The sound was perfect.
Sun Jae expected nothing else even from a rental piano. Still, he had barely taken the time to take off his shoes in the entrance before making his way into the living room and check the freshly tuned instrument.
"I love Paris, but I can't with the cab drivers. Why can we never find one who actually speaks English?" Da Mi whined as she brought her suitcase and his. "And thank you for your help."
Sun Jae smiled and walked up to her. Her frown didn't resist to the soft kiss he placed on her cheek. "Thank you for the apartment, thank you for the piano and thank you for taking care of everything. As always."
She playfully hit him. "I'm going to get settled in. Do you want to go out for dinner or..."
"Well..." Sun Jae glanced at the piano.
"Fine. Go on and play. I'll go out to get us something to eat."
"I'll take care of mine," he said, reaching for his suitcase. She ignored him and disappeared in the hallway leading to the bedrooms.
All Sun Jae had to do was to play and that's what he did, stress and exhaustion momentarily forgotten until Da Mi came back an hour later with dinner.
"Korean food!" Sun Jae said as she set the meals on the coffee table. "You didn't have to."
"I know." She slapped his wrist before he could pick up a slice of danmuji. "Wash your hands."
In more ways than one, Da Mi had been a mother to him in the past ten years. The deal had been for her to get her college diploma, so he could hire her as his overseas manager. People allegedly wanting his best interest kept telling him it was a crazy idea, especially when she repeated the first year. Still, Sun Jae knew that this part of his own scholarship he sent her every month was a good investment. Behind the now 30-year-old elegant business woman, the teenage girl who could drink up to three bottles of soju and beat him up in high school was still here. And she never missed an occasion to remind him where he came from. This was something priceless.
"You have a rehearsal tomorrow morning for the gala concert. Be ready at 9. You have three interviews in the afternoon. Then another rehearsal at 8...," Da Mi said, reading her tablet while nibbling at her plate. "Since the gala at the Korean Embassy is the day after tomorrow I can get you a fitting session for a new Armani suit in the morning, if you want."
"You know how I feel about that."
"All your suits are from last year's collection and we want you to look at your finest." She briefly looked up. "You can wear this one for many other occasions anyway. I'm getting you the fitting session, but we'll probably have to go in very early. Also, have you thought about the deal with the-"
"This will be my last concert before a year at least."
"I know, but it would be a great opportunity for you. The New York Philharmonic wants you for five concerts. Do you realize what it means?"
"I told you. Moscow last week, Paris this week and this is it."
"It's the New York Philharmonic."
"I know, but I won't take their offer. I can't."
"More like you don't want to."
Da Mi sighed and looked away. Sun Jae only managed to force down three spoonful of rice before the unspoken reproach got to him again. Her ambition for him was what had given him his career, but he had made it clear that it wouldn't be always his priority.
"You know it's time," he said.
"You're not even sure she will come out," she replied, meeting his gaze.
"It's the end of her sentence. Why wouldn't she?"
"I don't know. It could happen."
"Come on. She's in there for fraud, not for murder. And she didn't cause any trouble all this time. She will be released next month."
"And so you're just going to stop your career because she's out of prison?"
"I'm not retiring, I'm just taking a break. I, we both need a break. We've spent the year in Europe and we've been traveling for the past five years. Don't you want to go home and rest for a while?"
There was no answer but the slam of her bedroom door. Going after her would be useless since she didn't seem ready to listen. Besides, nothing she would say to convince him he was making the wrong decision would be new to him. People changed in ten years. Was any promise made when he was still a naïve 20-year-old student still valid today? Was he taking such a big risk to stray away from everything he had built?
Sun Jae put the leftovers in the refrigerator and went to take a shower. Jet lag was started getting to him. Still, he knocked on Da Mi's door just in case she wanted to talk.
"Good night," he said to the closed door and went to bed, Da Mi's words still echoing in his mind. If he had managed to come this far was because he knew the tunnel would end one day. And Hye Won felt the same way. At least, she used to. There was no sign of her usual hopeful tone in the most recent letters of hers he kept in his suitcase. She hadn't even replied to his suggestions about what they would do once she'd be out of prison. So, Sun Jae asked again. It seemed as if writing about their near future made it more real.
July 1st 2024.
Only one month until the end of the countdown.
The next morning, Da Mi had accepted to post the letter without a word. In fact, she didn't talk to him more than what it was necessary for the next two days. Pacing up and down the room the Korean Embassy had turned into a dressing room for him, Sun Jae did some breathing exercises.
Da Mi walked in. She seemed stressed, just like every time he had to go on stage. She gave him a light smile. "Are you sure you don't want to wear the jacket?" she asked.
Sun Jae checked his reflection in the full-length mirror. While he had learned to follow some conventions his status of a concert pianist required, wearing a white shirt and black trousers was now his trademark. "I'll be fine. You?"
She nodded. "I'll see you when it's over." She took a deep breath and raised her fist. "Fighting!"
Sun Jae exhaled deeply as the door closed. She would always be here for him. He smiled at himself and took out the handkerchief Hye Won had given him years ago for his first concert. She was always with him too.
The concert was a success. The applause still rang in Sun Jae's ears as Da Mi and he walked into his apartment at two in the morning. She hadn't said a word during the ride. That's why Sun Jae accepted a final glass of champagne before going to bed.
"What should we toast to?" he asked as he raised his glass.
"My resignation. I quit."
Sun Jae's little laugh turned short when Da Mi didn't even crack a smile. "You're kidding, right? What do you mean you quit? You can't quit."
"You won't need me anymore."
"Well..." Sun Jae had to sit down on the sofa. "It's not because you're not actually working as my manager that... I told you I'm just taking a break. I still need you to make sure I have a career to return to."
"Anyone can do what I do."
"But I don't want anyone else."
"You don't know how I wished you meant those words," she said, quickly wiping her tears. "I can't do this anymore. I just... I'm done waiting for you."
And here they were again. If Sun Jae had to ignore the signals the first year they started working together, Da Mi seemed to have moved on from the crush she had on him since high school. He walked up to her. "I'm really sorry if I said or did something to lead you on."
"You didn't. You never did. It's my fault," she said with a bitter smile. "Old habits die hard, I guess."
"Don't say you're sorry. Don't fucking say it." She stepped away from the hug Sun Jae tried to give her. "I'm fine. I'll be fine."
She took off her earrings and untied her bun, letting her hair down. If it weren't for her gown and her light make up, this would have been the Da Mi from high school. So many things had happened since then and others didn't. They never would. Sun Jae sighed again, unable to figure out what to say. Da Mi finally smiled. "I wanted to thank you, though. I never did... So, thank you. Thank you for everything you did for me."
He gently grabbed her arm before she could turn away. "So what now?"
"You go to her and I'll just... live my life."
"But we're still friends, right?"
He let her kiss his cheek but slightly stepped back when her mouth drifted close to his lips. "Yeah, you will always be my best friend," were Da Mi's last words to him.
Her letter of resignation on the coffee table was the only thing left of her when Sun Jae woke up the next morning. He tried to call her cell phone and was sent to voicemail. It was time for her to start making her own choices in life.
"I'm back," Sun Jae whispered in the entrance of the small apartment.
Since he had left to study abroad, he had stayed at a hotel the few times he had come back to Korea. Somehow, it didn't feel right to be here with the happy memories. Nothing had changed. Except maybe for the eggs boxes he had stuck on the mezzanine walls to soundproof the main room that wouldn't be very effective now. The one he touched fell on the floor at once.
"I had to park all the way down the street," Sang Ho complained as he stepped in. "What's up with everyone in this street getting their delivery today?"
In his business suit, Sang Ho was now everything the sweet talker he used to be had to lie about to pick up girls. Helping out the ajumma who owned the restaurant downstairs he had put together a delivery service a couple of months after Sun Jae had left Korea the first time. With the right promotion, he had managed to launch three other restaurants in Seoul and was planning to open one in Busan next month.
"See? Told you I had someone to clean twice a week, but everything is just the same, right?" Sang Ho asked, looking around as if it was his biggest accomplishment.
"It's nice. Thank you." Sun Jae removed the white sheet covering the piano. The chords were still in good state and the exterior must have been cleaned once in a while too. All pianos around the world would never be as precious as his very first one. Brushing the keys, he got startled by Sang Ho who had joined him. "You said something?"
"I asked what you were planning to do with this place. I mean, you're not planning to move back in here, right?"
"Then why did you make me buy you a house last year, then?"
"Just in case."
"Just in case of..." Their eyes met. Sang Ho cleared his throat. "Look, I didn't want to bring this up because you came back just a week ago and I understand you need to rest, but... Well, are you really sure this is what you want?"
"You sound like Da Mi," Sun Jae sighed and put back the sheet on the piano. "Any news from her, by the way?"
"She's staying at the RH Hotel and still refuses to tell me what happened between the two of you. And yes I want to know, but don't change the subject."
"What do you expect me to say?"
"It's been ten years. What if... things aren't just the same anymore? I mean, if she didn't want you to visit her..."
Sun Jae sighed. "I don't think this is any of your business, but I don't have the answer. All I know is that Hye Won is coming out of prison next week and I will be there. And I really don't care if you or anyone else has a problem with that."
"Hey, I'm on your side. All I was trying to say was... As a friend, I think you shouldn't get your hopes up."
"Thank you, friend" Sun Jae replied, slightly bumping into him as he left the mezzanine.
This was it.
The moment he had been living for. Sun Jae checked his watch as if it would make time go faster. He made sure the collar of his polo shirt was straight, smoothed out his jeans and looked at his watch again. The summer sky was cloudless which Sun Jae decided was a good sign. The prison door opened.
Time seemed to still as she stood there, holding a small duffle bag. Her now silver hair gave away her age, although her blouse and jeans showed off her unchanged thin figure. Her gaze was still piercing as ever, reading him like an open book.
Sun Jae took the first step and Hye Won still didn't move. She let him come to her. Now that they were close, the gap between them seemed wider as she didn't return his smile.
"I brought you this," he said as a form of greeting and took a piece of tofu out of a plastic bag. "I didn't know if you'd like it, but I thought... It's okay if you don't want it," he quietly sighed.
This wasn't the scenario where he'd look cool and Hye Won would at least be happy to see him.
"I'm going to throw it away," he added.
"Don't." It was just a whisper. Hye Won's face slightly lit up as she carefully chewed a small piece of tofu. "Thank you."
This was the encouragement Sun Jae needed to grab her bag and smiled when she showed no resistance. "My car is parked over here." No words were exchanged until they were sitting, seat belt on. "Is there somewhere you want to go first?"
"Anywhere is fine." And she closed her eyes, sparing him another attempt of failing at a new discussion.
Hye Won didn't say a word about the car. The tour of the house, not even the garden, didn't trigger a reaction from her. Her only comment was for the music room she only looked at from the threshold and called "nice".
"I've got a room arranged for you," Sun Jae stuttered as they climb up the stairs to the first floor. Not that he hadn't hoped of another arrangement for the night. Their first night together. "The master's bedroom is down the hall. This is where... I sleep." He cleared his throat and opened her room's door. "I took the liberty to buy you new clothes. They're in the closet. And you have your own bathroom too."
She slowly walked around the room and stopped by the glass door leading to the balcony overlooking the garden. She smiled at him as he placed her bag by the bed. "This is nice. Thank you."
"So... Hm, can I get you something? Would you like something to drink or eat? Maybe?"
"I'd like to rest a little if that's okay with you..."
"Sure! Of course. Would you like me to put the AC on?"
"I just want to rest. Alone?" she carefully added.
"Sure. I understand. I'll just... Well, I'll be around. Just call me if you need anything."
Sun Jae managed not to run out of the room. He had to lean on the closed the door to gather himself. No one said it would be easy.
Playing the piano didn't keep Sun Jae at ease. Listening to music either. Wandering in the house, he tried to figure out how to break the ice. Dark clouds were rolling in as the sun was setting down when he found himself back at her door. After a light knock, he opened it wide enough to spot Hye Won sleeping, curled up on the bed. She looked fragile and nothing like the stern director of planning of the Seohan Arts Foundation he didn't even dare to look at back in the day. Who was this woman who had been out of his life for ten years and didn't seem to want to come back?
Dinner was almost ready when Hye Won joined him in the kitchen.
"Thank you for the dress," she said. Her hair was still partially wet from the shower she had taken, but she seemed a little bit more like the sophisticated woman Sun Jae never stopped thinking of.
"I wasn't sure about the size."
"It's fine. I guess it helps that my diet was pretty much the same for the past ten years." She smiled at what must have been a horrified look. "Did I say something wrong?"
"No," Sun Jae quietly replied, glancing down. "I made you spaghettis... But I can cook you something else if you want to."
She sat at the island. "So you even know about foreign food now. My little Sun Jae is definitely a man."
Her tone was amused but somehow condescending, pretty much like the one she used when she gave him piano lessons. And Sun Jae couldn't let it go when she smiled once again at his wine offer.
He turned off the hob and left his apron on the island as he sat on the stool next to her, placing a glass of wine in front of her. "You don't have to make fun of me, you know?" he commented, raising his glass for a toast.
"I'm not..." The sound of their clinging glasses was deafening. "I'm just admiring what you've become."
"And you don't like it?"
"I'm happy for you."
"It's not what I asked."
Hye Won ignored him and downed her glass. "What was the question?"
"How about going for a ride?"
For the first time, she seemed unsettled. There was no question asked as she finished his glass of wine and stood up. "Let's go."
By the time they arrived at his apartment an hour later, a storm was raging. The first minutes back in the place that had allowed them to love each other were spent getting their hair dry with a towel and moving around boxes to create a space to sit down.
When Sun Jae came back from the restaurant downstairs with beers and bibimbap take outs, she was nowhere in sight. "Hye Won?" he called out, wondering if she had actually left. Her shoes weren't here.
He called again as he quickly made his way to the rooftop. She was there, standing at the open door. The storm was moving away from the city.
"Call me again," she finally said when he came to stand behind her. "My name. Say it again."
"Hye Won..." He carefully embraced her from behind as he noticed her shivering under the night breeze. "We should go back down or you'll catch a cold."
The tension in her body seemed to ease after a few seconds. And she even placed her hands over his. "What am I going to do?"
"We'll figure it out."
"We? You have your life ahead of you. Do you really want to waste it with a 50-year-old ex-convict like me?"
Sun Jae turned her around and caressed her face. He had noticed a couple of wrinkles earlier, but his hands still remembered her. He tilted her chin up. "You're Oh Hye Won, the strongest, smartest, the most courageous and sexiest woman I've ever known."
Despite her tears, tears she seemed to have hold in way too long, she still managed to let out a little laugh as she held him tighter. He let her cry, soothing her with a caress on her back until she calmed down. When she stepped away, he held her hand and led her back to the apartment. The bibimbap was cold, but she ate as if it were the most delicious meal of her life.
"I don't know how to feel considering how you refused to eat the food I cooked," he said, smiling when Hye Won spilled her beer as she burst out laughing. "There you go making fun of me again."
"I didn't make fun of you. And I just wasn't expecting to see you wearing an apron."
"I hear women find it sexy, though." Her face turned serious at once. "I'm sorry, I don't know why I said that."
"It's okay. I can't say it's not true. You did look sexy," she added with a teasing smile taking a sip of her beer. She cleared her throat. "Did you... Have you been with other women? I wouldn't blame you if you have," she quickly added, cutting off his answer. "You should have."
"Do you really want to know?" He slid closer when Hye Won nodded and put her beer aside. "I'd be lying if I said there was no occasion... But they meant absolutely nothing."
"And they were not that many."
"I get it. Really. I don't even know why I asked. It was stupid of me."
"Are you disappointed?"
"I'm not judging you. I have no right to." Her eyes fluttered closed as Sun Jae's hand drifted from her hair to her neck.
"There's no one to tell you what you should do, say or feel. If you're mad at me, say it. If you're jealous, say it."
"What will it change anyway? Besides, women never admit when they're jealous," she quietly said, brushing his cheek with the back of her hand. "I've missed you, but it's been so long..."
"The past is the past. I'm here now. And I want to be here for you, but you will have to let me to."
There was nothing light about the kiss she gave him, a promise to give it a try. "I need time," she said, slightly out of breath.
Sun Jae nodded, scooting away. They avoided looking at each other. "I'm just going to throw this away," he finally said, picking up the plastic bowls and empty cans. The fresh air of the night helped him to cool down. He stopped in the entrance at the sight of Hye Won at the piano.
Her fingers were hesitant on the keys as she switched between melodies, skipping parts before she could make mistakes. It was a good thing he had replaced the eggs boxes. She played for about five minutes before she noticed his presence.
"I'm awful," she said with a smile.
"A little rusty." He sat by her side on the piano stool. "You just need some practice."
"Oh, who's the teacher now?" she teased him, bumping shoulders with him. "So how much should I pay to hear the famous Lee Sun Jae play?"
"You can't afford me."
She laughed, yet the melody she played was melancholic. Sun Jae listened for a few seconds and played along. Somehow, the tempo picked up. Their music connection seemed as strong as it used to be.
"What if it doesn't work?" she asked out of the blue as Sun Jae fixed a doodles-filled "pianist for beginners" repertory in front of them. He straightened his back like she had taught him and started playing. Hye Won took over from the second bar, letting Sun Jae improvise the accompaniment.
"Seems to me that it's still working," he commented, turning the first page. "One thing at a time?"
Hye Won smiled but didn't stop playing. And neither did he.