*** This is entirely a work of fiction and I did no research of any kind about how mandatory service actually works so it probably is the exact opposite of accurate. ***
Just like many EXO-Ls all over the world, I was counting down the days until Xiumin, aka Kim Minseok, would be finished his military service and return to his position in EXO. Unlike all the other EXO-Ls, I was counting down those days with an increasingly heavy heart.
When Xiumin had begun his mandatory military service almost 2 years ago, the announcement had been sudden and his departure, seamlessly vanishing from public view, happened only days later. There had been some vicious rumors that this had been arranged to cover up an almost-leaked scandal of some sort (theories about what the actual scandal might have been were ridiculous and I refuse to even think about them) but for the most part, EXO-Ls were a mixture of shocked, dismayed, and supportive. EXO closed ranks and supported their eldest, now absent, member both publicly and in ways that are known to few, not even their agency.
The real reason for Xiumin’s speedy and unusual dive into his mandatory service was actually a good thing. A special opportunity had opened up, thanks to some strings pulled by SM. He was offered the chance to serve at the Korean embassy in Washington, D.C. instead of typical military service, giving him the chance to improve his English for SM’s inevitable invasion of the US music scene while completing his mandatory service. The decision had to be made quickly but with the possibilities that this could open up for his singing career apparent to him, Xiumin didn’t hesitate.
It wasn’t until he’d already been working at the embassy for 6 months that we first met. His work at the embassy was an overnight security detail. Along with the handful of other young men completing their mandatory service at the embassy, he’d patrol the grounds and guard the entrances overnight while the embassy was closed; this involved taking deliveries that arrived very early in the morning before the daytime staff was there. By trade I am a freelance writer but at that time I was supplementing my income by working for a florist; rent doesn’t get any cheaper when you’re having a bit of a dry spell with writing assignments. I liked doing the very early deliveries, not just because it paid a bit more than normal hours, but because I enjoyed making my way through a peaceful, mostly sleeping city.
I remember the delivery when I first met Minseok quite clearly. It was mid-March, about 4AM on a Wednesday. The air still held the chill of the night and the streetlights and signs were a bright contrast to the dark sky. I parked the little delivery van as close as I could to the embassy and hopped out the back with a large bouquet of flowers in varying hues of yellow, traveling the rest of the way on foot. I stopped at the front gate and a man, bundled up and in reflective yellow vest, stepped out. His eyes were dark, dark brown and soft, the most gorgeous I’ve ever seen. He could have stopped my breath just by blinking. When he spoke I felt warm all over, like I was bathed in sunlight. Of course, all he said was “Hello, miss. May I have the name for this delivery?” After going through the checking of lists and signing and initialling protocol for deliveries, I realized who he was. His hair was short and its natural color and the lack of stage makeup and subpar lighting hadn’t helped, but it was definitely Xiumin. I didn’t want to make him uncomfortable so I tried not to let on that I knew who he was. Lucky for me, the same delivery was ordered every week for the rest of March and all of May.
With every delivery we started talking a little longer at the gate; he started calling me by name, I confessed that I knew his name all along. Toward the end of that May he asked if I had any more deliveries to make that morning. When I said no, he asked me to meet him at a coffee shop a few blocks away after his shift was over. We sat almost in silence, smiling at each other like idiots while sipping our coffees. Perhaps he’d argue this point, but I consider that to have been our first date. He only had a little while before he had to be back at his embassy-provided dorm with the others on his shift to sleep so we only stayed maybe half an hour. He walked me back to the delivery van on his way. The deliveries to the embassy didn’t last long after that but it didn’t matter; we were seeing each other whenever he had leave from his post.
Having to keep things quiet and stay mostly out of sight wasn’t ideal but I understood that it would be that way and, despite the circumstances, we became inseparable, or so I thought. He was a gentleman to a fault but there was such passion simmering beneath the surface that at times it drove me mad. By that July I had started to worry, though; he still hadn’t kissed me, not properly. Sure, when he kissed me gently on my cheek or forehead, I felt so light that I might float away, but if he didn’t at least give me a real kiss soon I might die of pure frustration. I wondered whether he hesitated because he meant me to only be temporary and didn’t want to let things get too far. I knew I had fallen too hard for Minseok to be temporary so, like any logical woman would do in the face of such feelings, I pulled away and tried to pretend that I didn’t care. It took him almost no time to catch on that something was wrong, but he seemed to interpret my behavior as being caused by the exact opposite of the problem and decided he was moving too quickly.
By the end of that August we were barely seeing each other at all. Early that September, though, he planned a special outing for my birthday. We were supposed to visit a museum and have a picnic in a park, but the museum was full of reporters due to a new exhibit opening that day and the picnic had to be abandoned due to rain just after we set it up. We ended up running through the rain, holding hands and laughing until, without warning, he pulled me into an alley and kissed me with such force that I nearly fell backward. I cried tears of happiness and relief and had to explain to him that I wasn’t sad or upset. Minseok abandoned his restraint in a spectacular fashion. We took a taxi to my apartment and soon our wet clothes formed a trail to my bedroom. The thunder and lightning outside had nothing on the metaphorical sparks flying in my apartment that day.
A few weeks after my birthday, Minseok asked me to meet him at the same coffee shop where we had our first date. He said he just wanted to have coffee like we used to on the days when I delivered flowers to the embassy but the moment I walked through the door and spotted him at what used to be our usual table, I knew something was up. He was sitting there in the chair, fidgeting and twitching about like a nervous child. On the table beside his coffee was a large envelope, closed but not sealed, stuffed with papers. I sat down, feeling a mild panic creep in, and took a sip of the coffee he’d ordered for me. “Minseok,” I said, “what is this? What going on?” He chewed at his lip and continued to fidget, staring at me with those gorgeous eyes of his. After a moment he exhaled loudly and looked away. “Open the envelope.” I pulled it across the table to me and extracted the papers. They were documents and forms, oodles of forms. Before I could really inspect them, he continued. “I want you to see what you’re getting yourself into before you answer me.” I wasn’t sure whether to try to decipher the forms or stare at him. He placed one hand under my chin and tilted my head toward him. “This isn’t quite how this is supposed to go but it seems like the fairest way to ask. Will you fill out this ridiculous pile of forms and spend months meeting with government officials and whatever else is required with me so that I can call you my wife?” I couldn’t form words right away but I nodded, or at least tried to, as his hand was holding my chin. A few disobedient tears slid down my cheeks. “Yes, Minseok,” I finally whispered. “It won’t be easy,” he said, “and not just because of all this.” I reached for his other hand and squeezed it. “I don’t care.”
The process of getting approval to get married, all while trying to keep it a secret, was definitely not easy but it was tedious. With Minseok by my side I didn’t mind it one bit. In addition to getting approval from two governments, we had to deal with two sets of parents. He couldn’t leave D.C. so my parents flew in and stayed with me for a week so they could meet him. They loved him, of course. His English was so good by then that their conversations were relatively effortless. My Korean, however, not so much, but by some small miracle, after a number of awkward and confusing skype calls, his parents were on board; I think that had a lot less to do with anything either of us said than with the way Minseok looked at me while he tried to translate for me. At that point the total number of people privy to our engagement exactly 4, not counting the two of us. Soon, 8 more people were added to that number. The other members of EXO were scheduled to perform in the US in March and so the date for our wedding was decided.
We must have seemed an extremely strange bunch standing in front of the justice of the peace on that lovely March afternoon: the bride’s parents and the groom’s parents not speaking to each other, 8 handsome men wearing more makeup than the bride and outfits that looked more suited to a runway that a courthouse in DC, Minseok looking ethereal in a suit Jongdae had brought for him, and my in a simple but elegant cream-colored dress that did not much resemble a wedding dress but felt just right to me. I held tightly to Minseok’s hand the entire time. We made our promises to each other, exchanged tasteful, simple rings, and walked out of the courthouse joined in wedded bliss. But even in that moment I knew the days were numbered.
Because our marriage had to remain a secret from everyone except the people who had been with us in that courthouse, we wore our rings on chains around our necks instead of on our fingers. We couldn’t take a honeymoon since Minseok wasn’t allowed to leave D.C. and since he had to sleep at the embassy-provided dorm, we never got to wake up in each other’s arms. Married life was pretty much the same as dating life for us but, still, we were happy in our secret and enjoyed every moment together.
While we spent the summer making the most of what time we could make together, I could not stop thinking about two facts: 1) in a few months Minseok’s mandatory service would be up and he’d be heading back to Korea and 2) I would not be going with him. When thinking about this kept me from sleeping I’d go online and read articles and message board posts about his upcoming return. It felt like these things were leaked through from another reality, not this reality in which I was living. People were counting down with excitement to a thing that I was counting down with increasing dread. I wanted desperately, selfishly to ask him to break his contract and stay with me, but I knew that I could not ask that. I’d seen all the articles and interviews in my counterproductive hours online. “I just really want to sing,” he’d said. There was no way I could ever make him choose, not even if I knew that he’d choose me. We hadn’t discussed a specific plan yet but it would have to happen soon.
The last full month we had before his departure, I began to feel pretty awful. Whether it was from not sleeping well or stress or both, I felt tired all the time and lost my appetite. Minseok and I talked about what we would do. It wouldn’t be safe for me to join him in Korea since our marriage was still a secret. He couldn’t stay after his service ended because he was obligated to jump right into recording a new EXO album and preparing for a comeback. I would stay in D.C. and he would return to Korea, visiting as often as he could manage without raising suspicion. When his contract was up he would reveal the marriage to SM and negotiate with them to remain with EXO or take his chances elsewhere, but either way it would be the two of us together then. Every moment we had left was precious so I tried not to let on how ill I felt but I finally broke down and made an appointment to see my doctor, the soonest appointment being the morning of Minseok’s flight back to Korea.
With all the grace I could manage, I helped my husband prepare everything he needed for his return trip before putting on my coat and taking a taxi to my appointment. My stomach felt like I had swallowed thumb tacks for breakfast; I’d actually had to skip breakfast because I didn’t want to vomit on Minseok and the stress was making me feel green. I walked into the doctor’s office worrying that I’d have to give my husband some sort of devastating news as a parting gift; 45 minutes later I walked out in a daze, hoping I’d be able to give him some really wonderful news as a parting gift. I got into a cab to head straight to the airport, checking my phone anxiously every minute or two. Minseok was waiting for me, his luggage already checked. We sat in a quiet corner trying not to be noticed as we waited for the boarding call to tear us apart. We didn’t talk; we just sat there, hand-in-hand, my head nestled against his arm. My phone rang and I almost dropped it in my frantic rush to answer. I started to cry before I even ended the call and Minseok stared at me, his alarm apparent on his face. I pulled him close and whispered into his ear, not daring to say what I had to say in such a way that anyone else might hear. The boarding call came over the loudspeakers. There were tears welling in Minseok’s eyes as he kissed me before walking away.
I stood alone, watching the plane take off, trying not to cry any more. I was absent-mindedly fidgeting with the wedding ring that hung on the chain around my neck. Well, not really alone, I guess. I let my hand slip down to my stomach and smoothed my shirt over it as if I’d feel something new. It was too early for that, of course. I contemplated the tiny ball of cells that I knew was hiding inside me, getting ready to perform the magic trick of growing into a human being. Minseok was going to have to negotiate that change of contract a bit sooner than we’d planned.