A LEAP OF FAITH OST PART 15: Katharine McPhee “Stranger Than Fiction”
March 14, 2004
I was in the middle of a dream when something cold and wet woke me up. For a second I thought it might have been Gia, walking straight out of my imagination to reality, but then I opened one eye to see Dog hovering over me, his eyes expectant, a pink tongue darting in and out of his mouth.
I sat up before putting him on my lap, glancing at the clock to see what time it was. Seeing that it was still early, I rubbed my eyes with one hand and petted the dog with my other, wondering where my wife was.
My wife. The remembrance stopped and made me smile.
I looked at my left hand and fingered the platinum band on my ring finger. Not two months since we had gotten married and I was still not used to thinking of her as my wife. Mind you… we’ve only been back in the country for a little over a week. And I had only just gotten used to her being my girlfriend not too long ago.
It seemed everyone but me knew about our wedding and the plans after, since my family took Dog without any question and Ha Neul had already rescheduled all my meetings. Joon was off season for another month and didn’t have to be babysat to make sure that he attended his trainings so I didn’t have to worry about him. Besides, even Joon himself wasn’t worried he was so preoccupied with Na Jeong and his son.
After having spent Christmas and New Year with her family and mine in our very first combined holiday, we accompanied her mother, sister and Matt back to the US before going on our honeymoon, an all too quick month in Bora Bora before jetting out and spending a week in Tuscany to see Elena and then another couple of weeks in Singapore to spend time with Shawn and her husband. With Shawn due to have a baby anytime now, Gia had insisted on spending some quality time with her.
Not that I minded, had often told myself that I needed to get to know my oldest friend’s husband better. Still, it was a jolt to see Gia and Shawn actually spending any kind of real time together. Shawn’s husband had watched with amusement as I gaped over them passing each other things without speaking during meals, picking things neither liked off each other’s plates, volleying half formed sentences to each other and understanding perfectly, and catching them both with masks over their faces.
It made me realize that they really have been in each other’s lives long before I knew either of them.
It also made me realize how close I had been to Gia all this time… that we were this close to meeting all our lives. The thought still makes me shake my head, even now.
Dog running to the bedroom patio door reminded me that I should get up, seeing as my wife was more than likely hungry and breakfast was my responsibility. I sat on the side of the bed, stretching my arms over my head before grabbing my boxers from the floor, opting against the black trousers that lay next to them.
I grinned from ear to ear. My wife was as passionate in bed as she was about everything else. Thank God. I grabbed some sweatpants from the closet before heading out to the kitchen, Dog at my heels.
I walked silently on the hardwood floors, already thinking of what to cook when the sight of my wife stopped me short. Her hair was up in a loose bun on top of her head, rebellious tendrils down on her neck. She was barefoot and wearing my white shirt from last night, so long it almost came down to her knees. As I watched her she brought one foot up to scratch at a shapely calf, and there was a feeling of familiarity that came over me.
There was music playing in the background, in a language I didn’t understand. She had one hand steadying the book she was holding, and she kept looking back and forth between the book and the stove and it was only then that I realized that she was cooking.
She. Was. Cooking.
A rush of love flowed through me as I saw her frown over the pan, her left hand disappearing into a bowl. She bit down on her lower lip in concentration, narrowing her eyebrows, oblivious to my arrival. Even now, she still tries so hard, though most of her efforts were firmly directed for me.
Dog took the chance to run up to her and she stopped what she was doing long enough to bend down and ruffle his fur, planting kisses all over his face. She spoke to him in a low voice as she patiently gave him fuss and picked off bits from a plate on the counter, the contents set aside, I was certain, just for him. It was almost too easy to imagine her on another day, looking exactly the same, doing exactly the same, except this time with our children.
I quickly squashed the thought away. Wasn’t it just a couple of months ago that she decided to become a wife? It’s almost a bit much to think about children now.
She walked to the sink to wash her hands before resuming her task, her forearm coming up to smooth hair away from her face and my heart slowed looking at her, joy overtaking every part of my body. I walked over to where she was standing, wrapping my arms around her waist before dropping a kiss on the back of her neck.
There was no resistance as she melted into me, her face lighting up as she turned around and looked at my face.
“You’re up?” Her question came out in her morning voice, slightly husky and breathless.
I slipped my hand under my shirt to rest over a generous hip and nodded. “What are you doing?”
She turned and faced me, color deepening on her cheeks. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
I shrugged my shoulders as her eyes traveled over my face and my chest. “I don’t know,” I said, leaning in and letting my lips drift over hers, then to the side of her neck. “I could have sworn that you’re cooking. All the signs point towards you cooking. But there’s a problem,” I said as I loosened the top button on her shirt, “my wife doesn’t cook.”
She giggled. “I’m pretty sure what I’m doing doesn’t qualify as cooking,” she answered. “More like experimenting.”
Her fingers were making a path towards my abdomen, and I held my breath, sent a silent prayer to the powers that be that this woman loved me. I lifted her onto the counter before she could protest, her legs wrapping around my waist instinctively.
“What?” I asked, my eyes roaming over her warm flesh. Mine, I thought, all mine. She stopped speaking and I looked up, saw that she was watching me. “Did you have something to say, Mrs. Lee?”
She grinned then frowned. “That’s something I need to do now that we’re back in the country,” she said seriously, “I need to change my last name, don’t I?”
“You don’t have to if you don’t want to,” I said softly and she blinked at me.
“I want to.” She lifted her arms and wrapped it around my neck.
Her eyes were fastened on my lips and my hands began to undo the rest of the buttons. “You know what I want to do?”
She shook her head. I leaned in and whispered exactly what I wanted to do in her ear as her fingers dug into my shoulders.
We didn’t have breakfast until an hour later.
I kept my eyes on my husband’s hands as we ate breakfast, or, er, he ate breakfast. Mine was currently untouched on my plate, my face averted as even the sight of eggs and the smell of bacon made something in my abdomen do somersaults. It was very strange as the sight didn’t make me feel weird when I was making it, but now… I swallowed the bile that rose in my throat.
I looked over to my side to see Dog standing by his mat enjoying his breakfast as well, the same food on our table in his bowl.
Everything was as it should be. I took a swallow of water then closed my eyes. Better, actually, since our little interlude just now. So why did I feel off?
Breathe, I ordered myself. Breathe.
“Yeobo,” Jung Jin said and I opened my eyes and offered him a weak smile. His eyes were narrowed in concern, his hand stopping mid air as he looked at me. “Are you okay?” I lifted my eyebrows in question and he gestured over my plate. “You’re not eating.”
I shook my head and looked away from the toast he was holding, the sight of the melting butter making me nauseous. I quickly picked up my cup and drank some more water to keep myself from running to the bathroom and throwing up.
“If this continues through the week I think I should take you to the doctor.” I had a bout of this a few days ago as well, while we were visiting Junnie. I thought it was something I had eaten. Jung Jin didn’t even finish his toast and placed his fork down, as if in commiseration. “Should I cancel our trip?”
He was due to leave later in the day with Ha Neul for a two day scouting trip in Japan, the reason why we had to cut our honeymoon short. He can’t bow out on this trip; it was too important. Not just for him but for Ha Neul, too, as they are scouting a Korean baseball player to be his assistant’s client. Ji Soo hadn’t stopped talking about how excited Ha Neul was to finally get this experience firsthand. My husband can’t cancel this trip.
And… he needed to eat. He needed to eat more than I did, and I knew that if I didn’t at least try that he would boycott breakfast also. I looked at him as he stubbornly refused to resume eating.
I shook my head and picked up my fork, trying to at least try. I lifted a small bite of egg to my mouth under my husband’s watchful eyes, and then another until he picked up his chopsticks as well. I forced swallow after swallow of food that didn’t quite taste like they always did, my taste buds revolting in my mouth even as my mind was already trying to process what my symptoms were.
I had tried to dismiss it when my chest became sore, convinced that it was just approaching that time of the month. My period never came the whole time we were on our honeymoon, save for some spotting two weeks ago. I again tried to ignore it when I was overwhelmed by an almost insistent, persistent fatigue, chucking it up to the excitement of the wedding and honeymoon finally catching up to me.
Except we’ve been married now for a couple of months.
And now… this.
I frowned. Nothing keeps me away from food. An idea materialized then became more concrete by the minute.
I’ve been a nurse for a long time. I would have recognized these symptoms in someone else, so why did I refuse to acknowledge it when they were happening to me?
I can’t be pregnant, I reasoned. Jung Jin and I haven’t even been together long enough to have that conversation yet. We haven’t even celebrated our third month being married. Just a month ago we were bungee jumping on our honeymoon. I can’t be pregnant.
And yet… even as my instincts tried to protest, my mind was already reasoning the obvious.
It was amazing even to me that in the space of the few seconds that I was… strangely okay with that notion. I felt no panic, nor fear. Not what one would expect of someone who, until a few months ago, was still decidedly undecided about getting married.
But… how would Jung Jin react?
I lifted my eyes to see my husband scarfing his breakfast down even as he sped through the newspapers littering our breakfast table. Dog had already long finished his breakfast and was now sitting at Jung Jin’s side, waiting for scraps to be handed down, which they did, in regular intervals in between absent-minded petting.
“Do you like kids?” I found myself blurting out before I had a chance to formulate a well thought of, well prepared discussion.
He looked up from the newspaper and grinned, his eyes crinkling at the corners. “I like kids.” I breathed a sigh of relief. “I like my nieces and nephews.”
I pursed my lips and swallowed in apprehension. “Do you want kids?”
He blinked at me before he looked back down at the newspaper. “Yeah,” he said slowly. “One day, maybe.” He folded the newspaper and placed his hands on the table before he resumed speaking. “You know… maybe. I never really understood why people would want kids so quickly after marriage, though.”
“Ah.” I couldn’t think of anything else to say and took a bite of toast, the texture like sand on my tongue.
“People should really think more about whether they’re financially able and psychologically prepared to tackle on kids,” he continued and I fixed my gaze on the table. “People shouldn’t take it lightly. It’s a big deal.”
“Yeah.” I licked my lips even as the somersaults in my abdomen became more lively. “But Joon and Na Jeong had a baby as soon as they were married.”
“They’d been together for years, and they lived with each other before then, too.” He started tapping on the table and it resonated in my head. “I mean with more than half of marriages ending in divorce you’d think people would spend more time actually thinking about it rather than just jumping into it. It’s really because people are not even considering parenthood as something important that our society…”
I felt the bile rise up to my throat and stood up shakily even as Jung Jin kept speaking. He stopped mid sentence and looked at me.
Everything he had just said about having children echoed in my ears and I covered my mouth with a hand.
“What’s wrong?” He repeated his question and it took an effort not to lose my breakfast all over our dining room table.
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
I barely got the words out before I made a dash for the nearest bathroom, Dog at my heels and my husband, no doubt, still trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
I pushed some file folders aside, my mind still on the distracted way that Gia ate, or not ate, her breakfast. I almost stayed home today seeing her pale as she tried to swallow food down. I was sure it was just a bug. We hadn’t stopped going since the wedding.
I wondered whether this was a result of my insisting that we lived together. Like a psychosomatic response. Maybe I should have considered her offer… maybe…
“I’m bored,” Shawn whined and my attention was diverted. “My husband is at work and I’m stuck at home.”
I chuckled. “As you should. Aren’t you due to give birth soon?”
“My due date is in two days,” she said. “I’m telling you… I can’t wait.”
“Neither can I,” I agreed. “You’re worrying my wife to death.”
“Do you know how hard it is to carry a baby?” Shawn let out an exasperated sigh.
I signed the last of my files before opening the flight confirmation email. I perused the contents and printed the screen before I shut my laptop down and placed it into my bag.
“Men will never understand,” Shawn huffed.
“I’m still wondering why you’re complaining to me and not your best friend if you wanted pity.”
“Pity?” She asked. “From my best friend?” I heard a disbelieving laugh from the other end of the line. “Don’t believe the hype, my friend, nurses cannot be depended on for pity. The last time I complained to your wife, you know what she told me?”
“No,” I answered. “What?”
“Suck it up,” Shawn retorted. “She said I had fun making the baby now I should have fun having the baby.”
I laughed outright. Trust Gia to not sugar coat anything. “Ah,” I said, understanding dawning. “That’s why you call me when you’re in one of your complaining moods.”
“Who better to complain to than one who complains almost as much as I do?”
“Anyway,” I heard Shawn say. A glance at my watch told me I had less than five hours before our flight. Just enough time to get to the airport and have a quick lunch before boarding. “What are you and your lovely wife doing for white day?”
I walked from the pharmacy, a plastic bag hanging from my arm. In my mind I tried to remember when the last time was that I had my period and when this annoying nausea began but I couldn’t remember.
I must have been out of my head. I was usually really good at remembering this stuff.
Dog trotted ahead of me, his tail swishing happily. Every so often he would stop and smell something before resuming his pace. He seemed to know exactly where we were going as he made the turns back to the penthouse without my urging.
He should know by now. We make this trip at least once a week when Jung Jin was at work.
It’s only been a few weeks since I moved into the house and the penthouse remained unoccupied while Jung Jin decided whether to give it to Ji Hee Unnie or Ji Soo. I usually stop by the neighborhood to say hi to the doorman or buy Dog a treat at the pet store next to Dr. Park, as well as check on the penthouse and make sure that everything was as it should be. Besides, all my clothes were still there, as well as most of my books, a fact that drove Jung Jin crazy to no end.
Before we came back from our honeymoon I had played around with keeping our living arrangement as it was, with him staying at the house and me staying at the penthouse for the time being, but he had looked at me so incredulously I barely got the words out of my mouth before I stopped myself.
It wasn’t even that I didn’t want to live with him, just that I quite liked having a husband but also liked my independence. Just because I was married now didn’t mean that everything had to change, did it? Isn’t it nice to still have some sort of distance and mystery?
It was the first time in a decade where I felt like I could finally breathe. And with Shawn’s excellent management of my funds, I now had the freedom to do whatever I wanted to do.
The problem was figuring out what that was. I usually did my best kind of thinking and planning by myself which was why it made sense to still live on my own.
Today more than any other day I needed that time alone. The panic has not set in though I was almost certain that I was, indeed, pregnant. My mind was already set on the idea, but I needed confirmation, thereby necessitating the quick pharmacy trip. I had to be sure before telling Jung Jin.
I barely had time to process how I felt about being a wife and now I had to process how I felt about becoming a mother. I shook my head and gave a distracted wave to the doorman as I entered the apartment building and walked straight to the elevators. After being stagnant for so many years it seemed only fitting that everything was now happening all at once.
Life certainly liked to keep me on my toes.
Upon getting to the penthouse I took off Dog’s leash and collar and walked straight to the bathroom with my plastic bag. Hands strangely steady I opened a box and tried to decipher the instructions, relieved that the pregnancy tests here looked the same as they did in the States.
Fairly satisfied that I knew what to do, I tore open the packet and sat on the toilet with the stick on my hand. Afterwards I set it aside and played with Dog, setting the timer to ten minutes, the amount of time I knew to wait. While I did so I tried not to think about the plastic thing in the bathroom, ready to push me into the next phase of my life.
If there was one lesson I had learned in the last year, it was that worrying about things I had no control over was an exercise in futility.
When the timer rang I walked back to the bathroom with Dog following my steps and looked at the stick.
The pink test line was mirrored in the window next to it, so bright it was almost fuchsia. My future in plastic, one that cost less than five dollars.
I sat down for five minutes and then stood up, perfectly aware of what I had to do. I went back to the room I had been using and pulled out my suitcases. And then I began to pack.
“What are you and your lovely wife doing for white day?”
I was in the middle of putting the rest of my files in my laptop bag when I heard Shaw’s question. Fuck, I thought. I had completely forgotten. Maybe this was why Gia was so off.
“Don’t tell me you forgot?”
“Okay,” I said. She told me not to tell her, so I won’t say it.
“You forgot,” Shawn said.
“It’s been a bit busy, Shawn,” I said, sitting back down.
“It’s like one of the holidays that only you Koreans celebrate and you’d forgotten? She didn’t even forget to give you chocolates for Valentine’s Day, just as you Korean people do.”
“I know, I know…” I looked at my watch again. “Damn… I have to go to Gimpo in about an hour and a half.”
Ha Neul decided just then to pop his head in and pointed to the clock.
“Where are you going?” Shawn asked just as I was giving Ha Neul a nod.
“We’re going to scout an athlete in Japan,” I responded. “I have to do it now before Joon starts his season.”
“So you not only forgot but now you’re not even going to be in the country?”
“You don’t have to remind me,” I said, already feeling worse. I mentally went through my options. If I left now I’d have just enough time to grab something and swing by home to drop it off. Seeing the validity of my plans, I nodded to myself. I would feel better seeing for myself if she’d gotten better anyway. With sudden urgency, I knew I had to go. “Listen, Shawn… I’ll call you later.”
Shawn hung up, albeit noisily and not without complaints, and I stood up. Summoning Ha Neul to my office, I picked up my jacket and my laptop bag before he and I walked to the elevators.
As we waited I turned to face him. “Did you realize that today was white day?”
“Of course,” Ha Neul said. “You can’t really miss it.”
I can, I thought, flushing uncomfortably. “Was Ji Soo okay about you leaving today?”
“We’re celebrating this weekend,” Ha Neul answered. “Besides, I already gave her her gifts this morning at breakfast.”
I raised an eyebrow. “What the hell were you doing having a meal so early with my sister?”
He flushed bright red. “I went to your parents’ house this morning.”
I looked away. “That better be the reason,” I said, my voice stern. “We need to make a stop before the airport.”
A few minutes later and armed with a giant bouquet of white roses, a ginormous teddy bear and enough chocolates to feed a small town, I walked into the house. I was greeted immediately by Dog, and as I bent down to give him an affectionate pat on the head, I noticed the two suitcases standing just outside the bedroom door.
“Jagi?” I called out, placing the flowers on the dining room table along with the chocolates and the bear, sidestepping the luggage.
Despite everything being settled I must admit that the sight of packed luggage in the presence of my wife still brings me a small sense of anxiety. Because what other reason would there be for them except to leave? And without me, at that?
“Jagi?” I repeated when I didn’t get a response.
Walking to the bedroom, I took off my jacket and placed it on a chair on my way. Though the bedroom was dark with all the blinds closed, I spied a figure on top of the covers and breathed a sigh of relief. I sent Ha Neul a text to go ahead and go to the airport, that I would be following just minutes after. Relieved for once that I had walked to work today and my car was at home, I kicked my shoes off and followed my wife’s lead, already debating with myself whether or not to bring up the luggage inconspicuously sitting in our living room.
I laid my head down on the pillow next to hers, my face just inches away. As soon as I did her eyes fluttered open, lips curving into a small smile.
“You’re here,” she said softly and as it always did, her voice wrapped over me warmly, low and husky.
It was my favorite sound. Hers was my favorite face. Her name was the one I treasured most in the world.
I really, really loved my wife. How was it possible that until two years ago I didn’t even know who she was?
She lifted a hand and pressed it to my face, her touch as tender as her gaze. She rubbed a thumb over my cheek, leaning in to breathe me in before her lips connected with mine, her breath sweet, her eyes half open.
All too quickly the kiss was over and she had pulled away, her eyes studying my face. A shadow fell over her visage, her expression sombering, and I felt butterflies in my belly. I wondered where they came from.
I didn’t have to wonder long.
I opened my eyes and saw Jung Jin lying next to me, looking just like a dream. He was looking at me with his pretty eyes, his gaze practically bursting with love. He wasn’t touching me and yet I still felt him, and I smiled.
“You’re here,” I said as I lifted my fingers and touched his face, my thumb traveling over a high cheekbone.
I scooted closer to him and took a deep breath, savoring the familiar scent of him, the same one that has haunted me all my life, from the day he picked me up in Philadelphia to the night I kissed him on New Year’s Eve (the first time around, when I didn’t know who he was) to the second time (when I did.) It was the scent that had been on his jacket, the one that had helped me through my hardest times, and now the one I wake up to, the one that has become synonymous with home.
A burst of love went through me, so strong and pure, and I leaned in for an impulsive kiss. I loved my husband. Too fucking much. To this day, it scared me still, how I could possibly love one person this much, which was, perhaps, the subconscious reason behind my almost inane idea to live apart.
I pulled away and looked at his face as his brows furrowed in concern. Such a familiar look, always at my expense. So much kindness hidden away intentionally… he really was something else. I shook my head mentally and I softened.
It was his kindness that I loved the most out of his never ending list of redeeming qualities. He was so good with people, big and small alike, and Dog.That he would be a great father one day was a foregone conclusion. Whether or not he was ready to be a father not long after he became a husband was another issue altogether.
Should I ask him now or wait until it was confirmed? I wrestled with the question in my mind, even as I knew that avoiding it would do nothing more than delay the inevitable. We would have to talk about it at one point or another… haven’t I learned this from Chris?
I nodded. Remembered my vows. With that I bit the bullet and spoke.
Surprise came over his face, his eyes widening. His mouth fell open in a small “o”, and he appeared as if he was struggling to figure out what to say.
“How do you know?” He asked.
“I did a pregnancy test.”
“You can’t be sure just from one pregnancy test,” he said. “Those things are not 100% acc…”
“I did six.” I blinked at him. “Listen.. I know it’s sudden and completely unplanned, even though we weren’t using birth control and we make love a lot so really it wasn’t so unexpected,” I said, my words spilling out of my mouth quickly from my anxiety, “I also know that we just got married and didn’t even get to talk about this, but,” I took a deep breath, “I’m happy and I hope you are, too. Or if you’re not, that you will somehow, in the next few months, find a way to…”
“Shut up,” I said and watched as she pursed her mouth shut, worry written all over her face.
“What?” She asked.
“Just…” I tried to keep myself from sounding so happy but failed. I could feel a grin stretching ear to ear come over my face. “Stop being so noisy for one second so that I can tell you that you just made me the happiest man on earth.”
“But you said…”
I laid a finger over her lips and shook my head. “You need to stop asking me random hypothetical questions and just be more exact. I’m a man, you know. I’m no good at reading between the lines.”
“I don’t understand.”
I searched for the right words to say at this moment in time, how to explain to her how I’d long imagined this with her before she even accepted a future with me. How even when she fought this, when she fought loving me, I’d pictured little girls with her eyes and her smile. And that now the dreams that once seemed so distant were coming true one by one.
I must have been and very good man in another lifetime, since I was being rewarded so richly now. God only knows I hadn’t done much good in this one, but regardless. I don’t wake up nowadays not feeling grateful. And this was just the icing on the cake. A very big cake.
“Jagi?” Gia was still waiting for a response and I smiled at her.
“I know you don’t understand,” I said, holding her closer to me, “but all I have to say is that I’m happier than you will ever know.”
“Really.” I brushed my lips over her forehead and she melted against me, just as she always did.
We stayed that way for a few minutes, seemingly in a bubble of our own. The silence was comforting and warm and I wished we could stay here forever.
As expected, though, my woman could not stay quiet for long and pretty soon she was lifting her head and looking at me. “But… why are you here?” She asked. “Aren’t you supposed to be going to Japan?”
“I was,” I said. “Not anymore.” I looked at my watch. “Speaking of which, I probably should let Ha Neul know that he’ll be making this trip on his own.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course,” I answered. “I can’t leave now. Not after this. We’ll need to make an appointment with a doctor and get the baby’s room ready. We need to go shopping and get the baby stuff.”
Already my mind was making a checklist of the stuff that we now had to do to to get ready for our child. Our child. Could this day get any better? Could this life get any better?
I looked over at Gia to see her biting into her lip nervously, and was confused. Didn’t she just say that she was happy? So why did she look right now as if she was not?
“What’s the matter?”
She hesitated for a moment before she replied. “How are we going to tell Dog?”
I laughed. “He’ll be fine,” I reassured her. “He’ll be fine.” As if he knew we were talking about him, Dog entered the bedroom, a small bag in his mouth. The sight reminded me of the luggage that was still in the living room. I turned to my wife. “Why did you pack your bags?” I asked. “Were you that worried that I wasn’t going to accept our baby?”
She grinned. “No. I just thought it was high time that I really moved in. You know… can’t have our kid wondering why mommy’s stuff is in one place and daddy’s is in another.”
Hillsborough, New Jersey
November 26, 2003
I padded to the kitchen, a hand on my back, and walked in on my family and my in laws, all already sitting for breakfast, chatting loudly.
My husband crept behind me and dropped a kiss on my neck before walking to the table with a pot of coffee and a carafe of orange juice, placing both on the table before pulling out a chair for me. He waited until I was seated before sitting himself down.
“How are you feeling?” Omonim asked as she helped herself to another piece of toast, lathering it with some butter.
Jung Jin heaped some eggs and bacon on my plate, while inching the platter of fresh fruit closer to me. “I’m good, Omonim,” I said with a smile, smacking Jung Jin’s hands to stop him from giving me more food. “If my husband would stop fattening me up I’d be even better.”
All the people at the table laughed and Jung Jin clucked his tongue at me. I looked around to see everyone looking at my husband affectionately, including my mother and sister, completely used to his ways by now.
With JJ’s season due to end last month, Jung Jin decided to go ahead with our plans before we got pregnant of leaving Korea after Chuseok to spend a few months in the States. It was perfect timing, really, as I would not have been able to fly had we waited much longer, what with my third trimester starting in September. With my permanent residence status in Korea already in order, and similarly Jung Jin’s green card in America already established, we had the freedom to travel between the countries as we wanted. We had spoken about and planned on applying for dual citizenship in time, for ourselves and for our child.
Omonim and Abonim flew in late last week to be here for the holiday season, as did Ji Soo, now out of school and looking for a job, and Ha Neul, who Jung Jin had graciously invited.
Jung Jin said he had done it because Ha Neul was Ji Soo’s boyfriend, but he didn’t fool me. My husband had gotten a lot softer, but not that soft. I knew that he was going to spend this time formulating their business plan with his assistant for the coming year, especially now that they had signed on four more athletes in the last eight months.
The rest of the Lee clan had already said that they will be here come Christmas, when the kids were out of school. Ji Hee Unnie and Kye Sang Oppa, now engaged, will also be here. Junnie and her husband were due to fly in next week, just in time for my due date.
Though I had been unsurprised after the wedding that my family had already met my husband’s family long before then, what he had failed to tell me was that we already had a house waiting for us in my hometown, not far from my mother’s. Whatever annoyance I might have felt about his making plans all willy nilly on his own disappeared as soon as I saw the house and the yard.
It was just like Jung Jin to do things his way. He always did things without waiting for any credit or recognition, just for the sake of doing what needed to be done. I would have looked extremely immature if I had allowed myself be angry for something that was done out of love.
I felt Dog weave in and out of my legs and I dropped a hand down to sneak him a bite of toast, as I always did. Jung Jin didn’t miss this and gave me a knowing smile.
“I bet that Kuya Jung Jin is just relieved not be searching for different foods in the middle of the night, Sis,” Maria said. “You gave him a hard time with your cravings.”
“Sadon,” my mother said to Jung Jin’s parents, “Did he tell you that she woke up in the middle of the night asking for green mangoes and shrimp paste when she was a few weeks along? He called me all confused asking about how to get it and where, talking about catching my daughter eating kumquats with salt and wondering if there was something wrong with her.” My mother laughed at the memory. “I have never ever heard your son sound so flustered.”
Omonim chuckled. Abonim did as well. “His mother had some strange cravings every time she was pregnant also,” Abonim said. “This is called payback.”
I felt a tightness on my belly and I placed a hand where I felt it for comfort. I woke up this morning with a persistent pain on my back as well, just as it had been the day before.
I dismissed both and tried to take a bite of eggs.
“Unnie,” Ji Soo said, “Ha Neul and I are walking into town later. If you need anything else for Thanksgiving tomorrow write it down and we’ll pick it up for you.”
My mother had already said that she will be cooking the turkey and the rest of the family the side dishes. Even so, I tried to think about what else we could possibly need for the holiday coming up. I nodded distractedly as I felt another contraction.
I carried on eating, accustomed to this by now. In the last couple of weeks this was not an unusual occurrence. As a nurse I knew that my body would soon be preparing for labor and with the contractions always being irregular and sporadic, they had never been a cause for concern.
I made another attempt at eating breakfast while the rest of the family continued to eat, unaware of my discomfort. I placed both hands on the table and tried to stand up.
“Where are you going?” Jung Jin asked.
“Just getting some water,” I answered, convinced that moving around will help alleviate my pain.
“Let me get it for you,” he offered.
“No, jagi,” I said. “I’m good.”
Despite my protests my husband stood up just as I did, and as soon as I was on my feet, I felt warm fluid gush between my legs and I froze. As did my husband and the rest of our family.
“Uhmm,” I said sheepishly. “This is embarrassing.”
Jung Jin stayed unmoving for a second, and then everything seemed to happen all at once. Everyone got to their feet, and all I could hear were three different languages being spoken all around me. My husband was walking back and forth like he didn’t know where he was going before grabbing the hospital bag we had so carefully put together along with our birth plan, already on the foyer table, precisely for this moment.
“It’s okay, anak,” my mother said, suddenly appearing in front of me. “We’ll get you to the hospital.”
“It’s too early, though,” I said weakly. “I’m not due til next week. My contractions aren’t even that regular.”
She placed a tender hand on my cheek. “These things are not an exact science. You know that. Your baby’s ready to come out, so what are you going to do?”
I nodded and watched as Ji Soo picked Dog up to put him in a carrier. “Don’t worry about Dog, Unnie,” she called out. “We’ll take care of him.”
Jung Jin was still running around like a chicken with its head cut off, looking like the only crazy person in a sea of harried but calm adults. With a sigh I placed a hand on his arm as he passed me by and he looked at me, pale and looking a bit frazzled.
“Hey,” I said. “You okay?” He nodded, his jaw tense. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he finally said. “No. Maybe. You’re not due for another week.”
“I’m okay, jagi,” I reassured him. “It’s okay.”
Abonim appeared at Jung Jin’s side, a hand on his shoulder. “Are we ready to go?”
I gave him a smile and nodded, then took my husband’s hand in mine.
Gia was still in labor twelve hours later. The family, having all piled into the hospital waiting room, had all just taken a walk down to the hospital cafeteria to grab something to eat. No one seemed keen on leaving the hospital altogether even after Gia’s numerous suggestions with the reminder that first labors usually took a long time anyway.
The only people in the birthing room was myself and Gia’s mother, who was sitting on the couch knitting something. She was trying her best to not look worried but every so often she would stand and take a walk around the room, obviously concerned about her daughter.
I tried to stay as calm as possible, though I did wonder if this was normal to take this long. My wife, though, seemed completely calm and serene, asking for ice chips occasionally and grimacing in pain, but was otherwise the quietest woman in labor. Ever.
I was sure my brothers in law had told me that women tend to get ridiculously loud during childbirth.
Gia mustered a smile through another contraction as the doctor came in to check on her. After helping her legs into the stirrups I kept my eyes averted as the physician checked the progress of her labor. A nurse stood by the monitor, studying the pieces of paper that was getting printed out.
“You’re still only five and a half centimeters dilated,” Dr. Watson said, taking off her gloves. Gia nodded but said nothing, squeezing my hand as if to reassure me.
I turned my attention back to the doctor, not reassured at all, and was about to ask her what that meant when from the corner of my eye the nurse walked towards the doctor with the piece of paper in her hands. She conferred with the physician quietly and I looked on in concern, as did Gia’s mother, who has now walked towards the hospital bed. The physician nodded quietly and stood up before approaching all of us, her expression serious.
“The labor is not going as it should,” she began softly and turned to Gia. “Your cervix has stopped dilating and you are having a lot of bleeding. The placenta could be lying too low.”
All the color drained out of Gia’s face and I could feel her apprehension as I continued to hold her hand. For the first time since the labor began, my wife looked nervous. I only just understood a few things, having read a baby book throughout her pregnancy, but even I knew that it didn’t sound good.
“Your baby’s heart rate has gotten significantly more irregular,” the doctor continued, “The fetal cardiography shows that it may be in distress. If we wait any longer we might lose the baby. If you continue to bleed like this throughout the childbirth, we could lose you. You need a caesarian.”
“What?” I asked, my heart racing in panic.
“i don’t want a caesarian,” Gia said, her voice shaky but determined. “We didn’t plan on surgery.”
“She’ll get it,” Omonim said. There was no arguing with the tone in her voice.
“Mama… I don’t want a c-section. That wasn’t part of our birth plan,” Gia said, her voice breaking. It was the way that she sounded that had me crouching down over her and placing an arm around her, more distressed by the terror I heard in her voice. Her mother moved closer to her and whispered a few words in Filipino and even then she kept shaking her head. “I don’t want surgery.”
“I understand your concern, Mrs. Lee,” the doctor said. “Of course this will come with the risks that all surgeries do. But you need to understand that the longer we wait to make a decision, the riskier it gets for you and the baby.”
Gia began to cry quietly, her fingers clenching and unclenching over the sheets and it unsettled me. My wife was always the calmer one, the one who had her head straight on her shoulders most of the time. She was the medical professional, the one my family runs to with every medical question imaginable. To see her so scared unnerved me.
She kept looking back and forth between me and her mother, looking so helpless and so conflicted about what to do that I felt my heart clench in my chest. It made me realize that it was my turn to take the reins and make the decision for our family.
“Jagi…” I said softly as I looked into her eyes and wiped the tears that have begun to fall, “we need to do this.”
She shook her head. “This is not what I wanted,” she said, her words coming out haltingly. “I just wanted a normal delivery for the baby. This is not how it was sup…”
“I know,” I said, trying my very best to sound calmer than I felt. “But you heard what the doctor said. We still have a choice now. Pretty soon we won’t have one.” I pressed my lips on her forehead. “Besides… do you remember? You didn’t want me, either, and you soon changed your mind.” My teasing delivered the desired results and I felt her relax and chuckle, even through her tears. I looked at her. “It’ll be okay.”
“I don’t even know if you can handle the sight of blood,” she argued.
“Come, now,” I chided, amazed that even during a time like this she was thinking about me. “I’ll be okay in there.”
“I don’t like operating rooms.”
“I’ll be right there with you. I’ll even ask for a mirror so that I can see everything that as it happens.”
“But the baby…” she said, “needs to feel skin as soon as it’s born.”
“I’ll make sure it’s done.” I took both her hands in mine. “We need to do this. Do you understand? I can’t lose you or the baby,” I entreated, my voice thick. “Please.”
She searched my eyes for a few seconds then finally nodded. “Okay.”
A few minutes later, I sat outside the operating room, waiting to be told that it was okay to come in.
Despite my confident tone earlier, I was scared too. I was too happy. Too certain that everything was just going to go as well as it has. It made me forget that sometimes life didn’t go as planned and that bad things happen to good people all the time.
I was helpless, unable to do anything for my wife, and powerless to change the circumstances under which our child will be born.
I laid my head on a hand and ran fingers through my hair. I closed my eyes and sent a silent prayer to keep my family safe, tears burning the back of my eyes. I was still telling myself that everything was going to be okay when I felt a hand on my shoulder. I opened my eyes and saw Shawn looking just as rough as I felt and couldn’t even summon enough bravado to offer her a smile.
She sat next to me and from the distance I saw her husband standing a respectful distance, a baby in his arms.
“Sorry I’m late,” Shawn tried to say lightly. “It was almost impossible to get a last minute flight out of Singapore. How are you doing?”
Her sympathetic smile unleashed a torrent of emotions and the tears fell before I could stop them. I tried to speak but couldn’t, and Shawn appeared surprised as she placed a comforting arm around my shoulder.
“I know this seems scary,” she said softly. “But you have to be strong. This is not ideal, but your wife always did like to do things the hard way.”
“What if something goes wrong in there?” I asked, my voice hoarse. “What if…”
“These surgeons are the best at what they do.”
“But… “ I said.
I couldn’t even get more words out before Shawn spoke, her voice full of conviction.
“My best friend…” she said. “Your wife… is tough. The toughest woman I know. You think she’s going to let anything take away the happiness that she’d fought for?” I looked at her as she squeezed my hand. “Gia… will fight everything, even death, to stay by your side. She’ll do the same for your child.”
I tried to take a deep breath. “I just need her to be okay.”
“She will,” Shawn reassured me. “She will.” She nudged my shoulder. “Do you know what you’re having?”
I shook my head. “We wanted it to be a surprise,” I answered. “It doesn’t even matter anymore… as long as Gia’s okay and the baby’s okay, then I’ll be good.”
Shawn looked at me in sympathy then stood up when a nurse wearing a surgical cap and mask came out of the operating room.
I stood up. “Yes.”
“We’re ready for you.”
It wasn’t until after the epidural has been administered that I saw Jung Jin enter the operating room, dressed in paper scrubs and wearing a cap, mask and gloves. He came straight to my side and I narrowed my eyes when I saw that his eyes were red-rimmed.
“Have you been crying?” I asked, my voice sounding different to my ears. My mouth felt so dry from the medication they had given me.
He dropped a kiss on my forehead. “Shawn just got here.”
I tried to smile. “You mean Junnie.” I urged him to come closer, and when he did, whispered, “Try not to pass out.”
There was a piece of screen blocking my view and I blinked, the bright lights hurting my eyes. The stark and sterile walls of the room had not been what I had in mind. I could feel everything waist up but the bottom half of my body felt numb and heavy.
Jung Jin held my hand in his, his eyes watching everything that was going on, speaking to me in a low, calm voice. I don’t even remember what he was saying, but the tone in his voice kept me grounded. Time seemed to stand still as I waited for the procedure to start.
“They’re making the incision,” he said gently. “You might feel a slight pressure.”
I nodded and kept my eyes on his face. He nodded at me, his face as serious as I had ever seen. I could feel cold fluid running through my veins from the intravenous fluids that hung next to me, the persistent pull of the tape keeping the catheter in place on my arm.
“I’m cold,” I told Jung Jin softly.
“We’ll get you some blankets and socks afterwards,” he said, smoothing my hair down. “Not long now.”
He shared a glance with the doctor and squeezed my hand. “You might feel some tugging now, jagi. They’re about to get the baby out. You’re doing great.”
I only just had enough time to nod when I saw Jung Jin’s expression change altogether. “The baby’s out, jagi,” he whispered.
“The baby’s out?” I asked. “Is the baby okay?”
“The doctor just cut the umbilical cord.”
Within seconds of his pronouncement we had our first look at our baby. Dr. Watson held a small bundle in her arms just a distance away and I felt emotion overtake every surface of my body as soon as I saw her. Jung Jin’s expression held wonder as he looked at the child in the doctor’s arms.
“The nurses will clean the baby and you’ll be able to hold her,” Dr. Watson said.
“Her?” Jung Jin asked, his voice wondrous. “We have a girl?”
Dr. Watson nodded. “Congratulations Mr. and Mrs. Lee,” she said. “You are now the proud parents of a healthy baby girl.”
We had just managed to share a smile when the nurse soon returned with the baby and handed her to Jung Jin. As he had told me he would do, he held her to my cheek so that I could feel her. As soon as my flesh touched hers, I felt a burst of love so big even I was speechless. My throat became thick with emotion as my eyes beheld the child Jung Jin and I created, the child that just months ago was a mere idea. My tears started falling at their own accord, my shoulders trembling.
I looked at my husband and saw that he was feeling the same exact way. His eyes shone with tears as he held our baby, meeting my eyes over her little body.
“Mr. Lee,” I heard the doctor say, “you can follow the your baby to the nursery and share the good news with the family while we finish up here. Your wife will be back in her room in the next hour or so. I’ll have a nurse come get you.”
Jung Jin nodded though he seemed hesitant to leave. Now that the baby was born and I was assured she was okay, I felt light and weightless, all of a sudden tired.
I just felt my eyes close when I felt the lightest of kisses on my lips, my husband kissing me even through his mask.
“I’ll see you in a little bit,” he whispered, his eyes full of love. “Saranghae.”
“Nado,” I responded groggily. I was about to fall asleep when I remembered something and tugged at his hand before he could leave. He looked at me enquiringly and it was only now that I noted the fatigue in his eyes. This had been rougher on him than it had been on me. “You know what to name the baby, don’t you?”
His eyes tilted at the corners. “Of course,” he said. “We’ll call her Sarah.”
I walked out of the operating room in a daze, back in my own clothes, and walked into a waiting room full of expectant people. They all stood up as soon as I came in and I released a breath.
“We have a daughter.”
Ji Soo and Maria ran to me and enfolded me in a warm hug, Gia’s sister crying openly.
“Chukhahamnida, Oppa,” Ji Soo whispered and gave me a kiss on the cheek.
“Sis?” Maria asked, her eyes still full of worry.
“She’s good,” I reassured her. “They’ll be bringing her into her room in a little bit.” I turned to my parents and Gia’s mother. “The baby is 7 pounds and 11 ounces. She’s 48 cm long. We can go see her in the nursery now.”
Ji Soo, Maria and Ha Neul walked ahead and I began to follow. My mother came to me and laid a hand on my cheek, a smile on her face, as did Shawn and Gia’s mother, her own smile wavering.
“How is my daughter?” She asked.
I softened. It’s not often I get reminded that before Gia was my wife she had been someone’s daughter. As soon as I held our baby, I had felt a surge of protectiveness. And now more than ever, I felt a huge amount of gratitude to the woman in front of me for having brought my wife into the world, raising her the way she did, and then entrusting her to me, making this moment possible. I smiled at her.
“She was magnificent in there,” I said. “And she’s doing great. Don’t worry, Omonim. Gia is just fine.”
My mother in law visibly relaxed and my mother looped an arm around hers before following my sister. Shawn merely smiled at me, as if telling me ‘I told you so,’ and walked off with her husband and their baby. My father stayed behind, draping a comforting arm around my shoulder, pride evident in his features. He said nothing as we approached the newborn gallery, as if also holding his breath.
We all stood shoulder to shoulder as we looked at all the newborns, my eyes searching for my own. Within seconds a nurse approached the window with an infant in her arms, having had no time to even put the baby in the bassinet before we came.
She now had a pink bonnet on her head, one I remembered to be full of downy hair. Her eyes were closed, peaceful. Puffed up cheeks with pink kissing its apples. Love so pure ran through my veins; Gia and I created her. A perfect human being.
“She’s so cute!” Ji Soo exclaimed. “I just want to bite her cheeks.”
“There will be no biting of cheeks, please.” I said jokingly. “At least not yet.”
“Who do you think she looks like?” Shawn asked. She squinted her eyes at the baby. “I think she looks like you a little.”
I shook my head. “No. Absolutely not. She looks like her mother.”
Everyone laughed. “You must be the only father alive who is not looking for any similarity of your child to you,” Omma said.
“Why look like me when her mother is a goddess?” I asked.
“Oppa, ew,” Ji Soo complained. “You just keep getting softer and softer.”
We all quieted as we watched the nurse put the baby in her bassinet.
“Jin-ie,” I heard my father say, “Congratulations.”
“Thank you, Appa.”
“How does it feel?” He looked at me with a small smile.
“Overwhelming,” I said. “Too much of everything. Love. Pride. Fear. It’s like experiencing the world for the first time all over again. I didn’t think I could love Gia any more than I already do, and I surprised myself yet again.”
He chuckled. “I remember what that’s like.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know how you did it with so many of us.”
“I don’t know, either,” he replied, chuckling. “But let me tell you… Out of everything in my life that I had ever achieved, my children are the ones I am the proudest of. I treated it as my mission to make sure my boys became good men, which I think I have achieved. As for the girls,” he smiled at me, “girls… are very different, aren’t they? You will be the barometer against which she will compare every man that she will ever meet. Make sure that it’s a high one.”
“I don’t even want to think about that yet,” said. “She was just born an hour ago.”
“That’s the other thing they don’t tell you,” my father said, his tone sounding a little bittersweet. “Once you have a child the time will fly by.”
November 16, 2007
“Yeah, Jun,” I said into my phone as I pressed the passcode on the keypad to the house, already bracing myself for the chaos that will greet me. I looked at my watch and secured the bag of groceries over my arm. “I just got home. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
Junnie mumbled something back, and I wondered if she heard me.
“Oops, sorry,” she responded, her voice distracted. “He Yi just came home too. We’ll talk tomorrow.”
“Okay.” I hung up the call and entered the house, the foyer dark. “Baby?” I called out, “I’m home.”
Strangely there was no one to greet me, the house quiet. I had only just passed the entryway, wondering where even Dog was, convinced that Jung Jin had said that he wasn’t going anywhere today. I almost tripped on a stuffed animal and I looked around as I picked toys off the floor.
I was taking the last of my classes to become proficient in Korean three evenings a week. Living half the time in Korea I realized not long after we had Sarah that unless I wanted to teach English, there weren’t a lot of options for someone fluent in English to work here.
Chun Jo had given me a part time job at the animal clinic, a fact that didn’t make Jung Jin happy one bit, even after almost four years of marriage. He even offered to hire me for his office, an offer I vehemently refused. I may be a wife and mother now, but I was a nurse first and foremost. I may not be taking care of people at the clinic, but at least I was making use of skills that I already knew.
I loved my husband and children, but I needed that time out of the house also. Just because I knew that Jung Jin was more than able to provide for us didn’t banish my need to do something for myself.
The light in the living room turned on and I stood back and surveyed the view in front of me, shaking my head. My husband perched on a tent of throw pillows, asleep. Almost three year old Sarah under one arm, Dog between his legs, and one and a half year old Isabelle draped over his chest. They were all passed out so deeply that no one even realized I was home.
Not even my dog. I felt slightly betrayed.
There were toys surrounding all of them, the television still on, playing a well worn and well loved copy of “Beauty and the Beast,” a movie I had loved as a young teen myself. It was Sarah’s favorite movie, something she had fallen in love with almost as soon as she first saw it. God only knows how many times she had seen it. As have all of us.
Putting the groceries down as quietly as I could, I noted that my husband had already thoughtfully made dinner, the pots still on the cooker. Today had been one of those rare days when I ran late from the clinic straight to class and had to ask my husband to pick the girls up from his parents’.
My mother and in laws were, thankfully, in love with the girls. And the girls felt the same exact way, not minding at all when they have to be watched every so often. But that didn’t compare to the love and adoration they showered their Appa.
It seemed that females of any age were powerless against my husband’s charms. He was as kind and gentle a father as I once imagined, even more, if that was possible. He was also an active parent, making sure to be hands on from the time they were born and to be present in every step of their milestones. Every day it surprises me, the capacity he has for love, that it was almost unbelievable that just a few years ago, it was something he blocked out of his life.
As expected, though, he excelled at being a father just as he had being a husband, putting his family over and above any work obligations and responsibilities.
I had definitely made the right choice.
I had just begun pulling small bowls out of the cupboard for the side dishes when I felt an arm wrap over my waist, a dark head nuzzling my neck.
“How was class?” I heard my husband ask, his voice thick with sleep.
As it always did, his touch never failed to make my heart race, a steady rhythm that to this day I still haven’t quite gotten used to.
“Good,” I answered, turning around and looking at him. “Thanks for making dinner.”
He gave me a lopsided smile and I smoothed a finger over his hair, wondering if it was even possible for a man to look this good with what looked, and smelled, like the grape juice that was on the front of his shirt.
“Have you eaten?” I asked and he shook his head no.
“I was waiting for you.”
“Do you want some coffee?” I asked, already measuring the beans out into the pot.
“Yeah.” I smiled and set about getting our food ready as he sat at the table, eyes still half closed.
“Hey,” I said, “if you’re sleepy go to bed. I’ll get a plate ready for you and you can eat it when you wake up.”
He shook his head. “No… I’m good. Your children were crazy this afternoon.”
I raised a brow. “My children?” I asked. “How is it that when they’re nice and well behaved they’re your children but when they’re rambunctious they’re mine?”
He grinned then brightened when Dog walked into the dining room. “Look,” he said. “Here comes one of your children now.”
I smiled when I saw the dog make his way to me, his tail swishing happily, more in love with him now than I have ever been. All concern about how he would be with the baby disappeared as soon as we took Sarah home, and Dog has proven himself a gentle and patient creature over and over again. He and Sarah have been inseparable ever since they met.
Jung Jin still looked drowsy as I placed the cup of coffee in front of him and I tsked. “You look exhausted,” I said. “Are you sure you don’t want to just go to sleep?”
He crossed his arms over his chest. “No… I have some things to do still before tomorrow.”
Tomorrow… I nodded. I said nothing as I gazed at his handsome face and clocked not only the exhaustion but something else… I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but there was definitely something else going on.
“What is so important that you have to do it now?” I asked, walking towards the table and not stopping until I was in front of him. He lifted his head to look at me and I wrapped my arms around his shoulders. Up close the shadows in his eyes were even more apparent, and I would do just about anything to banish them away, even for just a little while. “I’ll make you a deal,” I said softly. “What do you say about us forgetting this dinner thing and putting our girls to bed, and you and I can spend some quality time together?”
“Can we have a bath?” He asked his grin spreading.
“With candles?” I nearly laughed. My husband, the romantic. If only people knew.
“Anything you want.”
He feigned disinterest, though his hand had already traveled to my hip. “What’s the alternative?”
“We eat dinner and you work allllll night, leaving your wife very, very lonely in bed.”
He stood up quickly and lifted me in his arms, his mouth making a beeline for my lips. My husband kissed me leisurely and thoroughly before I heard his voice. “Fuck work.”
I giggled as I nodded, relieved to see him so carefree again, at least for now. Tomorrow can wait.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Fuck work.”
“Fuck work!” He repeated, his voice louder.
“Shhh,” I told him, putting my lips on his. “You’ll wake the girls.”
His lips traveled to my neck and I moaned, the sensation so familiar but no less thrilling. This man still takes my breath away, even now. I was just about to kiss him again when I heard a voice, curious and plaintive.
“Mama?” I heard Sarah ask and Jung Jin and I turned to see our eldest standing by the fridge, rubbing her eyes. Her long brown hair was standing all over the place, her cheeks still as plump as they’d been since she was an infant. Dimples appeared on both sides of her face as she looked at us. “Play time?”
Jung Jin began to laugh as he disentangled himself from me then crouched down to speak to our daughter. “No, baby,” he said. “It’s time to sleep.” He picked her up in his arms. “Let’s get you to bed and Mama will bring you some warm milk.”
“Okay.” She turned towards me over her father’s shoulder. “Mama… story?”
“Appa and I will read it when I come in.”
Sarah nodded earnestly before her eyebrows furrowed in concern, her gaze directed towards the living room and pointing. “Belly?”
“Appa will bring Belly after you’re in bed,” Jung Jin said and she finally nodded.
My husband and I shared a look of amusement as he walked off with our oldest daughter, her voice peppering him with questions as they walked.
“Appa, Mama baby?”
“Ah,” I heard Jung Jin answer, already familiar with his daughter’s half sentences. “Mama’s not a baby. I just carried her for a minute. It’s cos I love her like I love you.”
“Appa, Mama noisy.”
I flushed when I realized that Sarah must have heard me. I heard Jung Jin respond, laughter in his voice. “You’re right,” he said, “Mama gets really noisy.”
“Appa…” Sarah’s voice was persistent, insistent. “Fuck!”
I didn’t hear Jung Jin’s response and I doubled over, laughing.
November 17, 2007
I woke up to the familiar sounds of home, voices talking in the dining room, chattering excitedly though I wasn’t sure if there was actual conversations going on. I walked in and saw my wife on the phone, my eldest daughter talking to the Dog while offering him a stand of long bean, and my youngest, wide eyed, quietly observing the scene before her as she picked up a piece of cereal and chewed on it.
Isabelle saw me first, breaking out into a toothy grin, dimples playing hide and seek on both cheeks. “Appa!”
I strolled in and dropped a kiss on top of her head before she offered her mouth, sticky with cereal and gave me a noisy peck. “Hi pretty girl,” I said. “Did you have a good sleep?”
“Ne,” she said, smacking her spoon on my forehead.
Visitors and strangers are always surprised that both children seem to shift between languages, in whatever sentence they’re able to construct. I wasn’t surprised. They were surrounded by Korean speakers, spoke English at home, and was spoken to by their maternal grandmother in Tagalog. I supposed it was a benefit to growing up in a multi-lingual household. We would never need to spend any money on expensive English language classes.
“Appa, annyeong,” Sarah said cheerfully, picking out a strand of beef from her bowl and putting it in her mouth.
“Morning,” I said, kissing her loudly, breathing in her smell, the now familiar scent of little girl, rice, and the smell I had come to know as the tamarind soup that she and her mother seemed to be obsessed with. She giggled loudly and carried on eating, one hand on Dog, who sat next to her in front of his empty bowl.
I sat down at the table and smiled at our daughters, almost identical with their pin straight hair and dimples, looking more and more like their mother every day. Save for the pale complexion and the craters on their cheeks, they were their mother’s image through and through.
Within seconds, a rice bowl materialized in front of me, and my wife, covering the receiver with her hand.
“Jagi… do you want the stew from last night or the sinigang?”
“Sinigang?” I asked, recognizing the name of the stew I had smelled on my daughter. “You still had some from when your mom visited?”
“No,” she said, flushing prettily. “I made it.”
“You made it?” I asked, agog. It was a well known and accepted fact that all home cooked meals in this house was made by me. My wife, despite her skill at doing practically everything else, still hasn’t quite mastered the art of cooking anything from scratch. “The rice, too?”
“No… the rice is from last night. And my mom sent me the sinigang mix.” She placed a cup of coffee in front of me. “I wasn’t going to risk feeding my family something that was inedible, especially today.”
“I would like the sinigang, please,” I said and she beamed at me. I would just about eat anything that woman cooked just to get that reaction. “Who’s on the phone?”
“Junnie,” she said, placing a large pot on the table before sitting down. “Do you want to talk to her?”
She didn’t wait for a response before she handed me the phone, almost relieved to be doing other things like clean up the girls and of course, eat. She had already helped herself to some stew and rice by the time I heard Shawn’s voice.
“Hey,” I greeted as I took a sip of coffee.
“Hi Ethan! You remember that we’re flying in today, right?”
“Of course,” I said. “What time are you landing?”
“Uhmm… we’ll probably miss the first half of Jae Joon’s game, depending on the traffic from Incheon,” she answered. “He Yi has a late meeting at work so Gia has agreed to pick me up with the girls.”
“Is your husband not coming then?”
“He’ll fly in tomorrow morning,” she said. “Plenty of time before the trip.”
In the last two years, we had all gone together on our yearly trip, which only made sense since like us, Shawn and her husband also had a daughter. In fact the age difference between our eldest children is so small it was almost as if she and my wife had planned it that way.
“I have something to talk to you about anyway,” Shawn added.
“You do?” I asked. “Tell me now.”
“No,” Shawn replied. “This is something to talk about while we are face to face.”
“Anyway I still have to pack so let your wife know. 6 p.m. Incheon.”
Shawn hung up the phone and I shook my head. Things have still not changed almost twenty years later. My oldest friend still just did whatever she wanted.
“Do you have work to do before leaving for the game?” My wife asked, a spoon halfway to her mouth. “You know,” she joked, “since I kept you so busy last night.”
I smiled at her, knew that she was just trying to keep my mind distracted. “No,” I answered. “Ha Neul and I have a meeting at the office before I go to Jamsil.”
“Did Junnie tell you about my picking her up at Incheon before the game?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’ll check the car seats for all the girls before I leave.”
“Great,” she said, smiling at me. “Your Omma wants to know what we’re doing next month.”
I had just opened the paper to start reading when I heard what she said and I looked up. “What do she mean what we’re doing next month? We’ll go to America to spend the holidays with your family.”
“Especially now,” I said firmly and my wife looked at me in concern.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Gia asked.
“I’m good, jagi,” I said, running a hand through my hair. “I’m okay.”
“I’m okay, too!” Sarah piped up, looking pleased to be getting involved in what she assumed was a very grown up discussion.
“Okay!” Isabelle chirped.
“See?” I said to Gia, though she seemed wholly unconvinced. “We’re all okay.”
“I’m telling you, though, he’s not really okay,” I said, looking at the dashboard mirror to see Sarah and Jade, Junnie’s daughter fully immersed in… whatever kids do and talk about. Isabelle was clutching a stuffed cat, her favorite, in her arms.
“Well, you know this is what he’s done for almost ten years, so it’s only natural that he’s a little apprehensive,” Junnie said, her eyes looking out the window. “He’ll be okay.”
“I understand that,” I said. “But why not talk to me about it?”
“He Yi doesn’t like to talk about those things either,” she countered. “At least not until he’s processed his thoughts completely.”
Sarah burst out with a round of singing from the backseat and soon the car was filled with little girls’ voices. Junnie looked behind her and then laughed as she turned back to me.
“I swear, she’s becoming more and more like you every day,” she remarked. “It’s amazing.”
“Really?” I asked. “How so?”
“Uhmm who else breaks out in song and dance when she’s feeling happy or sad or what? You’d forgotten how long I lived with you.”
I pressed on the brakes as the light in front of me turned red. “Do you have to stop by at the house before we head to the stadium?”
“No,” Junnie answered, shaking her head. “I got plenty of sleep on the plane and I changed my clothes before we landed. I just have to make a detour to the bathroom when we get there to check Jade.”
“Speaking of which I probably need to check Isabelle, too.”
Junnie turned her eyes back outside the window, her eyes thoughtful. She turned to me, her face inquisitive. “Have you told him yet?”
I darted a quick glance at both my daughters to see that both were still to distracted to listen in on the conversation going on between me and their aunt. “No, not yet.”
“He’s gonna flip a lid once he finds out that this time you told me first.”
“First of all,” I stressed. “I didn’t tell you first. I shared my suspicion with you first. I haven’t even gotten my confirmation yet. And… this time I have no morning sickness so maybe I’m mistaken.”
“Your periods are as regular as clockwork though.”
“Yeah, I know.” I huffed. “Besides you make it sound like I told you months ago when I totally haven’t. It’s only been a week.”
“I still found out before Ethan,” she said gleefully. “I can’t wait to rub it on his face.”
“He’s been very busy, and with JJ’s retirement I didn’t want to stress him out even more. You remember his reaction when I told him that I was pregnant with Isabelle.”
“You can’t blame him after how your first labor went,” Junnie said before she cleared her throat. “I have a suspicion also.”
I looked at her, eyebrows arched. “No.”
She nodded. “I think I’m pregnant, too.”
“Did you tell He Yi yet?”
“Nope,” she said, winking at me conspirationally. “I wanted to return the favor.”
I watched from the sidelines as Joon walked onto the pitcher’s mound for the last time, the excitement in the stadium palpable. Not far from where I stood, Na Jeong’s younger brother sat, a favor that Joon had asked since Sook Sook loved baseball himself. I readily agreed.
It was good to have a distraction, especially at this time.
I crossed my arms over my chest as I watched Joon kick off the dust from the pitcher’s mound, then look around at all the spectators in the stadium. He tipped off his cap in the exact number of times for the exact reasons that only he knows before lifting his necklace to his lips, a ritual he has done since getting together with Na Jeong many years ago.
I sensed the pride in my first client, someone who will always remain special to me even after today, maybe even more so considering his future plans. I was just as surprised as everyone else when he decided to retire before the beginning of the season, but I knew that it had been coming. With his two young children and Na Jeong pregnant with their third child, the nomadic baseball player lifestyle was no longer what he wanted. I admired and respected him for his courage to walk away at the top of his game.
Still, it felt like an era was ending. Not just for him but me, too. All these years I had devoted myself to making sure that he was a success, and in that I had accomplished my goal. That it was all about to end felt bittersweet.
I watched the rest of the game trying to feel detached, aware that this was his moment and not mine. That my job was to make this memorable and that was where it stopped.
But still, when the game ended and the manager for the Twins came into the baseball diamond and showed clips of Joon’s career I could not help but feel emotional as well. As the managers from all the teams he had played for came out and congratulated him, I could feel the lump in my throat even though this was no surprise to me and was something I had orchestrated myself.
This was the life of a manager, of being the man that engineered another’s success. That glory was a gift given to those whose lives I took care of, not for me.
As Joon received the congratulations and standing ovation, I stood away from him, unseen, unrecognized and invisible, just as I always had been, and allowed myself to grieve.
“Are you ready?” I asked as Junnie came out of the bathroom, holding Jade’s hand. “Should I get the stroller out?”
“No,” Junnie said. “I’m fine. Please tell me Ethan saved box seats for us.”
“Yeah, I think he did, since Na Jeong decided to sit out there with the rest of their family and friends.”
I was in a similar situation myself, Sarah holding one hand and Isabelle in a stroller in front of me, her head lolling on one side, thumb in her mouth. How our youngest could stay asleep in this noise is beyond me.
We walked into the stadium, the deafening noise greeting us. We arrived later than planned with the traffic from Incheon being practically impossible to navigate, though I knew for the time being that no one would at least be blocking my way. With this being JJ’s last game, all the spectators, I was sure, will stay put until the end.
I was right. Though the anticipation and excitement was thick in the air, no one moved. Junnie and I walked to our seats and I waited until she was settled with water and the supplies for her daughter before I decided to go in search of my husband.
“Will you be okay for a few minutes?” I asked. “I’m going to find Jung Jin.”
“Yeah,” Junnie responded, eyes already fixed on the scene before her, waving me away. “I’ll see you later.”
I smiled as I approached the sidelines, getting stopped every so often by other managers and reporters who have come to know me over the years as Jung Jin’s wife. They oohed and aahed over the girls, and Sarah ate it all up, preening and smiling, her outgoing personality perfectly suited for this kind of environment. Miraculously Isabelle stayed asleep, even as people hovered over her.
I excused myself from one of Jung Jin’s colleagues as I craned my neck through the crowd to look for him. I didn’t see him though I did spot Ha Neul, on the phone in one corner. I walked towards him and touched his arm and he looked at me with a smile.
“Noonim,” he greeted, hanging up his call before bending down to greet my daughter. “Sarah-ssi.”
“Hi Tito Ha Neul,” Sarah said brightly. “Lolly?”
Ha Neul smiled at me sheepishly before pretending not to know what she was talking about. “I don’t have any lollipops, Sarah-ssi,” he said. “You know your Appa doesn’t like you to have too many sweets.”
“Lolly?” She pouted at him before reaching out a chubby arm to check his pockets. “Lolly?”
“Ah…” I raised my eyebrow at him and he flushed even more.
“It’s okay, Ha Neul-ssi,” I said. “You can give it to her.”
“But I don’t…”
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I won’t tell my husband.”
He released a relieved breath before producing a lollipop from his pocket, unwrapping it and giving it to Sarah. Happy now, she wrapped her arms around one of his legs, uninterested in anything else that’s going on.
“Do you know where Jung Jin is?”
Ha Neul pointed to his right. “The last time I saw him he was over there, just next to where the players would exit.”
I nodded. “Thanks.” I tugged at my daughter’s hand. “Come on Sarah, let’s go find Appa.”
“Tito Ha Neul,” she said bossily, fluttering her lashes. “Kiss.”
Ha Neul grinned from ear to ear as he bent down and Sarah gave him a sticky kiss. He looked pleased as he straightened. “She’s so cute.”
“I know,” I answered lightly. “She knows it, too. Do you mind watching her and Isabelle for a few minutes while I go look for Jung Jin?”
“No, not at all,” he said, already taking the stroller from my hands.
Our eldest daughter still had her arms around Ha Neul’s leg and I bent down. “You be a good girl for a few minutes, okay? Mama’s going to get Appa.” Sarah nodded slowly. “You make sure to watch your little sister, okay?”
“‘Kay.” The lollipop appeared and disappeared from her impossibly pink lips. “Mama, annyeong!”
Sarah continued to eat her lollipop as I walked away and I shook my head. She was growing up way too fast. I had reached where Ha Neul had pointed me to and still could not see any sign of my husband. I almost turned around believing that I may just have missed him, when I saw a familiar looking figure just beyond the dugout.
I was about to call a greeting when I saw that he was looking out onto the field, his arms crossed over his chest, his jaw tense as he leaned, half sitting against a wall. I couldn’t read the expression on his face but everything about his body language implied tension. I wish now that I had pried more deeply and had him talk before tonight.
I had known that Joon’s retirement would affect him, and I was right. For years he had connected his success with that of his only client’s, celebrating his every win and mourning his every failure. He has been the one to pick up the pieces when things went wrong, the one who always protected Joon’s public image and private life. That his life was tied to Joon’s career had been expected, and now it was all about to end.
JJ deserved all the accolades for all the work he’s done, but he could never have reached the heights of his success without my husband being there, making all the right choices and hard decisions for him. JJ knew this too… had often told Jung Jin the same thing himself.
Jung Jin had always underplayed it, said that it was only his job. That was my husband’s way… he was more than happy to not take the credit for anything, as long as the people he cared for were happy. It was what made him a great manager. But even so, it was what made him an exceptional man.
The people who loved Kim Jae Joon will never know the man behind him, always in the shadows, allowing him to shine as brightly as he possibly could, just as he continues and will continue to do for his agency’s other clients. Many of them may never achieve the fame that Joon has, but my husband will always try to get them there, supporting them every step of the way, hoisting them onto his shoulders if that’s what needed to be done. He will protect them as if they were his own flesh and blood, permitting them to bask in their glory even as he continued to only be known as their manager.
It seemed almost a thankless thing, for a man whose name will never appear in the record books, whose career will never be remembered in any hall of fame. Jung Jin already made his fortune before he decided to manage Joon. In truth he didn’t need the money but he did it anyway.
Joon’s goodbye to baseball was as poignant a goodbye for Jung Jin as well, and yet no one will recognize my husband. That he has to stand on the sidelines while everyone celebrated a career that he had as much invested on as his athlete made me hurt for him.
Jung Jin’s eyes collided with mine when I planted myself directly in front of him. His beautiful eyes, trying to shield the pain that he was feeling. He gave me a wry smile and I could only think of one thing: there were worse things in life than being that man who would willingly stand aside each and every time to allow someone else to shine, and I could definitely do worse than being the woman who loves him.
I had just closed my eyes for one second and when I opened them, the most beautiful eyes greeted me. Light brown with a tinge of chocolate around the iris, gold flecks scattered indiscriminately all over the place. Eyes that flicker to the lightest green and back again from joy, passion, sadness. Eyes that I see on both of my children.
The love of my life looking at me now with a mixture of pride and tenderness, and something in my chest tightened then expanded. The lump in my throat got bigger and I tried to muster up a smile, knew that she would only worry if I did not.
She closed the gap that separated us before wrapping her arms around me, her head just slightly above mine. Her lips curved up into a smile as she touched her forehead to mine.
“Chukhaye, Lee Jung Jin-ssi,” she said softly, her normally low voice lilting and melodic in my native tongue. “I am very, very, very proud of you.”
Something about the way she was looking at me made me feel exposed somehow, like she could see through me and I looked away.
“Why are you congratulating me?” I asked quietly. “I’m only his manager.”
She turned my face until I was looking back at her and she shook her head slowly.
“That’s what you think,” she continued, her head cocked to one side. “But you were also his brother, his friend, his harshest critic. You were his protector and his stepping stone. You were whatever he needed you to be at any given time in his career. I would hardly call that being ‘just’ a manager.”
“I was getting paid for it.” My responses were low and I couldn’t bring myself to look into her eyes. She always was able to see through me and never hesitated to call me out on it. I felt a little raw, a bit unguarded. This was not the strong husband that I had tried to make myself out to be.
She cocked her head to one side. “Yeah, because you needed that money so badly.”
“It’s no big deal,” I mumbled, “It’s not as if anyone really knows what I do.” My attempt at a joke sounded weak even to my ears. “It’s not like anyone will remember.”
My wife continued to look at me, her eyes without any judgment, as she laid a soft hand on my cheek, her thumb brushing over my lips. “I know,” she said, her voice full of conviction. “I’ll remember.”
I tightened my hold on her waist as I pulled her closer, resting my head on her chest, her heartbeat silencing the crowd around me.
It’s true, I thought, no one might remember my part in this. But it didn’t matter anymore. Not when I have this woman in my arms, as long as she believed in me. Not when I have this woman by my side, witnessing every step of my life.
I lifted my head and she placed kisses over my face before pulling back and grinning. “You’re a good man, Jung Jin. You don’t need people to tell you that.”
I nodded and kissed her lips, hovering above me so beckoningly. “Saranghae.”
“Saranghae,” she answered. “Nomu nomu nomu nomu saranghae.”
“Nado,” we heard our daughter say and I turned my head to see Sarah standing not far from us, making a heart with her arms over her head, her hair in pigtails. “Mama, Appa, saranghaeyo!”
Ha Neul, holding the stroller with a now awake Isabelle, her face in a beatific smile, gave us a harried grin. “Sorry… she was looking for both of you.”
“You ready to bust out of this joint?” My wife asked and I nodded.
“Let me leave Joon a message and I’ll be ready.”
“Okay. Give him mine and the girls’ love. They adore their Tito Joon,” she said. “Tell him I would kiss him congratulations the next time I see him.”
“Your lips,” I said, “are not going anywhere near my client.”
“You mean your soon to be boss.”
“Yeah,” I said. “My soon to be boss.” I stood up. “I think it’s time for me and my ladies to go home.”
My wife took my hand. “Yes. Let’s go home.”
Where was he?
I woke up to see the other half of the bed unoccupied, my husband nowhere in the room. I sat up and leaned against the headboard, wondering if he was still out. Our plans of spending the rest of the day at home were waylaid by a phone call from one of his clients, and of course my husband went. I shook my head. Once a manager, always a manager.
One glance at the clock next to the bed told me that it was only 2:30 in the morning. I looked down at the foot of the bed to see Dog asleep, lying upside down. I shook my head as I gave him a ruffle on his belly. Spoiled thing. Who knew that our little girls were going to adore him as much as Jung Jin and I do? It was a relief as well… if they didn’t like the dog I might have seriously reconsidered having more children.
I chuckled at how Jung Jin might have reacted to that statement. He can say all he wants but I know that he considers Dog his first kid.
I heard a distant melody, a familiar one at that, and stood up, grabbing my dressing gown and putting it on. I slipped my feet into my slippers and padded on the hardwood floor with a strong suspicion of where my husband was. The music guided me to the living room, where, as I expected, I found him.
The only light I could see was the one glowing from the street light outside, framing him in a soft dreamy glow. He was jacketless, his tie flung carelessly around his neck, the top button on his white shirt undone.
He had his eyes closed, a small smile on his face as his fingers danced on the keyboard, the melody the first one I heard him play. I felt a sense of deja vu and sighed. This man, I thought, as I laid a hand on the piano. I’m sure this is the reason why he was doing it.
I sat down next to him and he finally opened his eyes, his smile widening. He didn’t stop playing as he looked at me, his fingers moving at their own accord.
“Do you remember this?” He asked.
“How could I forget?” My answer was soft, shy. “I think that was may have been the night I fell in love with you.”
“You think?” His voice was teasing, playful. Reminiscent of the Jung Jin I first met, before I realized that there was more to him than just his pretty face.
“I know.” I nudged his shoulder. “What are you doing anyway, in the middle of the night? Junnie and all the girls are asleep. We might wa…”
“I’m serenading my wife,” he said. “I’m not very good with guitars and I’m too old to be singing from below a window, so I thought this was the next best thing. How could I live with myself being the husband of a Filipino woman without ever having done this?” He grinned. “I was told that this was very romantic.”
“It is,” I agreed. “You might just get lucky tonight.”
He chuckled and the sound warmed me from the inside out. He still managed to make me feel so lucky and so blessed every single day. I feel just as in love with him as I did when I first fell, except now it felt deeper, stronger. It was a love that felt rooted in my blood and in my veins, something that was now a part of me.
I looked at him as he finished the song, and he took my hand tenderly and placed a kiss on my palm as he has done many times before.
“So, Mr. Lee,” I started lightly. “What’s next for you?”
He appeared pensive for a moment before answering. “Many many things. Make love to my wife. Manage Joon’s academy. Have another kid. Lots of things.”
I cleared my throat. “About that…”
“The kid thing,” I said. “That might be something you’ll need to cross off your list.”
“Why?” He asked. “Do you not want any more children?”
“No.” He looked at me in confusion and I released a breath. “I’m pregnant.” Then, for emphasis, “again.”
His eyes widened before he gave a whoop of joy, his mouth breaking out into the biggest smile. He gave me a loud peck on the mouth before he spoke again.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “You’ve looked so stressed I didn’t want to put anything else on your shoulders until Joon was retired.” I looked deeply into his eyes. “Are you happy?”
“Of course,” he said. “We make pretty damn adorable babies.”
“Agreed.” We shared a mutual smile before I cleared my throat. “So,” I started, “How do you feel about this next step in your life?”
“Nervous,” he answered honestly. “But okay. Life has to move on. People have to evolve.”
Something about what he said, the words he used, rang familiar and I shook my head, telling myself that those were common enough sayings.
“If I don’t move forward then I stall, and then what?” He continued. “Sometimes all we can do is move forward. Someone once told me that.”
“That’s funny,” I said thoughtfully. “I could have sworn I had told someone those words before.”
The words were out of my mouth before I could even examine them. It wasn’t until I heard my husband’s voice, suspicious and disbelieving that I even thought anything about them were strange.
“Where were you in March 1996?”
“Why?” I asked. “What does that have…”
“Just tell me where,” he said. “Please.”
I didn’t have to think about my response. I knew my history like the back of my hand. “Brooklyn.”
“Where in Brooklyn?”
I frowned, trying to remember. I nodded slowly as my apartment came to mind. “339 Union Street.”
“North Park Slope?”
Again, I nodded. “How did you know?”
He looked at me in disbelief. “I knew you looked familiar,” he said before he threw his head back and laughed.
Brooklyn, New York
March 23, 1996
It’s done. Finally.
I drank the rest of my beer before motioning for the bartender. The person manning the bar, a ruddy faced stocky Irish American with a dish rag over one shoulder, sauntered over with a carefree grin.
“What else can I get you?” He asked.
“Double whiskey,” I said, my voice coming out gruffly. “Neat.”
He nodded before reaching for the bottle of Jack Daniels behind him, whipping up a glass and planting it in front of me. I watched silently as he poured two fingers worth of the golden coppery liquid into the glass and then slid it closer to me.
I took it without saying a word and downed it, ignoring the burn on my throat. I placed the glass back down on the counter with a thump under the bartender’s watchful eyes.
“Again.” It was an effort to just say that one word, my throat was still stinging from the alcohol I just drank.
His eyebrows narrowed slightly, though it was without judgment or pity. He uncapped the bottle and pulled another glass from behind the counter, pouring another double shot for me and one for him.
“This one’s on me,” he said, before lifting his glass. “You look like you have enough troubles for someone so young.”
With a nod, I lifted my glass and touched it gently to his before drinking. Though I had so much to say, I didn’t feel like talking at all.
“Where are you from?” He asked, leaning back against the bar behind him and crossing his arms over his chest.
“Korea,” I replied dully, my eyes fixed on the counter.
“Ah,” he said. “I thought so. Are you here for a visit?”
“Something like that,” I responded before pointing to my glass again.
He lifted an eyebrow. “I sure hope you’re not driving tonight.”
“No,” I said. “My apartment is just around the corner.” I said nothing else nor offered any other details.
My apartment, empty as of a few days ago, waiting for its next tenant. My apartment, one I had paid for, which I let Kelsey use. My apartment, the same one, that I caught her cheating on me in. That apartment.
The bartender poured me another shot of whiskey and I looked at him questioningly. He cocked his head towards one corner of the bar and motioned subtly towards a woman sat there.
“The lady bought you another shot,” he said as he leaned down on the counter, his elbow resting on the wooden surface.
I looked towards the person he was referring to, nodding my head in gratitude. I saw her lift up her glass in acknowledgement, could see a smile forming on a fairly pretty face.
I broke our gazes without inviting her to join me.
A pretty face has never interested me much. Nor did the mating games that people played. I have never been one to put too much stock on attraction, in fact prided myself on being sensible and logical most days. It would take more than a pretty face to break me out of this mood.
I ran my finger over the rim of my glass before lifting it back to my lips. I closed my eyes as bitterness hit me, though from the whiskey or the memories of Kelsey’s betrayal, I wasn’t quite sure. Not that it mattered.
All that mattered was that I forget, even for just a few minutes, even a few hours, that I had been made a fool of by the woman I loved. And the alcohol was more than effective in doing so.
People say that hate and love lived on different sides of the same coin, and now more than ever, I understood. I could feel resentment seething through me, even now, overtaking everything else.
I lifted my head and asked for another drink.
“Excuse me?” I asked, logging out of my charting and giving a careless wave to one of my coworkers as I ducked into the locker room.
I took my cell phone away from my ear to look at the number and tried to figure out whether I could identify the caller. I couldn’t.
“This is Neil from Community Bookstore,” the man on the other end of the line said.
I opened my locker and hung up my stethoscope, then shoved my caddy full of pens, alcohol pads, syringes and drug books into it before pulling my sweatshirt out. One glance at the mirror on the locker’s door showed a more tired version of the face I recognized as my own, dark circles shadowing my eyes and a haphazard bun on top of my head.
Not surprising, after the day I’ve had. Even less surprising, after the last two weeks.
There’s a saying in the hospital that when shit hits the fan, it happens all at the same time. The code blue at the beginning of my shift was only the starter; it was closely followed by a fall and an incident report, and of course, another almost code before the end of my twelve hours. I felt the day in every muscle of my body.
The physical pain felt good, though, almost liberating. Euphoric. It felt like I actually accomplished something today.
“Neil from Community Bookstore.”
“Hang on one second, okay?”
I zipped up my sweater over my scrubs and grabbed my purse, then took the two flights of stairs that will take me to the first floor of the hospital, where I swiped my badge to officially end my day.
It was not until I had taken the first step out of the hospital and had breathed in the crisp New York City spring air that I spoke again.
“What is this regarding?” I asked, securing my bag over my shoulder as I started my twenty minute walk to my apartment.
“Ah… you requested for us to find a first edition copy of Shogun?” He answered. “James Clavell?” I didn’t respond. “You came in two months ago… said you wanted to give it to your fiancé for his birthday?”
I stopped in my tracks so quickly someone had bumped into me from behind. People continued to pass by me and I remained unaware, frozen in place.
“Well,” Neil from Community Bookstore continued, seemingly oblivious to my reaction, “we finally found it. You can pick it up tonight or tomorrow.” As if only just realizing now that I was not speaking, there was an expectant silence before he spoke again. “Hello? HEllo? Helllooo….”
“I’m here,” I blurted out. “I’m sorry.”
“Did you hear what I said, ma’am?”
“Yep. Shogun. Tonight or tomorrow,” I said. “Got it.”
“Great. So we’ll see you the…”
I hung up the phone before he could even finish speaking. For the last twelve hours I was able to forget that my fiancé was in love. And not with me.
Until now. The reality of my failed engagement crashed into me, as pieces came back slowly, then all at once, my left hand feeling markedly weightless. It was almost as if my finger was also remembering that until two weeks ago, it held the promise of forever.
I bit my lower lip, tried to push the memories aside as quickly as they were coming.
Chris, proposing by the fireplace. Chris, confessing his one night stand. And the last, Chris, sitting me down to tell me that what he had described as something casual, something he mainly attributed, no less, to my inability to open up, has now turned into a full blown relationship.
An ache began at the very spot my heart should be in, though I was unsure whether it was from losing Chris or losing what I believed was something that would finally be mine.
I tried to remember what Junnie told me… what my best friend had said, as I told her what happened. “You can’t lose what’s already yours,” she said. “If you do, it was never yours to begin with.”
What she said made a lot of sense, though it failed to cheer me up at this moment in time. If she was here I had no doubt that she would pull out more words of wisdom as I have come to expect of her at times like this. But she was not.
Without my best friend, I turned to the next best thing. Spotting the brightly lit sign as I made the turn onto 5th Avenue, I made my way through the throng of people, for once certain of what I wanted and where I would find it.
I stepped into my apartment a few minutes later, armed with bags of reinforcements. A couple of bottles of tequila, a bottle of red wine, a few cans of beer, a bagful of limes. There was a full italian sandwich sticking out of another bag, a Cuban sandwich, a sickeningly large bag of potato chips, and a slice of chocolate cake.
Oh yes. I was ready to drown my sorrows in gluttony and drink.
I placed the bottle of wine in the freezer to chill before emptying the bags on the counter, washing my hands before proceeding to start on the first sandwich. Not bothering to even sit down, I checked my phone as I ate, noting a text message from Junnie asking if she got any mail in her Greenwich Village apartment and another from my sister, asking if I would be home for Easter.
No, and no. I made quick work of answering both texts succinctly, finishing the sub that I was eating in record time. I popped open a can of beer before placing the rest in the fridge and drank it without another thought.
I ignored the boxes that littered the living room as I walked to the bedroom, grabbing a pair of sweatpants and a loose shirt from a box before heading to the bathroom, squarely avoiding the wedding gown still hanging on my closet door.
I took a quick shower before wrapping my hair in a towel, and headed straight back to the kitchen. I grabbed the rest of the beer and tequila, a salt shaker and the limes, then planted myself on the living room floor before turning the television on. I brushed my hair out before pulling the front part of my hair into a top knot then settled myself down for the long haul.
I watched blankly as the news came on, fully focused on cutting the limes with my plastic knife. I poured a bit of salt on my hand, drank the tequila straight from the bottle, and bit on a lime, letting the familiar taste wrap me up in a warm, comforting embrace. And then I repeated it, over and over again, only stopping now and again to take a handful of chips or a bite of my second sandwich.
I may lack openness, I thought bitterly, but at least I didn’t lack commitment.
By the time the ten o’clock news came on, I had already started the second bottle of tequila. Fatigued and mentally drained, I had just laid myself down on the floor when a persistent knocking on the door had me sitting back up, wondering who the hell could be coming over at this time of the fucking night.
My key wasn’t working.
I opened one eye as I looked at it, then tried to insert it into the lock a second time. For a second I wondered if I was using the right key, cursing that both keys looked identical in the light.
Vaguely I remembered from the part of my brain that still kind of worked, that there was only one key. And that I was now seeing double. The thought made me giggle, then laugh. Within seconds I was laughing so hard tears were falling from my eyes and I was holding my abdomen, doubled over in solitary mirth.
But still… why isn’t my key working?
The landlord assured me that though there was already a renter scheduled to move in, that they wouldn’t be doing so until I had fully surrendered my apartment. And I haven’t, yet. Why else would I be holding this key?
This key that no longer worked. I tried to wiggle it back in, tried to force it in. There was still no budging.
I placed an ear over the door and heard some noises. There was someone in there. I tried to remember if I had locked my door before going to the bar, but could remember nothing in my current state.
Surely… surely a squatter has not made a home in my house?
I frowned, tried to keep the world from spinning as I rested my head against the wall. Dammit… I knew I shouldn’t have let my furniture be a part of the deal. Any homeless person can just walk in there and think it’s move in ready.
I nodded to myself as if what I was thinking made perfect sense. I didn’t even think twice before I started banging on the door.
“I’m coming… I’m coming…” I muttered, holding the tequila bottle as I tried to walk a straight line to the door. I had just undone the deadbolt when the knocking became more vigorous.
What in the world? Who is this rude?
Even in my inebriated state, at least I still had manners. I preferred to humiliate myself in private, thank you very much.
The knocking has not stopped.
“Oh for fuck’s sake,” I said as I opened the door wide open.
A man stood on the other side of the doorway, leaning drunkenly on the wall. Almond shaped eyes blinked at me from behind a pair of unfashionable glasses even as his mouth opened agape.
“Why…” he slurred, “Why are you in my house?”
I squinted at him as he spoke, the hallway light unnaturally bright. I cocked my head. Something about him seemed familiar, like he was someone I had met before. My eyes roamed leisurely over the slope of a noble looking nose, the firm angle of his jaw. Longish hair underneath a beanie cap way too big for his head. Alcohol made me bold. Bold and brave.
“Who are you?” My words, delivered in what I thought was normal tempo, sounded slow even to my ears.
I must be drunker than I thought.
“I’m the person who owns this house,” he said proudly and I shook my head.
“No… this is my house,” I insisted. “Mine. You can’t take it away from me.”
“No,” he said drunkenly. “It’s my house.”
I frowned. “I don’t think so.”
His words were interrupted by the arrival of the elevator at the end of the hallway, and out came even more familiar looking people, except this time I was able to actually identify them.
Neighbors. My neighbors. I even watered their plants when they were on vacation. I wasn’t so drunk I didn’t remember that.
I lifted a weak hand and attempted a wave. I got the impression of awkward smiles being sent my way before they disappeared into the apartment a few doors from mine.
I wondered if they knew that I had been dumped. For as long as I have lived here I had dated Chris. No doubt they would have noticed that in the recent weeks that he had disappeared. How sad must I look. How pathetic. I sniffled with some irritation.
It’s not fair.
“Hello?” The man in front of me was speaking again, accompanied by a snapping of his fingers.
He glowered at me and I glowered right back, annoyed that my very own pity party was interrupted.
“Listen,” the man outside my door said, wiggling a key in front of me, “I don’t know who you are, or what you’re doing here, but it’s illegal to squat in Brooklyn. I’ve had a shitty day and a shitty couple of weeks, so I would appreciate if you leave.”
I planted my hands on my hips and stood my ground, though it was difficult to look serious with the man towering over me by at least a foot and me swaying (just a little.)
“THIS. IS. MY. HOUSE,” I said, my voice growing louder with each word. “You want this house so much you could have had it! I was supposed to be married in a few months! I was almost hap…” My voice faltered and broke, the conviction sounding remarkably like vulnerability. Why I was pouring my troubles to this… stranger was beyond me. His eyes narrowed with interest and I looked away. “Anyway… You’re not the only one who’s had a shitty time, you know. I’ve had a shitty day too! And a shitty week! And a shitty month!” I took a deep breath. “So… I would appreciate it if you would just get lost and let me drink myself to sleep.”
“Are you… drunk?” The question came out dripping with amusement and I glared at him.
“So what if I am? So what?” He smirked at me and I felt a lick of something more than irritation. “What does that have to do with anything anyway? You should just mind your own…”
“I caught my girlfriend sleeping with her professor,” he said lamely, expression sobering. “I was about to propose.”
I blinked at him, considered his situation. “Yeah, well, at least you found out before you got married. My invitations were sent out. I have a big ass wedding dress in my apartment. I win.”
He lifted a sardonic brow. “I was going to move from Korea for her.”
For a second I wondered if he and I were playing some sort of game wherein we compare whose situation was more pathetic; whether I was so starved for someone to talk to that I was now enjoying this weird repartee with this person. Either way I felt a strange sort of kinship with this lunatic. Sometimes it’s nice to know that you’re not the only one that the world fucks over once in a while.
He was still leaning against my doorway, arms crossed over his chest, his eyes meeting mine directly. The words slipped out of my mouth before I could stop them.
“Do you want to continue this here?” I asked. “Or do you want to come in? Until we figure out where you live, at least?”
I opened the door even as my brain screamed out warnings and threats. Don’t do it… this is crazy behavior… he could be a psycho. I shut it up and told myself he couldn’t be a serial killer. He was Asian, after all. In my drunken logic this made all the sense in the world.
He gave me a somber nod.
Amazing, I thought, as my eyes wandered over the apartment that was supposed to be mine but wasn’t quite mine. It looked like the woman that opened the door had been right, after all. This was not my apartment, but… it looked like my apartment. Also, if she did live here, why did it look like she just moved in?
There were boxes and even more boxes all over the place, and I almost tripped on some wrapped in shimmering silvers, ivories and golds as I staggered through the doorway. I blinked at the identical floor plan laid before me, made even more pronounced by the fact that the apartment was furnished so sparsely.
Even so, the fireplace was on and it felt deliciously warm. I unwrapped the thick scarf around my neck.
“What…” I heard the woman say behind me, “what are you doing?”
I turned around so quickly it made the room spin and looked at her, wondering how her voice sounded so familiar. I cocked my head to one side as I perused her face, then swallowed when a jolt of awareness ran through me.
Or, at least, I think it’s awareness. With me being sure I was 97% drunk, it could be anything. Besides, I never even felt that kind of thing with Kelsey, or with anyone else. At least not since Shawn’s…
My thoughts drifted to my oldest friend’s best friend, still a stranger to me, even after all these years. How could I have known of her for so many years and still not have seen her face?
I could have bumped into her already, a million times over, and not have known her. She could be anyone. Hell, she could be…
My gaze drifted back to the woman standing in front of me, her hands over her hips. She could be… nah, I told myself. She couldn’t be her. The woman in front of me was too short, and her hair, too light. Her eyes were too big. And her lips… my eyes wandered over said lips, too… I cleared my throat. This woman was too… everything.
She was leaning against the foyer table, part of her long hair pulled up into a knot on top of her head. It should have made her look ridiculous, but somehow it made her look… adorable. Absently she raised a foot to scratch at a shapely calf and I dragged my eyes back up to her face.
She was currently looking at me through half lidded eyes the color of soft moss, her hand stubbornly holding onto a bottle of tequila. Honey colored skin peeked out of the t shirt she wore, the collar slipping off one side. She wore sweatpants folded up over her knees, her feet bare with nails painted a hot pink.
I felt my cheeks flush. “It’s…hot in here.”
“Ah.” She walked past me and sitting down on the couch. “So,” she said, “Are you just gonna stand there or are you going to sit down?”
I darted a glance at the man sitting on the floor, his back against the front of the couch and his eyes fixed on the television screen, his hand still holding the empty shot glass.
What was I thinking, inviting a stranger into my house?
Already even in the haze of my drunkenness I was beginning to question my sanity.
I quickly drank the tequila in my shot glass and bit on a slice of lime, grateful when my cellphone rang. Seeing Junnie’s name pop up, I quickly rose from the couch and darted into the bathroom, running the water on the sink. To his credit, the stranger sitting in my living room said nothing and didn’t even look up.
“Oh no,” Junnie said, her voice already chiding over the phone. “You’re drunk already.”
“What?” I asked. How does she know this stuff? “No.”
“Really? You just took like 20 seconds to say a total of 3 words.”
“Please don’t talk so loudly,” I whispered. “Someone might hear you.”
Junnie chuckled. “And… here comes the paranoid delusions,” she said. “Why should I speak quietly? I’m by myself.” There was a pregnant pause. “Hold on… do you have someone over?”
How do I answer that? “No,” I blurted out. “Yes. No.”
Junnie let out a sigh of frustration. “Do you or do you not have someone over?”
“Kind of,” I said, putting the toilet seat down and sitting myself on it.
“Did you go on a date or something?” Junnie asked. I didn’t answer. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I… did not go on a date,” I said.
“So who’s there?”
“Some guy,” I replied dismissively. “I don’t know him.”
“You took a stranger home?” Junnie’s voice rang with incredulity.
“I didn’t take him home!” I answered, defensive. “He just showed up! He’s drunk and pathetic!” Like me, I wanted to add, but did not.
“Ohmygod,” Junnie said. “What is it with you and taking in causes? You have never once passed an old person and not offered help. You have never passed a kid without trying to be all friendly. It’s actually surprising that you haven’t attracted any stray dogs or cats yet or you would have taken them all home. And now you’re taking in strange men who show up at your door?”
“He thought it was his apartment,” I said. “His almost fiancée cheated on him.”
“Not your problem.”
“I’m fine, Junnie,” I insisted. “He’s Asian.”
“Oh great… because that means he’s not crazy,” she said with more sarcasm that I liked. “I should call Ethan and find out if he’s still in the city… maybe he can come over too and keep an eye on you.”
“No need for that.” I shook my head though I knew that she couldn’t see me. The last thing I needed was to see Junnie’s friend in this condition. “I’m fine, Junnie. I’m a grown up person. He and I are just having a couple of drinks. He looks like a nice guy. A little sorry but nice. He’s handsome.”
“Ted Bundy was considered handsome by a lot of people.”
“Ted Bundy is not Asian,” I crowed, finding what she said incredibly funny. “I’m fine.”
“Being Asian does not automatically discount someone from being a homicidal maniac. You need to stop doing these crazy spontaneous things,” she nagged. “Stop opening your door to strangers. Kick him out and lock your…”
I started making a static noise with my mouth and held my palm over the receiver. “Junnie… something’s wrong with my reception,” I interrupted. “Bzzzzz…. bzzzz… I gotta go. Bye, Junnie, byeeee!!!”
“I know you’re just making that noise,” my best friend said, clucking her tongue just as I was about to hang up the call. “Can I just say one thing?”
“Please…” she said, her voice resigned. “Try not do anything tonight that you won’t remember in the morning.”
My handphone vibrated in my pocket and I pulled it out of my suit jacket as I looked around, wondering where my grudging hostess went. Seeing Shawn’s name, I was about to answer it when she reappeared, a frown on her face. I silenced my phone and placed it on the table.
She walked to the kitchen and opened the refrigerator then came back with a bag in her hand. She sat down on the floor across from me and pulled out a sandwich from the bag, along with a chilled bottle of wine.
With a deep breath she opened the contents of the wrapped parchment paper. She picked up half of the monstrous sandwich she unwrapped, taking a bite before speaking, her mouth full.
“D’you want some?” Her winged eyebrows shot up as she asked me the question, and I shook my head.
She scrunched up her face before wiping her mouth carelessly with a paper towel. “Eat. It’s not good idea to be drinking if you don’t eat anything.” She ripped up a paper towel and deposited half the sandwich on it, playing charades with her hands and making biting noises.
Despite my horrible mood, I grinned. To my confusion she blinked at me for one second before looking away, her fingers fiddling with her shot glass.
“So,” she said softly and I wondered about her sudden shyness, “which apartment were you looking for?”
“Ah… 345 Corcoran.”
She lifted her eyes and I was taken aback by how they had transformed to a whiskey colored hue, their golden flecks more noticeable now. The apples of her cheeks were pink, her lips distractingly plump.
Bee stung lips, I thought as I also looked away. Most people would pay a lot of money for that.
“You’re on top of me,” she said quickly, not seeming to realize what she just said until the words have come out of her mouth. Upon her realization she quieted and pressed her lips together, tongue peeking out to lick her bottom lip. “I meant your apartment,” she clarified. “Your apartment is just upstairs.” She gave a nervous laugh before clearing her throat, a hand lifting to tuck a wayward strand of hair back behind her ear.
I might have said something had I been able to. Maybe given her a witty rebuttal, maybe said something full of charm. But I had never been charming nor witty. I was awkward when dealing with women at the best of times and my limited experience with other women besides Kelsey outside my own sisters didn’t help my cause.
Nor did the fact that I found myself now curious about this woman in front of me. I wondered about why she would open her house to a complete stranger and share her drink and food, without question, among other things.
Like why she was alone. Why her apartment looked like she just moved in. And why, in God’s green earth, anyone would cheat on her.
She started speaking but none of her words were registering, so transfixed was I on the fingers that now traveled over the rim of her shotglass, unadorned but for the pink on her nails, my heartbeat slowing as I watched her. I suddenly wanted to know how those fingers felt in mine, whether the caress on the glass would feel just as gentle on my skin.
Sweat broke out in my palms as I recognized my interest. Jesus. I must be drunk. Why else would I now be feeling like this when just a couple of hours ago I was swearing off women?
The woman in front of me clocked my discomfort and smiled awkwardly, as if trying to make me more comfortable.
She wasn’t even that pretty, I tried to tell myself. Oh… who was I kidding??? She was beautiful.
“Did you just move in?” I asked, wondering when my voice became so gravelly, trying to drag my eyes away from the remarkable albeit intoxicated face in front of me.
“No,” she said, pouring some salt on the side of one hand before topping up our glasses with tequila. “Why would you think that?”
“The boxes,” I said, imitating her movements, questioning whether I should tell her that tequila and I don’t mix well. The one time I drank it in the past I woke up the next day with no memory of what happened. Hold on, I told myself, wasn’t that what I was just hoping for just a few minutes ago? To forget?
I nodded to myself as I licked the salt, just as I saw her do and tried not to stare at her tongue. then took the shot in one go, as she did. She smiled at me as she picked up a lime wedge and bit on it, and I did the same. I must have made a face because the next thing I knew she was giggling, her laughter effortless and contagious.
The sound made me feel lighter, better. I smiled, again.
Again, her smile faded and she frowned at me, and I wondered what I had done wrong to erase the expression.
I thought it was a fluke. The first time he smiled and I saw the indent on his left cheek, I was hit by a surge of apprehension and sudden awareness. I thought it was just the fact that I was drunk.
I babbled on about the weather and the apartment and whatever else I could think of as I felt his eyes on me, wondering why the room felt so much warmer than it did just minutes before. I fought the urge to fan myself he was looking at me so intently, as if I was a puzzle he wanted to solve.
He looked so uncomfortable about something… maybe thoughts of his cheating ex girlfriend, that I felt the need to make him feel better. And me, too, disliking that I was now curious about the man that sat next to me.
I thought the tequila will break me out of it. And it nearly did, until he scrunched his face from the sourness of the lime and I laughed, eliciting another smile on his face.
And then it happened again. His dimple reappeared and transformed a face that I would have thought just a little above average to something exceptional. Even now I could see the intelligence behind his glasses, the sense of humor behind his restrained smile.
Yep, I thought. Definitely interested.
Is that even allowed after just getting out of an engagement? Even at the height of my relationship with Chris I never felt this kind of tension. Maybe… maybe this is what seeing from intoxicated lenses is like. That’s it.
My relationship with Chris had been a relationship based on common interest and stability. It was why I chose to go out with him in the first place after a year of courtship. I thought he and I shared things in common. I thought he would take care of me.
A lot of good that was.
My drinking friend continued to look at me without speaking, and I realized he must still be waiting for an answer.
But what was the question again? Ah, I remembered, the boxes.
“I don’t like to unpack,” I finally answered, feeling myself flush a deeper pink, hoping that he wouldn’t expect me to elaborate. Remembering Marcus…
“What about the gifts?” He asked, interrupting my thoughts. “Was it your birthday recently?”
“No,” I shook my head, too embarrassed to feel relieved that his attention had been diverted. How do I explain this? “They were wedding presents,” I explained. “From the registry.”
He lifted the bottle of tequila as if offering me some more, and I nodded. Why exercise caution when I was already drunk?
“You said you were about to propose?” I asked then gave myself a silent pat on the back. That’s it. Keep focusing on the fact that he’s just gotten out of a relationship, was likely still in love with his ex. As are you. Right. I nodded and took the drink.
“Yep,” he answered flatly. “I should be grateful I found out before…” he gestured towards the pile of gifts littering my hallway, “… it came to this.”
I didn’t take offense. He merely told a fact. “Yes. Once the invitations are out and everything is set it becomes a full on drama.” I kept my eyes on my glass. “I should have known when he didn’t ask my parents first if he could marry me that he wasn’t the right one.”
“Is there such a thing as a right or wrong person, though?”
The emotionless way he just delivered his question made me look at him. “I think so.” I considered my words carefully before I spoke again. “At least where I come from that’s what I believe anyway. That there is one person meant for you and you alone.”
“Like destiny?” He asked.
I nodded. “Like destiny.”
She nodded in response. “Like destiny.”
I hoped not. I thought Kelsey had been the one for me. How depressing to think that the person meant for me was a lying, cheating bit…
“Not that it’s the end all and be all,” she explained. “Just that things will happen when they’re supposed to. And that the people who come into your life serve a certain purpose when they do.”
I lifted a brow. “That sounds a bit optimistic for someone who’s just been cheated on before her wedding.”
She blanched and I cursed inwardly. “What do you suggest I do?” She asked blandly. “Cry and bemoan my situation? It happened. It’s done. I can’t change it. All I can do is move forward.”
I poured myself another shot. “I just don’t see how anyone, not just you but me too, can move on so quickly.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “Life has to move on. People have to evolve. If they don’t move forward then they stall and stagnate. And what good is that?
“I wish I had your optimism.”
“It’s not optimism,” she argued. “You are what you think. If you don’t believe it now, then you keep saying it until you do. Sometimes moving forward is the only thing we can do. You… do whatever it takes.”
“Like bury your head in alcohol?” I asked and she smiled.
“Touche.” She took her own drink before she frowned. “I’m just pissed that I don’t even get to go on my honeymoon now.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Uhmm… because a honeymoon is for people who get married?” She asked. “I paid for it and everything. We were supposed to go to Japan.”
She stared mournfully at the empty tequila bottle before brightening and turning her attention to the unopened bottle of wine. Already my abdomen flipped. This mixing of various alcoholic drinks is so not a good idea. It didn’t stop me from drinking the wine she poured onto a plastic cup.
“So go to Japan.”
“By myself?” She gave another one of her nervous laughs and shook her head no.
“You just said that all you can do is move forward,” I said, wondering what the hell I was talking about. The alcohol was dulling my brain and I was saying things without considering what I was even suggesting. “Why should you forfeit your honeymoon for something you didn’t even do?”
I must have made some sort of sense since her initial adamant refusal now looked as if it had turned to a thoughtful consideration. “You know what?” She said, after a few minutes of silence. “You’re right.”
He’s the one who suggested it so why is he looking at me like that?
“You know what?” I said, becoming more enamored of the idea the longer I thought about it. “You’re right.”
“Yes,” I said, standing up so quickly I made myself dizzy. Within one second my drinking buddy was on his feet, a broad hand on my back. Heat seared where his fingers touched my skin and I froze.
Just one second ago he looked as drunk as I was but now… was he really?
My eyes were locked onto the cashmere sweater he wore, luxuriously soft under my hands, resting on his chest for balance. His hair fell over his forehead and I resisted the urge to brush it back, telling myself that this was just the alcohol talking.
Or my hormones.
The reminder made me pull away to get some distance and we stood a couple of feet apart, staring at each other like we’ve never seen each other before. And yet… there it was again… the feeling of familiarity, as if he was someone I should have recognized.
After a few minutes of silence I broke it by making a show of grabbing my cellphone. I turned and gave him a forced smile to hide my nerves, even as he continued to stand in the same spot looking as bewildered as I felt.
“I’ll…” I started, my voice breathy even to my ears. I felt heat shoot up all the way to the ends of my hair. “I’ll be right back.”
One second she was sitting and the next falling over. I only meant to break her fall. Only meant to perhaps hold her up.
All those thoughts disappeared as soon as my hands met warm supple flesh. I could feel sparks in my fingers where I touched her, all the way to my fingertips.
It startled me and I couldn’t move, all my brain power reduced to nothing. Like I have never touched a woman before. Like it didn’t matter whether I would touch another woman again.
She blinked at me, her eyes becoming becoming warm golden pools and I felt somersaults in my abdomen. Her hands, so ungraceful on any other woman but fit her perfectly, rested on my chest and I could feel them as if they were touching bare skin.
My brain fuzzy from all the alcohol I consumed tonight I couldn’t come up with anything to say. I was still thinking about it when she pulled away and grabbed her handphone from the table, addressing me as she turned.
“I’ll…” Her voice, appealingly husky, came out in one breathy whoosh. I shook my head as the feeling of deja vu came back, as if there was something I needed to remember but could not. “I’ll be right back.”
With that she disappeared behind another door and I sat down on the floor, a little confused and not just a little frightened. I rested my head on my hands and drank another sip of wine.
Who was this woman and what has she done to me?
“Yes. Tomorrow,” I said, putting my credit card back in my wallet. “Yep. The fee is okay.”
“You are all set, Miss Flores,” the airline representative set. “You have a business class flight on Japan Airlines tomorrow from JFK Airport direct to Tokyo.”
“Great!” I said, hoping that my voice didn’t betray my drunkenness. “Thank you.”
“Thank you for using Japan Airlines,” she said politely. “Have a good night.”
I hung up the phone happily, adrenaline pumping in my veins. I was going to get to go on my honeymoon without getting married.
Who needed a groom? I asked myself. Not me. Not me.
Belatedly I realized that I didn’t ask for ask flight confirmation number. And was I supposed to fly out at 8 a.m. or 10 a.m.? Even now I was already struggling to remember the details. I dismissed the concern… I will find out tomorrow.
I exited the bathroom after grabbing the bottle of aspirin from the medicine cabinet preemptively, my brain filled with what I have to do. Call out of work. Pack. Tell Junnie, who will probably yell at me for deciding on yet another spontaneous thing without her. Tell my family. Take some fucking aspirin to make sure I don’t have a hangover.
So much to do and so little ti…
My thoughts fizzled out as I realized that the person I had been drinking with was still here. The time spent on the phone with the airline calmed me down some, but I hadn’t forgotten my reaction when he caught me.
I must be more starved for human affection and attention that I previously thought.
My steps slowed as I approached him, his form crouched down. It wasn’t until I was almost in front of him that I realized he was already asleep. His glasses slid down his nose and for a second I was tempted to not take it off, afraid that my touch would awaken him, even more afraid that I might end up touching more than I should. I gave myself a pep talk and did it anyway, trying to keep my eyes from focusing on the way his lashes kissed his impossibly high cheekbones, silencing the sigh that threatened to escape from my throat.
It may be a good thing the man wore glasses. He would be too much otherwise.
I placed his glasses on the table before grabbing the throw from the couch and draping it over him. I walked to the kitchen and got a glass of water, placing both that and the bottle of aspirin on the table next to the couch.
As I drank the wine straight from the bottle, I was already thinking about how strange this night was, wondering what role this man was supposed to play in my life, if any, at this time.
I found myself inadvertently looking at my neighbor, sleeping peacefully. Will I even see him again? Surely I will if he lived just upstairs.
For the first time in as many years as I can remember, I felt a strange feeling of expectation go through me. Yeah. We will definitely see each other again.
In the meantime, I thought, impulsively grabbing the guide book I bought for Japan along with some highlighters, it seems I was going on a trip. I popped open a can of beer and began to read.
Brooklyn, New York
March 24, 1996
The floor felt hard against my back. I opened an eye and cursed at the open window, the sunlight hurting my eyes. My hair was over my face and I blew to get it off my line of sight. Using my elbow to prop myself up to a semi-sitting position, I shielded my eyes with my hands as my head began pounding. I realized that I was laying on the living room floor, surrounded by a couple of bottles of tequila, a carton of salt, and several lime peels. There were also several cans of beer and half a bottle of wine. I winced. That explains the headache. And the slightly rancid vomit smell coming from the front of my shirt.
My eyes wandered to the side table and I crawled and grabbed the bottle of aspirin and half empty glass of water as soon as I saw it. Gulping both down, I fought the bile that rose up from my throat.
I swallowed the nausea that came over me as I tried to remember what happened, holding my head in my hands. What did I do yesterday?
I was at work when I received the phone call.
I tried to remember anything else… anything else that could have happened, but came up blank.
I groaned as I rotated my neck, trying to undo some of the knots that had formed from my uncomfortable position, wondering why I opted to sleep on the floor when there was a perfectly serviceable couch nearby. It didn’t even occur to me to question why my throw was on the floor but not on me, or why there were two shot glasses on the floor next to all my drinking… accessories.
I shook my head. Who the hell knows why I did those things? Between the tequila and wine I must have lost my mind, and while I don’t remember much, I do remember starting drinking almost as soon as I came home.
An opened guidebook on Japan lay next to me, spine side up, highlighters keeping it company. Japan. I shook my head. It was where Chris and I had planned on having our honeymoon. It had been on the top of his dream destinations, and through many hours of negotiating, I had agreed. Again I shook my head. He won’t get to go to Tokyo now… at least not with me.
My wallet also lay on the floor, and I was picking it up when I noticed my cordless phone sitting next to me, the ringtone still beeping. I pressed the CALL button to shut it up.
I must have called Junnie, I thought, as I usually did when I was upset. Or drunk. She was currently in the middle of a major acquisition in her father’s company in Singapore and therefore had been unable to visit, even after my engagement ended. With her being so far away, our long distance phone bills were huge. Dear God, I hope I didn’t worry her, if I called in a stupor last night.
Walking stiffly to the bathroom, I carried the cordless phone with me and pressed the redial button, noting the time. It would be a bit before midnight in Singapore, and Junnie had always been a night owl. I had no doubt she would still be awake, and maybe she’ll fill me in on what I had needed to know about Japan so urgently that I actually whipped out the guidebook and studied it, even when I was out of my head with drink. I splashed my face with water, then began to brush my teeth as I pressed the redial button.
I almost choked on the toothbrush when an automated voice greeted me. “Thank you for calling Japan Airlines. To continue in English, please press ‘1.” The English prompts were followed by their Japanese counterparts. I called an airline? Horrified I stared at my phone as if it was the culprit. For one second I considered just hanging up, pretty positive that maybe I had just prank-called them or something. But… my wallet was next to the phone. What if… I had done something as crazy as booking a flight? I let out a half hearted laugh and shook my head. Surely not. But what if I did? I pressed 1 and heard the next instructions, then pressed 3 when prompted for reservations.
I held my breath as I was connected to a representative, then released it when a polite sounding female voice came on the line.
“Good morning and thank you for calling Japan Air Lines. My name is Joanne and I will be assisting you today.”
“Uhmm…” I hesitated for a second, fully aware of how insane I will sound, then bit the bullet. Better to know than not know. “This is going to sound absolutely crazy, but my name is Gia Flores. I was wondering if, uh, you can tell me if I booked a flight?”
“I can certainly help you,” she responded. “Do you have a reservation number?”
“That’s the thing,” I said sheepishly. “I’m not entirely sure if I booked a flight.”
“Not a problem. Will you please spell your last name for me?” I complied and she was silent, making non committal noises on the other line, and I could hear her typing on her keyboard. “Ah,” she said. “Here you are. Gia Flores. Round trip business class ticket from JFK International Airport in New York City to Tokyo, Japan. You had paid for it on a Visa ending in 4457, and you had opted to print your ticket and boarding pass in the airport.” She paused. “Wow, you even chose your seats and everything.”
“I did?” I was impressed. Even drunk me was very detail-oriented. I berated myself for feeling abnormally proud, and turned my attention back to the matter at hand. Which was that I had booked a trip to Japan. WHAT THE HELL. Did I do it to spite Chris? To show him that even if I can’t get married I can still go on a solo honeymoon? I guess I could still go. I have that time booked off of work already. I still had time to save up some money. My internal dialogue was interrupted by Joanne’s voice
“What?” I asked. What the hell else could she possibly tell me?
“You made your reservation for today. For the 1:15 p.m. flight.”
“You’re due to fly out in two hours.”
She chuckled. “Believe it or not, you’re not the first person who has done this.”
“I need to cancel that flight,” I said weakly. “Did I at least purchase a refundable ticket?”
My head pounded slightly now, an aftermath of last night’s little adventure. Now that the adrenaline had worn off, I was able to think more clearly, feeling better than I have felt since I discovered Kelsey’s infidelity.
I have the woman from last night to thank for that. In fact I have a lot to thank her for: the companionship, the distraction. And not the least of which was the bottle of aspirin and water that was on the table next to the couch in her apartment when I woke up.
An announcement over the PA system rang overhead, and my eyes narrowed as an airline counter employee appeared behind the desk at my gate. She tapped the mic before speaking. “Second call for the following passengers: Natalie Wilson, Gia Flores, William Lindbergh. Please come to Gate 7. Natalie Wilson, Gia Flores, William Lindbergh to Gate 7, please.”
I lifted my head, thinking that my chances were pretty good at getting on this flight. If I didn’t manage to get on it, I would need to wait in the airport for another five hours until the next one, the one my ticket was actually for. I watched as a man approached the woman at the counter, then gave her a piece of paper. I glanced at the clock on the wall, noted that the flight had already begun boarding.
The newspaper was still on my lap when I heard my name. “Mr. Lee, please come to the ticket desk at your departure gate,” I heard the PA system call out. “Mr. Jung Jin Lee, please come to to the ticket desk.”
I stood up, passport and boarding pass in hand, as I approached the ticket counter. The attendant behind the desk took both without looking at me.
“A seat just opened up on this flight,” she said, her eyes fixed on the computer. “You got lucky, as well, as it’s a business class ticket.”
She took my old boarding pass and reprinted me a new one. I took it with a quiet thank you and smiled, before reaching inside my pocket and pulling out the ring I had planned to propose with. When I heard the announcement that I could now board, I walked to the garbage can and threw it away. Eyes frozen ahead of me, I walked through the gate and never looked back.
It was not until I was walking into the plane that my mind drifted back to the woman I met last night. There was a detail I felt I should remember, something nagging at me, something important. I flung it away. If it was that important it would come back to me in time.
I ran frustrated fingers through my hair as I sat in my seat. I don’t even know her name. Nor could I remember what she looked like. When I woke she lay on the floor, her hair covering her face. For a second I had been tempted to brush it away but stopped myself last minute.
I do, however, remember some things: the first was her voice, husky and plaintive, sounding pensive even in her drunkenness.
And then her words. “Sometimes moving forward is the only thing we can do. You… do whatever it takes.”
I closed my eyes as the desire to go back to her apartment went through me, mourning the loss of opportunity all those years that I lived just above her. Would the woman I met last night would still hold my interest in the light of the morning?
I already knew the answer. Even as I knew that I was not I’m the right place to look at her, even as I knew that I was not in the right mind to look for her.
Let it go, I told myself, managing in my mind to actually sound convincing. That’s what she would do. She probably won’t even remember me. I opened my eyes and looked out of the window. She was right, I thought, moving forward is the only thing I can do. Beginning now.
“What?” Gia asked, her brows furrowing, as if she really didn’t understand what had me laughing so hard. “What do you mean you knew I looked familiar?”
How do I explain it? I thought this to myself as I tried to stop. How do I explain that fate has been playing a joke on us all these damn years?
Destiny certainly had a sense of humor. And it seemed we were the perfect prey.
I looked at her beautiful face, still looking at me in confusion, and was filled with so much love it almost took my breath away. I remembered when loving her seemed only a distant dream, a dream I was not worthy of. I remembered the pain of losing her and how it forced me to take a good look at myself and decide once and for all the type of person I wanted to be. Our journey had been dotted with a lot of pain, but more than that, love.
Love that was truer and clearer than anything else I had ever felt before. It almost puts what I had felt for Kelsey and once felt for Hye Soo to shame.
I had not been a good man. But loving Gia made me want to be.
I ran a tender hand over her face, watched as her eyes closed, her lips opening slightly. Her hair was silky soft against my fingers, and I lifted a strand in the light, watched as the light played over the honey colored thread.
I stayed silent as I remembered that day at the airport, almost as if it was just yesterday. In my desire to move forward then I had forgotten to look back, and I kept on doing it so much that the habit stuck.
If I just turned my head once, could we have gotten to each other a lot earlier than we did?
But still, I thought as I leaned in to press my lips to hers, things happen when they’re supposed to. We were meant to be together now.
I was still shaking my head when I caught her looking at me, her mouth pursed in annoyance. She never did like being out of the loop.
“What’s so funny?” She insisted.
For one second I was tempted to tell her, to show her that she and I were truly meant to be together. And then I decided against it.
Some things in life are better left as mysteries.
“Nothing,” I said as I smoothed the line over her brow. I leaned in and kissed pillow soft lips. “I love you.”
“I love you, too,” she said, trying to pull me back closer. She pouted when I resisted. “Now give me more.”
I looked straight into her eyes. “I mean, I really, really, really love you. As in I’m thankful that you came when you did. I’m happy that you decided to…”
“I know how much you love me,” she said, standing suddenly. She stood before me, her hands to her sides. “I love you too.” She cocked her head to one side and looked at me, “We can talk about this all night long, or,” her eyes laughing, she grabbed a nightgown strap and pulled it off a creamy shoulder, “you can spend all night proving it to me.” She raised her eyebrows. “Your choice.”
It took me only a nanosecond to decide and I stood up just as she began running towards our bedroom, her throaty laugh echoing in the house. I caught her by the bedroom door, and lifted her up against the wall, her legs wrapping around my waist.
“I got you now,” I told her as she continued to giggle. “I’m not letting you go ever again.”
“Good,” she whispered. She ran her hand over my face, her breathing still shallow, her heart beating against mine. Her face sombered, her eyes searching and filled with so much tenderness I felt my heart squeeze inside my chest. “Neither am I.”
March 23, 1996
“He thought it was his apartment,” my best friend slurred and I resisted the urge to snort into the phone. “And he’s drunk. His almost fiancée cheated on him.”
I glared at the phone before responding. “Not your problem.”
“I’m fine, Junnie.” Gia’s voice was stubborn, stiff. “He’s Asian.”
Her lame reasoning had me rolling my eyes. She was inarguably, ridiculously drunk. “Oh great… because that means he’s not crazy,” I retorted, rubbing the bridge of my nose with two fingers, the papers in front of me blurring. I stopped for one second when I remembered something. “I should call Ethan and find out if he’s still in the city… maybe he can come over too and keep an eye on you.”
I found my suggestion extremely helpful. After all it would accomplish two things. The first: they would finally meet and Ethan could actually make his move (though my best male friend is arguably lacking in that department and probably would not even be able to muster a hello- crushes are so unforgiving that way,) and the second: his presence might possibly, could possibly stop my best friend from going ahead with her inane idea for the night.
“No need for that.” No sooner had the words come out of my mouth and Gia shot it down. “I’m fine Junnie. I’m a grown up person. He and I are just having a couple of drinks. He looks like a nice guy. A little pathetic but nice. He’s handsome.”
“Ted Bundy was considered handsome by a lot of people.”
“Ted Bundy is not Asian,” she said, her voice on the verge of laughter. It made me smile despite my concern. “I’m fine.”
“You need to stop doing these crazy spontaneous things.” I was trying to say it lightly, fully aware that my best friend hated to be nagged. Still I couldn’t stop, also aware that my best friend was given to doing things without even pausing to think about and examining them. Or at the very least, she does when she’s drunk. “Stop opening your door to strangers. Kick him out and lock your…”
“Junnie…” I heard her say, her tone annoyed, before I could hear a sound over the receiver which resembled someone making a buzzing noise. I closed my eyes in frustration, knowing what was coming up. I could wring her neck… She is so impossible sometimes. “Something’s wrong with my reception,” she said suddenly, as if I would have no clue. “Bzzzzz…. bzzzz… I gotta go. Bye, Junnie, byeeee!!!”
“I know you’re just making that noise,” I said, my tone stern. I clucked my tongue. “Can I just say one thing?”
“What?” The buzzing stopped. As I thought it would.
“Please…” I said resignedly. She’s going to do what she wants to do, as she always had. “Try to remember what you do tonight in the morning.”
As I hung up the phone I couldn’t help but shake my head. Again. I set aside the papers that I had been staring at before leaning back against my headboard.
In front of me was my laptop and I powered it off. There would be no more work done today knowing that my best friend had a stranger in the apartment that she was supposed to share with her fiance, no doubt still surrounded by the wedding gifts she will never open and the wedding dress she will never wear. So much for playing hooky from the office to get some work done at home.
This is one of those times when I hate being so far away, unable to be with her when that happened. And then this.
As tough as my best friend was, is, I corrected myself, she was so soft inside. Too soft. She doesn’t allow just anyone to see it too often nowadays, not since Marcus, but whenever I look at her, I still see it. It may just be visible in a moment of hesitation, in a crack of her voice when she’s saying something she’d rather not, in a hitch of breath before biting her lip, but as someone who has known her for over half a decade, I still see it. I still see her.
She still hasn’t let herself grieve the loss of her engagement. She still hasn’t forgiven herself for Marcus. I can’t even remember the last time I saw her cry. The way she is now, the way she presents herself on a day to day basis and without the presence of alcohol in her system, was a far cry from the passionate, rebellious, spontaneous girl I first met. In fact it’s only when she’s drunk nowadays that she even shows a glimmer of that girl outwardly.
Still… maybe it’s a step in the right direction.
I picked up my phone and looked at it, my finger hovering over the number 2, the speed dial assigned to Ethan. I knew that he had been in New York City the last few days, doing God only knows what. The last time I spoke to him he said he was completely over Kelsey. That he didn’t care at all. I snorted. I still wasn’t quite sure why he was back. He’s as bad a liar as they come.
He may not be in love with Kelsey anymore, but I doubted that he was over what she did. One thing I have learned about Ethan over the years is that he doesn’t let anything go. Ever. And he has a faultless memory. Bad combination of things, if you ask me. But at least he’s not like Gia, who would rather just forget everything.
I took a deep breath. However much I enjoy seeing glimpses of my best friend when she’s drunk, I wish that she didn’t have to actually be drunk to see it.
It’s too bad that she was so opposed to meeting Ethan. I really think they could have been something really special years ago, when we were in university, before life has managed to injure them both.
I placed my phone back down, fighting the urge to meddle. They may have been perfect for each other years ago, but that doesn’t mean they would be now. Besides, if worse comes to worst, I could always make them get together, many years from now, if they’re both still single, stubborn and driving me batshit insane.
I chuckled as I laid down on my side. Yeah, I thought. I could always do that.
The next day…
“Where ARE you?” I asked, glancing at my watch, surprised to realize that though it was close to 3 pm that I hadn’t eaten lunch yet. “I thought you were still in the city? What is this number you’re calling me from?”
“Christ, Shawn, slow the hell down,” Ethan responded, his normally deep baritone voice slightly raspy. “I was in the city. Not anymore.”
My friend was still talking but I was distracted, marveling at the almost undetectable accent in his tone, his English fluent, his intonation and nuance perfect. He used to sound so different, but then again that was a million years ago.
“Hello?” I heard Ethan say, his voice sounding annoyed. “Were you even listening to me?”
“No, I wasn’t,” I answered honestly. “I’m hungry and haven’t eaten… I’m a little distracted. What were you saying?”
“I was answering your question.” I heard him blow a breath before continuing. “I’m in Tokyo. The number I’m calling from is a public payphone in the airport.”
I opened one of my desk drawers to hunt for my emergency chocolate. “I didn’t realize you were planning on going to Tokyo.” Amidst the clutter was one single Amedei bar left and I grabbed it, ripping open the packaging quickly.
“I wasn’t,” he retorted just as I had taken my first bite. I closed my eyes in pleasure. Gia was right. This chocolate was the best. “There were no direct flights to Seoul from JFK.” There was a pause before he resumed speaking and I opened my eyes. “I was lucky to get on this flight… I was on the waiting list until a few minutes before the plane took off. Thank God someone had canceled their flight to Japan.”
What he said had me narrowing my brows, remembering something from last night, when, in the middle of great sleep, my phone rang. Gia had been at the other end, talking about Japan and going there and having to cancel. Or, in her very expressive way, saying something like “What the hell was I thinking booking a flight to Japan when I’m fucking drunk?”
She said that all had been sorted, that she was able to cancel without any real problems, and that she received a travel voucher since they could not give her a refund. I furrowed my brows. Did she mention when she was supposed to fly out?
No, I thought, shaking my head. She didn’t. Besides… what was the possibility of her canceling just in time for Ethan to take her place? I silently laughed. That’s just too incredulous for words.
“…Anyway, I’ll be boarding for Seoul in a couple of hours so I’m grabbing a bite to eat. My head is killing me.”
I turned my attention back to my friend. “Is that why you sound like shit?”
He chuckled. “Trust you to say it so succinctly.”
“Wild night on the town?”
“No,” he answered before clearing his throat, “actually… it wasn’t so much a wild night as it was an interesting one.”
I raised my eyebrows curiously even though he could not see me.
“Reaaalllllyyyy?” I asked. “Did you meet anyone?”
Ethan didn’t respond right away and my hunches were confirmed. I won’t have to wait long for him to tell me what happened . Ethan was as transparent as Gia was not.
“Hmm,” he started. “I don’t know if you can call it that. Somehow I ended up spending some time with someone really interesting and funny.”
“Oh yeah? Where did you find this funny and interesting woman?”
“That’s the darnedest thing,” he replied. “She was living in the apartment one floor below mine. All this time and I never knew.”
“Huh.” I heard a knock on my office door before my secretary came in, bearing a tray with coffee. I motioned for her to bring it over with a silent ‘thank you.’ She gave a pointed look at her watch and I nodded, reminded that I had a board meeting in a few minutes. “Sometimes life just works out that way.” Looking at my desk for the files I will need for my meeting, I kept on speaking. “What did she look like?”
There was no response on Ethan’s end. I groaned. “Dude… you don’t even know what she looks like?”
“Lay off it, Shawn,” he mumbled. “We weren’t exactly sober.”
“What did I tell you about going around in the city drunk?” I complained. “Aren’t you a bit too old to be bar hopping with strangers?”
“We didn’t go out. I just,” he stammered, “uh, I just showed up at her place. It was all one big misunderstanding.”
“You showed up at her…” My words trailed off, the familiarity of his story hitting me like deja vu. My best friend said a stranger showed up at her apartment last night. Ethan just said that he showed up at someone’s apartment last night. But…
Ethan’s apartment was in Murray Hill, a choice I had vehemently opposed.
“In Murray Hill?” I found myself asking, just for confirmation. I knew it was unlikely, but…
“No,” he said. “I got rid of that apartment even before I went home a while back. I’m talking about my apartment in Brooklyn.”
“Brooklyn?” I sounded like a parrot, but I didn’t care. There were neurons firing in my brain, telling me that this seemed too much of a coincidence.
Gia lived in Brooklyn. My best friend lived in Brooklyn.
“Yeah. The one Kelsey was using. Remember?” He asked. “You told me it was a safe neighborhood. Said you knew someone who lived there.”
I blinked. “Tell me everything.”
“I’ll tell you later,” he said. “I really need to eat something before I throw up.”
“Tell me now.”
I heard Ethan cluck his tongue. “I can’t. I have thirty seconds to hang up since the calling card is almost gone. I’ll call you when I get to Seoul.”
I stood up in alarm. “But…”
“I have to go, Shawn.”
“Hang on, will you just answer one ques…”
The call was terminated before I could even finish speaking and I released a frustrated breath.
I looked out of the windows, admired the scene before me, even as my mind swirled with the possibility.
As my mind struggled to wrap around the thought, I shook my head. I am a logical human being, and this… went above and beyond the realm of things that made sense. It was so absurd it was laughable.
Was it even just a little possible that Ethan and Gia had met, without my interference? Could it really have been that easy? After all the years that I had tried… what was the possibility that they would meet, and in such an unlikely way?
“Impossible,” I muttered. There’s no such thing as fate or destiny.
I forced my mind to unfixate itself from the idea, maybe even laughed at myself for entertaining the thought. It was too preposterous a notion. Ridiculous. Them meeting that way was as believable as me meeting my first love and falling in love again.
It would never happen. If it had I’ll throw them the biggest wedding either of them can even imagine. I allowed myself a chuckle before I left my office, wondering what the hell was I even thinking to even accept the possibility of it.
Damn. I really need to eat.
I felt rather than saw someone crawl into the bed, the mattress sagging just a little. I opened one eye to see my best friend with her elbow propped against a pillow lying sideways, her hair in a bun on top of her head. Her face bare, she blinked a few times before breaking out into the biggest smile. Even before I was fully awake I found myself smiling back, and then I closed my eyes again, convinced I was dreaming.
This scene happened all the time… in university, back when we lived together… back when we were younger.
“Junnie.” Gia’s voice was barely above a whisper and I squeezed my eyes shut. “Junnie…” She repeated my name, louder this time. “Breakfast is ready.”
My eyes shot open and I looked around, trying to orient myself. The sunlight gleamed from the large windows on the wall, the curtains starkly white. I wasn’t in our dorm, or even the apartment we shared. I was in Ethan’s house. In Seoul. Ethan was married to my best friend.
“Are you awake?” She asked. Her voice was persistent. “Are you awake?”
She scooted closer to me on the bed until our heads were touching and I darted a glance at her to see her eyes firmly directed on the ceiling. One look over to the crib reassured me that Jade was still asleep, a thumb innocently in her mouth.
“Are you awake?”
I took a deep breath. “Yeah,” I said reluctantly. “I can’t believe that you’re awake before me.”
“I’m always awake before you,” she teased. “Besides, I’d already thrown up a few times.” For someone speaking about being sick she certainly sounded very happy about it and I chuckled. “You need to get up. Breakfast is ready.”
I looked to my side quickly. “And that’s supposed to get me up quicker?” I asked incredulously. My best friend’s idea of breakfast was coffee that was way too strong and burned toast. I’d be lucky if there was butter and jam available.
“I didn’t make it.”
She winked at me before getting off the bed, gone from the room before I could even say anything. I sat up and shook my head, stretched my arms above me. By the time I put my arms down there was someone else visiting me.
She stood by the door in her pink pajamas, an almost mirror image of her mother in tiny form, long light brown hair framing a face hidden by hands rubbing at her eyes. I motioned for her to come forward and she grinned, her mother’s eyes twinkling at me, her father’s dimple on her cheek. She ran towards the bed and I eased myself to the side, ready to catch her. She lifted her arms and placed them around my neck. I held her close to me and ran a hand down her hair, amazed that this child was the progeny of my two most loved people. And that she was my namesake.
I was only kidding when I told Ethan and Gia that they owed me their first kid.
“Tita Junnie,” she muffled against me and I loosened my hold to look at her. “Is Jade awake?”
I chuckled. Both my and Gia’s daughters were inseparable whenever they were together. It wasn’t surprising that she was not here to visit me, but my daughter instead.
“I don’t know,” I said, putting my feet into my slippers before helping her down onto the floor. I stood up and took her hand before walking to the crib, where Jade was already sitting up, and opened the gate.
My daughter looked as disoriented as I felt, looking around. She looked lost, as if she herself didn’t know where she was, until she saw me. Almond shaped eyes looked back at me, long black hair behind her. Small nose, cupid shaped mouth. With the exception of her ears she was a younger me through and through.
When we were younger Gia and I said that we wished we had met when we were children… I wondered now if somehow we managed to make a shared dream come true.
“Mama.” Jade said the one word before her eyes traveled to my side. She saw Sarah and her mouth curved widely, revealing a row of baby teeth. Before I knew it, she was off the bed and grabbing Sarah’s hand.
“Jade,” I said lightly, “I need to check your diaper before you do anything, okay?”
My words fell on deaf ears as she and Sarah scampered out the door. I quickened my pace to catch them before bumping into Ethan in the hallway, his daughter already under his arm.
“What are you doing?” I asked. His hair was rumpled over his head, broad shoulders covered in a plain t shirt and wearing sweatpants. Even so, the man looked ready for a photoshoot.
“Apparently I’m on diaper duty this morning,” he responded with a wry chuckle. A dimple peeked out from his left cheek. “Sarah needs to use the potty.”
“I need to check Jade, too,” I said.
Ethan flashed me another grin before my husband appeared behind him, our daughter in his arms. He Yi approached me and placed a kiss on my cheek before taking a whiff of my hair.
“You smell good,” he said, his voice low and deep. It never failed to make my heart beat a bit faster. “I’ll take care of Jade.”
“When did you get in?” My eyes roamed over his form, taking in his button down shirt and slacks. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
He shrugged a shoulder. “Just a little while ago. Gia said she would wake you so…”
“Daddy, let me go!” Jade squealed and my husband shook his head.
“No way,” he told her. “Let me check you first. I’ll be right back.” He dropped another peck on my cheek before following Ethan to the guest bathroom.
I watched them disappear around the corner before I started walking towards the kitchen, the smell of coffee beckoning me closer. My eyes were caught by the pictures on the hallway wall and I stopped.
My eyes roamed the various pictures and frames. There were photos of my best friend and Ethan since they were children, then as they grew up. There were some taken with their families, some alone, and some even (separately) with me. There were some I remembered, their separate memories interlapping in the same timeline. I had already known them both, but none of us even realized they were already weaving in and out of each other’s lives long before they were in each other’s lives.
I marveled at how they had made their own journeys, both reaching the same highs and lows at different times, both growing up and older and eventually finding each other and never letting go.
Life was a very funny thing.
The Chinese have a word for it, 姻缘红線, yinyuan hongxian, the red string of fate. According to this myth, the gods tie an invisible red cord around the ankles of those that are destined. It is said that the two people connected by the red thread are destined lovers, regardless of place, time, or circumstances. This magical cord may stretch or tangle, but never break.
My mother often talked about such things to me growing up, but I never believed it until it happened to my best friend, and to me. For years Gia and Ethan danced around each other- their lives in parallel, until one moment, when, like the sun and moon sometimes meet, they crossed paths. And it was all that they needed.
Who could have known?
Gia has taken care of hundreds of patients and their families over the years… the day they met could have just been another regular, forgettable day. At least to her.
Smart as she was, my best friend definitely had not been as in touch with her instincts in the last few years. Thank God Ethan was a bit braver, or was it that he was careless?
I silently chuckled, peeking around the corner of the wall to see Gia standing by the stove and our daughters running out of the bathroom together, their girlish giggles filling the house. Dog was up and about, following the girls excitedly with his tail wagging.There was television playing cartoons in the background, toys already scattered on the living room floor. I could hear Filipino music coming from the kitchen, my best friend’s voice singing wholeheartedly, albeit out of tune.
I watched as Ethan out of the bathroom, his strides confident. My old friend definitely has changed, remembering, somewhat fondly, the boy I met in university… the one who never looked fully comfortable with himself. Who would have known he was going to become like this?
I often thought that with the right love and the right woman that he would become the man I always imagined he was meant to be. I had been right.
He stopped as he was about to step foot in the kitchen, leaned against the doorway. He was fully focused on his wife, love unmistakable in his eyes. For a second I watched him as he watched her, feeling almost like a voyeur.
He walked slowly to where she was and wrapped an arm around her waist, and turning her around to face him. He leaned down to whisper something in her ear, a thumb rubbing on her bottom lip.
Though I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I’m assuming it was good since she just swatted his arm and looked around, as if checking if anyone heard.
It made me smile.
This place… this time… everything seemed like a dream. I didn’t want to even take a breath, afraid that the picture would fade. There was happiness here, and so much love. The kind that lives are built on. The kind that lives are lived for.
Unexpected tears sprang to my eyes and I quickly dabbed them away, wondering what the hell was wrong with me.
“Are you crying?” My husband asked, materializing as if from out of nowhere next to me, his tone amused. I resisted the urge to hit him… he knew as well as I that I was not given to fits of emotion and to make fun of me while I was was very dangerous indeed.
“No,” I answered. “There was just something in my eyes.”
“Uh huh,” he teased, a long arm snaking out to pull me closer. “It’s okay if you cry.”
I relaxed against him, finding comfort in his presence. “I wasn’t crying,” I lied. “I was just…”
“I know, I know… you had dust in your eyes,” he finished for me. He was silent for a few seconds before he spoke again. “It’s good, though, right?”
I turned my face to look at him, still amazed that after all this time, he still looked at me with the same intensity as when we first met, almost a decade and a half ago.
“What is?” I asked.
“The way life works out,” he answered thoughtfully.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Life is crazy.” I smiled at him, watched as his eyes narrowed at me in suspicion.
“Why are you smiling?”
“Well…” I said, hesitating just for a brief moment. “I’m pregnant.”
Joy jumped almost instantaneously in his eyes. “Really?”
I had just began to nod when he wrapped his arms behind my back and lifted me off the ground in a tight embrace. My arms found their way around his neck and I pulled him close, thankful for my own happy ending, made even more complete by my friends’ happiness.
We both looked at each other with identical expressions of happiness, and he began inching his face closer to mine. I closed my eyes and when the kiss I had been expecting didn’t come, opened them again to see him scowling at me.
“Sarah.” My husband’s voice sounded stern and I cocked my head, wondering what he could be upset with. “Please tell me you didn’t tell your best friend first.”