Time is really relative, as Yi Jeong discovered that night. Tossing and turning in Ji Hoo’s guest room bed, he found himself watching at the clock at five minutes interval, feeling an eternity had already passed. He was torturing the phone in his hands, sometimes even going so far at tapping the keys, only to shut it down and putting it back on the near table. Two minutes later it was in his hands again, and the game just started anew.
It’s just a phone call. You run away, she must be worried. Don’t be a coward and just call her. A goodnight call.
Yi Jeong grabbed his phone again, but as soon as he pushed the speed dial key, he shut it down with a frustrated groan. What if Ga Eul yang started asking questions? She had every right to but what could he tell her? That he loved her, but he loved Eun Jae as well? That he was so confused he just had to run away earlier? Just the day before he had promised her he would have fought anyone and anything to stay with her, and at the first hardship he had run away again.
A bitter taste flooded his mouth and he leaned against the pillow sighing. He really was only a coward. Ga Eul yang didn’t deserve such a treatment and he had to face the consequences of his actions, like a man.
Swiftly tapping the keys before he could regret it, he put the phone on his ear, waiting for his country bumpkin to answer.
“Yi Jeong sunbae.”
“Ga Eul yang.” He didn’t even realise he’d been holding his breath until her words allowed him to breath again.
“Are you home?” She asked after a long silence. Her voice was calm, almost detached and he wondered how angry was she, to talk to him like that.
“No.” He answered slowly. After all she had every right to be angry. It was maybe the first time in his life he was willing to endure someone’s wrath, knowing he was fully at fault. “Ji Hoo won’t let me go. He insisted I stayed here for the night. Were you sleeping already?”
“No. I’m not sleepy at all.”
Yi Jeong breathed in, closing his eyes. “Ga Eul yang, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have run away like that. The situation caught me completely unprepared and I didn’t know how to react. Are you all right?”
“Do you really want to have this conversation by phone?” She asked, this time a hint of anger clearly on her voice. “I’d rather talk to you in person.”
“I just…” He hesitated before going on. “I was missing you. I just wanted to say goodnight. Can I pick you up tomorrow for lunch?”
“Ok. I’ll be waiting then.” Ga Eul paused. “Try to get some sleep now. You must feel very confused. Sleep it over, maybe tomorrow you’ll be able to think more clearly.”
He swallowed, the grip on his phone tightening. “I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. Sleep well Ga Eul yang.”
“Goodnight Yi Jeong sunbae.”
And then the only thing he could hear was the low sound of interrupted conversation.
Just for once, Yi Jeong was glad he couldn’t show any affection to Ga Eul when he was out in public, because he really didn’t know how she would have reacted if he tried to hug her or worse, kiss her. She had been silent for most of their lunch and now that they were wandering through Namsan Park, she still was.
“I don’t like this.” Yi Jeong abruptly spoke, finally loosing his patience. “I know I shouldn’t have run yesterday, but please talk to me. It’s not like I went to a club, surrounded by women and drowing in alcohol: I went to Ji Hoo and I stayed there. Are you planning to behave like this everytime we fight?”
Ga Eul stopped walking and swallowed a couple of times, her eyes fixed on the ground. “Will there be other times?”
“Excuse me?” He stopped as well, startled.
“Do you still want us to be a couple?” She asked fast, like she was afraid of not being able to say those words if she stopped thinking. “Even now that she’s back in your life?”
That was even worse than he imagined. She was not yelling, she was not angry, she wasn’t calling him names. Ga Eul was scared of loosing him, she couldn’t even look at him, fearing to read the decision in his eyes. A painful grip tightened on his heart and Yi Jeong clenched his fists, fighting the powerful urge to hug her.
“I get it that Eun Jae told you about us.” He inquired and when she nodded, he sighed. “Let’s walk again, shall we? I’ll tell you my side of the story, if you want to listen to me.”
She didn’t answer but resumed walking along him, her gaze still everywhere but on him.
“Eun Jae is the daughter of the famous painter Cha Sung Joo. If you go to Ji Hoo art gallery, you’ll see several of his paintings there. Her family is very rich and aside from painting they are involved in other business too, mostly about art. She was sent to Shinhwa kindergarten along with Seo Hyun noona and Jun Hee noona, so we met each other. We grew up together.”
It wasn’t easy for Yi Jeong to recall that period of his life but he owed Ga Eul. He didn’t want to hide anything from her. “I was a quiet child and I enjoyed her company, since she was interested in the same things as me. When my father decided it was time to teach me and my brother about pottery, she asked to be taught too.”
He paused, turning his head to her, but Ga Eul was stubbornly looking ahead even if her face showed all the signs of tension. She was worried, listening to him and waiting for the fateful blow she was sure was coming.
“I was almost nine when I found out why my mother sometimes disappeared. I heard the nurses talking about her latest suicide attempt and I realised she wasn’t just sick as they always made me believe. When they saw me, they paled and tried to talk to me but I ran away as fast as I could, hiding in my workshop. Eun Jae was the one who found me, under a table. She consoled me and lulled me to sleep, even if I was crying in fear for my mother.”
Yi Jeong stopped again, swallowing hard and this time Ga Eul turned to him, her eyes bright with tears.
“I’m so sorry, sunbae. No kid should suffer like that.” She whispered, her voice strangled. Again he had to refrain from hugging her and clear her tears. He couldn’t stand to see her crying.
“From that moment on, she always stayed by my side. Everytime I needed a shoulder to cry on, she was there. When I was first sent to retrieve my father, she was the one I ran too, yelling and crying and wanting to die myself from the pain. She was a mother, a sister, everything I needed.”
“She was in love with you, too.” Ga Eul added, forcing the words out of her mouth. “Did you know about it?”
“Not at first.” He answered knowing they were reaching a dangerous subject that couldn’t be avoided.
“Looking at my family, I couldn’t even think about falling in love myself, it seemed useless and only source of pain and tears. I needed Eun Jae, I needed the warmth she could give me, it was my hold on sanity, even more than the friendship I had with Jun Pyo, Ji Hoo and Woo Bin. When I realised she was in love with me and that I was feeling something for her too, I was already on the path to become Korean Casanova but I decided it was better that way. I couldn’t risk to ruin our friendship for a love I was sure wouldn’t have lasted. It was selfish of me, but I needed her more than I needed her love.”
“You could have had both. Why didn’t you try?”
“Ga Eul yang.” Yi Jeong stopped walking, lowering his gaze. “I was fifteen when I first had sex and love for me was something to avoid at all costs. Love was suffering, it was my mother trying suicide and my father spending endless nights bedding other women or drinking into oblivion. Sex was a good surrogate and I settled for that. I knew Eun Jae could have never accepted something like that and I was unable to even think to taint her with my dirty soul. She had to stay clear of me.”
“You’re right, you were selfish.” Ga Eul looked at him, her lips a thin white line. “You chose to have all: her support and your fake, pain-free love. You completely ignored her need to be something more for you.”
“I know.” He hid his hands in his pockets, feeling the old pain rising again. “That’s why I lost her in the end. She couldn’t stay by my side anymore like I wanted her to, she needed something I wasn’t ready to give her or anyone. I can’t blame her for leaving me. But when she disappeared… it broke me down.”
“Did you ever try to find her?” They were near the end, and Ga Eul knew it. Just watching him was painful because his eyes clearly reflected his longing for the girl he lost. The answer was already there, it just needed to be spoken out loud.
Yi Jeong shook his head, closing his eyes for some moments. “I tried to call her several times and I asked her parents where she was, but they told me she didn’t want anybody to know. I respected that decision. And the part of my heart she awakened, died that day.”
Ga Eul smiled bitterly, raising her gaze. “How coward of you. You loved her and you let her go because you were afraid. And when she left you, you chose to stay broken instead of fighting and bringing her back. It was easier, wasn’t it? Why fight and risk? It’s better to become the brooding hero and respect a decision she obviously made out of pain.”
He bit his lip, choosing not to reply. It was the correct assumption of course, he had indeed been a coward. How could he reply to her, to her anger? It wasn’t over and he knew it. He was already waiting for the last question, the question he most of all didn’t want to answer.
“And now sunbae?” Ga Eul asked, walking down that path and coming to its end. “Teacher Cha is back. What are you feeling now? All those long forgotten feelings awakened again, right? Am I right?”
He didn’t reply and she pressed, her voice between pain and anger. “Answer me! Do you still love her? I need to know that!”
They were at the upper end of Namsan stairs and Yi Jeong almost laughed. There he was, finally up the stair of his life and he was about to go down again, straight to the bottom. With just a few words. Why did he even bother climbing those hard steps if he was going to fall again?
“I don’t know. Maybe I love the thought of what could have been between us. Maybe I’m just regretting letting her go.”
“Or maybe you still love her for real.”
There. Right to the bottom Yi Jeong. His fall had begun and he was helpless to stop it.
“I love you, Ga Eul yang.” She had to know at least that. “This hadn’t changed. It can’t change.”
She looked at him, slow tears falling down her cheeks. “But it can’t be enough either.”
“Ga Eul yang…”
“No.” She interrupted him. “I thought about it all night, sunbae. I know you love me, I believe it. You showed me. But you have to find out if the love you feel for me is stronger than the love you feel for her.”
“What if I don’t want to?”
“I won’t let you be a coward again.” Her voice craked down but she refrained from bursting into tears, clenching her fists. “I did everything I could, Yi Jeong sunbae. I gave you my best. Now it’s up to you. Find out what you want, don’t run again. Find out where your true happiness lies. I won’t hold you down.”
“I need you.” He whispered, his heart breaking. She was killing him.
“And I need someone free of doubts. I need someone clear of his past and ready to face the future.” She paused than she resumed, faintly smiling through the tears. “I don’t hate you. I know what happened is beyond your control. But now that Teacher Cha is back, you need to talk to her and sort out your feelings. You owe me that, and you owe yourself too.”
She took a step down the stairs, then stopped and looked back at him. “Whatever is the outcome I will accept it. But I can’t fight against a ghost. I need you to know who you really love. Just don’t lie to me. Remember what you told me about clean breaks and don’t make me suffer. Please.”
A step, then another one, again and again and again.
Ga Eul walked down the stairs, her heart left in pieces in each steps. She felt like dying inside, but she forced herself to keep walking. She knew that just a little hesitation would have forced Yi Jeong to run to her and pledge her his love, and she couldn’t accept it. She needed to know it was for real. She could only hope it was for real.
What she hadn’t told Yi Jeong was she had no intention of letting him go. He had to find out who he really wanted, but if it wasn’t her, Ga Eul was ready to fight until the end. Teacher Cha was his first love but she was his girlfriend now, and she didn’t want to loose him.
Not at all. Not to her, not to his family, not to anything the whole world was ready to throw to them.
Drying her tears up, Ga Eul straightened her spine and walked away, preparing for the endless days that awaited her. She was already missing him dearly.