Sand in the Shoes
The cars speed through the night as the sun drifts down behind the brick houses. The noises increase tenfold with speeches and occasional yelling and screaming from far off. She walks up to her apartment and sighs in relief as she sees the familiar one bedroom one bathroom apartment. With relief comes realization that she is no longer on vacation that she is back in real life.
For the last two weeks she made up her mind not to use technology while on vacation and now that she is back, there is reluctance to start her life again, to remember other responsibilities besides having fun. She distracts herself by unpacking the suitcases, remembering the souvenirs from her trip; a blue shirt from Korea with gold lettering, bookmarks, a tea set, and even a pair of Korean shoes. As she touches each subject, she finds herself smiling and wondering about Yi-Song Yoon and how he is doing. Is he thinking of her now as well? Does he miss her? Should she call him? As she continues removing each souvenir she suddenly comes upon a pair of sea blue flip-flops covered with sand. She should wash them, she realizes but as she continues to stare at them, memories shift until she is no longer in her apartment in the present day and it was few months back.
On that day she takes the bus through the city, relief flooding through her slender body at getting out early. That day she will jog through the park, perhaps go to a local restaurant and meet up with her friend Stephanie Shin. The bus stops and she gets off as her cell phone begins to ring. She sees its Stephanie Shin. “Hello?” She says as she picks up the phone.
“Oh, thank god I caught you,” Stephanie says. “Can you meet at Corner Bakery in half an hour? There’s something wonderful I have to tell you!”
“Sure, no problem.” She tells her friend.
“Good. I have to go now, but I’ll see you later.” The phone is clicked off. She begins to walk forward to her meeting place.
Half an hour later she sees Stephanie walk in, holding hands with her boyfriend Todd Watson. She is surprised that Stephanie brought Todd with her. Normally Stephanie sees the meetings as something for women only, no men allowed. “Stephanie?” She calls out her friend’s name.
Stephanie smiles widely. “It’s so exciting Gabby! You won’t believe what happened!” Todd looks slightly embarrassed and uncertain as he stands next to Stephanie. She checks their fingers and a white color shines from the stones. She could already guess what happened; Todd finally proposed. Although happy for her friend, she feels embarrassed that her love life wasn’t going well at all.
Pretending to not notice anything unusual, she asks what happened, and then Stephanie begins to squeal more and spills the whole story about her engagement and her gushing about Todd’s personality. “I was so surprised when we went through a park and all of a sudden Todd began to shift from foot to foot. He drops down and then produces a very large diamond and asks me to marry him!” Gabrielle doesn’t bother telling her friend not to be so loud. Engagement, she thinks to herself as she sees an empty ring finger on her left hand. What would it feel like when a guy slips the ring and you become his? Trying to hide her feelings of sadness, she smiles and congratulates her friend.
“Will you tell your family?”
“Of course!” Stephanie says, grabbing Todd’s hand. “Todd and I will be going to Seoul in a few months. I was wondering if you want to come along.”
“To Seoul?” She asks uncertainly. “Why?”
Stephanie’s cheeks flushed. “In all honesty, my family never did approve of me dating Todd because he’s you know, American. While I get them ready for the news, I want you to pretend to be his girlfriend.”
“What of the monetary costs and all that?” Gabrielle asks her friend as she sips the water from the glass.
“Don’t worry. My family’s pretty rich.” Stephanie assures her as she sighs. “I hadn’t been to Korea in a while. I think you’ll like it there as well. We’ll journey to Jeju Island, maybe to other cities as well.”
Gabrielle wants to refuse her friend but doesn’t have a heart to say no. In truth she wants to travel somewhere, anywhere from her life, but to spend all the time with Stephanie and Todd is not her idea of fun. The two will be holding hands and being lovey-dovey while she will be all alone. For the millionth time she wishes she had a boyfriend as well, someone who will treat her like a queen. Grumbling inside she sees the two of them sit down and acting like teenagers. Tolerating this behavior for ten more minutes, she informs them that she has to leave, that she has to go to her workout and then leaves both of them alone. Neither of them tells her goodbye.
“Here, take it,” the woman insists as she hands him a book in English. He can barely read English.
“It’s okay,” he tells her, but she continues to insist.
“You’re a good lover, Namdongsaeng,” she says as she lies against the wall and lights up a cigarette. She is middle-aged, about forty or fifty, while he is in his late twenties. “The best I’ve had and I’ve had many,” she laughs.
He smiles politely but does not respond to her as he studies the book she had given him. It is in English and he tries to make out the title but feels frustrated with his lack of progress. He is tempted to call her Ajumma, but she is his customer, he realizes and he cannot afford to offend her. Instead he calls her Noona. “Thank you for the book.” He responds, his thumbs going over the cover with a picture of a white flower blooming over it.
“Do you have a girlfriend yet? You look old enough to be married by now. How old are you? Twenty-seven?”
“Yes,” he responds, his eyes are still focused on the book and not on the customer. He scoots away from her, making sure not to touch her body, his eyes darting out nervously to glance at her reclining shape.
She laughs. “A baby,” she declares. “My son is about your age.” She exhales the smoke as he watches it float out the window onto the busy streets below. “He’s a bookworm like you. Loves reading anything he can get his hands on.”
“How is he?” He asks politely. He begins to feel an urge to run away from her into the night, to forget that this had happened, that he had sex with her.
“Aigoo,” She scolds him. “Why do you want to talk about him? Why not tell me about yourself?”
He laughs nervously. “Noona,” he begins. “There’s not much to tell.”
“Is this your first time?”
“Huh?” He asks, surprised at her question. The woman is definitely brazen and isn’t demure as he hoped. He stands up and walks over to the bathroom, hoping to take the shower.
“Is this your first time doing this?” He doesn’t want to answer her questions, much less admit that yes, he had lost his virginity to her.
“Um, I will be right back,” he says as he steps inside and turns on the hot water, hoping somehow that it will wash away his memories and deed. He hears the door slam and thirty minutes later, as he comes out, she is gone. He sighs in relief and hopes that she will not complain about him to his boss. His boss will not be happy if she does. He realizes then that the hope is vain and he might as well wish he would live on the moon or among the stars.
He dresses up in a tuxedo, sees the money nearby which he places in his pockets and takes the book with him.
He hails a taxi and realizes that he needs a drink or else something to forget this night. He wonders if his boss will be easy on him, perhaps not let him go out anymore for tonight. The car continues to drive through the streets as he watches the changing scenery in front of him, and finally he is in the club. He enters inside where he sees the women and the men talking, some even going somewhere more private. His boss is nearby, talking on the phone, negotiating a deal. He hopes he will not be sent again. He walks forward, and his boss motions for him to come over. “I understand,” he says. “A special present right?” He laughs. “Why Ma’am, this is a place of discretion, not a word will reach your husband’s ears.” He hangs up. “Yoon Yi-Song,” he says. “Here’s the address. You are expected at this place by seven pm.”
“I’d like a drink, probably something strong.” His boss laughs.
“A drink. Don’t worry, the place you’ll go to will have plenty of drink.” A pause and his boss, Kim Myung-Ho begins to drum his fingers against the table. “Go now though. Every minute you will be traveling will be a waste of money. Get there and make money.” Just as he is about to leave, Kim Myung-Ho grabs his hand. “The money from previous job,” he tells him. He hands him the money silently and leaves to the other place.
He checks the address and groans again at the thought of being with a woman. It’s not that he’s gay; it’s just that he desires to be with a woman he is attracted to instead of being with a woman who is more than half his age and who is married or dating seriously. He wanted to be with a woman of his dreams instead of many women he has to deal with.
Previously he was a conversation partner that is he hung out with women but didn’t have sex with them. That changed though. Kim Myung-Ho promoted him to a real actual host and today he had sex. He hails a taxi, gives the man the address and drives to the hotel.
When they arrive to the hotel, he pays his bill and walks up to the room where knocks on the door. A Korean woman with dark brown wavy hair opens the door and smiles as she sees him. “What’s your name handsome?” She asks him, leaning against the wall, trying to look sexy. He sees a large spacious room with the window opening up to the city and notices two other women standing, devouring him with their eyes as if he were a piece of meat. He shudders at the idea and introduces himself.
“Yoon Yi-Song,” he tells her, waiting for the invitation that came soon enough. He and three women sit down and begin talking about their jobs mostly, sometimes about their husbands. The other two was a woman of Rubenesque proportions with pigtails and a small thin one with shoulder length black hair.
“One night my husband came home with a woman,” the woman who invited him in says. “He smirks like he expects a big scandal,”
“Well, what happened next?” Asks a buxom woman with pigtails.
“I begin to fight with him, call him names and throw his sorry ass outside. Some neighbors call the police but when they arrive I lie and say that he beat me up. They throw his sorry ass to jail and now I can divorce him!”
The women applaud her. “Brave sister how well you have done!”
As he listens to these stories he begins to feel uncomfortable at the way the women describe the men in angry and spiteful tones, often including stories of their love affairs with other men, American men to be exact, and how often they play up to the China doll fantasy of being delicate. He knows that not all Korean women are like that; his own sister is strong and loyal without doing anything horrible like these women, but he still finds himself lacking experience in handling them. He attempts to turn conversation into a more pleasant and bearable direction and for a while the women are charmed and praise his qualities. Despite his bookish demeanor and behavior, he is liked by them and his knowledge comes to use as he entertains them with tales of Greek mythology, often adding his own erotic twists to the myths.
“Zeus disguises himself into a white bull and as Europa approaches him, he sees a shy and a demure expression in her eyes and this inflames his desires. He cannot wait until he is away from his wife’s watchful eyes so he can play at last with Europa, to feel her body beneath his, to experience the life anew.”
The women marveled at his storytelling and clapped when he is done. The short woman with the shoulder length hair asks him to tell more stories and he begins to recall 1001 Arabian Nights Tales he read. Just like with Greek myths, he tells the tales adding more eroticism to the stories. He begins a tale of the first night when King Shahryar had Scheherazade and attempts to make it more pleasant instead of what he actually thought she experienced, which mirrored his own feelings of revulsion and disgust. “What a clever guy you are,” the woman with wavy hair tells him. “So smart and intelligent.”
He thanks them as he begins to wonder about Scheherazade’s situation. Did she feel fear as he does? Did she feel disgust? He imagines that she must have felt those emotions, but if she did, how did she handle them?
As he is talking, he sees the long-haired woman giving him an ‘I want you’ look and he knows that soon the other two women will leave and he will have to sleep with her. Sure enough, the hostess gives them a look and the two make quick excuses of going back home until he is left with her.
He sees her staring at him, her eyes holding pity. He wonders why she isn’t inviting him to the bedroom and he continues to watch her move around, putting away bowls and forks and cups and other knick knacks. Soon enough she comes over. “You can go now,” she tells him as she picks up a bowl.
“Excuse me?” He asks, surprised by her.
“I see you and my heart hurts. You look too much like a son I had.” She walks over to the kitchen and he hears the water being turned on and beginning to come out of the faucet. “If he had lived, he would have been your age. But there was a car accident when he was ten and he died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I invited someone to entertain us.” He sees her fingers begin to scrape the edge of the bowl, taking away the food. “I actually feel pity for you. It doesn’t look you had an easy life, and it feels that your life will not become easier as the time will go by.” He does not know how to respond to those words. “Give me a minute and I will give you the money and you can leave. Thank you for the entertainment.”
In a few minutes he bids her goodbye and returns to the club. Much to his relief Kim Myung-Ho dismisses him and tells him to go home. He does so gladly.
The phone rings loudly and he checks the screen to notice that it’s from America. He wonders if it might be Shin Sang-Ok. He picks it up and greets the person in Korean. “Yi-Song Oppa!” He hears the voice on the other line. Yes, it is Shin Sang-Ok. He greets her back. “I have some exciting news for you. Remember that guy I was dating? Todd Watson? He proposed to me!”
“You will be coming back to Korea?” He asks her hesitantly.
“Yes. I have to break news to my family.”
“They will not be happy that it’s an American.”
She snorts. “They’ll learn to live. Todd and another will be coming back with me. I asked this friend to pretend that Todd is her boyfriend.”
He sighs. “What plan are you cooking up now?”
“I want them to meet Todd before saying that he’s my fiancé. If my friend pretends to be his girlfriend, then they won’t feel threatened by him.” He does not bother pointing out to her that this is yet another stupid scheme. Once Shin Sang-Ok decides on an idea, no amount of arguing or finding faults with her schemes will deter her from carrying it out.
He is tempted to remind her of her cousin that recently married an American woman, how the whole family refused to attend their wedding. “Are you happy with him?” He asked her. “If you are not you do not have to do this.”
“Of course I’m happy with him; else I wouldn’t have accepted the proposal. Anyways, if you’re thinking of Seung-Hoon Oppa, then it’s different for boys and girls.” Yes, he is well aware of that. Girls had more freedom in marrying or being with whomever they desired, while guys are obligated to carry on the family lines by marrying Korean women. Almost any Asian woman after Korean woman is okay, but if one is to delve outside of Asian race then an American woman would be fine. Other women are not okay.
He wonders then why do men fall in love with women that are more likely to earn ire from everybody. Is love really such a powerful emotion as he hears it being described all too often? His view is that love is simply chemicals, a powerful mix of dopamine and other feel good hormones which is then mixed with biology, or perhaps the chemicals from both partners have to be compatible in order to create chemistry. Love is not sentimental or “just because” emotion. In fact, he has worked hard to get rid of anything emotional in his life. He has to, he corrected himself. If he does not, then he fears himself going mad in response. “I am aware of it,” he tells her, biting his lip in frustration.
“And you do remember that for the most part, a foreigner marrying a Korean girl is not a big deal. She will raise children the Korean way mixed in with American way.” He hears sigh. “I have to go now though. I will give you a call as soon as I arrive to Korea.” He hangs up the phone in response and takes out the book that the woman gave him. He groans inside at the English letters, unable to read the language. Why English, he questions himself. Couldn’t she find the book in Korean? He cannot read in the tongue, although he can barely speak.
Just a few simple words, he remembers. Hello, how are you, goodbye. He hears another beep then and sees it’s from home. He picks up the phone again and hears his sister’s voice on the other end. “Hello?” He says.
“Oppa,” she says. “Have you had dinner recently?” A Korean way of asking “how are you,” he thinks to himself.
“I did,” he replies. “I was just looking at the book.”
He hears her laugh in the background. “You’re lucky you live in a city. I’m sorry that I and our brother are such a burden on you.”
“You’re not,” he denies it. “You’re a good sister; you take care of our brother well.”
“I wish there was more I could do though. I feel helpless that you live there by yourself while there is nothing I can do.”
“Did you get the money for uniforms and supplies?”
“I did. I make sure that our brother studies hard to become someone. I feel bad that you had to drop out though.”
“It’s okay, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me sister.”
“Vacation is coming up,” she continues. “When should our brother and I visit you? We want to see you in the city; we hadn’t seen you in forever.”
He remembers his conversation with Shin Sang-Ok. “Shin Sang-Ok is coming over from America,” he tells his sister. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh,” she says. He hears chuckle on the other end. “It seems that you’re always busy now, Oppa, I guess our brother and I will spend the vacation alone.” Inwardly he sighs in relief as he hears a click. For now, everything is okay, he tries to reassure himself; his family will not have to find out yet.
The sun streaks through the glass windows as he watches passengers disembarking from the plane, carrying luggage by the handles. He checks the watch, noting the time and wondering when Shin Sang-Ok and her retinue will come out. Lucky her, he thinks to himself as he recalls of the money she possesses, and how she loves showing off. At that moment he sees a short Asian girl exit. Behind her sees another girl and an American boy. This must be Shin Sang-Ok and Todd Watson. Shin Sang-Ok is short in height with stylish platform shoes and sandglasses covering her face. She is wearing a knee-length white skirt and a blouse that accentuated her cleavage. He sees her stop and turn her head, most likely searching for him. He waves his hand, catching her attention.
“Oppa!” She yells as she runs up and hugs him. He freezes, not even touching her back and feels as if all eyes are on him. “There you are! Oh my god, you wouldn’t believe the traffic and the ride I had! So exhaustive! You’ll take me to my family right?” She finally lets go of him and begins to run her fingers through her hair. He breathes out, assuring himself that he is not watched.
He didn’t answer her questions but he turned his attention to the beaming American boy and to the American girl that stood behind the boy. “Shin Sang-Ok,” he says.
“Aigoo, so formal! Why not use casual chat?”
“I had not seen you for a while,” he reminds her. “You left for America for a few years now. Why not introduce me to your friends? Or at least act as a translator? My English skills are very poor.”
She groans. “Do I have to?”
“Your idea to do this,” he reminds her. “I will not do this anymore; you are no longer my girl.”
“You used to have a crush on me back then,” she recalls, her face lighting up. “I loved taking advantage of it.”
He feels his cheeks turning red as he remembers the fruitless endeavors he had with courting her. Whatever he had done was not good enough for her. If he bought her a favorite CD by her favorite artist, she whined that it wasn’t autographed, and back then she continuously led him on by promises if he did this, then she will be with him. In the end, he gave up on having her as a girlfriend, and instead the two settled for a friendship.
“Since you insist though,” she sighs melodramatically. “The guy over there is my fiancé, Todd Watson, and the girl is my friend, Gabrielle.” At the sound of her name, Gabrielle came out, her face downcast and her eyes focused on the tiles. She is not an American woman that he expected, that is she is not tanned, or blonde, nor blue eyed. She is not a Barbie doll in other words. Instead her hair is the color of chestnuts, her eyes reminded him of chocolate and her skin was white. Strangely enough, he finds that much more attractive than an exotic blonde woman.
He senses an increase of speed in his heart. Its hormones, he tells himself. It’s possible that inside I find her exotic because she is rare, and exotic things are somehow more exciting than things here, so that could be the reason I am sensing something about her. He shook his head to clear his thoughts and saw Shin Sang-Ok approach Todd Watson. The two began to talk, she touching him often, even holding hands. Anxiety gnawed at him at the sight, that Shin Sang-Ok could be so open in front of so many people. Gabrielle also turned her face away from the couple; he notices and sees a slight blush on her cheeks. “Shin Sang-Ok,” he says her name loudly.
“Call me Stephanie,” she tells him. “That name really bugs me, Oppa.”
The Korean language has no f or v sounds, and he tries to pronounce her name correctly but is unable to. “I’m sorry,” he says, sticking his hands into his pockets and looking down at the tiles, trying to figure out how many there are in the airport.
“No matter, you’ll learn,” she says. “What will we do though?”
“Go to the beach later on,” he tells her. “I thought we’d listen and dance to old songs.”
She laughs. “You never listen to new music do you?”
“I do,” he says. “I don’t care about new music though.”
While talking to Stephanie, he wonders how Gabrielle and Todd are doing and sees them standing around not doing anything, not even talking to one another. He had expected them to talk to each other but is surprised that they aren’t. “Don’t worry about Todd and Gabrielle,” Stephanie tells him.
“It isn’t fair to them though. Translate for me, please.”
She makes a face and groans. “Why must I always have a hard job?” He begins to wonder what did he ever see her; why was he attracted her to her in beginning? He feels the insides begin to burn at her disregard for others’ feelings.
“What kind of music do they like?” He asks her before she could whine and come up with more excuses on how her job is hard. No, he thinks to himself, your job is not hard. You are not sleeping around with women old enough to be your mothers just so you could send money to your family in hopes of helping them survive and eventually succeed.
Stephanie asks them the question and then turns around and translates the answers for his benefit. “Todd likes old music like Beetles and Elvis Priestley. Gabrielle is into fusion type music. She loves Deep Forest and Secret Garden.”
“I like Secret Garden as well,” he says excitedly. “What kind of songs does she like?”
Stephanie grunts and asks the question, then answers him. “Nocturne, Sleep-song and Dreamcatcher.”
He likes those songs as well, he realizes, but he has to get them to her parents’ home. He takes out the car keys and motions for them to follow him. He glances behind him and is not surprised to see Stephanie lag behind, walking clumsily, and in pain. “My shoes hurt, Oppa,” she complains as she bends down and stops the group.
“Wear more comfortable shoes next time,” he tells her matter of fact as he crosses his arms over his chest, focusing his attention on her. He sees Gabrielle walk over to Stephanie and the two began to talk in English. She asks something and Stephanie begins to cry and protest, often gesturing towards him.
Todd stands next to Stephanie, his expression of concern. He hears him ask something but Stephanie waves with her hands and begins to cry even more.
The memories bring him back to school days when Shin Sang-Ok would often corner him and complain about her aches and pain. He remembers one memory in particular because it’s the first time he realized how foolish she was. “Yesterday…yesterday I had a nosebleed,” she tells him as she eats the Kimchi. He looks at her, worried if she is okay.
“Are you all right?” He asks, his mind imagining the worst case scenario, that of her having leukemia just like in those television serials he watches with his family. He finds himself feeling nausea and his heart beating quickly as he imagines that perhaps one day she will die from nose bleed.
She begins to cry. “Oh Oppa!” her body heaves with loud sobs. “What if I lose my life just like one of the women in a drama? Oh what should happen to me then? What about my family?”
“I’m sure nothing like that will happen,” he tells it more to himself than her. The thought of Shin Sang-Ok dying feels as if a spear struck his heart. He picks up a piece of beef with his chopsticks and slowly chews it, feeling the taste and seasonings fill his mouth. He concentrates on the taste, trying to shut out the things that Shin Sang-Ok is saying about how she might be sick and not even know it.
“Oh what are the other signs?” She asks him. “In dramas a woman will have a nosebleed, then pains and faint! Oh what if I should faint?” She grabs his sleeve. “Please stay with me Oppa, please don’t let anything like that happen to me!”
“I do not know the signs of leukemia,” he tells her. “And besides, don’t believe the things you see in dramas.”
“You’re just as bad as my parents,” she tells him. “They laugh at me and refuse to take me to a doctor.”
“I am too young to be your guardian,” he reminds her, unintentional anger coloring his voice. Not knowing what to say or do to calm her, he gets up and relief floods through him as he realizes that it will be time for classes. “It’s time to go to class,” he tells her calmly, trying to pretend as if nothing happened.
That day, despite his words to her, a growing sense of anxiety starts gnawing at his insides, and thoughts of Shin Sang-Ok’s illness flash through his mind. What if she is right, he asks himself as he tries to pay attention to teacher’s words despite the drowsiness that he experiences. Most likely this is a typical Shin Sang-Ok thing, he tells himself. She always gets foolish ideas into her head, and isn’t likely to let go of them.
As he walks towards home, he sees the evening shadows fall, the rosy cheeked sun setting down, the clouds playing off of shadows, creating dark red streaks like cornfields across the sky. He breathes in and sees Shin Sang-Ok beside him. He calls out her name but she promptly ignores him and walks home. He tries to catch up with her but no luck and he walks home alone.
He shakes his head to clear the unwanted memories and notices the three of them talking in English. “Let’s go,” he says calmly, refusing to play into Shin Sang-Ok’s game again. He walks towards the car and opens up the doors, helping Todd load Stephanie’s luggage. Gabrielle only brought two suitcases, while Stephanie brought six or seven at least. The small car he has is no match for Stephanie’s luggage. “You could have told me that you were bringing half your wardrobe so I could have asked someone else to help me out.” He says, his tone of voice creating an impression that they are discussing weather.
“For your information, most of the stuff is my makeup, you know moisturizers, lipstick, foundation, powder, rouge, nail polish, French nails style kit, concealer, natural makeup, seaweed cream for the clean complexion…” He stops listening to her endless list of makeup.
“I will call on a friend to help,” he tells her. “I cannot fit all the things you brought inside mine car.”
“Oppa,” Stephanie whines. Feeling annoyed, he stalks off, leaving Stephanie crying and whining about how tired she is. He stops near a tree, closes his eyes and begins to hum a song under his breath.
“That’s a pretty song,” he hears a strange voice. He opens his eyes and turns towards the strange voice. It came from Stephanie’s friend, Gabrielle. She stands to his right, leaning against the wall.
He does not know how to respond. “Umm.” He begins, but then stops, feeling his face heat up. He wonders how much she understood and how much she knows. She turns towards him, her eyes holding his.
“Stephanie taught me some Korean, or actually gave me Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur to learn.” He hears her chuckle. “She says she has no patience in being a teacher.”
He remains silent, uncertain of what to say in this situation, his mind traveling down the conversations between him and Stephanie. Why hadn’t Stephanie nor she have said something? Why did he feel like an idiot then? He stole a glance at her, noting the strained smile staining her face, her eyes crinkling in anger and her hands crossed across her chest. He feels a familiar pain of biting his lip, his fingers reaching for the bark behind him, the rough texture cutting into his palms.
“She really must have liked you.” She says nonchalantly. He senses that she is trying to regain a sense of peace that was lost with Stephanie’s complaining.
“Why do you say that?” He asks, surprised by the observation.
“She tortures those she likes.” Gabrielle responds. A sigh escapes her. “She’s spoiled, yet at the same time loves people in her own way. She may do things that anger me, but she also does things that bring me pleasure.”
He nods at her observations, agreeing with her silently, but then feels embarrassed that he still has to call some of his friends to bring the cars over for Stephanie’s and Todd’s luggage. He debates on what to tell her, how to call his friends without being rude to her. In that moment, he is saved by Stephanie’s screech for Gabrielle. He watches her walk off, anger in footsteps, the aura tightens, ready to snap at a moment’s notice. In that moment he finds himself feeling sorry for Stephanie, having an odd feeling that if Gabrielle becomes angry, then she becomes very angry. He calls his friends and much to his relief they agree to bring two more cars over for Stephanie’s and Todd’s luggage.
The friends arrive and despite Stephanie’s endless protests they separate, the friends taking lovebirds first. Much to his relief, he is left with only Gabrielle. She sits next to him, her hands interlocking with one another, her eyes fixed on the road.
Wondering if she is anxious, he begins searching for Secret Garden CD and finds it. He places it inside and the music starts to weave its spell around the car, the atmosphere becoming relaxed. During that time he becomes curious about her hands, studying the long slender fingers, the starkness of her white skin. Why does she not tan like other American women? He asks himself, trying to keep the attention on the road.
“This is very European,” she tells him.
“Hmm?” He asks, noticing the car was about to switch to his lane.
“The city, the streets, everything,”
“Oh,” he replies, but does not try to further the conversation. What could he talk to her about? He contemplates the subject of music, wondering if she perhaps would like to listen to some Korean bands that sound similar to Secret Garden, but finds himself being silent, just trying to focus on driving through the streets.
“How did you and Stephanie meet?” She asks, unafraid.
He bites his lip, hating to be reminded of Stephanie, especially since he had hopes that she might ask him about himself. “Umm,” he says. “We went to the same school, our parents knew each other.” A pause ensues between them.
“Stephanie never talked about you,” she said. “Never even mentioned you, I wonder why?”
He shrugs, confused by what she is trying to say. He glances at her face and sees a pained expression marking her features. Her hands clutched one another tightly, almost furiously. “Have you had dinner?” He asks her, cursing himself for saying an idiotic thing.
“Dinner?” She asks as her expression changes to puzzlement. “No, I hadn’t. Why?”
He quickly calculates the money he has and whether or not he can afford in taking a girl out to a restaurant and a movie. Seoul is not an easy city to live in; everything American would be expensive, including something simple such as Starbucks Coffee where one cup would cost six or seven dollars if not more. Is it viable to even take Gabrielle to a local restaurant instead of Starbucks or something American? Perhaps then I can introduce her to Korean cuisine. “Have you tried Korean food yet?” He asks weakly.
“I did. Stephanie cooked the food sometimes when she got homesick. I used to have very little taste towards it, but I grew to like it. My favorite food had calamari in it.”
“Oh, I know of a good restaurant that specializes in calamari,” he tells her. “Want to see it?”
“Sure,” she says, and he sees her face relaxing and becoming happier.
“It might be spicy,” he warns her, wondering if she likes spicy food. While he tolerates spicy food, he is not fond of it, an odd trait for a Korean where almost every single dish is spicy in some way. Very few meals are not spicy in fact.
“It’s okay,” she tells him. He recalls Stephanie’s love of everything spicy and figures that she must have introduced Gabrielle to spicy meals.
He sees the restaurant and pulls up in front of it. He gets out of the car and opens the door for Gabrielle, gently taking hold of her hand to pull her from the car.
“Thank you,” she says as she lets him. “You are quite a gentleman.”
“My pleasure,” he responds, uncertain of what else to say. They march on to the restaurant.
Inside he sees dark red wallpaper all over, the golden shapes of the swans sitting. It is well lit, and from the stereos he hears old music blaring. A waiter comes up and hands them two menus, meanwhile conversing with him. He sits them at a table then.
“What do you think?” He asks her as soon as she sits down.
“It’s lovely,” she responds. He sees her eyes move around the restaurant, taking in the colors and smells of calamari dishes. He listens to the old version of Arirang and hums along with it, enjoying the swirling emotions of pain and sorrow, yet hope afterwards. He wonders if there might be hope in his life but then recalls his guest and checks after her. For a while silence separates them, he uncertain of what to say or what to talk about.
The waiter comes and he orders a calamari dish for him and Gabrielle. The waiter leaves and yet once more he finds himself uncertain of what to tell her.
“What do you do?” She asks him.
He sighs in relief. “I work at a bar,” he says, refusing to elaborate further. He could just imagine the horror on her face should she learn that his job includes sleeping with women for money.
“Like a bartender?”
“Yes.” It is not a lie, he tells himself. The employers taught him bartending skills, including how to make and mix drinks.
“What is it like? Working at a bar?”
He shrugs, not wanting to talk about his job. “It is a job,” he says carefully. “There is nothing special about it.”
“What do you want to do then? What’s your goal?”
He shrugs. In his mind he knows of the goals; to help his younger sister and brother escape poverty, to work as a businessman or something similar, and to one day have a family. Simple goals, but accomplishing them requires an effort of Herculanean proportions. He finds himself sitting and waiting for the meal to arrive. The questions feel as if a thousand needles are poking into his skin, teasing the inner points, and he cannot pull them out. She intimidates him; he realizes then, somehow frightens him with her American speech and ways.
The calamari meal arrives soon, and he begins to eat, watching her eat as well, noticing the anger in her pose and the way her eyes flash. He recalls then that she recently arrived and he wonders if she is experiencing jet lag from the long trip. “Is jet lag bothering you?” He asks her.
“Somewhat.” She replies. “I,” she pauses. “I don’t get tired easily,” she admits. “Back in the States I’ve been trying to get used to a fourteen hour difference.”
“That is good.”
She laughs. “The silent type huh? Would that be an apt description of you? Why is talking so painful for you?”
“It is not,” he replies. “I do not like talking of jobs or of life.”
“What do you want to talk about then?”
In truth he desires silence while he lunches. “Perhaps later we can get to know one another,” he replies. “You must be pretty tired.”
She glares at him. “Don’t tell me what I should feel,” she protests, picking up her chopsticks like an expert and beginning to dig into the meal.
“I apologize,” he replies smoothly and picks up some of the side dishes that arrived earlier before the calamari dish. Normally he would be attentive to a woman no matter who she was, but today he had to sacrifice sleep just to pick Stephanie up, and his sanity from her company. He begins to wonder how he will survive the next two weeks being around her. He does not worry about Gabrielle, sensing that she is far more different than Stephanie.
Gabrielle awakes, feeling aches and pains around her body, her back in particular. She sees darkness around her, and then notices Stephanie brushing her hair, one hundred strokes each. When they have arrived, Stephanie still has not told her parents that Todd was her fiancé, thus the two are separated, and Gabrielle ended up sharing Stephanie’s room. “You’re awake,” Stephanie says as she picks up curlers and puts them into her hair. Gabrielle gets up from the floor, somehow unbelieving that people here sleep on the floor. She wonders if they all experience pain, or are they used to it by now so it doesn’t bother them? Stephanie does have a sizeable bed near the wall, all in pink.
“I am,” she replies and places the cover back where it belongs. “When will you tell your folks about Todd?”
“Preferably never,” she replies casually. She continues to brush her hair, an expression of intense focus marring the features. “My parents had hopes that I’d marry someone Korean. Ugh, they will be disappointed that it’s an American.” She puts down the brush and then turns towards her. “But still, enough about that. Tell me about you and Yi-Song Yoon. A little bird told me he took you to a restaurant.”
Gabrielle felt her cheeks burning lightly. “Umm, nothing to tell,” she says, finding herself uncertain of words. Whenever she caught him looking at her, she sensed high intelligence underneath his demeanor, and a tight control. He was an attractive man; tall with slightly muscular build, expressive black eyes the color of onyx in the light, and black bangs giving him an appearance of a twenty-one year old, and the skin a mixture of white and in some cases light bronze. In truth, when she was around him, her heart began to beat quickly and she felt like an idiot when they found nothing to talk about. Her attempts at a conversation were unsuccessful, which angered her.
“Right,” she hears Stephanie saying. “Your face says differently.”
“Can you tell me some more about him? He was very close lipped.”
“I hadn’t seen him in years though,” Stephanie admits. “I knew him from elementary school up until high school. I don’t know how he is now.”
“Well, what about some basics?”
“Eldest male, younger sister and brother, also an orphan, he is also what, twenty-seven or something.” She shrugs. “I also remember he was the best in school, and was very intelligent. Read everything he could get his hands on. That’s all, sorry girl.”
Gabrielle finds herself sighing. She got up then and dressed in summer clothes, something to escape the heat. “What are the plans for tonight?” She asks Stephanie. She comes over to the full length mirror and admires her appearance. She is wearing a long white dress from cotton that comes up to her knees, and also places a straw hat on her head, letting her hair fly loose. The dress is plain, no design or pattern. She also puts on flip flops and quickly uses lip gloss and some eye shadow to give her eyes a larger appearance.
“All I know is that Yi-Song Yoon will pick us up, and before that I have to tell my parents that Todd is mine fiancé.”
“Why did you bring me here?” She finds herself asking.
Stephanie shrugs. “I am rich, my family is rich, and since I’ve been trying to make a good Korean convert out of you, seemed like a good idea.”
“I have a sneaky feeling that it’s not the full reason.”
“Enjoy the stay here, Gabrielle, don’t worry about anything.”
Gabrielle took a novel that she brought with her and began reading it. “I do intend to enjoy my stay here,” she said. “It’s just that I’m worried.”
“Don’t be worried.” Gabrielle hears a groan and turns to watch as Stephanie attempts to wiggle into a dress. “Damn,” Stephanie curses. “If anything, I should be worried. My parents won’t approve of Todd, and I love him and all.”
“In this case love won’t conquer all will it?” She cannot help but be sardonic towards her friend.
“Shut up,” Stephanie mutters. “What are you so upset about anyways?”
Gabrielle cannot help but laugh. “I see now, I see why you brought me here after all.”
“It’s not like that anyways.”
“Denial speaks better truth than truth itself,”
She sees a painful expression on Stephanie’s face but at this point she does not care. She puts up her novel and walks away, not desiring to watch Stephanie and Todd together. The pain is there still, and this is not something that can be easily forgotten or forgiven. She realizes she is hungry but does not want to tell Stephanie. Thoughts flit in and out quickly from her mind, and she wonders when Yi-Song Yoon will pick them up. A doorbell rings and she hides behind the door, seeing Yi-Song Yoon enter. He speaks in Korean, although she cannot make out the words. She is not an expert in Korean and can only talk conversationally or from some dramas that she and Stephanie watched together. Beyond that she has no understanding.
At that moment Todd walks in wearing sunglasses and looking around as if he owned the place. “Hey,” he greets Yi-Song Yoon. “How are you?”
Yi-Song Yoon does not respond but only looks up at him. He shrugs his shoulders. “Me no Migook.” Migook, she makes a note to ask what the word means.
“Shin Sang-Ok!” Yi-Song Yoon calls out, and then says more words.
She remembers, Shin Sang-Ok was Stephanie’s Korean name.
Stephanie comes out, shoving past Gabrielle and comes up to Todd and Yi-Song Yoon. “Aigoo! What do you want?” She responds angrily.
Yi-Song Yoon says something in Korean, gesturing to Todd.
“Hey if he’s saying something mean you better tell me,” Todd says, puffing up like a prized peacock.
“You dunderheads! Todd, why didn’t you study Korean more? Why do I have to put up with all of this?”
“He called me a bad word.”
“Migook? Migook means America, which means ‘beautiful country.’” Gabrielle is tempted to laugh at the scene. She saw that Yi-Song Yoon apparently had similar thoughts as her. She sees him looking at her and then winking.
“Let’s go,” Todd says his cheeks red and his demeanor sulky. She saw him thrust his hands into the pockets.
“Wait,” Stephanie begins to protest. “Just wait a minute. I hadn’t told my parents about our engagement!”
“Stephanie, I just want to get out of here before I meet them.”
“But we’re engaged! I am supposed to introduce you to them.”
“Stephanie…just tell them later when I’ll be in a better mood.”
“Just please don’t put me through this again. I am so not a diplomat.”
While the exchange was going on, Gabrielle found herself walking to where Yi-Song Yoon was sitting down, staring without comprehension at the main couple. “Are you all right?” She asked, standing next to him. For some odd reason she wanted to touch him, to feel his skin underneath the fingertips, feel the life going through him. She sees the eyes looking at her, the same desire matching her own, but neither moves their hands towards one another. She is separated by her thoughts, worried what he will think of her if she does it. She wonders about his worries, if they are the same as her own.
“I am all right,” he responds in a whisper. She also begins to talk in a whisper, not desiring to draw neither Todd’s nor Stephanie’s attention. “Do they always argue like that?” He asks her then.
She nods her head. “They do,” she admits. “They are like Tom and Jerry,”
He grins slightly. “The cartoon, the cat and the mouse right?”
“Let’s hide the weapons then.” She cannot help but laugh at the image formed inside her head of Todd as the cat Tom, and Stephanie as Jerry. Unfortunately that got the couples’ attention.
“What are you laughing at?” Stephanie demands as she turns towards them.
Yi-Song Yoon shrugs.
“Gabby, please tell me.”
Gabrielle remains silent, not willing to get Yi-Song Yoon into trouble.
“Fine, never mind.” Before somebody says a word, she begins again. “We will wait until my parents come and I tell them about Todd and me, and then we’re leaving.”
They all finally sat down at the table and Stephanie proposed the game of Uno, teaching Yi-Song Yoon how to play. They played in partners, Todd with Stephanie and Gabrielle and Yi-Song Yoon together. No one talks or says anything, and that suits her just fine. She sees the cards shake and hopes that the parents will arrive soon so they could get this entire episode over with. The only sounds in the room are of them calling out numbers. Time seems to pass slowly, each second followed by minute that makes itself felt rather keenly, an empty feeling gnaws on her insides and yet no sign of the parents. Stephanie stands up, disrupting the game and begins to walk back and forth, biting her lip and her eyes turning into torches. “Damn it, why aren’t they coming?” She demands. Gabrielle, Yi-Song Yoon and Todd continue to sit at the table. None say a word. “Damn it, didn’t you hear me?” She demands. She stops pacing and turns towards them. “I cannot wait forever!”
Gabrielle finds herself at a loss for words, not sure what to say in this situation. Should she reassure Stephanie, continue to play the game or simply ignore her? She glances towards Yi-Song Yoon and Todd and sees that they are wrestling with the same dilemma.
It was Yi-Song Yoon who stood up then and walked over to her. “Maybe we should go,” he tells her calmly. She wonders if he sees the same distress on her face as she does. “You can tell them tomorrow about you and Todd.”
“But I wanted to do it now,” Stephanie whines. “Why are they gone for so long?” Just as she is about to take out her cell phone, Yi-Song Yoon places his hand around her elbow.
“Shin Sang-Ok,” he begins. “Let’s leave the house. We will come back later, and I am sure that your parents will be back by then.”
“Well…okay,” she says, sighing heavily. They all leave the house then.
The evening was not eventful for Gabrielle. They went to a restaurant and ate as a foursome; two hours later they reached a cinema and then watched a Korean movie with subtitles. Yi-Song Yoon and Todd were sitting in the middle while Gabrielle and Stephanie sat on opposite corners, Stephanie next to Todd and Gabrielle next to Yi-Song Yoon. Midway through the movie she sees the two of them begin to kiss and grope one another. Soon grunts begin to commence. Gabrielle feels her cheeks burning and is tempted to walk away from the spectacle. She notices that Yi-Song Yoon’s hands begin to clutch the theater seat, his expression dark. If she could get out of here, away from the noises, from Stephanie and Todd, how pathetic, she begins to think to herself. Inside she feels a whirlwind swirl; a sour taste hits the back of her throat. She stands up and walks away then, feeling the tears begin to drop from her face.
Outside it grew dark, the moon reminiscent of a silver ornament, the stars somehow magnifying her emotion of feeling alone. The stars were alone, robots, a routine of various orbits established. In their life, there was no standing and contemplation; there was only endless movement and then various choices of death either by black-hole, exploding or simply dying from lack of energy.
Footsteps come up to her and when she looks up she sees Yi-Song Yoon. “Are you all right?” He asks her.
She nods her head. “I’m fine, just needed to catch a breath of fresh air.”
He says nothing yet she feels his eyes taking her in.
“I guess it’s time I got back inside now,”
“No, you do not need,” he tells her.
“Why did you leave them?” She couldn’t help but be curious, wondering if he ever was in love with Stephanie, and perhaps he is also a tormented soul just like she.
She hears him sigh. “No manners,” he tells her. “Neither she or he have any manners.”
“You’ve never done anything like that?”
A pained expression appears on his face. “No, never,” he admits. He takes out his cell phone and lights it up for a moment then places it back. “Seven fifty,” he tells her.
Silence from her.
“I am hungry, want to come along?”
“What about the movie?”
He laughs. “Do not worry. If you want to see it, I will take you back here in a few days.”
“Okay,” she tells him and the two walked to the nearest restaurant. Not long ago she exchanged the dollars for Korean currency, Won, and she tell him that she will spend money for both of them.
“It is okay, a guy has to treat a girl at the restaurant.” He tells her.
“But still, I don’t want to be a burden on you. You must be working pretty hard to get the money.”
A small smile played on his face. “You’re sweet,” he tells her. “But it is not necessary.” In the end, she let him pay for the meals. She made sure not to order soda and ordered something in the mid-range so he wouldn’t have to spend a lot of money. While they ate, he began of telling her of the books he read and mentioned of a book that somebody gave him. “The book is English I think, but I cannot speak or read English.”
“Do you have it with you?”
He shakes his head. “It is back at mine apartment, but I am curious about it. Maybe I can bring it over so you could see it.”
“That sounds fine,” she agrees.
In an hour they returned to the movie theater and by then the movie were finished and Stephanie and Todd were waiting for them outside. Stephanie paced back and forth with rapid energy, biting her lip every other minute and her eyes were narrowed to pinprick points. “Where were you?” She demanded when she saw the two of them.
“We were having a meal,” Gabrielle told her in English.
“A meal, a meal!” Stephanie screeched. “Todd and I have been worried sick about you. We were wondering whether or not to call, and yet all this time you were having a meal!”
“Take a deep breath, Stephanie” She hears Todd’s calm voice cut through Stephanie’s panic. “They are here. Let’s go back home, perhaps your parents are back.” Much to her relief they headed back home.
As they walked inside the house, Gabrielle saw the house was well-lit against the darkness, and in the kitchen she noticed a short plump woman sitting, biting her lip, her eyes narrowed shooting sparks across the room. The woman heavily resembled Stephanie. Behind her stood a man that had no semblance to Stephanie. “Shin Sang-Ok!” The woman cried out as she stood up. “Where were you?”
“Omma,” Stephanie said, smiling pleasantly, her voice becoming softer and less grating. “Please forgive me, my friends and I was hungry so we went out to eat.”
“You could have called though, why be such an idiot? Since when did I raise you to worry me? Aigoo! All the burdens I have and you are simply adding on more to them!”
“I’m sorry,” Stephanie said. Gabrielle spots a look of anxiety on her face and she wonders then if Stephanie will tell her mother about Todd. Todd, who stood next to her, had a puzzled expression on his face but she also sensed annoyance beyond the exterior. He must be annoyed that he doesn’t understand what Stephanie and her mother are talking about. She did not feel sorry for him, but took pleasure in it, in fact.
Stephanie’s mother then began to walk around, clicking her tongue and shaking her head. She wore a frown when she passed her and Todd, but when she saw Yi-Song Yoon she smiled. “Ah Yi-Song,” she smiled and pinched his cheek. “Growing bigger I see. Good to see you here once more.” Yi-Song Yoon turns crimson and smiles uncertainly.
He does not say a word but continues to stand.
“Omma,” Stephanie begins as she takes a deep breath. “There’s something I have to tell you.”
The mother sighs. “Don’t tell me that you’ll disappoint me again, Shin Sang-Ok.”
“What do you mean?”
“The blonde man, don’t tell me that he’s your boyfriend.”
“Umm,” Stephanie giggles nervously. “No, he’s not. He’s umm; he’s my friend’s boyfriend.”
“Good.” The mother said. “You know my feelings; know that I have no desire to be related to an American. My poor brother-and-sister-in-law, dealing with their son’s marriage. How could they let that happen?” She clicks her tongue once more introduces herself to Todd and then to Gabrielle, and finally they all disperse and go to bed.
Yi-Song Yoon left the house, Stephanie and Gabrielle shared the same room while Todd had a room of his own, the one that belonged to Stephanie’s older brother who was away at college, studying for his Master’s.
Stephanie put on the night gown and sighed loudly, while Gabrielle took out a book, Camille, by Alexandra Dumas, fils, to read. “Do you have to read now?” Stephanie complains.
“No,” Gabrielle replies. She closes the book and gives her friend a look. “In fact, why didn’t you tell your mother the truth? All this evening you have been anxious for your parents to know what is going on, yet you squander the opportunity.”
“You saw my mother; I don’t want to disappoint her. It doesn’t help matters that if there is a discussion of this kind of marriage they always bring up my unlucky cousin and his bride.”
“Still, that’s selfish.”
“I’ll tell her tomorrow,” Stephanie promises. “I…I was just nervous and she wasn’t ready to hear that anyways…”
Gabrielle senses that the issue is not over and if Stephanie becomes anxious, it could take her a long time to go through with the intent. “What are you afraid of?” She asks her friend.
“Afraid?” Stephanie squeaks. “Nothing.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t want them to hate me just like they hate my cousin. After my family learned that he was to be married, they told my brother and me that should we marry non-Koreans or non-Asians, and then they will no longer see us as part of the family. They even threatened to remove either one of us from the family registries.”
“Family registries?” Gabrielle asks, unfamiliar with the word.
“You know, disown,” Stephanie says. “Anyways, time for bed.”
“Wait, what will we do tomorrow?”
Stephanie groans. “Hang out some more with Yi-Song Yoon. I don’t know. Just go to bed.”
For the next few days, Stephanie continued to put off telling her family about her engagement to Todd. Gabrielle, meanwhile, felt a keen sense of aversion towards Todd, somehow unwilling to spend time with him, especially in front of Yi-Song Yoon, which Stephanie frequently forced her to do.
“You have to do it,” Stephanie orders her. “For me, please.”
“But he’s your fiancé,” Gabrielle protests. “Besides, I don’t want for Yi-Song Yoon to think I’m after Todd!”
“You like him don’t you?”
Gabrielle finds herself silent in those moments. During those moments as well, her heart begins to beat faster and at times the room appears to be hot. Yi-Song Yoon, she whispers his name to herself. She enjoys spending time with him and inside groans at the idea of parting from him at the end of the day. He is entertaining, often telling the group jokes or stories he reads, sometimes leaving the group in stitches after he relates tales from The Decameron, especially one about the man who pretends to be dumb, becomes a gardener at a convent where the nuns fight to sleep with him.
“Ask him out,” Stephanie tells her. “It’s clear as daylight that you like him, why not ask him out?”
“He may not be interested me.” Gabrielle replies. “He’s Korean, Asian and I somehow doubt that he’d want to be with someone like me.”
“Hmm,” Stephanie says as she puts on the blush. Gabrielle feels frustration coursing through her. Stephanie is not the type for pep talk or support. “Get ready though, time for you to be with Todd.”
This moment becomes for her the straw that broke camel’s back. “Up,” Gabrielle orders her. “I am sick and tired of pretending to be in love with Todd when both you and I know it’s not true!”
“You used to be in love with him,” Stephanie points out, applying a generous amount of lip gloss.
“Until he dumped me for you,” Gabrielle reminds her.
“See? Then it should be easy for you to pretend to be in love with him.”
“Don’t change the subject.” She stands up and grasps Stephanie’s arm forcing her to stand up. “If you won’t tell your parents about you and Todd tonight, I swear to God that I will do it.”
“Please don’t be like that,” Stephanie begs her. “I can’t tell them tonight. It’s my third cousin’s piano recital tonight. Do you want to ruin their mood before the show?”
“For the last six days you came up with every single excuse to escape this! I am fed up with being around Todd, with not being able to spend more time with Yi-Song Yoon! I am fed up with your selfish attitude! What will you do, marry a Korean in name only and then become Todd’s mistress for the rest of your life?”
“Get away from me immediately!” Stephanie screeches loudly.
“Gladly,” Gabrielle retorts and walks outside, trying to take deep calm breaths. The nerve of Stephanie! She imagines Stephanie in front of her and then imagines beating the girl up, and screaming all sorts of obscenities.
She wants to cry; still remembering the day a year ago when she received the phone call from Todd, telling her that he was breaking up with her to be with Stephanie!
Gabrielle and Todd were almost to be engaged on that day, he already bought a ring with her next to him. “It’s a matter of time, Gabby,” he told her on that day as he kissed her forehead. How excited Gabrielle was and how in love she was.
But then, few days later, the dreaded phone call came. “Todd,” she says, surprised that he calls her during lunch hour.
He tells her then, how he cheated on her with Stephanie. Their relationship he defines as a mistake. It took Gabrielle a long time to at least be civil to Stephanie and even then the anger continues to linger, still adding gasoline to the blazing inferno inside. Pretending engagement to somebody she was almost engaged to is too much for her.
She hears the door open and sees Yi-Song Yoon. Come hell or high water, Gabrielle becomes determined to tell Stephanie’s parents the truth about their daughter’s fiancé. “Yi-Song Yoon,” she calls out his name, motioning for him to come closer. She sees a smile light up his face, his dark eyes sparkling. For a minute she becomes tempted to kiss him, wondering whether or not he kisses well.
Just as he was about to come over, Stephanie explodes out of the room like a bomb going off and marches down the stairs. “Stephanie!” Gabrielle exclaims as she and Yi-Song Yoon follow her.
Stephanie pays them no attention.
She shouts Stephanie’s name again but silence. Todd is downstairs she sees as she comes down. He has a tense expression on his face and bites down his lip. “You!” Stephanie screeches. “What the hell have you done? Why did I get a phone call from my parents just now telling me that I’m no longer welcome in the house?”
Todd groans loudly and remains silent. Gabrielle remains puzzled as to what is going on. She has not told the parents about Stephanie, so how did they know? She throws a glance towards Yi-Song Yoon and understanding dawns on her. He must have told the parents and then told Todd of what to expect.
“I did not do anything,” Todd protests. “Your friend there must have done it.”
Stephanie sits down and begins to weep. “My parents disowned me Todd! I no longer have a family!”
Gabrielle comes over to Stephanie and is tempted to hug her when she spots pain in Yi-Song Yoon’s eyes. His facial expression does not change, but his eyes cannot hide the pain. She wonders why the pain. She hugs Stephanie and tries to comfort the distraught girl, watching Yi-Song Yoon shuffle through the room, his hands fisted deep into the pockets. He does not leave though, but stays there. A loud sound of tires screeching against the asphalt and few minutes later the parents enter the house, anger pouring from them like lava from a volcano.
“Shin Sang-Ok,” the mother says as she walks over to her and Stephanie. “What is the meaning of this?”
Stephanie remains silent. Gabrielle quickly motions for Todd to come over and gestures for him to comfort Stephanie. She steps away from the drama, hoping that it will dissolve quickly and that she will forget about it.
“Answer me,” the mother demands, a note of anger and desperation coloring her voice. “Here I thought you would be sensible and filial, but instead you are not. You disappoint me.” Stephanie crumbled to the floor, her forehead hitting the floor in an act of supplication. Korean communities are group minded, everything sacrificed to the point of achieving harmony. Very rarely are Koreans individualistic human beings who are not afraid of being ostracized or kicked out of the family. Gabrielle could just imagine how devastating this is for Stephanie who still retains her roots in some ways.
“Forgive me mother, please. I was foolish, and if it should please you, I will break up with Todd and marry a decent Korean man.”
The mother looked taken aback, almost surprised by Stephanie’s words. Gabrielle wondered if Stephanie actually meant what she said or has she said to please her mother? Reluctantly she translated Stephanie’s words into English for Todd to understand. Todd’s face crumbled and he appeared to be defeated.
The parents went upstairs at that moment, not saying a word to anyone. Much to her surprise, Yi-Song Yoon followed them.
He clears his throat, feeling the dampness running along the skin of his body as a peculiar taste of anxiety hits the back of his throat. He is about to do something foolish but something that has to be done. He hears footsteps and when he turns around; he sees Stephanie, Gabrielle and Todd walking upstairs. Todd and Stephanie appear to be devastated. She should have known better, he tells himself. Falling in love with an American and going against her family’s wishes, she should have known what would happen.
They all stop and stare at one another. He takes a deep breath and knocks on the door. The parents call out enter and he does so. “Yoon Yi-Song,” Stephanie’s mother exclaims. “I’d like to thank you for telling me about Shin Sang-Ok and Todd,” she speaks in Korean. He wonders if Gabrielle understands it but he does not turn around to see her, unwilling to meet the eyes.
“You are welcome, ahjumma,” he tells her.
“I trust that you shall marry our daughter?” The father asks, his eyes lighting up with hope. Stephanie’s family has no idea of the current financial status of his family, or of his career for that matter.
“I am afraid that it is not feasible,” he replies.
The mother appears to be in shock. “What do you mean?” She says, her hand nervously grasping her husband’s hand.
He debates on whether or not to tell them the truth, of the financial ruin that his family suffered through, of him working at a bar and sleeping with countless women just to pay off the debt and help put his siblings through school but decides not to do that. He decides to lie. “I am afraid that I fell in love with another woman,” he tells them, surprised at how easily the lie came out. “I will marry her instead.”
“But your parents promised us that you should marry Shin Sang-Ok,” the mother protests as she stands up. “Aigoo! You’re breaking your promise to your parents!”
He finds no words to say.
“How could you do this to us?” She begins again as she starts to cry.
He wants to take the words back but knows he cannot. Instead he continues to think of what he should do to have them accept Todd. More lies need to be told, he realizes. More lies to insure Stephanie’s happiness.
“I have known Todd for a long time,” he begins. He still does not check the group’s expression, not wanting to see the lies reflected in their faces. “He is a very good man and he treats Shin Sang-Ok much better than I ever could.”
“But he’s an American,” the mother protests. “You should know how loud and uncouth they are. Shin Sang-Ok is much more likely to divorce him!”
He continues to placate them with lies about Todd, embellishing and creating a statue of a deity in his honor. He understands that he is risking his reputation and good-standing with the family along with all the friends and people they know and so on, but he feels obligated to somehow provide for Stephanie the happiness she wants. Old feelings of her calling him Oppa, the pleasure he derives from that single word resurface yet again. At the end the parents reassure him that they would think about Todd but he must leave. He realizes then that Seoul will no longer be home to him. After Stephanie goes back to America, he must move to another city, far away from the family.
He leaves the room then, with Stephanie and Todd hugging and crying not far. Only Gabrielle follows him. “Wait,” she calls out. He stops but does not turn around, fearing to face her; afraid of what she might think of him. He hears her footsteps stop. “Why did you do it?”
“Tell all those lies about Todd…you still have feelings for Stephanie, don’t you?”
Typical Americans, he begins to think to himself. They really must know every single fact and opinion; they cannot understand the intricate webbing or how actions affect more than an individual. He finds himself biting his lip, feeling the taste of slight blood. He does not answer Gabrielle’s question, at least not directly. “I am her protector,” he replies to her enquiry. “As such, I want her to be happy no matter what happens.”
“That’s sweet of you,” Gabrielle admits. She leans against the wall and her eyes seem to bore into his. “I think I’d be jealous if I were you…”
Sensing that the conversation is heading into an unpleasant direction, he begins to think of distractions he can use to stop Gabrielle from feeling bad. She must have had feelings for Todd, he thinks to himself as he steals a glance at her eyes that seem without end, a path leading straight to her thoughts. She probably still has feelings for him, he deduces. “You have not been to the beach, have you?” He asks her hesitantly.
She shakes her head.
“I will go there for a few hours. Perhaps you will like to join me?”
“I don’t know,” she hesitates.
“Perhaps get away from Stephanie and Todd for a few hours,” he continues to try to tempt her, wanting her alone on the beach today.
“Give me ten minutes to change,” she requests and then walks into another room.
Half an hour later they are on the beach, she wearing sea blue flip flops, a strapless white shirt and red pair of shorts. He bought her some Soju, Korean alcohol in a green bottle and Chocopies. The lights are close by from the car, and he leaves on some of the music he likes such as Ace of Base and Roora, a Korean group from the 1990s. Both of them are silent, he unwilling to break the camaraderie between them. Ace of Base begins to play and much to his surprise, his heart feels as if weighed by stones when he remembers the times he danced with his siblings to the songs. “I have younger sister and brother,” he tells her, taking a swipe of Soju. “My parents often played Ace of Base and the three of us would dance. Sometimes we held song contests, trying to imitate English in the music.”
“Why did you move here?” She asks him.
He takes another gulp from the Soju. Unable to help himself he feels tears collecting in the back of his eyes, his heart plummeting through the bottomless well. “Debt,” he hisses out. “Shin Sang-Ok’s parents have no idea…that…that we are poor.”
Silence remains, he berating himself for showing her this weakness of his. She is an American, he tells himself. He recalls the American shows he watched where men display anger or lust and rarely anything else.
“Are your parents here as well?” She asks.
He sees the silver orb in the sky, somehow giving light to the billions of stars. He shakes his head.
“Where are they?”
He pauses as he hears the question, not even bothering to drink Soju. The pain inside increases to a primal level, to something he wants to rage out on, something he wants to destroy. No matter how many years have passed it is sharp, un-abating, a dagger in the back by a trusted friend. Finally he croaks the words out, somehow forcing them to move past his brain, his throat onto the tongue that spit them out in disgust. “They are dead.”
Much to his relief silence on her end, not even an “I’m sorry.” He closes his eyes and finds tears streaming down his cheeks and then he feels her body against his, the delicious warmth enveloping him. He grasps her as he would a lifeline, and finds her hands running through his head, her fingers touching his hair. In her arms he finds peace, a means to express himself through sadness. He closes his eyes, his body aware of hers pressing against him. Desire for life courses through his veins, something to prove that he is alive, that he is something more than the skin. The pounding of the waves add to the Ace of Base song, and unable to rein in his emotions his lips seek hers out. His kisses are not gentle or soothing, instead they are desperate, and he wonders if he is stealing her breath, her soul, away. For one day he desires to find a safe harbor and with her he at last feels as if he found it.
Something wet washes over his skin and a glimmer of the sun peaks through the clouds. He wakes up and turns his head towards the sunrise, the colors giving the clouds a light hue of violet with orange and red touching the edges. He feels a weight on the opposite side and sees Gabrielle lying on the arm, still asleep. He is tempted to wake her up, to show her the discovery of the sunrise, to tell her how happy she made him but he does not dare. Instead he watches her breathe in and out, the chest expanding and collapsing, creating a cycle that gives life to the outside, to something beyond the physical body.
Much to his dismay, she wakes up however. “Morning,” she says but makes no move to get up.
“Good morning,” he greets her as well, a flush creeping up on his cheeks. He turns his head away from hers, somehow unwilling to communicate how embarrassed he feels about yesterday.
She stands up, and strangely enough he does not want her to go. Not just yet. “How do you feel?” She asks then.
He shrugs and stands up after her. “I am sorry,” he apologizes. He sees her flip flops lying not far and before she has a chance of stepping into them he grabs them and then dips them into the sea, watching the placid waves swirl around the invaders, and when he takes them out, sand sticks to them.
“Why did you do that?” She mutters angrily as she rips the flip flops away from him.
“Memory,” he explains. “Around a single object or something of substance memories form and stick like sand sticks to something wet.” He sighs. “I hope you will have a good memory of me and of your time here.”
“I don’t understand,” Gabrielle protests.
“I don’t either,” he admits.
“But why do it then?” She asks.
“You will go back to your old life soon, just as I will. I did it so you will understand me.” Much to his relief no more questions about the flip flops are forthcoming.
Both sit down again and he cannot help but watch her studying the flip flops. He wants to touch her some more, to feel her hair, the lips pressing against his, and he desires to run his hands down her curves, taking the wonder and creation of someone like her. “Tell me more about you,” she requests. “I feel that I know very little.”
He tells her stories of his past, of singing karaoke with his siblings, of the traditions that his family celebrated, of the large meals his mom cooked for his ancestors, of the times he wore Hanbok, a traditional Korean costume and how he had to have a tutor just to understand how to put it on. He also shares some history of his family, how they suffered under Japanese rule and of the ancestor book from the twelfth century that denotes the high rank his family at one time occupied. These stories he ends up sharing with her and more. He tells her of a book that he brought along, in hopes that she will tell him what it is. “Remember I told you about it?” He asks her. He gets up and takes it out. “What is it called?” He asks her.
She tells him. “It’s the same one I’m reading, Camille, The lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas fils, the son.”
“I have not read it. What is it about?”
She tells him. “This nobleman, Armand Duval is of upper middle class and one night he falls in love with Marguerite Gautier, who is a courtesan of Paris. Many people were against this love. He wanted to take care of her completely and that nearly ruins him. She is suffering from tuberculosis. The ending is not happy unfortunately.” A pause, then, “how did you obtain this book?”
He does not have a heart to tell her the truth, of how an old woman gave him the novel, but he lies and tells her that a friend of his gave him the book. She nods her head. The novel, the less he thinks of it the better it is. “We should go,” he tells her.
She remains silent. “I don’t want to go, not just yet.”
“Shin Sang-Ok and her fiancé will be worrying about us.”
There is a strange reluctance to return to the real world, even for him. He does not want to go back to his job, does not want to be nothing more than a face or skin. In truth he wants to stay on the beach with her or by himself, somehow living far away from the civilization.
“After you and Shin Sang-Ok go, I will leave Seoul,” he finally says, desperate to somehow fill up the silence between them.
“Will you keep contact with her and the family?” she asks him. “I really would like to know what will happen to you few years from now.” He is tempted to tell her that he will continue to be in the same place he is now but he does not.
“No, I cannot,” he admits it to her. “You can keep the copy,” he tells her.
“What do you mean?”
“Keep the book. My English is very poor, so I cannot read it.”
“I can’t just take it,” she begins to protest. “Your friend gave you the book; shouldn’t you keep such a precious gift?”
“The book is not in Korean, and my English is poor. Please take it and keep it with you,” he tells her. “Think of it as a way to remember me,” he held up his hand to prevent further arguments from and helped her stand up. It was time to leave.
For the rest of the week, Yi-Song Yoon refused to hang out with them and a female friend acted as a driver and a chauffeur. Gabrielle bought many souvenirs and kept the book that Yi-Song Yoon had given her.
As they were boarding the plane, she thought she saw him standing in the crowd but when she blinked her eyes Yi-Song Yoon disappeared into thin air. She sat together once more with Stephanie and Todd as they flew far away from South Korea to the world called real life. Stephanie’s parents accepted her fiancé and gave her the permission to marry him which will take place next year in January, and Stephanie, as always oblivious to her friend’s needs and desires, chatted about how great life was for her. “If you really did like Oppa,” she told Gabrielle, “I could give you his phone number or something and you can call him or something.”
She remembered that he said something about moving away from Seoul, and she could not help but wonder if that meant he will have no absolute contact with the family. Apparently, for one reason or another he decided not tell Stephanie those news. She does ask for his phone number so she could give him a call in the future.
In two days they were home at last. Stephanie and Todd then said goodbye to Gabrielle as they drove off to the future, and Gabrielle returned to her apartment, to the present day of her life when she is sorting through things.
She finishes unpacking and decides to take a break. She pours herself a glass of water, picks up her cell phone and dials Yi-Song Yoon’s number. The ring lasts forever until a message comes on, informing Gabrielle that the number she has dialed is no longer in service. Her heart fell through her feet as she stares at it shock and disbelief. She is tempted to hurl the phone against the wall but does not do so.
With rage and helplessness she realizes there is nothing she can do, and then goes back to real life, to catching up with technology and tries her best to forget those two weeks she spent in South Korea, and a night she has spent with him.