Following the shift in the status quo of their relationship, Sung Deoksun found herself realigning her impression of Choi Taek many times. Deoksun thought nothing Taek did could surprise her anymore but boy was she wrong. Taek was right, she knew nothing of him.
She didn’t know how manly Taek could be for one. Taek was always polite and helpful but since they started dating, Taek’s level of consideration towards Deoksun took on another dimension. He shielded Deoksun fully from the rain once using their single umbrella until his jacket and shoulder became drenched from the shower. Last weekend when they had dinner together Taek grilled some meat and placed them in Deoksun’s bowl. The role reversal was a thrilling surprise for Deoksun.
Deoksun didn’t know whether it was really Taek that has changed or her new awareness of him that framed everything he did behind a pink tinted glass.
It annoyed Deoksun a little bit honestly.
It didn’t help that Taek was becoming even more good looking. Subjectively Deoksun knew that Taek was attractive with his angular jaw, high nose and downturned eyes but previously it was just another fact attached to him: Junghwan has a dog, Sunwoo is nice, Taek is handsome. Now his face, combined with the glint in his eyes and the smile he threw towards her when they were being secretive in front of the parents took her breath away.
She thought she had passed the age of being giddy over a boy. Obviously she needed to reconsider.
But there was something to say about deeply loving someone. She once thought she would never confess first, rejection a very real fear for her. With Taek all her fears disappeared. She felt free, no longer did she need to confirm that he felt the same way before acting. So she said ‘I love you’ first, and the expression of utter defeat and happiness on his face was something she would treasure until the very end of her life.
“You don’t have to send me to the airport. You must be tired.”
Deoksun glanced at Taek from behind the steering wheel. “It is okay, I want to.” She turned her attention back to the road. “I can drive to the airport even with my eyes closed,” she teasingly closed her right eye.
“Ya, don’t do it!” Taek’s eyes widened and he poked her shoulder.
Deoksun laughed, eyes almost squeezed shut. Her lips settled into a grin that revealed her teeth and she grabbed the car’s steering tight with both hands. She would never get bored of teasing this man. Taek was right though, she was tired. Her flight touched down last night at midnight and after finishing all works and signing off she only reached home at 2 AM. She had a five days off from work but Taek had to fly to Japan for another competition instead. They had to take any chance they can of spending the time together.
“I will page you,” Taek told her.
Deoksun blinked. Taek took a box from inside his bag. It was the pager, still inside its packaging. “Have you finally figured out how to operate the pager?” she asked. Taek had said that he didn’t need a pager before and to her knowledge since the day they bought him one he had never use it.
“No, but I will find out,” a corner of Taek’s mouth lifted and he took out the manual from inside the box. He started sifting through the document.
The signboard ahead showed that Gimpo Airport was in another 2 kilometres. Deoksun turned on the signal to the right, preparing to exit the highway. She took another furtive glance at Taek. He was still looking at the pager’s instruction manual, fingers turning the pages of the book. She never told him, but she loved how he looked in a suit. Today he was wearing his black coat with an off white shirt underneath. It brought back the memories of her first trip oversea and the first hints of realization that Taek had this other side of him – mature, solemn and competent. Taek was an enthralling combination of strange and familiar that week and Deoksun had been enthralled; until she buried the feelings, chiding herself for feeling this way for her closest friend.
Things have changed now. Taek filled up the shoulders of his coat better and Deoksun didn’t have to hide her feelings anymore. Her lips curved at the thought as she parked the car close to the road kerb. They had arrived at the airport. Deoksun turned to find Taek scrutinizing her.
“You were smiling. Are you that glad to see me go?” Taek teased.
The corner of Deoksun’s mouth quirked up, “I must be,” she replied, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear. Then she completely belied her statement by adding, “I am going to miss you.” She took out a paper bag from inside her bag and gave it to Taek. “Fish bread. For luck.”
Taek’s eyes lit up and his smile widened. Then he dropped his eyes to her lips and leaned closer. Reading his intention Deoksun shook her head murmuring, “They are people around.” Taek paused, and taking her hand instead, kissed the back of her hand.
They spent moments just gazing at each other, hands clasped.
When Deoksun heard a set of footsteps heading towards them, she automatically straightened up. Taek’s head turned to the direction of the sound and looked behind the front glass. Deoksun turned too and saw a lady in a crisp white shirt and pinstripe skirt approaching, she dimly remembered her as a reporter that was the president of Taek’s fan club. They stepped out of the vehicle.
“I knew it was your car! Choi Taek 9-dan, it has been a long time,” the tall reporter greeted Taek. She turned towards Deoksun and raised a brow in an inquiring gesture, “And who is this…?”
Deoksun held out her hand, “I am Taek’s friend Sung Deoksun. We live in the same neighbourhood.”
“Ah,” she turned to fully look at Deoksun, eyes taking notice of Deoksun’s jeans and shirt. “You are the friend in the newspaper article. How do you do? I am Park Jiyoon” She shook Deoksun’s hand and flashed her a smile, row of teeth brilliant in its whiteness. “Thank you for bringing our Master Choi to the airport.”
Deoksun herself was adept at giving out smiles in her line of work. She answered with her most professional, “It is my pleasure.”
“Reporter Park, are you here for a job?” Taek interjected, luggage in tow. He tried to extend the handle of the bag but it didn’t budge under his hand. Deoksun absently pressed the lock for him and Taek pulled again, lengthening the handle to his arm level. She turned her eyes back to Reporter Park and saw the reporter’s gaze shifted from Taek to her, a curious expression on her face. For a split second Deoksun thought she was going to say something.
The other lady turned her head back to Taek instead and replied to the unanswered question, “Yes, my job is you actually,” Taek raised his eyebrows, taken aback, and Reporter Park let out a sound of laughter, “The station wants a TV coverage for this tournament and I volunteered to go.” She looked at her wristwatch, “I confirmed with the Baduk Association that we are taking the same plane,” she returned her gaze at Taek, “Actually we need to go now or we’ll be late.”
Taek’s eyes darted towards Deoksun, inquiring. “Go,” Deoksun gestured to the building with her head, “You don’t want to miss the plane.” Taek nodded and straightened the strap of his shoulder bag. He pulled the handle of his luggage and started walking, headed towards the airport building with Reporter Park following besides him. As he walked, he bent his head down to his companion, listening to the reporter talking about topics Deoksun couldn’t hear.
Deoksun wrapped her arms around herself and followed them with her gaze until they disappeared behind the glass doors.
Deoksun parked Taek’s car, taking care to park as close to the wall as possible to not block the road. She took her belongings and entered Taek’s father shop. From as long as she could remember, his father had always been behind the shop’s counter listening to commentaries of Taek’s matches or waiting for a phone call from him. Today he was sitting at the same place, still waiting for news of Taek, this time to be brought by her. “Deoksun, you are here?”
Deoksun greeted the older man, “Yes Ahjusshi, I am back. Here, the car keys.” She handed the keys over and watched him hang the keys behind him. He turned back towards her.
“Thank you for sending Taek to the airport,” he looked at her for a while and added, “Is everything alright?”
Deoksun nodded, “Everything is fine, I am just a bit tired,” then she asked, “Can I go to Taek’s room for a while?”
Taek’s father smiled at her, “You don’t have to ask.”
Deoksun made her way to Taek’s room. She opened the door, turned on the light and looked around. Besides her own house and room, Taek’s must be the place she spent the biggest amount of time in. The room was another home, a place to escape to when she fought with her sister, where she hung out with her friends for food and movie, a place to quietly read comic books while Taek practiced baduk.
Deoksun placed her bags on top of Taek’s writing desk and slowly walked to the bookshelf. She ran her fingers through the spines of Taek’s comic books. She took one, and brought it to the sofa. She started reading but found herself not being able to concentrate.
She thought the hardest thing about keeping their relationship hidden would be convincing Taek, she didn’t expect to discover her heart conflicting the most. Deoksun felt petty for being bothered by Reporter Park but couldn’t help feeling that the other lady had sized her up and found her lacking. Deoksun sighed, frustrated at her own emotions.
The thing was, hiding their relationship from their friends and family was easy because they knew Taek and Deoksun cared about each other. They could be as affectionate as they always had and nobody would bat an eye. With others they had to be careful, no matter how much Deoksun wanted to stand next to Taek and cared for him like she always had.
Deoksun was startled from her thoughts by a knock on the door. Taek’s father entered the room with a tray balanced on his hands. “Come drink some tea,” he placed the tray next to Deoksun’s bags on the desk and carefully poured the hot liquid into a cup. He handed the cup to Deoksun before dragging out the wooden chair from underneath Taek’s desk and sat. Deoksun sipped the tea and noticed another thing on top of the tray, a green album.
“Ahjusshi, what is that?” Deoksun gestured at the book with her cup. Taek’s father pushed the album towards Deoksun, motioning for her to open it.
Deoksun placed her cup down and opened the album. She was delighted to find out the contents – dozens of newspaper and magazine cuttings about Taek. She went through the pages and read the titles, most was news articles reporting one winning after another with some longer feature stories mixed in. A lot of them came with pictures of Taek, in the middle of a match, shaking hands with his fellow players or holding the trophies of his winnings and they all shared the same characteristics. In all of them Taek’s mouth was set in a flat line, eyes serious.
“This boy, aigoo, he doesn’t ever smile!” Deoksun exclaimed. She threw her head back in laughter and her shoulders shook with mirth. She flicked the tears from eyes with her fingers.
Taek’s father’s eyes crinkled, grinning at her reactions, “He’s showing respect for the other players.”
Deoksun’s fingers fondly traced the picture of Taek holding a Fujitsu Cup trophy. The trophy looked like the one Taek gave her. Deoksun glanced at the article’s date. It was the same cup.
Feeling a little flustered, Deoksun turned back a few pages when another picture caught her eyes. In that picture, Taek was looking at someone behind the photographer and astoundingly, he was smiling.
Suddenly Deoksun felt she knew when exactly this picture was taken.
Taek’s father tilted his head as he too looked at the picture, “This was January 1989, Guangzhou,” Deoksun could feel his eyes on her as he asked, “You were there, if I’m not mistaken?”
“Ah, yes.” Deoksun answered without lifting her head. She knew she should move to another page, she also knew she have to control the redness spreading over her cheeks. She took a few seconds to compose herself and tentatively looked at Taek’s father. The man was smiling gently at her.
Deoksun knew Taek inherited among others, his perceptiveness from his father. She wondered what he saw on her face. Should she say anything, but more importantly what should she say?
Fortunately he took the decision from her when he stood up and said, “I need to head back to the store. Stay here longer.”
She stood up and bowed Taek’s father out of the room.
Deoksun rubbed her hands on her jeans and looked around the room again, not quite ready to leave the place just yet. Her gaze fell back to the opened album on top of the desk. She picked the album up and sat sideways on the sofa. Deoksun rested the side of her head on the sofa and started going through the pages again.
Taek had played in a lot of matches and won a large number of them. He also had the tendency to win by small points - half, one, one and a half. The analysts of his games changed their opinions from believing he struggled and was just lucky, to reaching the conclusion that he intended to win like that. Deoksun’s mouth curved up. That was such a Taek thing to do.
She continued reading. Many of the articles commented on how he did not frown or smile when playing. They even dubbed him the Stone Buddha. A reporter wrote his opinion that, “ Choi Taek 9-dan must have a Zen like approach to baduk; he wins because he is good but losing probably doesn’t even faze him ”.
Deoksun’s eyes twinkled. If the reporter only knew how much Taek hated losing even when playing Blue Marble.
She closed the album, gently caressing its cover. Taek was a man of two worlds and this was the other one Taek lived in. Compared to five years ago, Deoksun felt she could reconcile both worlds better. Director Lee once said that she had become a baduk person, that claim was surely exaggerated. The game was not something she had the talent for, nor did she like playing it. She was also very bad at keeping calm when watching Taek plays. She’d rather remove herself from the room and wait until everything was done and somebody else let her know the results.
However she was good at letting Taek knew that he didn’t have to win all the matches, and she was best in consoling him after his losses. Five years ago Taek in his baduk world had seemed almost a stranger. Now Deoksun knew he was the extension of the person she loved. Both Choi Taek 9-dan and Taekkie was the same man she adored and cared.
She fell asleep on the sofa with the album still on her lap.
When Deoksun woke up, the lights outside have turned several shades of orange. She sat upright, disoriented, before remembering where she was currently at. Deoksun slowly stood up, and saw the album she was viewing had slipped to the floor in her sleep. She picked it up and placed it back on the desk. Deoksun returned Taek’s comic book too and picked up her bags. She hanged her handbag on her shoulder and looped her hand through the paper bag, needing both of her hands free. She picked up the tray Taek’s father left and brought it with her as she left the room.
Deoksun went to the next house and entered the kitchen. Sunwoo’s mother was scooping her cooking into a bowl. She noticed Deoksun, “You should have just left the tray. I will get them later.” Deoksun waved her hand in dismissal as she washed the cup and pot. She should do this much at least after being served the tea. Sunwoo’s mother asked, “Have your parents returned from the hometown yet?”
“Not yet, they said they’ll be back tomorrow,” Deoksun placed the washed cup and pot on the rack to drain. She dried her hands on a towel.
“Come eat dinner with us then. I made galbi,” Sunwoo’s mother grinned at Deoksun while holding up the bowl of said dish.
Deoksun’s eyes widened and she grinned back, “I’ll help you set the table.” She took out rice bowls from a dish rack next to the sink and paused, “Is Sunwoo joining us?”
Sunwoo’s mother shook her head, “He called earlier,” the older woman took the rice bowls from Deoksun and filled them up with rice from the rice cooker. “He’ll be back late. He said he’s busy with the ceremony preparations.”
The ban against same last name wedding was temporarily lifted this year but there were so many paper works involved. She had seen her sister taking home stacks of forms and documents but Bora had never once complained about it. She was amazing, her sister.
Deoksun looked at Sunwoo’s mother. Her eyebrows were furrowed and eyes squinting at the rice cooker. Deoksun stepped closer to her, “Don’t worry Ahjumma, they will get through this,” she rubbed the shoulder of the other woman. “I’ve never seen anything Sung Bora is incapable of overcoming.”
Sunwoo’s mother handed her the filled in rice bowls and smiled, a little lifted. “Right?” she said, “Bora can even take on the President if she wants.”
They looked at each other and giggled.
When Deoksun stepped into the living room with the rice bowls Taek’s father and Jinjoo were wiping the table and laying out the chopsticks. Jinjoo looked up at her and asked, “Unni, you are joining us?” Deoksun nodded and Jinjoo’s face lit up. She reached for another set of chopstick and called Deoksun over, “Sit with me,” she said as she placed the utensils next to her. Deoksun sat next to the girl and took Jinjoo’s hand, fondly squeezing.
Sunwoo’s mother appeared from the kitchen with another tray laden with her dishes. “Turn on the TV,” she instructed, “They might feature Taek on the news.” Taek’s father dutifully picked up the remote and switched the TV on.
The 7 o’clock news had just started. All four of them sat and started eating, only half listening to the television when the anchor mentioned Taek’s name:
“The 7th Asian TV Cup, a lightning baduk tournament between South Korea, Japan and China is held in Tokyo this year and will officially start tomorrow. Our representatives Cho Hyunhyun 9-dan and Choi Taek 9-dan arrived in Narita this afternoon to participate in the competition. Reporting from Tokyo is KBS Reporter Park Jiyoon.”
The news cut to a footage of the opening ceremony at a hotel in Tokyo followed by Taek being interviewed by Reporter Park, asking him about his confidence in winning the tournament. Taek on the screen diplomatically answered that there is no absolutes in baduk but he will be trying his best.
Deoksun didn’t realize she had stopped eating when suddenly Jinjoo said, “I don’t like that reporter.”
Taek’s father gently chided his daughter, “Jinjoo that is not nice.”
She looked at the older man, “I saw her once when I visited the Baduk Association,” Jinjoo scrunched her nose and added, “She was really clingy, following Oppa everywhere.” Jinjoo gestured at her mother, “Even Omma doesn’t like her.”
Suddenly the attention of three pairs of eyes, Jinjoo’s mother looked down, putting her absolute attention on her meal.
Deoksun fought hard to keep her expression blank. She took a piece of meat and placed it in Jinjoo’s bowl.
Deoksun remembered the package she brought when they had just finished cleaning up. She picked the paper bag from the corner of the kitchen and brought it to the other woman, “Ahjumma, I have something to give you,” she extended the bag forward.
Sunwoo’s mother dried her hands and reached for the package, “What is this?” she looked inside the bag and took out the small box inside. She beamed at Deoksun while taking off the box’s cover. Her eyes widened when the content of the package was revealed.
“It’s Italian scarf. I bought it at Rome for you,” Deoksun took the fabric out of its box and folded it. She wrapped the silk around the older woman’s neck, adjusting the position to her liking. She stepped back to admire her work, “I was right, yellow is a good colour on you,” Deoksun’s eyes shined and her mouth curled to show her teeth, “Ahjumma, you look really pretty.”
Sunwoo’s mother touched the scarf on her neck, lovingly caressing the material. She looked at Deoksun, eyes flickered with something Deoksun couldn’t quite interpret. She stepped forward and cupped Deoksun’s face with her hands. She stroked Deoksun’s cheeks fondly and her voice wavered a bit when she said, “Deoksun-ah, thank you.”
Deoksun noticed the hitch in the older woman’s voice and suddenly had the feeling she wasn’t just thanking her for the scarf. She hugged the older woman, “It is nothing Ahjumma,” Deoksun said, breathing the powder and cream fragrance from the other, “I’ll get prettier one for you next time.” Sunwoo’s mother hugged her tighter before she slowly stepped back.
“Thank you for the dinner,” Deoksun said, collecting her handbag from the corner she left it. Turning back, she bowed at Sunwoo’s mother, “I’ll head home now.”
Sunwoo’s mother nodded, “Take care.”
Deoksun had just finished spreading out her mattress and blanket when the phone rang. She hurried and picked up the receiver.
“It is me, Taekkie."
One day Deoksun would get used at hearing his voice at the other end of the line, but tonight her heart still jumped. “You’ve worked hard. Did you just get back to your room?”
“Yes,” Taek answered. His voice was low in the way it usually did when he had a day full of work he couldn’t even open his eyes at the end of the day. “Have you eaten?”
“I ate,” Deoksun could hear rustle from the other end that was probably Taek taking off his coat. “You should’ve just gone to bed.”
“It is okay,” said the soft voice, “Let’s talk for a while.”
“Did you eat anything today other than the fish bread?” Taek was eating better these days but sometimes when he was too busy he forget to.
“Yes, I had sushi at dinner,” Taek then went silent that Deoksun thought he had fallen asleep. Suddenly he said, “Tokyo Tower is really beautiful.”
Deoksun chuckled at the random change of topic. “Taek-ah, this is your how many trip to Tokyo? You are just noticing it now?”
“I saw before, but tonight it looked different,” Taek paused, as if he was finding the words to describe the vision. “We went to a restaurant that has the view of Tokyo Tower. The night was beginning, the skies around were blue mixed with a dash of orange but the tower was a bright brilliant red.” Taek’s voice turned wistful, “I thought, ‘Ah, what a beautiful sight. I wish Deoksun is here with me’.”
Deoksun couldn’t stop the smile forming on her face even if she tried. She had actually seen the Tokyo Tower in one of her work trips before but the scene painted by Taek sounded really lovely. And she too wanted to watch it with him, “Next time you can take me there.”
“I’ll take you wherever you want,” Taek promised. “Let’s go, together.”
The thought of a future where they could be keeping each other company on a journey filled Deoksun with indescribable joy. She took the phone receiver with her and laid down on the floor. A yawn caught her and she covered her mouth, sleepy. Deoksun knew from experience her jetlag would take at least 24 hours to subside, but she was loathe to hang up. “Tell me what you did today,” she asked Taek. Taek started relating his day, voice pitched low and Deoksun closed her eyes, listening to his words.
She must have fallen asleep like that as the next thing she heard was Taek gently calling her name and telling her, “Go to sleep. I’ll call you again tomorrow.”
“Mmm. You too, go to sleep,” Deoksun said, covering up another yawn. “And good luck for tomorrow.”
“Okay. Deoksun-ah… goodnight.”
Deoksun sat up and placed the receiver back to its place. She had just finished turning off the ceiling light in her room when she heard her pager beeping. She picked it up and read the message on its small screen: 486.
There can only be one person that could have sent the message and only this morning he didn’t know how to use his pager, let alone send a message in pager code. Uncontrollably fond, Deoksun hugged the device close to her heart in place of the person she couldn't. She missed Taek so much it was a physical ache in her chest.
She would probably still miss him even when he was standing right in front of her.
Deoksun slipped under her blanket and laid her head on the pillow. She reflected on the day that had just passed; her slight jealousy and how insignificant it was in the face of Taek’s constant demonstration of affections. Deoksun considered the quiet ways Taek’s father loved him, faithfully keeping a record of his achievements, undeniably proud of his talented son.
She thought of Taek's parents and her possible naivety in thinking the depth of her and Taek's feelings for each other was a secret from the elders. Deoksun didn’t know yet what to do with the knowledge, but she thought of their precious parents and how she and Taek had both agreed to protect them from hurt as long as they can. Their secret may not be a secret anymore, but they could hold onto it a little bit longer.
Taek bent baduk etiquette, forfeited a match, and brought back a baduk trophy for her. He also figured out pager codes for her and had loved her since as far as 1989, Guangzhou.
To be with him Deoksun was willing to wait, be it for a time where they can carefully tell their families of their relationship, for him to get back home from his many tournaments, or for the day where they take their place next to one another, exchanging promises of eternal love and care.
They had the rest of their lives ahead to be captivated with each other. Did their relationship look like something that can easily change?