“See you tomorrow,” Deok Sun said in English as she waved to Sun Woo and Dong Ryong. Behind her, she thought she saw Jung Hwan turn away, but she wasn’t sure.
“Are you going to be around next week?” Sun Woo called as Dong Ryong flagged down a taxi for them.
“I leave the day after tomorrow,” Deok Sun said as the cab pulled over. “I’ll call you when I get back. I’m going to spend tomorrow with my family.”
“Okay, drive safe!” Sun Woo called as he loaded Dong Ryong into the waiting cab.
“Hey!” Dong Ryong shouted from the rolled-down window of the taxi. “Try not to make him fall in love with you again on the way home!”
“Yah!” Deok Sun shouted, holding her fist up, threateningly. But she could already tell he was too drunk to notice. “Get him home!” she ordered Sun Woo just before he got in the cab and they drove off. His smiling face and thumbs up as they drove past her let her know he’d heard her.
As the sound of their cab faded into the background of the Seoul city noises, Deok Sun felt a creeping unease take root in her.
Every time she thought about Jung Hwan and his ‘confession’, her heart felt like it might cave it. Or explode. One of those. She still wasn’t sure which. But when she thought about it, the look on his face when he said he loved her, she could feel her heart race and her cheeks get hot.
She was embarrassed, and angry. And the more she thought about it, the more upset it made her. At one point, after she’d excused herself during dinner, she found herself glaring at her own waterlogged reflection in the mirror, practically fuming. Clearly this wasn't something splashing her face with cold water could cure.
He’d made her feel like a joke.
Because she still remembered the pain of unrequited love the day she realized he didn’t like her. She still felt the sting of it, of feeling unwanted, so acutely. Even more so than with Sun Woo, for some reason. Maybe it had been because she’d convinced herself he’d liked her. Maybe it was because her friends had seemed so sure. Or maybe, and she hated to admit it, Jung Hwan had been her first love. She’d liked Sun Woo, and she was crushed when he didn’t confess to her. But after so many years, she was able to look back on that time and see her crush for what it really was: the thrill of being recognized as woman for the first time. More than Sun Woo, she had just so desperately wanted someone to like her. In the end, it had been nothing more than an infatuation.
But no matter how many years passed, the ache of Jung Hwan’s silent rejection had not faded. Though she’d managed to convince herself otherwise throughout the years. But tonight as he sat there, recounting with startling detail, all the reasons why she’d once thought he liked her, it was too much.
It was cruel. To take those memories that she’d tucked away so long ago and parade them around for Sun Woo and Dong Ryong to mock her for.
Though she felt like she managed to hide it well during the rest of the evening, now that it was just the two of them, she felt that same rage bubble dangerously close to the surface.
“Yah, Jung Hwan!” Deok Sun called as she headed for his car, keys already in hand.
“What?” he asked, only turning enough to glance at her over his shoulder.
“Where are you going? I thought I was driving us home.” She gestured at his waiting car.
“You take it. I’m going to walk,” he said and Deok Sun felt relieved that she wouldn’t have to share a car-ride with him. But she immediately regretted the feeling, it was letting him off easy and she knew it.
“You can’t walk all the way home. Besides, you have a flight tomorrow. You should get some rest,” she pointed out, but he just shrugged and waved her off.
“I’ll take a taxi when I’m tired.”
“Just go,” he raised his voice, and she was struck by the most visceral urge to grab him by the shoulders and shake him. “Go,” he said again, sounding a little more like himself but Deok Sun still couldn’t help but feel like there was something else there. If she had been braver, or less on the verge of tears, she might have pressed him harder. But as it was, she was just ready for the whole thing to be over.
“Fine. I’ll leave your car by the market.”
“Do whatever you want with it. Leave the keys with my brother.”
And that seemed to be the end of the discussion as he disappeared around the corner of the restaurant.
Deok Sun heaved a tremendous sigh and leaned back against the side of his car, shutting her eyes and resting her hand over her racing heart.
“Traitor,” she mumbled at the organ before collecting herself enough to climb in.
But inside the safety of the his landrover, Deok Sun didn’t feel any better. In fact, she felt almost as if she was being assaulted by him. She'd forgotten how much his car smelled like him. It was upsetting, honestly, that even after all these years, the smell of him could still make her heart flutter, especially after tonight.
And a memory, long lost to the relentless press of time, emerged at the acknowledgement of the familiar smell. She remembered sleeping in his bed, practically smothered by the smell of him, only to open her eyes and find him laying next to her. His sleepy eyes half opened, and the way he whispered that he would go to the concert with her.
Frustrated with herself, and the tears that slipped down her cheeks, she rolled down his hand-cranked window, letting the smell of the city at night wash him away. The Lee Moon Se cassette churned to life, filling up the cab of his car. And it was impossible to escape him, trapped in his car, listening to his music, thinking of him.
And tomorrow he would be gone again. Lost to the flight academy for another two years, probably. She hadn't seen him this much in years. And now he was just going to walk away, again? Leave her to pick up the shattered pieces of her resolve? Well fuck that.
Deok Sun groaned and turned down a sidestreet before pulling off the road and killing the engine. Her hands shook, and she was already crying so hard she could barely see.
“Fuck you!” she shouted at no one, slamming her palms against the steering wheel and burying her head in her hands. “Fuck you, Kim Jung Hwan!” she screamed desperately. “Crazy bastard!” she cursed, and the more the yelled, the worse she felt. “Crazy fucking bastard!” she screeched, gripping the steering wheel and yanking herself back and forth so hard the entire car shook.
She was suddenly overcome with the rage that she’d been trying to stamp down all evening. How dare he! How dare he take all those memories and use it against her? Use it to make fun of her and then just walk away! It had destroyed her when she he’d given her birthday present to his brother. She’d been ashamed and heartbroken. And here he was, five years later, still mocking her for it. He said it was one of the happiest moments of his life!
“Then why did you never wear it!?” She demanded, wiping the tears off her cheeks and neck. “Why did you give it away?” Why pretend at all? Why was he using that moment, twisting it into something beautiful and happy? Why? For Dong Ryong? Because of a ring? Why was he doing this to her?
She made a split second decision, and fired up the engine before peeling out. The tires squealed loud enough to drown out the tape as she turned around and headed back to the restaurant.
“Where are you?” she mumbled to herself and she slowed to a crawl as she passed by the front of the restaurant, headed in the direction he’d gone. “He couldn’t have gotten far.”
“Excuse me!” someone shouted and Deok Sun slammed on the brakes. “Miss!”
“Me?” she asked, pointing to herself.
“Yes! Oh, thank goodness you came back! Your friend left this on the table. It looked quite precious, please return it to him!” the waiter from their table said, holding the small red velvet box in his hand.
“I’ll tell him to come back,” Deok Sun said quickly, almost recoiling when the man held it out to her. “Oh, he’s leaving tomorrow,” she remembered.
“Please miss, I don’t want to be responsible for losing it,” he pleaded and Deok Sun couldn’t stand to make this poor guy suffer because of Jung Hwan.
“Fine,” she relented, holding her hand out of the opened window.
He placed it on her palm and bowed. “Thank you.”
“Yeah, yeah,” she nodded and bowed her head before tossing the ring box in the back seat and taking off. Her nerves still felt rattled, but she wasn’t nearly as angry as she had been when she’d turned around to go find him.
So she ended up driving around for ten more minutes, hoping that she didn’t run into him before giving up and heading home.
“He’s a big boy,” she argued with her own conscious on the way. “He can take care of himself.” She insisted, catching sight of her reflection in the rearview mirror. Unfortunately, she wasn’t quite convincing herself. And she felt the heavy weight of worry all the way home. She was torn between wanting something bad to happen, trip and fall or getting lost, and feeling guilty for it. “Karma,” she insisted to herself. If something minor did happen, like he missed his flight and got in trouble, well then, he would probably deserve it. It wasn't her job to look after him. Lord knew she had to do it enough for Taek. She didn't need to worry about Jung Hwan too. He was a fighter pilot, for God’s sake. He would be fine.
She parked in front of the corner mart, careful not to scrape up the side of his car. Which she told herself was only a concern because it was Jung Bong’s car too. So it was out of concern for him that she was so careful, not Jung Hwan.
But after she’d fished the red box out of the back, she was too exhausted to even play this game with herself anymore. The weight of it in her palm, the memory of Jung Hwan’s earnest expression as he told her he really liked her, it felt like she was on the verge of drowning. She’d never look forward to work so much in her life. In fact, she decided as she walked home, she would leave for the airport early tomorrow morning and take an extra shift. Because the idea of flying off, leaving Seoul and the memory of this night in her dust was the only thing keeping her from collapsing where she stood.
She didn't even think she could face Jung Bong to return his keys. And as she passed Sun Woo’s place and heard the unmistakable sounds of laughter, she decided to leave it with them instead. Careful not to let the gate make a sound, and risk waking Taek’s dad, Sun Woo’s mom, and Jin Joo, Deok Sun slipped into Taek’s yard.
His bedroom window was open, and she could hear their laughter. Dong Ryong must still be with Sun Woo, maybe he was too drunk to go home.
“It was crazy!” Dong Ryong was saying.
“What?” Taek asked, and Deok Sun could hear the exhaustion in his voice from here she stood. She could already see his drooping eyes. They should let him get to sleep.
She was about to tell them off when she stopped. She found herself unable to move. For some reason, she crouched down instead. She wasn’t sure exactly why she did it, why she was hiding under the window, but she knew what they were talking about. And the last thing in the world she wanted to deal with was reliving the humiliation of tonight all over again. Especially not with Taek. It had taken so long after he'd kissed her for her to feel normal around him again. She wasn't sure why, but she just didn't want it to get awkward again. She'd hoped by now, he'd gotten over his crush. Although she loved him, she would always think of him like a younger brother. Anything more than that, and she started to feel like a replacement for his mom, which even at 18, Deok Sun knew was not the kind of relationship she wanted.
Unsure how to get out of the yard without being seen, she settled for carefully making her way under the window. At least that way, they wouldn’t stand up and see her. Feeling pathetic and more miserable than she cared to examine at the moment, Deok Sun tucked herself under the window, next to the garden storage box. And hopefully she could wait until they’d settled down before she snuck out the side gate. Between yesterday and the concert and today at dinner, she’d had more than enough of feeling embarrassed.
“Jung Hwan,” Dong Ryong was telling Taek, “that crazy bastard. You should have seen him! ‘I like you,’” he imitated the deep register of Jung Hwan’s voice and Deok Sun gripped her jacket tightly, trying to stave off the wave of horror and anger that those words stirred in her. Even the memory of his fake confession made her heart race.
“What!?” Taek asked sharply, to which Dong Ryong only laughed harder.
“He confessed,” Sun Woo explained. “Dong Ryong was giving him a hard time about his fiancée ring. He told Jung Hwan that he wasn’t romantic so he should just give the ring away.”
“Hey, don’t blame me! I just said I wanted to see him confess before I die.”
“That’s what I’m saying!” Sun Woo said, followed by Dong Ryong yelping in pain. From the sound of it, Sun Woo had kicked him. “So Jung Hwan turns the ring to Deok Sun, and…” Sun Woo tried to say, but he was laughing too hard to continue.
“Can you imagine!” Dong Ryong shouted. “Oh, you should have seen her face! The poor girl. She thought he was serious!”
“Uh, so did you! You were completely convinced.”
“‘I thought about you dozens of times a day. I thought about nothing but you, only you.’” Dong Ryong imitated Jung Hwan again. She could hear shuffling and see the shadows in the yard move, and she imagined him leaning in to Sun Woo, acting out the whole sad affair for Taek.
“I can’t believe you missed it!” Sun Woo said out of breath. Deok Sun could hear them moving around in Taek’s room and she imagined them wrestling. Sun Woo and Dong Ryong were definitely drunk enough.
“Is Deok Sun okay?” Taek asked, and her heart twisted. Even in the midst of everything that’d happened, it was nice to know that at least one of them still considered her feelings.
“What do you mean? She’s fine. It was a joke. Ya, Sun Woo, I said it was a joke right?”
“Yeah, Taek. Don’t worry. We all laughed about it afterward. You’re not still…” he paused, and Deok Sun held her breath and strained to hear what he was saying in that whispered tone. “You don’t still like her, do you?”
“Choi Taek! It’s been five years! You can’t still be hung up on her. You go on so many blind dates!”
“Of course I still like her. She’s still Deok Sun. Which is why I’m sure Jung Hwan’s confession was real.”
Deok Sun felt the bottom drop out of her stomach. She was overcome by a wave of vertigo and grabbed at the storage box to keep from tipping over. What the hell was going on? Taek still liked her? So the concert yesterday? And he’d liked her since high school, and they all knew about it? And Jung Hwan? What was he saying? What did he mean the confession was real?
“What!?” Sun Woo and Dong Ryong snapped in unison.
“What are you talking about?” Sun Woo asked, his voice going eerily calm.
“Jung Hwan has been in love with Deok Sun since high school. Maybe before then. I only found out about it then.” Taek responded calmly and Deok Sun felt the entire world tilt as she slumped over onto the freezing concrete. What he was saying was crazy. It didn’t make sense. It couldn’t be true.
“You’re serious?” Dong Ryong asked and she could almost hear him sobering up.
“Since when! Since when have you known?” Dong Ryong asked heatedly.
“The spring of ‘89.”
“Since senior year?” Dong Ryong yelled. “Ya, Taek! How could you keep this a secret so long?”
“He probably liked her since before then though. I liked her for a long time before I told you all.”
“Since middle school,” Jung Hwan’s voice floated out of the window and Deok Sun’s entire body froze. She didn’t blink, didn’t breathe, didn’t dare move a finger.
“Jung Hwan!” Sun Woo yelled and there was the sound of sock-covered feet sliding across the floor.
“How could you not tell us!”
“I thought you were joking tonight!” Dong Ryong accused. “How could you be serious? It was a joke, right? Right!?”
“Did I say it was a joke?” Jung Hwan asked, and Deok Sun’s heart was beating so hard, she was amazed they couldn’t hear it all the way inside.
“But… but you let us believe it,” Sun Woo pointed out.
To which there was a brief moment of silence before Dong Ryong erupted and there was the sound of more wrestling. If Deok Sun had to guess, she would say Jung Hwan had shrugged.
“You lied,” Jung Hwan finally said after they settled down.
Deok Sun couldn’t tell who he was talking to, exactly. But Sun Woo asked for her. “What did Taek lie about?”
“You looked in my wallet,” Jung Hwan said and she could hear the anger in his voice. “The day before you left for China. You were supposed to come home early and take her to the movies. I left my wallet here, and then you canceled your plans. You looked in my wallet, didn’t you?”
“Do you still carry it with you?” Taek asked, and Deok Sun had never heard either of them sound like that before. Especially not when they talked to each other.
“That’s none of your business!” Jung Hwan shouted and Deok Sun cringed. He sounded furious.
“Jung Hwan, quiet. Our parents will hear,” Sun Woo tried to calm him down.
“That’s why you canceled your date with her, isn’t it! Isn’t it?”
“It’s the same reason you walked away last night,” Taek said, sounding closer to losing his temper than she had ever heard him before.
“What?” Jung Hwan asked. Deok Sun had to keep her grip on the storage box to keep from standing up, she had such an intense need to see exactly what his face looked like.
“I saw you, last night, at the concert. You came to get her. I didn’t know you still liked her until yesterday.”
“What does it matter!” Jung Hwan screamed and Deok Sun slammed her back against the wall as a pair of hands reached out of the window and pulled them shut. “What does it matter if I like her? If I still love her? It doesn’t change anything!” he was screaming, and Deok Sun could hear each agonizing word even through the closed window.
“It matters to me!” Taek roared, and Deok Sun held her hand over her mouth to keep from sobbing.
“I don’t understand,” Sun Woo said, his voice was muted by the window now, but he was still standing close enough that she could just make out his words.
“I’m not going to get in your way. I’m leaving in the morning. She thinks it’s a joke. It’s over, for me. Just, be good to her.” Jung Hwan insisted.
“Is this what you did in high school too? You knew I liked her, so you stayed away?”
“Yes!” Jung Hwan screamed, “and it nearly killed me!” Deok Sun was crying so hard now, she couldn’t even wipe her tears away fast enough. “She was so close, just a few feet below me, and I couldn’t do anything about it. You remember that night of the shooting stars? The night I caught you smoking?”
There was a pause, where Teak might have answered or the others might have been surprised, but she couldn’t hear it.
“Do you know what I wished for that night? I wished you were a jerk. I wished you were a fucking bastard!” he yelled and his voice cracked. And if she hadn’t been sure before, Deok Sun was sure now. Jung Hwan was crying. “At least that way I could have hated you!”
“That’s why … ran out … middle … movie?” Dong Ryong asked, his voice muffled by the window.
There was a moment of silence where she guessed Jung Hwan was answering, but now that he wasn’t yelling, she couldn’t hear him.
“Wait,” Sun Woo said softly, shushing the others. “Do you hear that?” He asked and Deok Sun immediately tried to stop the sputtering sobbing noise she was making. Now that they weren’t screaming at each other, she was sure they would hear her. “What is that?”
Terrified to be caught, and too heartbroken to keep listening, Deok Sun sprang to her feet and ran.
The metal gate clanged deafeningly behind her as she fled. She didn’t even know where she was going. All she knew was that she had to escape. The red velvet ring box was still clutched tightly in one hand, and Jung Hwan’s keys in the other. And there was only one thing on her mind. She had to get away. She could go to her friend’s place in the city. She’d sleep at a bath house if she had to, anything to get away right now.
Not stopping to consider the consequences, she ran back to where she’d left his car and tried to keep her hands from shaking too hard as she struggled to get the key in the lock. She missed on the first few tries, and wiped her face desperately. Finally she got the car open and the key in the ignition. But no matter how much she tried, she couldn’t get the engine to turn over. There was just a sad sound of a struggling motor and the hollow click of the starter failing to fire.
“Fuck!” she screamed, pulling her hair back from her face so she could try to see out of the windshield. She probably only had a thirty second head start in front of the boys, and she was wasting it trying to start the car. They were going to catch her for sure.
She flung the door open and lept from the car, already running by the time she heard it slam shut.
The keys were still in the ignition.
She was shaking so hard hard her teeth were chattering.
She headed up the high street, past Dooley’s market, towards the soccer pitch. It was the only place she could think of that would be empty this time of night. Her lungs burned as she sucked in the cold air and pushed her legs to carry her faster. She didn’t even bother to slow down as she approached the overgrown back door of the field. Instead she slammed into it with enough force to leave a dent in the metal.
Her shoulder throbbed, and she was pretty sure she was bleeding where her knuckles hit the door, but she didn’t bother to stop. Because she could hear footsteps behind her now.
She scrambled up the hill as fast as she could, falling once and popping the seam of her jacket under her right arm. She felt the stitches give way as she hit the ground hard. Her palm was caked in dirt and bleeding, but she jumped up and kept running.
“Stop!” someone was shouting from behind her. So she ran deeper through the back path, towards the field.
“Just leave me alone!” she screamed, desperately. “Just go!”
“Deok Sun!” they called and there was no need to wonder who it was that had followed her. Jung Hwan had so rarely ever said her name that she knew immediately it was him. And it brought the memory of him earlier tonight come flooding back.
Deok Sun. I like you.
It echoed in her mind, and she clamped her hands over her ears, trying to keep the sound of it away. But there was no way to protect herself from the sound of a memory.
“Stop!” he screamed, and Deok Sun tried to make out the path to the soccer field in the dark. But it was no use. The light from the street lamps didn’t reach this far into the training ground, and the field’s lights were off. She was lost in the trees, swinging her arms in any direction, trying to get her bearings.
“Don’t you dare come near me!” she warned. She was trapped. There was no where else to run. She was cornered now. And like a feral animal with it’s back to a wall, she took a defensive stance as the sound of Jung Hwan’s labored breathing and heavy steps got closer. And in a moment of pure panic, Deok Sun launched herself into the bushes. It was so dark, she just hoped that he wouldn’t be able to see her.
She couldn’t even see her hand right in front of her own face. There was no way he would be able to find her. She just had to sit perfectly still and not make a sound.
Her whole body tensed and she held her breath. Her pulse was pounding in her ears, her chest was on fire, and her shoulder and palm were throbbing. If she could just stay quiet, maybe he would go away.
“Deok Sun,” he called quietly as he got closer to where she was hiding. “Deok Sun, where are you?” his whisper strained and she could hear his footsteps alternate between walking towards her and away. She could hear the sound of the bushes’ branches snapping where he must have been feeling for her.
All the leaves were dead and she tried not to let them crinkle under her feet. But she could hear him getting closer. She’d never wished for the world to open up and swallow her whole so intensely as she did in that moment.
Please, she thought desperately. Don’t let him find me.
“Please,” Jung Hwan said quietly and Deok Sun could hear the carefully controlled anger in his voice. “Just let me explain.”
“Explain what!?” she shouted, almost involuntarily. She was just so angry, she felt like it might split her down the middle if she kept the rage inside her one more second. “What could you say that would make this better?”
“I… I don’t know. Okay? I don’t know what you want me to say!” he hissed and she could hear his footsteps getting closer. He was almost right on top of her.
“The truth!” She screamed, pushing herself to her feet as fast as she could. She was already humiliated enough tonight. The last thing she wanted was for Jung Hwan to drag her from the bushes.
Instantly, she felt his cold hands brush across her cheek. It was just a glancing blow, him groping blindly in the dark. She tried to pull away as he reached for her, but he grabbed her arm to keep her from running.
“Let go!” she demanded and tried to yank it away. But he was holding the arm she’d hit the door with and she felt a horrible popping sensation when he didn’t let go.
“Jesus Christ,” he yelped and released her immediately. “Are you okay?”
“No!” she screamed and used her good arm to push him away. She got a glancing blow off his shoulder and aimed her next for where she thought his chest should be. She felt her hand make contact with something cold and solid. So she balled her fist and pounded it against his chest, sobbing like a child. “I’m not okay. None of this is okay. You’re an asshole. How could you!? How could you do this to me! All these years,” she tried to breathe through her tears, as her hits lost their force. She could feel herself energy draining. She was so tired and cold and she just wanted today to be over. She wanted none of this to have happened. She just wanted to run away. But he was holding her around the waist now, and she knew she didn’t have the energy left to run anywhere, let alone fight him. “You made me think I was crazy. You made me think you didn’t care. I thought… I was so sure… but then you… and the shirt, and you left. You left! And you never said! You son of a bitch! You’re a goddamn bastard, Kim Jung Hwan. I hate you!” she screamed into his shoulder.
“I know,” he said softly, stroking her hair and holding her steady. As she pounded her fist against his chest and wore herself out, he just stood there, apologizing and comforting her. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I know. I know. I’m sorry.”
Just over and over. Every time she called him an asshole, every time she screamed she hated him. Until she was hoarse, he just let her hit him. He kept apologizing, and stroking her hair and rubbing her back.
Eventually, she found herself on the ground again. Except this time, she was wrapped up in his arms, half in his lap, sobbing and babbling incoherently about how much she hated him. She wasn’t sure how long they sat like that, her crying and him holding her, but when she finally did try to move all her joints ached. She was freezing and exhausted and even more embarrassed that he’d seen her lose control like that.
Finally, she gathered what little pride she had left and lifted her head from his chest, already disappointed in herself for letting the scent of him soothe her. Immediately, he let his grip of her loosen so she could pull away. She could see just a little now, as the moon shone through the branches of the trees around them. Just the slight outline of his neck and shoulder. Enough to reach out with her good hand to try to help her stand.
It was only then that she realized he wasn’t wearing a jacket or a sweater. She could feel the thin fabric of just his shirt under her palm. His skin was ice cold. She tried to reach for either side of his neck, to verify, but there was a shooting pain in her other arm, and it remained lifeless trapped between their bodies. Undaunted, she moved her left hand up the slope of his shoulder, finding his bare neck, and slid her hand up. Her thumb traced the line of his jaw as her palm came to rest on his cheek.
He was so cold. “Jung Hwan, why are you so cold?” she asked, her voice was scratchy.
“I’m fine,” he said and Deok Sun felt that same blinding rage she had earlier tonight.
“Stop lying!” she screamed. But this time she was close enough to feel him flinch. His entire body tensed up as she balled his shirt in her fist over his chest and shook him. “Just stop it already. Stop lying! You’re freezing! Where’s your jacket!?”
But she already knew where it was. It was back at Taek’s. The second he saw her running, he probably took off. Trying to confirm her suspicion, she released his shirt and ran her hand over his chest and down his arm. When she reached her own knee, she scooted back, moving her foot out of the way while she groped in the dark for his legs. And sure enough, as soon as she found his ankle, she felt the frozen fabric of his muddy socks.
And it was so disorienting, to be so angry and still so concerned at the same time. “You’re going to freeze to death.” She wished there had been more venom in her voice. Or maybe more concern. God, she was so confused. But it just came out sounding weak and tired. “Come on,” she said, trying to stand.
It took them a few seconds to get to their feet, and the pain in her shoulder was beginning to overcome everything else. Once they were finally standing, he took her by her left hand and started to led them down the hill, back the way they’d come. The closer they got to the wall, the more light came over from the street posts.
Her outfit was muddy and there was dried blood and dirt on her right palm, which she kept carefully tucked against her chest. But with each step she took, she could feel a shooting pain in her shoulder. She grit her teeth to keep from whimpering. Thankfully, when she couldn’t stand the pain anymore and squeezed Jung Hwan’s hand, he didn’t say anything. He just carefully led them down to the street, and headed in the direction of their house.
“I…” Deok Sun started to say, but lost her nerve.
“Are keys in the car?” he asked, almost like he’d known that she was going to say she couldn’t go home.
“Yes,” she answered, and looked away. But he was being careful not to look at her anyway.
They walked the rest of the way in silence. Deok Sun thought about trying to pull her hand away from his a few times, but then she thought about her other arm and the pain she was already in, and it felt like it would be easier to just let it be.
She didn’t even bother to argue when they got to the car. She just climbed in the passenger side when he opened the door. It wasn’t until she was already sitting, and there was something poking the back of her thigh that she realized she was sitting on the ring box. She must have thrown it on the passenger seat when she’d tried to start the car. She reached under her leg with her left hand and brushed it onto the floor. She refused to look down at it. She was sure the sight of it, sitting at her feet, would be too much for her to take right this second.
She heard the back door open, and Jung Hwan moving things around. A bag unzipped, and she turned around to see him pull out a pair of sandals from his bag. He tossed them on the ground and slipped into them before grabbing a sweatshirt and pulling it on. Then he closed up the back and climbed into the driver seat.
The keys were still in the ignition, just where she’d left them. Except now, without the blind hysteria of trying to run from him, she could see why she couldn’t get it into gear. She’d forgotten that it was a manual. She hadn’t been using the clutch. If possible, she like even more of an idiot than she already did.
They drove in silence to the nearest hospital. She didn’t even know what time it was, but judging by how tired she felt, it must be the middle of the night. The only reason she was still awake is because she was in so much pain. She felt a cold sweat break out on her forehead and she desperately wanted some fresh air. But she couldn’t roll her window down with her right arm. Finally, it got to be so stifling in the car that Deok Sun couldn't take it anymore. She tried to reach across herself to roll down the window, but the seatbelt pulled against her shoulder and she felt like she might black out from the pain.
“Ya!” Jung Hwan shouted, reaching over to pull her left arm back to her side and straightening her out. “Are you crazy? Your shoulder is dislocated!”
“I need air,” Deok Sun said, doing her best to pull away from his touch with him noticing.
“Then say so!” he shouted and pulled the car over. Once in park, he leaned across her, careful not to touch her injured arm, and cranked the window down. “Okay?” he asked, still leaning into her space.
“Fine,” Deok Sun nodded and tried to keep herself from crying.
They arrived at the hospital and she managed to open her own door and get out without too much pain. But when he got out of the car and came around to her side, she held up her hand to stop him. “I’m fine from here. You go. You have a flight in the morning. Just go.” And she hated the way she sounded so weak.
“Please, please. Jung Hwan, please just leave me alone. I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to think about you, or tonight, or the last ten years. Please, just go home. And don’t tell anyone about… this,” she said, gesturing to her arm.
“I’ll wait for you,” he finally said after a few seconds of thought.
“Don’t,” she pleaded.
“I’ll wait for you.”
“Ugh,” she groaned and slumped her shoulders in defeat. “Fine. Wait as long as you want.”
It wasn’t until she already inside that she stopped to realize the irony of what she’d just said. ‘Wait as long as you want.’ Isn't that what he’d been doing for the past ten years? And the thought of it, of him, was too much to take right now. She didn't want to think about all those times she ‘ran’ into him in the neighborhood. Or when he happened to be around at exactly the right time. Or how he used to stand behind her on the bus, or the light on in his window when she’d come home from the studyroom late at night.
There were too many things, too many hints that she’d seen at the time. Clues that she’d carefully catalogued and documented in her journal, as if she was amassing evidence in case she ever needed to convince someone that he liked her. All those pages of little things he’d done that she mercilessly tore from her journal the night Dong Ryong comforted her.
She tried not to think about him, about Taek, about any of it while she waited. Luckily for her, the pain in her arm began to eclipse everything else the moment she entered the emergency room. So she sat in hateful silence and waited for a doctor to examine her. It took a while before the more critical patients had been attended to, but eventually they got to her.
“What happened here?” The elderly man asked, carefully probing the swollen, bruised skin of her shoulder.
She hissed in pain when the pressure got to be too much. “The door won,” she answered.
“And this?” he asked, turning her wrist over slowly. But even just that movement was more pain that she could handle and she cried out.
“I fell,” she gasped and tried to curl around her injured arm, as if it could keep him from doing that again.
“You’ve had quite the evening,” the doctor said solemnly. He was quiet for a few minutes as he prepared an injection of something. Painkillers, hopefully.
“Yes,” she agreed and nearly cried when he gave her the shot. Not because it hurt, but because she was so ready for the pain to be over.
“There’s a man in the parking lot, the nurse said he brought you in,” he said, careful to keep his tone even. But even still, she already knew what he was going to ask.
“He didn’t hurt me. I did this to myself. I forced a door open with my shoulder, and fell.” Even after everything that’d happened tonight, the thought of Jung Hwan hurting her was unthinkable.
“I see,” the doctor said quietly before he got on with the examination.
Three hours and $500 later, found herself walking out of the emergency room. A prescription clutched in one hand, and two extra strength tylenol in the other. Her right arm was in a sling, and she was feeling no pain now, but since the pharmacies wouldn’t open for a few more hours, they’d given her something mild for in the meantime. They’d cleaned her hand, and the cuts on her knees and bandaged her up. And after the doctor had set her shoulder, she could move her fingers and hand without the overwhelming pain she’d had before.
He told her to rest and not to use her arm for a few days, but she should be fine.
Jung Hwan was leaning against the hood of his rover, his eyes closed. She wondered if he slept at all. His flight was in five hours now. She wanted to be mad, to storm off and call a cab instead of spending one more second with him. But as her feet carried her to him, and her heart started to race, she accepted that they could at least sit in a car for twenty minutes while he drove them home.
And it was obvious that he was determined to talk to her. It would be useless to try to run from it, no matter how much she wanted to. She also figured that while she was still feeling pretty good from the pain meds would be better. The way they made her feel numb was exactly the kind of distance she wanted right now.
“Deok Sun,” he said, rubbing his eyes, before he moved to open her door for her.
“Let’s talk,” she said quickly, before she lost her nerve.
“Okay,” he agreed, sounding unsure.
“Coffee,” she said and climbed in the car.
He drove them a mile or two to a park before stopping. Deok Sun was confused at first. But then she saw the lights from the coffee vending machine by a fountain. Without waiting for him, she got out of the car and headed for it.
After he’d bought them a cup of milk and a cup of coffee and mixed the two, they sat a few feet from each other on the ledge of the fountain. “So talk,” she finally said, sipping the weak coffee. She hadn’t taken her coffee this light in years, but a part of her realized that it was just another way he’d always been quietly paying attention. She couldn’t even remember drinking instant coffee with him, she had no idea how he even knew she used drink it like that.
“I’m sorry,” he said in a rush, running his hands through his hair, messing up the part. And for some reason, the gesture made her feel better. It was familiar. It was something he’d always done. She could so clearly see him at 18, frustrated with his mother, heaving a sigh and doing the exact same thing. And she realized, this was going to be a lot harder than she thought.
“For lying or for finally telling the truth? Or maybe you’re just sorry you got caught,” she shrugged, and she wished she could cross her arms. At least then, she felt like there was barrier between him and her heart.
“All of it. Everything,” he shook his head like he wasn’t even sure.
After everything that’d happened tonight, of all the questions she wanted to ask, the one that kept circling back to the front of her mind was, “Why did you never tell me?” A few tears slid down her cheeks, but she was beyond caring at this point. “You must have known how I felt,” she chanced a look up, and there was something like anguish written in his features. “You made me think I was crazy.”
“I loved you,” he said and it sounded so much like a plea that she had to look away. “But I loved him too.”
“I loved you all, and the only way I could figure out how to keep everyone together was to take a step back. He liked you so much, I didn’t want to get in the way of that.”
“What about what I wanted?” Deok Sun found herself nearly shouting. “Did any of you ever stop to think that maybe I should have gotten a say in my own life?”
“And what if we did date? I knew I was leaving for the air force academy--”
“You didn’t want to be a pilot until you saw Top Gun.”
“It was always something, I always wanted to leave the neighborhood. But you, and Taek, you were different. You loved your family, your home. You loved him too. When you went to China with him, his manager said you took better care of him than his dad. You were always helping him eat and making sure he slept and looking after him.”
“Because he was my friend, and he was completely clueless. You did the same thing, tying his shoes and opening containers for him and putting him to bed when he’d stayed up all night. We all did it. He’s our neighborhood’s treasure. We were all like that with him.”
“But he wasn’t in love with the rest of us!”
“Well I wasn’t in love with him!” Deok Sun shouted back. “I have never once thought of Choi Taek like that. Or Dong Ryong. Or--”
“Don’t,” Jung Hwan warned.
“Don’t say Sun Woo. I know that’s a lie.”
“How did… I wasn’t going to say Sun Woo. I was going to say Jung Bong. We were like family, growing up. I never once considered any of those guys. But how did you know, about Sun Woo?”
“You weren’t exactly subtle about it,” he said, curling his lip down. “And I read your postcard.”
“The one you sent to Starry Night, about first snow.”
“Why would you read that?” she asked, the anger from earlier in the evening resurfacing.
“You tried to mail it with a donation sticker instead of stamp. It got returned. It’s not like I was sneaking around reading your diary.”
“How do you know I have a diary?” she accused.
“Your voice carries,” he said, shrugging. And she tried to replay in her mind all the horrible arguments she and her sister had throughout the years. And he'd heard all of them.
“How long?” She asked. It wasn't what she wanted to ask, and she'd already heard him say. But for some reason, she needed him to admit it. Out loud. To her. Right now. “How long?” She asked again, turning to him.
She watched his face fall. “Since before my family won the lottery.”
“You didn't know about Taek’s crush then. So why?” She asked, desperately trying to understand. “Why did you never say anything?”
“I was ashamed, at first. We were worse off than you. I wanted to go to college and get a good job. I wanted to be better. And it was our parents. What would they have said. Or the guys, it would have changed our dynamic. What do you want me to say? I'm sorry. I was a coward. I still am. But it doesn't change the fact that I love you.”
“Still?” She asked, her heart practically in her throat. She couldn't bring herself to look at him. So she watched the steam rising from her coffee.
“I wasn't sure. I thought maybe I'd gotten over you these past few years. But then yesterday… I was watching that movie, and I knew your date wasn't coming. And I saw the main character running out into the water, screaming the girl’s name. And I realized, I still loved you,” he whispered and Deok Sun held her breath to keep from making a sound. “I tried not to. I tried to put it behind me. To give you and Taek space. But I was sitting there in the movie theatre and all I could think of was getting to you. And it all just came rushing back to me. How much I loved you. And I realized, nothing had changed for me.” He turned to her and she looked up. “I have always loved you. It's a part of who I am. I wouldn't know how to stop at this point.”
“Because he still loved you too. And nothing had changed. I'm still a coward.” He looked away, and she could finally take a breath.
She took another sip of her coffee, taking the two pills they'd given her. She was beginning to feel an ache in her shoulder now. It wasn’t bad, nothing the tylenol wouldn’t fix. But she figured she should go ahead and take them now, before it got any worse. Then she stood to throw the coffee out, she hadn’t really wanted it anyway. And it made it easier, confessing with her back to him, so she wouldn’t have to see his face. “I don't love Taek, not like that. Not like I liked you. I woke up so early to ride the bus with you. I begged you to go to that concert with me. I wore the gloves you gave me only on the most special occasions. I pretended to hurt my ankle so you would hold my hand. And I would wait in front of our house for you. I loved you,” she confessed, and it felt like a weight being lifted from her shoulders.
“You loved Sun Woo too,” he pointed out bitterly.
“No, I had a crush on Sun Woo because my friends told me he liked me first. It was different with you.” Her back was still turned to him so she wouldn’t have to admit it to his face, but she knew she needed to tell him. It was the only way he'd ever believe her. “You know Taek kissed me, when we were still in high school? He'd taken a sleeping pill and I laid down too and it just happened.” She was glad she didn't have to see his face when she said it. “The next day, I pretended nothing happened. I let him think it was a dream. Because I didn't think of him like that. I was uncomfortable for weeks around him. You were so busy worrying about what he wanted, you never considered what I wanted.”
“And now?” He asked, and the nearness of his voice made her jump a little. He was standing right behind her. She could feel the heat of his body warming her back.
“You're going to miss your flight,” she said and side stepped around him on her way back to the car.
It's not what she wanted to say. There were a hundred things she wanted to say. That she resented him for making her doubt herself. That she needed time, to sort things out. That she didn't believe him. But she didn't say any of those things. She just let the silence of the early morning fill up the space between them, heavy with the weight of all the things they'd left unsaid. Because for as much as she resented his choices, his unilateral decisions that affected her life, she knew she was partly to blame too.
“Who do you like?” Dong Ryong had asked her. And back then, she'd been too scared, too ashamed, too cowardly to admit that it was Jung Hwan. Even for as much as she wanted it, there was always that line. That line that once crossed, would have meant traveling into the unknown. If things hadn't worked out, if they got weird - like it did with Taek after he crossed that line - she wasn't sure she could've handled that. And even for as much as it hurt, Jung Hwan never crossed that line.
It was safe.
So she'd chosen to keep quiet too. No messy confessions of her feelings. Which is exactly what he'd done too. Though he seemed to have done it out of some kind of loyalty to Taek. But in the end, she couldn't really blame him for trying to protect Taek, even if it meant she got hurt. They all protected him. She just wished they both had had a little more courage.
She was lost in thought as she climbed in the car. Her arm ached a little more now, so she was glad she’d taken the pills when she did. She needed to get her prescription filled and call her supervisor. She wasn't even sure if she could work with her arm in a sling. Great. Now she was going to be stuck at home for a week, forced to answer questions she had no answers for while he flew off and left her to clean up this mess.
“What was in your wallet, that Taek saw?” She asked, tired of the silence. Her window was still down and the cold air felt nice on her face. She closed her eyes, as if it might make him a little braver, a little more willing to be honest.
“A picture…” he said quietly after a few seconds. “…of us. At the concert.”
“You kept it,” she said, smiling despite everything. It made her happy, to think of him tucking it safely in his wallet all those years ago.
“Of course,” he said like she should have known. And maybe she should have. “It's the only picture of the two of us. I was always too afraid to ask for one. But when that guy offered, I was so happy.”
Abandoning her previous plan to be ambivalent, she opened her eyes and turned to look at his profile as he drove. He was smiling. It was a small kind of smile, just the turning up of the corners of his lips so his dimples showed. She knew that smile. She'd seen it before. “Do you still have it?”
His smile widened as he reached into his back pocket, tugging his wallet out from underneath himself. He handed it to her in answer. It was a different wallet than the Velcro canvas one he used to carry. That had been a boy’s wallet. The new one was a worn black leather single fold. A man’s wallet, she realized. And there, in the first slot, she could see the tattered upper edge of a small photo. Careful not to tear it, she pulled it out and held it close to her face. The sun was just starting to rise now, but it was still too dark to see it as clearly as she would have liked.
He turned the light in the cab on and she held it up for inspection. She'd never seen it before. She remembered taking it, of course. The way he'd pulled her flush against his side and rubbed her arm. She remembered the way it took hours to get to sleep that night. She understood now why he'd never shown it to her. He'd smiled. It must have been right at the last second. Right when she'd turned away and the picture snapped. And there it was. That same bright smile.
She wiped a tear away from her cheek. “You look so happy,” she said, putting it back where she'd found it with as much reverence as she could. He'd carried this picture around with him for the last five years. He'd transferred it from wallet to wallet at least once. It was obviously precious to him.
“I used to keep it in my locker, when I was in basic training.”
She couldn't think of anything to say, so she just nodded and handed it back as he turned the light off and put it back in his pocket. Instead, she watched the familiar streets pass. With each turn, they got closer to home. And for some reason it made her feel like the closer they got, the farther away from him she was. Like there was an invisible timer counting down. And when they got home, she would need to decide.
Should she let it go? Let him go? When was the next time she'd see him? She started to feel a panic creep into her bones. What if this was it? What if they never got another chance? How much would their lives have changed by the time they saw each other again? Did she want this? Did she want to try? Did she still like him? Did she still love him?
She thought about his confession at dinner. The earnest way he'd said her name and told her he loved her. In that moment, she'd been happy. When she thought he was serious, when she thought he was giving her his ring, there was nothing she wanted more. She was 18 again. In love for the first time. Dizzy with the thrill of it.
So, what had changed since dinner, besides the state of her arm?
She was just about to say something, maybe ask him if he was serious, demand that he prove it. She wasn't sure. But before she could get it out, he was pulling into his spot in front of the corner shop.
He turned off the car and just sat there for a second. He had to leave in an hour or two. What good would it do? Because even though she'd heard him say it, she'd seen the picture, she still felt like maybe she was misunderstanding. It was almost like she couldn't let herself believe it. It had destroyed her when she was 18 and thought she was in a one-sided romance with him. She cried for weeks. She still wasn't over it by the time they graduated and he left for the Air Force.
She felt the loss of him so acutely, she was sure she would never recover. But life went on. And she had to get on with her life. Dating helped. Distance and time helped. But looking at him now, knowing he was leaving again, she still felt like a teenager being abandoned all over again.
“What will you tell them?” He asked softly.
“Nothing happened,” she shrugged. It wasn't like the whole neighborhood even knew about this. Whatever it was.
“No,” he shook his head and chuckled. “About your arm.”
“Oh,” she laughed, looking down at it. “I hit it on a gate?”
“I'm… I'm sorry,” he rushed out. “I didn't know you were hurt, and I shouldn't have grabbed you. I'm sorry.”
“It's fine. Accidents happen.”
“Still,” he said, lifting his hand to touch her fingers so gently if she hadn't been watching, she might have missed it. “I'm sorry.”
“When will you be back?” She blurted out, before she could stop herself.
“Not for six months, at least.”
She blew out the breath she'd been holding. Her last shred of hope, dashed. It wasn't that Sacheon was all that far. Just an hour flight, a route she'd flown a hundred times. But six months? Six months could only mean one thing. “You're getting one, aren't you? An F-16 from America. The first batch are set for delivery in early December. You'll be in training.”
“How do you--”
“Korean aviation is a small world. There's not much that goes on in the sky in this country I wouldn't know about.” She shrugged. She'd heard all about the Peace Bridge program with America. It'd been in the works for years already. There were rumors about offset restrictions and last minute model and engine changes. It had occurred to her that he might be one of pilots selected to participate, but she’d never thought to ask. But it wasn’t surprising. He always was at the top of his class.
“I can't really--”
“Yeah, I know,” she said before getting out of the car. And suddenly, she felt exhausted. She wanted to crawl into a soft bed and sleep for a week. But she knew what was waiting for her at home. A warm blanket on the cold floor, sharing with her sister. She sighed and they started walking together.
He was only a few feet away from her but the gulf felt so much wider. If he was going to be flying one of new F-16’s there was virtually no chance he wouldn’t be deployed on active missions. She knew he hadn't been part of the mission to fly airlift support in Somalia last year, but only because her mother let it slip. His mom had been so relieved, she'd vented to Deok Sun’s mom about how lucky she was to have a daughter.
But now… who knew where he would be in six months. And that countdown she'd been dreading all night hit 0:00.
Right now. It was right now. She could turn to him, say something. Acknowledge him, kiss him. Anything. Or she could do nothing. Play it safe. Hope that in six months they could see where they were. But she already knew, he wouldn't have confessed tonight if he'd planned on waiting anymore. That was his way of making a clean break. In six months he wouldn't be in love with her anymore. But he did still love her, right now. Or, he said he did. And that was the same thing. Wasn't it?
He held the blue metal gate of their house open for her and she felt like she might die if she didn't say something. Do something. She couldn't let it end like this. Not after so many years. Not after everything they'd been through. Not when he was right there.
But she still had so much doubt. What about…
“If you were so happy, why did you let him have it?” She asked, breaking the silence so abruptly, next to her he pulled up short. And she realized she'd asked him pretty loudly, compared to the eerie quiet of dawn in the neighborhood. Any minute now, Taek’s dad was going to come outside and start sweeping the street. “I know you love your brother. You would do anything for him. But why did you give him the shirt?”
He blinked at her for what felt like a full minute before he seemed to understand her question. “The shirt?”
“The one I gave you for your birthday. You gave it to Jung Bong. But you said you were happy. Why did you give it away if you were so happy? You never even wore it. I was so crushed. I was sure you liked me. But after that, I gave up. That's what you wanted, right? You wanted me to give up so you gave it away. To protect Taek. But you hurt me. It hurt so much. And the look on your face, like you never thought I'd know. Like I caught you in a lie and you didn't even deny it. I just… everything that's happened tonight… I can't make sense of it. I don't…” she paused, trying to get her racing heart and mouth under control. “I don't believe you.” She finally said, putting into words the thing she'd been struggling with all night.
But instead of answering her, like she really wanted, he reached down and took her left hand in his.
“Come with me,” he said as he led her up the steps to his front door. But she didn't want to go to his house. She wanted him to explain. Or let it be over. One or the other. But she also didn't protest. She didn't have the energy to run. She just wanted him to let her go.
They crept quietly through the door, leaving their shoes with the rest. His hand never leaving hers. He opened his bedroom door carefully and pulled her along.
Once inside he closed the door and switched on his desk lamp. Even after all these years, his room hadn't changed. She hadn't seen it in a long time, since before his birthday their senior year, probably. But it was all just as she remembered it. His desk and books and dresser.
She was so busy cataloging all the ways the room was the same, she didn't notice him release her hand until she heard him rifling through the black duffle bag on his bed. “I already packed,” he said as if that answered anything.
She was half a second from giving up and leaving when he yanked something out from the very bottom of his bag. It took her a second to get it. But when he held it up in front of him, the long sleeves unfolded, and she recognized it. “But--”
“I didn't give it to him,” he rushed out, she could practically feel his heartbreak. She could see it in his face, in her memories. It wasn't shame. It wasn't being caught, like she's thought. It was pain. It was desperation.
She'd been wrong. “But, I saw it,” she said, shaking her head and reaching for the shirt in his hands. As of touching it would make it any more real.
“Mi Ok gave it to him. She made him promise not to say anything. She didn't want you to think she was copying you. My shirt wouldn't have fit him.” He said, holding it out now, so she could inspect it.
“But, you just let me think…”
“I was scared. It was easier, to think I was being noble. But the truth is, I was just scared and I fucked up. I fucked a lot of things up. But I meant every word I said tonight. I have loved you for ten years--”
And whatever else he was going to say was lost as Deok Sun launched herself the two feet between them. Her bad arm hit his chest and she groaned in pain, but her lips were already on his.
And she felt like her entire life had been nothing but a lead up to that moment. She felt like the entirety of who she was narrowed to the width of his lips, pressed against hers.
She kissed him like she'd always wanted to. Five years of dreaming. Thousands of adolescent fantasies. And he did not disappoint.
His hands moved, pulling her flush up against him. He cradled the back of her head and leaned into the kiss so intently, her back arched. But he was also gentle, mindful of her arm.
And all of a sudden, the hour and a half they have until he leaves feels like an eternity.
And God, he kisses her like he’s desperate. Like he’s drowning. He clings to her, presses his long fingers into the base of her skull. As if he could make her love him through sheer force of will and the power of his kiss. But it's too late. She's already in love with him.
And she wants to tell him that. She wants to pull away and look up at him and make him see. But she can't find the desire to ever stop kissing him either. So she settles for leaning into his touch, parting her lips, and giving herself over to him. To this.
She kisses him until she's breathless. And even then, he walks those beautiful lips of his down her jaw and over her neck. And she thinks she may die from the heat of it. From the overwhelming urge to ask for more.
She wants him. She wants this. Before today can really begin. Before he flies off to face danger and uncertainty. She wants him. And she's trying to figure out a way to say that without it coming out weird and possessive when he pulls away.
“Don't,” she practically whines, pulling him back to her. And she kisses him with everything she has. She pours everything into the kiss. Everything she's ever felt, her fear and trepidation and excitement and that burning compulsion for more. She feeds it to him until they’re both gasping and grinding against each other. “Don't stop,” she begs.
And as soon as she's opened the floodgate, she can't stop herself. She says it over and over. “Don't stop. Don't stop. Please. Please.” And with each plea, he obliges. With each desperate request for more, he indulges her.
With a sweeping gesture that makes her ache, he pushes his bag to the floor. He turns them and eases her down on his tiny bed. And there is a split second where she has to worry about the fact that they're about to have sex in his childhood bedroom with his parents just across the hall. But then he's kneeling on the bed, pulling her hips until she feels himself slot his knee between her legs. And then the only thing she thinks about is her desperate need alleviate the ache she feels pressed against him.
She feels shameless, the way she arches her back and rubs her crotch against him. And maybe she would have been embarrassed. But the way he's looking at her makes her feel anything but embarrassed. He's looking at her like she's made of light. Like she's beautiful. Like he's starved for more. She sure of it. Because she knows that's exactly how she's looking at him.
With more patience than she can fathom, he unwraps her sling, careful not to jostle her arm. Then he removes her shirt. Slowly. Deliberately. And equally gentle.
“I won't break,” she finally rasps out, surprised at how hoarse her voice is.
“You're already broken,” he points out. And the sincerity in his face is enough to hush any further protest for him to hurry.
After he's unclasped and removed her bra, he leans back on his heels. The bed creaks loudly in the quiet, and she thinks she might be blushing. No one has ever looked at her the way he is now. Reverent is the only word that comes to mind. And it makes her giddy. It makes her feel almost holy, like she is a priceless, precious thing.
Unable to bear his gaze any longer, she reaches for his shirt, as is the typical order of things in this kind of situation. But with only her left arm, she is at a disadvantage. Luckily, he seems to take pity on her, and helps her get it over his head and across the room.
Once his shirt is off, he runs his hands over her chest, cupping her breasts when she presses into his hands. He rolls his fingers over her nipples and squeezes them softly. And the fact that Jung Hwan is currently touching her breasts is nearly inconceivable. She never thought this day would actually come.
She smiles. With his attention on her breasts, she’s free to watch him as much as she likes. He's more toned than when she’d accidentally walking in on him changing in high school. But she knows the shape of him, still. And it's a strange sensation, to already feel familiar with a man she's about to sleep with for the first time. Finally, she reaches out her good hand and touches his chest.
And he is so warm, she almost worries he's feverish. But then she remembers the heat she'd felt under his scrutiny and she thinks he must be blushing too. A deep kind of full-body flush she's never seen him do before.
And it isn't until that second that it really clicks for her. Even for as much history as they have, this is all new. And the anticipation of it, the excitement of the unknown is dizzying.
He helps her out of her pants, and removes his while he's at it. And then he's sliding over her, the press of his naked skin against hers makes her moan. She can feel him through his boxers, where his erection presses into her hip. He's laying in bed with her now, kissing her again. And when he kisses down her neck, to suck at the spot where her shoulder meets, she takes the opportunity to reach down between them and wiggle out of her panties.
He seems to realize what she's doing halfway through and stops. He doesn't help her, and she thinks, this is it. This is last time he's going to hesitate. He will let her do this. He will let it be her decision.
And she's happy with that. She's happy that she's the one with the final say. Even if it's five years late. This is her choice. And if she's really honest with herself, the reason all her prior relationships have ended so poorly is because he has always been her choice.
She bends her knees up and manages to pull her underwear off in a very unsexy maneuver she's glad he seems to be too distracted to notice. Then she reaches for his boxers, glad when he doesn't stop her. Working with one hand, she has to pull one side down, and then the other. After a few shimmies to scoot down, trying to get them over his hips, he concedes and does the rest.
When she lays back down, he's on her left, one leg between hers, and his cock is pressing into her thigh. There is a second where they both turn to each other, unsure who is going to be on top before she realizes her arm would probably make that painful for her. So she relents, lets him kneel and position himself over her. Using his knees, he spreads her legs apart so he can kneel between them.
She is shaking now, her good arm feels like it might fall off from trembling so hard.
“Are you cold?” He whispers softly, dipping his head to kiss her.
“No,” she admits, her teeth chattering. “I'm excited,” she says and hopes that he understands. It's just nerves. Just five years of wanting this. Five years of imagining. Five years of dreaming about him and feeling rotten for it. Five years of pining that have all coalesced and left her a bundle of shaking nerves. She is not cold or scared or nervous. She is ready.
And as boldly as she dares, she raises her hips up just enough from his mattress so that she can feel the tip of his erection slide over her clit.
And there. The way his eyes swing shut and he shudders out a breath, she knows he understands. More slowly than she'd like, he moves into her. He kisses her again, and lightly bites her earlobe when her head falls to the side.
And she comes face to face with his straining arm. He is careful to hold himself up and away from her injured arm that she keeps tucked against her bare chest. And the effort of keeping himself up makes the veins in his arm as prominent as they were when he would stand behind her on the bus and shield her from the ceaseless rocking.
And if there was any doubt left in her, it disappears at the spark of the memory.
He really has loved her for ten years.
And it feels like too much, too big a burden to carry. What is so great about her that she'd be worth all this trouble? She wants to ask him. She wants to crack him open and see herself through his eyes, so she can understand.
But in that moment, all she can do it throw her head back and muffle a moan into her palm. She raises up her hips to meet his thrust the rest of the way, earning her a guttural sound he makes into her neck.
And then, they move. And oh, she knows this dance. She knows how her body moves when someone is inside her. She knows what she likes. The tempo, the pressure, the heat. But she has never done this with him. So that makes it new. It makes the entire experience of sex seem brand new.
The way he moves inside her. The way he bites his lips and squeezes his eyes shut when her body clamps down around him. The way she can feel that crescendo building inside her. That shining place she reaches for. She pants and fists her good hand in his sheets and closes her eyes, reaching out for it. And she is so close now.
Just a few more. Just a little more.
And then she feels it, the edge. That inevitable turn where ecstasy surely follows. It's the calm before the bright heat takes hold. She couldn't stop it now, even if she wanted to. And she tries. Oh but she tries to hold it, delay it just a little longer. Because she can feel him too. Feel the way his body shakes, his thrusts grow erratic and his breath comes in short labored puffs against her hot, damp skin. But it's useless. She can't wait for him.
She stumbles into it. Like opening a door and finding nothing but light. That door inside her opens. And the light pours out. Running like a cold fire that races up and out from the heart of her. She goes slack, trying to chase the sensation of it deeper into the dark.
And above her, just as she begins to pull herself back from it, she feels him shudder and give a last heaving thrust before he is lost to it too. She opens her eyes, desperate to watch him fall. The way his lips part and his eyes pull shut and his exhale slowly deflates him. And even through the strange expressions of orgasms, she can see the joy. The way his dimples appear, and she can feel his toes unclench and curl around hers.
She doesn't say so, she's not sure how he would take it. But she files it away, exactly what he looks like when he comes. Who knows when that kind of information will be useful?
“You look pleased,” he observes as he rolls to the left, out of her and clear of her arm. He flops down, and she feels bad about his arms. But she's not sure what she could do to help, she’s still trying to catch her own breath.
“When do you leave?” She asks, trying not to let the tears seep into her words. But by the way he reaches over and touches her face, she thinks she probably failed.
“Soon,” is all he says. And she wants to tell him not to go.
The word is practically out of her mouth when he speaks. “Come see me,” he says.
“When?” She asks, trying to calm her racing heart.
“All the time. Whenever you can. I'll be away in December. But only for a few weeks. Other than that, I'll be around. I just can't take any more leave for a while.”
“You mean it?” she asks, turning on her side so she can watch his face. The sun is up enough now that even with the shadows cast by her shoulder from the desk light, she can still see him perfectly.
And he smiles.
Not that small smile, not the secret one, as she's come to think of it as. This is bigger. The tips of his teeth show and his eyes shrink to a single line. His dimples are clear and it reminds her of how she used to catch him looking at her when she would dance. He always gave her a hard time, but there was a time when she was convinced he loved to watch her dance. Even though she was horrible.
And he smiles like that now as he pulls her close. “I mean it.”
And this is it. This is the the start. The beginning of what she's been looking forward to for years. Even with a farewell imminent, she is unbelievably happy.
He wants her to visit.
He loves her.
“Jung Hwan,” she whispers and he grunts in acknowledgement, his eyes closed. “I love you too.”
She's not sure how he’ll react. Maybe she just expects him to shrug it off, like he's known it all along. But he doesn't. Not by far.
She watches in startling, closeup detail as his face crumples and a tear slides from his closed eye, rolling slowly down his cheek. “Say it again,” he finally manages and she laughs.
“I love you, Kim Jung Hwan.”
And she's never seen him smile like that.
She knew they didn’t have much time. But she refused to lose what little they did have. So when he reached down and threw a blanket over both of them, she didn’t object. She knew they should get up. He had to leave soon, and she didn’t want his parents to catch them. But she was also greedy. She wanted this to last as long as possible.
“Jung Hwan!” His father called from the living room what felt like a minute later. Though from the clock on his desk, she saw that they’d managed to fall asleep for almost an hour. And there was a split second where both of them just froze. “My second son, who is leaving his poor mother this morning!”
“Ya!” Deok Sun wheezed and practically pushed him out of bed. “Stall him.”
“Stall him?” Jung Hwan hissed, shaking his head, already trying to tug on his jeans, not even bothering to find his boxers. “Have you met him?”
“Well, think of something! They can’t find me lik--”
“My dear son!” his father burst into the room before Deok Sun could do anything more than ‘eep’ and hide under the blanket.
“Ah, ah! Dad! Daaaaaaaad,” she could hear Jung Hwan say, probably trying to distract his father from the mound of shaking blankets on his bed.
“Son,” his father said, his tone suddenly flat.
“Where is he? Our precious second son?” his mom called from the living room.
“Dad!” Jung Hwan pleaded.
“Honey!” he father practically screamed and the door slammed shut. Deok Sun’s heart was pounding like crazy, she could barely hear Jung Hwan whisper her name. She peeled back the blanket as he tossed her her clothes.
But she already knew it was too late. “Shoes,” she mouthed, pointing with her good arm. “Shoes,” she said again when he didn't seem to understand. “Get. My. Shoes.” she insisted, “before your mom--”
“Deok Sun, are you here? Did you come to see Jung Hwan off?” his mom called and there was only a split second to appreciate the sheer ridiculousness of the situation before his bedroom door flew open again, slamming into the wall loud enough to wake her family downstairs, she was sure.
“Deok Sun!?” his father yelled, turning from where he stood in front of the door, probably trying to block Jung Hwan’s mother, to pin Jung Hwan with a terrible kind of expression.
“Oh my god!” his mom shouted when she saw Deok Sun in Jung Hwan’s bed, her bare shoulder exposed where the blanket slipped off her right arm that she kept tucked against her chest.
“Not our Deok Sun!” His father cried, and she couldn’t help it. She laughed. Of all the possible ways this could have gone, this was by far, the worst.
Taking a deep breath, Deok Sun decided there was only one way to diffuse the situation. “President Kim!” she called, and found three pair of horror-filled eyes staring back at her.
Jung Hwan seemed to be turning a brilliant shade of red. His father was caught between muscle reflex to reciprocate their handshake and horror at seeing her bare shoulder. And his mother seemed like she was halfway to passing out, and still somehow embarrassed by the over-the-top greeting she always hated.
Finally, his father was the one who seems to pull himself together. “President Sung!” he called before bowing deeply and then literally running from the room, dragging Jung Hwan’s mother behind him. With them gone, Jung Hwan pushed his door shut and sagged against it.
“I’ve just lost five years of my life,” he shook his head, still in too much shock to do much else.
Deok Sun dressed as quickly as she could, struggling a little with her arm, but she eventually got herself mostly put together. “I guess I’d better go,” she said, still tugging on her shirt. Jung Hwan helped her get the sling back on, and she tried not to think about the way his hands lingered on her back and shoulders as he did.
And there was something about the way he looked at her when she said she had to go, something that reminded her of years ago when she’d caught him reading that dirty book in Taek’s room. It was a look that made her stomach flip-flop. He looked almost hungry. And she knew that look, she’d seen it before… just never from him.
“Don’t!” she warned, side-stepping him as he reached for her. “You have to go and I need to get home. We are not--”
He kissed her. And whatever protest she was going to say disappeared. The way he held her to him, his bare skin under her hand around his back, the sensation of his tongue softly pressing into her mouth, she was helpless against it. “Don’t stop?” he finally asked when he pulled away to take a breath. And she knew it was in reference to last night. She could feel her cheeks flush at the memory of her begging him to continue. She felt a familiar ache in the pit of her stomach.
“Your parents,” she warned, halfheartedly.
“Can wait,” he answered kissing her again, with a little more force this time. “I’ve waited ten years to do this,” he told her, distractedly, as he pulled the neckline of her shirt down to place light, open-mouth kisses along her exposed, bruised shoulder and across her collarbone. And there was no part of her that ever wanted him to stop. Who was she to deprive him of this?
“Is it everything you dreamed of?” she teased. But she could already feel his growing erection pressing into her leg, through his jeans.
“Better,” he confessed and dragged his lips over her pulse, sucking on the sensitive skin there. His hand cupped her cheek as he pulled her in for another heated kiss. “Much, much better.”
“Better than Hwang Sa?” she asked, already smiling into the kiss.
“Ugh,” he groaned and rocked his hips against hers. “You were so clueless,” he said and she felt foolish now, for not seeing what should have been so obvious. “The day you caught me reading it, and wrestled me for it, I thought for sure you knew… what I was hiding under that blanket.” To emphasize his point, he pressed into her again and her head rolled back to meet her left shoulder.
“Oh, I knew. Just like I knew in that alley,” she whispered, reaching down to rub him through his jeans. “Believe me, I thought about it a lot. In fact,” she said, feeling bold, with him pressed so tightly against her, “I thought about us in that alley the first time I ever masturbated.”
“Fuck,” he grunted and pulled her with him as he took a step back. Now essentially barricading the door, he slid his hands up her shirt, careful not to hurt her arm, and squeezed her breasts. “I tried so hard not to think about you. I tried not to imagine you, this…” he illustrated, bending down to nip at her breast through the coarse fabric of her shirt. “I was always so scared that if I did, it would never be enough. I was sure I would die, waiting for you. Wanting you. And those ridiculous mini skirts you used to wear in winter.”
“You?” she asked, pulling his attention back up to her face. “What about me?”
“What about you?” he asked, like he couldn’t imagine what hardship she could have endured.
“I went around calling myself Soo Yeon for months!”
“You did that for your mom,” he said dismissively, already dividing his attention back to her breasts, fondling her under her shirt, pulling her bra down just enough to pinch at her nipple.
She gasped and squeezed his arm hard enough to feel her nails leave indents in his skin. “You think I would have gone along with it if it was just for school?” she asked, amazed at how light headed she was starting to feel.
And that seemed to get his attention. “What do you mean?”
“Compatibility,” she said cryptically.
“Compatibility?” he asked, turning his head up to meet her eyes. And she could tell he had no idea.
“It was a game the girls used to play. You write out your name and your crushes’ name and see what percentage of compatibility you had together,” she blushed, remembering sitting in homeroom, desperately writing out Tom Cruise’s name. But her diary was full of other tests. She and Sun Woo. She and Jung Hwan.
“What does that have to do with--”
“96% was better than 32%,” she answered quickly. “I never liked my name anyway, and when my mom told me to change it, I tested it with your name, for compatibility. We went from 32% to 96%. A 200% increase,” she recalled fondly, thinking of how happy she’d been to discover the change.
“Oh, that math you could do,” he teased, but she could tell he was touched she'd gone through so much trouble for him back then. “Little miss 989th place.”
“All I ever needed was the proper motivation,” she said, leaning into the kiss he was already halfway to.
And she felt so light, so free, she worried that she might float away, if it wasn’t for his hands on her hips, grounding her. Even the ruckus outside his door wasn’t enough to distract her from the feeling of his lips against hers. He pulled her close enough that she could feel his heartbeat against her injured hand that was trapped between them. And she would have given anything to stay like that. In that moment, work didn’t matter. Their families didn’t matter. Not even the threat of him being declared a deserter if he missed his flight mattered.
There was just the two of them. And the relief of finally grasping that elusive feeling she’d chased since her teens. Even when she didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life or who she wanted to be, she’d wanted him. Maybe even before her crush on Sun Woo, she seemed to have sought his attention. Even when his family was living in a full basement and he was the neighborhood dog. Before he was a fully formed human in her eyes, she had always looked to him.
And now, the feeling of his hands on her skin, his lips on hers, she feels like every decision she’s ever made in her life has been the right one. How could she possibly regret any of it, now that all those moments, those simple choices, have added up to where she is now?
“I have to go,” he whispered into the skin of her neck, taking a deep breath as if to steady himself as he slowly withdrew his hands from under her shirt. And she ached at the loss of his touch.
“Don’t,” she said, knowing it wouldn’t help.
“I have to,” he said, with a little more conviction. “Come see me,” he said, tracing the line of her jaw with the back of his fingers before kissing her softly. And oh, she could happily spend the rest of her life kissing him. Those lips that she’d loved as a teenager, fantasized about, dreamed of, were everything she ever imagined they would be. Full and soft when he pressed them against her temple, but firm and thick when he pulled her lower lip between them.
“I’ll be there tomorrow. I’ll swap routes with someone. I’ll fly to Sacheon every day. Four times a day!”
He laughed, and she could feel his shoulder move under her left hand. “How about twice, no - three times a week? As soon as your arm heals.”
“Deal,” she agreed, already dreading the time they were going to spend apart waiting for her shoulder to completely heal.
“Jung Hwan,” his mother called softly from the other side of the door. “Better get a move on. Don't want to miss your flight.”
Deok Sun could hear the strain in his mother's voice. It must have been torture for her to let the last precious minutes she had with her son for at least six months spent with someone else. She dreaded the second he left. It would mean facing both of their families alone. “You'd better get dressed.” She said, finally pulling away from him.
She busied herself with folding his pink shirt while he got redressed. She was careful to tuck it into the bottom of his duffle bag, where he’d pulled it from last night. But as she pushed aside the other clothes to get to the bottom, her fingers brushed against a familiar piece of fabric.
Without really meaning to, she found herself pulling it from the bottom of his bag. Her hands knew the shape and feel of it so well, she already knew what it was. But she had to see it to be sure. And there it sat, the Top Gun pilot badge she'd made for him the Christmas of 1988.
And immediately, she was transported back in time.
Sitting on the floor of her bedroom, carefully embroidering the pilot wings on a swath of blue canvas her mother had given her. It was the wrong shade of blue, and the red thread was too thin, and she wasn’t that good at it, but it had been so important at the time. She wanted to give him something he really wanted, but she couldn’t afford much and he already had most of the things he wanted anyway. But he was already well on his way to being accepted to the Air Force Academy, and she knew how much he loved Top Gun.
She remembered getting home and checking the slip of paper in her pocket, her heart in her throat. And when she’d opened it and found his name, she felt like it really was destined. She tucked it in her desk drawer, next to her diary, which was filled with pages and pages of him.
She spent three days straight embroidering the insignia and his name on the patch. She had to borrow the movie from Sun Woo so she could watch the scene at the end where she could kind of see Tom Cruise’s badge a hundred times, trying to tell what the design was. Eventually she had to give up though. She couldn’t see it clearly enough on her tiny television set, and she went to Jung Bong for help. He, of course, already knew what the design was. Just another one of those things that he seemed to know. She didn’t understand how he couldn’t pass his college entrance exam, he had so much information trapped inside his head. She used to marvel and how he could fit it all.
And he’d been more than willing to help her once she told him what it was for. He dutifully drew the pattern of wings with a shield and anchor in the middle for her to copy. She’d transferred the pattern to the canvas and bought a spool of bright red thread and started to sew. She’d worked on it all night, until her eyes were blurry and her back was sore and her fingers bled from being pricked so many times.
But at the time, that didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was making it perfect. She remembered sitting up the night he'd come to McDonalds and told her to think about why he came. She knew he liked her. She knew it. And she was convinced that the badge would be pivotal in their relationship.
She had poured her whole heart into making it. And it had been worth it. Oh god, had it been worth it. When she finally gave it to him on Christmas Eve, she could see how choked up it made him. She was so sure he was going to make fun of her for it, point out all the things that were wrong with it, but he didn’t. He just stood there, holding the patch, for what felt like forever.
Until she couldn’t stand the silence anymore and asked, “Do you like it?”
“Y… Yes,” he’d answered, never taking his eyes off of it. And she might have imagined it, but she liked to think that his eyes were misty. But she couldn’t tell from where they stood in the courtyard.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t have one made for you, I know it’s not exactly right--”
“It’s perfect,” he’d said a second before he hugged her. And she froze. He’d never hugged her before. Not like this. Not when it was night, and just the two of them, and his hands were wrapped around her back and his chin was on her shoulder and his cheek was pressed against her temple. She always forgot how tall he was. Her heart felt like it might pound right out of her chest. “It’s perfect.” He repeated. But later that night, and for months afterwards, whenever she replayed that moment in her memory she would replace “It’s perfect.” with “I love it.” Maybe it had been wishful thinking, but she always felt like that’s what he wanted to say.
“You remember making that for me?” Jung Hwan asked and Deok Sun was pulled from her memories.
“How could I forget?” she asked, turning it over in her hand. She would know it anywhere, in the dark, blind, at the end of the world, she didn’t think her fingers could ever forget the feeling of those stitches. She’d made each one with such care, such devotion. “I spent three days making it. I had to ask Sun Woo for help with the english letters of your name, to make sure I spelled it right. I made him write it over and over again, until I was sure I had it right.” She could still hear the sigh of exasperation when she made him write it for her ‘one more time’. “I spent all night working on it. I must have pricked my fingertips a thousand times,” she laughed, looking up at him. “I still have the calluses,” she admitted, shaking her head. “I was so proud when I gave it to you. I couldn’t sleep all night, after you hugged me. I laid awake until the sun came up, replaying it over and over again.”
“I was so happy,” he said finally, reaching for it slowly. “I really thought I was going to die. I wanted to kiss you so badly. I stood by my front door for hours, trying to work up the courage. I imagined sneaking in your room to kiss you, waking you up and taking you up to the roof of the shed to watch the stars with me and holding your hand. I wanted to go to you so badly, I felt like I was going crazy. I couldn’t stop myself from hugging you.”
“Why? Why did you never do any of those things? You must have known how much I liked you.”
“I don’t know,” he admitted and she could hear the regret in his words now. “I thought I was being a good friend. Or I was scared to act first. I wanted you to choose me. I thought if you came to me first, I wouldn't be betraying Taek.”
“I was 18, I was young and nervous and insecure. Did it never occur to you that I could have used a little encouragement?” she asked, feeling that same anger from last night resurface.
“I was scared too. Scared of hurting Taek, scared of messing up our friendship, scared you wouldn’t like me as much as I liked you. I was only 18 too. I’m sorry,” He said, hurrying to kiss her. Just a chaste one to the corner of her lips. Just enough to reminder her that things were different now. “I wasted so many years waiting. I hurt you and I didn’t know how to make any of it better. But I’m here now. And you…” he paused, looking at her like he wasn’t sure he should continue. “You love me too, right?” And there was so much fear and hope packed into his words, she felt like her heart might shatter at the sound of it. Like he still wasn’t sure, like maybe she would take it back now that they were dressed and he was leaving.
“I don’t think I ever stopped loving you,” she answered, lifting her right hand to touch his cheek. And the movement of her shoulder made her bite back a flair of pain, but she didn’t care. She had to touch him, had to show him she was serious.
“I fly with it,” he said finally, and his lopsided smile tugged at her heart. “It's my good luck charm. All the guys are jealous of it.”
“It’s not even that good,” she said already visualizing all the mistakes in the stitching, all the places the blue fabric was visible through the red thread, the way the wings were slightly crooked and uneven, the sloppy corners of the letters.
“It saved my life once,” he said, completely ignoring her comment about its imperfection.
“What?” She asked, stunned. He looked down at it in his hands, lost in thought, reliving the memory.
“About a year ago, I was on a routine flight when there was a mechanical failure,” his voice had taken on a detached tone, like it was a story about someone else. And she wondered how he could do that, distance himself from what he was remembering. “The engine cut out, and I fell into an uncontrolled spin. I could barely stay conscious, let alone tell which way was up. But then I saw the patch, stuck to my instrument panel. And I thought of you, and I felt like I could breathe again. I managed to get my bearings and get in control enough to glide into an empty field. I saved the plane, not a scratch on her,” he boasted. “That's actually the reason I was selected to be part of Peace Bridge II, my ability to ‘keep calm under pressure.’”
He handed the patch back to her, and she felt weak in the knees. She knew what he did could be dangerous. She knew the crash statistics for flights better than anyone. But still, it was different hearing him talk about almost dying so casually. And even more jarring to think that some pitiful gift she made him because she could afford anything nicer was the thing he credited his safety to. She was sure the honor was undeserved. “I can have a new one made, with better stitching and your real callsign.”
“No,” he insisted. “‘Crazy Dog’ actually is my callsign.” And there it was again, that huge smile that made her ache all the way to the tips of her toes.
“Jung Hwan!” His dad called, and he threw the last few things in his bag, including the patch. And she was sorry to see it go, like saying goodbye to an old friend.
She wanted to talk more, she had so many things she still wanted to say to him. Things she wanted to hear about. She didn’t want him to go. Just before he opened the door, he paused. His hand still on the knob, he seemed to freeze. Maybe he didn’t want to go either, she wasn’t sure. But then he reached into his pocket and pulled the ring box from last night out and held it up to her, still closed.
“I gave this to you last night, but I did it all wrong. I shouldn't have done it like that,” he said as he shouldered his bag and got down on one knee. “I should have done it like this.”
“Jung Hwan!” His mother’s shrill voice cut through the room, but he didn’t budge.
“Deok Sun,” he said and she was beginning to feel like she was developing a complex about the way he said her name. “Soo Yeon,” he said, smiling and she chuckled. “I have loved you for ten years. You are beautiful and strong and smart and brave and I want you to have this, as a token of my affections. Will you accept?”
“Yes,” she nodded. “Yes, of course.”
And she'd never, in all the years she'd known him, seen him look that happy before. He stood, his bag dropping to the floor, and kissed her quickly. And then he was gone. A fading “Page me when you come. I'll take you to the movies!” still hung in the air as his final farewell. But she didn’t move. She couldn’t. His door still hung open and the ring box was clutched in her hand and her lips were still warm where he’d pressed his against hers.
His mother was still standing at his doorway, torn between looking at him leaving and at Deok Sun’s face. She was crying, she could feel the tears sliding down her face and chin, down her neck. And all she could think about what the feeling of him kissing the same place last night. She sagged heavily against his desk. Still barefoot, and nearly heartbroken, she couldn't bring herself to leave. His room still smelled like him, and the bed was a mess, and she didn't want to leave.
And there was a moment where she and his mother looked at each other, the pain of saying goodbye etched in the other’s expression, and she’d never felt so close to his mother before. It was a moment of understanding, a moment of camaraderie that spurned them forward. Her arm was half in the sling, and she reached for Jung Hwan's mother with her left arm and together they cried.
“He finally confessed?” His mother asked, rubbing comforting circles on Deok Sun’s back where they sat on his floor.
“You knew?” She asked through her tears.
“I'd have to have been blind not to.” And there was a smile in her voice. A joy that made Deok Sun relieved.
“Yeah,” she agreed. Looking back now, all the signs were there. It was only ever her own lack of confidence that ever made her doubt him. “Do you think I could stay, just for a little while. I don't want to go home yet and I'm so tired.”
“Of course. Go ahead and get some rest. I'll make you some breakfast for later.”
“Thank you,” Deok Sun bowed and turned towards his unmade bed, determined to sleep for 16 hours straight.
“Why don't you give me your prescription and I'll have Jung Bong get it for you so you can take it when you get up?”
“Thank you,” she said again and bowed deeply. “Thank you, mother.” In all the years she'd been coming to their house, she'd always called Mrs. Ra ‘ma’am’. But she couldn't bring herself to call his mother that now. Not after their shared grief made them allies. It would have been disrespectful.
“I guess this makes us a real family now, doesn't it?” She asked, smiling through her tears. “You know I always wanted a daughter.” She said and Deok Sun laughed. She should have known better than to worry about how his family would react. “I'm glad he has you. He's so much like me… and you're just like his father. You two make a good pair.”
Blushing at the frankness of his mother’s comments, she just looked away, trying not to cry any more. But she couldn’t really deny it either. She’d always loved his father because he had the same horrible sense of humor she did. And even though he pretended to hate it, just like his mother did, she knew Jung Hwan liked all her jokes and over the top impressions.
She still had to talk to her parents, and the rest of the neighborhood would probably erupt into chaos when she woke up. But for now, she was tired, and she missed him already. So she snuggled up into his bed, the bed they had once shared when they were in high school and he’d accidentally wandered into his room in the middle of the night. The bed they’d shared against last night - with nothing accidental about it, and shut her eyes.
She fell into a deep, dreamless sleep, thinking about Jung Hwan and planning when she would be able to see him next.