At first, I didn’t want to meet them.
The sun was setting golden when we met up with Mom and Dad’s old friend Sunny at the café outside the station. The last time they had seen each other was seven short but long years ago. They recognized each other from across the street. My mom glowed, and with a solemn twinge said to Dad that Sunny looked much older than she remembered. Sunny worked as a youth counsellor in Seoul. Her hair was thin and wiry, and her smiling eyes carried shadows. We crossed the street, and my parents lovingly embraced her. It had been so long.
“So the plan is: dinner and then back to my apartment, yeah? We can pick up some stuff from the shop around the corner on our way there.”
We went to a barbecue place where Sunny had made reservations, which is where I was going to have to meet two guys Sunny worked with. Sunny had no children, but Shin and Jun might as well have been. As soon as we were all introduced and we got into our meal, I could tell she truly, deeply cared about them both. And they were such nice guys. Everyone laughed uproariously at their banter and was touched by their insight. They had each lived their own difficult lives, and had connected through Sunny’s program. They seemed like brothers. Why had I not wanted to meet them? I didn’t even know they were part of Sunny’s thing when my parents said that I’d meet some new people that day, so it wasn’t stigma. I think I just felt lost in my home country, having forgotten how to speak the language over 12 years of living abroad, and having to follow my parents around everywhere because I didn’t know where anything was anymore. I was being a selfish, angsty adolescent who didn’t need to meet anyone new and just wanted to get back home to where he knew everything. Shin and Jun were smart and hilarious and welcoming. I kept my embarassment a secret but I knew Mom and Dad were knew. I had sulked the whole subway ride about this and now I was laugh-crying at Jun’s stories. We all finished eating and talked forever. When we stepped out of the restaurant, the sky had started fading to black but the street still buzzed with delivery motorcycles and rickety pick-ups and hulking sedans. The evening breeze was sweet.
“Welcome home, everyone,” Sunny said as we entered. The floors were a deep honey brown, the walls cream. Two modest couches sat humbly in the living room, and the TV sat on a small drawer set. There were some pictures on the walls.
“Help me get some tables from the bedroom, the brown fold-out ones,” Sunny asked my parents. Shin joined them automatically, and Jun started getting the drinks and snacks ready. I just followed my parents and we carried three short, square tables into the living room. We sat around and my dad passed out some beer. As everyone talked, an unfamiliar nostalgia washed over me. This felt like a home I didn’t know I belonged to.
Sunny was remembering a story from a road trip he’d taken with Mom, Dad, and a few of their other college friends. I looked over at Mom, and her face was red from the beer and smiling from the memories. My Dad, Shin, and Jun were talking about life. Dad got pretty philosophical when he was tipsy, but he wasn’t full Aristotle yet. He was sober enough to still actually be wise — which seemed to make an impression on the guys. They shared their stories. Shin was so open, letting us see into his life even though he barely knew us. He trusted us, I think because he loved Sunny, and knew that if she trusted me and my parents, he could too. He was tall and calm, the kind of calm that you don’t just observe but the kind that floats over to you, gently. He spoke with an assuredness and clement certainty that seemed to contradict his youth. Jun, on the other hand, talked up and down the wall and made us laugh through every second of it, but he didn’t open up like Shin did. He had his own reasons for it. I didn’t judge. We were still strangers, I supposed. We all just shared some good stories. I could tell Jun loved entertaining. The guy was a stand-up prodigy. God, he was funny, and so quick witted. Throughout the night, he was always the one opening drinks for everyone, and refilling the chip bowls. He sat in a springy posture. He kept his blue backpack beside him the whole night.
As the night went on, the stories kept flowing slowly but steadily, and every lull in the conversation came and went easy. Dad went out a several times during the night to smoke, and each time, Jun followed him to continue their talk. I think Jun really felt at ease with him. Dad had a knack for conversation, and a hearty, contagious laugh. Every time they stepped out, Jun brought his blue backpack. Every time they returned, they joined back into the group conversation seamlessly, putting aside what they talked about outside.
I made good friends with Shin. Although we were the same age, he felt to me like the older brother I never had. He told us about his culinary school, his girlfriend, and learning to love what he was doing, and his relationship with his dad, and on. He spoke in long stretches, but he was never boring. Mom was really impressed by his insight and the determination he seemed to carry with him. He had been defeated in some ways growing up, and he just didn’t have room for that anymore. Shin made me want to be a better person.
I got pretty tired near the end of the night, so I decided I’d go to bed a little early. My parents and I were going to stay the night at Sunny’s. Both Shin and Jun came over to me to say goodnight, and that we should meet up if I was to visit Korea again. I agreed sleepily, and soon after they closed my temporary-bedroom door, I fell asleep.
In the morning I woke to the gold sunlight flooding the house through glassy panes of dew. I got up and out of my room to brush my teeth. Dad was sleeping on the living room couch, Shin was on the floor, and Mom and Sunny were in the master bedroom. Jun wasn’t home. Dad told me later he had gone home after I went to bed.
We went to breakfast at a seafood stew place down the road. It was alright, but we were happy to have anything hot that we didn’t have to cook ourselves on such a brisk morning. After the meal we said our goodbyes to Sunny and Shin. We made our way back to the metro.
Walking down the steps to the underground and buying our tickets from the kiosks, I talked to my parents about how Shin felt like a brother, and how Jun made that simple small living room so bright and big. They felt them too, those things.
On the ride home, Dad told me what he and Jun talked about. One thing Jun said really stuck with Dad, and when he told Mom and I, it stuck with us too. They were talking about raising families. Jun said that he didn’t want to marry anyone. He said he didn’t want to have any children. He said that he was so afraid that he would hit them like his own dad hit him and his mom. He didn’t even want that to be possible.
And his blue backpack? We never found out why he kept it so close. Why he took it with him every time he went out. One of the times he stepped out with Dad, someone brought it up to the group. Sunny said she didn’t know. Maybe it was something like a security blanket. Maybe he needed something else to hold on to when he was talking about himself. Sunny was going to be there to help, whatver it was. I don’t know what it was, but I’m glad he could talk to someone in those small moments in the sweet evening breeze.