibly and with all of you as witnesses.” I looked around the room and an exasperated look at my family. “Did you guys honestly think that I would come here and present my face if I didn’t have only good intentions? What kind of person do you take me for?”
“Well, Jin-ah,” Ji Hyun Noona said. “You almost gave me a heart attack by putting it that way. How were we supposed to know that Gia didn’t want to get married?”
Before I could answer her question I heard my mother speak. “Is that a permanent thing, do you think?”
I looked at my mother incredulously and she shrugged her shoulders. “What?” She asked. “I’m just asking in case you have kids or something.”
Omonim choked on her tea.
“Omma,” I chided. “Isn’t it a bit early to be thinking of even more grandchildren? I still have to convince the woman to live with me again.”
“I want to know, too,” Gia’s mother piped up. “I don’t have any grandchildren yet and I would like some.”
“I just thought of something, Oppa,” Ji Soo said thoughtfully. “What are you guys going to do about visas then?”
“Ah,” I said, clearing my throat. “That’s why I bought the house. We might have to split our time between here and Seoul. I’m thinking half a year here and half a year there. However she wants to do it. We’ll make it work, somehow.”
“Wow, Jung Jin-ah,” Ji Min Noona said. “You really thought of everything.”
“Yeah,” I said, flashing her a grin. “Now all I need is for her to say yes.”
“You might want to figure out another way of asking her than the one you used to ask her mother,” Ji Hee Noona quipped, her voice dripping with mirth. “That was so bad.”
“What?” She asked innocently.
“Be quiet,” I said. “I got this.”
December 7, 2003
I sat in front of the laptop with my face mask on and spoke to my mother and sister.
“How’s Junnie’s pregnancy coming along?” Mama asked.
“It’s fine,” I responded. “She’s doing better than fine. As snarky as ever.”
Next to me Junnie snorted. Her face was also in a mask as she drank some juice and watched a drama on television. She stopped staring at the screen long enough to lean in and wave at the camera, greeting my family warmly.
“Hi, Ate Junnie,” Maria said.
“Hey, Mar!” Junnie greeted enthusiastically. “What’s up! Hi Mama!”
I shook my head. Junnie had taken to calling my mother what I call my mother since they met. My mother grinned at my best friend before she narrowed her eyebrows.
“Junnie… why do you look like you’ve lost weight?” Mama asked, worried. “Your face. It looks slimmer.”
Junnie put both hands dramatically over her jaw, using the webcam as a quasi mirror. “Does it?” She asked. “Do I?” My mother nodded at her and Junnie beamed. “I should stay pregnant forever. It’s called the morning sickness diet.”
My sister and mother laughed out loud and Junnie waved at them again before sliding back to her seat, obviously distracted again now that the commercials have finished.
“I can’t wait to see you guys,” I said, taking a sip of white wine. “You’re still flying out next week, right?”
“Yes.” The resounding yes came from my mother.
“Yes, but…” A little less certain from my sister, who now avoided my gaze. “The thing is… Matt and I may be a little delayed. He wants to visit Japan before coming to Korea. And since we’re already in Asia anyway…”
“No,” I said adamantly. “Absolutely not. You have to be here on the 11th, and even that’s cutting it too close. I would have you here earlier but you said Mama can’t get off work.”
“Why?” Maria complained. “We’ll be there through Christmas and New Year’s too. We just want a couple of days by ourselves.”
“No!” I said. “No. Nonononononono.” I was getting upset and my mother frowned.
“But anak, why?” My mother asked. “Are you that homesick?”
“Well, no…” I said. “But I’m…” I coughed and took a long swallow of wine, realizing that I probably should have told my family about me proposing earlier. And getting married on the same day. I took a deep breath and forced my voice to stay as neutral as possible. “Well… the thing is… I’m proposing to Jung Jin.”
My sister’s eyes widened. “Proposing what?” My mother nudged her side.
“You know… marriage.”
My sister began to cough and took a few seconds staring at me in stunned silence before she spoke again. “You said you didn’t want to get married, though.”
“People change their minds,” I said.
“You don’t,” Maria insisted. “You don’t even like it.”
“You didn’t like onions when you were younger but now you do.”
Maria grimaced. “How are you comparing marriage to onions? Those two aren’t even remotely related.”
I blinked at her. “I’m just saying. People can change their minds.”
“And you tell this to us now?” My mother asked. “Why not tell us before?”
“It was kind of a spontaneous thing,” I said, avoiding her gaze. “Ithinkwe’llbegettingmarriedonthesamedayalso.”
“WHAT?” Both my mother and sister spoke in unison.
“I mean why not, right?” I asked. “You guys will already be here. It’s more efficient that way.”
“But wedding planning takes a long time,” Mama said in concern.
“Not for the small thing I had in mind,” I replied. “Really, it’s not a big deal. Just us and our families. That’s it.”
“But…” My sister was about to say something else when my mother silenced her with a look.
“Why the sudden change of heart, anak?” Mama asked softly and I lifted my eyes to meet hers.
“It’s just that you always said you didn’t believe in marriage. What’s caused this all of a sudden? Is it because of the immigration stuff?”
I thought for a few seconds before responding, aware that my mother would likely see through whatever falseness I reply with. Surprisingly, though, I saw no reason to lie.
“No, Ma. It’s not because of that. I’m not afraid that I’ll get sent off back to America if we didn’t get married. The thought of that made me realize though that whether here or there, I have found the person that I want to be with,” I said honestly. “I’m still not entirely sure that I believe in marriage, but I… believe in Jung Jin. I believe in us. Married or not, he’s the one I will be with.”
“So if the situation is the same either way why get married at all?” My sister voiced the same question that I had thought about time and time again.
“Jung Jin wants to get married,” I said. “It’s important to him. I’m the one who could care less either way. So if it matters that much to the man I love and I am sure of us, why not?” Neither my sister nor mother responded. “All he’s done since we met was adjust himself to me, to see things from my point of view, to understand where I’m coming from all the time. He never demanded. He never insisted. I have no doubt that if I wanted to run away again he would let me, regardless of whether I was tied to him by name. I know that because I know how much he loves me. But you know what?” I asked, surprised by how much emotion I felt. “Even though sometimes I’m so scared that all this isn’t real sometimes and I want nothing more than to run, he keeps me grounded, makes me feel like the world is solid under my feet. He makes me feel like love is this strong, tangible thing… like it’s something I could believe in. He’s asked me for nothing, and I know he’ll continue not to ask. This commitment is the one gift I could give him. He deserves it.”
By the time I was finished speaking both my mother and sister were crying. Happy tears, I assumed since they were both also smiling.
“I know you don’t need my blessing,” my mother said shakily, “but you have it nonetheless.” She gave me a broad smile and I smiled back. “In that case… do you need us to come sooner to help with wedding preparations? I could probably take some more time…”
“No,” I said firmly. “You know as well as I do that it will be almost impossible to get more time off from the hospital, especially in December. Besides, it’ll just be a very private thing. We’ll all probably just go to the town hall and then a meal afterwards.”
“Probably?” Maria asked. “How can you not know yet?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Junnie said she’d take care of the details.”
“Junnie does things like that well,” my mother agreed and I nodded.
“But Mama,” my sister said out of the blue. “Shouldn’t we tell her that…” Her sentence trailed off when my mother glared at her.
“Tell me what?”
“Nothing,” my mother said smoothly. “Just… how happy we are for both of you.”
“Don’t be too happy yet,” I said. “He still has to say yes.”
“What if he doesn’t?” Maria asked.
I didn’t answer right away, not wanting to admit to never having considered that possibility. “Well,” I finally said, “if he says no, I guess I’ll keep asking until he says yes.”
December 12, 2003
I could feel soft fingertips on my face, the scent I’ve come to associate with home all around me. If my eyes were open I know whose face I’d see. Her features were as familiar to me now as my own.
Even in my mind I could play connect the dots with her tattoos, the shadows in her eyes once as dark as the ink on her skin. I know the tilt of her laugh, the melody of her voice. I know her hands, always touching with tenderness, and her feet, which somehow always finds its way back to me.
I could feel myself smile, even in my sleep. So this is what happiness felt like. It’s eluded me so long only to reward me so much in the end.
“Are you that happy?” I heard her voice ask softly, plaintively.
Unsure whether I was dreaming or not, I slowly opened my eyes to see the face I loved the most in front of me, her thick hair splayed over the pillow underneath her head. There was a single ray of moonbeam behind her, the light painting her in an ethereal glow.
I saw her this way many many moons ago, and it struck me how even now she still renders me speechless.
She blinked at me, and I lifted my hand to cup her face. Soft skin greeted me as I ran a thumb over her jaw, then over her lips. She offered nothing but a small smile.
“Are you that happy?” She repeated her question. “You were smiling, even while asleep.”
“Yes,” I mumbled. “I’m that happy.”
She continued to watch me owlishly and I scooted closer to her, until our faces were inches apart.
“What’s the matter?” I asked. “Can’t sleep?”
In the fogginess of my mind I remembered her tension during the ride to the airport to pick up her mother and sister, her silence over the last few days. It seemed she had a lot on her mind.
The deadline for her to leave the country loomed between us, an unspoken black cloud. Little did she know that I already had two tickets in my possession, a trip for us before my stay in America commences, right after the New Year, only days before she would have no choice but to leave.
I won’t allow distance to come between us, not when fate has worked so hard to bring us together. Never.
“Jung Jin?” I heard her ask and I met her eyes. She looked at me with such vulnerability that I felt something solid lodge in my throat.
“Things won’t ever change between us, right?” She bit into her lower lip. “We’ll still be happy, right?”
She must be having the same exact thoughts as I was. I ran my hand down her hair and she closed her eyes.
“Things have to change,” I said, my voice hoarse. “Life will keep moving. Things evolve. One thing that will never change is how much I love you. And we will be happy. I will make sure of it.”
I slipped an arm behind her head and held her closer to me. She lay a hand flat on my chest and I looked down at her.
“Promise me,” she entreated.
“You told me not to promise you anything. Ever.”
“Just this once,” she said, her voice coming in with an urgency I have never heard before. It was both curious and concerning, and I wondered if it was only this that bothered her so. “Promise me even if you don’t know. Even if you’re just saying it. Just please… ”
She breathed deeply then opened her eyes and looked at me. “No matter what?”
I smiled before I leaned in and pressed a soft kiss on her forehead. “No matter what.”
December 12, 2003
“Junnie, where the hell are we?” I asked as my best friend dragged my hand into a beautiful pavilion next to a stream.
I secured my hold on my white suit, currently in a garment bag over my shoulder, even as I kept looking back at our surroundings.
“Samcheonggak,” she said as if telling me that one word was going to explain everything. “Your mother and sister are already in the teahouse having some beverages and the guests are due to arrive in about an hour and a half,” she said brusquely as she took my garment bag from my hands. She turned an assessing eye over my hair and my makeup before nodding approvingly. “Your hair looks great. I’m glad you already put it up. Your makeup will need some refreshing before the ceremony but I have that covered.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked, pulling my arm away from hers. “What guests?”
“Have you forgotten what day it is today?”
“How could I forget?” I asked her incredulously. “But what guests? I thought you were only inviting Jung Jin’s and my family. And maybe JJ and Ha Neul or something.”
“Your boyfriend-fiancé-husband person is the manager to a very important person. We can’t just have, like, ten people here.”
“But Junnie… that’s a lot more people to tell if he says no. What the heck am I supposed to do then?”
“You worry too much,” Junnie replied dismissively. “Trust me.”
“The last time you said this you kid…”
Junnie was in the middle of looking for something in her purse when she looked up and glowered at me.
“You need to stop bringing that up,” she said through gritted teeth. “Can I remind you that had I not done that you would not be here now?”
“You need to stop bringing that up,” I countered. “But Junnie…”
“You know what your problem is?” Junnie planted her hands on her hips. “You have really bad trust issues. You need to resolve that soon, with you getting married and all that.”
“What’s this?” I asked as she shoved a box into my hands.
“You can’t propose without a ring now, can you?” She gave me a wink before pressing a loud peck on my cheek. “Ethan will be here in about half an hour so you have plenty of time to get yourself together. Call me when you’re done.” She fisted both her hands and lifted them, smiling at me. “Fighting!”
“His name is Jung Jin. I hate that damn…”
“Whatever.” Junnie was out the door before I could say anything else and I resisted the urge to stomp my feet in frustration.
Maybe this whole proposal and wedding day idea wasn’t so bright, I thought, now with all these people coming. What the hell will we do if he doesn’t want to get married?
What else? A small part of my brain cackled. I guess we’ll have a big old party.
I parked the car in the lot and got out, wondering why the hell Shawn asked me to meet her here today. I straightened my jacket and walked briskly, the winter air making my ears numb.
Oh well, I thought, at least the sun is out.
I lifted my face to the sunlight, even as my mind was already going a million miles a minute.
I would have to make this quick to get home in time to take Gia and her family out to dinner. She had texted me earlier today to let me know that they’d gone shopping, and had I not been stuck at a meeting all morning I would have found a way to meet them for lunch.
It’s a good thing I took off from work starting Monday. And now with Ha Neul able to do more and actually managing a client of his own, I knew that things would be taken care of while I’m spending time with my not in laws.
The thought made me chuckle. How the hell am I supposed to explain that to people?
True to their word, Omonim and Maria hadn’t told Gia any of my plans. In truth they acted as if they didn’t know anything at all, which was a relief.
I had just passed the central building, already seeing the staff setting up chairs and tables, and was looking for Shawn when my hand phone rang.
“Ethan?” I heard her say. “Have you arrived?”
“Yeah I’m here,” I replied. “But Shawn… it looks like they’re getting ready for an event or something. Are you sure I’m supposed to be here?”
“Of course!” Shawn said. “Would I have called you out if you weren’t?”
“But Shawn… Samcheonggak? I didn’t realize you were planning such a formal meeting.”
“There are a lot of things you don’t know.”
I shook my head. Some things have not changed. “Stop being cryptic and tell me what to do. Make it quick too… I want to be back in Jongno before rush hour.”
“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that,” Shawn mumbled so low I wondered if she meant for me to hear it at all. “Anyway, you’re meeting a very important person at Yulhajeong, the pavilion by the stream. You know where…”
“Yes, I do. This is not my first time here, you know.”
This was actually one of my favorite places in Seoul, but I didn’t tell her that. I once thought that I would like to get married here, but I didn’t tell her that, either.
“Great!” Shawn said brightly.
“And what am I supposed to do once I get there?”
“Simple,” Shawn said, her voice sobering. “Whatever is put on the table, consider it seriously.”
“Are you sure about letting me make this kind of decision?” I asked. “Shouldn’t you be making it?”
“I trust you,” Shawn said. “You’ll make the right choice.”
I straightened my dress and smoothed my hair, wishing that Junnie had at least left me a mirror. I clutched the paper in my hands, the speech I had prepared and recited the words softly, hoping that I won’t forget anything.
I checked my watch for the umpteenth time.
What if he got stuck in traffic? What if he couldn’t get out of work?
Trust me, Junnie says. That woman has more confidence in her skills than she had any right to be.
I fiddled with the necklace around my neck, wondering why I was so nervous. I was all of a sudden empathetic with men who work up the courage to propose, as they are traditionally expected to. Because this… sucks.
I feel like I’m going to throw up.
At least Junnie had the foresight to leave a bottled water here. I grabbed it and twisted the cap, realized that it was too tight when it did not give way immediately.
What is wrong with this? I thought as I placed it in my mouth and tried to twist the cap off with my teeth.
Finally, it loosened. I just wish I had more time to prepare as the bottle slipped my grasp and water splashed all over the front of my shirt. The water spilled everywhere as the bottle landed on its side on the floor, and I bit back a curse. Looking furiously around for a paper towel and unable to find any, I had just gotten on my hands and knees on the floor to wipe the water with my shirt when the door opened.
I mustered a smile as surprised almond shaped eyes met mine.
Well, this was unexpected.
I opened the door to the gazebo and found my woman on all fours, doing something with her shirt on the floor.
What the hell was Shawn up to now? And why was Gia here?
I gave Gia a quizzical look as she half smiled and half cringed at me, stopping whatever it was that she was about to do and scrambling to her feet before I could ask her if she needed any help.
“Hi,” she said, her generous lips curving into a half smile, the one that never failed to make my heart beat just a little faster.
“Hi,” I said as I eyed the wet patch on her shirt. I looked around. This is not the place for something like this.
She brought a hand up to her chest self-consciously as if she knew what I was thinking, and I grinned. The action was so very reminiscent of the old Gia. I see glimpses of her now and again, wary and suspicious, and I always welcome the sight of the woman that fascinated me so. Still I was thankful that the Gia I see more often is happy and open, that the Gia with me everyday actually liked to talk.
It baffles me to this day how two such different personalities can reside in one complex, yet simple woman. I wondered how I can love each and every single version of her just as much as I loved the other. Somehow I think I will wonder for a very long time. No matter… I have the rest of my life to figure it out.
As I stood in silence I realized that she was still just standing there, her hair up in a low chignon, her makeup impeccable. Save for the water on her shirt she looked meticulous. Beautiful. As she always did.
She licked her lips nervously and I wished I could do the same thing.
Why was I so nervous when this woman and I practically lived together? Was it her silence? The color on her cheeks?
Something wasn’t quite right. I wondered if it had anything to do with the way she was last night.
“Did… uhmmm… did Shawn call you here today too?” I asked. She blinked her pretty eyes, her lashes unbelievably long and thick against her cheeks. “What is she up to now? I swear…”
“No,” she said, “I knew you were coming.”
She nodded before taking the few steps that would close the distance between us. She looked like she was talking to herself as she did so, her eyes locked directly on mine. When at last she was in front of me, she placed a hand on my cheek. I looked down and saw that her eyes appeared nervous, apprehensive.
My eyes were drawn to her other hand, tightly gripping a small blue box. Identical to the one that was in the top drawer in my bedroom, the engagement ring I had bought.
Now it was all beginning to make sense. She must have discovered the box and realized I was about to propose.
“You know…” she started, interrupting my thoughts, “you know that I love you, right?”
I could only nod wordlessly, wondering why the hell Shawn would call me out here just so my woman can break up with me.
It’s now or never, I told myself as I walked towards Jung Jin. It’s crunch time. Don’t you choke now.
For a second I wondered why my mind was spitting out all these sports related phrases, but I didn’t have to think long. In the space of a few footsteps I was standing in front of Jung Jin, barely inches away.
I lifted a hand to rest it upon a smooth cheek, and I watched as his eyes became guarded. So pretty, I thought as my thumb rubbed over a clean shaven jaw, only just showing a slight stubble. So pretty even when he’s not sure what I’m about to do.
I hoped he would not see how nervous I was.
All thoughts disappeared as I gazed upon his face, my favorite face in the world. Even when I didn’t know it was him his face had fascinated me so. Even when it was a younger, gaunter version of this same face.
How was I to know that it would be the face of the man I would leave everything, risk everything for?
For years we’ve orbited around each other, seemingly destined to never cross paths. And then one day, as if the stars have aligned, we finally met, and it changed everything. Had I known years ago that this was what was waiting for me at the very end… it might have given me a bit of hope. How nice it might have been to know that the reward that was waiting for me was unlike anything I’ve ever had.
A lump formed in my throat and I cleared it away.
“You know,” I started, my voice just a little shaky, “you know that I love you, right?”
He nodded silently, an unreadable expression on his face. I could see the words I’d written and so carefully memorized in my head, but for some reason I could not remember any of them. My tongue felt thick in my mouth and I had to breathe deeply just to coax myself to speak.
“You and I are so different,” I said, “but kind of the same, too. I’m not a perfect person, and I don’t expect you to be, either. We’re going to have some bad times sometime together… I don’t know when but it always happens so it will come sooner or later. I just… I just want you to know that I’m going to try hard to always understand you, to never hurt you. I’ll try not to lie and always talk to you. There will be times when you might get angry, and I’ll get angry too, but…” It occurred to me mid rant that I had no idea what the hell I was saying. None of these things were part of my speech. “…oh… what am I saying?”
“Jagi,” he said. “What are you saying?”
This is the big one. The question that really mattered. The one that I had spent all these weeks preparing for.
The box I held in my hands all of a sudden felt too heavy in my hands and unknowing what else to do, I placed it in his hand, even as he continued to stare at me, his expression concerned. He didn’t even look at the box.
I gave myself one last silent pep talk and was about to blurt it out when Jung Jin spoke.
“You’re not… you’re not breaking up with me, are you?”
“You’re not…” I said, trying to keep my voice from betraying the fear now lodged in the pit of my abdomen, “you’re not breaking up with me, are you?”
Her eyebrows narrowed in puzzlement and for a second I was hopeful that it was not what it seemed like. But then I quickly remembered the box she just gave me, the ring that I bought her, being returned.
“Huh?” She asked, sounding genuinely surprised. “Why would you think that?”
I averted my gaze. “Why else would you give me back your ring?”
She cocked her head to one side. “I didn’t give you back my ring. I gave you a ring.”
“No,” I insisted. “Isn’t this the ring in my drawer?”
She looked at me blankly. “That ring was… in a drawer and it could have been yours,” she said, sounding as if the possibility of that was very real.
“So you are breaking up with me.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head vigorously, looking at me as if I had grown horns on my head. “Open the box.”
“I know what’s in the damn box,” I retorted. “Why do I need to open it?”
“This is so not how I imagined this would go,” she muttered. “Just open the thing.”
“I don’t want to,” I insisted.
She glared at me before heaving a pained breath. “Oh, for fuck’s sake.”
I was still just holding the box, which displeased her to no end, but it displeased me too. She took it from my hands and I held my breath as she pulled the smaller velvet box inside and opened it for me to see.
A wide platinum band greeted me, not at all like the ring I had bought her except for the same metal. Questions swirled around in my head, the whats, hows, and whys spinning around and around as I struggled to speak.
“I was going to ask you to marry me, you dolt,” she said in frustration. “Apparently I’m not very good at proposing.”
“What did you say?” I thought I heard her incorrectly, my mind playing tricks on me again. I stared at the band in front of me, wondering whether I had been imagining all this.
Until she touched me. And as it always did it brought me back to the present, to this place. Back to her.
Our gazes met and I felt a whisper soft touch over my brow and on my cheek, her eyes roving over my face tenderly. They glinted with merriment, her mouth locked in an expression of controlled amusement.
“Marry me, Lee Jung Jin-ssi,” she said softly. “Please. I’ll make you happy, I swear it.”
“You already make me happy.” My voice was gravelly, hoarse. I wasn’t quite sure what to say.
“That wasn’t an answer.” She playfully grabbed hold of my collar. “Do I need to threaten you?”
“You want to get married.”
“Uhmm, hello? I thought I already established this.”
“Why now?” I asked.
She sighed before looking at me. “Because it’s you. Not because I know you want to. Not because I’ll get thrown out of the country otherwise. Because it’s you and I could think of worse ways to spend the rest of my life than loving you and building a future with you.”
She must have heard the doubt in my voice and her expression softened. “Yeah,” she replied. “Really. Now… will you give me your answer?”
I gazed at her face, saw that she was waiting expectantly. As if there was any doubt as to how I would respond. As if the choice was really mine to make.
The one word came out in a whoosh, and she broke out into a wide smile before throwing her arms around my neck. I had barely planted my feet on the ground before she almost knocked me down from the suddenness of her embrace. Happiness bloomed inside me, vast and expansive, and I felt a mile wide grin form on my face.
“Gosh,” she uttered, sounding relieved. “Who knew proposing was so tricky?”
“I know, right?” I said. “And here I thought you were about to break up with me.”
She shook her head. “Never. You’ll never get rid of me now.”
I leaned my head down to kiss her when I heard a voice from behind us, sounding harried and just a little annoyed.
“Finally,” Shawn said, looking at both of us as if she didn’t know what to do with us. “That proposal was the weirdest I have ever seen. For a minute I wondered if you guys were going to start wrestling each other. I have never seen that box passing maneuver before.”
“Junnie…” Gia protested even as she kept her arms around me and addressed her best friend.
“Ethan… go to the main building. Your brother should be there already. And you,” she said to Gia, forcing her arms away from me, “Come with me. There’s so much to do and we have a schedule, you know.”
“What else is there to do?” I asked as she pulled Gia to her side. We just got engaged and she was reclaiming my woman? Shawn really is so pushy sometimes. “She hasn’t even slipped my ring on yet.”
“She can do that later,” Shawn said dismissively.
“Ah,” Gia said, her cheeks pinkening. “I forgot to tell you one little detail.”
“What now?” Surely this day could not surprise me any more than it already has.
“We’re getting married today.”
She nodded. “Today.”
“I swear,” Junnie said to me over the mirror, “for someone so eloquent, you’re pretty shit at proposing.”
“I hate you sometimes, do you know that?” I said as the make up artist motioned for me to stay still. “It’s pretty good then that I only plan on doing this once, right? I have so much more respect for men who get this right the first time around now.”
“All’s well that ends well,” she said. “It’s done. Now we just need to get you down the aisle.”
“Are my mother and sister…”
“They’re getting ready next door,” she said, walking to the couch and lifting an extra large garment bag before hanging it on a hook over the door.
The make up artist spun my chair around once she was satisfied with the way I looked and I watched as Junnie unzipped the bag to reveal the most beautiful wedding dress I have ever seen.
“What’s this?” I asked, even as I stood up and fingered the fabric, my voice sounding dreamy, even to my ears. “I thought I was just wearing my suit?”
“This,” Junnie said, “is my wedding gift to you.”
“Junnie…” This must have cost a fortune… too much for one day, certainly.
“I don’t want to hear it,” Junnie said. “My best friend is only getting married once. And to my friend, at that. You…” Junnie placed a soft hand on my cheek “… deserve the wedding of your dreams. You once told me about what you imagined for your wedding, and as your best friend, I had tried my best to make it all possible.”
“You did.” Junnie nodded then smiled. “You don’t remember?”
New York City, New York
November 21, 1991
Junnie and I sat on the couch, both a bit tipsy from the wine we had drank. All talks of Thelma and Louise, of Ethan, and of Marcus forgotten.
“Junnie,” I said. “Have you ever been in love?”
Junnie sat up, her eyes soft and misty. “I think I was, once. With a guy I grew up with.”
“Really?” I asked. I don’t remember her telling me about him. “What happened?”
“He lives here, actually.”
“Here? In Brooklyn?”
Junnie shook her head no. “In California. I met him again the summer I turned eighteen when he visited Singapore. And then he was gone again.”
“Why don’t you try to find him? Surely with the yellow pages we can…”
She wiggled a finger at me. “No. If he and I are meant to be together we will be together somehow. Besides… he should be the one looking for me!”
“I don’t know,” I said, leaning back into the couch. “But you’re right. Destiny will happen when it does, right?”
We smiled at each other in the dim candlelight of the apartment.
“I probably will end up marrying someone my parents fixed me up with,” Junnie said quietly. “Marriages are made with business in mind.”
“They wouldn’t force you though, right?”
She shrugged her slim shoulders. “If I don’t get married quickly enough they just might arrange it themselves.”
“I hope not,” I said.
We were silent for a few minutes, both lost in our own thoughts. Then I quickly sat up again and pulled her to an upright position as well.
“Junnie…” I said. “If you were to get married, what would your wedding be like?”
“I swear, you are a hopeless romantic. Are we teenagers or something?”
“Why?” I asked. Maria and I had done this for as long as I can remember. There was nothing wrong with imagining how your wedding will be. “Humor me.”
“Well,” Junnie began as she tipped the wine bottle over her glass to fill it back up. “I will be marrying someone tall and handsome. I’ll wear two dresses… one white and the traditional one red.”
“Why two?” I asked as I urged her to fill my glass as well.
“Weddings in Singapore are not like weddings here. We have many little ceremonies throughout the day, some of which I have no say over, like having tea at the inlaws.”
“Ah.” I took a sip of my wine. “What would your wedding dress look like?”
“I don’t know, really,” Junnie said, her hands moving around. “But maybe white with some kind of red something. A sash around my waist and the corset like thing on my back. I want a long train on the dress. Maybe jewels in my hair. The hotel I’ll be getting married at will take care of all the other details. As long as my dress is how I want it, everything else doesn’t really matter.”
“I thought you said you didn’t know?” I teased.
“What?” She asked defensively. “So what if I did think about it?”
“No need to justify it to me,” I said. “I’m not judging. I have long imagined my whole wedding day. From the way the place would look to my wedding dress. It is all here.”
I pointed to my head.
“Tell me then,” Junnie said. “I might have to help you plan it one day.”
“My dress will be strapless, maybe with a princess neckline, hopefully very romantic. Not too big, but not traditional either. It will be off white, maybe ivory or some pinky thing,” I said. “It feels almost blasphemous to wear white. I’m not a virgin!”
Junnie and I both giggled for a few minutes, the laughter of two people who have laughed many many times together, who didn’t care about how silly they might sound.
I loved my best friend.
“Would you get married on a beach, a hotel or what?”
I thought about her question. “Those things don’t matter to me, really, though I would like to be outside. No church. Maybe during dusk, just as the sky is about to darken, with little lanterns on trees. There will be candles on every table and lots and lots of white flowers.”
“You and your obsession with white flowers.”
“I know, right?” I said. “I love them so much. I want some kind of string instrument playing Canon in D as I walk down the aisle. By myself.”
“No wedding march for you?” I shook my head no. “And no parents walking you down the aisle, either?”
“Your father is going to have a heart attack,” Junnie said.
“I know,” I responded immediately. “Now if I could only find a groom.”
“They did say you have to kiss a lot of animals before you found your prince.”
I grinned at her. “And just when I thought you’re becoming more American by the minute. It’s frogs, Jun.”
“You have to kiss a lot of frogs… ” She kept looking at me as if she had no clue what I was talking about. “You know what? Don’t worry about it.”
“Why frogs, though?” She mused. “Who goes around kissing frogs? I don’t want to kiss any frogs.”
She made a face as our eyes met and then we both burst out laughing.
The door opened behind me and in came Shawn, looking perfectly put together in a purple dress, her hair in long curly waves down her back, carrying a small box. She greeted my brother and father warmly and waved at Kye Sang Hyung, all dressed in black suits.
She placed the box down on a small table before walking towards me.
“Your sisters are all ready outside and so is your mother,” she said. “There are boutonnieres in the box for you and every man in your family.”
I stopped in the process of adjusting my sleeves and fastening my cufflinks. It’s amazing how I’ve done this routine of dressing up many many times before but now I was thrumming with an excited, nervous energy, as if I had never done this before.
“I can’t believe I’m getting married,” I said. “On the same day I got engaged.”
“That’s your girl,” Shawn said with a small chuckle. “She certainly does nothing halfway.”
“So she knew… about all this?” I asked, gesturing around the room.
“She thought you two were going to the town hall after her proposal. Had planned on it, in fact. She thought I was going to let her wear a suit to the wedding.” She huffed. “As if.”
“So you planned everything?” I asked.
“Yep.” Shawn grinned at me. “Who knew I had an uncanny ability to plan weddings?”
“Make sure you send me the receipts and I’ll make sure you get paid.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Have you forgotten that I manage some of your money? I’ll just deduct half the cost from your account.”
I shook my head. “Deduct all.”
“As if your wife would let me do that. Do you still not know that Gia would probably beat me if she found out you paid for all of it?”
“That woman…” I could barely keep the irritation out of my voice.
“Your woman,” Shawn corrected me.
I smiled. “My woman.”
“It’s about to get really busy so I wanted to get some housekeeping rules out of the way,” Shawn said.
“You’re my friend and I like you,” Shawn said softly. “I even love you sometimes.” She met my eyes directly. “But I’m going to tell you now that if you hurt her, I’ll kill you.”
I smiled. “Everyone seems hell bent on telling me this.”
“Why?” Shawn asked. “Who else threatened you?”
“Her mom and her sister, when I went to see them on Gia’s birthday.”
“Yeah well… your woman brings out everyone’s protective side.”
“That she does.” I never even realized I had that protective side until I met her. “Anything else?”
“No, that’s pretty much it.” Shawn looked me up and down and nodded approvingly. “That tux fits you perfectly.”
“How did you know my size?”
“Easy,” she answered. “I just had one of your siblings sneak into your house and look at your size.”
I laughed. “You didn’t.” When she didn’t deny and just kept looking at me, I stopped. “Did you?”
“Anyway,” she said, pulling something out of her purse and handing it to me. Another blue box. “There’s the engagement ring from your drawer. Her wedding ring is in there, too.”
“Okay,” I said. “Are you going to tell me exactly what’s going to happen?”
Shawn shrugged slim shoulders. “I’ve already spoken to people who are doing different things, so they know. Gia should have some idea about what’s going on, but the officiant has also been briefed. The ceremony will be in English, and she has bridesmaids.”
“There are no bridesmaids in Korean weddings.”
“You’re not marrying a Korean woman. Your wedding will be just like your marriage will be. A fusion of sorts. A little bit of this. A little bit of that.”
“I don’t really understand.”
“You’ll be okay,” she said. “Just start thinking about your vows already.”
“But what about me?” I asked. “I don’t have any groomsmen.”
“Use your family,” she said with a teasing smile. “God only knows you have enough of them.”
“And my best man?”
“Don’t worry about that,” Shawn said. “I have just the right… best man for you. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
“Thank you,” I said, wrapping her in my arms before she could walk away. “Why didn’t you give me any indication that this was about to happen?”
She nudged my arm. “Didn’t you give me a lecture on boundaries?” She asked. “You told me you didn’t want to know what Gia and I talked about. I was just granting your request.”
Vaguely I remembered that talk and shut my mouth. I did tell her that. Shawn gave me one last smile before she turned and headed for the door, was almost there when I found myself speaking out.
“Shawn!” I called out and she turned around. “How is she doing?”
Shawn gave me a wide smile. “She’s fine,” she replied. “Don’t worry. She’ll be there.”
My eyes misted as I looked at the scene before me, exactly how I had described it once upon a time. Paper lanterns, meant to symbolize hope for a bright future, hung from every branch of every tree, painting the view before me in golden hues.
There was a white runner in the middle of linen topped tables and chairs covered in ivory fabric, scattered petals on the ground. Candlelight shone from every surface, next to elaborate arrangements of white flowers of every type.
The place looked like a picture out of dreams. My dreams. Just the way I always imagined. A vision I had long buried in the recesses of my mind.
“So what do you think?”
Junnie stood in front of me, dressed in plum, her hair half up and in loose curls. Happiness and health made her luminous and I gave her an affectionate smile.
“It’s perfect,” I said. “You didn’t have to…”
“I know what I had or didn’t have to do,” she argued, straightening her dress before picking up some flowers, a bouquet of large antique hydrangeas, ivory, taupe and dusky roses, anemones, dusty miller, succulents, and seeded eucalyptus. The stems were wrapped in burlap and pinned with pearl buttons, a jeweled brooch in the center. She handed them to me all businesslike, her eyes averted.
“These are beautiful, Junnie,” I said.
“Are they how you imagined?”
“Better.” I blinked back the tears from my eyes.
“Good.” Junnie was still walking around, refusing to look at me. “Your mother lent the brooch, so that’s your something old, the succulents are your something blue, the dress is your something new and these,” she said, producing a pair of diamond chandelier earrings, “are your something borrowed.”
She walked towards me and placed the earrings on my ears, then took a step back and looked me over. “There,” she said softly, looking a bit more emotional than I have ever seen her, “now you’re ready.”
“You have said my name more in the last ten minutes than you had in the last few years,” she said, picking up her bouquet.
“I don’t know how to thank you,” I said.
“You don’t have to,” she said.
I grabbed hold of her arm, forced her to stay still for just one minute. “You are the bossiest of bossy people,” I said, “but I love you. I’m very blessed to have had you as a best friend all these years.”
She met my eyes and gave me a smile, her eyes filling up with tears. “I feel the same exact way, kid. I could never have asked for a better friend.” She took a deep breath. “Anyway, let’s stop this sentimental bullshit before you ruin your makeup.”
“I’m wearing waterproof mascara.”
“You thought of that, at least,” she teased. “Now, how do you feel?”
“Beautiful,” I replied. “Surreal.”
“You still have the chance to run away, you know,” Junnie said, “and the man might just love you enough to let you.”
“I know.” My answer came out softly. I knew that she was telling the truth. “It’s amazing how you lose the desire to do something when you know that you can without repercussions. That’s why I love him. Loving him doesn’t feel like a duty. It feels like freedom. The best kind.”
“So that’s a no?” She grinned at me playfully though her eyes belied the gravity of emotion that she was trying to hide.
I shook my head.
I turned around when I heard some noise behind me, and out came my mother, dressed in a red hanbok, and my sister, wearing a long dress in a shade of purple, holding an ivory satin leash. My eyes widened when I saw Dog, dressed in a tuxedo, yelping happily.
“This wedding might be the strangest wedding ever,” Junnie warned. “But just go with it.”
“What’s Dog doing here?”
Junnie chuckled. “Since I can’t stand for both you and Ethan, I figured your groom will need a best man. Let’s just hope that he doesn’t decide to pee on the aisle.”
“Your dog,” Junnie quipped. “It’s good to see that being a bride has not dulled your smart assiness.”
I laughed. “Should you be saying ass on my wedding day?”
“Better than saying sex.” She winked at me. “Though I don’t suppose we need to talk about that, do we?”
I darted a glance at my mother, who seemed preoccupied with adjusting her corsage, thankfully. Maria, though, got Junnie’s point and was pulling a face.
“Eww,” my little sister said. “Please don’t put those images in my head.”
“Well then,” Junnie said decisively. “Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s not keep your groom waiting.”
“Jin-ah,” my father said, taking hold of my arm as the men in our family all made our way to the spot that Shawn had designated. “Let me talk to you before the wedding begins.”
Ahead Jung Yoon and Kye Sang Hyung walked forward and disappeared from view. I turned around and looked at him inquiringly. He had a smile on his face, one that hasn’t left since I found him and our whole family in the main building, waiting for me after Gia’s proposal. I ran an eye over his form, noble and even more distinguished at his age.
“I know you’re eager to see your bride,” he said. “But your Omma asked me to talk to you about a few things before you get married.”
“She did?” I asked. “What did she want you to talk to me about?”
“Beats me,” he said lightly, shrugging his broad shoulders. “But I think she’s hoping for some words of wisdom.” I chuckled. “I don’t know why she would think I would have any of those.”
“You and Omma have been married for a long time,” I said. “What’s the secret?”
My father’s face sombered, became a little more serious. “There is no secret,” he responded. “There are things that would help, of course. Supporting each other and listening. Making sure that you appreciate her and telling her so. Being kind. Basically everything that you would do for any person that you hold in high regard. Except one more thing,” he added, “choose to love her every day. Not only the woman you fell in love with initially, not even the woman you hoped she would be, but the woman with you every single day. Times change and so will people. If you can remember to love her through all those changes, through all the years of her life, then that’s all that matters.” He studied my face. “But… I have a feeling that you two will be just fine.”
“You sound sure,” I joked.
“I am sure,” he said without hesitation. “Know why?” I shook my head no. “Because while you were preparing to spend of your life prepared to not marry her, she was getting a wedding ready for you.”
“That might have just been a matter of miscommunication, Appa.”
He shook his head. “I don’t know about Gia, but it wasn’t that on your part.” He placed a hand on my shoulder. “You’re my son and I love you. I am proud of you for many things… your accomplishments, your success. But you, for most of your adult life, were a selfish being. I knew that, too. That you would do things like buying a house near her family and preparing to split up your time between here and there, those things… for the sole purpose of giving her what she needs or what she thinks she wants, speaks volumes about how much you’ve grown. You are a good man, Jung Jin, but until Gia you have never been one to ever put anyone else first.”
Standing shoulder to shoulder with my father, hearing him speak of me with such pride in his voice, brought a wave of emotion. I was unable to speak.
“That’s what people forget,” he continued. “We all get so caught up in what we ourselves want that it leads us to do things that are merely self-serving. But a relationship involves two people. Two minds, two hearts. What you want to happen and what she wants to happen may not always be the same all the time, but as long as you think of each other, then those differences don’t matter. Gia…” he said softly, “Has shown herself to be a woman who will also put your needs above hers. She has your back and you have hers. As long as you two don’t lose that willingness to fight for each other, you will spend many many happy years together.”
“That’s what they don’t tell you when you’re young. Love… is not always perfect, not always happy. But if you can still see the beauty and continue to keep the person you love and the life you built in perspective even through the hard times… then what you end up with is something that transcends this life. It’s the best love you will ever have, you know. The truest kind. The lasting kind. ” He turned to me and moved his hand from my shoulder to my back. “Your Omma and I are very happy for you and Gia, Jin-ah.”
I softened as I looked at him, the man I admired most in the world. The very best, the most upstanding man I know. That I came into this world as his son was a choice that had not been mine to make, but I found myself grateful nonetheless.
“Thank you, Appa,” I said quietly. “I hope that one day I can be like you.”
“I know,” he joked. “Who wouldn’t want to be as handsome as me?” I looked at him in disbelief before we both burst out laughing. Trust my father to lighten the moment by poking fun at himself. After a few minutes, he finally stopped and took a breath. “Shawn is waving at me, so I think it may be time.” He patted my cheek. “You look good. Just make sure not to trip.”
He disappeared behind the tree before I could berate him for jinxing me and Jung Yoon Hyung appeared, looking slightly nervous. In fact, upon closer inspection, he looked more nervous today than he did on his own wedding day.
“I thought you two would never be done,” he said. “We have to go. Now.”
“He’s walking down the aisle,” Junnie said as she lined all of Jung Jin’s sisters and their partners up to march before me. The strains of Vivaldi was in the air, and I resisted the urge to crane my neck and see how Jung Jin was doing.
“Unnie,” Ji Soo said, her eyes teary. “Chukhaye. You look beautiful.”
“Thank you, Ji Soo,” I replied. “You look beautiful, too.”
And she did. As did all her sisters and their husbands. Even Ha Neul was here, who has come to escort her down the aisle and to stand with Jung jin during the ceremony. All the women wore different shades of purple, long dresses that only made them look even taller, if that was possible. The men all looked handsome with ivory boutonieres on their lapels, accented with the same blue succulents that were in my bouquet. The women all carried bouquets identical to Junnie’s.
My best friend had certainly made sure every detail was perfect. That’s for sure.
I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and happiness. That everyone should be so joyful and supportive, despite the sudden notice. That I was accepted fully and with open arms without question by his family. That my own was here with me now, to give their blessings and to help march me into my future. I had long stopped believing that such things were possible for me, but it seemed life had other plans.
“Mama,” Junnie said to my mother, currently standing next to me, “I could have He Yi escort you to your seat before the bridesmaids, and then come back and walk with Maria.”
My mother smiled. “That sounds o…”
“No,” I interrupted. “My mother and sister will walk me down the aisle.”
“Are you sure?” Junnie asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “I’m sure.”
“Okay.” She looked at my sister. “Now, please give me that leash. I can’t believe my escort is this furry thing.”
“Well,” I said. “He is the best man.”
I stood at the front of the aisle, trying not to wring my hands in nervousness as I waited for Gia.
To distract myself I looked around and met saw Joon with Na Jeong at one of the front tables, Young Seon on his lap. He met my eyes and gave a thumbs up as Na Jeong gave me a wide smile. There were other faces, too. Shawn’s husband. Maria’s boyfriend Matt. Elena. Park Chun Jo. Other faces too that I recognize but whose names I couldn’t remember, all looking at me.
It was a good thing that there weren’t more people. I have never ever liked being in the spotlight, preferring instead to be in the background. I could feel sweat bead on my forehead as I stood in front of all of them, unable to do anything but wait.
I kept my eyes on the aisle as my eldest brother and his wife walked in arm in arm to the sounds of Vivaldi. Mi Rae Noona smiled at me as they split apart before they reached the front and she went to the opposite side as my brother stood beside me. They were closely followed by Ji Hyun Noona and her husband, then by Ji Min Noona and her husband. As did Hyung and his wife, my sisters and brothers in law went to opposite sides as they approached the front of the aisle. Ji Hee Noona and Kye Sang Hyung appeared together as they walked towards me, my sister sending a wink my way before she stood at her designated spot. Then came Ji Soo and Ha Neul, looking as if they already belonged together.
I tried to keep the frown off my face. They are already a couple, no matter how much I worried.
And then a surprise. Shawn appeared, looking as if she was trying not to laugh. On her hand was a leash and she walked as regally down the aisle as she could muster, while Dog trotted in front of her. His face lit up as he saw me, his strides getting faster as Shawn tried to keep up. The guests laughed out loud at the sight they made and she gave me a sheepish smile as she handed his leash to my brother, but not before I bent down and gave him an affectionate ruffle on the head. My brother and I shared a smile as he gently pulled Dog to his side.
The guests began to stand and for some bizarre reason all I could think about was how they knew to do so when this is completely different to a Korean ceremony. It was amazing, actually, that every single person seemed to know just what to do, as if they’d been briefed ahead of time. Which I had no doubt they were. Shawn is nothing if not a perf…
My thoughts stopped altogether as Gia appeared, a vision in dusky rose, a veil covering her face. Her mother and sister stood on her side, their arms interlinked. I could hear the music change to Pachelbel’s Canon in D, even as the air seemed to thicken and swirl, time slowing down. I could hear the beat of my heart over and above the music, everything around me disappearing as she began to walk.
My eyes were locked on her as she made her way to me, the ruffles on her dress swaying gracefully with each step. Not for the first time I wondered if it was possible to love someone this much, if it was possible to feel as if I had known one person for most of my life, had known that she was coming.
I held my breath as she came closer, overwhelmed with emotion. She seemed serene, perfectly composed, confident as she took the steps that will seal our future. She appeared as if there was nowhere else in the world she would rather be, and nothing else she would rather be doing.
Until she reached the middle of the aisle and stopped.
I used to think that I would marry a prince, but I ended up with a knight instead. A soldier. There’s a chunk missing from his armor, right over where his heart rested. He didn’t come to me all shiny and perfect, but covered in grime. He’s been so used to it that he hadn’t even realized it was still there anymore.
He’s moody and unpredictable, but he’s strong and capable. He laughs when I laugh, and holds me when I cry. He shows me parts of himself he doesn’t like, tells me things he’s ashamed to tell anyone else, reveals truths about me I didn’t even know, didn’t care to know. He drives me crazy… in more ways than one. He’s a sinner, an angel, a lover, a fighter, a friend and a stranger, everything and nothing that I had ever wanted.
He was a work in progress, a walking disaster, always on the edge between good and bad. He’s my perfect kind of imperfect. And he’s mine.
That used to scare me… the thought of something belonging to me. Being responsible for someone, being accountable. But I would do it for him. Just as he had held my heart with care, so too will I do it for him.
He was nothing like I ever expected, but then again, he hadn’t expected me either. He thought he would find a princess, but what he got was a warrior instead, just like him. We were both battle weary and tired, bleeding from our wounds. Neither of us were looking for the other, having long given up on love, trying our best to be okay with it. But destiny had other plans, and she was a stubborn mistress.
Now there he stands, looking at me through the twinkling of lights, his eyes holding the promise of forever in this finite life, dressed in fine garb, as if he was a prince, after all. I am no princess, nor am I his damsel in distress. I walk towards him a complete person, my life whole, my past intact and fully remembered. I love him not with naive belief, not with unrealistic expectations designed to fail. Ours is not a fairy tale, but it was even better. It was real. It was ours.
My feet continue to walk slowly, I remain unaware of the eyes watching me, my mother and sister’s arms looped in mine. I kept my gaze on his face, even as uncertainty and nervousness danced in his beautiful eyes. When I reached the middle of the aisle, I broke away from my family and continued to walk. Just as we had danced around each other for more than a decade, this time, finally, each step bringing me closer to him.
And then my feet stopped. Not with doubt but with expectation. Without hesitation he left where he was standing to come over to me. To meet me halfway, just as he had always done.
He walked towards me purposefully, as if he always knew his way to me. The smile that I love played on the corner of his mouth, revealing a deep indent on his left cheek, a spot I’ve kissed a million times before. He stops a foot away from me and holds out a hand, never taking, never demanding, but reaches it out slowly. A question and a request in the palm of his hand.
I was once lost, tetherless. Drifting along with no other goal than the one I can see right in front of me. Once I dared not dream or hope, believed that happy endings were not meant for me. That no knight would come rescue me. That no love can possibly be as good as those written on paper.
And then he came and none of those things mattered anymore. I realized that the only thing better than having a knight in shining armor is having someone by my side who has fought the same battles. For this. For me. I can have the love I want the way I want it without having to compromise myself or the man who loves me.
He and I were both flesh and blood, with our strengths and weaknesses. We were capable of mistakes, but guess what? We were also capable of miracles. We might fail time and again, but we will both keep trying. If I was certain of one thing and one thing alone, it was that he would fight for me just as I will for him.
It’s why I am now standing, at my future’s precipice, ready to jump one more time. The man I love may not always catch me, but I have something even better: someone who will always jump with me. Someone who will take the chance for me. Someone who will always take the chance on me.
I was in love, like those girls in the fairy tales, except unlike them, love didn’t save me. It changed me… changed me into someone who can save myself. It transformed me into someone not only capable of standing on my own two feet, but also someone who is able to stand beside someone else. It didn’t make me worthy of being loved, but made me realize that I already was and always had been, which, perhaps was the most challenging thing of all.
I hoped that wherever he was, that my father would be proud. The thought brought with it a poignant emotion and I blinked my tears away. It was this feeling that I always tried to escape and try to run away from for most of my life. But not today.
I lift the hem of the dress as my shoes dug into my toes, the heels precariously narrow. I can still run wearing these, if that was what I wanted. But I’m done running, and with the sight of my shoes he knew it too. He gave me my freedom, and I’m returning the gift. I’m not going anywhere. Not anymore. At least not without him.
I gave him my hand. No matter the question, my answer is yes. For better or for worse. For richer or for poorer. In sickness and in health. For now and for all the days of our lives, my answer is yes.