When Stories End
Due to bamthegreat’s insistent private demand.
This story begins as Choi Sooyoung leaves her shoes by the footbridge and recites a broken prayer as she continues barefoot. With the creases of her dress drawn up to her knees and the sunlight reaching for the shades of brown in her hair, she treads softly across the field of shy peonies and dancing dandelions and wonders why the earth felt cool under the mid-summer sun.
The meadow, the spring gurgling under the bridge, and the faint sweet smell of the breeze all shared her secret.
They met one snowless winter— in a dingy jazz bar with red brick walls and tall silver stools, and a flickering neon sign that spelled Club Clarinet in fluorescent and green. She mixed drinks behind the counter while he sat on the other side, scoring phone numbers from girls in unorthodox clothing.
Shim Changmin was liberal. In a suede jacket and what could possibly be the tightest pair of blue jeans the city has ever sold, he stood distinct and proud. He cautiously sipped his mint julep to feign an air of vulnerability, but wore a private smile that lured random girls to take a nearby seat. He was handsome and compelling, and Sooyoung instantly wondered why he hung around hidden stakeouts.
Changmin caught her watching him shred the numbers waiting to be dialed. He tipped his glass in her direction, and she blushed like a schoolgirl spotted skipping class.
“Dance with me.”
Sooyoung hesitated for a long while, gripping the empty Tabasco bottle from a recent batch of Bloody Mary’s. Still, she ended up with Changmin’s tongue grazing her lips and his hand along the contour of her spine. The alley was dark and uninviting and abandoned, but Changmin did not try anything stupid.
He, instead, passed the main entrance while she slipped in through the back. She let him watch her mix drinks until the bar closed for the night. He said goodbye with a wink and a shrug, and promptly left her curious why he didn’t leave a name.
The unlit alley remained condescending and silent, but the smell of mint and lady’s perfume lingered.
The next night (and all nights after that), Changmin didn’t order a mint julep. He chugged his Budweiser like a debutante’s escort after a long night of waltzing and shaking hands with beefy businessmen. He pretended to stack salted pretzels while imposing conversations during happy hour.
Sooyoung kept a sprig of mint in the pocket of her apron, just in case. She seldom looked his way, but he knew she was keeping a keen eye. Bottle after bottle, she poured and swirled, never missing a beat nor a question.
“Do you believe in love at first sight?” he had asked.
“So you’ll ask me why.”
Changmin threw his head back in laughter. His was casual and raw, and Sooyoung shared an easy laugh with her nameless customer.
“Should I take you out to dinner?”
Sooyoung didn’t falter, wrists flicking swiftly with every tilt of a bottle. The glasses came and went like a regular night’s work but when the bourbon suddenly tasted like branch water and the gin tasted just as mild, she knew she had to give a reply somehow.
“Ask me nicely,” she said.
“May I take you out to dinner?” Charming and cautious and compelling, but Changmin looked less and less like any of that. Tipping his drink towards her direction like he always did when it’s her turn to speak, Changmin looked like a regular pal.
And, so, there was dinner. Brunch, afternoon tea and movie theater buttered popcorn came soon after.
Like the gentlemen did in years gone past, Changmin would lean a shoulder against the frame of the front door to the apartment complex she lived in, looking like Hollywood in Aviators and a tiny smirk. Sooyoung, already dressed and hair put up in a bun, would peek outside her second storey window to insist that he waited inside. The receiving area smelled like marshmallows and dark chocolate over a burning fire, yet he was never kept waiting for long.
He held her hand on the first date.
Looking through courses of crayfish and creamed potatoes, Sooyoung didn’t mind. Changmin watched her eat, one spoonful after the other. Mashed potatoes and gravy smeared her mouth and chin, and she chewed with cheeks stuffed like a chipmunk’s. But it was only when he reached over to wipe the mess off her face that he was sure— it was love at first, second, third, tenth, fifteenth, a hundredth sight.
He kissed her on the second date. Quick and light and crisp, with the New Year’s wind caught in full attention as Changmin and Sooyoung said a goodbye meant for two people who were willing to be more than just friends.
“I love you.”
It took Shim Changmin eight months to tell her. The autumn leaves had begun to crumble and the day became shorter then darkness. It was almost winter again.
He wanted to tell her sooner. In the pub, between sips of his first and only mint julep. In the alley, right before that delaying kiss. In that cheeky Cajun restaurant, while bruising his hands shelling crayfish for her to eat. In the front steps of her apartment after a date, when she’d duck out the window to say goodbye. But as sooner came nearer, he comes up with nothing more to say.
Choi Sooyoung studied her boyfriend’s face. Boyfriend, she thought it was okay to call him that. He looked tired and fervent and sincere, yet there was something beyond that. She knew. She felt it.
“I love you too.”
Changmin did not want to hurt her when all she did was accept the man he didn’t want to be. He was selfish and heated and often jealous, but she thought differently. She was patient and trusting, and she calmed him with her faithful heart. She had long, dark tresses and pretty, hopeful eyes, and she was perfect.
Changmin had to break up with her when he met someone else.
He met someone stubborn, child-like and didn’t believe in poise—she was a breath of fresh air. She gave him all the things in life that are free; she gave him perked-up hello’s and hesitant goodbye’s, lingering kisses, hearty smacks on the shoulder when he makes her laugh, and tiny, unhidden burps after a full-course meal. With her, Changmin was not selfish or heated or jealous; he was the man he wanted to be.
Changmin knew that he had to break up with her when he met Sooyoung.
She was called Victoria— Vic or Tory, for those who knew her longer. Victoria wasn’t a waiter in a musty, cheap bar like Club Clarinet. She didn’t wear mismatched socks nor did she live in a five-storey walk-up.
Sooyoung was curious, and although her chest hurt to know, she rang Victoria Song’s doorbell.
“Sooyoung?” someone called through the opened door.
Victoria was an interior designer. She had thin, perfectly-shaped fingers that she waved around when she talks. She wore a cream-colored pantsuit and heels painfully high.
“Come in,” she slipped an arm through Sooyoung’s as they walked inside the hillside view condominium that was bigger than a whole floor in Sooyoung’s building.
Victoria said, “Would you like something to drink?”
“No, thank you,” she replied, voice only above a whisper.
“Cookies, then?” Victoria prodded, “I baked them, so you can’t say no.” Sooyoung hesitated, but Victoria had already fled to the kitchen.
Sooyoung watched her back dance around the small, modernized kitchen; moving swiftly from one corner to another, whistling an unfamiliar tune. She thought Victoria’s voice was the softest she has ever heard and her wide-toothed smile the brightest she has ever seen. She spoke with confidence and ease, like she always knew the right words to say. Victoria was calm and patient and trusting, and Changmin was right— she was perfect.
There Changmin stood in sweatpants and a faded college shirt. His hair was rumpled to the side and on his feet were fuzzy slippers.
“What are you doing here?” he asked.
“Changmin, be nice. She’s my guest.” Victoria cut in with a platter of cookies on a pretty china plate.
“How do you know Sooyoung?” he asked her.
“She called my ad for room renovations in the newspaper.”
It was lame, Sooyoung thought, but she didn’t have any other excuse.
“How do you know Sooyoung, Changmin?” Victoria sat, crossing her legs like in an interview.
“He’s a regular customer in the jazz bar I work at,” Sooyoung had replied, afraid of what Changmin might say.
“Changmin likes jazz?” Victoria laughed, twinkling and with a melody. Sooyoung thought that she was ridiculously beautiful even when she laughed.
Victoria stood up and walked over to Changmin, “I’m sorry for laughing, honey. But do me a favor and take a shower. You have a meeting in forty minutes. Your purple tie is dirty so…“
Sooyoung listened to Victoria’s calm voice go on and on about Changmin’s day, watching her softly rub Changmin’s shoulders and smooth his hair as she talked. She watched Changmin relax under her touch, constantly nodding after every few words.
It took Sooyoung a moment to realize that the room smelled of his perfume, not hers. Suddenly, the photographs by the fireplace made sense. And so did the gripping feeling at the pit of her stomach. It wasn’t Victoria’s apartment… it was Changmin’s.
Days turned into months, and Sooyoung continued to mix drinks and smile for tips behind the counter. Changmin still sat at the other side, stacking salted pretzels and sipping beer. But happy hour wasn’t for questions anymore because Sooyoung stopped answering them.
It was an October night when she decided to speak again. Wiping the counter clean for the night, she said “She’s perfect.”
“I don’t want perfect, Soo.”
“You don’t have to want it. She’s perfect for you.”
Changmin did not want to argue. He did not want to talk about Victoria’s sacrifices or which level of perfection she had. He just want to own the love he now had.
“Do you believe in love at first sight?”
“Because I fell in love with you.”
This story ends as Choi Sooyoung leaves her shoes by the footbridge, praying that she wouldn’t wobble or fall or unluckily faint. Her hair looks bleached under the sunlight, and the wind gathers her dress up to her knees. She continues barefoot along the path of peonies and dandelions, wondering why the soil beneath her feet wasn’t as tepid as the mid-summer sun.
The meadow, the spring gurgling under the bridge, and the faint sweet smell of the breeze all shared her secret— that she does believe in love at first sight as the man she met one snowless winter ordered a mint julep and gave her a shiver that reached her heart.
It is a love from a long time ago, yet it is a love still true. Her eyes still searched for his, her hand waiting to be held again, and the sprig of mint she kept in the pocket of her apron has never wilted. As Sooyoung walked further and further down the trail, she was sure— it was love at first, second, third, tenth, fifteenth, a hundredth sight.
And past the fluttering petals drafting through soft melody and a blur of eager smiles, there Shim Changmin stands at the end of the aisle
—watching his bride-to-be look a little less radiant than the woman he loves walking before her.