Today, Choi Sooyoung will finally meet Shim Changmin.
Three months is a long time. Three months. Twelve weeks. Ninety-five days. Two thousand two hundred eighty hours. One hundred thirty-six thousand eight hundred minutes. Eight million two-hundred eight thousand seconds. Eight thousand one. Eight thousand two. Eight thousand three. Eight thousand four. Eight thousand five…
Shim Changmin, 34. Seoul, South Korea. Current location, Hwacheon.
Choi Sooyoung, 32. Seoul, South Korea. Current location, Seoul.
When Choi Sooyoung chose to study Social Work back in university, eight out of the ten relatives who asked about her degree said that she will have difficulty finding a job after graduation. The two who said that they will support her, no matter what, were her parents.
To each relatives’ credit, she did find it difficult to get a job in line with her degree after graduation. However, working five years in the media proved to be a decent advantage in landing her current job at the United Nations Development Programme. It took her five years, yes, but her parents could never be more proud. Choi Sooyoung had found a career completely aligned with what she studied for.
“How long have you been working in UNDP, again?”
“Three years, Min.”
“And it took you three years to find me?”
Sooyoung rolled her eyes at his futile attempt to flirt and pressed the phone closer to her ear.
“And how long have you been stationed at Hwacheon?”
“I still don’t understand why you decided to continue with the military. Two years army training is enough for normal people.”
Changmin would simply snort whenever Sooyoung would bring up the said issue.
He was a student activist during his years at Korea University. He was the editor-in-chief of the school publication and was also doing well in his Journalism degree. Smart, good-looking, and disciplined. Ten out of ten people had predicted that he will be the next Sohn Sukhee in no time. Hence, the surprise and universal echo of dismay when three months after his mandatory military service, Shim Changmin enrolled at the Korea Army Officer Candidate School.
He spent sixteen weeks in the school and was sent to Yanggu afterward. Yanggu County had been a witness of many bloody battles during the Korean War and Changmin would recount each tale of valor, sacrifice, and honor he’d heard to Sooyoung on the many they’ve spent talking on the phone.
“I have two siblings. But I only have one left now.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s okay. It has been a long time. I was six when she died. How about you?”
“There’s mom, dad, my very pretty unnie, and me.”
Their conversations would span for hours. There was even one time when they talked from eight in the evening to four in the morning. Sooyoung would often worry whether Changmin’s supervisor would scold him for staying up late but Changmin would answer that no matter how late he falls asleep, he will always be awake before six in the morning.
Even before stepping there, Sooyoung already had an idea what Hwacheon looks like. Changmin had told her about its cold mountains, clear springs, friendly people, and good food. In return, Sooyoung would fill him of the latest happenings in Seoul, which district did the latest restaurant open, where her favorite indie band held an impromptu concert, and which new shop was the hit in Garosugil.
Never in her whole life had she met someone who has an almost completely different taste as hers in music, hobbies, and other things and yet be able to get along with. Changmin would then joke that someone like him is a one-in-a-million catch. Sooyoung would agree, leaving him flustered, and then he would make up for it by giving her a compliment she would shrug off nonchalantly.
It went like that, those nightly conversations, for months and more. Sometimes, there would be nights when Sooyoung would stare impatiently at her phone, waiting for a call from him that will not come. She would fall asleep with the phone clutched tightly in her hands and would wake up with a message that would erase any bad memory of the previous night.
“Good morning, Syoo. I’m back at the camp now.”
Somehow, Sooyoung had gotten used to it.
We’ll be leaving later, Changmin would tell her in a message. She would reply, Where? What time? Is this another operation? Be careful. Send me a message when you’re back.
And the answers will always come one or two mornings after. All with the same introduction, good morning, Syoo. I’m back at the camp now. He would call her, at six-thirty in the morning, and Sooyoung had learned to expect that after few nights of no communication, her succeeding mornings will include conversations with Changmin as she drives herself to work.
And for the succeeding nights after, he would tell her how the latest operation has gone through. Sooyoung sometimes thought that Changmin might have been telling her inside information more than his military officers might allow but she listened still. And with each story of an encounter, each tale of an espionage, Sooyoung received with a full heart the trust Changmin has given her.
“Are you crying again?”
“I’ve been doing my best in this job, Min. I don’t understand why this is happening!”
“Some people just have really bad personalities. They practice humanitarianism but they forget how to be humane with the people around them.”
Sooyoung never intended to tell it to him in the first place but it was him who found out. He said that she sounded quite unlike her usual cheery self and it seems like there is something that is bothering her. So, for two hours or more, Sooyoung recounted the many times one of the members of their partner organizations would make her feel useless. On how the said person would not listen to her suggestions and that when said suggestions happen to work, the partner will conveniently forget that it was Sooyoung who suggested it in the first place. She would try to mute her crying but Changmin would hear it still. And he will, time and time again, rebuild her confidence on herself and remind her that she is not worthless.
“How many girlfriends have you had?”
“Yes. Just two.”
The first one he met when he was still in university. They lasted four years. What happened? asked Sooyoung. We were too young then, was his answer. The second one he met in Yanggu four years ago. They lasted two years. You were thirty then. So, why? asked Sooyoung. It was not the right time, was his answer.
When was the right time? She would have wanted to ask that. Yet, it was Changmin’s turn to ask. So she told him how for the past thirty two years of her life, she has never met a guy who’s worth it.
“So you never had a boyfriend?”
“Oh, I’ve had some. But as I’ve said, I haven’t met a guy who’s worth it yet.”
“Hmmm… Haven’t met a guy who’s worth it, yet…”
She pondered about the answer for a minute. She has never met a guy who’s worth it yet because she has yet to meet Changmin.
”I really want to meet you.”
“I really want to meet you too.”
“Do you think I could drop by your camp when we’ll be doing a field visit to Gangwon-do?”
“Sure, why not? You can drop by anytime but I cannot promise that I’ll be there to meet you.”
“We’re always on the move right now, Syoo.”
He would always sound apologetic when it comes to the topic of a meet-up. But Sooyoung understands. The life of a soldier is almost half a life. You have one foot on the grave and you have to continuously look out for your back. Changmin admitted it gets a bit lonely in Hwacheon and that he was very grateful for the chance of meeting up with a UN personnel for a community project. To which Sooyoung cheekily added, the community project which brought us together.
Changmin let her tease him for a while before repeating his gratitude. Really, Syoo, thank you for coming into my life. Even though we just talk on the phone. It makes me a little less lonely.
It was a one-time deal, the community project in Hwacheon. And Sooyoung handling the project was by accident too, after her immediate supervisor informed her that he could not make it on the travel because of his medical condition. As Hwacheon is close to the demilitarized zone, the UNDP team has to make the necessary precautionary methods of discussing with the security sector. And that was how she got Changmin’s number.
After that, Sooyoung would often look for opportunities to go back to the place. Hoping that, by doing so, she will finally be able to meet him. The chance happened one Thursday afternoon.
“Min! I’m going to Hwacheon tomorrow!”
“Here? Wow. How?”
“There’s a new project that we’re working on!”
“That’s cool. Enjoy your trip.”
“Do you think, maybe, we can meet? I’ll be there for three days!”
“Hmm… I’m not sure, Syoo. Everyone’s rather jumpy these days. We’ve received a report and you know how I’m always on the move. I will try to go back to the camp but I cannot promise. I’m really sorry.”
On the third day, Sooyoung spent the whole day at a quaint coffee shop near the city square. She crammed up all her activities in the first two days to leave the third day vacant in case Changmin shows up. But he didn’t.
She lost count how many sighs she had heaved out and she knew that she could not blame him. He didn’t promise anything, after all. And yet, it still hurt a bit.
That night, before she left the county, she dropped by a local bookstore Changmin would often tell her about and bought a book which caught her eye: Like Lovers but Are Not.
“Good morning, Syoo. I’m back in the camp now. Are you still in Hwacheon?”
It was a mix of emotions, reading that message the morning after, but Sooyoung felt peace settle on her guts afterward. She fell asleep reading the book and the tears she shed had dried on the pages. The thought that, perhaps, she had been too pushy with everything that she forgot how she should be treating things in the first place.
Fate has brought Changmin to her by chance. And in pulling the strings to make it work faster, she might be fighting the natural way on how things should go.
She thought that, perhaps, it could also be a blow on Changmin’s pride. That instead of the idea that he, as a boy, would be the one who’d take the extra mile, she took the chance on her own.
“Good morning, Min. I’m back in Seoul now. How are you?”
“I’m really sorry I was not able to meet you. We were sent to Geundongmyeon.”
“It’s okay. It was not the time. :)”
Time. What a complicated adversary. And yet, time can also work wonders. Sooyoung believed that when the time is right, it would be much beautiful.
“Are you going somewhere this Christmas?”
“No. I’ll be stuck at home. My sister is bringing mom and dad to Paris and I’m not coming.”
“I was just wondering.”
“Uhm, Syoo. Well… do you want to spend Christmas with me?”
He was not going home to Seoul for the holidays but Changmin said he has talked to their battalion commander about having someone visit him on the camp for Christmas. Sooyoung argued that his quarters are small and that there is only a room for two people. She reminded him how he would often say that he does not like anyone sitting on his bed. Changmin laughed and said that she could take the bed for herself and he will sleep on the floor.
“You’re not joking, right?”
“I’m not joking.”
“I’m really going to spend Christmas there?”
“Yep. Bring thicker clothes though. Winter is especially harsh in these areas. I don’t want you to catch a cold.”
It was never explicitly said and yet, Sooyoung felt that there was something. That perhaps, this could lead to something more. Something tangible.
“It’s raining hard in Seoul now.”
“I’ll hug you, Syoo.”
“Nothing. Don't forget your umbrella.”
She had been so accustomed to him; so familiar like a hand to a glove, that she had long stopped trying to screen her words and habits whenever she talks to him.
“How was your day, dear?”
“Oh, just the normal. Someone burned a hole on BattComm’s uniform this morning so he was in a bad mood the entire day.”
She slapped her mouth no sooner than she said the word ‘dear’ but Changmin reacted as if he was used to the word. It should be something she should be wary about. And yet, she isn’t.
“Have you eaten breakfast yet?”
“I’m currently eating now.”
“I’m eating now.”
“While I’m talking to you?!”
“Syoo, every time you talk to me, I do things simultaneously. Eating, exercising, washing my face, brushing my teeth, taking a bath…”
“B-b-but how come I can’t hear you doing all that?”
“Well, if you can. That means I’m not a good enough soldier.”
Changmin’s habits would rub unto her too. Sometimes, he would reinforce them by commanding her to do so, albeit jokingly. Drink milk, it’s good for the body. Load up on vegetables. Exercise! Changmin’s voice would echo in her mind the entire day. Sure, she was changing. And she knew in her heart it was for the better.
“Choose between a square, circle, triangle, and a zigzag. Don’t tell me your answer yet!”
“Okay? What is this? A psychological test?”
“Yes. This is Module One.”
Module One Test Results for Shim Changmin are the following: square for the shape, blue for favorite color, and dog as favorite pet. He explained his answers by saying that square gives an idea of balance and fairness, blue is the color of peace, and that dogs are loyal and intelligent. Changmin then went on a lengthy explanation on the correlation between loyalty and intelligence. He said that, an intelligent mind is a loyal mind because it is not easily swayed on its principles and opinions. Also, a loyal person will take time to think about something before s/he decides on it.
Sooyoung tried to tone down her excitement when she told him that the shape represents a person’s personality especially in dealing with others. Hence, Changmin is a person who strives for justice and fairness. He is very organized and systematic. He stands up for what he thinks is right even if it will hurt other people’s feelings. The color represents how the person wants the world to see him and Changmin, by his description, wants to be the symbol of peace.
Changmin listened patiently, occasionally giggling at a spot-on description, and then asked Sooyoung why she paused and did not explain the favorite pet part.
“Well… the pet describes your ideal lover. Which means you value loyalty and intelligence in your partner.”
“Ah… So, do you think you’re loyal?”
“Haha, I can’t say. I want to think so.”
“Good. Because I’m quite sure you’re intelligent.”
They ended the call at two in the morning. Just in time for Sooyoung to finish Module Two. Module Two is a rather long and complicated test but it is enough to reaffirm what she knows about him. Changmin took time to say goodnight and he whined cutely when she told him that they still have Module Three left.
She didn’t say though that Module Three is about love.
“Syoo, I will be gone for three days, okay?”
She didn’t ask anymore. She has gotten used to it. A smile graced her features when she remembered his voice and how, for the first time, he had mentioned exactly how long he will be gone. At least she didn't have to guess when he’d be back again.
“We’ll talk on Saturday, okay? Don’t forget your magic eyes!”
“Yes. Magic eyes!”
Magic eyes. Changmin invented magic eyes the first time Sooyoung cried over the phone. He said magic eyes make the tears stop. He shared with Sooyoung the secret technique of making magic eyes. Form two letter Os with your two hands and raise it to your eyes. There! Magic eyes! See, you’re laughing now. You need to wear your magic eyes so the tears won’t fall. Okay?
Two days passed by swiftly and Sooyoung was really looking forward to talking to him. She has a lot to tell. But as the hours stretched on, Sooyoung made do by talking to the new assistant program officer in their unit. Everything she wanted to tell Changmin, she practiced on the young girl.
Two days down, one day more to go.
On Saturday night, Sooyoung waited.
She waited until sleep came over her.
She woke up on Sunday morning with a text message.
“Ma’am, Changmin’s gone.”
She read the message over and over again and tried to think other connotations of the word ‘gone’, refusing to associate the usual implication of the said word with Changmin.
Her fingers trembled as she typed her reply.
“Hello, I’m sorry your number is not registered on my phone. What do you mean Changmin’s gone?”
The phone beeped again.
“This is what I do not want to text to you. I’m really sorry. My condolences. --- Progress report re encounter of ACO, 14SFC & SFTM2 led by CPT SHIM while conducting operation at Yangji-ri encountered number of members of the KPA 301821 Aug 14. Result: one (1) Officer Killed in Action (CPT SHIM)”
She introduced herself as Ha Sunhwa, administrative secretary of Hwacheon Country. Ms Ha said Changmin was a friend and that during his rare visits to the office, he would often speak about Sooyoung.
Have you talked to his family? Sooyoung wanted to ask. But her thoughts were in a mess. She could only mouth a weak thanks before she ended the call.
It must have been a typographical error. No, he’s okay.
Sooyoung dialed his number.
This is a joke. This is a mean joke. He is supposed to go home last tonight. We are supposed to talk again later. I’m going to tell him that I got promoted. He still has to answer Module 3. No. I still have to meet him on Christmas. He said he can arrange for me to visit him there. No, no, no. No…
From outside, thunder rumbled and huge blobs of rain hammered angrily at the roof.
“The number you’re calling is either unattended or out of coverage area.”
That night, a handsome young newscaster reported that an encounter transpired at the northwest border of Hwacheon and Cheorwon near the 38th parallel when seven North Korean soldiers dressed up as members of the ROK army encountered a unit of the 15th Infantry Division. He noted eight casualties including one officer of the Republic of Korea Army before passing the cue to the next reporter for the latest Entertainment News.
Choi Sooyoung sobbed violently against the sofa cushion to the confusion of her mother who wondered for a bit why her daughter was so distressed over the latest idol scandal.
It is true.
She needs her magic eyes. But the magic eyes are gone. She tried hard to find it but the whole world was blurred by the unending tears spilling, drowning her.
Three months is a long time. Three months. Twelve weeks. Ninety-five days. Two thousand two hundred eighty hours. One hundred thirty-six thousand eight hundred minutes. Eight million two-hundred eight thousand seconds.
It is a Tuesday and Choi Sooyoung is on her way to the South Korean Army Headquarters. They said Changmin’s coffin will be brought that day.
She will meet his family. The family she felt she already knew from his stories about them. She does not know how she will introduce herself. But she knows Changmin would want her to be there.
Her eyes are dry now. She steps out of the car and the humongous building of the Korean Military Headquarters looms over her. A dull stretch of building with empty windows like blank eyes contrasting against the steel gray sky.
“Looks like it’s going to rain today, Ma’am.” The cab driver said.
Sooyoung gives him a curt nod and half a smile.
Eight million two-hundred eight thousand seconds. Eight thousand one. Eight thousand two. Eight thousand three. Eight thousand four. Eight thousand five…
The rain would be a most welcome gesture, she thinks as she feels her eyes moisten once more. For today, Choi Sooyoung will finally meet Shim Changmin.
A/N:Hi, everyone. I am writing ChangSoo again after many months. I have not reviewed this so I’m sure there are a lot of errors. I just have to let it out. This is the only way I could think of to erase the pain.
This is a true story. Only the names and places were changed. The book "Like Lovers but Are Not" is a Filipino book titled "Parang Kayo Pero Hindi". The Sooyoung here is a colleague and Changmin is the person who has been the most important person in her life for the past three months. For three months, Sooyoung had been telling us stories about Changmin. At first, I was not interested in listening. But she just kept on telling us stories about him. And, thus, I found myself invested in their story.
Just this morning, I received a message from Sooyoung that Changmin passed away. He died on an encounter yesterday in Southern Philippines. I am still crying while I’m writing this, actually. I have talked to Changmin once on the phone and he seems like a nice person. I’m still really sad. :(
This is for them. By far, one of the saddest stories I’ve heard. May the Changmin in this story rest in peace and may his Sooyoung find the strength to go on. A text message from Sooyoung I received just now:
”Before, I look forward to the evenings and mornings because it’s “me” time for Changmin and I. That is the time wherein we talk for hours till dawn as if it’s the last time we’ll talk. Now there are no more texts, no more calls. No more good night, sleep well, eat well. No more wake up calls. No more reminders. No more Changmin… I can’t describe the pain. I think I should have told him “I love you, Changmin.”