OST PART III: SAM MANGUBAT & BILLY PADILLA “When We Were Young”
Part III: Hello
Incheon international Airport
“Any plans tonight?” Ji Hye, a flight attendant I frequently flew with, asked as we were walking out of customs into the arrival gate.
I loosened the bow around my neck and secured my hold on my luggage. After just finishing a non stop flight from London to Seoul just a day after flying to London (for the same amount of hours,) I was dead on my feet. Even now I shifted my toes in my heels, eager to take my stockings off and get into my pajamas. Before 4 p.m.
I realized that Ji Hye was still waiting for an answer and I shook my head. “No… I finally have a day off tomorrow so I am going to rest.”
“On White Day?”
Was it already White Day? I tried to remember what day it was (the days and nights are blending in together with my hectic schedule,) and realized that it must be. I lifted my shoulders in a shrug.
“I don’t have a boyfriend so why would I have any plans today?”
Ji Hye peered at me curiously as we walked through the door that would lead to the airport’s exit. “It’s the first time you don’t have a boyfriend or someone close to being a boyfriend since you started working.”
Actually, I wanted to correct her, I haven’t had a boyfriend in about five months.
For the first time in my life I was doing two things. One: l was taking my sister’s advice and giving myself time. Two: I was trying to figure out what I wanted, or more specifically, who I wanted, rather than just saying yes to the first seemingly acceptable guy who asks.
Apparently, upon closer inspection, I was picky as hell. Or maybe it was because there was already a person against whom I am comparing every single guy I meet.
The last few months I have been going home at certain important times, like Christmas and New Year’s, fully aware that they were also military holidays, therefore increasing the chances that Jung Hwan might be coming home too. No such luck. So then I started coming home at random times (every opportunity I could, actually, if I was being totally honest,) thinking that if I just did it often enough, surely I would catch him when he’s not expecting it and he would be forced to deal with me.
Alas, that also had not worked. I was a fool to believe that my persistence could trump Jung Hwan’s stubbornness. A small part of me now feared that his quasi-confession had not been the point of what he said that night, but the message behind it, which sounded a hell of a lot like goodbye.
The thought brought on a nervous fluttering in my belly. And not the good kind, either. I touched the chain hanging from my neck through my blouse, my fingers tracing its length until they reached the heavy ring resting across my chest. Close to where my heart is. Close to where he is.
Four months later and I am more convinced than ever that I never did get over Jung Hwan. And that at this rate I might never be.
As a teen I was always given to daydreaming, and it seems I had not lost that whim. Whenever I am drifting to sleep or starting to wake, whenever I am sitting in the plane on another flight away from home, my thoughts always find their way to him.
I imagine waiting to catch him at the bus stop, much like I once did, except this time I take his hand. I imagine that he was the one listening to music, and I was the one who grabbed the earphone from his ear, getting dangerously close, and then putting it in my ear. I imagined us trapped against the alley walls like we were the night of the retreat, except in my daydream we would be looking in each other’s eyes, and he would lean down and…
Ji Hye cleared her throat and I looked at her, my face flushing. If either of my hands had been free, I might have fanned myself. What the hell was wrong with me? I wasn’t sixteen years old anymore. And even then I had more sense than this.
“Deok Sun-ah,” she said, searching the crowd in front of us. “I’ll see you…” Her voice trailed off as her eyes locked on somebody, and I followed her gaze.
There, in the middle of the crowd, right in the center, was a face I knew. A face that I have seen more often in the last months than I have in the last few years. My friend.
“Is that Choi…”
“Taek?” I finished for her before nodding, a smile curving on my lips. “Yep, that’s him.”
Affection coursed through me as I beheld my old friend’s handsome face, as innocent now as the day we first met. The feeling of familiarity brought on a surge of warmth and unmistakable joy from seeing someone who reminded me of home. And of him, the one I no longer saw.
Taek waved at me and whatever pleasure I had been feeling dissipated and was replaced by something else. Something I didn’t want to name.
Taek was standing there, smiling like he always did. He had a bouquet of roses in his hands.
I shifted on my seat, looking around me in curiosity, wondering why Taek came to get me at the airport. And why we were now sitting in a fancy hotel restaurant, the silverware gleaming so brightly it made me uncomfortable.
Taek smiled at me as the server delivered some water, then handed us both menus. I tried to read what was in front of me, grateful for the fact that my profession required that I learn English. No more playing charades with my sentences these days.
“Have you decided what you wanted to order?” He asked, meeting my eyes over his menu.
“I’m not really hungry,” I said. “Maybe just a salad?”
“You’re always hungry,” he teased.
I grinned, bashful. “Yeah, but this,” I whispered, “is not really my style. If you wanted to eat out we could have just met at a cafe or something. That’s what we always did before.”
“I didn’t want to do what we always did before today,” he said quietly.
I blinked at him, waited for him to explain, but the server came and took our orders. When he made no move to resume our conversation, I pried. “How did you know what time I was coming back?”
“No Eul told me,” he answered. “I wanted to catch you before you came home.” He took a sip of his water. “I never would have been able to speak to you otherwise.”
His last sentence was delivered so softly I wondered if he meant for me to hear it at all. I kept my eyes fixed on the empty plate before me, then to the bread basket in the middle of the table. My apprehension about what this whole thing was about and why Taek was acting this way suddenly made me ravenous and I grabbed a roll, clumsily buttering it before shoving it into my mouth.
Taek watched me wordlessly, looking almost amused. When our meal came, he picked up his utensils and began to eat. The classical music playing in the restaurant, I’m sure meant to merely be a minor distraction, began to grate on me as the silence lengthened.
I had just helped myself to another forkful of salad when Taek spoke.
“Deok Sun-ah,” he said, the tone in his voice sounding strangely reminiscent of Jung Hwan’s voice the night he jokingly confessed. It was only then that I realized that Taek was about to do the same. Was he joking, too? Before I could examine this further, he carried on. “I like you.”
I discovered with a jolt that unlike how I had felt when Jung Hwan said those same words, a kind of nervous, excited fluttering, now I felt something akin to dread.
“I’m saying I like you,” he said, waiting for an answer.
I could not give him one.
There was once a time when I longed to hear those words. Not necessarily from him, but from anyone, my affections seemingly as fickle as the wind. I went with whatever option seemed to guarantee reciprocity, always afraid of taking the first step myself.
Taek was a good person. Kind and giving, almost oblivious to his good traits. Taek was my friend. He might have been a perfectly acceptable option, an even above average option for me, had I still been the girl that I used to be.
Taek was someone I loved, but not the person I was in love with.
Love? I thought, my hands clamming up. Was I in love with Jung Hwan?
“I’m sorry,” I blurted, my mind racing. I’m in love with Jung Hwan? No. I blinked and saw Jung Hwan’s face that night, the sadness in his eyes almost palpable, seeping through my veins. It knocked the wind out of me and I felt my face pale. “I’m sorry.”
I could only utter those words as I burst into tears, perhaps only realizing just now how much I needed to hear those words again from someone else, what I would give to hear those words again from him. I tried to stop crying, except I had a feeling I was now beginning to understand why Jung Hwan didn’t trust me with his heart.
I covered my face with my napkin… there was no easy way to do this. And Taek… was someone who always needed things spelled out for him. I cannot have him misunderstand. “I… don’t want to hurt you,” I said haltingly, my voice sounding heavy. “But I don’t want to lie to you either, so I’ll just tell it like it is,” I said, unable to look at him. “You’re my friend and I care a lot about you, but I don’t feel the same way.” I swallowed as tears started falling again. “Don’t hate me. Please don’t hate me.”
Taek looked at me in confusion, as if unsure what to say. I didn’t want to see him hurt, would do anything to prevent that from happening, but I can’t help not feeling for him what he feels for me.
“Deok Sun-ah,” he said gently. “I could never hate you.” He took a deep breath. “But just because you don’t feel the same way about me now doesn’t mean you never will. If you give me a chance, maybe you’ll see me as more than a friend. If you give me a chance, we could be happy.”
I was already shaking my head before he even finished speaking. “No,” I said. “There would be no going back for us. There’d be no undoing it.” Even as I spoke, I knew that I meant something else, too. This was not just about our friendship. This was about something bigger than this… one that would have consequences. One that could change the direction of my life. I knew, deep in my heart that saying yes to Taek, even for the time being, even if it was just to protect him, would mean losing Jung Hwan forever.
Just the thought alone was enough to steal the air from my body.
Taek continued watching me, his gaze veiled. And I knew. I knew that my honesty had caused him pain, and there was nothing I could do about it. I was vaguely aware that things may never be the same between us again. He looked down at his plate, appearing to be lost in his own thoughts.
“Taek-ah,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
He looked up at me, a small sad smile on his face. “I know.”
I looked at the number again and reconsidered, remembering how upset my brother was the last time he called me and I didn’t respond. This could very well be him. With a sigh and a shake of my head, I picked up the phone in my room and began to dial.
I could never resist my brother, and he knew it, too.
The voice that answered was definitively not Hyung’s, though, but someone else.
“Jung Hwan-ah,” I heard Omma say, her voice filled with affection.
“Omma,” I said, glancing at my watch. “Is everything okay?”
She didn’t usually call me at this time, and certainly not on a Friday, when her afternoons to evenings were spent gossiping with the neighborhood ahjummas then drinking the night away.
She and Appa have been doing the same thing for years. At least, ever since all of us went to university.
“Oh yeah,” she said breezily. “I just wanted to hear your voice. Are you eating enough?”
I bit back a laugh. Omma never wanted to know anything except if I was eating. Even now she still hasn’t forgotten what it had been like when we were poor and had to scrap all our money just for a decent meal.
I softened. “Yeah, Omma. I’m getting plenty to eat.”
“And rest, too?” She asked. “They’re not working you too hard, are they?”
“Are you kidding?” I asked. “And mess with Ra Mi Ran?”
I heard her laugh, low and rich, and found myself smiling as well. I adored my mother. I always have since I was a kid. She was an amazing woman. An amazing person.
“Jung Hwan-ah,” she said, the laughter disappearing from her voice. “Are you coming home soon?”
I shook my head. I should have expected this question. She never fails to ask the same thing every time we speak. And every single time, I couldn’t give her an answer.
“I don’t know, Omma,” I replied. “Things are crazy around here right now and…”
“Taek’s birthday is in a few days,” she interrupted. “You guys always celebrate his birthday together.” I stopped talking. She wasn’t telling me something I didn’t already know. “I think you should come home. Things haven’t been the same around here, even with your friends.”
What? I thought, trying to remember if Sun Woo had mentioned anything the last time we spoke. With his residency schedule as hectic as it was, the closest we had gotten to getting together is talking on the phone. And Dong Ryong… didn’t mention anything either.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Oh… you know, just this and that,” Omma replied, sounding as vague as one person could possibly be. “Sun Woo’s Omma said that Taek rejected Deok Sun so they haven’t been talking all that much. Deok Sun’s Omma said that things were… dicey.”
“WHAT?” My voice came out louder than I had intended and I stood up, unable to believe her words. Taek rejected Deok Sun? Taek… rejected Deok Sun?
“Yes… can you believe that?” Omma continued, oblivious to my surprise. “And Deok Sun, that poor girl,” she tsked, “had been sooooo miserable that every time she has a day off she comes home. And you know what she does?”
“No,” I said, reminded that I have not had a conversation with Deok Sun since my botched confession.
“She comes over here and hangs out with your Appa,” Omma said, clucking her tongue. “As if he needed more encouragement.”
I was still stuck on Taek rejecting Deok Sun. Why the hell would he do that?
“And Taek,” my mother said, her voice full of censure, “is already dating someone else! Who would have thought that a nice boy like Taek would treat her so badly? And on White Day nonetheless.”
I found myself running my fingers through my hair, concern and anger washing over me.
How dare he? How dare he treat Deok Sun like that after I kept my mouth shut? Did he not even realize how much it took out of me to let her go? He was supposed to treat her well. He was supposed to make her happy.
I found myself pulling a shirt out of my closet and putting it over my white T-shirt. I grabbed my keys from the side table and was about to walk out the door when I realized I was still holding on to the phone. “Omma, I have to go,” I said, my voice distracted. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Oh?” She asked. “Okay, then. I guess I’ll talk to you so…”
Before I knew it, Taek had disappeared around the gate that would lead to his and Sun Woo’s house, and I was left standing on my own. I turned around, not quite getting what he had been talking about, until I lifted my gaze and a pair of brown eyes caught mine. I felt the tears form behind my lids and I closed them, wondering if this was just a dream. If I had dreamt him back into my life. If he really wasn’t standing in front of me. I grabbed hold of the heavy ring that anchored my necklace, the weight bringing me back to the present, and to what was real.
Afraid to find out that I was once again only daydreaming, I opened my eyes slowly, only to see Jung Hwan walking towards me, his hair standing on all ends, as if all he’s been running his fingers through it many times. And then something that made me even more confused… this supposedly real version of Jung Hwan was wearing a pink shirt, one that looked remarkably like the shirt I had given him almost six years ago. Except it was wrinkled. As if he wore it all the time. As if it was the first thing he had grabbed.
But how is he here? I thought. He was in Sacheon.
Unless Dong Ryong was right. If I hadn’t been in such shock I might have laughed. Maybe he really was a genius.
Almost afraid to break the moment, I stayed silent, just letting myself watch Jung Hwan as he came slowly towards me, his normally even expression fraught with concern. His eyebrows narrowed, his pretty eyes zeroed in on my face once he was almost close enough for me to touch. I had to put my hands in my pockets just to keep them from reaching for him, reducing me back to my teenage years when I thought up of every excuse to touch him, and before he could even utter one word. I studied his face once he was standing over me, his eyes searching mine. A perfectly sized nose sat in between high cheekbones, his strong jaw tense. His upper teeth latched onto a generous lower lip, as if he was unsure of what to say.
“Deok Sun-ah.” My name fell out of his lips slowly, almost reverently. Was this always how he said my name? How could I not have known?
“Mmm?” I answered, trying to muster up a smile.
“Are you okay?” he asked hesitantly, his eyes never leaving mine. “I’m sorry I haven’t been around much. I didn’t even come for your birthday this year, but…” He cleared his throat. “You are, right?”
“I’m what?” I could barely ask. All I wanted to do was fling myself into his arms and ask him to speak later.
“Okay?” It seemed as if the answer really mattered and I nodded.
“Yeah, Jung Hwan-ah,” I said. “I’m good.”
He nodded too, almost sheepishly, as if just now realizing that after all the time he had stayed away, he came back for some reason that apparently didn’t pass muster to himself, and looking less put together than the Jung Hwan I always knew.
“Okay,” he said quietly and walked towards the gate that housed both of our parents’ homes. “Are you coming in?”
It was so reminiscent of how Jung Hwan used to always be… always retreating, always walking away. Almost instantly, the sight of his back made me angrier than I have been all year. It was almost as if all my tears and all the waiting and all the frustration melded together and all I could think about was hell, no. He is NOT going to do this again.
“Wait,” I called out. “Was that it?”
I crossed my arms over my chest defensively and stood in place until he turned around. As if just now realizing that I must still be talking to him, he turned back around and looked at me, a question in his eyes.
“Was that what?” he asked. He was back to sounding like the Jung Hwan that I always knew and I gasped, incredulous.
“You…” I started, trying to lower my voice, aware that all of our families and friends lived on this one block. “You stay away for a whole year, and that’s all you have to say? One year without me, and that’s really all you’ve got. Wow, Jung Hwan-ah. I didn’t expect much and maybe I still expected too much.”
I didn’t really mean what I was saying. I knew this even as the words flew out of my lips, just like they always used to do whenever I argued with my older sister. It’s almost as if once a switch has been turned on, it would take almost an act of God to shut me up before I start saying things I knew I would regret.
He remained stone faced, almost expressionless, the way he had always been, and it did nothing but make me even more upset. I would have thought him completely unaffected and indifferent, had I not seen the clenching and unclenching of his jaw, an angry tic starting on one of his cheekbones.
“Where did you get that shirt?” I asked, and he didn’t respond. Not that his silence surprised me much. Since it didn’t seem as he would actually respond, I decided to just keep asking questions. Surely he would feel compelled to answer at least one. “Did you even miss me? Or any of us?”
Again, no response.
I took a deep breath and he remained impassive, his eyes firmly on me. Had I been sixteen years old I might have tried to figure out the expression behind them, but frankly, I was tired of this shit. I wanted to just get everything out in the open, so that if what I need to do was move on, then that’s what I’ll be able to do, knowing I’ve done my best.
“What have you been doing in Sacheon?” I asked. By this point, I was’t even expecting him to respond at all anymore. “Did you date? Were you happy?” I began to pace in front of him, filled with a nervous energy I couldn’t quite control. I stopped, addressed him. “Were you really joking when you told me you liked me?”
I was about to release a gasp of frustration when he finally answered. “Does it even matter now?”
I glowered at him. “It does to me.”
“Why?” he asked. “It never did before.”
“Oh no,” I retorted, shaking my head. “You don’t get to throw that back at me. You don’t get to play the role of someone that’s been wronged. You didn’t give me a chance to respond. You can’t just drop a bombshell like that and then be upset that I didn’t quite know the right thing to say. And then… You didn’t even give me a chance to process my thoughts before you were like… oh no, I was just kidding. You can’t go around confessing and then taking it back. It was cruel, and mean, and you know what? It was not funny. And you know what’s even more unfunny? The fact that you left before I could even talk to you. Like we weren’t friends at all.”
He blinked at me, a sort of admiration in his gaze? My anger must be making me delusional. Bolstered by the fact that he was finally standing in front of me, I just kept on speaking.
“For your information,” I said, “I liked you too! In high school, I liked you so much I made myself sick. You think I just happened to be in the same empty bus with you at like half past five in the morning? Jung Hwan-ah… you’re smart. Why the hell would anyone be with anyone on a bus before the sun is even out? In case you need it spelled out, I woke up early to be with you. And you know what? I WANTED you to come to that concert. I wanted it so badly I dreamt that you actually said you’d go. You know how happy it made me to see you smile? It was sickening how happy what one of your smiles did to me. I would have done just about anything to keep you smiling and laughing. So no… you don’t get to play the role of the boy with the unrequited love, okay?!? Your love was requited. It was reciprocated.” I took a deep breath. “Do you still have nothing to say?” I waited for him to have any kind of response, and resisted the urge to strangle him when he did not. “You are so frustrating!”
He was looking at me like what I had just told him shocked him, as if he really didn’t realize that I felt the same way. Seeing that as my chance to close the gap between us, maybe take him by surprise even, I took a step towards him and he took a step back, his eyes wary, as if he was afraid I was lying, or worse yet, that I couldn’t possibly mean it.
“You’re…joking, right?” He asked, his eyes shuttered now, as if he was blocking them back away from me. “This is a joke. Your pride was hurt when I joked about it a year ago. This is my payback, right?”
She had to be kidding. It cant possibly be the truth.
In high school she liked Sun Woo, and then she liked Taek. It was never me. It still wasn’t.
Wasn’t it just a year ago that she eagerly anticipated Taek’s arrival? Was it not just a little while ago that she was heartbroken from his rejection?
“You’re… joking, right?”I asked, almost ashamed of how vulnerable I sounded. I tried to keep my expression flat as I looked at her. “This is a joke. Your pride was hurt when I joked about it a year ago. This is my payback, right?”
She shook her head, and her hair, loose behind her, flew every which way. “No,” she said. “How can this be payback when my pride wasn’t hurt? This,” she said, bringing a hand up to the left side of her chest, “this hurt. It hurt a lot.” A whisper of a smile, a sad one, formed on her lips. “And I’m not joking. Once upon a time we were friends. You know that I only tell the truth. I… am not like you. I don’t, and I can’t joke about things like that. I don’t know how to hide how I feel. I’m not like my sister, who can compartmentalize. Right now I wish I was… or else I wouldn’t be making a fool of myself in front of you.”
I shook my head. “No,” I said, more to myself than to her. “You’re perfect just the way you are.”
“You’re not allowed to say those things to me,” she said. “You can’t say things Iike that and nothing else.” She looked away. “Anyway, arguing about this is futile. Really, as much as I would like to know, it doesn’t really make that much of a difference whether you like me or not. I have already made my choice.”
Nothing, I guess, can ever really prepare anyone for the woman they love confessing about loving someone else. Maybe it would not have been so bad had I been faultless, but this moment felt like a rehash of what happened last year, except now I don’t get to be the one to bow out of the situation, pretending that I was barely unscathed. As soon as the words come out of her mouth, they will be the truth. They will be real. They will take shape and take hold, bear a life unto themselves. Once she tells me once and for all who it is that she loves, it really will be over for me. Whether or not I liked it. Whether or not it was fair.
I didn’t know which hurt more… the idea that maybe once, she did like me like that and I didn’t realize, or the fact that even though Taek did not like her, she was still willing to take that chance on him.
“I…” she said, her voice breaking. “I choose you.”
I blinked at her, unable to believe what I was hearing. I almost found it laughable had it not been so painful, that I might get this chance, even though I was only her second choice. Even worse yet was that I might have found a way to be okay with that.
“It’s because Taek rejected you, right?” I asked and if looks could kill, I would have been slaughtered. Right here on this spot.
“Why do you keep bringing Taek’s name up?” She asked. “You’re the one who keeps talking about him. And you’re supposed to be a smart guy. No.”
“The only way you’d choose me over Taek is if he didn’t feel the same wa…”
“You still don’t get it,” Deok Sun said, resignation coming over her face. “I didn’t choose you over Taek, you idiot. I choose you over…. everyone.”
I could only stare at her as her words finally took hold, my heart latching on to what she said. Was it true? I wanted to believe it.
“It probably might have been easier if it had been Taek,” she continued, almost wistfully. “It probably would have been more comfortable. I’m a simple girl.” She stopped and licked her lips, her hand touching her neck, much like they did when I first walked up to her, as if holding on to something there for reassurance. Or for courage. “I could probably have spent my life being with Taek, knowing exactly what to expect. There would be familiarity, and friendship. I would have been content, and safe.” She shrugged her shoulders then looked at me directly. “But what can I do? I… love you.”
She released a breath, as if she didn’t just say something that changed my world completely. “I really wanted to wait it out, you know. To make us even. I wanted to be able to say that I held it in just as long as you did, so that maybe, you would take me seriously. I would ask you how you feel about me, except I realized that it didn’t even really matter. I could go on loving you on my own even if you don’t love me back. But I’ll continue hoping, because I think you’re worth that chance. And if you never do, then maybe, I’ll get over it eventually. Just like you did.” She gave me another sad smile. “You know what the difference is, though?”
“What?” I almost had to force the word out, the idea of her getting over me just as I was finding out that she loved me in the first place bringing on an ache in my chest.
“You’ll get to live your life knowing that I did love you. That I do love you. I don’t even get to have that.” She brushed a careless hand over her cheek and I realized that she was crying. “When you look back on this, Jung Hwan-ah, remember this. You’re the one who didn’t believe in me. You’re the one who didn’t give me a chance.”
Maybe it was the sight of her tears, or maybe it was the resignation in her voice… but something finally broke through. It felt as if my eyes had finally been opened, and the first thing I saw was Deok Sun, her heart laid out in the open, without pride or shame.
I realized two things, all in one moment. The first was that the woman I loved was much more courageous than I was, that she always had been. And the second was that this was the moment. The one that would seal my fate, though I could argue that it had been decided the moment I fell in love with her.
“So,” she said softly, “I’m going to ask you again. And this time I’ll take your answer as the truth. Do you love me?”
“So,” I said, feeling raw and spent, exhausted now, my heart in my throat. “I’m going to ask you again. And this time I’ll take your answer as the truth. Do you love me?”
I felt vulnerable standing in front of him, with nowhere to hide. I’ve said everything I wanted to say. Everything I needed to say. The rest is up to him, now.
I looked at his handsome face and could almost see the wheels turning, that brilliant mind of his weighing his choices, considering the possibilities. My careful Jung Hwan. My logical, sensible, cool-headed friend. The man my heart beats for. It seemed only fitting that it would be him that I would love, the perfect opposite to my impulse and carelessness. No matter what happens now, there will never be another like him. Not for me. Not ever.
“Deok Sun-ah,” he said, his voice almost a whisper.
“Hmm?” He appeared as if he was being careful what to say next. His silence made me impatient. “I swear to God, Kim Jung Hwan. If you’re just working up the courage to tell me another lie, I’m going to ex…”
“I’ve always loved you.” He said the words quickly, as if he couldn’t get them out fast enough. “I still love you. I never stopped.”
Finally, I thought. Finally. And it only took us six years to get here. Joy bloomed in my chest, making me almost giddy, and he… looked as if he couldn’t believe what he was saying himself. I almost laughed. His mouth broke out in a wary smile, a weary smile, and I felt my heart squeeze, wondering how hard it must have been for him all these years, when I only had a year and it was torture.
I took a step towards him and he watched me wordlessly, the intensity in his eyes something I don’t think I would ever get used to.
“Did you hear me?” He asked.
“Of course I did,” I said, when I was finally in front of him. “You just said you loved me.”
I cocked my head to one side. “I already said I loved you, so I guess, that’s… good news?” I took another step towards him until we were only inches apart and looked up at his face. “Congratulations, Kim Jung Hwan. I think you’ve finally got yourself a girlfriend.”
I threw my arms around his neck and he stiffened in surprise before taking a step backwards. “What are you doing?” He asked.
“What we should have done a long time ago.” I tsked at him before puckering my lips for a kiss.
“But we’re right in the middle of the street.”
“So?” I asked. “Dong Ryong was the one who came up with the plan to get you here. I can pretty much bet that everyone’s been listening anyway. And besides,” I added, “everyone already knows I like you. But if it’ll make you feel better I can go to my house and tell my parents and then your house to tell your parents, and then everyone’s houses…”
I was still speaking when he leaned down and pressed his lips to mine, a strong arm sweeping behind my back. My arms tightened around him as he pulled away, his eyes closed. I watched as they opened and looked at me, love practically pouring from his gaze. It made my throat tighten, and I found myself tracing his jaw with a finger, amazed that this strong, kind, wonderful man loved me back.
“I love you,” he whispered and I smiled.
“Me, too.” I pulled his head down until our noses were touching. “This is my first real kiss and I want to enjoy it.”
He frowned. “Your first real kiss?” He sounded strangely disturbed by this and I wondered if I’d said too much. “So you’ve been having a lot of not real kisses?”
“What?” I asked, feigning innocence. “Have you?”
“I don’t believe that,” I said, pulling him down. “But that doesn’t matter now anyway, what matters is…”
“Who have you been kissing?”
“Really, Jung Hwan-ah?” He scowled at me and I softened, my heart filling with such love I didn’t know what to do with myself. His eyes locked on something on my neck and I held a breath as a tentative finger traced my chain, lifting it off my skin until his ring came into view.
“Yeah,” I said, watching as his eyes melted into pools of warm chocolate. “You said it was mine so I went back for it. You can’t have it back.”
“I don’t want it back,” he said. “This ring represented everything I worked hard for, you know. My past. My future.”
I ran a tender hand over his forehead, and down over his cheeks. “So what do you think?” I asked, “does your future look good on me?”
He smiled. “It looks perfect.”
“Mi Ran-ah,” Il Hwa said as she opened another bottle of soju, “do you think we should close the windows?”
The sounds of Deok Sun and Jung Hwan’s voices were still drifting into the house, as it has the whole time I realized that my son had come home.
I shook my head and picked up a seafood pancake with my chopsticks, dunking it into the gochujang before putting it in my mouth. “No,” I said, chewing. “Leave it open. It doesn’t sound like they care if anyone hears them anyway. Well, at least Deok Sun doesn’t sound like she cares all that much.” I chewed on a piece of dried squid. “I’ve always liked that girl. It took her a while to find her footing, but man… she’s got balls.”
“As if you’d say you didn’t like her with her Omma here and her being your son’s girlfriend and all.” Seon Young’s eyes were laughing as she took the shot that Il Hwa poured and downed it in one go. “Did you know Deok Sun liked Jung Hwan?”
The question was directed at Il Hwa, and she nodded. “You know my younger daughter… she doesn’t really know how to hide her feelings. If she’s happy, the world knows it, and if she’s sad… well, the world knows that, too.”
“And you,” Sun Yeong continued, “Did you know?”
“Absolutely.” The bald faced lie rolled off my tongue. My son was impossible to read most days, even more so when he’s actively trying to hide something.
“Young love, huh?” Il Hwa remarked. “I feel like I’ve been through a roller coaster listening to them.”
I nodded. “When you’re young everything feels so extreme and so urgent. You remember how that felt, right?”
“That’s right,” Sun Young answered.
“But, Mi Ran-ah,” Deok Sun’s mother said, her voice careful. “Are you sure they will be okay? They can’t seem to stop fighting and arguing.”
“Let me tell you something, Deok Sun’s Omma, silence is my son’s default mode,” I said. “Getting two words out of him is so difficult sometimes. Deok Sun is perfect for him. She’ll keep him arguing and bickering. She’ll keep him talking. He needs that. Left to his own devices, he would just stay quiet all the time. She’ll keep him on his toes and not take his shit.”
“That’s true,” Sun Woo’s Omma agreed. “Everyone needs someone who’s a little different from them. Life would be boring otherwise.”
“So,” Il Hwa said, “I guess that’s one more thing the psychic was wrong about. Jung Hwan won’t be on his own.”
“No, Il Hwa-yah,” Sun Young said. “I think she said he’ll do fine on his own. Not that he would be on his own.”
“I’m sure he would have been okay on his own,” I said. “I never worried much about Jung Hwan. But why should he be? My son deserves love. And now he has it.”
Il Hwa shushed us, as if listening, before releasing a sigh of relief. “I think they’re finally done fighting. They’re quiet now.”
“Maybe they’ve killed each other,” I deadpanned and both women started giggling. “Or maybe,” I lifted one shoulder delicately, “they’re just doing what young people do when they’re in love.”
Both women nodded and I poured another round of shots.
“Should we make a toast?” Sun Young asked as she lifted her glass. “To family?”
Il Hwa and I shared a smile as we lifted our own glasses. “To family,” we both said.
“And friendship,” Il Hwa added and I gave her a silent nod.
“And love,” Sun Young piped up.
“Okay, okay,” I finally said, touching my glass to theirs one more time and drinking the ginseng liquor. “Enough. If we toast to everything we’ll be drinking all night.”
“Isn’t that what we always do anyway?” Il Hwa asked.
“You’re right,” I answered, wrapping my arms around both women. “You’re right.”