Sorry for the delay this week. It was another one of those weeks - not bad, just creatively draining. Today, I have a photo to go with the story - from the very place where Gretchen and Sung Hyuk would have climbed too. It's a long hike, but well worth it.
|From the top of Mudeungsan, Gwangju, South Korea|
This wasn't her world, and they weren't her people. They chatted easily despite the climb. For them it was a Saturday's lark up the mountainside. Twice a month they did this because it made them feel young and energetic. Good for the body.
"Are you all right, honey?" Sung Hyuk asked, stepping a couple rocks back to Gretchen.
"Fine," Gretchen huffed. "Just fine. Just need a breather."
She reached for her water bottle, but she wasn't thirsty.
Sung Hyuk handed her a tangerine. They were everywhere in the stores at the moment, and Sung Hyuk seemed to have an endless supply in his backpack. Ahead of them, his parents continued their steady climb, unfazed by their second son's dilapidated girlfriend.
More likely it was a good indication of how much they would care for her.
She was damaged - white, American and from a broken family. She was in her thirties already, and while beggars couldn't be choosers, even Sung Hyuk, who was scarcely two years her senior, had wondered about dating her.
That was before he had fallen head-over-heels in love with her, though.
His parents were an entirely different matter.
"They'll be fine," Sung Hyuk assured Gretchen.
"It's not them that concerns me," Gretchen answered. She had a PhD in theater, but for the life of her, she had never been able to act. What she could do was teach others how to act and the history of theater. She was good, and having a good understanding of Korean, English and French helped.
Sung Hyuk smirked as he looked at his parents. "Just keep stepping up, Gretchen."
"In this world where everything I've ever been told to be doesn't apply?"
"Is it that important to you?"
"It's important to me that I understand your world."
Sung Hyuk turned back to her. "I know," he whispered, the smirk gone. "It means a lot that you try to work at something you're so terrible at."
Gretchen narrowed her gaze. "You're supposed to be encouraging."
"But, you are terrible at it all. The thing that I love about you is the fact despite it all, you proceed. You don't know what to do, but you keep trying. Many others stopped." He thumbed at his parents' backs. "They're not easy to get along with. They're old school. We're new school. They lost friends and family back in the Eighties. Here in Gwangju, before, after. They continue to step forward as well." He held out his hand.
Gretchen handed him the tangerine peel. "I don't think they like me."
"Most likely not. You're white, confident, tall, beautiful, easily annoyed, and above all, I'm madly in love with you. You'd never be good enough for them. So why try?"
"Because I want them to like me."
Sung Hyuk sank into the empty spot on the rock beside her. The sun had gone behind a cloud, bringing a temporary coolness to the mountain. It was autumn, and the leaves, the brilliant leaves, danced on the earth. They had long left the colored hues. Here on this part of the mountain, the winds blew stronger, the leaves changed earlier. It wasn't barren, but it wasn't a canopy of color either. Below them, the city of Gwangju spread out among the rolling hills populating its urban landscape.
They were a city madly in love with nature, history and freedom. Even the man beside her, a political scientist professor embodied all those things.
Who was she fooling? "I should probably just go back down," she admitted.
"We're nearly there. Twenty more minutes."
"For us. I'm not leaving you behind." He reached for her hand. His was always warm, comfortable. Her hand, as always, was cold. "You're not wearing your mittens."
"Too hot earlier."
Reaching around her, he opened her book bag and took out the mittens. "Put them on, Gretchen."
The bright fuchsia made her smile, as they always did.
Sung Hyuk touched Gretchen's chin. "Ah, good, you're smiling. It's worth the climb, love. Let's go." He rose, extending his arm as he did, to pull her to her feet.
The climb wasn't easy, but at the top the wind whipped everything away, pulled hair straight out and cut down to the bone. The sight, however, was beyond belief. The sky was brilliant. The world lay below their feet, high enough to even see some of the earth curving away. It was higher than she had ever climbed. Better than she could describe. Even better than the previous height they had climbed once together. She could see that place from here, seemingly far below.
"Glad you came?"
"Good. Come take a photo with me." Turning his phone to selfie, Sung Hyuk pulled Gretchen in close. "Kimchi."
His parents watched them.
"They'll always be there, good and bad," Sung Hyuk said. "It's beautiful, isn't it? A simple step with purpose, and we made it."
"Are you trying to tell me something?"
Sung Hyuk grinned, and opened a box in his hand. "Yes; I want you to be mine forever, Gretchen. I wasn't going to do this today, but I want them to know despite everything, you're the one I want." He held out the small engagement ring. "Well?"
"I'm going to want to stop."
"So long as we talk it through before you actually give up."
Gretchen rolled her eyes. "You're going to talk me out of it."
"When I know you can do it, I will convince you to push through. I trust you, but there are times when I know your fears are too great." He held the ring. "Promise to do the same for me?"