NOTE: Due to work constraints and for fear of a super long Part 2, I decided to add a Part 3 before the Epilogue. Part 3 should be out in a couple of days at the latest, and the Epilogue not long after that.
OST PART II: INGRID MICHAELSON & A GREAT BIG WORLD “Over You”
I sat at a table in the pojamangcha near our parents’ house, waiting for my sister. I wondered almost as soon as she had called me asking to meet up for a drink as soon as I landed back in Seoul what the reason was. And why here.
She could have asked to meet me anywhere, so why did it have to be the place I had tried to avoid for the last couple of months?
I rubbed my hands together as the ahjumma dropped off a bottle of soju and a small dish of dried fish and some peppers. I had just taken a bite of a green pepper and was just about to pick up the bottle when I saw my sister enter the tent, her eyes looking around. She gave me a small smile as our eyes met and I waved, motioning for her to come.
She sat down across from me, signaling the ahjumma for a glass. She ordered two bowls of udon without asking and when it was delivered, grabbed the soju and poured me a drink before doing the same for herself. We touched our glasses together and downed our shots, our faces grimacing.
She cocked her head and regarded me once she put her glass down, her expression indiscernable. “You look good,” she remarked. “When did you get back?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Just a few hours ago,” I answered. “I would have called you sooner than today, but I’ve been working non stop.”
She nodded. “That’s what No Eul said.”
All conversation stopped when our food came, and for a while I distracted myself with eating. For her part, Unnie didn’t seem to be in a rush to speak, either, taking only bites of her food, while trying to be subtle about sneaking glances my way.
“Unnie.” “Deon Sun-ah.”
We spoke simultaneously and I gave her smile. “You go first,” I said and she shook her head.
“No, you,” she insisted.
“I was just going to ask you why you asked me to meet up especially since we were all coming home for Christmas anyway.”
“Am I not allowed to ask to see my sister now?” She sounded so defensive, much like the Sung Bora I grew up with and it made me chuckle wistfully. “What?”
“Nothing,” I answered. “It’s just… it’s just nice to know that no matter what else changes you stay the same. No matter what.”
“Everyone changes, Deok Sun-ah. Some not so obviously, but they do,” she replied, studying her glass closely. “I wanted to tell you something.”
My older sister looked nervous, apprehensive. I could practically feel the tension coming off her in waves and I narrowed my brows in concern. Was something wrong with our parents? No Eul? Was something wrong with her?
Before I could ask her to elaborate I saw her take a deep breath, as if working up the courage to say whatever it was that she wanted to say.
“I’m dating Sun Woo.”
Her admission made me widen my eyes, not from surprise but the fact that it had taken her this long to tell me something I already had an inkling about.
Her expression shocked, she looked at me before speaking again. “Did you just hear me?” She asked. “I just told you I was dating Sun Woo.”
“I heard you,” I said, carefully wrapping some noodles with my chopsticks and taking a bite. “You said you were dating Sun Woo.”
I grinned at her. “I know who Sun Woo is, Unnie. And yes he’s my friend.”
“Are you…” she began and I could hear the hesitation in her voice. “I mean… you’re okay with it?”
“Are you happy?” I asked her, not bothering to answer her question first. I looked into her eyes and marveled that for the first time in my life, my sister didn’t look as confident as she had always been. As if she really cared about what I would think.
She looked away, pushed the noodles around her bowl. “Yes,” she answered. “I am very happy.”
“Then I’m happy too,” I said. “As long as you’re happy then I’m okay with it.”
I nodded. “Unnie… you didn’t need my blessing,” I said. “You never needed it before.”
“No, but it means a lot to me to have it anyway. My family means a lot to me.”
“Says the girl who refused to stop protesting even after Omma begged her.”
The reminder made her smile before her expression sobered. “I didn’t care what other people thought,” she said. “I still don’t. But you’re my sister and he’s your friend. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”
“Why?” I asked. “Will you stop dating him if I was?”
“No,” she said firmly, taking another shot and wiping her mouth with a napkin. “I’ll just have to do everything I can to win your approval.”
What she said, how she said it, made me look at my sister in admiration. How wonderful it must be to know yourself that well, to have that conviction about everything.
“Unnie,” I said, sticking my thumbs up. “It’s okay. You didn’t ask me for permission the first time you two dated, so I don’t need to be giving it to you now.”
“Yah… how did you know about the first time?”
I gave her a sly look. “We live in a small neighborhood and our brother is nosy,” I said smartly. “You guys weren’t exactly being inconspicuous.”
She shook her head, then laughed. “I can’t believe you knew and didn’t tell me.”
“I figured if and when you want me to know you’ll tell me yourself. And then you guys seemed to break up, so I didn’t think to bring it up in case you beat me.” I motioned for the ahjumma to bring another bottle. “I’m really amazed at Sun Woo though… I can’t believe he got you back after all this time.”
The ahjumma came with the bottle and my sister waited until she was gone until she cleared her throat and spoke. “He didn’t try to get me back,” she said, surprising me for the second time. “I asked him for another chance.”
“No way,” I said, taking a drink. “My sister sticks with the decisions she makes. She doesn’t question her choices. She always knows what she wants.”
“Is that how you see me?”
I nodded. “I can’t imagine you asking anyone for another chance. Just like with your other old boyfriends… they’re the ones always begging for you to come back. And once you make up your mind that it’s over,” I made a gesture like a sword to my neck, “it’s over.”
She gave me a faint smile, her fingers drawing circles over the rim of her glass. “That’s true,” she said softly. “But when you find the person you love, you make an exception, no? Sun Woo was worth putting my pride down for, and it seemed a small loss to what I might gain.”
“Unnie,” I teased. “You’re scaring me right now. Who are you and what have you done with my sister?”
She laughed and threw a piece of fish at me. “What about you?” She asked. “I heard from Sun Woo that you were constantly on dates.”
I didn’t respond.
That may have been the case the last time we all saw each other, but not anymore. I haven’t been on a date since I last came home.
“Unnie,” I started. “How did you know that you liked Sun Woo?” When she merely raised her eyebrows, I clarified myself. “How did you know he was the one you wanted?”
“Well… I thought about him a lot,” she answered thoughtfully, “and the idea that he would no longer be in my life… it hurt me.” She put a hand on her chest. “Right here. I felt it. Like someone was choking me. I couldn’t stand it.”
I nodded, knowing exactly how she felt, automatically thinking of Jung Hwan. I tried to keep my expression neutral as I asked my next question. “But how did you know that what you felt was more than friendship?”
“You know,” she said. “Let me ask you a question… think of someone you are friends with.” I thought of Taek, Sun Woo and Dong Ryong. “Do you think of touching them or kissing them?”
“Eww, Unnie, no.” I made a face and she smiled. “They’re friends.”
“Exactly.” She poured me another glass of soju, was silent for a few beats. Then she said a name I didn’t expect. “Is it Taek?”
“Is what Taek?”
She tsked. “Are you not paying attention? Is Taek the friend you might like as more than a friend?”
“What makes you think it’s Taek?” Did I tell her anything before? Why would she think it’s Taek?
“I found your diary and read some pages,” she said. I flushed. Did she read the part about Sun Woo too?
“No, Unnie… I hadn’t liked Taek since we were really young. And I don’t even think that was anything serious. More like a crush.”
“Ah… well, I stopped after a few pages,” she said, as if explaining. “You were complaining a lot about me.” She looked at me directly before pursing her lips. “So… it’s Jung Hwan then.”
I blinked at her, wondered if my sister knew me better than I gave her credit for. “Jung Hwan?”
“The color on your cheeks tells me I’m right,” she teased.
“It could just be the soju,” I mumbled, putting my hands to my cheeks.
“We hadn’t drank that much,” she argued. “Have you told him?”
“No,” I said softly. “I didn’t think I still did like him.”
For years I tried to forget him, cringed whenever I thought about the lengths I went to to get closer to him. Until a few months ago I almost convinced myself that I felt nothing. And then he confessed and I was back to square one.
“I don’t think he likes me anymore,” I said. “Maybe he did. But he doesn’t anymore.”
“What do you mean ‘so’?”
“I mean that doesn’t really matter if you still like him.”
“Why would I go around declaring my feelings if I don’t know how he feels about me?”
“You think I knew how Sun Woo felt about me when I asked him for another chance?” I could only shrug my shoulders. “Just like you dont like someone because they like you, you don’t tell someone you love them because you want them to like you back. You like who you like. You tell them because they should know.” I was silent, unsure of what to say. Unsure even of what I feel. As if sensing the tumult in my mind, Unnie reached across the table and took my hand. “Jung Hwan is a good guy. I mean I know you’re his friend and you know that, but he really is one of the good ones.”
“What do you mean?”
“Some bully in high school tried to take the necklace that Sun Woo’s Appa gave him. The last gift from his father,” she said. “And Jung Hwan punched him.” I took in what she was saying silently, unable to remember hearing this story before. “And you know Jung Bong Oppa was the one who wanted to be the fighter pilot. He told me himself that was his dream, but because no one really knew if he was going to live long enough to do it, and even if he did if he would ever get the chance to, Jung Hwan decided on his own to do it for both of them. Yes, he’s a bit grumpy, but he has a good heart.”
“How come…” I said, my mouth suddenly dry, “How come I have never heard of this?”
“I don’t know,” Unnie replied. “But you know him better than I do.”
All at once I remembered Jung Hwan waiting for me as I came out of the study room with an umbrella. The way he would stand behind me in the bus. How quickly he came when I asked him to meet me and my friends at McDonald’s.
All of the things that he did. Without question or expectation. Without asking for anything back.
“So… what are you going to do?” My sister’s question took me aback and I didn’t know how to respond. As if picking up on this, she continued without waiting for a response. “You know what I always admired about you?”
I shook my head no.
“You always took everything head on without hesitation or shame. You always went with how you feel and showed it… whether it was anger or affection. You always wore your heart on your sleeve,” she said quietly. “It made people comfortable with you.”
“That’s nothing,” I dismissed. “That was because I was young and didn’t know better.”
“No,” she said. “There’s courage in that, as well. It takes a lot of guts to put yourself out there, regardless of the consequences.”
“What are you saying, Unnie?”
She flashed me another one of her knowing smiles. “Don’t you think you owe it to yourself to discover whether what you feel for Jung Hwan is just a passing thing or something that could last a long time? Forever, even. I’m not saying tell him tonight or even tomorrow,” she said. “But give yourself another chance to think it through. Give yourself time to figure out how you feel, and as soon as you do, tell him.”
“I can’t exactly do that easily when he’s living in Sacheon,” I grumbled. “Who knows when I’ll see him again?”
“The last time I checked Sacheon was still part of Korea,” she said, laughing.
“What do you mean?”
“Deok Sun-ah…” she said, regarding me with more affection than I can ever recall seeing before, “It’s nice to see you haven’t changed much, either.” She chuckled for a few minutes before stopping, shaking her head at me. “You mean to tell me you can fly all over the world, but you can’t figure out a way to get to Gyeongsangdo?”
Sacheon, South Korea
I slipped off my jacket before lying down on the ground next to Dong Ryong, his breathing ragged and heavy. He threw the soccer ball in the air and caught it as I kept my eyes on the clear blue sky, another winter almost finished in Sacheon.
“Yah…” I said, nudging his shoulder. “What’s up with the unexpected visit?”
He turned and looked at me, a small smile on his face. “What else was I supposed to do after you didn’t come back for Christmas and New Year’s, either?” He asked. “Everyone knows Valentine’s Day is not complete without a meal out.You should be grateful, you bastard… I’m missing out on a whole lot of tips tonight.”
I chuckled in response. “You didn’t have to come down.”
He regarded me with annoyance. “And leave you here at the base by yourself doing God knows what while others are all loved up?”
“Not everyone is all loved up.”
“Yeah,” he said, sarcastic. “Some of them are married.”
His own remark made Dong Ryong laugh and I smiled, relaxed against the ground. Cold wind blew over my face and I closed my eyes, the smell of winter in my nostrils, the scent of Sacheon still unfamiliar to me after all these years.
How I wished I could be back in Ssangmundong, bringing home the chestnuts that my Omma loved, seeing the snow fall with Hyung, watching endless amounts of television with Appa.
I missed my family, even though it’s only been four months. It still pains me when I remember the look on Omma’s face when she caught me sneaking out of the house the morning I left, and then again her reaction when she asked when I would be back and I could not respond. Something in my chest squeezed and I had to swallow.
I’ll make it up to her… I swear I will. Maybe when it doesn’t hurt so much to think about what had happened with Deok Sun anymore. Maybe when I stop thinking that had I done things a bit differently, things would not be as they are.
The guilt and regret came back to me now, as if they had always been there, waiting to catch me off guard. It seems that even with myself I could only hide things for so long. I lifted my arm and placed it over my eyes, its weight reassuring, the motion itself enough to calm my tumultuous thoughts.
“Yah…” I heard Dong Ryong say, his voice even. “Are we ever going to talk about what you said that night?”
I feigned ignorance. “What night?”
“Oh,” he said. “Is that the game we’re playing now?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I really thought that you were just kidding,” he continued, ignoring what I said, ” until I got home and thought about it some more. And I’ve come to the conclusion that it couldn’t have been a joke.”
“Of course it was.”
“Jokes don’t usually involve memories that don’t include the rest of the people you’re telling the joke to,” he said. “Or else how will we get the punchline?” I didn’t respond. “And jokes are not usually made when there’s a ring on the table.”
The memory of that night, pushed aside once I finally cried myself out, reared its ugly head.
“This is me, Dong Ryong” he said. “I’m one of your oldest friends. And,” he said laughingly, almost wistfully, “I’m not as dumb as I look. They didn’t call me professor in high school for nothing.”
Part of me wanted to spill everything, to empty my chest of everything I’d been feeling. I wanted to tell him how long I had liked Deok Sun, how much I really thought that if I waited long enough, that I would be rewarded with her love. I wanted to laugh with him about having to pretend that I needed to tie my shoelaces over and over again just so I could be at the gate when she left for school, to tell him how difficult it had been to balance how I felt for her with how much I cared for Taek and didn’t want to hurt him. I wanted to share all of these things.
But I didn’t.
It was all over now. I had already said goodbye to that chapter in my life. What was the use to giving him privy to those things when it didn’t matter to the one who did matter?
“Let it go.” My voice sounded gravelly, raspy.
“No.” I turned my head towards him to see him regarding me with a mixture of affection and disappointment. “I’m your friend and you can talk to me. You need to talk to someone rather than keeping yourself isolated from all of us. Sun Woo said you wouldn’t even answer his calls. If he didn’t need to be at the hospital tonight he would have been here with me. You know that.”
“He would have been with Bora Noona,” I retorted, forcing my voice to sound light. “Are they actually back together now?”
“I didn’t even know they were together in the first place,” Dong Ryong said. “Just another secret you people hid from me. I swear… with the amount of secrets around, one would wonder if we were all friends to begin with.”
“My brother is dating Deok Sun’s friend,” I said, wanting to make him feel better. “No one but me knows yet.”
“That’s great for Jung Bong Hyung, but don’t change the topic.” His answer made me chuckle out loud, amazed that he always had the ability to look through all of us. “Is it about Taek?”
“Is what about Taek?”
He huffed in irritation. “What did I just tell you? I’m not dense. Let me put it in a way that you can’t talk out of: is it because of Taek that you didn’t pursue Deok Sun years ago?”
I said nothing.
Dong Ryong turned his whole body towards me and rested his head on an upturned palm. “You know… it’s honorable that you respected the guy code by not making moves on a woman Taek already said he liked, but…”
“But it doesn’t really matter who said what first, or who liked who first. Deok Sun is not a piece of land that someone can lay claim to. She gets to decide who she wants to be with.”
“Deok Sun likes whoever she thinks likes her. And I… missed my chance.”
“Don’t undermine our Deok Sunnie,” he reprimanded. “Maybe in high school she was a bit confused, but high school was a long time ago. None of that counts anyway… what matters is now.”
“Taek still likes her,” I said.
“Again, that means nothing if she doesn’t like him back. Listen,” he said. “I love Taek as much as you do, but his feelings for her are not more important than yours. What you want, what you think, how you feel… those things matter too.”
I took in his words silently, unsure about how to respond. It seemed a moot point now anyway… it was all done and over with. There was no going back. I knew that as soon as I made the decision to confess. And perhaps that had been the reason why I did. I didn’t want to go back.
Loving her for all those years without her knowing had been enough. And I was unwilling to go any longer.
“What if Deok Sun likes you?” His question took me off guard.
“She can’t like me.” I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind. It wasn’t even something I considered. I saw the way she looked for Taek that night at the cafe, after all. If she felt anything at all for me, my six years of silence had guaranteed that she no longer felt the same way.
“How would you know?” He asked. “You didn’t even give her a chance to process what you said before you took it back. That’s hardly fair. How do you expect her to make the right decision without giving her all that she needs to know?”
That’s the thing, I wanted to say, why did it matter? I liked her all these years without expecting anything back, without knowing if she felt the same way. I want her to do the same. To like someone without using their feelings as a basis. Because isn’t love like that? Is it not just taking a chance on a person knowing that you can fail?
Deok Sun was always smarter than she gave herself credit for. Too often she didn’t trust herself and her ability to go after what she wanted, to be whoever she wanted, afraid that she would fail.
But still… I wanted her to take that chance on me.
“I’ve made my decision,” I said, sounding unconvincing even to my ears. “It’s better this way.”
“I wasn’t asking you to do anything, per se. I just… i guess, I just wanted to think about this whole situation from a different perspective. You have what you think you know, which is all well and good, but that’s only your perception. You won’t ever know the whole picture unless you consider the other person in the equation,” he said gently. “In any case, Taek is our friend. So is Deok Sun. Not just yours, but all of ours. He’s not just your responsibility to protect. And we want her to be happy, too.” Dong Ryong took a deep breath. “But you are also our friend. We don’t want to lose you over this.”
“You didn’t lose anyone,” I said carefully.
“Oh yeah?” Dong Ryong answered. “Is that why I had to ride a bus for almost six hours just to see your face?” He smirked. “Don’t avoid us and come home once in a while, huh?”
“Yeah,” I replied, finally relenting.
“Good.” Dong Ryong sat up, dusting his lap and putting the ball to the side before standing up. He put his hand out and I took it gratefully. Once we were both standing he placed an arm around me.
Having him here brought a piece of home to me, and I was reminded again of how lucky I am to have had friends since childhood. It also reminded me why when faced with the choice of pursuing the woman I love and protecting that friendship, I chose the latter.
I pushed the thoughts away and we began to walk in silence. I relished it: I was thankful that he did not speak of Deok Sun again. I thought of her enough on my own without anyone’s encouragement. Already I was exhausted just from this conversation.
Feelings and emotions definitely weren’t my strong suit.
“Yah… is there anywhere we can get a drink around here?” Dong Ryong asked.
I thought about it, then against it. It was a bad idea. Going to work with a hangover may be an unpleasant but doable option for most, but not for someone who has to fly a plane. “I can’t drink tonight.” I gave him an apologetic look. “I’m working tomorrow.”
Dong Ryong grinned fully. “It wasn’t for you, dummy, but me,” he said. He frowned before glowering at me. “Has anyone ever told you that getting you to talk about feelings is worse than having hemoirrhoids?”
I looked at him incedulously and then I began to laugh.