Getting Out From Under by Cherryl Chow

Michael gazed at the water drops on her lips. He yearned to slake his thirst, but asked a question instead.

“No, I don’t know,” Koong-Ja declared, chin up, her small frame dwarfed in the high-backed armchair, the best seat in the restaurant. “I can’t say if we’re a good fit or not.” She shrugged.

Disappointed, he took a deep breath. He savored the aroma of curry blended with spices; relished the din and energy of the most popular Indian restaurant in downtown Chicago, the buzz of voices cocooning them like the heavy brocade curtain that sequestered their corner table. He’d tipped the maître d’ handsomely to secure the coveted spot.

In the dim light, Michael felt free to study her face. The clean angle of her jaw reminded him of the first time she let him into the flat she shared with her older brother and widowed mother. Koong-Ja had papered every inch of the foyer walls with cutouts from magazines, posters, brochures, one image seguing into the next, a complex interweaving of riffs and counterpoints. It had hit him in that instant: he’d fallen in love. Deeply, irreversibly in love for the first time in his 30 years. Women had always come easily to him. He was considered a prime catch—as if he were a stag to be hunted down, a trophy to be displayed in perpetuity. None of these women could light a fire in his heart.

Koong-Ja, by contrast, tapped into a wellspring of passion that he’d never known existed. His love for her gelled into a fierce protectiveness when he found her in tears in the deserted, after-hours lobby of the building their respective employers had offices in. He worked at one of Chicago’s top advertising agencies; she, for a prestigious architectural firm.

Between Koong-Ja’s sobs, Michael gathered that her brother had destroyed her wall art, as well as every single painting she had ever created. It appeared that this brother carried on the dubious legacy of their late father in terrorizing her and her mother. Yet, the mother invariably sided with the son in every dispute.

Just remembering the incident made Michael’s temples throb. His foot accidentally kicked the shopping bag he’d hidden under the table before Koong-Ja arrived.

He returned his attention to Koong-Ja. She was beautiful. No, make that utterly, poignantly, ravishing. Her cheekbones would put any model’s to shame. Her luminous eyes were framed by thick, long lashes. Even her nose, which was ever so slightly squat— the only flaw in her otherwise perfect face—lent her an air of childlike naivete.

His eyes caressed Koong-Ja’s black hair that partially hid her oval face as it spilled down in rivulets to her waist. He didn’t want to trivialize her by labeling her exotic, but she was. Half Korean, a quarter each of Chinese and Japanese, and all enigma.

He stretched his hand out on the table, palm up. She eyed it like a cat wary of an unexpected offering. He chuckled. Finally, she slipped her hand into his. He gazed into her black-brown eyes, willing her to spill her innermost thoughts.

He waited a heartbeat. Two. “I love you,” he whispered.

A pause. A long pause.

“Thank you,” she replied. No trace of emotion on her smooth face.

“Ready for your order?” a waitress materialized out of the blue.

Koong-Ja’s face suddenly became animated. “Give me the chicken curry set please—and make that plus ten.” The number referred to the gradation of spiciness, ranging from minus three to plus ten. The negative digits were for curry so mild an infant could swallow it. Ten, the hottest, might require a dousing by a fire hydrant. Or so warned the menu.

“I’ll have the same, but make mine a minus three.” Michael laid special emphasis on minus.

A smirk crept across Koong-Ja’s face. Only then did he notice her lipstick and a touch of eye shadow. His heart did a flip. She cared, more than she let on. It was the first time he’d ever seen her wear any make-up. She practiced minimalism in words and attire. Her personal dress code dictated nothing more than a t-shirt, jeans, and scruffy loafers, her only pair, she told him. Her brother gambled away every last drop of the salary she made. She had nothing to show for the three years of full time work she’d devoted herself to since college.

Once she’d invited him to a catered office Christmas party. Her boss had praised her then so lavishly that he almost felt embarrassed. Yet he discovered soon enough that the accolade was no exaggeration. Her rare talent could carry her to incredible heights—if she could get out from under her brother’s thumb.

“I feel so lone-lone-lonely, lonely…” Sitar music and the haunting refrain of The Monsoon’s filled the room.

“Dessert?” Michael asked Koong-Ja.

When the decidedly un-Indian New York cheesecake arrived, he wished with a pang that she’d nibble him as tenderly as she did the creamy dessert.

While she worked on the edible temptation, he reached down to retrieve a rectangular box. He handed it to Koong-Ja. “For you. Don’t worry about the fit. We can exchange sizes.”

Her face remained immobile. Her fingers quickly unraveled the blue ribbon, tore off the matching wrapping paper, plunged into the box, and pulled out its content.

“Oh god,” she gasped.

Ankle boots. Teal blue. Napa leather. Light as ballerina’s slippers.

“I noticed you ogling them in the store.”

She glanced up at him. Her dark eyes held unfathomable emotions.

“Wear these boots and walk away—away from your past, away from your troubles. Do that. For yourself.” He reached into his pants pocket. “And this. For me. Will you?” A ring box.

Koong-Ja exhaled as if she’d been holding her breath. Was it his imagination, or did the corners of her lips turn up?

He knew her answer then.

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