"I can't do this. I just can't."
Even if Choi Han Gyul hadn't seen the quivering of her chin—a telltale giveaway that Eun Chan was about to cry—he would have known something was wrong from the panicked tremor in her voice.
He'd been suspicious when Eun Chan had returned utterly silent from picking out a wedding dress with the help of their mothers. That had been more than a month a go, back when he was too busy with the new Coffee Prince location to take a few hours off even for something as important as that. Now that he'd accompanied her to the posh bridal salon (Princess Hours, read the sign out front) for the final fitting, there was no doubt something was up.
Eun Chan was standing across the richly appointed room, in front of a trio of mirrors that reflected her at every angle when she spun around. She looked more beautiful than ever, like a fairytale character come to life, and his heart had nearly stopped when she stepped out of the dressing area. The dress glowed snowy white against her pale skin, and Choi Han Gyul would have sworn she was surrounded in a halo of spectral glow, as if the heavens had chosen to focus a spotlight on her alone, out of all the people in the world. The wedding dress was strapless and covered with intricate lace and beadwork, clinging to her curves almost indecently before it swelled into a full skirt that just brushed the ground. It even had a train that rivaled something you'd seen in a royal wedding.
It was perfect. Or it would have been, if his fiancée wasn't slumped forward, her two hands covering her face as if she were trying to hide from her own reflection.
"Miss?" The sales clerk seemed unsure just what to do. She was a slender older woman, wearing an elegant suit with her hair swept back into a perfectly smooth bun. She'd probably never worn jeans her life, or worked four jobs to support her family, or come to the realization that she was stronger than practically every man she met. In short, she was no Eun Chan. "Are you unhappy with the alterations?" she asked tentatively. "We could take the waist in a little more if you were willing to wear the corset, at least."
"I will not wear a corset!" Eun Chan spoke from behind her hands, sounding like a toddler about to throw a major tantrum.
At this, Choi Han Gyul sprang to action. "Will you give us a minute?" He dismissed the clerk with a winning smile, pleased to note in the widening of her eyes that even at her age she wasn't immune to his charms.
When she'd left, he walked to Eun Chan's side. "Hey, you." The skirt was even fuller than he thought—he couldn't even get close enough to pull her hands away from her face. "What's wrong?"
Still from behind her hands: "Nothing. I'm fine. This is the dress your mother chose, and it's my honor to wear it." She was shaking a little bit, with anger, maybe, or with tears.
"Why don't you try telling me the truth instead?" He wanted to pull her into his embrace and kiss her until they forgot where they were, until she sighed and melted into his arms. But he could only figure out how to awkwardly pat her on one alluringly bare shoulder—damn that dress. "Remember, we're in this together."
Finally Eun Chan lowered her hands, exposing the tears that were slowly working their way down her cheeks. "I swore I was done wearing fancy dresses and pretending to be someone else. But look at me." She spoke quickly and a little too loudly, as if she'd already spent every ounce of energy just to hold the words in this long. "It's like I'm a stranger. A visitor from the planet Disney Princess. People at the wedding will say, 'Who's the girl Han Gyul is marrying? He must have finally come to his senses and dumped that ugly old Eun Chan.'"
"You look beautiful, Eun Chan," he whispered, pushing forward, dress be damned, until he could wrap his arms around her. It was as if she were wearing a mattress not an article of clothing, and the displaced skirt swung out behind her, rearing up in a valiant effort to hold its shape. It took up so much space back there it was almost as if there was a third person in the room. "But it's no big deal if you don't like this dress—my mom will get over it. We'll get you a new one…you can try on every dress in Seoul until you find the one you love the most."
"I'd rather drown myself in the Han than try on another wedding dress," she sniffled, resting her forehead against his shoulder. "And this is already bought and paid for. Somebody already went half blind sewing on all these damn beads."
People make weddings seem like fun, as if they're all sparkles and rainbows and dreams come true. All along, Choi Han Gyul had known this wasn't really the case, especially not when the people getting married were insanely busy and wanted nothing more than to get on with their life together. It killed him saying goodbye to her every night, sending her home to sleep in her childhood bedroom instead of where she really belonged, curled up against him. And it didn't help that his mother had decided to give them the greatest wedding ever held. Han Gyul knew she was only doing it to show how much she loved them, but with each new detail Eun Chan had become less and less interested. Two hundred guests? The biggest, most posh wedding venue in Seoul? A fifteen-thousand-dollar designer dress? That was all to make their parents happy, not them. Sure, the dress made her look like every man's dream bride, but Choi Han Gyul would have been just as happy to marry Eun Chan in her everyday uniform of baggy jeans and a hoodie.
"Then we'll give it to Ha Rim. Wasn't that drama he was doing set direction for short a fancy wedding dress? It looks more like something that belongs on TV than in the real world, anyway."
Eun Chan's arms snaked around him and tightened until he could feel her every breath, even through the thick layer of dress between them. "This thing weighs like seventy pounds—I can barely walk in it. You might have to piggyback me down the aisle. But your mother loves it. She cried when she saw me in it.Cried."
He could hear the bustle of the store outside their private dressing room, and beyond that the traffic on the road out front. So how was it that he felt as if they were the only people in the world, now that they were finally so close to really belonging to each other? "Let's just elope. I bet Jeju is nice this time of year, or we could go to America. I've heard you can get married at a drive-through there. You could probably be naked if you wanted."
"Gross, you pervert." She swatted his backside, and maybe smiled a little against his neck. "I want to wear something. Just not this."
"So let's go right now. I'm marrying a girl, not a dress." Han Gyul pulled back just far enough to kiss her, a tender press of his lips against hers to prove he meant what he said. "Let's get you out of that thing."
He had kissed away her remaining tears and was about to go back in for another round when she finally spoke again, laughing a little. "We'd need a degree in engineering and a forklift to get me out of this nightmare."
"I don't know. I've had a lot of practice getting you out of your clothes lately."
With an exaggerated cracking of his knuckles, Choi Han Gyul got to work. Four hooks, three buttons, and a huge, industrial-size zipper later, the saleswoman returned to discover Han Gyul on his knees, half under Eun Chan's massive skirt as he tried to find a way to lift the dress off her.
They found Eun Chan's real wedding dress on the way home. They had cut down a narrow alleyway to return to the car when she saw it hanging in the window of a rundown-looking shop. It was a little like a hanbok, with a sleeveless, fitted jacket and a knee-length, fluttery skirt in a shade of peach so pale it almost looked white. The shop owner had made it with the help of her granddaughters, based on the dress she'd sewn for her own wedding more than fifty years earlier. Eun Chan was so sure that the dress was meant to be hers that she didn't even try it on. It cost a hundred dollars, but when the owner looked away Han Gyul left closer to a thousand.
On their wedding day, all Choi Han Gyul could think about was a phrase he'd once read in a book: "transcendently happy." All his life, he'd been an easy-going, cheerful guy. But until the moment he took Eun Chan's hands and kissed her for the first time as his wife, in front of their family and friends, he'd never really known that happiness could be so intense it almost hurt.
"I love you," she'd whispered after the kiss, soft so he alone could hear it.
To that, he had only one response. "I love you more."
She lazed in the tub, the air sweet-smelling and steamy hot, with just enough bubbles left in the water to protect her modesty. Choi Han Gyul had gone into the bathroom for purely innocent reasons—you had to brush your teeth whenever you ate something, right? He had just had a breath mint and hated to go to the dentist, so of course off he went to the bathroom for some dental hygiene. His reasons for going definitely had nothing to do with Eun Chan in the bath, with seeing her at such a private, intimate moment, with leaning against the tub and watching her eyes slip closed with pleasure as the warm water soothed muscles that must have been aching from a long day on her feet at the second shop of the Coffee Prince.
"Why are you staring at me again?" She spoke softly, her eyes still closed. Her voice took him by surprise, but it certainly didn't make him jump, or make his gaze snap guiltily to her face and away from the bare skin he'd been admiring. Absolutely not.
"Don't you know there's a water shortage in this country?" Han Gyul demanded, maybe even managing to sound a bit indignant. "But here you are, filling a giant bathtub in the middle of the day."
"It's creepy, you know." Eun Chan cocked a playful eyebrow at him, meeting his eyes at last with a barely suppressed grin. "You watching me from out there, I mean. Very creepy, you stalker." He watched her roll her shoulders, then push her arms into the air above her head, arching her back into a stretch. If it was possible to die of happiness, that would have been the end of Choi Han Gyul—his girl was showing off for him, no doubt about it.
"I'm sorry, but I can't help staring at such a wasteful person." He responded, reaching into the tub and sending a plume of water splashing into Eun Chan's face. "Wasting water, wasting electricity, and probably dreaming about eating us out of house and home as soon as she's done with her bath, too."
And then her grin finally surfaced, turning into a challenge as she spoke. "It would be less creepy if you watched me from in here, I think."
That was all the invitation he needed. Choi Han Gyul probably set land speed records shucking his clothes and climbing into the tub beside his new wife, not caring that he displaced enough water to cause an ever-growing puddle to spread out across the bathroom floor. Eun Chan, laughing with disbelief throughout the entire process, slid over to allow space for him to settle in next to her on the tub's bench. Instead he tugged her onto his lap, wrapping his arms around her so tight she expelled her breath with a quiet oof.
"Love you," she whispered, her face buried in the curve of his neck, her hands gently tracing the lines of his back.
"Love you more."
Eun Chan slept sprawled out, her arms and legs askew and her hair sticking up in every imaginable direction, as if she'd just stuck her finger in an electrical outlet. Choi Han Gyul liked watching her sleep. During the day she was always busy, and even when she sat down she was never really still. But she slept like a person drugged, utterly oblivious to everything around her, her chest rising with smooth, rhythmic breaths and her full lips parted ever so slightly.
The Sunday morning sunlight was beginning to creep up the wall across from them, so Han Gyul carefully slid out of bed to adjust the drapes in hopes of allowing her to sleep a bit longer. She'd worked extra late last night at the third shop of the Coffee Prince, and even after coming home hadn't been able to get to sleep for hours. He knew well enough that working around so much coffee it sometimes felt like you absorbed the caffeine through your pores, and might never manage to sleep again. When she woke, they'd cuddle and talk and maybe—if he was lucky—finally find the time to do something a bit more grown up.
After years and years of marriage, he'd almost gotten used to the pleasure of sleeping next to his favorite person in the world every night. But the patter of feet outside their closed bedroom door reminded him of two things he doubted he'd ever get used to.
The doorknob turned ever so slowly, and in peeked Choon Hee, still wearing her Pororo pajamas. At five, she was everything he should have expected from any child of Eun Chan's: obstinate and tomboyish and totally, utterly perfect.
"Dad? We're bored." They'd been struggling lately to get her to stay in her room after she woke up, playing quietly without waking her little brother. Clearly, though, they'd been failing. "Can we come in?"
Han Gyul held one finger to his lips and pointed to Eun Chan's sleeping form before waving them into the bedroom. Choon Hee ran over, somehow managing to make more noise than an entire herd of elephants would when covering the same ground. Grabbing her under the arms, he swung her up onto the bed, depositing her next to him with a tickle. Jung Hwa toddled over in her wake, his thumb firmly planted in his mouth. "How's my little man this morning?" His son grinned shyly, presenting raised arms, ready to be lifted up beside his sister.
"Sleeping is so boring. Why do you adults spend so much time in bed?" Choon Hee restlessly kicked her legs up in the air, bouncing up and down beside her mother. I'm going to kill the first boy who tries to show you why we spend so much time in bed, Han Gyul thought to himself, pulling up Jung Hwa's pajamas up to blow a quiet raspberry on his plump belly. The little boy giggled, tugging his shirt down and smiling that impossibly wide smile of his, the one that always reminded his father of Han Sung.
Settling Jung Hwa on the bed, Han Gyul saw Eun Chan stretch massively and turn to face her little family. "Good morning my babies," she whispered, pulling both children into her arms with a drowsy sigh.
If it was possible to freeze time and live forever in one moment, Han Gyul knew that this was the one he'd chose. He had once thought that being together with Eun Chan was the ultimate delight, waking up with her and loving her and always knowing that she belonged to him and him alone, just as he belonged to her. But now they belonged two more people, and sometimes it made him think he might explode from happiness. He thought Eun Chan probably felt the same way.
Han Gyul's gaze locked with his wife's as sleep gradually reclaimed their children. "I love you," he finally said, thinking that maybe silence wasn't enough.
"I love you more," she replied.