A sharp static exploded in his ears when his body tried to adjust to his sudden awakening. His head pounded but the pain quickly subsided. The first things he noticed were whitewashed ceilings above him and an annoying beep entering his left ear. He couldn’t move his body and his mouth had gone dry.
“Where am I?” Jinwon thought. His vision constantly blurred and he couldn’t decipher what was happening. Everything he saw seemed foreign to him and he couldn’t describe anything that his eyes landed on. But then it met Stephanie’s brown, blood-shot eyes. Something about those brown, glistening eyes felt like home.
Stephanie lost her breath seeing him stare back at her. Her mouth dropped from shock. It felt like a dream seeing him finally awake—finally looking at her with those calm eyes.
“Jinwon?” Stephanie stuttered with a smile. However, he did not respond and Stephanie immediately assumed the worst. “Do you… remember me?”
Although unaware of his current situation, Jinwon was still able to understand her words. He stared at her trying to find an answer. Who was she? Her voice sounded familiar like a popular song of the past. Her face, though swollen and abused with tears, looked beautiful to him. She must have been someone in his life for his heart felt comfortable just staring at her, but not a memory or even a name came to mind. He tried to reply in any way he could but his sore throat did allow him to speak. His nerves were too stiff that he helplessly could not move any part of him. All he could do was faintly squinted his eyes for a second with his eyebrows struggling to furrow along as an answer. Then his eyes suddenly felt sore and he closed it.
Stephanie held his hand tightly trying to get her soul closer to him. As she desperately searched for a way to find assurance that he knew what she was saying, ragged breath escaped her lips. Jinwon opened his eyes, startled that her tears began to show. Though clueless as to what these emotions exactly meant, Jinwon felt the desperation starting in her voice. “It’s me,” her lips quivered, “Stephanie.”
Not a reply came for he could only do nothing but blankly stare. When she could not take seeing his lifeless eyes on her, bloated tears fell. One fell warm on Jinwon’s arm, and then came another. For a minute, this hot rain poured endlessly on his skin. His heart violently reacted to every drop and the heartbeat monitor amplified it all. He wanted to reach out for her cheeks and catch her tears, but his weak muscles forbid him.
“Can you hear me?” she cried. Jinwon blinked slowly and slightly nodded his head. Stephanie felt a little glimpse of joy and relief, but it just didn’t seem enough.
“Can’t you remember anything?”
Jinwon opened his mouth but only his breath made a faint sound. He closed it immediately knowing nothing would come out. The thought was at the tip of his head, but he could not bring himself to answer. What was he even supposed to say?
“It’s me, Stephanie… I’m your girlfriend.”
Jinwon opened his eyes as he remembered how burdened he was hearing those words from Stephanie fifteen years ago. If Eunji says the same thing, Kibum might have a similar reaction as he did when he woke up from his coma.
“Hi.” That was all that came out of Eunji’s mouth. Jinwon anticipated her words but that was it. A minute passed and she hasn’t said anything else. She didn’t know what else to say. She was just sitting there holding Kibum’s unmovable right hand.
Jinwon couldn’t bear to watch what else would happen and alerted the doctors right away. In no time, the doctor and nurses came in to check Kibum’s condition. Their faces brightened up for they confirmed that he was really awake. Then one doctor told a nurse to call Kibum’s family. After that, Jinwon and Eunji went home and called it a day.
On the way home, Eunji didn’t say anything. Her eyes drifted away to the window through the whole ride. Jinwon could not help but wonder what was going on her mind. Was she happy or sad that Kibum was finally awake? He could not tell. All he knows is that she hasn’t been the same jubilant girl he met months ago. She could no longer add any snarky comments or replies to his questions. Neither could she laugh heartily at something that was funny to her before.
It was easy to see that she was feeling something unpleasant, but just how could he help lift that hidden burden? Should he loosen up the atmosphere by joking or by softly comforting her daughter knowing that Kibum’s circumstances were similarly tragic to his own story? He felt worse the longer he did not do anything to comfort her silently aching heart, but the least he wanted was to upset her with wrong words. He did not know what approach would work for her and thus tensely drove both of them home without a word.
“Oh, you’re home,” Stephanie greeted her daughter with a big hug. “Is something wrong? You look gloomy,” Stephanie said, clearly sensing her daughter’s troubled heart.
“Kibum’s awake,” Eunji forced a smile.
“That’s good news, Eunji!” Stephanie exclaimed, cupping her daughter’s face.
“Yeah…” Eunji let out a restrained chuckle and went up to her room. Stephanie easily detected how unenthusiastic her daughter was but decided not to confront her about it for now.
“Did something happen to Kibum? Did he lose his memories too?” Stephanie turned to Jinwon.
“I don’t know,” Jinwon just sighed and shrugged. The doctors didn’t inform him anything yet, but it was too easy to guess the outcome from a coma like that. It’s either he loses his memory, damage a part of his senses, or both. Either way will be tragic and hard in some form for Eunji and everyone else. All he knew is that he did not want his daughter to feel the pain her mother went through, at least not to the extent that it would start erasing the color to her life.
He gripped his guitar case tightly and took the courage to see how Eunji was holding up. Carefully he knocked on Eunji’s opened door. Eunji let him come in.
“Eunji… here’s my guitar in case you want to use it again or want to practice,” he said, awkwardly putting the guitar case in the corner of Eunji’s room. He had an inner battle trying to decide whether he should talk things out with Eunji or just let Stephanie do all the comforting. He was definitely not new in trying to console people, but it somehow just felt nerve-wracking and different to do the same thing with Eunji, his daughter. What if he says the wrong thing? He was her father now, someone who she greatly looked up to. He should live up to that title. He had to prove himself worthy of that title.
“H-how are you holding up?” Jinwon stammered trying to force himself to talk. Eunji just looked up to him as if she didn’t hear clearly.
“Are you feeling okay? You know… Kibum, waking up?”
“Uh…” Eunji looked away. “Yeah,” Eunji nodded. “Yeah I’m fine,” she assured with a smile but her wavering eyes could not fool Jinwon. He was also once like her, holding deepest emotions in from anyone with a smile. He’s done it many times to know how it looked, but feeling uncomfortable to press on, he just bought her words. He told himself that those words meant she wasn’t ready to talk about it, but in reality, it was he who was not ready to bear her burden. Besides, he thought, what could he really do? Maybe Eunji would want her mother’s consolation than his. Furthermore, he believed in Eunji’s amazing ability to be bright and optimistic again, so she probably won’t need any help dealing with her emotions at all. But the further he walked away from the door, the harder it was for him to forgive his own actions. “And you call yourself her father,” he scoffed at himself.
“You’re not staying for dinner?” Stephanie asked as she saw Jinwon prepare to leave her home.
“I-uh… I think I need to arrange some stuff for Xiah Dragon Noodles,” he said. “I’ll see you again tomorrow okay?” He kissed Stephanie on the cheek and said goodbye.
As he stepped out of the home, he buried his face on his coat and smoke puffed out of his mouth as he heaved a big sigh through the cold. It surely was getting colder outside, but he felt his body freeze more at the thought of not being able to comfort his own daughter. He felt like he should’ve done better or tried harder.
He could walk her home from school, provide her money that she needs, buy her anything she wants, fix her documents, run and get her insurances and IDs, attend parent-child conferences, and joke around with her behind Stephanie’s back, but one of the most important parts, which was to be with her in dark times, was unexpectedly the hardest thing he faced as her father. He could just leave all of Eunji’s emotional problems to Stephanie, but he felt somewhat responsible to do something about it. Was this the kind of responsibility that HaYeon talked about three months ago?
He took out a small pink box in his pocket and dejectedly stared at it for a few seconds. He remembered just a few months ago, he had given up the thought of settling down with someone because of his shaky memories. But with an unexpected turn of events, he has now been reconciled with the girl of his dreams along with an additional blessing—his teenage daughter. He was beyond happy to have a chance to love Stephanie again, and he was overjoyed to be in good terms with the daughter he didn’t even know he had. It was starting to weigh down on him that proving to them he can commit his life to them forever was no easy task. He knew he had to man-up and face what’s expected of him head on, but for once he wished loving them was as easy as a walk in the park.
“I feel so useless,” he closed his eyes and shook his head. Even though there’s no other family he he’d rather be with forever, he realized he was not ready to take the responsibility of being husband and a father.
A week later, Jinwon and Stephanie went to the Gangwondo Province where Stephanie, Sunny, and YoHan once lived because of Hyungsoo’s sudden and alarming orders. Hyungsoo begged only Stephanie to come but Jinwon went along with her, assuming that he was invited, too. They didn’t exactly know why they were suddenly summoned to that place, but since Hyungsoo was one of their closest friends, they didn’t question it. They just assumed Hyungsoo had some kind of emergency at that place.
When they arrived, Hyungsoo and Sunny’s parents were there in the re-furbished hanok house. The Lee family warmly welcomed their niece Stephanie and squeezed her cheeks like she was still a young girl. While they complimented on how radiant Stephanie had become since they last saw her, Jinwon excitedly went up to Hyungsoo for a hug. Hyungsoo did not share the same joy though, and he ran to the small man with his eyes burning in anger.
“Yah! What are YOU doing here?!”
“H-huh? What do you mean?” Jinwon froze as the man tall as a pole headed towards him like a heaving giant.
“I only invited Stephanie! I didn’t ask for you to come!” Hyungsoo poked Jinwon on his chest and he stumbled backwards.
“Well, sorry! You said it in the group chat so I thought…”
“Was ‘Yohan and Stephanie come quickly’ not clear enough to you???”
“Hyungsoo, I’m sure it’s fine to have extra guests, don’t you think?” Sunny’s father came to the rescue as his wife and Stephanie followed behind.
“But the day won’t be so perfect…,” Hyungsoo whimpered.
“Oh dear, don’t get so upset,” laughed Sunny’s mother. “I’m sure everything will be fine.”
“Who is this man,” Sunny’s father asked Stephanie as he turned to Jinwon.
“Ah, hello, sir, I’m Kim Jinwon,” Jinwon bowed to the elder.
“K-Kim Jinwon?” Sunny’s parents both said in unison. “You mean… the boy…”
“It’s been months. Haven’t you heard from Sunny about the whole story of how they came back together?” Hyungsoo said.
“We have. We just didn’t think we’d meet him. A pleasure to meet you!”
“It’s nice to meet you, too,” Jinwon smiled and bowed once more.
“These are my aunt and uncle,” Stephanie happily introduced them. “I lived with them numerous times.”
After a small chat, Hyungsoo told them that they arrived way an hour-and-a-half too early. The mysterious event hasn’t even been fully organized yet. Stephanie took this as an opportunity to take Jinwon out to the village. Even though some things have changed since the last time she has been here, some things were still familiar and she wanted to tour Jinwon on a big part of her life while they are here.
“Ah~ I can’t believe the air here is still as fresh as ever,” Stephanie skipped her way and twirled around like a little girl.
“All I smell is soil. Wet soil.” Jinwon’s nose scrunched up. “You call this fresh?”
“Hey, that’s the scent of a healthy land! It’s the scent of nature!”
“How can you tell when the ground seems frozen? And besides, body odor is nature and that’s pretty awful,” Jinwon said. “Anyway, not saying it smells bad right now. It’s just a little strange. I’m not very used to the countryside… or just this Gangwondo farmland, I guess.”
“That’s because you’ve been sanitized your whole life,” Stephanie scoffed. “And you barely go out to enjoy a nice weather unless I force you.”
“It’s freezing these days. Of course I don’t want to go out!” he pouted and Stephanie just giggled.
“You know, I never go out myself back then, too—the first days I was here.”
“Really? I can’t imagine… you’re butt always itches if you don’t go out within three days.”
“Yah~!” Stephanie pouted like a child and slapped the back of her hand on his arm. “It doesn’t!”
“I just mean you can’t stay at home,” Jinwon snickered.
“Oh. Yeah… I guess. You’re right. Especially when I was young, I always liked going out even if it was cold. I always liked exploring, too. But the first days I lived here, I really couldn’t go out. See this cement road that we’re walking in right now? If you follow this long road, it will lead to the main square. But back then, this was a dirt road. Walking on it was hard! And on hot days, you could smell awful stench out of nowhere! It was horrible! But I got used to it… Wow, it really has been a long time. They even added fences to separate the road from the crops now. And there are signs and lamps set up! What an improvement! It used to be really dark by sunset, too.”
“When did you stay here? I can hardly imagine you on the countryside. You’re always such a city girl type.”
“Oh?” Stephanie wondered for a moment and said, “Now that I think about it… It’s after you left town, Sunny called me to live with them. I was pregnant with Eunji when I got here and stayed for a few years.”
“When I left town?”
“Yeah, your family had to set up the optic shop in Jeonju. Don’t you remember?”
Jinwon was blank for a moment, but he then remembered reading it from his notebook. “Oh… that time.” He was suddenly dispirited remembering how depressed he was during those days. The struggle he went through every single day suddenly crept up on him. These feelings got worse knowing Stephanie was carrying his child and aching to have him by her side on that season.
MARCH 1998 (two months after waking up from his coma)
Ever since his parents declared that they will be moving back to Jeonju to set up the optical shop, everything that irritated him about the new world left his stressed head. The pressure and expectation to remember who he once was will finally die down. He finally won’t be able to have his class surrounding him and bombarding him with the same questions. He will finally have an opportunity to be alone and find out for himself who he really wanted to be instead of discovering who he was before.
“Knock, knock,” a girl’s voice echoed from the gate of his home. Jinwon knew exactly who that was. He was about to get up, but Stephanie already entered like it was her home.
“Oh, hey,” Jinwon’s eyes sparked in excitement seeing her.
“Do you mind if I take you on a walk tonight?” Stephanie asked.
“Sure. Where are we going?”
“I don’t know… just a walk,” she smiled with her hands behind her back.
Jinwon’s heart thumped at the sight of her cuteness in the moment. Every time they cross paths, he notices something radiantly beautiful and new about her. “No wonder she’s my girl,” he would often think. “Every little thing about her drives me crazy.”
Under the moonlight and dazzling stars, they strolled together wherever their feet would take them. Jinwon was extremely happy to be with her after realizing how precious she was to him. There was truly nobody like her. Among all his friends, she’s the only one that ever persisted to be with him after all the apathy he has given. She cheered him up, took care of him, and understood him more than anybody else did. Just being with her lift his spirits up. And like a child with a parent, as long as she’s beside him, he never worried about where she took him. Tonight, however, was unexpectedly different.
“I heard your family is leaving for good,” Stephanie started, unable to admit from her lips that Jinwon himself was going to leave, too.
Jinwon’s energy slowly drained away. He did not realize that leaving this place also meant leaving Stephanie behind. He was too caught up in her smile that he forgot about the fact that he couldn’t bring her with him. His first instinct was to start begging her to come with him, but then he thought it was a ridiculous and childish request. She has her own life—why should he dare disrupt it any further with his broken brain? The only right thing to do was say goodbye at the end of the road, but he couldn’t muster up some courage to even think about that word. “Goodbye” to him only meant he would not be able to see someone for a long unpredictable period of time. Applying that word with Stephanie would be the end of the world for him.
When Jinwon realized how heavy the atmosphere had suddenly become, he chuckled trying to lighten up the mood, “Why, are you going to miss me?” He didn’t want to think about it as a bad thing for now.
“Of course I will,” Stephanie answered. “I’m your girlfriend.”
“Are you going to miss me?” Stephanie asked. Jinwon stared at her. He was a bit taken aback by the question. Once again, he could not bring himself to answer.
“Yeah,” He simply nodded and just turned away. Stephanie tried her hardest again to understand him and dismissed her worries about him.
“You know, this town isn’t much, but it holds a nice story.”
“What kind of story?” Jinwon asked.
“Our story,” she smiled.
Jinwon stayed silent.
“Did I ever take you to our studio?”
“Every Thursdays, the band that you created meets up in this small studio and practices music for school. Come! It isn’t far so let’s go there.” And so they took their time to stroll towards the small studio.
“I remember when we first kissed. It was in that studio. Well… it wasn’t exactly our first kiss, but it was our first really long kiss.” Stephanie started talking faster, “Our first kiss was at my house back a few years ago. We were only 16 then and I was still grieving about my mother.”
Jinwon wryly smiled and nodded, indicating he was listening. His body was on auto-pilot from that moment on, his ears sealed shut and his attention elsewhere. He really could not handle listening to those stories again. He had to hold back somehow. He does not want to argue with Stephanie now.
“Oh and you gave me this lock necklace in that studio. I totally fell for you then. You were so cheesy and sweet. You even tried to play piano just for my sake when you totally sucked at it…”
Gradually, his ears started to turn red from the anger building up inside him. Even though he was trying his hardest to focus on the positives, the voice that was once sweet to him sounded like a hammer continuously banging on metal near his ear. It was too aggravating and frustrating.
The closer they got to the studio, the more he was losing control of his temper. It seemed like there was no end to her blabbering. When will it end? When will she shut her mouth about this? Stephanie stopped bringing up the past that didn’t feel like his a few weeks ago. Why did she choose this day to bring it up again?
“Please stop! I’m Kim Jinwon the second, not Kim Jinwon the first. Can’t you see that? Can’t you see that I’m not the same person? Whoever March 9 Kim Jinwon was, think of him dead. I’m not him!” he blurted out angrily right in front of her face.
Aghast, Stephanie stood there in front of him, trying to swallow his words. Her eyes brimmed tears, but she choked it in to keep them from falling. All that echoed in her head was to understand where his anger was coming from… but what was there to understand? She was running out of time. Maybe it’s time to convince her that he was not the Kim Jinwon she fell in love with. After all, the boy who fell in-love with her and also got her pregnant was now declared dead. There’s no good reason to burden him with this problem anymore. She held her head low and nodded, “I understand… I’m sorry.”
She turned around and walked back to her own home. On the outside, she looked fine but her heart was nowhere near a place of consolation. With every step she took felt like a knife trying to slice through her body. The further she got away, the more she struggled to continue. But she had to leave. She had to walk away even if it could kill every bit of light inside her.
Jinwon immediately regretted what he said. He wished he could take them back and run to her, but his legs were too shocked at his sudden outburst. It did not allow him to chase after her. He just stood there near the studio, watching as Stephanie walked farther away.
A few days later, the doorbell rang. Jinwon opened the door and there stood HaYeon with Stephanie. They had been in the hospital with Jessica getting an ultrasound early in the morning and they just came back to report to the grandparents-to-be. Since the Kim family will leave exactly the next day, Stephanie wanted to bid them one last goodbye and have a private conversation concerning the baby. Jinwon, however, did not know anything concerning these things and thought Stephanie was here at their house for him again.
Not five seconds in, he realized that things were different today. She did not seem happy to see him with a gaze that avoided him as much as possible.
“Hey…” Jinwon tried to gain some kind of forgiveness from the girl who he scolded for bringing up his unknown past a few nights ago. Contrite words stuck to his throat but he was too slow to let any of them out.
When HaYeon entered, Stephanie followed closely behind and paid no attention to him. He couldn’t do anything but watch her enter as if he never existed. And that’s when he thought in agony, “Please, I’m sorry… come back to me.”
“Mom, Dad, we’re home!” HaYeon called out from the living room. Soon, Jinwon’s mother appeared from upstairs and welcomed Stephanie over to their father’s office. They closed the door and locked it, ensuring that no one would barge in while they have their conversation.
“How are you, Fany-ah?” gently asked Jinwon’s dad.
“Are you alright?” Jinwon’s mom looked at her with caring eyes.
“I heard my baby’s heartbeat this morning,” Stephanie smiled, but it quickly turned to sadness. “It was overwhelming and unbelievable,” her voice trembled as she covered her face and cried. Jinwon’s mom sat beside her and comforted her.
Meanwhile, curious Jinwon pressed his ears closer to the doors. He never understood why Stephanie hung onto him like a leach. Maybe this way, he would find something out. And so, he listened carefully.
“Are you sure you’re going to be alright?” Jinwon’s mom softly caressed Stephanie hair.
“Don’t you need our support? We can stay here if you want to,” said Jinwon’s dad. They deeply cared for Stephanie as their own. And since Stephanie was carrying their grandchild, it was only natural for them to at least help her in some way.
“No,” Stephanie sniffed. “It’s best if we all lived our separate ways, now. I have people here who love me and will support me. Don’t worry about me.” Even though it sounded the right thing to do, it cut right through her already bruised heart. “He won’t remember me anyway,” she thought and cried even harder.
Jinwon felt a bullet run through his heart. Stephanie had the power to make his family stay, but she didn’t do it. His uncontrollable rage surely took it too far. He once believed that he was perfectly fine on his own for everyone said he was a miracle boy even though the doctors clearly stated that he should take it easy on himself because his brain was still quite fragile. Now he knew what they meant. He really was still sick. It took losing Stephanie to realize that.
He was to blame for losing the one thing he gravely needed. He will never be a better man without her. Now it felt like his life lost its purpose.
He stopped listening and walked away. What would be the use of listening any further if it was clear how Stephanie didn’t want him anymore? It would just break his heart even more.
“Is there someplace you’d like to go for the last time, Jinwon?” Mr. Kim asked before stepping on the gas.
Jinwon thought about it really carefully. He knew he wouldn’t really miss this place. Every little detail about this place irked him only because anywhere a memory might be waiting for him to discover, and he just didn’t don’t want to scavenge for them at all. So far, little things that he had recalled prove to be dangerous secrets or painful memories for someone else and he just didn’t want that to happen again. Leaving would be the best thing for him, but he had to do one last thing.
“The Jung’s home,” he said. Stephanie lived in Jessica’s home and that’s where he wished to go—to see Stephanie. His parents doubt that would be a good idea, but they could not say no. Spoiling him was the best they could do these days to help his condition better.
There he uneasily stood on the Jung house’s doorstep. His heart felt like it was about to burst trying to wonder if he should even ring the doorbell. Who would answer the door? Would Jessica, Stephanie’s over protective best-friend who knew all of her emotions, be the one to judge him for blurting those hurtful words to Stephanie a few nights ago? Or would Stephanie be the one to confront him as soon as the door swings open? What would happen between them, then? There was no time to wonder, he thought. He was running out of time and he had to at least say a proper goodbye. He slowly lifted his finger and pressed the doorbell.
The door swung open and that’s the moment his worst fear was right in front of him: Stephanie with swollen eyes, staring back at him painfully with an expression that screamed out that she had given up.
They stood there in silence for a while as both of their thoughts screamed out for each other. “Do you know how much I love you?” “I can’t say goodbye. I can’t live without you.” Their thoughts were one and the same, and Jinwon was able to notice a glimpse of the same hidden confessions through her longing eyes.
“Can’t you make my family stay?” he breathed out knowing she was feeling the same things as he did. “Can’t you make me stay?
“I can’t do that,” Stephanie tried to reply coldly, but her eyes were obviously being flooded with tears.
“Look,” he held her hands causing the tears to rapidly roll down Stephanie’s cheeks. “I love you.”
“I loved you, too,” she replied, slowly withdrawing her hands from his. “I loved, but you’re not the same to me anymore.” She closed the door and left him in a sudden emotionless shut-down. He walked back to the car as expressionless as he could and went in without a word.
“How was it?” HaYeon asked.
Jinwon didn’t answer and continued to stare out the window. He stayed like that for the rest of the trip. Though silent in his seat, his thoughts crammed with words of heartache:
“I didn’t even have the chance to say goodbye…”
“Ah~ Sunny always used to force me out and help me keep my body moving.” Stephanie smiled, snapping Jinwon out of his thoughts. “Even though it was hard, I was always overjoyed whenever I saw the tall crops on the side. And the town ajumma and ajushi’s would wave us hello every now and then. It was such a bright place. There were a bunch of kids around that used to ride their bikes on the dirt road back then. I wonder how old they are now…”
“Stephanie,” he spoke as he slowly trudged beside her. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Hm? Sure. What is it?”
“15 years ago, if I asked you to live with us in Jeonju, would you have come with us even if you were pregnant and I never knew it was mine?”
“Huh?” Stephanie was flustered by his question and could not organize her thoughts for an answer. “Why all of a sudden…?”
“I’m just wondering… if we were together even then, and I saw Eunji grow up, wouldn’t that be nice? I know everyone knew my brain hasn’t been at its best state, but maybe things would’ve still turned out fine even if you were by my side.”
Stephanie became silent. She didn’t know what to say at all.
“But I guess it would have been dangerous for Eunji…,” he sighed. “If she pissed me off if she was only a child, I could have done or said harmful things to her like I did to others… Like I did to you. Maybe that really wasn’t the best at all, huh? How dumb off me to even assume I could have done better then.”
“I hurt you a lot, didn’t I?” Jinwon hung his head low. “Out of my anger… my memories. I’m such a foolish guy then. If only I knew you carried my child, I wouldn’t have caused you so much pain. I wish I treated your right when I still had you… ”
Stephanie grabbed his hand and when Jinwon lifted his head up, she kissed him deeply until his flustered face calmed down. “Stop it. It’s not good to think of yourself like this. And I know it’s good that you’ve been recalling so much memories than you have ever done after so many years, but know that they are called the past for a good reason. It passed you already. I’ve been stuck in the past a long time myself and it’s crippling. It gets worse the more you recall the pain, Jinwon. But I’ve forgotten about those things and so should you. You’ve got to let them go.”
“How? It’s not like it will erase all of the things you have felt before. You went through so much and it’s all because of me. You don’t know how bad I feel…”
Stephanie stood right in front of him and took hold of his other hand. She stared at him and said, “Look at me for a moment.” Jinwon did as he was told and looked at her straight in the eyes.
“What do you see?” she asked.
“Do you see anything else?”
“I guess not…” Jinwon’s voice lowered, having a hint of where this was going.
“What do you think I see?”
“And I see nothing else but you. So do you think it matters whatever happened between us so long ago and whatever mistakes we both did to hurt each other? We’re here now right in front of each other. We do not need to look at anything else beyond what’s already right in front of us.”
Jinwon turned away for he still could not believe in himself. As Eunji once said, he was the one who hurt Stephanie the most. Because of those mere words, he really thinks he could unintentionally hurt her in some way and feared they would be separated again. But he quickly dragged his gaze back to her so that she would not be disappointed in him at this moment. Then she kissed him again and he tried his best to kiss her back, but he felt he did not deserve it at all. She embraced him tightly trying to make sure he would let his troubles go. Oddly enough, because of her warm heart, the thoughts he kept from her wanted to come out. Since she was being so caring towards him, he figured staying true to her about his feelings would be the right thing to do instead of keeping it all in.
“Stephanie,” he softly said while he was in her embrace.
“What do you think about marriage?”
“Huh?” Stephanie blinked. She slowly withdrew from the hug and skeptically looked at him. “What do you mean?”
“I just want to know what you think about it.”
“Um… well it’s a commitment, of course.”
“When do you think is the right time to do so?”
“I guess it’s when we both can trust each other well enough and love each other unconditionally. Pretty much what we are now.”
“Then can I be completely honest with you?”
“Oh?” Stephanie’s heart started to beat rapidly thinking that he was about to do propose. She could not contain her excitement the more Jinwon dragged the silence. She did think that it was ridiculous that Jinwon would suddenly propose here and now when she expected it to be a little fancier or thought out. Either way, she definitely won’t say no.
But when Jinwon stopped on his tracks, he took a deep breath and said solemnly, “I’m not ready.”
“Huh?” Stephanie unconsciously uttered. She did not expect those words to come out of his mouth at all.
“I’m just… I’m not ready to be married. Know that this has nothing to do with you, but it’s all me. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Is this because of the past? I already told you… you shouldn’t worry about those things. They are all forgiven, Jinwon.”
“No, it’s not that. I’m just not ready… I know you’ve been waiting for so long for me. But,” he sighed deeply with a trail of winter smoke escaping his mouth, “I’m not ready…” Stephanie was about to say that she could wait for him forever, but then he added, “…and I don’t know if I will ever be.”
When they got back to the hanok house, a number of guests were already there. Many of them did not look like country people with their business blazers, but all of them had lived in this farm for a year or two before. Although nostalgia came to them being back here after such a long time, most of them complained for being called by Hyungsoo out of the blue. They each had their own busy lives. To be summoned here with the urgency of Hyungsoo’s call when there seems to be no emergency really ticked them off. They cannot let him get away with this if he had no good reason to bring them there.
At least there was a long buffet table of Korean delicacies prepared to keep their temper at bay. A warm fire pit was also set up for those who would freeze so easily during winter. No matter how mysterious Hyungsoo’s plan may seem, they cannot deny how much he had prepared to make this a great night.
“Ahhh, how great of you Hyungsoo!” Sasha praised the tall guy exaggeratedly. She was Stephanie’s cousin from her mother’s side. She was a woman already in her late 40s still looking quite stunning and young. Despite her slim figure, she looked like she could vacuum the whole buffet table in one swoop.
“Look at all this food! What an unexpected day. What do you have up your sleeve, huh? Be glad I was around the country! This is a great reunion, my lovelies!” she said with her eyes twinkling with excitement at the food as if she fell-in-love at first sight. The first few minutes she was there, she was grumbling about how she hated being called to this old farm, now it was like she was invited to the most wonderful event in the world.
“Oh, hey, no, no, no,” Hyungsoo yanked the woman’s scarf, keeping her from getting close to the long buffet table. “We’re not eating yet. The main guest isn’t here yet.”
“Are we all not main guests? And even if I wasn’t, do you think I care at all? I drove all the way here, I deserve to eat now,” Sasha snarled and roughly escaped Hyungsoo’s grip. She then made her way to the buffet table and picked up a plate.
“Why are we here exactly?” Jinwon asked.
Hyungsoo turned his head to the smaller man. “Look Jingoo, I told you, you weren’t invited so you really have no right to question my agenda here. I only invited Stephanie, but fine, you’re here. No stopping you too, I get it.”
Jessica stood beside Jinwon and whispered. “You got scolded, too? Sheesh, and I thought I was the only one… Ugh, what is up with him? We’re his friends since high-school. How could he be so ungrateful to see us?”
“I know, right? Aigoo, who the hell is the special guest anyway,” Jinwon grumbled.
“Tsh, who else would it be?” YoHan snickered as he came up from behind Jinwon with Yoona on his arms. “I kind of have a hint as to why Hyungsoo is doing this. He’s trying to reenact a day from the past.”
“Ooooh I get it!” Hannah suddenly exclaimed as she joined the conversation with Stephanie following behind. She is Stephanie’s cousin on her mother’s side and also Sasha’s younger sister. “Hyungsoo brought us here because of Sunny!”
Hannah had been a very close friend to Stephanie’s other cousin, Sunny. They became best friends ever since an accident that happened years ago. She also still remembered every event in the farm that included Sunny. What Hyungsoo had in mind, she totally knew, even without him mentioning anything.
“What makes you say that?” Stephanie looked at Hannah in confusion.
“Don’t you remember, Fany-ah?” Hannah turned to Stephanie. Stephanie still had no idea. “Oh never mind. You’ll know in a few minutes anyway.”
“Glad you figured it out, then,” Hyungsoo ruffled Hannah’s hair.
“Oh look who’s here!!!” Hannah quickly combed her hair back with her fingers and ran to the wooden door. As it opened, a petite little woman marched in the gate. It was Sunny. Hyungsoo immediately ran to her and gave his girlfriend a tight hug. He had been waiting for her to arrive all evening.
Before they all dined in the buffet that the old folks of town prepared for them, Hyungsoo stood up and cleared his throat. They guests were yet again stopped from eating the mouth-watering dishes all because of his talkative mouth… well, except for Sasha who already started to dig in a few minutes ago.
“Let me just make a little speech here,” Hyungsoo stood up with a big unusual smile on his face. “Please bear with me for a little while.”
“Ugh, speech my butt,” Jessica grumbled and was only audible to Stephanie.
“Just get on with it, Hyungsoo Oppa!” Hyuna whined loudly. “I’m hungry! We’re all hungry!”
“Okay, but shush for a moment, woman… geez,” Hyungsoo snarled. “Anyway,” Hyungsoo began again. “You probably all think that I have brought you all here for a reunion, and yes that is partly true. But with the buffet and campfire all set up, you might remember a familiar scene from 13 years ago. 13 years ago, I met this woman named Sunny in this same setting with all of you… well, without SOME of you who decided to go with your spouses and children even if they weren’t invited… But anyway, I remember saying one specific sentence that caught her off guard as we waltz that night under the moonlight,” Hyungsoo said and Sunny covered her face from embarrassment. He knew where he was going with this.
“’I Love… Food. Very. Much.’” Everyone burst into laughter and Sunny just rolled her eyes. She has heard that phrase from him hundreds of times throughout the years. “And it was true,” Hyungsoo laughed. “I used to make lots of food puns when I was younger. People who knew me called me as a ‘Food God’ especially because I never seem to gain any weight even though I ate in almost any time that I could. And nobody held me back from my food. I didn’t wait for anyone to say I can eat, just like this old woman right here,” he pointed to Sasha who was already gobbling her food down and the woman just glared at him. “My priorities were always like this: number one-God, number two-Family, and then number three-FOOD! And that did not change for a long time. But there was that one person who made me hunger for something in my heart other than my grumbling stomach. That’s you,” Hyungsoo said, holding Sunny’s hand.
Everybody lost their breaths laughing at Hyungsoo’s joke-sounding speech. Even Sunny found her boyfriend quite silly… that is until Hyungsoo pulled a small box from his pocket and kneeled in front of her. Surprised, everyone started squealing and cheering. A number of the guests had their mouths open out of shock, the others gave an I-knew-this-was-coming smirk, and the rest had their eyes fixed on the couple.
“Lee Soonkyu, my dearest sunshine, will you marry this idiot boyfriend of yours?”
Sunny didn’t know whether to cry or laugh at the moment. They have been together for so long she didn’t know if this was really happening seriously. Either way, she chuckled and said a squealing “Yes” and everybody cheered and clapped. She cupped Hyungsoo’s face and kissed him right then and there.
“Wait… so you brought us here to witness you propose to Sunny?” Hannah’s mouth still hasn’t closed and it’s been at least ten minutes now since the proposal. Everybody had already waltzed to the buffet table, yet she still sat frozen on her seat.
“Pretty much,” Hyungsoo shrugged as Sunny chuckled beside him.
“Why are you so petrified?” Sunny laughed. “It’s not like I’m going to let you go, Hannah. I’m just engaged,” she said, wiggling her fingers in front of clingy friend Hannah, bragging about the ring wrapped on her fourth finger.
“Stop showing us that,” Stepahanie sneered as she sat beside Hannah and quietly ate her dinner.
Hannah stared at Stephanie and read right through her. She said to Sunny, “Yeah, we’re happy for you, but please stop showing off the ring.”
“Why not? You’re married and you already have two kids, Hannah,” Sunny crossed her arms. “It’s not like bragging off this ring will be a prob–” Hyungsoo elbowed her to stop talking. Sunny then remembered Stephanie was listening to every word they were saying. She’s not married and she’s probably bothered about the topic. “Typical jealous Fany,” Sunny thought and laughed. She was easier to read than a book itself.
“Yah, Fany-ah,” Sunny sighed. “Don’t be jealous. Before you know it, you too will probably be engaged and will be showing off your ring to everyone.”
“Who said anything about being jealous?” Stephanie snarled.
“We can see right through you. You’re too obvious,” Hannah said.
“If there’s one thing I know about Jinwon, it’s that he’s fast on doing things,” Hyungsoo laughed. “He’ll probably propose to you in no time. We could even have a double marriage if he acts fast.”
Stephanie just sighed and continued eating her food. They don’t know anything about the words Jinwon said to her just a while ago. How badly timed it was to be let down about marriage when her cousin was proposed to. The topic of marriage cannot be avoided at all tonight. It certainly won’t be any easier for Jinwon to calm his mind about this either.
“So Jinwon, when will you propose to Stephanie?” YoHan started.
He pretended not to hear them and started scooping some rice.
“Yeah, when?” Jessica pressed on.
“You guys are madly in love aren’t you? Why don’t you just get married already?” YoHan teased.
“Yeah, and you’ll have more babies around too,” Jessica said with a snicker. He just glared at them and coldly moved to the next batch of food trying to walk away from the two.
“Oh, I shouldn’t have said that, huh?” Jessica mumbled.
“Look, forget about what Jessica said,” YoHan said, trying to cheer Jinwon up who was clearly annoyed. “Just tell me when you’re planning on doing it, Jinwon. We’ll all be helping out.”
At that moment, he wanted to tell them to shut up but he held it in. He did not want to show them how confused he was about marriage especially after all that they have done for their relationship. He felt that if he said anything against marriage, it would only be backfired with forced positivity. Staying silent about it was the best he could do while everyone still looked at them as an unbreakable power-couple. He did not want to let anyone’s expectations down, especially Stephanie’s, but he wanted to be completely honest with himself. He definitely does not want to force his heart knowing he just wasn’t ready.