In my dream, everything was black.
Or maybe it was nothing. Just nothing.
Nothing and noise.
How can that be?
Broken sobs echoed through me like ghosts passing in and out.
Trying to stay quiet, but I’ve never heard silence, poorly contained, so loud.
There were other voices, all of them muffled in the background except for one.
He was hot tears and unfinished prayers.
Never knowing who to pray to, who to ask, who to beg.
“Please, please,” he choked out. So desperately, I longed to wake up.
I wanted this dream to end so I could give him his wish.
In my dream, he wished for me.
Somewhere in the dark, he reached his hand out for mine.
I wonder if I’ll ever find it.
“Wake up. Please, wake up. Please don’t leave like this.”
In my dream, I think—no, I’m afraid, I was dying.
All I know is that I can’t leave him all alone.
“You’re so lucky you survived.”
“We thought you’d never wake up.”
“The doctor kept saying—“
The human mind is such a fragile thing.
“You will have to stay for some time. We need to make sure you’re stable.”
“Do you want anything special from home, sweetheart?”
“It’s imperative that you begin clinical therapy before we can discharge you.”
So delicate. So easily destroyed.
I look down at my lap as faces around me try to talk. They are so hushed and careful, like tiptoeing around glass, afraid and alert.
What are they so afraid of?
“Should I call Jinyoung?”
Without thinking, my eyes find my mother’s and it’s the second time I’ve looked at her today. She is still trying not to cry. I wish I could comfort her, but I’m afraid I don’t know how. I feel so cold again as it sinks in.
I don’t know how to talk to my mother.
It rolls off my tongue like water spilling through my hands.
With shaking hands, my mother holds mine. She couldn’t hold it in. The tears have already fallen without her permission and she is trying to hold in her sobs by biting down on her lip.
Somehow, I think I should be crying too. In fact, I want to. I so badly want to just feel something, anything familiar. I just need to feel like me.
But who am I?
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, afraid to upset her more. My head throbs, but I don’t feel any pain, and I try squeezing her hand back.
Please understand. I don’t want to be this way either.
Dr. Kwon, the doctor in charge of overseeing my recovery, stood at the end of the hospital bed. He holds his clipboard like a shield, always holding it up to his eyes instead of putting on the glasses around his neck. His white coat is blinding under the lights as he just not quite blends in with the bleach colored walls. My eyes burn from looking at him.
I want to ask to go home, but I didn’t want to ask not knowing where that would be. I want to wrap my arms around myself, but I can’t let go of my mother’s hands. I don’t want her to think I don’t love her. Or that I’ve forgotten how to. Either possibility would break her heart.
“Fortunately,” Dr. Kwon speaks finally, “Your injuries were very minor, with the obvious exception of blunt force trauma to the head. Based on what we’ve gathered asking your family since you woke up, we will have to keep you for several days, maybe longer. This seems to be, hopefully, a case of retrograde amnesia—“
“Am I dying?”
Beside me, a now audible sob escapes. My mother squeezes my hands back now, so hard her knuckles are white and my fingers uncurl from them, captive as she cries. But all I could feel was that throbbing pain in my head.
I stare ahead at Dr. Kwon, not knowing what else I could do, besides wanting to cry too. If I only could.
He shakes his head and approaches us, placing his chapped hand on my mother’s shoulder and reassures her gently, inaudibly as my ears start ringing. Softly at first.
“You’re not dying. When you’ve recovered some, we can take a look at the x-rays together. There’s no severe damage to the hippocampus, but there does appear to be a possibility of post-traumatic amnesia. However, rest assured, that’s only the worst possible scenario. You see, in cases of such rapid acceleration, the brain—“
I’m so tired. My fingers feel numb now. Or just heavy. Or do I feel light?
I lean back onto the bed and look up at the fluorescent bulbs as heavy lightness takes my whole body. Like a lullaby, coaxing me to sleep.
Don’t worry, the sensations echo along my body, caressing my eyelids to fall close. Don’t worry. You’ll be okay. I promise.
Whose voice was it in my dream?
The crying, or the coaxing?
The worst day after waking up had to be day 4. I was beginning to remember things, in either painful clarity or I had to piece together all the things remembered. Somewhere between far-off dreams, the hardest part was not knowing which pieces had been reality.
Of course, this was only temporary.
On day 3, after many questions, a lot of tear-filled sighs of relief from my parents, and some scientific explanations I can’t repeat, there were some clear cut answers. I have forgotten the last year to about two years of my life.
On day 2, I remembered my parents’ names. I reassured my father that I did remember his birthday. I recalled the house we lived in, the warmth from the Victorian windows of my room when the sun shined. I remember how much they embarrassed me at my graduation, what schools I was accepted into.
“Who is Jinyoung?”
Watching my mother squirm at the question made me uncomfortable. I knew he had to be someone important. I had retrograde amnesia, but I was not an idiot. Or a child. Between these hospital visits, it’s hard to tell which of the two they keep treating me like.
It frustrated me. To no end, it frustrated me to hear my own parents say, “You’ll know when you see him.”
How? I want to ask, How will I know? How will you know?
But instead, I smile. I blink slowly and smile before yawning.
“Are you tired?”
“No, no,” I feign another yawn, “I just-you know, I’m a little—“
And they get up to leave.
No, they insist, I’m tired. I need my rest. They’ll be fine. They’ll come see me again tomorrow.
And they leave me. In my bleak, off-white hospital room.
When I’m sure they’ve gone, that’s when I cry. Or scream. And I want to break everything in sight, but they don’t let anything within reaching distance and I’m too frustrated to want to get out of bed. I end up curling into a ball with bleach-scented sheets over my head.
And I try and try and try to remember that name until it hurts. My lip from biting down so hard. My eyes throbbing with black and green squiggles blurring my vision. My knuckles from gripping the sheets so hard, white and shaking.
I’m so terrified that I could be going insane. Either from trying so hard to remember or the possibility that I could never remember.
By the end of week 1 – the hospital staff count the days for me – I am so sick.
I am sick of my hospital room and the off-putting whites that surrounded me. I miss looking at color.
I miss the sunshine when the night starts to fall. I long to feel the warmth of the sun.
I’ve tasted so much bland hospital food, I only look forward to the things my parents bring. My mother’s homemade soups and perfectly wrapped meals, my father’s futile attempts to cook and brightly wrapped packs of fast food he ends up bringing instead.
I miss them more and more as I collect what I remember of them, of our home and all the things this accident has taken away from me.
I feel empty when they go.
I even miss Dr. Kwon on my worst days.
I was deemed ready for clinical therapy on the 9th day after I woke up. But before everything was ready and tests were run, I was allowed to walk about, participate in any activities the children’s or elderly ward had planned.
They didn’t get too many young people here. At least, that’s what the nurses tell me.
It’s funny, in that really frustratingly fucked up sort of way, but I don’t get very far from my room. I don’t want to see people. I don’t want to go back and forth between the wards, to the very beginning stages of life and the very end. I can’t. I’m afraid I’ll really go insane.
So I curl up at the window just outside. It’s one of those big ones, with just enough room for your legs to stretch out. I press my hands against it, revel in the heat of the sun and try to feel warmth as I once knew it.
Outside, I see people. I see life moving forward and with so much fear, remind myself that the world has not stopped moving. Not even once. Not for me.
I wonder if I’ll ever catch up.
Pressing my forehead against the glass, I try to think. I see the pictures moving, like old films, like silent footage as I closed my eyes and wished for all the world to just not see. I feel chills at my neck, or was it sweat?
I hope to god that it isn’t what I thought it was, but ever since I woke up, my body and mind never do what I want it to when I ask. Especially when I beg.
“Please,” I whisper, “Please, please, please…”
I try to listen. Clear my mind and listen for the footsteps of nurses on rounds or wheelchairs rolling on the floor, for crying children or or or—
It is so loud. Like war drums in my ears, beer bottle green hues in my vision, I brace myself against the hollow walls of the window. I’m hot and cold at the same time, heavy and light again.
I cover my ears as the drums bang louder, throbbing as the sounds travel upstream to my head. Faintly, I feel his hands on my shoulders, but numbly, I focus all strength into my hands to block out the noise.
“It’s okay! It’s okay, it’s okay—“
It’s not, but I hear him better now. His voice echoes in the long corridor of my headache, trying to find its way to my ears. I wish I could guide him there.
“Repeat after me, okay? Repeat after me, I can help you, I’m going to help you—I’m going to help you, okay?”
I try to nod. I think I nod.
“One thousand minus seven is? What’s one thousand minus seven? One thousand minus seven. One thousand minus seven. One thou—“
“Nine hundred ninety-three,” I gasp.
“Nine hundred ninety-three minus seven is? Nine hundred ninety-three minus seven?”
“Nine hundred eighty—“
“The whole thing,” he cuts me off, shaking my shoulders gently, “Nine hundred ninety-three minus seven is?”
I hear him. “Nine hundred ninety-three minus seven is nine hundred eighty-six. Nine hundred eighty-six.”
“Okay. Now keep counting. Nine hundred eighty-six minus seven.”
“Nine hundred seventy-nine.”
“Nine hundred seventy-two.”
“Keep going. Nine hundred seventy-two minus seven?”
“Nine hundred sixty-five. Nine hundred fifty-eight. Nine hundred fifty-one. Nine hundred…”
He called it a good luck charm. Dr. Kwon said the technical term was survival mantra.
Either way, on day 9, I learned that when I felt an anxiety attack coming on, I can count down from one thousand minus seven.
My first contact with someone outside these four white walls was with a boy who taught me how to save myself.
“Do I know you?” I ask him once a nurse has helped me back inside.
I can tell I must have. Known him, I mean.
The last few days of reading body language instead of hearing actual words helped me understand people in ways they never wanted to be understood. But with this person, it was hard.
Hard didn’t mean impossible.
Though he could look at me, unlike my parents who chose to look anywhere but, his eyes fell somewhere between my nose and mouth. Never meeting my eyes unless I spoke. So I asked him again.
“If I do, I’m sorry. But I may not right now.”
Warm tears well up in my eyes, but I force out a breath of laughter, shaking my head despite him not having said a word. I was ready to disappoint him. After all, this accident has taken nothing from me if not tried to take all the people I cared about.
“Why are you crying?”
I look up and this time, his eyes do meet mine. I can’t read his expression, if there even is one because there’s such a blankness in it, it could compete with the walls.
“You are,” he says, so bluntly I press a hand to my face and quickly catch the tears before he sees more of them.
“I’m sorry, I just—“
What the hell is this guy’s problem? He didn’t want me to cry, but he didn’t want me to apologize. He helps me through my panic attack but was completely cold.
“I don’t know who you are,” my voice lowers almost to a growl, “And I hope I don’t because you have no idea what I’m going through.”
He says nothing. Of course, he wouldn’t say anything. No one knows what to say to amnesia.
“Thank you for helping me. But I’m not in the mood for this. I don’t think I ever have been. My family treats me like a child, my friends all think I’m dumb or may as well be dying. I want to cry and vomit and scream, but I can’t do anything without a nurse checking my reflexes or giving me pain killers so I can sleep and stop bothering them. So you need to get the fuck out.“
This time, the door of my room opens with a loud click, interrupting me trying to kick this guy out. Of course, why would anything go my way?
“Mom, I’m tired today. Can you take this guy with you before you go?” I ask her harshly, but she doesn’t even flinch. She just stops and stares at the boy sitting at my bedside, like a deer in my headlights.
“Mom,” I say to get her attention. “Mom, are you listening?”
“You stupid girl.”
My fingers twitch. I’m the stupid one?
She shakes her head, pursing her lips together.
“I know it’s not your fault you don’t remember.”
“Mom, what are you saying?”
“If it wasn’t for this boy, you wouldn’t even be here.”
It all happens so quickly, but time has been so unforgiving to me.
I am looking at him now and he is finally meeting my eyes again. Like a blow to the head, I can no longer see his face as the green hues come up to blind me, like clockwork the throbbing in my temples and the back of my head return.
I shut my eyes and it’s the only way that I can see him. And I recognize him, I know him. I do know him.
His eyes are still burning into me as my mother comes closer now. I faintly hear her footsteps as I try to cradle my head in my now numbing hands.
One thousand minus seven is nine hundred ninety-three. Nine hundred ninety-three minus seven is nine hundred eighty-five. Nine hundred eighty-five minus seven is…
“’This guy’,” her voice echoes to touch my mind, “is Im Jaebum. He saved your life.”
I found out from my psychologist in the psych ward that Im Jaebum volunteered at the hospital for school. He came often, though, and many of the nurses and doctors here liked him, for obvious reasons.
He was good looking, but quiet and kept to himself. He took care of his responsibilities and took orders well. He was one of the youngest among the volunteer staff and helped the elder patients with their routinely exercises in the rehabilitation ward.
Dr. Kwon also assigned him to escort me to the clinical psychologist after that day. “A familiar face, a very important one, will be good to help you recover.”
If I recover.
For them, as in the doctors and my parents, recovering the last year to two years wasn’t the actual recovery. It was coping.
Coping with the sadness, or emptiness, call it what you will. They’ve called it everything they could. They think that if they just give it all these names, they could fix me and that everything will be okay, but everything is not okay and I’m the one who has to live with that.
I know it’s so selfish, but am I wrong?
I know I’m not the only one who’s suffered. I know my parents are grieving, so scared that I could relapse and forget them. My mother is praying after visits, my father unable to forgive himself because his daughter doesn’t mean to break his heart, but he’d rather I break it than not recognize it at all.
“Don’t I get to feel scared too?”
I look up at Jaebum, who has stopped walking in the hall. He stands behind me, silent and still. Like stone. Cold and unfeeling. I stare at him, wanting him to look back. I want to share some semblance, even a small shred of the pain I felt to someone who could not judge me for it. Someone like Jaebum who’s heart couldn’t be broken.
He walks towards me and tries to take my hand, but I pull it away from him. He tries to take it again, this time his fingers are firm around my wrist but doesn’t hurt me.
“Come on,” he says gently and leads me to the elevator, “Let’s go outside for a little bit.”
The air tastes free. Or rather, it tastes real. I lifted my hands to touch the leaves of trees planted around the grounds, kneeled into the grass to touch velvety flower petals of roses, tulips, and carnations and other flowers.
Around me, people talked and laughed. Some were hushed together, silent in their intimacy. So much more alive than the droning inside the hospital. I said this to Jaebum as he followed me, pointing out people and children, but he would only nod or murmur an agreement. There was something about him that felt so far away.
I went over to one of the white benches under the shade, him faintly trailing behind me. I nodded for him to sit and he sat at the opposite end, like some kind of robot. It was discouraging, but I have to remind myself that after we first met, I’d told him to get the fuck out.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out before I could stop myself. “For being rude to you.”
“Ah, well you should be.”
I pursed my lips as I turn to him, ready to rip him a new one when I see him smiling at me. Not a big smile, no. Jaebum wasn’t the kind of person who smiled wide. But I saw it in the way his eyes crinkled and one side of his mouth tugged like he was sharing a secret to himself.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that I used to know that look.
He cradles his cheek in one hand, leaning against the end of the bench as he smiles down at the ground. Still sharing secrets, but somehow, he didn’t feel so far away.
I did know Im Jaebum, didn’t I? Otherwise, how can I feel so at ease now knowing he forgave me? How did I know he forgave me without saying a word?
His eyes meet mine again. “What are you smiling about?”
“I don’t know. But thank you, for saving my life.” My eyes started to sting with tears, probably just another side effect to my depressive mood. I was so used to crying now, especially when I didn’t know why. Dr. Kwon would remind me that my brain did.
Jaebum moves closer to me and I prepared myself for the blunt end of his personality. Ready to tell him why I was crying, because I don’t know why. I don’t have any answers and no one has any for me, yet I’m the one who will have to cope with that.
I have to live with parts of my life, myself, hidden in the dark. Not knowing, not being able to tell what were memories and what were just dreams I desperately hoped were lost pieces.
I was in pain.
His hand is warm on mine. My eyes shut immediately at his touch, startled by his sudden touch and even more terrified that my body welcomed it. Under the shade, Jaebum’s hand basked me in the sun.
“It must be lonely,” he says so softly. Not careful, just soft. I allow myself this single selfish wish, and I allow myself to want his understanding. “You’ve been suffering all this time, haven’t you?”
As I open my eyes, what started out as warmth in my chest fell to a sinking dread pooling in my stomach. Like I was doing something wrong or that it didn’t feel right. Or it shouldn’t.
I take my hand back, blinking rapidly now as I looked around for something.
What am I looking for?
Where will I find it?
As Jaebum tried to comfort me, I kept turning around, despite his gentle orders to start counting again. I was having a panic attack again.
One thousand. Nine hundred ninety-three.
I could see him now as Jaebum tries holding my shoulders.
Nine hundred eighty-six. Nine hundred seventy-nine. Nine hundred seventy-two.
It was clear to me now even as the world began to blur and fade.
Nine hundred sixty-five. Nine hundred fifty-eight.
It was Jaebum’s voice in my dream, “Don’t worry. Don’t worry. You’ll be okay, I promise.”
Nine hundred fifty-one. Nine hundred forty-four. Nine hundred thirty-seven.
But the beautiful boy in front of me, the one catching his breath and trying not to cry at the same time. I know it because I see it in his tear-filled eyes and hear it in the pleading of his voice.
It was his voice in the blackness, “Please wake up. Please don’t leave me like this.”
I know him. I don’t know him now, but I must have known him then from the way he’s looking at me and the pain in my chest, so hot and tight, I was afraid it’d smother me.
Jaebum had me in his arms, both of us still, but I could hear his teeth clench as he bit out,
“Where have you been, Park Jinyoung?”
“You know that place between sleep and awake, that place where you still remember dreaming? That’s where I’ll always love you. That’s where I’ll be waiting.”
— J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
this is short because I was probably going through a writer's block. I'm pretty sure I was at Disneyland or getting ready to go, hence the Peter Pan quote.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
There is nothing worse than seeing someone you love and not remembering why you even loved them in the first place. Not for yourself, but for the other person. For the other person who waited for you, held you, begged and begged for you until there was nothing left, but they still would have gone to the ends of the earth to find just anything to bring you back.
And they give you every part of them only for you to come back not recognizing a single piece. So you can’t even give them back.
How fucked up is that?
“’There could not have been a lovelier sight; but there was none to see it except a little boy who was staring in at the window. He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be for ever barred.’”
And as Jinyoung read to me, I wish I’d never woken up.
He rests a finger in Peter Pan and lays it on his lap, one leg crossed over the other. Try as I might, I could never seem to keep my eyes away.
Park Jinyoung was a beautiful boy, with glowing skin and hair black as those dreams that plagued me still. With hands that held mine so tightly, it was unmistakable that it was their warmth that made me long to wake. His eyes crinkled when he smiled, like the creamy pages of the books he loved to read to me, and when he cried, his tears shined like rain on glass.
He read as fluidly as the flowers bloomed outside. He wove new dreams out of those stories, lulling me to him, to fall asleep in love he dare not yet give with touch. But in the way he would rather look at the pages instead of me, I could tell he wanted to.
He brought his favorites and mine, and he read until they asked him to leave. The staff all knew him now, that beautiful boy, that sweet, loving, impossibly devoted boy, Park Jinyoung.
When Jaebum had helped me inside that day, I asked for melatonin for the first time, to help me sleep. I didn’t need it because the panic attack had taken a lot out of me, but I didn’t want to face anyone for the day. If possible, I wanted to sleep for the week.
I didn’t want to see my parents. I didn’t want to give them another reason to treat me like a child.
Most of all, I couldn’t bear to see the boy who was in love with me to be in so much pain.
I remember so vividly how he came in the next day with my parents, who had guilt written all over their faces, knowing they couldn’t hide him from me or avoid telling me who he was now that I’d seen him for myself. Or rather, he appeared before me when I was at my most vulnerable.
Jinyoung was my boyfriend. The one who spent days, nights on end visiting me as I drifted between permanent sleep and fighting to awake.
“Do you remember me?” he had asked when we were left alone.
I’d said nothing, but I didn’t have to say anything. My silence lets him know, cruel and cold as it fell between us, a barely-there caress to me, but a stinging slap in his face.
Of course, I want to do something, but what can I do for him? What can I do for someone I love when I don’t know myself around him anymore?
I looked down at the deep green cover of Peter Pan while he looked at me. We were finding ourselves here more and more often lately. I could tell he wanted to say something, but Jinyoung never spoke a word to me unless it was to read. He waited for me to speak and it was about as bearable as watching paint dry.
What could I say to him?
I’m sorry I don’t remember you.
I’m sorry you waited for me and I wake up with nothing.
I’m sorry you ever met me.
Clinical therapy hasn’t exactly been helpful for my “depressive mood”. A common question Dr. Bennet asked me was, “Do you often feel worthless?”
Did I feel worthless?
How could I not?
The few friends that came to see me after visitations outside of family came asking questions about the accident when they aren’t asking questions I’m supposed to know about them. I try to be patient and not show my irritation because they mean well, they don’t want me to forget them.
Smile more, say more, be more than the amnesia patient and just make the effort to be a good friend.
My parents were beside themselves with guilt for not letting my own boyfriend see me the moment I woke up, afraid I’d go into shock or freak out or throw a tantrum like the child they think I am. When they weren’t too guilty to look at me, they sneak in concerned glances when they think I’m asleep. I remind myself to stop being so selfish and just be better to them when they come.
Smile more, say more, be more than the amnesia patient and just make the effort to be their daughter.
When Jinyoung came to see me, I was impossibly empty. Not because I felt nothing for him, but because I knew he wished I felt something. He’s willing to settle for anything. And I feel so guilty, even more so because it is the only coherent emotion I understand around him, yet he’s happy with just that? He’s content with that alone?
With him, I can’t smile more. I’m afraid to say more, I’m just his amnesia patient girlfriend. And I don’t know where to begin to make the god damn effort to be the girl he loves.
“Do you often feel worthless?”
As I lift my head to meet Jinyoung’s patient gaze, I hear my own voice, weak and tired, an ever the same, “Sometimes.”
Dr. Bennet was a sweet woman, looked to be in her early forties. Never smiling too brightly, but never a sullen face. She reminded me of my old teachers, the ones I didn’t care much to go out of my way to impress or hate enough to make a point to be indifferent towards.
She was just kind of there.
Lately, everything in this place is sort of just kind of there.
Except for Jinyoung and his books, his fairytales, and his resilience.
Since I woke, he hasn’t stopped waiting for me.
“I’m sorry.” My voice is small and afraid. I know more than anyone – god, how can you not see it in his face? – Jinyoung’s disappointment was the inevitable that I wanted to avoid.
He blinks once, then twice, and once again. His eyes drift to the floor, then to the space between us. I can’t help but follow them until they meet mine and he smiles.
“Why are you sorry?”
I hold my breath.
“You could have died.”
And his voice shakes me to my very core. Almost instinctively, my shoulders shrink into my neck and I want to look away out of fear and some lingering despair. What do I say to that knowing that my death would have broken him irrevocably?
My mouth falls open as I try to think of how to respond, but he gets up and sits at the edge of the bed, his left side facing me and his hands folded on top of the book. He looks up at the fluorescent lights that sting my eyes like he’s reading an answer.
“You’ve told me before,” Jinyoung starts, almost wistfully. “They really don’t teach us much in school. They don’t teach you how to be a good person or a bad person. How to be rich or poor. They don’t teach you how to know what’s going on in someone else’s mind.”
He turns his head and gives me that same forlorn smile, but I know it’s for me before himself. I don’t need to remember the last two years with Jinyoung to know he is a selfless person. Or that he would rather I not think anything is wrong with him than show that I was breaking his heart because I couldn’t mend it when he thought he’d lost me forever.
They don’t teach you how to love someone. They don’t teach you what to say to someone who’s dying. They don’t teach you how to walk away from someone you don’t love any longer.
I remember saying that too. I remember being happier than I was saying it to him than I am hearing it from him.
“They don’t teach you anything worth knowing.”
His smile just reaches his eyes as my heart sinks. I have been doing that a lot lately. Sinking.
But Jinyoung unfolds his hand from atop Peter Pan, hesitating, but never looking away from me. “How can you say sorry? How can it be you when I’m the one – I couldn’t… I thought that you— “
“I’m here,” I say louder than him. “Jinyoung.”
His name is still foreign, but I don’t feel like sinking so deep. He is holding out a lifeline for me.
“Jinyoung, I’m here.” I take his hand and hold it knowing it wasn’t enough to want to save myself.
He’s holding out a lifeline, but he’s close to drowning with me.
How can I let him sink with me?
I guide his hand to rest on my cheek as I close my eyes. It’s warm and soft, and so afraid, I squeeze the back of his fingers with my own as my nails rake along my cheek. I don’t dare wish for my memory of him, only that I could at least feel his touch and remember some semblance of how it felt to be touched by the man that loves me.
And I think of warm afternoons and mahogany shelves. Freshly mowed grass and hot summer nights, fireworks catching up to a fleeting sunset. Walks along paved campus roads with flower petals falling in the breeze. Creamy pages of well-kept hardcover books and story-telling, about little princes from the moon and Christopher Robin who got lost in the Hundred Acre Wood.
And a little boy who would never grow up.
“Do you remember that line from the book?” His thumb grazes my cheek.
I hum, something between a “not really” and “tell me”.
“’Do you know that place between sleep and awake,’” Jinyoung murmurs. “’That place where you still remember dreaming?’”
My eyes sting under my lids with warmth, still shut tightly as I nod. I can see his face, his lips moving clear in my mind.
“’That’s where I’ll be waiting,’” I’m barely able to whisper as his fingers graze the skin of my temple and into my hair.
“’That’s where I’ll always love you.’”
His lips ghost along my forehead and for the first time since I woke up, it felt so good to be able to feel something other than these four walls threatening to crush me. Some desire to be alive instead of welcoming them.
Even as Jinyoung caught the tears that leaked from my eyes, for a moment, I didn’t try to remember him.
His arms circled around my shoulders, still hesitant and careful, so I lean my head into the crook of his neck. As if to tell him it’s okay, that I won’t shatter in his arms even though sometimes, it is the all I want.
“I’m sorry, Jinyoung,” I apologize again and again, “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”
“I should have been there.”
And he sounds so sure of himself, so certain.
“I wasn’t there, it’s my fault.”
“You care so much.”
I raise my head to face him only to have his hand cradling the back of it. His eyes are wet with unshed tears. He has cried so much for me, and it’s enough for him that I’m awake? His girlfriend, the amnesia patient, who can barely face him let alone speak to him, is enough?
And he can still find it in himself to comfort me?
Jinyoung’s hand is trembling. His fingers quiver as they just barely thread through my hair.
“You care so much, how can I ever let you apologize.”
It is not enough.
“How can I love you while you suffer all alone?”
It is not nearly enough.
“I will love you if I never see you again. And I’ll love you if I see you every Tuesday.”
summary quote is from Lemony Snickett, we love that melancholy mother fucker.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It’s impossible not to feel empty inside these stark white walls, under fluorescent lightbulbs and sinking in bleached white sheets. Though Jinyoung and my parents visited me around the clock, the growing fear that this room will close in on me had never left my mind.
I missed going outside but was only allowed if my parents or Jinyoung visited, or if Jaebum could sneak me out when he was supposed to be helping me to therapy. I thank him when he comes early so we can go and have time to just be out in the sun.
But there never seemed enough time no matter how often he manages to get me out. I wanted to go home.
More than anything, more than wanting to “recover”, I just wanted to go home. I wanted to sleep in my own bed, read in the warmth of a home I had remembered on my own. I just wanted to go back to my life, however I had left it. Forgotten, or remembered; I just wanted to leave this place.
“It would help to take up an activity,” Dr. Bennet suggests softly as she looks at me. Her pen is in hand on top of the clipboard settled in her lap.
I can never read her handwriting and I always find myself trying to peer across her office to so I can see what she thinks of me. At least then I know, if not my progress, then whether what I’m going through isn’t just another diagnosis code on the long list of hospital bills.
“I don’t like it here.” And without thinking, warm tears pool in my eyes. I roll my eyes up to the ceiling to stop them from falling, so sick of crying. I am so fucking sick of crying. “I don’t want to be like this.”
“What do you mean?”
God, I hate this stupid game.
“I mean,” I say as steadily as I can manage, “Being sad. This place makes me so sad. I have to rely on people, all the time, for everything.”
“The nurses. My parents, my-my boyfriend – I don’t even know if he is still. If he’s still my boyfriend, I mean. I don’t know if that’s terrifying or-or kind of relieving, but I’m scared.”
She nods, never looking away from me as she writes quickly onto her clipboard. “That’s not something to be ashamed of in your situation. You’re lost and that’s a very scary thing to be.”
How would you know? I want to snarl at her. I want to ask her if she’d ever felt like this before. Waking up from darkness only to find that it hasn’t left and I’ve just fallen deeper into it.
Disappointing everyone around me. Letting my parents down. Making Jinyoung wait for me.
I want to take it out on her and that makes me fearful of who I’m supposed to be. But I do. I want to hurt someone because at least it’ll feel real and it’ll be my choice to.
The problem with my situation is that it’s always someone else’s idea.
But even in all my frustration and my need to feel something entirely my own, I can’t bring myself to lash out. Partly because I'm almost reeling from the thought of being so cruel, but mostly because I don’t want to give this place a reason to keep me here longer.
I swallow. “Is there a place I can go for art supplies here?”
I remember a room where I used to paint in. With cool, cream and slate sandalwood floors and a sheet spread along the expanse of it. There were canvas stands, always at least two in the corners of the room. And a wide window stretching from one end of the wall to the next where there was a view of the buildings outside.
It couldn’t have been in the house, I don’t think very far, but it always felt like how home was supposed to.
“Should I draw you something?”
“What are you even drawing? A bush?”
Ignoring him, I feel Jaebum peering over my shoulder as I continue shading the crude excuse of a flower on my paper. From the children’s ward, I borrowed pencils and a few sheets of paper as per Dr. Bennet’s suggestion.
I can’t say it helped me remember much of anything that I didn’t already know, but it did make me wonder if I was still doing it in the last two years. Painting, I mean. I’ll have to ask Jinyoung when he visits.
My hand twitches at the thought of seeing Jinyoung later.
“It’s a carnation, you jerk,” I mumble, “Like the white and pink ones outside.”
“Doesn’t look like one.”
“I’m a lot better at painting than sketching.”
I turn from the window to look at him and narrow my eyes at the skeptical look on his face.
He clears his throat, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. “Anyway, when the therapist said to find an activity, maybe you should actually go to the children’s ward to visit. You know, instead of just stealing their stuff, maybe ask them if they’d be okay about you stealing their stuff.”
“I didn’t steal their – “
I flinch when a nurse shushes me as she passes by, shrinking into the window space meekly.
He tries to hide it behind his cool stares, but I know Jaebum is silently laughing at me. He is all small smiles and downcast eyes like he knows something I don’t.
Before I can take it back, my hand reaches out to swat at his chest.
“I didn’t steal their stuff!” I hiss out. “I asked to borrow them and promised that I’ll return them before I go to bed.”
“You mean I will,” he mutters, rubbing the spot on his chest and nods towards the door. “You just need to walk these two steps into your room. I need to go all the way across the other building just to give those poor kids back the stuff you stole.”
“For the last time – “
He instinctively holds up both of his hands, laughing as I raise my hand again and slap at the space between us. Despite myself, I laugh too, and it’s so nice to be able to do that. To just laugh with a stranger and not be bombarded with questions or carry the burden of their disappointment to know that I’ve forgotten them.
This guy is Im Jaebum. He saved your life.
Some days, I wish he hadn’t. But right now, I don’t want to think that. Here with him, I don’t want him to know that his efforts were in vain, especially when he must have risked his life trying to save mine. That’s just cruel.
My hand falls back to my side as I look down at the sketch in my lap. What do you say to someone who had saved your life?
“Do not thank me for saving your life again, please.”
I turned so fast, I think I actually got that annoying kink out of my neck. But Jaebum looks at me expectantly, his mouth set in a thin line. I can’t understand why he’s irritated, but I suppose it grows tiresome to hear the same thing from someone. And I’m sure he sustained no small injury helping me.
“Sorry,” I breathe out, managing a smile in spite of my guilt. “I just don’t really get why anyone would do that for a stranger.”
“Because it’s the right thing to do,” he mumbles like it’s the most obvious choice to make. “Besides, we’re not strangers now.”
I have seen Jaebum more times than I’ve seen my therapist in the weeks I’ve spent going to therapy. Weeks? Days? I can’t tell because keeping track of the time here has only reminded me of all the negative things Dr. Bennet tells me I shouldn’t be focusing on.
“No. I guess not.”
But between Jaebum helping me everywhere and Jinyoung coming for visiting hours, they dedicated the most time here. Well, Jaebum because he volunteered here. Jinyoung came because he wanted to see me, despite my condition.
Not that the comparison can even be made. They’re too different.
Where Jaebum was very blunt – honestly too blunt – and was louder with what he could do than with actual words, Jinyoung needed his words. He spoke softly, but always clearly, and was straightforward in his own right. So I suppose it makes sense that they would be familiar with each other.
I frowned. “Jaebum.”
“Hm?” His hands fall to his sides and he goes to lean against the window ledge, his hip briefly touching my leg as it draped over and he stepped away like he’d been burned.
I press my head to the glass, closing my eyes as I tried to think.
“If I do know you, I’m sorry. But I may not right now.”
“You never answered me.” I purse my lips together. “If I’d known you… because you know Jinyoung, then-then wouldn’t I have – “
“Where have you been, Park Jinyoung?”
“He came when you were admitted.” His voice cuts through me, indifferent, unyielding. The blunt end of a blade. “What kind of boyfriend doesn’t see his girlfriend after she wakes up from a coma?”
“My parents didn’t want me to be overwhelmed. But maybe they were protecting him too.”
I thought of my parents, who still couldn’t help feeling guilty over telling Jinyoung not to come after I’d woken up. Not that I blame them, but I wish they hadn’t made him wait before coming.
Maybe I’m just selfish, or just a coward, but if it were up to me, I wouldn’t have let it delay like this. No one deserves to be treated like some kind of trigger to the person they love. My heart sinks with the weight of the pain Jinyoung must feel.
Being told that he may cause my condition to worsen. Having to hold in all the things he used to be able to say to me. Being too afraid to even hold my hand.
Sometimes I think I remember his fingers in my hair and the skin of his knuckles brushing against my cheek. I think of warm afternoons with notebooks open, hot coffee, and falling asleep with my head in his lap. Of fireworks and sand getting in my feet, but his lips on mine and his laugh in my mouth.
But I’m too afraid to say so because maybe it’s all just a dream. If it is, then how cruel would I be to voice that fear?
Jaebum puts a hand on my knee and I meet his eyes forlornly. He doesn’t comfort me, he doesn’t really know how. I can tell in the way he always looks at me like he wants to, but he doesn’t. I tell myself it’s the thought that counts, and if I’m being honest, I prefer the thought. At least it’s real.
At least when Jaebum tries, he doesn’t let the fear of shattering me keep him from trying.
“You’d think you’d have no more tears left by now.”
And despite myself, I breathe out a laugh. And I’m nodding and trying to breathe normally and keep them from falling, but all I see is the slate grey carnation blurring on brilliant white copy paper.
I pull my knees close and he takes his hand back. My whole body shakes, but I’ve managed to stop myself from sobbing out loud. I’ve kept the tears at bay. I’m proud of myself for such a small feat, but it’s the first time I’ve felt like I’ve had any control since I’ve been here.
“When I’m gone,” I say in a small voice, “You’ll have no one to make fun of anymore, Jaebum.”
His eyes fall to the floor, then roll back up to meet mine. And he smiles. Not in that secretive way or even like he’s hiding something only he knows. He shrugs his shoulders.
“When you’re gone, I hope you’re not crying all by yourself. Blaming yourself for what happened to you.”
I wonder if Jaebum knows that I wish I’d known him before. I wonder if he knows that his smile was what made the loneliness in these dark hours, without mom and dad or Jinyoung, bearable.
“I will love you if I never see you again.”
He looks at me and all I see is myself. All he sees is who I am as he holds on to who he knows.
Jinyoung looks at me the way every girl wants to be looked at. Ardently, with all warmth and unspoken promises.
So why do I feel so cold?
“Jinyoung – “
“I will love you if I never see you again,” he cuts me off firmly. I watch his jaw clench as he swallows, the sinking dread that pulled me below, pulling at me again. Threatening to take him with me.
“And I will love you if I see you every Tuesday.”
I try to search his eyes for something, anything that could tell me why Tuesday. There more I try to think about it, the more panicked I feel. The more I feel myself slipping because I’m losing him.
“We first met in a philosophy class. Every Tuesday. Required for you, an elective for me.” He is sitting at my side, but his voice has never felt so far away. “And you came in, with your hair up in a bun and a little paint stuck at the ends. I thought to myself, ‘Wow. That girl’s a mess.’”
He laughs, pursing his lips as he looks down with sudden shyness.
“How can you tell? The paint or the weight of my parents’ disappointment I’m carrying?”
“You raised your hand like you were firing a bullet when the professor asked for thoughts on destiny. And you said, in front of everybody, ‘Destiny – ‘“
“Destiny is for losers. It’s just an excuse to wait for things to happen instead of making them happen.”
“And I looked at you and knew that you were completely crazy.”
A laugh spilled from my lips as I nodded, “That sounds like me, I think. Me before this awful place.”
“Crazy,” he nods back, “And loud. Embarrassing. Always arguing with someone else.”
“No offense, but if we believe something to be inherently good or inherently bad, why do we make excuses to validate all the stuff we do? Like eating a whole cake. Or letting murderers get away with murder.”
“Can’t imagine how we started dating if this is how we met,” I murmured shyly.
“Because you were brave.”
And I look at Jinyoung, in all his warmth and the unwavering smile on his face, and know that there is no significance in Tuesday. I know that Jinyoung will love me whether I can love him still, learn to love him the same, or if I could never love him again.
“So you deserve someone brave.”
It occurs to me with painful clarity that even with no memory of who he was, I didn’t want to lose Jinyoung. Even as I had wished and hoped that he would stop waiting for me, it was all a selfish attempt to save myself from having to go through losing him. That if he’d just walked away, we would both be alright.
I reach my hand to cup his cheek and as he places his over mine, I can’t help but think this is all just a dream. He closes his eyes. I watch him tilt his head just so and press his gentle lips to my palm. I’m relieved, grateful even. He must know now that yes, I am broken, but not fragile.
“Hey. You want to get some food? With me?”
“Sure, Jinyoung. If you’ll do something for me?”
“Anything, yeah. I mean – yeah, I-I don’t – yeah. Sure.”
“Can I paint you?”
“So this is it.”
I barely nod as I check around the room one last time, counting the last of my things. The clothes my parents brought for me to change into, the bag of laundry, the books, all the little gifts my friends had brought me. I didn’t want to leave anything of mine lost in these four walls.
When Dr. Kwon asked me if I was feeling well enough to leave, I was afraid it was a critical question. Like, depending on how I answered, they’d keep me here for however long was needed until I chose the right answer.
It had been another four nights – Jaebum counted for me – since I took up drawing to pass the time. Three since Jinyoung promised me.
The question had been up in the air since he started visiting. Inevitably, I’d have to give him an answer and I’d kept him waiting, wondering where we go from here.
Trying to push us forward when it was just too heavy to hold. I think we both knew we couldn’t shoulder the weight together. Not right now.
I was grateful to him for his reassurance. I let myself be.
“Jinyoung, I can’t promise you anything.”
“I want to go back to my life. To myself first. You shouldn’t have to wait for me.”
“If there’s a chance, I’d wait. So until you’re ready, why don’t you be you? And I’ll be me.”
I walk over to the bed, to those awful, too-clean, too-white, bleach-scented sheets. I think about all the people who have walked through this door and all the questions they had for me. All the home-cooked meals my mom and dad bring me, the clothes that smell like home, my friends who brought me pieces of who I forgot to be, and Jinyoung who was my home.
I turn around to see Jaebum, who had to babysit me all this time and it was his second time in this room. Because every minute I’m here, I long for the seconds being let out. I want to tell Jinyoung that I have not been brave here. It was Jaebum who gave me the excuse to try. Jaebum who reminded me, whether he knew or meant to, that it was not my fault.
And I start to laugh. The sound is foreign to me and tastes hollow at first, but I cover my eyes and try to see something other than myself. I see bits of the life I’d lost as hot tears spill down my cheeks, not out of hopelessness or feeling worthless, but I am so happy.
I will finally get to be me.
His arms come around me, those big hands that were always in his pockets now open along my back. His head rests on top of mine as I immediately begin to wipe away at my eyes, my hands like t-rex arms pushed against his chest.
“Even when you’re happy, you’re a crybaby,” Jaebum’s chest vibrates as he chuckles. “How are you ever gonna live without me?”
“Get over yourself,” I laugh shakily and duck my head from under his chin, looking up indignantly for him to let me go.
I put my hands on his shoulders, shrinking away and lowering my head when he looks down at me. “Jaebum.”
My heart sinks as Jinyoung’s voice cuts through us and without thinking, I try to shrug away from Jaebum, but he lets go of me. His arms fall back to his sides and I watch as he walks past me to Jinyoung. I can feel my own pulse racing. Jinyoung isn’t even looking at him.
Jaebum’s hand goes to open the door, but not before he turns over his shoulder and says to me, “Don’t leave without saying goodbye.”
He closes the door with an audible click, but I’ve never heard silence in this room quite this loud.
I am stunned to silence as Jinyoung is, but I have no right to be. Don’t I?
“If this is what I’m waiting for,” I flinch at his tone, “Then why are we doing this anymore?”
I take a step to him, but he takes on back. Like I’d poured acid at him. I can feel it in my veins. I see the sting in his eyes.
“Jinyoung, I don’t – “
“Forget about me,” he blurts out. “It was stupid of me to think… it was stupid to think that-that you and I – “
I shake my head, not wanting to hear.
Tell him, my brain is commanding me, Tell him.
Tell him what? What can I say to him?
“I need to go.” His voice is suddenly breathless, desperate to go.
“I’m sorry, I should go.”
“Jinyoung, he saved my life – “
“Of course he saved your life!” he shouts to the ground and my knees hit the edge of the bed.
I’d never heard Jinyoung raise his voice at me. I’ve never seen his hands clenched so tightly into fists, shaking, knuckles white, his eyes wide and so angry.
“He’s your best friend.”
“He came when you were admitted.”
“Besides, we’re not strangers now.”
“It must be lonely. You’ve been suffering all this time, haven’t you?”
Why did you have to lie to me?
“And he’s loved you all this time.”
I think the hardest part of letting go is that you never really just let go. Maybe you can’t hold it in your hands anymore, but it’s still with you. The feelings. The pain. The memories.
You hold onto the pain because it’s the easy thing to do. Sometimes it’s all that’s left, but if you let it stay with you, then it just makes forgetting that much easier.
And if you stay mad, you forget the person who made letting go so hard in the first place.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
My room was exactly the way I’d left it. Maybe aside from a few clothes that I’d left out and from the lack of dust, I could tell my mother had cleaned it for me so I’d be comfortable. I stood at my door that afternoon looking in, not sure if I still belonged here. Still too skeptical to be certain that I’d left that white room.
I went to open the window all the way as if the room now needed to be filtered with outside air because I was in here. Like something possessed, I pushed away the curtains to let what remaining sunlight could come through. I went to my white desk, finding hints of paint and nail polish all along the edge that my mother had tried to clean away, glad they’d outlasted her no doubt incessant scrubbing. And still not stopping to think, I plucked books from the small painted shelf next to the desk, just for the sake of taking them out, creating empty space, stacking them just because.
And though I’ve longed for my bed, it looks too put together. Mom will forgive me for making a mess. She may be just as relieved as I am that I’m being a normal girl now that I’m home.
I pull at the comforter, spilling the stuffed animals my dad left for my homecoming. I sink into bed as this strange feeling – feelings? – settles into the pit of my stomach.
There’s no way to explain it, all I know is that I feel it and I’m not sure if I’m meant to.
But as I look up at the ceiling and the sun outside sets, I know that I can’t think of anything else except that I am home right now. And at this moment, I will get to be me. Memories, no memories.
I am who I am now.
I don’t bring myself to think of Jinyoung. Jinyoung who walked out angry, wanting me to forget him. And Jaebum who wanted my last goodbye.
Maybe I’m the most selfish person out of everyone who was affected by my condition. Neither of them had gotten what they wanted.
“He is your best friend. And he has loved you all this time.”
“Just one minute,” I find myself whispering.
Just one minute I can have to myself, to think about myself. To not have to feel like I owe someone else something. Even if I just tell myself to not think and say that everything is going to be okay because I’m home now. I deserve just this right now, at least.
But the trouble with lying to myself is that no matter how often I do it, I never seem to believe me.
I turn my head to the nightstand next to my bed to look at the neatly placed photos. Scattered faces, all smiling sideways at me, diplomas and caps in hand, bright smiles, and more elated relief than triumphant pride in my own. And in another, Jinyoung has his arm wrapped around my waist with my head nestled in the crook of his neck, but he’s looking down at me and me up at him. I don’t have to remember him to know that we had been that couple who got lost in each other while the rest of the world went on without us.
Even if it’s just a photo, I knew myself. I know even now, at that time, the world was in his eyes because his world was in mine.
It’s funny how reflections change. I used to recognize myself, but we have become so distorted.
There are no photos of Jaebum on the stand. Instead, just small polaroid pictures tucked into the frames of all the others. Trying to fit neatly together with all the others.
I read the little messages we wrote on the white edges, noting how faded some of the little marker drawings were. I had to be in high school when those were taken compared to the others that were still new and clean.
And though he was smiling, laughing even, in them, I felt loneliness for Jaebum that had never been there before. At least, from what I remember.
He was my best friend. And somehow he was always left out.
I bite down on my lip, trying to contain each shuddering breath in and out as I pull my covers over my head. From the door, Jaebum sighs before I hear him cross the floor silently.
He pulls up at my comforter and I avoid his gaze before he can tease me. I was always more sensitive, not wanting to be affected so easily by things that I couldn’t control, but still, I was. And he had the emotional range of a teaspoon.
Without a word, he slips into bed and pulls the comforter back over our heads. He just looks at me, waiting for me to talk, knowing that I would when I was ready. And if I didn’t, then he wouldn’t press me.
“I told him,” I whispered, like a secret. “Both of them. About what I want to do.”
“How bad did they take it?”
My chest quakes as I take a deep breath. “I may as well have told them I dropped out.” I push the covers down, the warmth between us becoming stifling and I prop one elbow onto my pillow. Cradling my head in my hand, I pulled myself up to lay on my side.
“Could be worse,” Jaebum shrugs as he does the same, “You’re actually going to school. At least you didn’t just pack your brushes up and leave.”
“No, I just gave them a fair warning before I could – “
“Stop.” His voice is firm, eyes boring into mine. No bullshit and all commanding, but I manage a smile. Im Jaebum was the very definition of tough love. He just hid it too well.
“You are going to get to do what you love. How can they hold that against you?”
Easily. In fact, my parents couldn’t have hidden their disappointment, not even for my sake.
I licked the roof of my mouth, too cynical to say anything reassuring.
“They had higher hopes for me,” I say lamely, shrugging. “Doctor, lawyer, teacher. Hell,” I scoffed, “Even a social worker, at least I’d be graduating with a job.”
“A shitty one.”
“Like they care.”
He quirks an eyebrow and I scowl at his skepticism because he doesn’t get it. Jaebum had his own plans, always did, and he stuck to them. If there’s anything he doesn’t lack, it’s conviction.
Telling my parents that I wanted to be an artist had made them happy – when I was three, covered in paint, and surely already growing out of it.
But I didn’t. And they didn’t mind that, glad even that I had a hobby to keep me occupied when I wasn’t studying everything that bored me, frustrated me, or made me want what I shouldn’t.
Jaebum wrinkled his nose as he said nothing. In a weird way, I’m glad. He doesn’t press me. He doesn’t pressure me. He never says anything he doesn’t mean.
When I think about it, our friendship is entirely weird. We disagree about things – often. Lots of things, even. He wasn’t afraid to say exactly what was on his mind and I never hesitated to shut him down. He didn’t believe in half the stuff I did, when it came to people, to feelings, to life, I guess. We didn’t share the same philosophies about the world around us, which was perfectly okay considering the only thing we can agree on is that we don’t know enough of it yet to share those conflicting thoughts.
The great thing about Jaebum is that when it comes to me, he never has any idea and he doesn’t need one. If he needs me, he’ll say so. If I need him, I ask. And even when I don’t, he’s here anyway. Just in case. I like to think that that’s enough. We are enough for each other.
“You know what would make you feel better?” he asks after a while.
I raise my brows.
“Let’s forget about being the family disappointment. I want some chicken and you can show me the studio.”
In spite of myself, I laugh. “How am I gonna live without you?”
“Who knows?” He looks up at me, the corner of his mouth turned up.
You wouldn’t notice if you don’t know him, but Jaebum smiled like he never wanted anyone to see it. I never really understood why, never thought it mattered. But maybe he was afraid, in such a way that I was about my future, that the world would take it away.
The first thing I did when I woke up at home was take a shower. It had everything to do with feeling like myself and even a bit to do with hygiene. For one, I didn’t need to wear shoes in the shower. And I took my time, no creeping paranoia that the white tiles were a little too white or there was a yellow-y or brownish tinge to the matching walls.
My towels smelled like warmth, that soft clean scent that was so comforting and gentle. I fell asleep again on my bed with my hair wrapped in one and another wrapped around me. I know that because my mom found me sprawled on the bed and shook me awake thinking I’d fainted.
I was still groggy when she was scolding me, not holding it against her even if I could.
Fear of loss does that to a person, I’ve learned. It made my mother more anxious. She tried helping me dry off, but I evaded her shaking hands and trembling lectures with another concern: I hadn’t eaten yet.
Truthfully, I had no appetite. When I first woke up in the hospital, my parents came with food and I didn’t have the appetite for it. But it pained them to see how much weight I’d lost and I couldn’t bear the thought of that being another thing on the never-ending list of their worries.
I would eat and taste food, be grateful that they devoted their time to make me something from home and go through the trouble of bringing it. But like a careless whisper, the thought that I’d given them another burden to carry kept me from enjoying it. I didn’t feel deserving. Sometimes, I tried to tell my dad not to bring me takeout or fast food because I didn’t want to be unhealthy just so he didn’t have to go through the trouble.
Fear of loss changed him too. In such a way, it made him guilty.
When mom wasn’t home, he’d try to cook, but he wasn’t any good. Maybe he felt that bringing me something from one of my favorite spots was the least he could do.
“It’s okay to be a little unhealthy. Besides, it’s your favorite. You remember, right?”
I don’t remember ever seeing my father cry. Even when he was so disappointed in me for choosing to pay for a spot in the art studio instead of using the money he gave me to buy textbooks. Even when we fought over what’s best for me and what I wanted, when I’d cried and screamed at him for not supporting my dreams.
Not even when I’d told him that I hated him for it. And he’d looked down at me blankly like it didn’t matter if I really did.
I don’t think anything in the world could have prepared him for almost losing me. And the possibility that he might have if I hadn’t remembered him.
His lip would tremble when he asked me if I remembered certain things, like the food I liked and the places we went and the things we used to do before all we ever did was fight.
For his sake, I smiled and said yes to all of them.
And I ate everything they brought me, even if it was sometimes too much. I kept it all down, even if I had to drink tons of water, knowing this was their hard work, but it was also their great pain that I had caused.
I never want to see my dad smile back at me while trying so hard to hold back tears. Not for me. Not for anything in the world.
“I’m going to the studio,” I announced to my mother as soon as I finished washing the dishes.
I was not going to give up my passion. After all this, no matter how guilty I felt for doing it against their wishes, I decided not to give up painting.
Even now, I can see it in her eyes that she wants to tell me, “No.” I remember how she didn’t approve, and like my father, would make a comment about how I can be doing other things instead, study something else instead, go to school for an actual major instead.
It would make me angry at first, sting me still even when I’d heard it all after the first year I declared. I always accused them of thinking too little of me, being close-minded, even accusing them of not loving me enough to at least understand that painting is the only thing that makes me feel like me.
“Okay,” she answers in a small voice and smiles sadly. “Will you please come home before 9? Or call me from another phone to let me know you’re okay?”
My phone broke in the accident, no surprise there. Not that it mattered, I didn’t want to text or call anyone anyway.
In the first few days, when they’d taken x-rays and put me through all these tests to make sure I could function, I’d pitched a fit about how I didn’t want to talk to anyone and needing to be alone or I’d lose my mind.
“Will you come with me to get a phone tomorrow?” I blurted out. “So you don’t, um, so you won’t worry?”
She’s quiet for a few seconds before smiling and nodding. Even though her eyes are bright with unshed tears and her voice cracks as she says, “Okay,” I know that things may not change when it comes to how she and my dad feels about my choice.
But as I smile back and go to get my things, I know that that doesn’t matter. And maybe with time, it won’t matter to them anymore either.
I’m going to be me. With all the pieces of what I lost and found, the missing pieces, and the ones I have left. I can’t pretend that I don’t want to live for me.
The air conditioner leaves goosebumps on my skin as I make my way to the room I remember, my breath caught in my throat as I take in the cream and slate hues of the sandalwood floors. The walls are bare and off-white, but the window stretches across where one of them should be and looks over the street below. Outside, there’s a view of the neighborhood.
“You know, it’s funny.”
I turn around to find the manager standing at the stairs, smiling back at me. I recognized him when I first came in and went to reintroduce myself, but he saved me the trouble. He didn’t want me to explain, just welcomed me with a cup of water and went over the expenses for the summer.
K had always been an easygoing guy. He opened up K’s Runaway Art Studio a few years ago with his friends and easily maintained it because he was unsurprisingly really well off.
“The fact that I remember you named this place after your band?” I tilted my head. “Or that I remembered this place at all?”
He walks over, grinning as he pulls up his tattered jeans and stands next to me. “You couldn’t forget it. You love it too much. I can tell you all about the nights you almost got locked in here.”
I look around the room, in all its simplicity and emptiness, and know that I can’t wait to fill it. Put down a sheet, set up a stand, and start mixing paints. Take out my brushes and feel the dense wood between my fingers. The wet colors, even the scent of the toxic yellow’s I used to hate squeezing out because of the fumes.
I wanted it all.
“Runaway is your home,” K says as I walk to the window. His voice sounds so far away. His jeans and the sunglasses he always wears indoors, his tan skin and stained sneakers. “Nothing can take that away from you. And hell will freeze over if I ever hear you stopped painting.”
I press my hand onto the warm glass, looking out. How is it possible to not remember something and know you’ve held it in your hands?
“I can always run away here.” I look back at him and smile, and I mean it. “That was the idea, right?”
“What are you drawing?”
“Shading. I’m shading, Jaebum.”
“Sorry.” He’s not that sorry. “What are you ‘shading’?”
I turn my head over my shoulder as he pauses chewing next to me. He has a box of chicken in one arm and a seat behind mine, looking over my shoulder. And still, he can’t tell that I’m shading in a portrait.
“Not a what,” I say in a sing-song voice. “A who.”
“I can see that,” he drawls sarcastically.
“Then why ask?”
“Because you’re really quiet and I don’t like quiet.”
“I asked if you wanted to put on music,” I wrinkled my nose. “And you said no.”
“I don’t like your music.”
“Then why not bring your own?”
“Because you don’t like it.”
I nod, throwing my hands up and dropping my pencil. “See? Full circle!”
He stands to go get my pencil, but only after he put his chicken down on the chair. “So you going to tell me whose face that is, or what?”
I purse my lips as I take my pencil back, looking up at him with sudden shyness.
Jaebum raises an eyebrow, lowering his head as if to say, “Well?”
But my eyes avert to the unfinished portrait in front of me, shrugging once he’s sat behind me again. “You know him, I think.”
“I don’t know many people with unshaded hair.”
I whip my free hand out to hit his chest, huffing before going back to the task at hand. “It’s Jinyoung, I told you about him. You remember, I painted him. From my philo class?”
“Aaah.” He pauses. “You painted him for Skinner?”
“And he asked me to get food with him,” I all but brag, “Imagine that, Im Jaebum. I got asked out.”
“I ask you to get chicken with me all the time.”
“You know, this may be a shock, but my world doesn’t revolve around you. Or chicken.”
When he doesn’t respond, I turn in my chair, kicking at the floor so it spun around.
He locks his eyes with mine and says without an ounce of emotion, “I’m shocked and hurt at this news,” before cracking a grin so wide, his eyes narrow into slits.
I try to punch him softly, shaking my fist as he holds it in his firm, but controlled grip. The grin never leaves his face, his pearly teeth showing as he bites down on his lip to keep from laughing too loud.
And I find myself laughing back, trying to pull my hand from his.
And he is so beautiful in that everything he did, from the look on his face to his fingers wrapped around mine, makes me feel safe. The way it feels holding something so close and knowing that it can’t be ripped away.
“God, I hate you.”
“And I love you.” And Jaebum says it so easily, as he always had. Who cares when he first said it? “So you like this Jinyoung guy or what?”
When I got a new phone, my mom retrieved pieces of my old one hoping to save on parts of it, but I had to gently tell her that that’s not how it works. We ended up buying a different model, partly out of her frustration, though I think another part of her just wanted to get me something different as a peace offering.
Maybe it was just a sneaking suspicion. Regardless, we were able to salvage my sim card, so we had it brought to the service retailer so they could just cut it down to the right size and put it in.
Much to her added frustration, we needed to wait a few days for it.
It was fine with me, honestly. My old phone must have had photos and texts, contacts from Jinyoung. I wasn’t ready for him to reach out to me and at the moment, it’s a lot easier to run away from my problems than confront them. At least if I didn’t even have the choice, I was stuck exactly where I wanted to be until it was available.
I also didn’t want to hear from Jaebum. If my memory serves me correctly, he came and went as he pleased and if my silent leave from the hospital was any indication, then he knew that I didn’t want to see him.
My other friends, however, did visit when they heard that I’d been discharged from the hospital for a few days and I welcomed their company. Surprisingly, I found that I’d longed for it, grateful that they didn’t look at me differently.
Sure, things were awkward at first, between hearing how worried they had been about me and the all too off-handed comments about how awful living in the hospital must have been. But they were my friends.
I wanted human contact just as much as everyone else wanted it from me.
And without having to count the days, I found myself gradually falling back into normalcy I was afraid I’d lost.
Going to the movies, meeting for lunch, talking about everything and nothing just because. Staying out until I came home collapsing into bed and smiling up at the ceiling because the day is over and tomorrow is another one.
My parents were all too keen on me being home at a certain time, though they never hid their relief from me.
I was never alone and even when I was, I didn’t carry the same dread as I had before.
Day by day, not being alone made me appreciate solitude at the studio. When I wasn’t with my school friends, I was on the second floor, painting. Sketching too, shading, which I am still awful at.
But I lose track of the time and until school starts, I’m okay with not having to check. For now, only sun and moonlight shone through the wide window at K’s is all I need.
A hand claps on my shoulder and I jump with a scared yelp, dropping my brush with the wet tip on my shoes. Bright indigo splashes on the fabric, but I turn my head only to find K smiling down at me apologetically.
“Holy crap on toast,” I breathe out and bend down in my seat to grab my brush. “I didn’t even hear you come up.”
“Sorry kid, should have warned you. I’ll pay for the shoes?”
“It’s fine, they were bound to get a fresh one since I came back.” I placed the brush in my cup of murky paint water before cleaning off my hands with a wet rag hanging behind my stand. “Should I get going?”
K’s hand finds its way from his neck to his stubbly jaw and I feel a small burst of excitement in my stomach. I can tell when he needs a favor, which he rarely asks anyone but the other owners for, because it can only be one thing.
“I’d let you stay, but something’s up for me,” he starts slowly, calmly. “If you want – “
“Yes!” I blurt out only to cover my mouth.
He tries to warn me, “Only if you call your parents in my office first – “
“I’m not leaving until you tell them.” He holds up a finger to stop me from interrupting. “I mean it, you’re not closing up until you let them know. I’m not leaving until then.”
“Well, what are we waiting for?” I smile so wide, it starts to hurt. “Let’s go down now so you can get the hell out!”
Having K’s all to myself is – in theory – a dream come true. I used to think I’d be like a kid in a toy store after closing time, free to play with whatever I wanted and lose all inhibitions.
But I don’t have it in me to set up for splatter painting, or to clean up after myself. By the time K left, it was already close to 9 and I ended up staying an extra hour with my WIP and a mess of brushes, tubes of paint scattered around me on the floor, and a headache thinking about all the last minute chores I’d need to do before I go.
As I finished rinsing off my brushes and rag in the backroom, I shut off the water only to hear footsteps from the stairs. I grabbed a fresh towel and walked out.
“Hey, sorry we’re closing – “
You know that feeling when your stomach sinks into your ass and you stop moving even when your brain screams at you to run?
My hands shake as I squeeze the dry rag between my fingers and it’s suddenly the only thing I can look at. My hands, my freshly stained shoe, the smooth floor. I can’t bring myself to look at him, knowing it would make me angry and fly back into the depressive mood swings.
I’d been trying so hard to keep them away. The anger, the fear, the harrowing loneliness that clawed at my throat. I wouldn’t let Jaebum see all those things I keep trying to hide away. He doesn’t get to do that to me.
I don’t cry as I raise my head and finally look at his face. I won’t let myself.
But he looks back at me like he doesn’t know what to say.
That’s too bad because I have nothing to say to him. Or I don’t want to have anything to say.
“I – “ His eyes flit between the space between us and the floor, lips pursing as he breathes through his nose.
I don’t have it in me to even pretend to be patient. “You? You what?”
He raises a hand to wipe at his upper lip and I see his fingers twitch. His eyes alone told me to throw him a lifeline, something, anything, just something he could hold onto.
I don’t think Jaebum has ever had to ask to hold onto me. The thought alone gnaws at me.
My eyes are dry, but I can’t hold his pleading gaze anymore without wanting to take it all back. And I know that I’d forgive him for lying to me because as much as Jaebum needs me now, I know that I have needed him all this time.
He lets out a breath like he’d been holding it in for too long.
“No matter how much it hurt – “
He stops, voice hoarse and I know he can’t bear to keep his eyes on me, but he does.
“Even if… getting hurt, fracturing my arm. All the bullshit scrapes I got from falling. Physical therapy. None of that got to me.”
“Jaebum – “
“That was all nothing,” he shakes his head. “Compared to seeing you on…”
Stop. I force myself not to look away. Even if I let him see me cry, I would not look away.
“Seeing you in that room,” he bites out, his breath heavy. His voice thick with all the control in the world not to look weak in front of me. “In a hospital bed with a tube in your arm. Killed me. I don’t know how… how Jinyoung did it. Going in there, telling you everything was going to be okay.”
A mirthful laugh spills from his mouth and his brows knit together. His hands are balled up, pushing against the pockets of his jacket. Shaking as his jaw clenches over and over again.
“I need you to know.”
My mouth opens, but I can’t find my voice. I can’t find thoughts to make words to put into my mouth. I already know.
He takes a step towards me. I’m not sure if I want to move, but I don’t, so I let him come to me.
He is standing over me, with his broken apologies and self-loathing, blame for no one but himself. I know.
“I would do it all over again,” he finally says just above a whisper. “Both arms, legs maybe. At least I know that I’ll heal. I knew I’d do it all again if I could just have you back. And crawl to you if I had to. I’d do it as many times it takes to get you back.”
I know that losing him would hurt me just as much as it would hurt him.
I run my hands through my hair, breathing sharply as I shake my head. There is nothing but silence between us. My chest is tight, but my heart hurts and I know.
I recognize this strange sadness that comes from loving someone without remembering why I do. And it’s so consuming. Not like sinking, but right now it’s so full that it almost feels like happiness.
“You lied to me,” I murmur, licking my dry lips. “You did it to protect me.”
“And I wanted you. But I couldn’t – it was just a stupid thought,” he shook his head. “When you woke up, I didn’t care. I didn’t care about Jinyoung or wanting you, I didn’t even care if you never remembered me. Having you back was the only thing that mattered.”
“But you didn’t give me the choice, Jaebum.” I laugh, hollow and bitter in the back of my throat.
“You don’t understand. I couldn’t do it to you. But – “ He paused to take a deep breath, pushing his hair from his face. “I told myself that you waking up was all that mattered. But you – “
I hit him with the towel, silencing him, silently challenging him to say one more word. To try to tell me that he was just protecting me. Or trying to protect himself. But my hands shook and it fell, so I beat my hands against his chest.
He looks away, letting me hit him again and again. And I’m so tired, but I can’t stop. Even as my fists fall flat and my palms make lame little thuds on his body, I want to hurt him.
This is how it feels, I want to scream at him, when you lose your best friend. This is how I’ve felt.
And as hot tears fall down my cheeks, Jaebum’s arms come around me. I am helpless in the warmth of his body against mine, my arms pressed tight against my own chest as I struggle to try to hit him.
“How could you?” I ask through my broken sobs, “How could you let me forget you? How could you, Jaebum?”
I push my arms up to wrap around his neck. His shoulders tense only for a minute before he pulls me tighter against him. There is nothing left between us. His hands hold my back as I shake in his arms, asking him how he could ever think that forgetting him was protecting me.
I ask and cry, breathe and ask and try to stop crying.
But he doesn’t answer me. The only indication that he even hears me is the shuddering breaths I feel in his chest and know that if I try to look, he will let go and turn away. He will never let himself break in front of me.
For a long time, I held Jaebum. I held him in that room until it didn’t hurt anymore. I wanted him to know that I forgave him. Without a word, I let him know that I owe it to him, after I owed it to myself, not to forget him this time.
“Say something,” I mumble next to his ear.
He loosens his grip and we let go. He says my name. And I crush him to me.
“Some people are meant to be in your life.”
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Hey, it’s me. Where are you? Are we still on for dinner with your parents? Should I bring – hold on one – I gotta go, there’s an accident on the next street, I’ll have to – call me later, okay? I – be safe, okay? Please don’t forget to call me. I love you.
I stared down at my new phone, at the brightly lit screen and box it came in along with headphones and little booklets scattered along the floor. My room is hot as the sun sets. Hair sticks to my neck. I can’t bring myself to move.
Hey, it’s me. Uh, Jinyoung, I mean. From philosophy? Just wanted to ask how your, um, how you did with the painting. Do they grade art? How do they know what deserves a pass or fail? That’s so strange to think, passing or failing an art class… I hope you passed. Text me sometime, if you want.
There is only his voice.
Hey, it’s me. You’re pretty bad with answering calls, huh? I’m kidding, really. Guess you’re asleep. I, uh, just wanted to say good night. I had a lot of fun tonight. I’ll see you in class? Good night. Um, yeah, good night.
Are you doing this on purpose? You never answer my calls, but you text back faster than anybody I know. You like my voice that much? Aaah, I can’t believe I just said that. Call me back, okay?
How he sounds when he’s falling in love.
Hey. Listen, don’t worry about what your dad said. You’re amazing. You’re so good at what you do, they just don’t see that. But they will, and even if they don’t, who cares? I’m your biggest fan. You painted me so well for Skinner! I think you made me look even more handsome. If that’s possible. Sorry, that was bad. Hey, it’s going to be okay. I promise. I love you, don’t forget that. Good night.
I replayed those voicemails that night. If there was a reason, I don’t know it. Did there always have to be a reason to miss someone? I don’t think so.
I think I’ll miss Jinyoung forever.
I haven’t painted anything worth showing or finishing since I brought my phone home. I can’t seem to find colors or put them on a canvas where they belong, each one a work-in-progress I hated looking at. Everything made me think of Jinyoung even when I was trying not to think of him at all.
I considered deleting the photos, the voicemails. Not out of sadness, I think I’ve earned the pain in my chest every time I find something in my phone that had him in it. But even as I couldn’t help punishing myself, more than that, I wanted to know who I was before I’d ever lost him. I wanted to know Jinyoung.
If I couldn’t bring myself to tell him so, then settling for the memories I’d lost is deserved too.
“That’s a good photo.”
I look up and immediately put my phone down on the table before looking out at the street.
Jaebum places a cup of tea in front of me, smiling lazily. “I think that picture was actually taken here. You always liked bringing people to this café.”
“I like open-air places,” I say snippily, ignoring his first comment. “You should know that. Aren’t you supposed to be my best friend?”
“I am.” He takes a sip from his cup noisily, looking back at me with that straight-laced stare of knowing something I don’t. Or knowing what I don’t want to say out loud.
“I hate your face.”
“See, that’s the kind of thing best friends can say to each other.”
“I get that, but you should just say what you want to say,” I point out with an indignant tilt of my head.
“Okay, well – “
“Wait, I don’t want to hear it yet.”
It has been a week since I forgave Jaebum and in that time, things between us have fallen into a comfort that was both familiar and somehow newer.
When I closed up the studio that night, we went to grab drinks and got buzzed in silence. We sat in his car once he stopped in front of my house, me hesitating to leave and him trying to find words to say.
I looked at him then and told him I loved him.
“Me too,” he’d answered softly like it was a secret. “I mean, I love you too.”
And it didn’t hurt. It didn’t take my breath away. Rather, it made me feel safe. I was glad for it and we were glad to have each other as we do, the two of us and the safety of knowing we do.
We never spoke of it after that. Or rather, it didn’t seem important to. I knew that I didn’t owe him anything and he didn’t ask. In a way, I don’t think we needed to talk about what it meant to love each other. We just did.
We always have and that’s enough. Where was the point in having to put it in one box or the other?
“Alright,” I finally breathe out, “I’m ready.”
“So Jinyoung – “
“Actually, I’m not ready.”
He breathes out through his nose, a simpering glare fixed on the table between us. “I hate to be harsh – “
I snorted. Jaebum’s natural default setting was harsh on a good day.
“– but you’re never going to be ready and I don’t think that’s fair to him.”
My mouth falls open as I take full offense to that sentiment. He shrugs as if he knows he’s right.
I mean, yes, he is right, but it sounds a lot worse than it makes me feel when said out loud.
“And it’s not good for you either, clearly.”
“Maybe I’m in mourning,” I say defensively.
“You can’t mourn what hasn’t died.”
“I don’t know, Jaebum, do you see our relationship currently existing?”
“If you want it to, yes.”
He’s so blunt about it, I wince. “That’s not how things work.”
“I call bullshit,” he shrugs and leans back into his seat. “If he isn’t trying to call you, then you call him. You want to talk to him, right?”
Of course, I want to talk to him. I want to see him, I want to ask if he’s okay. Every part of me needs to know that Jinyoung is okay, but in the back of my mind, I know I’m afraid that he wasn’t thinking of me at all.
My eyelids feel heavy as I look to my phone.
More than that, I’m afraid that he is thinking about me. And I’m guilty and wishing for him not to wait on someone like me. I’m not the girl he knew.
“You were brave. You deserve someone brave.”
I don’t want to tell him that I’m not that brave girl right now, or that I won’t be for a while. It sits heavy in my chest to think that I am not this girl he knew. His brave girl, who he was too embarrassed by to participate in class, because she was loud and said what she was thinking, but at least she said what she always believed in.
I used to recognize myself, but now all I do is walk away.
“You’re allowed to feel sorry to him.”
I meet Jaebum’s eyes as they hold mine, earnestly. He always had that sort of look in his eyes, the kind of honesty that could hurt you. But the truth was either painful or boring.
“You’re allowed to feel sorry for yourself, too.” He lets out a loud breath and stretches his arms over his head, grunting as they fall behind the chair. “I bet he’s doing the same thing. Jinyoung’s always seemed like the type. I remember when you guys would fight.” He shakes his head. “Weirdest shit ever.”
I dare myself to ask, “What was that like?”
“Well.” He rubs his jaw thoughtfully as he starts to smile smugly. “It’s actually kind of funny. So you know you’re aggressive as hell with the way you run your mouth.”
I scowl. “Jerk.”
“He’s passive aggressive as hell. Never said anything he meant. Sometimes just never said anything. It used to drive you up the walls and you’d be sulking about how much you regret yelling at him.”
“That sounds like me.” I always did hate passive aggression, mostly because my parents both were. That’s probably why they liked him so much. “I think I remember my dad hoping for Jinyoung to get me to stop painting. Or was that a dream?”
Now that we were on good terms, I asked Jaebum about the things that were still fuzzy. It was nice. Actually, it was wonderfully liberating to be treated like a person. As much as I appreciated Jaebum treating me carefully in the hospital, this was how it’s meant to be between us.
He answers my questions without sugar coating the truth. When something turns out to have just been a dream, he doesn’t try to comfort me. He lets me react to it just the way I do and I don’t owe him anything. If not for him, I don’t know how much harder it’d be for me to be – well, me.
“That was definitely not a dream, you were pissed off about it for days.”
“But he never tried to convince me to stop.” I bit my lip. “I listened to these – don’t make fun of me, okay? I listened to all these old voicemails I saved. And I just, I don’t know.”
He waits for me to continue and I want to, but the words, my voice. They feel trapped in my throat and it hurts. And it’s these moments that make me feel weak. Like a rubber band tied together, each end pulling and tugging, threatening to snap.
A voice in my mind whispering in a cruel reminder, “You are broken.”
Sometimes I believe them.
I believed them when I looked through those pictures in my phone. When I replayed his voice all night until I knew every inflection of, “I love you” and “Hey, it’s me” before I heard them. I have believed that I was broken from the moment I saw Jinyoung again.
Jaebum leans forward in his seat and squeezes my shoulder just as I flinch. I smile apologetically, but he takes his hand back and points at my tea.
“It’s going to get cold.”
I take the paper cup between my hands and revel in its warmth, try to find comfort in it. Summer is in the air, but I still felt the bleak chill that greeted me in the hospital. Only remnants of it now, but I will always remember that place. Those four white walls in that white room with those too-clean white sheets.
I have forgotten what it felt like to be so afraid that I’d go insane if I didn’t remember everything of the last two years I’d lost. But some days, I remember that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. A weight I sometimes couldn’t carry.
I count backward from one thousand minus seven and I count and count until I can feel my fingers, feel my clammy skin, and the sweat that gathered at my neck.
Some days I just keep sinking, never knowing if I’ll drown.
Those are the days when I want Jinyoung so much. When I do know that his touch is not a dream. His smile is a memory I cling to. They’re moments in which I hate myself for making him wait for me, but am too afraid to ask him if he’s still waiting.
“I don’t know what I’d say to him,” I finally say to Jaebum. “I don’t know how to tell him that, I don’t know, I don’t know what to tell him. And that makes it so hard.”
And Jaebum knows that. He knows how guilty I feel, how undeserving I think myself. He knows I wallow in self-loathing because I don’t see any fragments of this version of me that Jinyoung could still want. He knows I am terrified to face Jinyoung when I’d let Jinyoung walk out of that hospital room angry.
Because if he stayed angry, then he’d forget me. But if he didn’t, he’d never forget me. I don’t know which of the two is worse.
Across from me, Jaebum sighs. Then he shrugs. Finally, he takes my phone and turns it in his hands, but before I can warn him not to do what I think he is, he hands it back to me.
“I’m not going to tell you what to do,” he says bluntly. “Mostly because if I do, you’ll just do whatever you want anyway. But what happened to you isn’t your fault. None of this is your fault, or his. Or mine, even though I definitely didn’t help the situation.”
I can’t help but agree, but I also don’t hold it against him. Of course, we both never meant for things to end up the way they did, but we are here now. And I’m starting to get tired of feeling guilty for the things I can no longer control.
“I know I said before, that I wanted you. Or, I guess I thought I wanted you. I thought you were – “
He stops and covers his mouth, breathing loudly through his nose. “Forget it. Look, I care about you. No matter what, I’m always going to care about you.”
I manage a smile. “I know you’re being really emotional right now, so try not to vomit. Don’t hurt yourself for my sake.”
“Just let me get to the point and I’ll go back to being mean to you.” His fingers tap rhythmically on the table as he holds his face in his other hand. Finally, he folds them both on the table.
“Some people are meant to be in your life. One way or another, if you want Jinyoung to be in yours, he will be. God knows he wants to be.”
Being an art major means going to studio parties, ironically drinking wine to seem posh and unironically drinking wine to get shit-faced. It means we discuss anything but art after we hung work we couldn’t sell yet.
The lights are dimmed in exchanged for fairy lights along the ceilings because gallery lighting is for professionals and we are all artists without them. Some of us walk around pretending to know what we’re talking about, too buzzed to care about the student loans or impending failure that breathes down our necks once we sober up.
I join K and two of his managers, evidently his roommates, along with a few of my friends from school. I watch people come and go as they play their music, soft ambient acoustic guitar and bongos, and snaps or claps of cold hands. They play anything and everything, fighting with the stereo speakers connecting from the first floor.
I think to myself how Jinyoung wouldn’t have fun here and don’t blame him if he doesn’t turn up. Not out of some artist snobbery or shame for this part of my life. But he was from a different world.
Always with a book in his hand, reciting foreign poetry, writing his own. His art was so much more solid than mine, all that much more real than mine could be. In such a way, even his dreams are more real than mine.
I couldn’t have it any other way. Maybe I was a little too ambitious to want both, my dreams and him to share them with.
As K starts strumming to a different song, I nod my head to the soft melody and clap my hand on my bare knee.
“Would it be bragging if I said I know this song?” a voice above me asks. A voice I’ve come to know so well form saving to my phone.
I get up from the floor too fast, my circle of friends sharing their laughs and teasing grins, but I don’t care.
“You came.” My voice comes out breathless and I blame the wine. But we both know that’s only part of it. He must know that.
Jinyoung smiles at me shyly, that shyness that drew me to him with the thought that I could make him so shy. He holds up a bottle of wine, eliciting some cheers and appreciative murmuring.
“I wanted to see your projects,” he says.
“No, don’t call them that,” I shake my head, “They’re not as good as you think. This is just a party, but with more hipsters and poor lighting.”
His smile splits into a toothy grin and he wraps his arm around my shoulders, placing the bottle of wine in the bongo player’s waiting hand.
Jinyoung leans over, his nose brushing through my hair as murmurs into my ear, “Doesn’t matter, it’s important to you. That matters to me.”
“Alright, lovebirds,” K drawls with exaggerated disgust before grinning up to us. He waves us to sit down in the circle. “Sit down, have a drink. You said you knew this song, right?”
His fingers start strumming the melody again, the rest of ass clapping as Jinyoung nods along to the tune.
He pauses, then catches the hook. “’Because’,” his voice sings airily, “’If I was gonna go somewhere, be there by now, maybe I can let myself down’.”
“Ooh,” I chime, laughing as his face turns pink.
“’Thinking that I’m unaware, keep my feet on the ground, keep looking around to make sure I’m not’ –”
“’The only one to feel low’,” I sing along too, much lower, sober enough to be self-conscious, drunk enough to want to hear his voice.
“‘Because if you want, I’ll take you in my arms to keep you sheltered’.”
I could sink into it like a warm bath, that sweetness he gave to the song. Something velvety, something almost a lullaby.
‘From all that I’ve done wrong. And I know you’ll say,
That I’m the only one, but I know,
God made another one of me,
To love you better than I ever will.’
“Hey, it’s me. I’m sorry for calling, I usually text. I think I remember it that way, anyway. I just wanted to say… I want to talk, but not like this. I want to see you. It’s fine if you don’t, I just-I think you deserve that. You told me before, that I should be me and you’ll be you. I-I don’t know what I’m saying. But if you could, I’ll be closing K’s this Friday night. I hope you’ll come. I hope we can talk. Jinyoung, I – “
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“Why don’t we just let it go?”
the overall feel and some of the dialogue was heavily inspired by Let It Go by James Bay
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Have you ever loved someone so much, you can barely breathe when you’re with them?
“I had a lot of fun with you tonight.”
“Was that before or after you had to carry me home?”
His laugh reverberates in his chest, tickling mine as I feel it against his back. I lift my head to rest it on his shoulder and nudge my temple against his neck.
“You didn’t have to,” I say softly even as my arms instinctively tighten around his shoulders.
“True, and you are kind of heavy.”
He laughs again, letting his head fall against mine before his arms – hooked under my knees – lifts me a little. “You said you were dizzy! And you live ten minutes away.”
“Twenty,” I mumble defensively to express my guilt.
“No one drinks wine like you, okay? You’re supposed to hold it up to your nose, smell it first, and then sip.”
“I did that!”
He stops walking and tilts his head, staring at me incredulously. “You chugged it from a paper cup.”
“I take big sips,” I snort.
He’s silent as his eyes narrow judgmentally. I have a clever remark waiting at the tip of my tongue for him, but he pecks my cheek and a laugh spills from my mouth.
“Hey.” I tap his arms for him to let me down, nudging his side with my knee until he carefully lowers me, never letting go until my feet are on the ground. I hold out my hand and he takes it as we continue the short way back to my place.
I know he was indulging in my vanity when he carried me from the studio. Knowing I wanted to show off a little, that I was proud of being able to say that we were together, even if for tonight.
For all I know, he could rethink the entire thing and decide to stay friends. It’s not like we were in a relationship. He was just the guy who asked me to get food with him sometimes. Some guy from my philosophy class I painted for an assignment.
But I sneak a glance at him as we walk along the empty streets and he’s so entirely his own.
Jinyoung was the kind of person who didn’t care what people thought of him. Maybe he indulged in his own vanity, but he never struck me as the type who could be someone else’s somebody.
I envied that. And I was self-conscious as somebody he wanted to know. The truth is, I go back and forth between reassuring myself that I’m doing what’s best for me and reminding myself what a fuck-up I am for it. I mean, I did take pride in my work and I was afraid to show that sometimes I didn’t. It just never occurred to me that what Jinyoung thought of me would ever be important.
I want that. I want that to be important to me. I want him to be important to me.
As we stand together waiting for the light to turn, maybe because I’m a little disoriented, I can’t stop thinking about his hand in mine and the warmth of his palm. And my hands being so grossly sweaty, but he hasn’t said or done anything to indicate he notices.
I take a step closer and he takes his hand back, to my disappointment. But he wraps his arm around my shoulders and gently brings me into his side as we wait. His jacket is soft against the skin of my cheek and I hesitate before wrapping my arm around his waist.
Between the cars passing us, I can just barely hear him murmur to me, maybe even to himself, “You don’t have to hide from me.”
Without thinking, without stopping to wonder what I’d meant to him then, nothing else seemed to matter. I was so used to having to explain myself to the people who told me it was a hopeless dream, an unproductive, uncertain thing to love. When he told me not to, I couldn’t help myself.
I held back hot tears, hid them under gasping laughter because, for the first time in a long time, someone believed in me. Even just the littlest amount, however much it is, Jinyoung believed in me.
“They were beautiful,” he said softly under the streetlights, “I’m proud of you.”
And he squeezes my shoulder, but I bury my face in his jacket. He lets me catch my breath. I manage to whisper, “I’m sorry,” and repeat it again and again only for myself to hear.
I’m sorry because I fell in love tonight.
I found him sitting outside the art department waiting for me, just like he said he would. Even after I told him I could walk myself home, he stopped answering those texts. That was almost an hour ago.
As I get closer, my footsteps become lighter and I tilt my head only to smile at the book in his lap. Always had a book in his lap, his knee crossed over the other, and his hair fallen over his forehead.
I bend down behind the bench and put my hands over Jinyoung’s eyes, holding back a guilty laugh when he visibly jumps. His hands grip the book just for a moment before he relaxes against his seat.
“Guess who,” I sing coyly.
The muscles in his face move under my touch, his cheekbones too, as he wrinkles his nose. “It’s pretty obvious, I know your voice.”
I roll my eyes and throw my hands up, resting them on his shoulders. “You’re so broody.”
But I kiss his cheek noisily, smiling when he turns to me with one of his own. That serene, relaxed kind that looked sleepy when I first met him. Soft. Jinyoung was so terribly soft.
His hand reaches out to touch my cheek. The back of his knuckles skim my jaw and chin, stroking the corner of my mouth with the pad of his thumb. He looks at me and I don’t want to move. I’ve never been touched so tenderly by someone, never felt so entranced by the way someone’s eyes can hold mine.
He has touched my lips and kissed every inch of my skin, but I’m still getting used to being loved by him.
“And you’ve got too much energy for me,” Jinyoung murmurs before kissing me gently.
Beside myself, my lips twitch and I lower my head, laughing silently as I press my hand over the one he cradles my face in. I lace my fingers through his and stand up as he extends his arm so I could walk around the bench, never letting go of him.
“I’m sorry you had to wait so long.”
He shakes his head, “I had to get some reading done anyway. I’m standing in for a professor next week and I really don’t want to blank in front of eighty kids.”
“Freshman,” he corrects himself, exasperated. “I want to be respectable.”
I look down at his pale blue button-down shirt and pressed black slacks, blinking at the patent leather shoes before meeting the amused expression on his face.
“Jinyoung,” I sigh out, “You already dress like their grandfathers, you don’t have to worry about being respectable.”
He blinks, tilting his head up at me. “Why are we together again?”
“Because you feel safe going completely unhinged around me?”
“Huh.” He lets go of my hand and puts his book in his shiny, pressed leather messenger bag that I thought was so damn pretentious. “Thought it was because you’re charming and ridiculously full of life. Could have something to do with your ability to paint me extremely well.”
“If you love me, you can just say so. I mean, if your pride can handle it,” I grin widely.
“And spoil you? Absolutely not.” He stands up and takes my chin between his fingers again to kiss my forehead. “Besides, that’s too simple. And there are other ways to say it.”
“Like, I can’t wait to have dinner with your parents next week and tell them what an incredibly talented daughter they have.”
I lower my eyes, biting my lip to hide the girlish glee bubbling in my stomach. “My dad wouldn’t let you in the house after that.”
“That’s too bad,” Jinyoung shrugs, not feeling sorry at all. “Guess I’ll just climb up through your window. Get real Shakespearean with it.”
“You’re such a nerd.”
“You love this nerd.”
I shake my head and pull him away from the bench. “Can’t argue with that logic. I call Romeo!”
“You don’t want to be Juliet? She owns the last half of the play.”
“No way, you’d look way better in the dress.”
He laughs next to me, nudging his shoulder into mine before putting his hand on the small of my back and pulling me to him, walking together in strides.
“So what kept you?” he asked.
“Struggling with a piece,” I shrug, “Couldn’t quite get it how I wanted.”
“Something like that.”
Jinyoung squeezes my hip as we stop at the crosswalk. “You’ll figure it out. There’s nothing you can’t paint.”
That gentle, so certain confidence in his voice takes my breath away. I want to tell him that that’s not true. There are plenty of things I couldn’t put on canvas, not even the best artists could.
But I look at him and find the pride I searched for in people I’ve known all my life. So does it even matter?
He’s going to say I painted the sun and stars and the moon in the sky if I tried to argue anyway.
He turns his head to look back at me knowingly and shakes his head with an amused smirk.
But I could never paint the depth of his gaze when he’s reading words off a page out loud. Or hear his laugh even though I’ve memorized every line in his face, every curve and crook of his hands when he covers his mouth.
Even though it’s never stopped me from trying, I could never capture Jinyoung in all that he is.
There are no colors, shades, hues of any kind that could give life to the light he brings out of me or the one I spark in him.
I don’t expect Jinyoung to come to the studio. I don’t expect anything, or even allow myself to want anything from him. Not when he hasn’t tried to contact me and knowing that what was left between us was all we had left.
In an entirely selfish way, I think maybe it’s better if he decides to never see me again. At least then he could forget me. It’s only fair when I’d forgotten him. I try not to listen to myself, to that little part of me that is getting easier to ignore whenever the thought that I deserve to be forgotten creeps into my mind.
Still, it doesn’t stop me from waiting for him.
But six o’clock passes, then seven, and eight. K leaves at nine after he hands me the keys. The time passes either like a blur or achingly slow, and I’m caught between looking over a work-in-progress and washing up. In the end, I’m just waiting and trying to hide it.
He comes, I’ll talk to him.
He doesn’t, then he doesn’t.
He comes, I’ll tell him the truth.
He doesn’t, then he doesn’t.
He comes, I’ll tell him to forget.
He doesn’t, then he doesn’t.
If he comes, I deserve it.
If he doesn’t, I deserve it.
I’m not ready. Whether Jinyoung will show up or not, I’m not ready to face him now and Jaebum is right. I’ll never be ready to face him. I’m afraid to do the hard thing if it means that I’ll be hurting him.
But I’m afraid that if I don’t, I won’t be—
A chill runs up my spine as I put my dirty brushes in the sink and take a step towards the door. With hesitating hands, I push it open. He’s not up yet.
Hide in the cleanup. Maybe he’ll leave.
He won’t. Jinyoung is not someone who just gives up after not even trying. He doesn’t believe in doing the easy thing. He cares too much to ever choose the easy thing.
I’m scared. But I step outside and work up that bit of bravery he saw in me to call out, “Up here! Cleaning!”
Like nothing’s wrong. As if he didn’t leave my hospital room with his hands balled into fists and his head down because he couldn’t bear to look at me.
Be brave, I tell myself and shut my eyes, opening them when footsteps echo from the steps. Be brave.
I walk over to meet him halfway, but the sight of him leaves me breathless. His chest is heaving slightly like he was trying to catch his breath and sweat gleamed from his temple down his neck. Tucked under one of his arms is a small shoebox.
Did he run here? To give my stuff back?
My eyes are fixated on the white box, at the little bits of paper tucked inside and instinctively wrack my brain for what it could be that I gave to him. Thinking it could distract me from this gnawing emptiness in my stomach.
“I wasn’t sure—“ His voice cuts through the silence between us.
I look to him and find that he’s staring right back. Jinyoung, who was beautiful even with tears shining in his eyes, the beautiful boy who waited for me. Who told me that everything was going to be okay when I didn’t even know his voice anymore.
Jinyoung who promised to love me if he never saw me again.
“I honestly didn’t know if I should have come,” he murmurs. And I hear it in his voice, the uncertainty and that doubt he tried so hard to hide from me. If it meant protecting me, he’d choke on his own pain before any of it could touch me.
I smooth my already dry hands on my jeans, not knowing what to say. “Sorry. I mean, thank you,” I add quickly, blinking at the floor. “Sorry, it’s late.”
“It’s fine. Are you okay?”
“How can you ask me that?” I blurt out before I can take it back.
He flinches as if I’ve just hit him.
I purse my lips and look up at the ceiling so he can’t see me, but I know he does and that makes it so much worse. My fingers squeeze the thick fabric of my jeans, trying to stay calm. To keep myself level, think good thoughts, think real and good thoughts.
I am not broken. I am not broken.
My throat feels tight as I watch Jinyoung watch me in stunned silence, but I can’t keep him waiting like this. I take a shaky breath in, then carefully out.
“All this time, even now, you’ve put me before you. Even when it hurt to hear me say that I-I forgot—“
I covered my mouth and breathe through my nose, keeping my eyes up. Keep the tears back and show him that I am not this broken thing. I am not fragile, not the glass girl he was too scared to even touch in that hospital bed.
“I’m sorry, Jinyoung.” I raise my chin and meet his eyes even when all I want to do is put my head down. “I wanted to tell you that you didn’t deserve that. And I’m sorry for making you wait for me. I’m sorry for every minute and every second that I ever wanted you to wait for me.”
I’m sorry to him even now for wanting him to meet the distance between us, knowing it could drag him to sink with me.
He clears his throat and it echoes through the empty room before he takes the steps closer to me.
As he nears, I notice how tired Jinyoung actually looks. His shoulders slightly slacked, footsteps heavy. There was a bit of color under his eyes and a barely noticeable sag in the lines of his mouth.
He stops in front of me with the box still securely tucked under his arm. And he says to me very carefully, “You could have died.”
“I almost lost you,” he cuts me off, drawing closer until he’s standing over me. “Maybe it’s selfish. I’m sorry if it is, but I almost lost the girl I love. The last thing I wanted is for you to apologize to me for losing yourself.”
I shake my head, not knowing what else to say or do to make this better or how to tell him that that wasn’t what I meant. I want to run away. I’m not ready. I need to run away.
The box falls with a loud clack, flutters of paper and pit-pats of things I couldn’t discern. All I know is that Jinyoung has his arms around me. He can still find it in himself, in all the pain I didn’t mean to give him, to wrap me up.
His fingers find my hair, trying to give me tenderness when all he wanted was to know that I feel it, to want to make me feel it. His other hand is at my back, squeezing me to him.
“Why did you wait?” My question is a whimper against his shoulder and I want to hook my arms around them, but it still feels too scary. Too terrible to want someone so much.
“I told you. If there was a chance, I would. I told you,” he says, so sure of himself. So unfamiliar, but I know. “So why don’t we just let it go?”
The weight of his arms lifts, but he takes my face in his hands and I search for him as he searches for me. I don’t want to let it go. I don’t want to this to be all that we’re living for.
“I said I’d wait for you to be you,” Jinyoung says with a forlorn smile. It didn’t reach his eyes and neither did mine. “And in the meantime, I’d be me. I thought, Im Jaebum – maybe – I didn’t think. And I forgot you too when I was angry.”
I held his wrists in my hands, allowing myself this selfishness. I let myself need his closeness, to want his tenderness, want his longing for me. I want to wrap him up, want to kiss his lips. I want him to be wanted.
But all too soon, the warmth of his touch leaves my skin. He takes my hands in his, his own fingers twitch before he squeezes mine. “I didn’t come here to change my mind.”
“Even with what we have left?” I ask in spite of my selfish thoughts. “Even when it’s broken?”
“It doesn’t have to be forever,” he answers hoarsely, stopping to clear his throat again. “We aren’t broken; this isn’t your fault. I want you to be you and I’ll still be me and I still want what we have. It was never broken for me. You were never broken to me.”
“Then why did you bring my stuff back?”
He bends down and picks up some of the papers that’d fallen, all creased from folding and covered in ink or pencil shavings, easel stains, oil blots. Jinyoung holds them out and up to me, unfolding them carefully.
“You can’t keep this, these are all things you gave me,” he says defensively, eyes wide and determined. “I didn’t come here to give it all back, I wanted to show you that they’re real. And so are we. And so was this part of you.”
“Then I want to know the part of me that had you.”
Maybe we can’t ever be the same. I don’t think there’s anything in the world that could fix what’s wrong or replace what’s gone. So why shouldn’t we let that go if it means we can start here?
I put my hands at the sides of his neck and I look at Jinyoung the way he has always wanted. He doesn’t dare touch me now and I see his hesitation despite wanting to.
“Can I kiss you?” I ask as he lowers his head to mine. His nose brushes along the length of mine and I can almost taste his warm breath as it fans over my mouth.
He cradles my chin between his knuckles and strokes my cheek with his thumb.
We don’t know if anything is going to be okay. We don’t even know if this could turn out the way we want or if Jinyoung and I would find what we’re hoping to find. I don’t need him to fix me. He cannot whisper the aching in my bones away or lick my wounds to vanish.
Only I can do what I need to do for me, on my own, to live with the scars.
All I know is his kiss, how he says, “I love you” in all the different ways he knows how without making it simple.
All I know is this moment, I cannot say that I don’t remember him when I know this happiness. I know the depth of his love brimming in those glassy eyes that I can’t paint. I know the sound of his laugh as it’s one that’s hard to hear.
He crushes me to him with his hands in my hair and his mouth coaxing mine open. I hear myself whisper his name and feel us both let it go.