The day of the premature I love you was nearly a perfect day, minus the couple of times I thought I was in cardiac arrest. Though Sara and I'd been hanging out only a couple weeks, it still amazed me such a classy girl chose to spend her time with country me.
Sara and I met three months prior, at Telecommunication school at Fort Gordon, GA. At the time she was engaged to a Marine, but they'd been doing the long distance thing for over a year. We chatted a few times while we were in training, but both were too busy to really form a friendship. Sara was two classes ahead of me, so she graduated first, plus she was a Reservist and I was Active Duty, so I figured I'd never see her again. After graduating and a brief bit of leave to visit the family, I flew overseas to my first duty station, Korea. My first day in, a coin flip decided my fate.
One of my classmates, a preppy PFC from Dallas named Trent, received orders to report to Korea the same day as me. We flew over together and after touching down in Osan AF Base, and a long bus ride to Seoul, we reported to the Sergeant Major of the 1st Signal Brigade. The old crusty Sarge welcomed us to the country and informed us we had a decision to make. One opening was in Seoul, the other over an hour north, near Taegu. Both were good posts, but obviously living in the heart of Seoul, the capital and largest city, was gonna be more fun. Trent and I looked at each other, neither wanting the remote post, so the CSM fished a quarter from his BDU pocket. "Alright boys, which one of you wants the flip?" I spoke up. He said, "Heads you stay here, tails and you've got another bus to catch."
After wishing Trent luck on his continued journey and promising to come chill as soon as I could, the CSM gave me directions to my barracks, just a short walk from OPs. I began settling into the flow of things over the next few weeks, getting the lay of the land, meeting my comrades in my new unit, and trying to absorb this radical new culture--both as a new soldier in the Army and living in a foreign country! I dated a cute blonde girl from my barracks, but she ended it abruptly after a week, when I was really starting to get interested. So, out in the city one night, still a bit bummed over the 'break up' and wanting to do some drinking, I nearly walked directly into Sara coming out of a club I was entering.
"Whoa, Johnson, is that you?" This was the first, but not the last time Sara would stun me speechless. After recovering, I said, "Oh wow, Sara, um, what the hell are you doing here?!" She told me she and her sister were both visiting their parents for a few months before they moved to Florida, for college. You see, Sara's father was a LT COL who'd been stationed in Korea the past eight years. Sara and her sister spent most of their childhood in Korea, going to high school on post! Incredible, I could barely believe my eyes. I also quickly noticed the missing ring on her hand. Later that night, she told me about breaking off the engagement and I must admit, I felt a lot less bummed than I was before...
Sara was different than any girl I'd ever met, outgoing and spirited, but disciplined enough to rein it in when needed. She could light a room with a smile or a laugh, her wit was quick, and due to her military training and natural athleticism she could out-PT most of the soldiers in our barracks! Raven black hair and green eyes that viewed the world around her with curiosity and interest; I was a tad enamoured the first time we met, back at training. I don't think it was love at first sight, but it seemed pretty damn close.
After our reunion, we made plans to see each other the next day. We formed a quick friendship, both of us very comfortable with the other's company, and we spent nearly every free moment together. Sara delighted in showing me remote restaurants and out of the way shops not considered the normal 'touristy' spots where most soldier go. She spoke Hangul fairly well and wasn't afraid to roam the land like a native. I observed the staff and proprietors of all the establishments we frequented were always happy to see her and very welcoming--obviously her charms worked on more than just country boys from Alabama. Our first week, she introduced me to Korean food, specifically Kimchi. Quite an acquired taste--it's basically cabbage that's been left in the ground to rot. I didn't love it, but I think I would have eaten it daily to hang out with her. In fact, I think I did! She loved watching me take in all the new sights and sounds, new tastes and smells, new customs. She was very at ease with the Koreans and showed me how to interact in a manner that would show respect.
As our friendship grew, I began wishing it would grow into more. But I knew she'd just broken off an engagement and needed a friend. The night of the premature I love you started as most our nights. Sara, as usual, had the evening planned, and we started with our favorite activity:singing! Sara, like most girls her age, loved Alanis Morissette and had a voice surprisingly similar. Which made her even hotter, b/c I secretly liked Jagged Little Pill and had a thing for Alanis. We headed to the Noraebong, or singing room, around seven. In Korea, around the cities there are small buildings, usually containing 6-8 small rooms, with a couple of booths, a table, and a TV. Add a small sound system, a couple of mics, and you've got your own personal karaoke room! We invited mutual friends from my company(my friends quickly became Sara's friends)and spent the next hour drinking vending machine beer and belting such hits as Brown Eyed Girl or Like a Virgin at one another. Afterward, we parted ways with our friends as they drunkingly marched on to 'the Hill', a long, sloping hill in Itaewon, a suburb of Seoul, which contained dozens of bars all the way up, on either side of the street. A popular soldier destination...
Sara grabbed my arm and pulled me down a side street, easily navigating the labyrinth of cramped buildings and alleys like a pro. She, of course, knew an out of the way mom-and-pop Korean joint that served great Bulgogi(my favorite!)and Yaki Mandu. Bulgogi is thin cut beef, slightly spiced, and Yaki is the Korean spin on Chinese dumplings. Delicious, much better than Kimchi! After several turns down dark streets I could never have retraced with a compass and a physical land map, we arrived on the steps of the restaurant. Ajumma, which means older woman, greeted us upon entering and took our coats. She gave Sara a hug and as they chatted, I surveyed my surroundings. The Korean decor was tasteful, with plenty of plants and lightly stained walls and floors. I could smell the fresh Bulgogi wafting from hot plates. And then my eyes discovered the piano in the corner, not especially typical in Korean restaurants. I noticed Sara watching me as she spoke with the owner and when I cocked an eyebrow in question, she answered with a little half smile. No accident, then.
"Ajumma, my friend can play the piano. He's very good! Do you think the customers would mind if he plays a song?" The old Korean lady beamed at me. "Please, sit down and play!"
For the life of me, I can't remember what I played. Most likely a Floyd Cramer tune, but that info is just not in my memory banks. What I do remember is Sara's smile, her standing next to the piano, looking down at me and our eyes locking, and my fingers gliding over the keys on autopilot as I smiled back. The patrons apparently enjoyed it, due to the applause after, but I don't recall their faces, either, as my eyes were still locked with Sara's. For the first time, I thought she might want more than a friendship, too, and my heart felt as if it was pounding louder than the applause. And all I could do was sit there and grin. As the clapping diminished, Sara asked for a table and we sat and talked all through dinner, but again, I can't remember the content. I tried to play it cool, but whenever my eyes would lock with hers, my heart would skip a beat.
After the meal, we thanked the staff and exchanged pleasant goodbyes as I helped Sara into her coat and scarf. As always, she was dressed immaculately, making me feel all the more the country lout in a foreign land. Usually at this point in the evening, we'd join our friends on 'the Hill', partying and dancing for an hour or so before she needed to get back to post. As I started to mention the time and our friends, she informed me she didn't feel like partying and asked me if I'd like to go for a walk down by the Han River. For some reason, I was finding her intoxicating enough, so I quickly agreed. She grabbed my arm and piloted us toward the river.
Seoul is a very lovely city, at least the parts not constantly under construction, and the river is no exception. It's over half a mile wide, splitting the city in two, and a large enough body of water to cool the November breeze coming off it considerably. The lights of the city and the two long bridges spanning the river bathed us in a soft, yellow glow. We walked along the east bank, in silence, which was unusual for us. I asked if she was warm enough and offered my overcoat. She demurely murmured something about Southern gentlemen and declined, but pulled me closer as we continued to walk arm in arm. She stopped at one of the benches, suddenly, and sat down and pulled out her cigarettes. I did the same and we both smoked in silence, looking over the water at the city. I wanted to speak, but felt a sudden tension in the air. Had something changed? She finally broke the silence with small talk about the cool night and the scenic view, but it felt awkward; very unlike us. We finished our smokes and she announced it was time to go back.
I was disappointed, my mind racing to see if I'd missed any signals in the past couple hours. We began walking back toward Itaewon, but I noticed she didn't grab my arm as she'd done before. I hesitantly tried taking her arm. She shook it off, and I started to pull away, but she grabbed my hand and interlocked our fingers! My previous coronary incident at the restaurant was nothing in comparison to the thundering that suddenly developed in my chest. Why didn't I try to kiss her when we were by the river, in the nice, romantic setting?! Is that what she wanted, why we went there?! I felt a fool as we walked back, in silence.
My barracks and Sara's car were on South Post, about a fifteen minute walk from the river. Upon arrival, Sara finally dropped my hand to show her ID to the guard. I signed Sara on post and we walked to her car, yet still in silence. She walked toward the car, gave me a small smile, glanced at her watch, and told me she needed to leave in a few minutes and couldn't come in. As she walked slowly over to the driver's side door, I pondered my next move. Should I just, I dunno, make a move? I was too terrified. I wanted to be with her, but feared she might not reciprocate, maybe I'd read the evening incorrectly. I know, I'm a wuss. I decided to tell her goodbye and I'd call her tomorrow, when she slowly looked up at me, kind of shyly, and asked, "Stephen, I'm going to be here until August, I mean, what do you want to do?"
What do I want to do? Uh... "Uh, uh, Sara what do you mean, I love hanging out with you, and everything, but I know you were engaged a few m..." She cut me off, with a breathy and rushed, "Stephen, do you want to date me?" That's it, break out the paddles, I'm going into defib. "Sara, I definitely, um, definitely would like to date you!" The adrenaline subsided, allowing my brain to clear and take me out of Rain Man mode, as I added, "Wait, is that what we've been doing?!"
She threw back her head and laughed, "Oh my God, you're killing me, yes that's what we've been doing!" She reached in her purse for her keys, still laughing. "Well thank God you told me, Sara, or this could've gone on for a while!" Sara started to put the key in the car door, so I said, "Well, this night turned out amazing, I'll call you tomorrow..."
But luckily, I'm not that big a wuss. I took a few steps toward the barracks, heard the keys jingle as she turned the lock, and made my decision. Finally. "Sara, wait." She turned to me and I kinda fast walked, stumbled(real suave-like)over to her and gathered her in my arms. And I kissed her. I'm not gonna Princess Bride this thing up with a big speech about how out of all of the kisses ever, this was the most blah blah, mushy mushy, etc. kinda kiss. But, well, it was pretty friggin fantastic. We kissed for about a minute and I reluctantly pulled away, sensing it was the right time, and my eyes met two twin green pools of light, gazing back at me. Both a little breathless, I whispered to her, "You're amazing, I'll see you tomorrow." then turned abruptly and walked away. This time, it really was kind of suave-like. I mean, I got the girl, it was strut time...
"Stephen." I turned. "Tonight was great, you're so much fun, I love you!"
Later on, replaying this scene in my head and rehearing those words, I was able to detect the lilt in her voice and the different emphasis on the words 'love' and 'you', which pretty much sounded just like how everyone says 'I love you' when you've been hanging and drinking with somebody cool you just met, you've bonded, and you want them to know that you think they're cool and you dig their style. You know---the classic, 'I love you, man'. But, that ain't how I heard it. I just heard a girl, who I thought was out of my league, who asked me if I wanted to date her, who I just threw my best kissing moves on, tell me she loved me. Really, it was like Fred Sanford calling for Elizabeth at this point; it was the big one. My heart, and world around me, suddenly stopped.
Except for my face. It contorted like Jim Carrey after eating a bag of lemons, or at least that's what I imagine it did, as I spurted and sputtered and stammered, "I uh-I uh-I uh--thank you?" Sara's eyes got wide as she clapped her hands over her mouth, to stifle a scream of laughter. In between brays, I made out, "Oh no, Stephen, I'm so sorry, I just realized how that sounded, I didn't mean it like that! Oh God! I wish you could see the look on your face!" I'm standing there, like I'm locked up at attention, jaw still somewhere near the vicinity of the pavement, when it clicks. "Oh, I get it, I get it, um, I love you too!" Sara, still nearly doubled over with laughter, finally opens the car door and gets in. She rolls down the window and calls out, "Give me a call tomorrow!", waving as she drives away, still guffawing. As an aside, though braying and guffawing might conjure ugly images, such as donkeys with their mouths wide open, Sara's brays were beautiful and her guffaws gorgeous. Just FYI.
So there I stand, staring after her car until the taillights disappear, gathering my wits. I slowly walk toward the barracks, remembering the feel of her lips on mine, the electricity in the air as our eyes met all night, how her hand felt in mine and how she felt in my arms. And over the years, as I've thought back about our time together, I've realized that awkward moment made it much easier for us to profess our love to one another a short time later, with no braying or guffawing whatsoever...