Shannon watches, feeling completely wrung-out and wretched. Luckily Kwami is out, so he’s not here to see the awkward quiet death of her relationship. She’s not sure she could bear it.
“Tell me something,” Jung says, his back to her. “If I’d proposed, really proposed, would you still be breaking up with me?”
His voice is as raw as her throat feels. She swallows. “Jung –” Oh crap, now she can’t even say his name without tears starting to prick at her eyes. “Let’s not do this.”
“Please.” She’s never heard that tone from him. “I’m trying to decide whether I should try to fight for us, or if I should just vanish from your life as quietly as possible.”
“I don’t want you to fight for us,” she says. “I don’t want there to have to be a fight at all.”
He turns. His lip looks like he’s bitten it more than once. “Will you let me say one thing, now that I’ve had a little time to think?”
That godawful dinner. Everything she’d once hoped for, her at the Kim dinner table, accepted as Jung’s girlfriend, Jung and his Appa coexisting as peacefully as they could, everyone smiling. Except her heart felt like it had shards of glass in it, and Jung’s armoured shell had gone up so thick she could barely see the man she loved beneath it.
How can she say no, when the shell is down again, and Jung is looking at her with those eyes?
“Yes,” she says, barely more than a whisper.
“I love you,” Jung says, without preamble. “I know I don’t say it enough. I didn’t grow up in a house where we said those words. But I do. And I might not be ready to get married yet, but you are the most important person in my life. You’re my Person.”
She can hear the capitalization. “Your Person?”
He smiles, though it looks painful. “I never heard my parents say they loved each other. A lot of the time they were scolding and nagging each other, bickering like an old married couple – which they were.” He’s holding a scarf she gave him for his birthday. It brings out his eyes. “But I’ve known as long as I can remember that they were each other’s Person. The one person in their lives that was their centre of gravity. The person they told their daily stories to, the person they thought of first, the person who comforted them and made them smile and helped carry their burdens.”
He runs out of words at last.
“Sometimes I feel like you don’t even like me,” Shannon says. On another day it might have been a whine or a complaint. Today it just sounds exhausted.
Jung presses his lips together. He looks just as tired as she feels. “I’m not good at relationships,” he says. “I have trust issues, and a past, and I’ve never had a girlfriend I loved before. I think sometimes – sometimes I sabotage myself, because I can’t quite believe that someone like you could care for me.”
“I know the past you’re dealing with,” Shannon says. “I never wanted you to be perfect. I just want – I want someone who cares for me, and likes me, and respects me. Love isn’t – love isn’t always enough.”
“I do,” Jung says. “I’ve been shit at showing it. But I do.”
“I just feel that we haven’t been happy in a long time. And I want to be happy.”
Jung half-turns. He’s staring at a photo of the two of them, laughing together on a beach. “I want that too,” he says.
Shannon’s heart aches. “Without me, you’ll have a whole new fresh start.”
Jung shakes his head, almost absent-mindedly. “I meant, I want you to be happy.” He’s blinking quickly, and she realizes why he turned his head away. “If that has to be without me, then I’ll always wish you the very best luck in the world. You’ll kill it in Hamilton.”
She feels like he’s opened his hand and let her go.
It’s what she wanted. Why does she feel like she’s lost?
She wonders if Jung became the assistant manager. (Somehow she can’t imagine that Kimchee would’ve recommended Terence for it, even though Terence had seniority.) But she doesn’t ask.
“How’s the old Handy store going, anyway?” she asks instead, cheerily, after she explains the yearly paperwork issue he called about.
“Oh, it’s good,” he says. “A lot of changes, new faces. Terence jumped ship to Enterprise, did you hear? He said it wasn’t the same here without you.”
Shannon feels flattered to be missed, even if it was only Terence. “Aww. That’s sweet of him – I think.”
“And Stacie’s doing a great job as Assistant Manager. She just started last week, but she’s already laid down the law to the crew. Somehow they still like her, too.”
“Nice!” Shannon says, feeling let down. “I always did like Stacie.” That answers that question. So Jung still didn’t get Assistant Manager, even with Terence gone? She feels angry on his behalf, and a bit sad as well. Maybe he didn’t go for it because Kimchee is the manager, and he learned the hard way not to mix his personal life with work. Maybe she’ll swing by the agency in five years, and he’ll still be in the back cleaning cars.
She wants more for him. But it’s no longer her business to want more for him.
“It’s a lot quieter without Jung here though, I’m not gonna lie,” Kimchee says, half-laughing. “You know how it was, the first time he quit. I keep going around corners and expecting to see him.”
Shannon barely heard him after the first sentence. “Jung quit?” She tried to sound casual, but she doesn’t think she succeeded. Anyway, Jung will have long ago told Kimchee all about the breakup, she’s sure.
“He didn’t tell you?”
“No,” she says. Her shoulders feel heavy. “We haven’t talked since I moved.”
“Hmm,” Kimchee says, noncommittal. “Well, he did. Found a new job. I think he’s doing well.”
Shannon wants to ask, wants to ask so badly she has to bite her tongue to stop it. But she’s not going to be that needy ex, who breaks up with a guy and then starts asking his friends about him behind his back. She’s moving on. She wishes him the best, like she’d wish any friend the best.
“That’s good,” she says. “And you, how are you and Gwen doing?”
“I bought a ring,” he says, and she can hear the bashful pride in his voice. “I still have to plan out how to propose, but I’m thinking soon.”
Shannon congratulates him with real happiness, and pushes down the way her heart contracts.
Shannon knows it won’t always be. She’ll make new friends, join new groups, build a new life. In time, she’ll even start looking for a new relationship. For now, though, she’s taking it slow. She rushed into the last one with Jung, against her better judgment; she still thinks it would’ve been better for them if they’d gone slower. Sex was never their problem, after all – he was easily the best lover she’d ever had, and she thinks she was no slouch herself. If they’d waited, and built their relationship more slowly, maybe they could have built the foundation differently, and maybe he would still be at her side.
But that’s a silly way to think. Even if they’d gone slow, they’d still have been the same people, with the same faults, weaknesses, and baggage. And neither of them was ever good at going slow.
This time it’ll be different. This time Shannon will find someone who does like going slow, someone who has their life together and is ambitious, someone who doesn’t have armour strong enough to stop a cannonball (and a chip on their shoulder the size of China). This time she’ll find someone who’s looking to settle down and build a family sooner rather than later, someone she can grow old with.
(She keeps repeating that mantra to herself, because every time she says it, it still sounds hollow.)
For now, until Shannon’s ready to start looking for that perfect guy, she’s embracing the single life. Cuddling her cats, attacking the books on her to-read list, and working her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking - what could be better?
Today’s the big day she’s going to finally tackle Julia’s boeuf bourguignon, and she’s at the grocery store trying to find all the ingredients. She frowns down at her shopping list, concentrating. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees an employee crouching down looking at something on the bottom shelf, writing on a clipboard.
“Excuse me,” she says, “but could you point me in the direction of the pearl onions?”
The employee straightens up out of his squat, and says, “Sorry ma’am, I don’t actually work –”
He breaks off, staring at her.
Shannon stares back.
But Jung is in Toronto. And Jung doesn’t work at a grocery store. And Jung – how is Jung here?
Then her brain catches up with the shock. “You don’t work here?”
“No,” Jung says. “The pearl onions are probably in the Produce department though. Or they might only have frozen ones. They don’t have a great selection here.”
“Forget the onions,” Shannon says. “What – what are you doing here?”
He looks down at his clipboard. “Price checks.”
He studies his own writing. “I go to all the local grocery stores to make sure we have the best prices. We put up little yellow signs by our products telling customers how much they’re saving by shopping with us instead of at other stores.”
Shannon still feels all at sea. “We?”
It’s been three months since she broke up with Jung, and she can still read his tells. He meets her eyes square on, but a muscle on his jawline jumps as he says, “I took a job as a shift manager at a grocery store here in Hamilton. The assistant store manager just moved to California, so I’m actually the acting assistant manager right now.”
“That’s fantastic,” Shannon says. She feels herself falling back on standard polite small talk. Her fingers are numb where she’s clutching her basket. “What made you choose the grocery business?”
Jung smiles. It’s his polite ‘acquaintances’ smile. “I decided it was time for a change. I researched the economy in Hamilton, and I found this company. It’s a small local chain, 100% employee-owned, and all the higher-ups started on the store floor.”
“Wow,” Shannon says. “And I guess you had experience, from your parents’ store.”
Jung nods. “I never thought I’d be back in the grocery store business, but at least for now it’s a steady job with a lot of advancement potential. I’ve only been here two months and already I’m the acting assistant manager. They’ve got me in a career development program and I think I could be the manager of my own store in a couple of years.”
She wants to ask if they know about his past, but it’s not her place.
“That’s wonderful, Jung,” she says, and really means it. “You were a fantastic Assistant Manager at Handy, and I know you’ll be great in the grocery business too.”
“I intend to be,” Jung says. “I have a lot of ideas about how to grow our brand and expand our customer base. The savings signs were my idea, and customers love them.” His smile turns into a real grin. “The other stores glare at me a little when they see me and my clipboard, but I just say hi and wave.”
Shannon laughs at the mental picture.
But there’s a question they’ve both been dodging, and she just needs to ask it and get it out in the air. “Hamilton?”
Jung’s eyes are very steady. “I needed a change from Handy.”
“There are a lot of other businesses in Toronto. Grocery stores too.”
“There are,” he agrees.
Shannon doesn’t know what to say. “Jung, I –”
When she trails off, he smiles at her. It’s a soft smile, gentle, just the smallest bit strained around the edges. “I’m not stalking you. If you never want to see me again, don’t. The ball’s in your court.”
“But you came to Hamilton.”
Jung takes the basket out of her frozen fingers. Belatedly, she realizes that her forearms have indeed started to hurt. Julia Child’s recipe takes a lot of ingredients, and the basket was heavy.
“I did,” he says. “I decided that there were two things I wanted most in my life, and one of them was to progress in my career. Handy was a dead end for me, and I was burned out on car rentals anyway.” He scratches his neck with the hand holding the clipboard. “The most important thing for me was to find a company I could believe in, and one that believed in me. I just had to be brave enough to step out of my comfort zone and put myself out there again, after I got smacked down so hard last time.”
She feels like she’s standing at a precipice. “You said, two things.”
Jung’s eyes are so very brown. “There’s a woman I love. And if she doesn’t feel the same way anymore, then that’s all right too. I don’t think that people only have one soulmate in life, or any of that ‘only one true love’ stuff. If she finds someone else, I’ll be happy for her. But I love her, and if I still have the smallest chance, then I want to be in the position to seize it.”
Three months ago, he opened his hand and let her go.
Now it feels like he’s holding it out again, offering it to her if she wants to take it.
Shannon looks at this Jung, dear and familiar and yet intriguing and new. This Jung quit his job and forced himself to go back on the job market, despite his horrible experience the last time. This Jung moved his entire life to Hamilton. This Jung isn’t pressuring her, or getting angry, or deflecting blame.
This Jung is just a man with a clipboard and a basket, smiling at her in the soup aisle.
No, more than that: the man she loves.
Shannon hasn’t forgotten why they broke up. She hasn’t forgotten how Jung can be juvenile and immature at times, and insecure and easily frustrated at others. He gets offended easily, and reacts extremely defensively. He’s scared of commitment, and doesn’t trust people to care for him without strings attached or ulterior motives.
But fuck it, she loves him. She’s tried to stop, tried to move on, but fuck it all, she loves him, all right? Loves his smile, his laugh, the crinkly way he wrinkles his nose in the mornings when her alarm goes off. Loves the way he remembers her coffee order and sometimes brings her flowers for no reason, the way he sings under his breath when he cooks, the way he drops to the floor and does a bunch of pushups at completely random times throughout the day. Loves his arms around her and the smell of his sweat, the soft look in his eyes when he sees her after they’ve been apart.
Shannon just – she loves him. All of him.
And she’s missed him, so very much.
“I think,” she says, knowing that she’s been silent for a long time. “I think that I’m making Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon today, if I can find the pearl onions.”
He waits for her, not pushing. This much he’s learned.
“I don’t know when you’re off,” she says. “But if you’d like to bring some wine, you can come by and try it.”
The smile starts in his eyes. It spreads outwards to the corners of his eyes, and then to his mouth and, somehow, his whole body. It’s like Jung was a lightbulb, and she just pulled his switch.
“I’d like that,” he says. There’s a bit of a husk in his voice.
“It might be shit,” she says, candidly. “It’s my first time making it.”
They grin at each other, here in the soup aisle in what will no longer be Shannon’s go-to grocery store. Her stomach is full of butterflies, her head full of fizz.
Three months ago, she’d thought she needed to end her broken relationship in order to be free to live her life.
Now, she thinks that people change, and that maybe what she thought was broken was only damaged. You don’t give up on something just because it’s a little dogeared around the edges. Her favourite books have bent pages and underlined sentences, her favourite cookbooks have dodgy spills on the best recipes. Sometimes the joy is in making the journey together.
What's that art the Japanese have, where they mend broken pottery by pouring melted gold into the cracks, creating something beautiful by highlighting the joins? Kintsukuroi, that's it. Janet told her about it once, and showed her some gorgeous photographs. Kintsukuroi.
“Let’s find the onions before a real employee comes along and yells at us for clogging his aisle,” Jung says.
Shannon laughs, and takes his clipboard so she can slide a hand into the crook of his arm.
They won’t be fixed overnight. They have a long road to travel, and it still may not work out. She hasn’t forgotten the past. She’s trying to be a realist these days, instead of a starry-eyed dreamer.
But the look in this new Jung’s eyes makes her think that her dreams may yet fly once more.
five years later
Kimchee is the best man, and tears up more than anyone else except Umma. (Though Shannon catches a tear or two in the corner of Appa’s eyes as well.)
Shannon dances with Jung, and everything in the world narrows to their shared joy.
“So,” she says, leaning their foreheads together, “am I supposed to call you yeobo now?”
He chokes, laughing, his arm tightening around her waist.
“Or maybe,” she says, “I’ll just call you my Person, now and forever.”
He no longer stiffens at those words, no longer flinches at the thought that someone loves him. He made his vows today with a strong voice and a certainness in his face that made her heart overflow.
“Nae sarang,” he says now, pressing a kiss to the top of her hair, “I’m yours, whatever you call me.”
Shannon dances in her husband’s arms, her heart in flight.