fin.

someday i will tell you (i think i love you)

 

 

 

Joohyun learns Seulgi is back on a Tuesday.

 

The sky is bright blue with barely a cloud in the sky as Joohyun rebalances a bag of produce she collected from the morning market on her hip. She pushes open the door to her restaurant with a shoulder, greeted by the jangle of the rusty bell. Plopping down at the table closest to the window, she begins to sort through the bags.

 

“Mommy!”

 

Joohyun looks up with a small smile as her daughter toddles toward her, coming from the apartment they’re renting above the restaurant. Soohyun bounces up and down in excitement, her bright red backpack practically engulfing her small body.

 

“Oh, Soohyun-ah, could you help mommy bring this into the kitchen?”

 

Soohyun nods as Joohyun hands her the lightest bag of produce and turns on her heel toward the back room. Joohyun glances up at the dusty clock next to the old television mounted on the wall. She startles at the time. If she doesn’t hurry Soohyun may miss one of the few buses to get to school. She hurries into the kitchen, stacking the bags next to the sink for further inspection when she gets back. Granny Choi always tries to sell her the older ggaetnip due to some long-held grudge against Joohyun’s aunt.

 

“Did you remember to pack your pencil case?” Joohyun asks as she reaches down to hold her daughter’s hand. Soohyun nods as they walk over the threshold of the restaurant door.

 

“Bye bye,” Soohyun mumbles to a lazy orange cat sunning itself against the window sill. Joohyun’s mouth twitches as she gently tugs the little girl along the road towards one of the few bus stations in the small seaside town.

 

“Oh, Soohyun’s mom!”

 

Joohyun glances up and gives a tight smile to the older woman ambling in her direction. Park Jooshil is someone Joohyun has known since she was a toddler. She, like Joohyun, was born, raised, and still living in their hometown. She’ll probably die here too, Joohyun thinks soberly.

 

“Hello, Joonho’s mom.”

 

“Oh my, you’re still wearing your apron! I thought the hours for your restaurant didn’t start until lunchtime?”

 

Joohyun feels her face flush as she glances down at her attire. She never really bothered to dress up when going to the early morning market to haggle with the grannies and old fisherman. In the rush to get the best produce, she’d forgotten to take off her apron from when she’d been preparing a stew base for one of her restaurant’s dishes earlier that morning.

 

“I like it, mommy. Red’s my favorite color.”

 

Joohyun clenches her jaw at the quiet comment from Soohyun. Aren’t you embarrassed by me? A mother who says goodbye to you at the bus station smelling like fish in a dirty apron?

 

“Soohyun-ah, go ahead. I’ll see you later tonight.”

 

“Bye, Mommy.”

 

Joohyun pats the small girl’s head as she hugs her legs before walking over to join the small group of children waiting at the bus stop.

 

“Did you hear about the new teacher?”

 

“Yeah. Soohyun mentioned she’d be getting a new teacher after Miss Shim suddenly had to take leave for her ill father.”

 

“Well, did you hear who’s filling the position?”

 

Joohyun’s eyes follow Soohyun as she stands quietly off to the side, not talking to any of her classmates. When they make eye contact, Soohyun brightens and waves. The sight makes Joohyun look away.

 

“I didn’t.”

 

“It’s Kang Seulgi.”

 

“What?”

 

Joohyun glances over at Jooshil who’s looking at her like she has a secret, her gaudily painted red lips curved upward.

 

“Yeah, you didn’t hear? She’s coming back to teach after her stint in Seoul. Apparently she requested to transfer down to Pohang for a temporary position.”

 

Joohyun’s eyes flick back to Soohyun who is now walking towards the bright yellow kindergarten bus. Joohyun slightly waves a hand which her daughter enthusiastically returns.

 

“I see.”

 

“I thought you’d be happier. That girl followed you around like she was your puppy. Didn’t we used to call her Bae Seulgi?”

 

“I think so. That was such a long time ago that I barely remember.”

 

“Did you two not keep in contact with each other after you went to college?”

 

Joohyun thinks of the small stack of unsent letters she has stuffed in a shoebox full of memories that are better left forgotten.

 

“You grow up and you drift apart. It’s natural.”

 

“That’s such a shame. You two were so… close.”

 

Joohyun’s jaw jumps at the way Jooshil says the word, implication so heavy that it makes her tense. She watches the kindergarten bus drive away.

 

“I suppose we were.”

 

 


 

 

“I’m bored,” mutters Yerim as she continues to play a game on her phone, pulling a leg up to her chest. She casts a lazy profile by the window, her messy bun flopping to one side of her head as her thumb taps against the glass screen.

 

Joohyun sighs, wiping her hands on her dirty red apron.

 

“It’s slow on Sunday afternoons. Things will pick up in a few hours. I don’t know why you always complain when you know exactly how this works.”

 

Yerim just shrugs a shoulder.

 

“Did you finish your homework?”

 

“Yup,” Yerim mutters. “POSTECH isn’t that hard.”

 

Joohyun scoffs at the way Yerim casually throws around the name of arguably the best technical university in the province.

 

“Yerim-unnie!”

 

Yerim glances up, her usually droll expression shifting into something brighter.

 

“Oh, Soohyun-ah, hey. How was your nap?”

 

“Good! But Nabi told me she wants a brother.”

 

“Did she?” Yerim asks with a twitching mouth, meeting Joohyun’s rolling eyes. Soohyun grips the stuffed animal tighter to her chest emphatically.

 

“What about Brownie and Dubu? That’s sort of mean for Nabi to not care about them.”

 

“Nabi does care! But they’re her cousins. A brother is different.”

 

Joohyun says nothing as she quickly grabs some leftovers from the kitchen so that the three of them can eat.

 

“Soohyun-ah, you can’t bring Nabi to the table,” gently admonishes Joohyun. Her daughter reluctantly turns around and rushes upstairs. Joohyun knows this will take a few minutes as Soohyun always lovingly tucks the stuffed cat into a blanket like it’s actually alive.

 

“So,” Yerim drawls out as she sets the table. Joohyun’s shoulders tense a little.

 

“What?”

 

“I saw Seulgi-unnie the other day.”

 

“Oh? Did you?” Joohyun asks, trying to feign disinterest. The three of them had been close growing up. Seulgi and Joohyun had known Yerim since she was born and she’d follow after them whenever they’d play. Later on, when Joohyun stayed and Seulgi did not, Yerim worked part-time at the restaurant Joohyun’s aunt ran until her retirement.

 

“Yeah. I helped her escape the market. The grannies there wouldn’t let her go, pinching her cheeks and telling her she’s grown up so well.”

 

Joohyun laughs at the image of a helpless Kang Seulgi being dragged between stalls by wrinkled leathery hands.

 

“It’s nice to see you laugh, Unnie. I thought you forgot how.”

 

“Yah, Kim Yerim.”

 

“Seulgi-unnie’s the exact same. She bought me an ice cream at the convenience store like I was still eight years old.”

 

“I’m sure she’s similar in some ways,” Joohyun agrees softly. Ten years can’t quite be erased in one fell swoop of course.

 

“She talked about you.”

 

“Did she?”

 

“Mm. Mentioned that she wanted the three of us to get dinner sometime. Just like old times.”

 

“Oh.”

 

Yerim frowns up at Joohyun, head tilting slightly. POSTECH aside, Yerim is smart in other ways, always seeming to know how to sidestep whatever walls Joohyun’s trying to erect.

 

“You don’t seem that happy about it.”

 

“She went to university in Seoul and just. Never came back. Never reached out. Doesn’t that bother you that she can just come back with a smile like no time passed?”

 

Yerim’s eyebrows shoot up in alarm, unused to the way Joohyun’s voice quivers with emotions she usually keeps carefully tamped down. Joohyun’s jaw clenches and she jerks her head to look out the window, watching the waves slosh back and forth against the craggy shore. She hates that she sees herself and Seulgi in elementary school, hands linked together with bare feet kicking into the sand. Seulgi’s hand had been so warm and her eyes had been so trusting.

 

“Omo, Soohyun’s mom, I’m sorry are you having lunch? We just decided to eat here instead of eating at church.”

 

Joohyun glances up at the jingle of the bell and sees Jooshil with her gaggle of friends.

 

“Sure, sit wherever you want. What would you like to order?”

 

“Can we get a mackerel stew for five people, please?”

 

“Sure,” Joohyun says, rising from her seat and returning to the kitchen with Yerim close on her heels.

 

“They’re so annoying,” Yerim mutters as she pulls out the cheap blue porcelain bowls for the banchan.

 

“Well at least you didn’t have to go to school with them for 12 years.”

 

Yerim full body shudders as she scoops eight different banchan dishes onto separate plates.

 

“How quickly do you think they’ll ask me why I wasn’t at church today?”

 

“I think Taeho’s mom will ask you to start tutoring her son first.”

 

“He’s three years old. He can barely talk, let alone do multiplication tables,” Yerim bites out as she balances the dishes on a tray. Joohyun just shrugs her shoulder and helps open the door for the other girl with a wry smile. She catches a glimpse of the gaggle of her old classmates sitting near the television and remarking about a program they apparently all are watching together. Sighing, she returns to the kitchen to gather the ingredients to put together the stew.

 

“Omo, is that Soohyun?”

 

Joohyun startles a little, almost dropping the radish she’s pulling out of the refrigerator. She always feels uneasy with having her daughter around those women. Maybe Joohyun’s afraid she’ll be picked apart and sized up just like she’d been when she was little.

 

When Joohyun exits the kitchen, carrying a large pot of stew with a gas cannister under her arm, she sees Soohyun talking with them.

 

“Here you are,” Joohyun interrupts, placing the pot onto a stove burner in the middle of the table. She quickly attaches the gas cannister and turns the nob.

 

“Thanks,” Jooshil says with a smile. Joohyun tries to step in front of her daughter so that the little girl can walk back to her table for lunch when one of the other women grabs at her shoulder.

 

“Wow, Soohyunie really looks like her daddy.”

 

“That means she’ll be a real beauty when she grows up,” someone pipes up, seeming to not see the way Joohyun’s face freezes.

 

“Your daddy was the handsomest guy in town, Soohyun-ah. Everyone was so jealous when your mommy ended up with him.”

 

Joohyun clears as she gently steers Soohyun back toward the table where Yerim waits, hands loosely covering her eyes like she’s watching a scary movie.

 

“Enjoy your meal,” Joohyun says with a too tight smile.

 

“Enjoy your meal,” Soohyun parrots, bowing her head deeply with her hands clasped in front of her just like Joohyun had taught her.

 

When they get back to their seats, Yerim is still looking at Joohyun through her fingers.

 

“It wasn’t that bad,” Joohyun mutters as she picks up her chopsticks. Yerim shrugs a shoulder as she pours her a cup of water.

 

“At least they didn’t ask you about your…” Yerim eyes dart towards Soohyun who is looking up curiously. “Love life.”

 

Joohyun wrinkles her nose at the English phrase.

 

“Do you have to talk about that right before I start eating?”

 

“Well you know that sort of talk is what those kindof people live for.” Yerim reaches out and covers Soohyun’s ears as she continues to eat like nothing is happening. “If they didn’t have their daytime dramas or their kids what else would they live for? I’d be bored as hell.”

 

“Hey, I’m technically one of those ladies. And I like Brilliantly Inherited Shining Legacy. It’s a good show.”

 

Yerim chuckles as she drops her hands and Soohyun turns to look over at her.

 

“Unnie, before you leave you have to say bye to Nabi. Nabi was upset when you just left without saying goodbye.”

 

Yerim softens and playfully flicks at one of Soohyun’s pigtails.

 

“Okay I’ll be sure to say bye to both you and Nabi before I head back home. Did you do the practice math sheet I gave you last Sunday?”

 

“Mm, I can grab it-”

 

“Park Soohyun, finish your lunch first. Yerim isn’t going anywhere.”

 

“Mm,” mumbles Soohyun obediently lowering her head to scoop rice back into . Joohyun puts a helping of Soohyun’s favorite beansprout dish into her bowl.

 

“You have to eat more vegetables.”

 

“Yeah, if you don’t you’ll be short like your mom.”

 

“Still taller than you, Kim Yerim,” Joohyun mutters with a long-suffering sigh.

 

“Was daddy tall?”

 

Joohyun stiffens at the question. Soohyun strangely didn’t tend to ask her questions directly about her father. Instead, she would get quiet when he was brought up, silently absorbing any information like a sponge.

 

“Um, he was taller than me?” Joohyun offers as she rises from her seat to go check on the cooking stew. Soohyun seems satisfied with the response as she bravely grabs a spoonful of steamed spinach to eat.

 

In a few harried steps, Joohyun is examining the now bubbling red broth. She pulls out a ladle from the container of large utensils in the middle of the table, stirring with an experienced turn of the wrist.

 

“It looks good,” Jooshil says with an approving nod.

 

“Your auntie always made the best mackerel stew. My mom was so worried that the taste would change when she retired but now she comes here more often than before!”

 

Joohyun smiles politely at the compliment, resting the ladle against the side of the bubbling pot.

 

“It should be ready to eat now.”

 

“Joohyun-ah, why didn’t you come to church today? We all miss you at the choir.”

 

Joohyun’s jaw clenches as she thinks of the sermon that had made her stop attending the local church. The moment she’d finally decided that she no longer had to pretend for the sake of everyone else. It’d been a little easier to do after Hyunwoo died.

 

“It’s important to keep the restaurant open for business,” she says stiffly.

 

“Oh how many people come in the morning? Isn’t being with the community more important?”

 

“It’s important. How else will I be able to afford hakwon for Soohyun?”

 

“Well maybe if you’d just try to meet someone. Actually,” Jooshil’s voice gets conspiratorially soft like they’re both back in high school and she’s gossiping with her in the bathroom, “that’s why I keep trying to get you to go to church. There’s a nice man who’s interested in maybe meeting you sometime. He’s no Hyunsoo but he’s really kind and he even has a son. Wouldn’t that be sweet for Soohyun to have a playmate?”

 

Joohyun feels the smile on her face getting more strained by the second.

 

“Maybe later. When I don’t need the business as much.”

 

“You should think it over. It’s been practically three years. It’s okay to move on.”

 

“Mm,” Joohyun chokes out, her face feeling too hot. She flaps a hand and turns away to go back to her table.

 

Yerim looks up at her in concern.

 

“Are you okay, Unnie?”

 

“Mm. I need to just check on a burner in the kitchen actually. Think I left it on.” Joohyun hastily rushes into the kitchen. When she’s alone, she sags against the long silver counter, her hands tightly clenching onto the cool metal. She inhales and exhales slowly, trying to control the tightness in that threatens to overwhelm her.

 

Finally, after a few long minutes of heavy breathing, she opens her eyes and stares at the stovetop in front of her. She lets out a choked sigh as she rubs at her face in exhaustion. Her gaze drifts to the small barred window in the corner of the kitchen as the guilt and frustration that had threatened to overwhelm her slowly seep from her stiff shoulders and clenched fingers.

 

 


 

 

Joohyun sits on a bench in the small lobby of the local credit union, chewing on her lip. She reexamines the stack of documents in a neat folder on her lap. She double checked all the required papers she needed for the renewal of her small business loan earlier this morning, but she still checks one more time, quickly thumbing through the thick stack. She’s mouthing the checklist for the documents as she goes through the papers, ignoring the loud chime of the sliding doors behind her.

 

“O-oh.”

 

Joohyun feels someone standing close to her and she frowns as she glances up.

 

It’s a gut punch, seeing Seulgi again, so close after so many years. In some ways she looks different, her dark hair cut into stylish layers that flatter the curve of her jaw and her face leaner without cheeks round with baby fat. But there is still that same softness in the corners of her eyes as she looks at Joohyun like she only sees her.

 

“H-hi, Joohyun-unnie. It’s been awhile.”

 

Joohyun looks up at the other woman, not quite finding the words to respond.

 

Seulgi shifts from foot to foot, eyes darting all over Joohyun’s face before settling on the floor.

 

“So you came back,” Joohyun murmurs quietly, not quite able to meet Seulgi’s eyes.

 

“Mm. It’s like I never left. I think this thing has been here since we were kids.” Seulgi gestures with her chin at the bench Joohyun is sitting on.

 

“That’s not true, Seulgi-yah. Everything’s different now.”

 

“Really?” Seulgi asks, her voice sounding strangely thick as she stares at Joohyun with a face that she cannot quite decipher. It is discomfiting to realize that someone she knew better than herself has become unreadable to her.

 

“Customer number 26! Customer 26, please come forward!”

 

“That’s me,” Joohyun says a little sheepishly as she raises her small slip of paper she’d grabbed when she’d entered. “I’ll see you around.”

 

“Okay, Unnie. I’ll see you around.”

 

Joohyun rises to stand and for a moment Seulgi doesn’t quite take a step back. She brushes against the soft fabric of the other woman’s cardigan, feeling Seulgi stiffen at the contact. When she looks back, she sees Seulgi’s face is flushed.

 

“Do you want to get a meal sometime?” Joohyun doesn’t quite realize she’d said anything until she sees Seulgi’s mouth gaping open like a fish out of water.

 

“Y-yes! Let’s… er would you be able to do dinner today? Oh, wait I have to visit my aunt tonight. I could try to reschedule maybe...

 

Joohyun cannot help the laughter that bubbles out of her, stopping Seulgi’s ramble immediately. She covers with her hand as she looks at the other woman who feels a little more familiar. Seulgi tilts her head, her lips twitching upward as if the sight of Joohyun smiling alone can make her happy.

 

“We’ll find each other again, Seulgi-yah,” Joohyun hears herself saying, hand dropping from . Seulgi’s eyes dart down quickly before flicking toward somewhere vaguely behind Joohyun.

 

“Customer number 26?”

 

Joohyun tears her eyes away from Seulgi and raises her folder.

 

“Yes. I’m here, sorry.”

 

They share a smile one more time before Joohyun walks ahead, feeling Seulgi’s gaze on her back.

 

 


 

 

It isn’t easy for Joohyun to make time for herself, especially as a single mother and the owner of a restaurant. Not that trying to carve out one measly meal with Kang Seulgi counts as a thriving social life.

 

“Maybe a half day on Saturday? But usually I get some people coming in for an early dinner.”

 

Joohyun chews on her lip as she flips through her calendar that usually hangs next to the cash register, eyebrows furrowed in thought. Twirling a pen between her fingers, she squints at each day and mentally goes through the pros and cons of closing the restaurant early or opening a little late to go meet Seulgi.

 

“But does Seulgi work this day too?”

 

“Which one, Unnie?”

 

“The 13th,” Joohyun replies absently. Until she recognizes the voice.

 

Looking up in surprise, she sees Seulgi standing on the other side of the table, near the front door. She’s dressed in a khaki colored dress with a work purse slung over a shoulder and her hair in a sloppy pony tail. Even though the fluorescent lighting is harsh, Seulgi’s face still looks soft despite the clear exhaustion from a long work day.

 

“Kang Seulgi,” Joohyun exclaims in surprise, rising from her chair.

 

“Hi, Unnie. I’m sorry that I didn’t coordinate a time to see you. I realized after we agreed to meet I didn’t have your phone number.”

 

Joohyun scoffs and glances down at her hand still absentmindedly spinning her pen.

 

“You didn’t have to come all the way here. It’s late.”

 

“Sorry. I know you’re technically closed for the night, but I just saw you through the window and I…”

 

Joohyun tilts her head as she watches Seulgi’s face redden under the revealing brightness of the fluorescent lights.

 

“It’s fine. I only just closed. There’s not really much business on Wednesday evenings anyway.”

 

“So, you own the restaurant now?”

 

“I do.”

 

Seulgi hums, nodding slowly as her eyes take in the familiar décor. Not much has changed since Joohyun’s aunt and uncle originally owned the place when they were children.

 

“I always…” Seulgi trails off, eyes darting up to meet Joohyun’s. She adjusts the strap of her purse on her shoulder instead, unable or unwilling to finish the thought.

 

“Are you hungry?”

 

“Oh I… I am actually. I was walking to get something to eat when I saw you.”

 

“Most places are closed now. Nine o’clock is a little too late for this town, Seulgi-yah.”

 

“I guess I got too used to living somewhere else,” Seulgi mutters as she drops her bag into a chair and sits down. Joohyun feels her eyes on her as she walks back into the kitchen to heat up the last of the stew for the day.

 

As she stares at the flickering burner under the large steel pot, she hastily exhales, leaning into her hands as she stares blankly ahead. She thinks of the way Seulgi’s throat had bobbed as she watched Joohyun talking and she has to physically distract herself from the way it makes her feel. She busies herself with getting a tray full of banchan ready for Seulgi with a steaming bowl of the last of the rice.

 

When she walks back out into the main room, Seulgi is thumbing through her phone. As soon as she sees Joohyun, she stands, hands fluttering like she wants to help her with the dishes.

 

“No no, you sit.”

 

“But you’ve probably been on your feet all day!”

 

“And you haven’t?”

 

Seulgi swallows at that and lets her arms drop as she obediently sits back down in her chair.

 

“Here. I made sure to get extra helpings of your favorites.”

 

“My favorites?”

 

“You always mentioned you liked the way my aunt made her cucumber kimchi when we ate here.”

 

Seulgi’s eyes widen as she looks at the blue porcelain bowl filled to the brim with rectangular cuts of cucumber covered in red pepper. Joohyun blinks slowly at the heavy look Seulgi gives her.

 

“You remembered?” she asks softly.

 

“Of course. You always made her refill at least three times.”

 

Seulgi’s mouth curls upward at the remark and she reaches for the bottom of the table to pull out the drawer with spoons, chopsticks and napkins.

 

“It’s a little late to be eating dinner,” Joohyun observes absently as she watches Seulgi dig into the food, scooping rice into with a familiar gusto. Joohyun reaches over to grab a few more napkins and place them by Seulgi’s elbow.

 

“I’ve been staying late to help out at the school. I lost track of time I guess.”

 

Joohyun rests her cheek against her fist as she watches Seulgi talk with full. She remembers them in school uniforms, Seulgi’s cheeks bulging as she’d talked to Joohyun about her day in this very spot. Their meals would always end with Joohyun’s side of the table spotless and Seulgi’s littered with bits of half-eaten rice and drops of stew and kimchi juice.

 

She watches Seulgi looping a memory in front of her for a little while longer until she pulls herself away to go grab the boiling stew. When she returns, Seulgi is looking at her with an expectant smile.

 

“Wow, this smells exactly like your aunt’s.”

 

“I learned from the best,” Joohyun jokes, sitting back to watch Seulgi happily shake her shoulders as she begins to eat.

 

“This is delicious, Unnie,” Seulgi mumbles around her food.

 

“Well, there’s a reason my restaurant hasn’t folded yet. My aunt comes by for surprise visits just to make sure I haven’t tarnished her legacy.”

 

“She’s so scary, Unnie. All the women in your family were terrifying.”

 

“And yet you always told me you wanted to marry me. When we were little.”

 

Seulgi chokes on her food, turning away to cough into her elbow. Joohyun rises from her seat and rushes to grab a plastic water jug. She hastily pours some water into a small silver cup that Seulgi gulps down.

 

“I-I didn’t think you remembered that.”

 

Joohyun chuckles, carefully watching the way Seulgi sloshes her stew around with her spoon.

 

“How could I forget? Do you remember when you gave me flowers but you were crying because you felt like you murdered them?”

 

Seulgi’s face is clearly red as she pours herself another cup of water.

 

“I was a silly kid,” she weakly mutters to Joohyun’s disappointment. “You were always so nice about it.”

 

“I liked your proposal. I think yours was better than Hyunwoo’s.”

 

Seulgi’s shoulders stiffen at the mention of the man’s name and Joohyun glances outside the window, the lights from dim streetlamps casting an orange glow on the same cracked pavement she and Seulgi had walked on when they were little girls.

 

“I’m sorry that I didn’t go to the funeral.”

 

“It’s okay. I don’t think I really remember that day very well anyway.”

 

“I really wish…”

 

Joohyun glances over at Seulgi, watching the way the other woman’s face is contorting as she struggles with what she wants to say. Joohyun smiles at the familiar expression, pressing against her fist.

 

“It’s okay. Really.”

 

“I didn’t really know him that well, but he was always nice to me. When you guys started dating, he bought me some snacks once when I was studying for my exams.”

 

“He was a good man,” Joohyun murmurs, the guilt constricting her words and making her voice too soft.

 

Seulgi nods as she continues to eat her stew. Suddenly she stops playing with her food, head bowed. There is a stillness to Seulgi that makes Joohyun anticipate whatever she will say next.

 

“Unnie, I-”

 

“Mommy?”

 

Joohyun looks over her shoulder and sees Soohyun, pajamas slightly askew with her arms wrapped around the middle of her large cat plushie.

 

“Soohyun-ah, I told you not to come down here at night.”

 

“Ms. Kang?”

 

Joohyun looks back at Seulgi who smiles at Soohyun.

 

“Hi, Soohyun-ah. How are you? Is this Nabi?”

 

“She told you about Nabi?” Joohyun asks in disbelief, watching her daughter’s face light up.

 

“Yeah! Nabi, say hi to Ms. Kang.”

 

Joohyun watches, her smile hidden by a closed fist, as Soohyun bows her stuffed animal’s torso and walks it up to Seulgi’s side of the table. Seulgi’s smile is irresistibly kind as she pushes her chair back a little to bow in her seat as well.

 

“Hi, Nabi, Soohyun has told me a lot about you.”

 

“Nabi says she’s happy you’re here.”

 

“Well I’m happy I’m here, too. Soohyun-ah, your mom makes delicious food.”

 

“It is yummy,” Soohyun agrees as she peers at the dishes scattered across the table. Joohyun glances behind her and startles at the clock.

 

“Oh, Seulgi-yah. You need to make the last bus! Everything stops around 10pm.”

 

“Unnie, it’s okay. I don’t live that far away. Don’t worry about me.”

 

“Nabi says you can sleep here if you want to, Ms. Kang. Nabi wants to show you her cousins Brownie and Dubu upstairs.”

 

“That’s very nice of Nabi to offer. But I should get going after I finish my food. How about I meet them next time?”

 

Soohyun hums at the proposition, burrowing her face into Nabi’s plush neck.

 

“You promise?”

 

Seulgi smiles as she glances over at Joohyun who is watching the scene unfold before her like it’s a movie. The other woman sticks out a pinkie that Soohyun obediently links with, the two of them pressing their thumbs together. Joohyun’s throat feels thick with nostalgia as she realizes that she was the one who taught Seulgi how to do that when they were little.

 

Unnie promises to buy you candy if you stop crying.

 

Promise?

 

“I promise,” Seulgi says, eyes still on Joohyun for a moment longer than necessary. Those brown eyes, soft with something Joohyun wishes she could not name, linger in her mind even after she closes shop and tries to fall asleep.

 

 


 

 

Joohyun squats behind the alleyway of her restaurant like an old woman, her cigarette trailing smoke between her thumb and pointer finger. She clenches her jaw as she stares at the grey surf of the ocean peeking out at the mouth of the alleyway, grey and white froth pounding against gravelly sand in the distance.

 

“Seriously?” Joohyun glances over and sees Yerim, the back door propped against her shoulder as she holds a cigarette to with her thumb on the button of the lighter.

 

“What?” Joohyun mutters as she angrily stubs out her cigarette next to her grimy shoe.

 

“You’re barely over thirty, Unnie. You don’t have to act like you’re as old as Granny Choi.”

 

Joohyun rolls her eyes as she observes Yerim cup her hand over the end of her cigarette and exhale a gust of white smoke like a chain-smoking mob boss.

 

“Yah, Kim Yerim, where are you?”

 

“,” Yerim mutters as she plucks her cigarette out of and places it in Joohyun’s. She blinks slowly at the action, confused as she sees an unfamiliar woman peer at the two of them from the mouth of the alleyway. And then Kang Seulgi pokes her head out from behind her with a dopey grin.

 

“It took me nearly two hours to get here and you didn’t even bother to pick me up from the bus station?”

 

“I was working, Sunbae.”

 

“Couldn’t you have texted me that before I took the bus down here? I looked so lost that this stranger came over and helped me find my way.”

 

Yerim shrugs a shoulder as the taller girl lets out a strangled noise of frustration. She steps further into the alley and it’s strange to see such a well-dressed girl in the grime of decades old fish guts and crumbling plaster.

 

Joohyun’s eyes flick over to Seulgi who stands a distance away, eyes trained on the cigarette still in Joohyun’s mouth.

 

“Hey, Unnie,” Seulgi says softly as the girl and Yerim bicker loudly behind them.

 

“Hi, Seulgi-yah.”

 

“You smoke now?”

 

“Not really. I did a little with Hyunwoo but he quit when we had Soohyun. I only really smoke when I’m,” Joohyun pauses, the vulnerability of revealing her stress sticking in like a fishbone.

 

“My dad used to smoke a ton whenever he was stressed about our store.”

 

Joohyun frowns at Seulgi’s words, mulling over how easily she can still read her. She meets the other woman’s earnest gaze and feels even more lost by the undeniable sincerity shining in her eyes. There’s something a little shameless about the way Kang Seulgi can just come back after ten years as if no time has passed at all.

 

“It felt a little worse than normal today. I usually let myself have a cigarette when it gets like this.”

 

Seulgi contemplatively nods as she steps into the alley. Joohyun’s eyes make a quick sweep up and down her silhouette, Seulgi’s shoulders revealed nicely by a form-fitting ivory colored sweater tucked into dark jeans. Her houndstooth jacket hangs under her arm despite the crisp weather. With a pang, Joohyun recalls Seulgi always running warm. She’d let Joohyun link arms with her when they’d walk to school during the winter, ignoring how cold Joohyun’s nose must have been when she burrowed her face into her neck.

 

“May I?”

 

“Kang Seulgi! You want to smoke?”

 

Seulgi mouth twists up at the stern tone.

 

“So, I’m not allowed to?”

 

“Smoking is bad for you!”

 

Seulgi giggles as she squats down before Joohyun, head tilting. A silence between them stretches like a taut rubber band as Joohyun lets herself look at the other woman despite the ache in her chest.

 

“Seulgi-yah,” she whispers quietly, perhaps drunk a little on the sight of her so close and so present in this strange moment in the alleyway by the sea.

 

“Mm?”

 

Joohyun flicks a bit of ash off the end of the cigarette with her thumb before letting Seulgi take it, their fingers brushing. She watches Seulgi hesitate briefly before putting the cigarette between .

 

“That’s an indirect kiss, you know.”

 

“I know,” Seulgi says simply, blowing out smoke with a barely there smile. Joohyun swallows as her eyes drop to Seulgi’s hands and the way the cigarette rests between her index and middle finger.

 

“Hey, Joohyun-unnie, is it okay if Sooyoung-sunbae eats at the restaurant? You can take it out of my pay for the day.”

 

Joohyun glances over her shoulder at Yerim and the other girl.

 

“Sure. Take whatever you want. I have to go shopping with Soohyun after her nap anyway.”

 

“What are you getting?” Seulgi asks as they both rise to their feet.

 

“She needs a new winter jacket. She grew out of the one from last year.”

 

“Oh no. Does she get cold as easily as you do?”

 

“Maybe,” Joohyun mutters as she plucks the cigarette from Seulgi’s mouth and turns on her heel to follow Yerim into the restaurant. When she doesn’t hear Seulgi following her, she looks over her shoulder to see the other woman staring. Joohyun squints but the glare from the sun behind Seulgi makes it difficult to read her expression.

 

“What is it?”

 

“I just…” Seulgi bows her head for a moment as she laughs. “I missed being here. Like this.”

 

“Why? Because you always got free food at my aunt’s place?”

 

“Yeah. Yeah that’s it.”

 

They share a smile over the light-hearted lie and Joohyun lets Seulgi walk past her as her cigarette turns to ash between her fingers.

 

 


 

 

“You’re naming him what?” Joohyun asks as her daughter holds her newest stuffed animal under her arm. She bounces up and down on her feet with unbridled glee at her newest member of her menagerie.

 

“Flower,” Soohyun replies simply. Joohyun fights a smile as she stares ahead at the crosswalk, letting her daughter swing their hands. She glances down and finds Soohyun staring up at her with such a deliriously jubilant grin that she finds her eyes shifting away to their clasped hands instead.

 

“Why would you name a rabbit Flower, Soohyun-ah?”

 

“Because every butterfly needs a flower! Nabi and Flower are going to best friends!”

 

“I thought they were brother and sister,” Joohyun gently interjects.

 

“They’re both!”

 

“I wish I was that close to my brother,” comes a familiar voice from behind them.

 

“Oh, Ms. Kang!”

 

Joohyun jerks and glances over her shoulder to see a sheepish Seulgi. She looks a little less put together out of her work clothes on this Sunday evening, clad in loose jeans and a khaki jacket to ward off the chill creeping into fall.

 

“You’re always popping up out of nowhere,” mutters Joohyun with a slight frown.

 

“It’s hard not to. It’s a small town.”

 

“You didn’t used to.”

 

Seulgi half smiles as they regard each other before they’re compelled to move by the beeping of the crosswalk. Joohyun lets herself be tugged forward and Seulgi easily walks on the other side of Soohyun.

 

“So your new friend’s name is Flower?” asks Seulgi with a finger pointed at the stuffed rabbit under Soohyun’s arm.

 

“Yep! Grandpa got him for me!”

 

“I like that. It suits him.”

 

Joohyun’s eyes inevitably are pulled to Seulgi’s smiling face and it makes her teeth clench.

 

“You visited your parents then?”

 

“Yeah. My sister visited, too.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yeah. I mentioned how you were in town. And she wasn’t surprised since you apparently called her before you arrived.”

 

Seulgi glances up quickly before looking away.

 

“I guess you didn’t lose all of our phone numbers. After you left.”

 

“Unnie, I-”

 

“Mommy, can I watch TV before I go to bed tonight?”

 

“Only for one hour,” Joohyun instructs as she tightens her grip on Soohyun’s hand. The girl nods seriously, adjusting her stuffed rabbit in her arms.

 

They all walk in silence, past Seulgi’s bus stop to get home and to the front of Joohyun’s restaurant. She pulls her keys from her pocket and ignores Seulgi just standing there forlornly as Soohyun walks ahead of her. She and Seulgi hang back at the threshold of the door, listening to the sound of Soohyun’s footsteps against the stairs.

 

“Unnie.”

 

“What?” She glances over and sees Seulgi looking at her with big wet eyes. It reminds her of the first and last time she’d ever harshly scolded Seulgi in a moment of annoyance as an irritable high schooler. She’ll never forget the physical ache in her chest from making the other girl cry.

 

“You’re upset with me.”

 

“Why would you say that?”

 

Seulgi swallows as she rocks on her feet with her hands in the pockets of her coat.

 

“You don’t think I can tell when you’re upset?”

 

“You’ve been gone for a long time. It’s possible.”

 

“Is that why? You’re mad because I left town for a while?”

 

Joohyun clenches her jaw as she meets Seulgi’s even gaze.

 

“10 years is much longer than a while.”

 

“Unnie.”

 

“You just left. And then suddenly you come back after ten years and try to pretend like we can start where we left off?”

 

Seulgi swallows as her eyes undeniably fill with tears.

 

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I just wanted to be with you and-”

 

“Do you know what it’s like to have someone you care about one day stop talking to you? To just throw away years of your life like it was nothing?”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Mm. Sure.”

 

Joohyun looks down at her own hands, clenched so tightly around her keys that her palm hurts.

 

“Was there a reason you did that?”

 

“What?”

 

“Was there a reason you decided that I wasn’t worth keeping in contact with for the past ten years?”

 

“Unnie. There wasn’t a-”

 

Joohyun stops the lie with a look. Seulgi swallows and shifts on her feet, glancing toward the ocean. Her profile is something Joohyun can’t help but admire, her dark hair ruffled from the wind and her face pink from the cold and unshed tears.

 

“It was easier to do that than to… to tell you what I was feeling,” Seulgi mumbles, each word sounding like it’s being physically pulled out of her.

 

“What‘s that supposed to mean?”

 

But Seulgi is silent, eyes still on the sea as she seems unable or unwilling to meet Joohyun’s gaze.

 

“Well. It doesn’t matter anymore I suppose. You’re allowed to do whatever you want. Don’t feel bad for my sake.”

 

Seulgi bows her head and wipes at her face as Joohyun looks away.

 

“I’m going inside.”

 

“Okay.”

 

“Get home safely,” Joohyun says on reflex, the words sounding hollow.

 

“Sure. I’ll see you later, Unnie.”

 

With a nod Joohyun turns away first and walks into the restaurant. When she closes the door behind her, she presses her back against the hard surface. She tips back her head and she closes her eyes with a long suffering sigh. Raising a hand, she grips the collar of her own shirt as her chest seems to throb with the physical ache of something like regret.

 

 


 

 

It’s a Friday evening and as usual the restaurant is bustling. Yerim and Joohyun nearly run into each other several times as they rush in and out of the kitchen to serve rowdy fisherman and commuter workers from the POSCO steel mill.

 

“Miss, 2 bottles of soju and the mackerel stew for 5 people please!”

 

“Okay!” Joohyun practically yells as she nabs two bottles of soju by their necks and shuts the door to the small refrigerator with her hip. She drops the drinks at the table and rushes over to the kitchen.

 

“I’m going to die,” mutters Yerim with gritted teeth as she hacks at a chicken with a chef’s knife. Joohyun just scoffs as she gets on her knees to grab a large pot in a drawer. She’s grateful that her sister is babysitting Soohyun at her parent’s house, a favor she does every Friday after college classes. Soohyun likes the sleepovers as Joohyun’s family dotes on the little girl and gives her too many sweets and toys to Joohyun's dismay.

 

“Not before you finish off your shift.”

 

Yerim huffs as Joohyun walks past her with a grain, opening the kitchen door with her shoulder.

 

It’s as she glances outside of the restaurant that she sees a lone figure slumped against the stone wall separating the road from the beach. Joohyun nearly burns a customer’s hands by spilling the boiling stew before she refocuses and adjusts the heat of the gas cannister. Squinting, she walks up to the window. Under the flickering street light, the woman turns and Joohyun stills.

 

It’s Seulgi.

 

Joohyun frowns as she finds herself pressing up against the glass, trying to see what exactly the other woman is doing. As she watches her trip on her feet and fall against the wall, Joohyun realizes she must be drunk.

 

“Yerim-ah, I need to go out for a sec.”

 

“Unnie, what?”

 

“Cover for me?” Joohyun asks with a look over her shoulder that doesn’t allow for argument. She’s out the door, eyes watering from the night chill as the sound of crashing waves fill her ears. She halfheartedly glances both ways before crossing the street to Seulgi’s side. The other woman has slumped against the stone wall, arms wrapped around it in an awkward embrace. For a moment Joohyun pauses, watching the other woman’s back. It’s been nearly a week since she last saw Seulgi so close.

 

It’s funny how even just a short time tears at the phantom wound of nearly ten years of separation.

 

“Kang Seulgi,” Joohyun says softly, watching how Seulgi’s shoulders stiffen. She almost smiles at the way Seulgi clumsily shifts her weight to glance over at Joohyun with a dopey grin.

 

“Oh, Unnie! Unnie, hi!”

 

Joohyun forces her face to be neutral as she steps closer, reaching for one of Seulgi’s arms still clutching the dirty stone wall.

 

“What are you doing out here? It’s cold.”

 

“I wanted to go for a walk.”

 

“After drinking?” Joohyun asks pointedly.

 

“I wanted to go for a walk. To see you.”

 

Joohyun frowns as Seulgi sways forward, the flickering light of the old street lamp above them making her pale cheeks have an orangish hue. Seulgi’s wide brown eyes flit over Joohyun’s face for a long moment before she smiles.

 

“You wanted the truth from me.”

 

“The truth?”

 

“About why I left and never called you.”

 

Joohyun swallows, nervous at the sudden seriousness in Seulgi’s voice. She glances down as she reaches for Seulgi’s sleeve, tightly gripping the loose fabric of her sweater.

 

“We should go inside. You shouldn’t be wandering around drunk.”

 

“Unnie.”

 

“Come on, let’s go inside.”

 

Seulgi sighs and the sound makes Joohyun look up in confusion. The other woman is staring at her, gaze strangely sharp.

 

“Why won’t you let me tell you how I feel?”

 

“Because telling me whatever it is you want to seems unfair right now. I don’t… I don’t want you to regret it.”

 

“How could I regret anything about you, Unnie?”

 

Joohyun looks away at the words, too sweet with soju and crisp moonlight. She tugs again at the burgundy fabric of Seulgi’s sweater.

 

“Come home with me. You can rest there and then later you can tell me whatever you want.”

 

Seulgi seems to contemplate the offer for a long moment, her gaze unwavering in an unfamiliar way that has Joohyun wonder what the past ten years has done to the girl who’d trailed behind her for most of her life. Finally, she looks off towards the sea.

 

“Do you remember when you took me to have my first drink when I graduated high school?”

 

“Mm. We walked along the beach until dawn.”

 

Seulgi smiles.

 

“I think that’s the happiest I’ve ever been.”

 

Joohyun thinks of Seulgi’s warm hand in hers, giggling as they bumped into each other and walked along the craggy seashore. The memory smelled like salt and saccharinely sweet flavored soju.

 

“It made me happy, too.”

 

Seulgi smiles at the words and finally turns back to face Joohyun.

 

“It’s because I liked you. That’s why I ran away.”

 

“What?”

 

“The reason why I couldn’t come back here anymore. It’s because it hurt too much to see you getting married. Unnie, I liked you so much and I was trying to be good. I-” Seulgi stammers, tears in her eyes as tightly grips the rock wall. Joohyun’s heart pounds in her ears as she lets herself listen to Seulgi’s choked confession. She drops her hand from Seulgi’s arm.

 

“I wanted to do the right thing. I tried to be supportive and be by your side but after a while it just hurt too much. And I didn’t know what to do with myself. So I just… I just disappeared.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I wasn’t brave enough to do anything else.”

 

Joohyun swallows.

 

“Seulgi-yah.”

 

“Did you know that I called you once? It was right when you were about to get married. I got drunk with some friends from college and I had to call you. I was going to apologize and try to go to the wedding.”

 

Joohyun swallows, remembering how she’d known just by the sound of the other girl’s breath on the other line. It’d only been barely a year since she’d heard from Seulgi. The sadness that had transformed into hurt seemed to dissipate in an instant when Joohyun could almost hear the words trapped in Seulgi’s mouth.

 

“You said my name just once and I hung up. And then I knew that I couldn’t go to the wedding because I was still in love with you.”

 

Joohyun glances up at the words, seeing how unwavering Seulgi’s eyes are. The steadfast set of warms something in Joohyun’s chest that she’d long buried in unsent letters in a box collecting dust in her closet.

 

“What made you come back then?”

 

Seulgi dares a step forward and Joohyun stands still, letting the other woman gently grip her shoulders with warm hands. Joohyun tips her head back, her bangs falling into her eyes as she continues to meet Seulgi’s gaze.

 

“I heard about the temporary posting here and I didn’t want to stay away anymore. I wanted…”

 

Joohyun reaches upward and places a hand right above Seulgi’s collarbone. She’s afraid of what Seulgi may say next.

 

“Seulgi-yah. Let’s go inside, hm?”

 

The other woman’s jaw clenches at the words.

 

“Unnie. Please.”

 

Joohyun swallows hard when Seulgi brings her hand up to cover Joohyun’s. Her eyes sting and it’s not from the cold anymore.

 

“Did what I say upset you?” Seulgi asks softly, eyes flitting up to meet Joohyun’s briefly before flicking back to the ground. Her eyelashes look so soft, Joohyun thinks absently.

 

“No. Were you afraid it would?”

 

“I thought you’d hate me.”

 

“Oh Seulgi-yah, how could I ever hate you for sharing something like that with me?”

 

Joohyun ducks her head a little to meet the other woman’s eyes. It’s familiar, something she’d done with Seulgi since they were little to figure out what was wrong before she’d start crying. But Joohyun doesn’t have to lean her hands on her knees to match Seulgi’s shorter height. Now Seulgi is taller and looks up at her with hunched shoulders.

 

“Do you really mean that, Unnie?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Seulgi nods at the words, smiling slightly.

 

“Okay.”

 

Joohyun exhales softly and starts to move her hand but Seulgi keeps it over her chest.

 

“I missed the way you looked by the sea,” Seulgi whispers softly, as if she’s afraid to let her voice carry over the sloshing sound of waves against shale.

 

Joohyun stills at the way Seulgi looks at her, want creasing the corners of her eyes and the purse of . Joohyun wonders if her own face reflects the same look, nurtured over years of denial and separation.

 

“I…I wrote you letters that I never sent.”

 

Seulgi blinks slowly at the words, ragged like a confession.

 

“Why didn’t you send them?”

 

“The words were… something I shouldn’t have felt. Or shared with anyone. Especially you.”

 

Joohyun feels her eyes burn as Seulgi silently brings her hand up to and gently brushes her lips against Joohyun’s knuckles. The gesture makes Joohyun want to press her face against Seulgi’s collar and feel her familiar warmth.

 

“I’m sorry I left you alone for so long, Unnie.”

 

They look at a each other and Joohyun almost feels drunk enough to do something she has only thought of in secret.

 

But then a car honks and they jolt away as the headlights of a rickety Kia flash before speeding past them. Joohyun forces her head to turn and follow the white car disappear from sight, knowing looking at Seulgi now will be unbearable.

 

“What do we do now, Unnie?”

 

Joohyun continues to look out into the distance of the hazy silhouettes of dark houses and distant hills.

 

“I don’t know,” she admits for once.

 

“Okay.”

 

Joohyun can hear the smile in Seulgi’s voice and it makes her glance at the other woman.

 

“Come home with me,” she blurts out before she can think. The proposal has both of them blushing, Seulgi ducking her head and Joohyun looking away sharply.

 

“We… you can wait up in my apartment for a little while. Soohyun’s at my parent’s place for the night. I’ll be done with work soon and then we can talk more.”

 

“And watch the sunrise together maybe?”

 

Joohyun mouth curves upward at the tentative question.

 

She nods and Seulgi smiles.

 

 


 

 

Dear Seulgi-

 

I can feel the years pass without you everywhere but at the seashore.

 

Everything is changing without you. Granny Choi moved her dalgona stall to be closer to her son’ s restaurant because her hip bothers her. Yerim graduated middle school and her uniform has that ribbon I always had to tie for you. My aunt finally retired and I’ m taking over the restaurant.

 

The passage of time feels like you leaving me all over again.

 

But when I walk along the beach, I see you in the footprints of school girls walking home from hakwon. I smell you in the salt of the sea. I feel you in the sand where we used to build castles when we were small.

 

I remember you most when I watch sunrises on the beach. Sometimes I close my eyes and it s like I can feel you by my side. If I had known our sunrises together were numbered, maybe I d have looked at you instead.

 

I think about how many times I should have been looking at you so that you could disappear more slowly from my memory.

 

With every year that passes I think the likelihood of us meeting again becomes slimmer and slimmer. But maybe five, ten years from now we will see each other again.

 

And I hope that then we can watch a sunrise together.

 

Maybe then I will be brave enough to tell you the things I realized too late.

 

Stay healthy and make sure to not skip your meals.

 

Until we meet again-

Joohyun Unnie

 

 

 

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