The lights are off. The room is a muted sort of silent that only amplifies every sound: the shuffling of papers, the creaking of seats. Somebody yawns. The heating is cranked to high, settling a drowsiness over everything, thick as a draped quilt. Dust motes in the air like snow.
Heejin taps the sole of her checkered Van against the floor. Her eye is on the clock: 7:34 AM. Her brain is back in her dorm, blissfully asleep under three layers of blankets and dreaming about living in a miniature city inside a toaster oven.
Someone in the row behind her taps her shoulder. Still catching breadcrumbs on her tongue like rain, she turns around. A girl with hair dyed pale under a pink beanie is leaning forward to talk to her.
“I heard that if the TA doesn’t show up for fifteen minutes after class starts, we can just leave,” she whispers conspiratorially.
Heejin stares back at her blankly. Then at the array of supplies laid out neatly before her on the desk: three pens, two pencils (one mechanical, one schoolbus-yellow 2B), two erasers (one standard white, one in the shape of a pineapple with a cutesy smiley face), one transparent ruler, one Wite-Out dispenser, five multicoloured mini-highlighters, one baby pink calculator, and—for some reason Heejin doesn’t want to contemplate—an exacto knife.
It jogs something in her memory. Wakes her up halfway.
“Hey, can I borrow a pen?” Heejin asks.
The other girl’s hopeful expression fades into one of distaste and regret. Heejin is so powerful. She isn’t even at full working capacity yet.
Grudgingly, the girl forks over one of her pens. Black and BIC. Score.
“Thanks,” Heejin says. “You totally saved my life.”
The other girl opens her mouth as though to let her know just exactly what she thinks of that, but she’s thankfully cut off by an abrupt clatter at the door.
“Sorry, sorry!” Their TA—Haseul—sweeps into the lecture hall in a flurry of commotion, somehow balancing a stack of papers and a venti coffee and an overflowing tote bag that reads TAKE IT EASY in fancy cursive letters. The half of Heejin’s brain that’s awake finds the irony hilarious. The other half is nibbling the warm centre of a slice of toast bigger than she is. She thinks she likes that half better.
Haseul dumps the entire mess on the desk at the front of the room, then drains the rest of her coffee and emerges with a manic-eyed expression. “So who’s ready for the midterm?”
“Right!” Haseul laughs like they’ve all made a particularly funny joke. “Well, you know the drill. Leave a seat between you and the person next to you. Take out your pens, pencils, and student IDs. Put away your study notes, phones, bags... Let’s get the lights on—”
A wave of mutters and groans cascades up and down the lecture hall as she mercilessly flicks the switches. Blinding fluorescent light floods the room like the fires of hell. Heejin short-circuits. She squeezes her eyes shut against the onslaught and desperately clings to her crumb of toast like it’s a life buoy.
“...there, come on, that wasn’t so bad. I’ll hand out the exams shortly, please don’t open it or start until I say so...”
Something thunks onto the desk in front of her. Heejin cracks open an eye. The exam package. She sighs and clicks her borrowed pen to start filling in her name.
A movement, on the periphery of her vision. She glances beside her.
A girl is sitting one seat away to her left. Her posture is straight-backed, at odds with her slouchy black hoodie and gray sweats, and she’s very intently focused on something before her. Not the exam package, not her pen and pencil, not even her phone for some last-minute cramming or panic texting, but the cup of coffee and the can of Monster sitting side-by-side before her on her desk. For a second Heejin thinks she must have written some cheat notes on the label, but the side of the Starbucks cup reads only an intelligible scrawl. She squints closer. HIUJEN? HYURLIN?
“Right, then,” Hiujen or Hyurlin says, and in one fluid motion she pries off the lid of her coffee, pops open the can of Monster, and starts to pour it into the half-full Starbucks cup.
Heejin wakes up a little more.
“Remember, you need a pencil for the Scantron and a pen for the written portion,” Haseul is saying from somewhere else in the lecture hall. “Does anybody need to go to the bathroom? Last call for the bathroom...”
The girl shakes the can so that the last few stubborn drops land in the cup. Then she fastens the lid back overtop and swishes the cup around a little bit in her hand.
Heejin brings the pen up to her mouth and absently starts to nibble on the end of it.
The girl behind her sighs. Loudly.
A flicker of a thought surfaces in the dreamland of Heejin’s mind: No way is she going to drink that.
Hiujen or Hyurlin starts to lift the cup to her lips.
“Holy shit,” Heejin blurts, around the pen.
The girl startles. Oops. She meets Heejin’s gaze over the top of her cup. She has a curtain of long black hair, straight but for a single tiny braid dangling by her ear, fastened with a mini purple fuzzy band. A face with delicate features, eyes round and questioning. A hoodie that reads, no joke: EAT THIS.
Heejin wakes up a little more.
“What?” the girl says.
“Uh,” Heejin says. “Are you really going to drink that? You’re gonna die.”
The girl blinks at her.
Her eyes narrow.
“Am I,” she says.
“Uh,” Heejin says again.
“...who else doesn’t have a pencil? I have a bag of them here, please pass them around. But also please don’t forget to give them back after the exam, these aren’t my pencils, they belong to the department and I wouldn’t want to lose them, haha...”
The girl lifts her cup the rest of the way, tilts her head back, and chugs. She doesn’t stop until she’s drained the cup, throat working furiously, and she doesn’t break eye contact with Heejin once.
Heejin wakes up a little more.
“Whoa,” she says, still gnawing the pen.
The girl puts down the cup. Licks her lips with a grimace. Turns to look at Heejin.
“Well?” The raise of her eyebrow is expectant.
“...you have three hours from the start of the exam. I’ll keep the time projected up on the wall, and I’ll give periodic reminders. We’re just waiting for a couple of students to get back from the bathroom...”
“That’s disgusting,” Heejin tells her.
The girl holds her gaze. Breaks into a smirk.
Something cracks, between Heejin’s teeth. She freezes. So does the other girl. Slowly, Heejin pulls the pen out of her mouth and stares at the broken end leaking ink onto her fingers.
“Um,” the girl says. “You’ve got it all over...” She gestures at Heejin’s face.
Heejin touches a hand to her mouth. It comes away stained black.
“...okay, I think that’s everybody. Are we good to start in a minute?”
Heejin shoots her hand up. “Can I go to the bathroom?”
Everyone in the entire lecture hall turns their head to stare at her.
“Um,” Heejin says. “It’s kind of an emergency?”
She puts on a toothy, inkstained smile.
At the front of the room, Haseul puts her face into her hands.
The girl sitting behind her leans forward. “You owe me a new pen,” she hisses into her ear.
And beside her, Hiujen or Hyurlin or the love of Heejin’s life bursts into open-mouthed laughter, face crinkling up, eyes shining in delight.
Heejin wakes up all the rest of the way.
In the bathroom, she uses one hand to scrub at her mouth with a wet paper towel and the other to text on her phone.
heejin: guys i think im in love
jiwoo: WHO IS IT??? 👀👀👀
jungeun: its 7am who the hell are u falling in love with? ur bed?
yves: don’t you have a midterm rn
jiwoo: OMFG WAIT HEEJIN YOU HAVE A CRUSH ON YOUR TA????
jungeun: well maybe now ull finally pass econ
yves: haseul’s taken tho?
heejin: im gonna try to get her number. wish me luck
jiwoo: OMGGGGGGG 😍😍😍😍😍 GL!!!!!!!
jungeun: worry about econ first
yves: i literally just said she has a gf already??
Heejin switches off her phone. Spits one last glob into the sink and washes her hands. Looks her reflection up and down in the mirror, eyebags and acne and all.
“You got this,” she tells her.
She missed a spot of black, on her front tooth.
Back in the lecture hall, the exam is already underway. “I’ll let you have your full three hours’ worth, don’t worry,” Haseul tells her at the door, like that’s what Heejin’s concerned about. Fine. No biggie. She’ll just finish the exam fast, before the other girl, and wait around for her outside.
Except from where she’s watching, the other girl has her head down, scarily focused, writing fast. Whoa. No way—did the drink actually work? Then she spots Haseul eyeing her suspiciously from the front of the room, realizes what this looks like, and quickly averts her gaze to her own exam package. The one she hasn’t even opened yet. Better get started.
The next time she looks up, over an hour’s passed and the girl beside her is already gone, along with all her stuff. Not a trace remaining, not even her empty coffee cup and Monster can.
She recycles, Heejin thinks dreamily.
“You have thirty minutes left.”
Hyunjin’s barely gotten the door of the dorm room open before Yerim’s calling, “How’d you do?”
She steps inside and lets the door slam shut behind her. “Fine.”
“Yeah?” Yerim’s lounged on her bed, textbook and notes spread out over the covers, laptop screen aglow. “It was my lucky braid, I told you—” She looks up at Hyunjin with a grin, which fades instantly when she actually sees her. “Oh my god. Hyunjin, are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
“You look, uh...”
“I went for a run after the midterm.” Hyunjin strips off her sweaty hoodie, steps out of her shoes. “And then I went to the library and wrote an entire paper due tomorrow. And then I went for another run.”
Yerim’s eyes are wide. “Why?”
Because she can. Because her bloodstream is caffeine and sugar and only just wearing off. Because there’s nothing else to do.
“I’m gonna crash now,” Hyunjin says, flopping facedown onto her bed without bothering to get under the covers. “Wake me for Jinsol’s thing later, okay?”
“Yeah, of course. Hey, you didn’t answer the question. Are you okay?”
“I’m awesome,” Hyunjin says into her pillow. She fell weird onto the bed, one arm twisted up under her chest, her own hair stuck in her mouth, but she doesn’t bother to shift into a more comfortable position. Closes her eyes instead.
She’s slipping so fast into sleep it feels like she’s been cut loose from gravity and set adrift in nothingness, spinning out to nowhere. But right before she goes under she swears she can feel Yerim gently brushing the hair out of her mouth.
Freshman year isn’t hard. Everyone else made such a big deal out of it: her parents (“I can’t believe our little Hyunjinnie’s all grown up!”), her orientation leaders (“Aww, you’re all so cute! Is that what we were like back then?”), her RA (“I don’t care if you lost your keys or started a fire or just bombed your final and need a shoulder to cry on; if you wake me up past midnight I will make your life a living hell”). Her fellow first-years swept through the first half of term in a bubbling wave of excitement, but all that shiny new lustre inevitably began to dull as the short-lived craze of dorm parties and frat mixers did what it could only do: get old. Meanwhile, reality was only just starting to hit—that this was it, the beginning of the rest of their lives, the path they had taken, the choice they had made and therefore were responsible for. But still their own recklessness kept getting resuscitated from slow death like a particularly stubborn cockroach, as though these were acts of celebration rather than consolation. As though all they needed to make up for everything else was to just try again: be in the right place at the right time, meet the right person, have the perfect night that they were promised would click into place like an answer. And if it not this night then the next one, or surely this next night; surely tonight.
Hyunjin can’t blame them. It’s easy to look down the line of years ahead of them and think: all they have is time. But the trick is to pace yourself, and bide it. The long game is endurance, not burning out fast. You just have to temper your expectations, take what comes in stride, and do whatever works for you.
What works for Hyunjin is going for runs, sleeping through her AM lectures, hoarding food from the dining hall, drinking coffee like it’s water, gaming in between cram sessions, acing all her classes, and doing something unpredictable every once in a while to keep things interesting. Go to a party and get drunk and laugh all night like everything is funny. Join a random game of soccer unfolding on the campus green and scrape both knees but secure the win. Attend a meeting of the college’s birdwatching club for no reason other than that it had been the first on the list alphabetically to catch her attention.
The meeting had been, predictably, in the woods. Hyunjin had to take the subway and two bus transfers early in the morning to get there, and when she did, it was basically just a lot of walking around and whispering so as to not scare off any potential wildlife sightings. Hyunjin wandered, mostly. She wondered if there were bears.
One of the other girls caught her eye, smiled, and gave her a little wave.
“Hi,” she said. Her voice was a little louder than a whisper, but Hyunjin didn’t really care. “You like birds?”
Hyunjin considered it. “They’re alright.”
“Yeah? You have a favourite?”
“I like parrots,” Hyunjin said. “They’re cool. I respect geese, too.”
“For sure,” the other girl said, nodding.
“What about you?”
“Oh, I don’t really know that much about birds. I’m just here because I like learning about new things.”
What a nerd, thought Hyunjin, who was also there for pretty much the same reason.
The girl held out an opened bag of rice crackers. “Want some?”
They’d lagged behind the rest of the group. They walked in silence for a while through the trees, crunching on the crackers; the other girl was going for the flower-shaped ones, but Hyunjin liked the spicy seaweed-covered twists. It really was quiet in these woods. This was only two weeks into the semester, and Hyunjin felt like nothing had been quiet so far, not until now.
The other girl was wearing round-rimmed glasses and a black baseball cap over dark hair. She was around the same height as Hyunjin, maybe a bit taller. She had dimples when she smiled.
“Are you a freshman, too?” Hyunjin asked.
The girl laughed in her face and accidentally ended up spewing crumbs all over herself. From somewhere over their heads came a startled rustle of leaves, as though wings taking flight.
Although Hyunjin thought she’d been doing everything right according to their group leader’s instructions, she didn’t end up seeing any birds that day. She met Jinsol Jung instead, and for that, it had all been worth it anyway.
Jinsol’s “thing later” is another open mic night she organized with a couple of her friends and made the rest of her friends swear they’d attend. Hyunjin falls into this latter category, which is why Yerim wakes her from her caffeine crash-induced coma at some ungodly hour of afternoon and forces her to take a shower. Hyunjin stands under the scalding hot spray until she feels human again. She blow dries her hair, brushes her teeth, viciously pats concealer over a pimple forming on her cheek. She puts on her nicest earrings.
The event is at some trendy bookstore near campus. They walk over with hands shoved into their pockets in the evening chill. Of course, Hyunjin needs to refuel, first. She picks a nearby coffee shop that looks small and dingy and hopefully cheap as dirt.
The teenager behind the counter responds to both Yerim’s chirpy “Hi!” and Hyunjin’s order with a blank-faced sullenness. “Coming right up,” she says, sounding like she would rather be dead. Her nametag is pinned to her uniform upside-down: ∀IΛI˥O.
“I can’t wait,” Yerim says as the barista shuffles over to the coffee machines. “Jinsol and Jungeun must be so excited. I’m so excited, I’m practically vibrating!”
“They already perform every chance they get,” Hyunjin says. “This is gonna be just like karaoke night, but with a bigger crowd.”
“Still.” Yerim’s eyes are bright. Maybe a little wistful. “It’s really brave, to keep on doing what you want, all the time.”
Hyunjin considers it: to love something that much. “Yeah,” she says, without argument. “Yeah, it is.”
“Do you think a lot of people are gonna show up?”
“Well, let’s see,” Hyunjin says, pretending to count on her fingers. “First of all, there’s Jinsol’s entire friend group. So that’s, like, half the school already. Then there’s all the guys in love with Jungeun and willfully blind to the reality that she has a girlfriend, so obviously they’re going to show up, too. And then there’s the fact that it’s a Thursday night and nobody with half a life has anything better to do.” She catches the barista’s baleful eye. “No offense.”
“Did you invite anyone?” Yerim asks.
“That doesn’t count.”
Hyunjin shrugs. “On the contrary—you’re the only one who matters.”
In the first few weeks of them meeting each other, Yerim would have responded with flustered and heartfelt reciprocation: I’m really glad we’re roommates, Hyunjin! Now, the politely judgmental raise of Yerim’s eyebrow is enough to let Hyunjin know she’s gotten way too comfortable around her.
“Well, maybe if you actually attended class once in a while, you’d meet some new people.” Yerim somehow manages to say this in the least condescending tone possible, like she’s genuinely suggesting an idea that’s just occurred to her, out of the goodness of her heart. It’s almost impossible to fight back against that level of earnestness. Luckily for Hyunjin, she doesn’t play by the rules.
“Now I see how you skipped a grade in middle school,” Hyunjin says, savagely pinching Yerim’s cheeks like dough. “You’re just so smart, aren’t you?”
“I’m only eight months younger than you!” Yerim protests.
“Which is just about the most juvenile thing you could possibly say, so you proved my point. Hah!” Hyunjin points a triumphant finger.
The slant of Yerim’s eyebrow somehow gains a pitying edge. “You know every conversation isn’t a competition, right?”
“Your order is ready,” the barista says loudly, thunking the coffee on the counter with a pained expression on her face and rescuing Hyunjin from having to respond. Hyunjin leaves a couple of folded-up ones in the tip jar in thanks.
True to Hyunjin’s predictions, the open mic venue is packed, most of the faces fleeting and unfamiliar. Hyunjin grabs Yerim’s arm and muscles their way to the front. All the seats are already taken, so they have to settle for standing against the wall by the side, close enough for Hyunjin to finally spot Jinsol fussing around with the electric keyboard by the makeshift stage.
“JINSOL!” Hyunjin shouts louder than strictly necessary, a hand cupped around her mouth for maximum amplification; more than one head turns to stare. Jinsol snaps her head up and beams at the sight of her.
“You guys are finally here!” She’s got a sweep of gold glitter over her eyelids. “Can you believe the size of the crowd?”
“Well, you invited everybody you knew and their mother, didn’t you?” Jungeun says dryly from beside her. Her hair’s a new shade of dusty ash blond from when Hyunjin saw her last, which was a while ago, to be fair. She doesn’t keep up very well with all of Jinsol’s social circles. Just the centre, which is the most important part, anyway.
“What songs are you gonna perform?” Yerim asks, practically jittering from excitement. Hyunjin indulges in a private smirk; Yerim’s probably their biggest fan, for which Hyunjin takes full responsibility. She’s the one who dragged her along to one of their performances and got her all starry-eyed in the first place.
“Just some covers, nothing special,” Jinsol says. “We’re still playing around with the original stuff we’re working on, but it’s really rough. Trust me, it’s not fit for your ears.” She sighs. “We’re just—missing something, I think.”
“It’s okay, I’m sure it’ll be awesome,” Yerim says, a little breathily.
“Hold on,” Jungeun says, scanning the crowd, “I think I saw—yes—there you finally are—” She thrusts her guitar at a startled Jinsol and stalks forward, just in time for a tiny cannonball to launch herself into her arms.
“BAAAABE I’m so sorry I’m late! I was wrangling Yves and Heejin, they were the slow ones not me, I swear!”
“It’s okay,” Jungeun says, “you can make it up to me later,” and she kisses Jiwoo right there in front of everybody. In the audience, Hyunjin counts at least five people looking visibly disappointed.
“High school sweethearts,” Yves mutters, pretending to gag. Then she catches sight of Jinsol still holding Jungeun’s guitar, and something imperceptibly straightens in her posture.
“Hi, Jinsol,” Yves says, voice stiff.
“Hi, Yves,” Jinsol says, looking like a deer in headlights.
They stare at each other for an entire uncontested minute while Jungeun and Jiwoo are busy making out and Yerim’s going on about how excited she is to hear their new song when they get it done and Hyunjin is catching the eye of the girl trailing behind Yves like a lost puppy. She blinks back at Hyunjin. She’s wearing an oversized flannel and ripped jeans and checkered Vans. Her expression of surprise breaks into a slow, curious smile.
A beat passes.
Hyunjin gives her a small smile back.
And then time’s surging forward to reclaim itself as Jungeun and Jiwoo break apart and Yves looks away and Jinsol blurts, “Let’s get this night started!”
“Woo-hoo!” Yerim says, clapping her hands together.
Hyunjin tears her eyes away from the girl. But she can still feel the burning weight of her gaze, intent, tingling the back of her neck like static.
The open mic night unfolds like any other; Hyunjin’s been to too many of these to count, by now. Somebody reads a poem. Somebody gets three jokes into an improvised stand-up routine before they’re heckled off the stage. Somebody performs an obligatory acoustic version of a Top 40s song; somebody else, a self-written rap about capitalism that brings down the house. Then Jinsol and Jungeun are stepping up to the stage, arranging their instruments and mics. In the audience, Jiwoo wolf-whistles. Yerim gives a little cheer.
“I’m SOUL, and this is LIP,” Jinsol says, grin huge on her face. “And we’re ODD EYE.”
Hyunjin keeps her eyes trained straight ahead. But she’s hyperaware of a presence on her periphery; somebody watching her. Send you my love on a wire, Jinsol’s crooning onstage. Hyunjin doesn’t look back. Takes a swig of her coffee, instead, and bobs her head in rhythm to the music.
It’s somewhere in the moment of pandemonium when the final note of the song fades into the air and gets swallowed up by the eruption of applause that Hyunjin feels more than hears the girl approach.
“Hey. So... you lived.”
On Hyunjin’s other side, Yerim doesn’t even notice. She’s too busy clapping and cheering. Hyunjin turns around. What did Jiwoo say her name was—Heejin? She’s leant back against the wall beside Hyunjin, looking casual. Like she’d always been there, slotted into the space by Hyunjin’s elbow. Hyunjin has to bite back a smile at the boldness of it.
“Told you,” Hyunjin says. “I’m a seasoned professional.”
“I can see that. How’d you do on the midterm?”
Hyunjin narrows her eyes. “Bet I did better than you.”
Heejin grimaces. “Not gonna take you up on that one. I probably bombed it. I suck at econ, and also 7:30 AM exams should be illegal. I didn’t have breakfast beforehand, and in the end it was just me, the TA, and my grumbling stomach in the empty lecture hall. Sounds echo in there, did you know?”
“The pen ink wasn’t filling enough for you?” Hyunjin says innocently.
“Shut up,” Heejin says, but she’s grinning too.
A few moments pass by in something like a companionable silence as they watch Jinsol and Jungeun begin their next cover. But Hyunjin knows better; there’s a charge to the air. She can practically feel it prickling into her skin, lifting the ends of her hair.
“You a fan of theirs?” Heejin asks, nodding at the stage. Her voice is low, so as not to disrupt the performance.
Hyunjin snorts. “I’m here by emotional blackmail, at Jinsol’s request.”
Heejin squints at her. “So... you’re friends?”
Hyunjin shrugs. “Sure, that’s another way to put it.”
Heejin laughs like Hyunjin’s said something funny.
It’s Hyunjin’s turn to ask. “And you’re Jiwoo’s friend?”
“Yeah, I’ve known her since forever. She and Jungeun used to be even more insufferable than they are now, believe it or not. I think they’ve actually managed to even each other out somewhat, over the years.” Heejin laughs again. “You know, I thought I’d finally have some independence when I started college, but it feels like I’ve just been adopted by all of them instead.”
“So you’re from around here,” Hyunjin says.
Heejin shoots her a glance. “You’re not?”
Hyunjin shakes her head. She’d flown in from out of state on a scholarship. She allows herself a brief moment of envy—there’s a warmth in the way Heejin talks so casually about the deep roots she’s grown here—before dismissing it; she’d liked starting anew in a place where she knew nobody and nobody knew her. All hers to discover on her own. Freedom to be whatever she wanted, however she wanted, with nothing to anchor her but her own self. That was why she’d chosen to come here in the first place—that, and the scholarship money, of course.
“Well,” Heejin says. “How are you liking it here, so far?”
Said you could have no other, Jinsol sings. But for me you might change your mind...
“It’s finally getting a lot more interesting,” Hyunjin says.
Heejin maybe goes a little red, or it could just be the lighting in here; Hyunjin can’t really tell. She takes another swig of her coffee, though it’s lukewarm and she doesn’t need it. She’s fully awake, senses buzzing. She just feels the need to do something with her hands.
“This is a stupid question,” Heejin says. “But... what’s your name?”
Hyunjin’s surprised into a laugh. “Hyunjin. It’s Hyunjin.”
“That makes so much more sense,” Heejin says. Hyunjin raises a quizzical eyebrow and Heejin shakes her head. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
Another moment passes, offbeat. Onstage, Jinsol is holding her note, making it last. Her eyes are closed. Hyunjin watches her. From here, she glitters.
“Hey,” Heejin says. “Yves is throwing a party this Friday. Are you... Do you wanna come? You could bring your friends, too.”
A vaguely nervous and awfully hopeful expression on her face. She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear; Hyunjin’s fingers itch. She has a mole on her cheek.
“Unless you’re busy, I mean,” Heejin adds after a moment. “Which you might be. Obviously.”
Hyunjin’s plans for the weekend had been to sleep, to finally climb her way out of silver rank, and to treat herself and Yerim to that nice homey Korean restaurant they’d found downtown. Looks like her pillow and elo hell and Yerim will all have to wait.
“Sure,” Hyunjin says. “I’ll come.”
“Again, we’re LIP and SOUL from ODD EYE,” Jungeun’s saying onstage. “Thanks all, you’ve been great!”
Heejin says something else, but it’s lost in the roar of thunderous applause rising from the crowd around them.
That’s okay, Hyunjin thinks. The smile on her face says enough.
The minute the alarm blares 6:45 AM Heejin’s arm shoots out to shut it off. She ends up smacking her phone off her bed, sending it clattering down into the crack against the wall. The sound is deafening in the morning silence. From the other side of the room, her roommate smothers her pillow over her face.
“Sorry!” Heejin whispers.
For once she rolls out of bed right on time, though she wastes a few minutes fishing blindly for her phone with her arm under the bed. Washes her face, brushes her teeth, gets dressed at record speed. Throws on a T-shirt and flannel, then pauses. Searches her closet for anything a little cuter. It’s a lost cause—she’s behind on laundry. She pulls a face at her reflection in the mirror. Should she tie some of her hair back? Leave it down? Is that too plain? She applies some daring, bold eyeshadow. Wipes it off—it’s a 7:30 AM class, for god’s sake. Puts on eyeliner instead. In a burst of inspiration she digs out the perfume sample a seller had handed to her in the mall last week and dabs it on her wrists. She gives it a sniff: something woodsy, tinged with earth. Not bad. She glances at her phone. She’s late. How the hell did that happen—?
By the time she bursts into the lecture hall, class has already started. The professor raises an eyebrow at her arrival, but mercifully spares her from comment; in the front row Haseul is tactfully pretending not to have seen her. Heejin slinks along the side of the lecture hall, scanning the rows. Her eyes widen. No way. Maybe luck is on her side today after all.
“Hey,” Heejin whispers, slipping into the conveniently empty seat next to Hyunjin in the back of the room. She hopes it isn’t too obvious that she’s out of breath. “Did I miss anything important?”
“Depends on your definition of important,” Hyunjin says, preoccupied with writing in her notebook. But she flicks a glance up at Heejin, coy and casual, and Heejin’s heart flips over in her chest like an egg sizzling in a pan. Maybe she shouldn’t even bother to take out her own notes. There’s no way she’s gonna be able to pay attention to the lecture today.
“You know, I’ve never seen you in this class before,” Heejin says. “The midterm the other day was the first time.”
“Maybe you just never noticed me.”
“Nah,” Heejin says, trying not to grin too big. “That’s impossible. I wouldn’t have missed you.”
Hyunjin rolls her eyes like the cheesiness of it is beneath her, but there’s a smile tugging at the corner of her lips.
“I usually sleep through my morning classes,” Hyunjin says. “So that would be why.”
“Uh-huh,” Heejin says. She leans back in her cramped seat. Crosses one leg over the other. Uncrosses it. “What changed?”
Hyunjin opens her mouth, then closes it. She gives Heejin a sideways look. Heejin coolly smiles back. Her heart is pounding so fast she thinks it’s gonna soar straight out of her chest.
“Hey,” comes another voice, on Heejin’s other side. She turns to look, thinking it’s some classmate who’s actually paying attention to the lecture and wants them to shut up. Instead it’s a girl with pale hair and an annoyed expression and an entire Muji display arranged on her desk. Oh, shit. “You know you owe me a pen, right?”
“Right,” Heejin says. “Uh, sorry about that. I’ll totally pay you back. But also, it’s, like, what, 90 cents?”
The girl narrows her eyes. “It was a good pen.”
“I’m sure,” Heejin says. “Look, I’m sorry I destroyed your pen, that’s on me, you’re right. Can I—I’ll buy you lunch after class?”
The girl’s eyebrows shoot up. So do Hyunjin’s, Heejin notes out of the corner of her eye.
“That’s okay,” the girl starts to backpedal. “It wasn’t worth that much—”
“Are you gonna buy me lunch, too?” Hyunjin says.
Heejin practically chokes on her own spit. She turns to stare, but Hyunjin’s gone back to taking notes, an innocent look on her face.
“Uhhh,” Heejin says. “Yeah. Sure. I mean, yeah, definitely, of course.”
“I’m just kidding,” Hyunjin says. “I’m capable of paying for my own lunch. But I think we should go to the burrito place by the library. They have a good lunch deal there.”
“Yeah,” Heejin says. “Yeah, sure, totally.” Wait—did she just ask her out?
“Oh, I love that place,” the girl on Heejin’s other side says. “Hi, by the way. I’m Chaewon.”
“And I’m Heejin.”
Chaewon pins her with a stare. “Did I ask?”
“I said I was sorry!” Heejin hisses loud enough for several rows to turn their heads and stare at them.
Chaewon smirks. On her other side, Hyunjin stifles a laugh behind her palm.
Heejin doesn’t really notice. She’s caught a glimpse of Hyunjin’s notebook. She isn’t copying anything from the lecture slides at all. Just doodling: lightning bolts and cartoon faces being eaten by their own thought bubbles and rabbits all running rampant across the page. But tucked between the curve of a crescent moon sticking out its tongue and a tiger’s tail is a single word written in tiny letters, as though an absentminded scrawl, a considering thought: heejin ?
Heejin grins. Nothing can bring her down today.
“...midterms have been graded,” the professor says. “The grades will be posted shortly. Haseul, can you help me hand back the exams?”
Afterward they recover from the fallout in the restaurant Hyunjin said she liked, or at least Heejin thinks they’re all in this together until Chaewon asks “What’d you get?” and Hyunjin says “Ninety-six” without skipping a beat and Heejin loses hold of her burrito and all the fillings fall out onto the sandwich wrapper.
“The fuck?” Heejin says, trying to stuff bits of lettuce and ground beef back into the tortilla to no avail. “Why’d you even need that unholy drink concoction if you were just gonna ace it anyway?”
Hyunjin shrugs. “Why not?”
“Wait, hold on. Are you, like, a business major?” Suddenly Heejin feels a little inadequate in her scuffed Vans, like this is Cinderella and she’s somehow stumbled into the sightline of a Prince Charming with a 4.3 GPA and very straight teeth.
“I’m still deciding.” Hyunjin takes a big bite of her burrito and comes away with some hot sauce on her chin, dispelling the illusion somewhat.
“That’s smart.” Heejin gives up on her own burrito and starts picking at it with a plastic fork. “I put all my eggs in one basket—the arts—because I can’t really do anything else. Or maybe I just never tried. But hey, I took econ as an elective and look where it’s got me, now.”
“So you have tried. You are trying.”
Heejin pauses in the middle of wrangling a tomato slice. She glances up, meets Hyunjin’s steadfast gaze. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess I am.”
“I’m a business major,” Chaewon offers, passing Hyunjin a napkin.
Heejin shudders. “It all makes sense now.”
Chaewon rolls her eyes. It should be awkward between them, but Heejin’s actually glad she’s here. She provides a bit of a buffer to play against, enough for Heejin to settle into her skin with Hyunjin sitting beside her, sparking like a live wire, that flicker out of the corner of her eye. If she were left alone with Hyunjin, she’d probably combust. Over lunch, no less.
“Wow,” Chaewon says, watching Heejin tear into her burrito salad. “Careful you don’t choke.”
Hyunjin raises an eyebrow. “Didn’t eat breakfast again?”
“It’s a 7:30 AM class! When am I supposed to have the time to eat breakfast?”
“The trick is eating in class,” Hyunjin says. “I once brought an entire breakfast platter into my stats lecture. The prof didn’t bat an eyelid, and I even bribed someone to share their notes with me in exchange for a waffle.”
“Why does it feel like you’re on the highest level of a video game and the rest of us have only just started playing?”
“Does that make me the final boss?”
“But I don’t wanna beat you, I wanna join you. Get you on my team.”
“Sure, I’ll carry us all to victory.”
“Catch us all the fish.”
Heejin and Hyunjin stare at Chaewon. “What?”
“What? Is that not something they say in video games?”
“Not generally, no,” Heejin says. “Have you ever played one?”
“Yeah,” Chaewon says defensively. “Animal Crossing.”
Hyunjin shrugs. “Fair enough.”
Heejin sighs. “I haven’t played anything in ages, though. This semester is kicking my ass. It’s only midterm season and I’m already drowning. Or like, barely floating on the surface? Clinging to a life buoy as I get swept further out to sea? Something like that.”
“I thought you liked what you’re studying,” Hyunjin says. Her expression is only curious, not judgmental.
“Yeah, I do. I’m learning a lot of cool stuff. And it’s not the courseload that’s the problem, not really—I’m used to working under pressure.” Heejin takes another bite of her lunch as she thinks about it. “I guess... It’s just this class, mainly.” It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but she isn’t used to not being naturally good at something; to working hard without seeing the labour bear fruit. Maybe that’s why all her life she’d stayed away from everything she suspected she didn’t have an immediate affinity for. Surrounded herself with a loving, tight-knit group of friends in a familiar lifestyle that served as a blanket of comfort protecting her from the unknown. She’d never even considered leaving home for college, like Hyunjin had done. And now that she’s confronted with this newfound self-realization, she wishes she’d never dug it out in the first place, left it to lie like the itch of a splinter in her thumb, one she could live with never knowing was there.
“We should form a study group together,” Chaewon says.
Heejin’s caught off-guard by the gesture, made for the clear benefit of only one person at this table. It’s a kindness, one wholly unexpected in both its source and its candor. No possible hidden motivations, no reason other than the obvious.
“Really?” Heejin asks without thinking.
“Yeah,” Chaewon says. She takes a sip of the lemon iced tea she’d ordered. “I work better with others.”
Hyunjin’s nodding. “Could make it more fun.”
“Whoa,” Heejin says. “I mean, of course I’m down, I just—I am sorry about your pen, you know.”
“Whatever,” Chaewon says. “It was, like, ninety cents.” She tilts her head slightly, then, giving Heejin a slantwise look. “It wasn’t your fault, anyway. I know you had other stuff on your mind.”
Heejin’s mouth goes dry. “Yeah, I was really stressed about that midterm.”
Chaewon’s expression doesn’t change, save for a twitch of her lips in something that could be a smirk. “Yeah, I could tell.”
Heejin hasn’t exactly been subtle. She doesn’t believe in disguising her intentions, if only because she can never help herself when it comes to what she wants. Heart shameless on her sleeve. But the thought of a stranger reading her so easily makes her face itch, all the same. She shoves a forkful of burrito filling in her mouth and makes a noncommittal grunt in response.
Hyunjin is looking at her. When she sees Heejin looking back, she smiles.
“Hey, I gotta run,” Hyunjin says. She’s slinging her backpack over her shoulder, balling up her napkins in the paper of her burrito wrapper. How’d she eat so fast—? “Text me about the study group, okay? See you at the party later, Heejin.”
Heejin startles at the sound of her own name. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, you will.”
She watches Hyunjin’s back as she leaves. When she looks away, Chaewon’s eyebrow is raised as she sucks loudly on her drink straw.
“You asked her out already? I’m pleasantly surprised.”
“I just invited her to this party,” Heejin says. “Anyway, she didn’t say no. So I totally have a chance.”
“What? You don’t believe in this?” Heejin gestures at herself with her burrito salad fork. “Well, guess what, I smell really good today. Here. Smell this.” She thrusts out her wrist.
Chaewon leans away, looking pained. “I’d say you have more than a chance. So would you, if you were paying any attention.”
“Hey, I totally have been.” Heejin sniffs her own wrist, since Chaewon won’t. Still the lingering earthy scent. Maybe she should save up to buy this perfume for real. How much could it cost, honestly? “But, like, I don’t know her. She could just be really friendly. Or something.”
“That’s what I’ll find out at the party, I guess.” Heejin’s finished eating. She puts down her fork. Her palms are sweaty for some reason; she wipes them on her jeans. “Hey, I forgot to bring my water bottle today. Can I have some of your drink?”
“Ugh,” Chaewon says.
But she lets her have some anyway.
Later that day Yves opens her door and blinks at Heejin in confusion.
“What are you doing here?”
“You’re literally throwing a party today?”
“Tonight. You’re early.”
Heejin tries to look innocent. “Thought I could help you prep for it.”
“Prep what? There aren’t even gonna be that many people.”
Heejin tries to look even more innocent.
Yves narrows her eyes. “Right?”
“Right,” Heejin says, and slinks her way through the door.
It’s true that there’s nothing to prepare. Yves’ place isn’t spotless, but it’s organized and lived-in, a sense of comfort washing over Heejin the moment she steps over the threshold. Or maybe that’s just the fact that she’s hung out here since she was a teenager. She takes off her coat, kicks off her shoes, lounges on Yves’ couch, makes commentary on Yves’s possible party outfits, and waits.
Jungeun and Jiwoo show up together with drinks and a whole lot of chatter. “Oh, I invited some of my classmates, is that okay?” Jiwoo says. “I bumped into them on the way here and thought it would be nice!”
“Yeah, whatever,” Yves sighs, if only because she must recognize a lost battle when she sees one at this point. “I’m trying to keep it low-key, though, all right?”
“I invited Hyunjin,” Heejin pipes up, taking the opportunity to piggyback off Jiwoo’s confession and minimize the blame. She’s still slumped on the couch, absorbed with her phone, trying to find the brand name of the perfume sample on Google.
“Oh, isn’t that Jinsol’s friend?” Jungeun says.
Yves gets a very pinched expression on her face. “Jinsol? Jinsol’s coming?”
“I don’t know if you know this, but Jinsol and I are literally in a band together,” Jungeun says with a roll of her eyes.
“What’s that got to do with me?”
Jungeun smacks her arm. “What’ve you got against Jinsol? She’s the most harmless person on the planet.”
Heejin finds the perfume listing, scrolls down to the price. Her eyes bulge. What the hell?
“Is this about your hookup when you were freshmen?” Jiwoo asks, settling on the couch next to Heejin.
Heejin looks up, eyes bulging even more. “What?”
Yves freezes from where she’s rummaging around in her fridge. She whirls around. “HOW DO YOU KNOW ABOUT THAT?”
Jiwoo looks blank. “Am I not supposed to know about that? You were talking about it this one time.”
“I WAS NOT!”
“You were drunk.”
Yves considers it. “Okay, fine. Maybe I was.”
“Wow,” Heejin says. Growing up, she’s always seen Yves as a cool older sister, and with all the necessary distance that comes with it: forcibly being treated to meals even when money must have been tight, being dispensed unsympathetic advice for problems like how to deal with having to do all the work in a group project with her crush and could she still get into college even if she failed chem, listening along to conversations about research projects and internship prospects and dating app hookups and feeling like a child. And like any younger sibling, she automatically tries to cross-reference this new revelation in the frame of her own life: when Yves was a freshman Heejin would’ve been in tenth grade, the year she got her braces off and landed the role of the Nurse in the school play of Romeo and Juliet and almost kissed her crush but didn’t (due to the aforementioned group project and some reevaluated priorities). All the while keeping up with Yves’s life through social media updates of mysterious photos of dimly-lit bars and thinking, wow, Yves is so grown-up now. It’s kind of uncomfortable to think that Yves would have been the same age Heejin is now, was going through every uncertainty and doubt and possible mistake that she is, too. Would’ve made out with a nice girl at a meetup between mutual friends and still be recovering from the fallout years later.
Is something like that in her future, too? Heejin can’t help but wonder. An event yet to come that will define her?
“Shut up,” Jungeun says, a strange expression on her face. “All this time? I can’t believe you never told me. I can’t believe Jinsol never told me, what the hell?”
“It was a long time ago.” Yves has gone back to poking around in the fridge, her back turned to them. But her posture looks rigid. “And it didn’t mean anything.”
“So I’ve just been subjecting you two to—whatever this is?” Jungeun looks stricken; Yves seems to realize it and pauses, taken aback. “Every time I invite both of you to the same things, because I didn’t know, all this time? You could have said something. I wouldn’t have—I don’t want to make anything difficult for either of you.”
“No, Jungeun, you’re fine,” Yves says quickly. “It’s not like...” She sighs. “Look, it’s not your responsibility, okay? We’ll work this out on our own.”
“Oh, you will?” Jungeun narrows her eyes. “What does that mean?”
“It means we’d never let this get between our friendship with you, obviously. And we haven’t, have we?”
“That’s not what I’m most worried about.”
“Then what are you worried about?”
“You, stupid! Both of you! You’re my friends!”
Jiwoo and Heejin stare wide-eyed at them from the couch. Jungeun leant against the kitchen counter looking miserable. Yves, standing with her hands hovering awkwardly as though unsure of what to do with them, a flicker of something over her expression: surprise? Uncertainty? Regret?
“Look, if it matters that much to you, I’ll talk to her tonight when I see her, okay?” Yves bites her lip, and there it is again: the instinctive wrongness flickering in Heejin’s gut, that this person she’s looked up to for so much of her life can look something close to scared. “You don’t have to worry about a thing, I promise.”
“I’m not saying you have to force anything.” Jungeun frowns. “I just don’t want to see either of you getting hurt. That’s all.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Hey—” Jungeun’s eyes narrow. “I trust you, but I trust Jinsol, too. She wouldn’t want to hurt you, or anything.”
“I know,” Yves repeats, a tad more testily this time.
“You know, she’s always said...” Jungeun’s brow furrows, like she’s thinking. Doesn’t finish her sentence. “Look, she always tries really hard to be honest. Just, remember that, will you? When you talk to her tonight. Don’t jump too quickly to conclusions, and hear her out.”
Yves goes still. “What are you trying to say, exactly?”
“I don’t know,” Jungeun admits. “Just... be open, all right? And be careful.”
“I’m always careful,” Yves says, settling into a straight-faced expression. Jungeun sucker-punches her in the stomach. “Ow, fuck!”
Jiwoo and Heejin simultaneously release a breath of relief on the couch, the tension slowly leaking from the air.
“That was terrifying,” Jiwoo whispers to Heejin.
“I’ve never seen Jungeun that upset before,” Heejin whispers back.
Jungeun shoots her a look. “You know I can hear you, right?”
“Hey, hold on a sec,” Jiwoo says, frowning at Heejin. Her eyes narrow. “What’s that scent—are you wearing perfume?”
“Oh, good, you can still smell it,” Heejin says mournfully. “’Cause I’m never gonna get to wear it again, not with that price tag.”
“Why are you—” Jiwoo stops to stare at her. “Wait. This girl you invited. Is she the girl you were texting us about the other day?”
Jungeun perks up, clearly wanting to change the subject. “Oh, the one you said you were in love with?”
Heejin’s dated before. A couple of boyfriends in high school; a girl she made out with in the bathroom of a house party who wouldn’t look her in the eye the next day in bio class. Each was special in their own way—she can say that now, after the fact. But the word love’s too big for any of them, and for this, too, whatever it is. Sweaty palms and skidding heart and all. A stranger who feels closer than she really is. It’s dangerous: is she falling for a person, or the idea of one? Would this be a confession of melodrama, or of hope? But there’s a magnetism here that draws her in, makes her want to know everything. She’s all in. And that has to count for something, at first, at least.
“We’ll see,” Heejin says. She tries to make it sound mysterious, but it comes out sounding queasy instead.
“Oh, so it wasn’t Haseul,” Yves says, who by now has managed to pull her expression back into something aloof and unaffected. “Thank god—Vivi would’ve chewed you up and spat you back out again.”
“Wowww!” Jiwoo says, making grabby motions like she’s squishing Heejin’s cheeks from afar. “You’re acting so mature. Honestly, I can’t believe it. They grow up so fast.”
Heejin just takes it, this lighthearted ribbing that in itself is a routine, well-worn by now. She grins. “Wait till you meet her.”
“Let me guess.” Jiwoo digs her socked feet into Heejin’s stomach; Heejin smacks at her ankles. “Drop-dead gorgeous?”
“She’s funny. And bold, and confident. And she’s really smart, but like, not just in class or whatever—she’s observant, or like, it feels like she notices a lot? Though I’ve only talked to her, like, three times.”
“Wowwww,” Jiwoo says again, digging her feet in harder and wiggling her toes. “That’s so romantic.” From anyone else it would be sarcasm, but Jiwoo somehow manages to make it sound earnest, like she really thinks it is—Heejin being smitten after a few glances, a couple of chance encounters. It’s not like Heejin thinks she’s making it all up in her head like a few of her more embarrassing crushes, but she’s grateful for the support, the secondhand enthusiasm that sends her own excitement flaring up again. She starts to tickle Jiwoo’s foot, which finally gets her to screech and flail away.
“Children, behave,” Yves says dryly, and Jiwoo throws a couch cushion at her head.
After that the guests start actually trickling in: Yves’s friends from the dance studio and Jungeun’s friends from the swim club and everybody who’s ever talked to Jiwoo even once, it seems like. So much for keeping it low-key. Over the course of the night Heejin mingles with strangers, laughs and talks and introduces herself; she likes meeting new people, it’s never been hard for her to feel at home in a crowd, but she can’t quite shake the feeling of being the younger sister tagging along to the party. Even the disgusting beer she holds in her hand makes her feel juvenile somehow, sweaty in her grip. Like everything she has is inherited, handed over from someone else. Usually she likes being caught in the cluster of people who all belong to one another, but Heejin fields what feels like the hundredth question of so how are you liking freshman year? and thinks, a little unintelligibly through the buzz of alcohol—fuck, I need some friends who are just my own.
She finds Yves standing by the bathroom looking moody and drunk. Not a good combination, Heejin knows from past experience. She makes her way over.
“Yo,” she says, trying to sound reassuring. “How’s it going? Seen Jinsol yet?”
Yves groans. “Not you, too.”
Well, that obviously backfired. “Just wanted to lend you some friendly support.” Heejin lifts her fist for a fistbump. Yves stares at it, unamused.
“Wow,” Heejin says. “So... I guess it was pretty serious between you two, huh?”
“No,” Yves says automatically, and then, “maybe,” and then, “I don’t know.” She sighs. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“...Are you sure?” Heejin asks after a moment.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, nothing, really. Just that you’ve always helped me, even if it was for dumb crush problems or embarrassing situations where I should’ve known better. So I guess I’m just saying... if you did want to get anything off your chest, no matter how stupid it seems to you...” Heejin shrugs. “I’m here?”
Yves says nothing for a while. Then she exhales, a long breath that seems to last forever.
“You know how there are some things that you just block out of your mind? And for so long you just don’t think about it, or you think of it as this small, irrelevant thing that happened, that’s of no consequence to you or anybody else? That doesn’t matter?”
Heejin picks at the peeling label of her bottle with her thumbnail. She can’t help but feel out of her depth, but there’s nothing else to do but listen, and try to understand.
“No,” Heejin says slowly, “but it sounds really hard.”
Yves's mouth twists. “That’s the thing—it wasn’t. It was easy. So easy I believed it without question, until I had to look at it again, remember everything and realize—this story I made up in my head and told myself to make me feel better? About how somebody screwed me over and all I had to do was move on and I was better off forgetting about it anyway? Well, it wasn’t true. It was nobody’s fault, or maybe both our faults, and that’s what makes it complicated.” A pause. “That’s what makes it hurt.”
“Yves,” Heejin says. “If you wanna ditch and get out of here, before anyone sees you or whatever, I’m totally down. I’ll tell everybody your third cousin twice removed just died, or something. I’ll cover for you, I’m serious. Or if you need me to come with—”
Yves’s eyebrow is raised. “Aren’t you meeting some girl, though?”
“I’ll tell her it was an emergency. I’ll make it up to her. She’ll understand.” She hopes.
Yves is still staring at her, expression unreadable. “Heejin,” she says eventually. “You don’t have to do that for me. I mean, it’s my own party—I’m not gonna ditch it. I’ll be okay. I have to deal with this at some point, anyway. What do I have to lose, right?”
Growing up, following after her with Jiwoo at her side, Yves has always appeared so cool, mature, untouchable. The effortlessly popular girl who’s got everything figured out. But standing here with with a shadow in her eyes, Heejin can’t help but realize—she looks a little lonely, too.
“And there’s no way I’m gonna let you ruin this thing you have going with your crush.”
“Shhh!” Heejin hisses, like anyone’s listening or even cares. “But seriously—I don’t even know if she’s gonna show up, anyway.”
Yves raises her eyebrow. “You mean the girl who’s been watching you for the last five minutes?”
Heejin’s head whips up. She spots Hyunjin immediately: standing by the window, leant back against the wall, drink in hand. She’s wearing something simple, a black sweater and jeans, but the lights flick over her face in a way that makes Heejin’s mouth go dry, catching the glint of her gaze. Looking up, right at her, with a blank expression; eyes watchful, inscrutable in the dark.
Then she smiles at her from across the room, and the mystery fades.
“Hey,” Yves says, seemingly apropos of nothing. “Maybe you have grown up a little.”
“Who, me? Never!” Heejin insists.
Yves shakes her head and laughs. “Go get ’em,” she says, and brings up her fist to knock against Heejin’s. Hell yes.
“If there’s both of you to blame for what happened back then, then think about it. There’s both of you to forgive, too.”
Yves says nothing. But her mouth crooks up in a small smile, after a moment, like she’s considering it.
Heejin takes a swig of her beer, the rim of the bottleneck knocking against her teeth. She swallows, her throat afire. She sets it down on the counter and walks over, through the crowd, that liquid mouthful of warmth kindling inside.
“Hey,” Heejin says. “You made it.”
“I said I would,” Hyunjin says. She’s wearing a necklace, no pendant or jewel, just a thin silver chain that winds across her throat. Her earrings are big hoops that catch the light when she moves. There’s a tiny braid in her hair again. “Sorry I’m late. It’s all Jinsol’s fault. Looks like everyone’s enjoying the party, though.”
“Yeah,” Heejin says, trying to see it through Hyunjin’s eyes: the couch on which Heejin puked the first time she got drunk as a teen and the foyer where Heejin once tripped over one of Jungeun’s boots and chipped a bit of her tooth and the ugly red mini-rug Jiwoo pulled all-nighters knitting as a housewarming gift that Yves immediately declared she hated but also kept in full view in the living room at all times. “Yves was trying to keep it low-key. She didn’t really succeed, though.”
“I did say hi to her earlier.” Hyunjin isn’t looking at any of it, the couch or the foyer or the rug. She’s looking only at Heejin, something amused in her eyes, something warm. “I don’t think she knew who I was, though she was very gracious. And also very drunk.”
Heejin laughs. “Yeah, that’s her, all right.”
For all the half-baked resentment Heejin had spent the night nursing like a perceived wound, she now feels it wash away in a wave of contentment. Happiness for all that she is lucky enough to have. Somewhere Jiwoo and Jungeun are interrupting each other, drunkenly retelling some silly old story that happened when they were kids, or teens, or just the other morning when they were brushing their teeth. Somewhere Yves is catching Jinsol’s eye, or the other way around; maybe they hold their gazes, maybe they look away. Somewhere there’s talking, and laughing, and possibilities opening up like flowers at their feet, everywhere they look.
Heejin reaches out and takes hold of this one.
“Do you wanna get out of here?” she asks.
The party, thrumming around them like the chamber of a heart.
“Yeah,” Hyunjin says. “I do.”
It’s cold, even with their coats on, even though it’s a warmer winter than Hyunjin’s used to. Heejin’s shivering, her cheeks reddening in the chill of the night, her hands bare. “Here,” Hyunjin says, reaching out to cover Heejin’s palm with her own gloved hand, lacing their fingers together. Heejin’s cheeks go even redder.
“Thanks,” she says.
Hyunjin doesn’t know if Heejin had some destination in mind when they left, but for the most part she seems content to follow after, wandering down the streets. It’s late, but not too late, sounds of traffic still cutting through the clear-edged dark, crosswalk lights flickering on and off. They walk shoulder to shoulder on the sidewalk, breaths fogging in the cold, giving the night a dreamlike quality.
“How long have you known them?” Hyunjin asks. “Since high school, you said?”
“Jiwoo earlier than that,” Heejin says, picking up the thread of their past conversation with no trouble at all. “We were practically neighbours. Our moms were always forcing us to play together because we were the only Korean families on the block. We made them regret it because we were literally the most annoying kids ever.” She laughs; it turns into silver in the air.
“What were you, the neighbourhood menaces?”
“Something like that. Then we got to middle school and met Yves there; she was older than us and totally intimidating but we thought she was so cool, we hung around her all the time until she basically accepted us as a pair of ducklings who’d imprinted on her. Around the same time Jiwoo met Jungeun at church choir and the rest is history.” Heejin giggles. “I remember once Jiwoo came up to me and said we had to go find this boy who’d made Jungeun cry and beat him up for her. She was all solemn about it and everything.”
“Did you do it?”
“I was so down for it! I said, let’s get this punk! We tracked him down and Jiwoo like, sucker punched him in the stomach with her tiny fist and said, don’t ever be mean to Jungeun again! And the guy was like, you’ve got it all wrong, I have a crush on her.”
“And Jiwoo goes ballistic—just rears up and punches him again!” Heejin has to stop walking for a moment, she’s laughing so hard. “She says, that’s even worse! It was hysterical. Anyway even after all that it took them, like, another three years to finally get together.”
Hyunjin half-smiles to herself. “Sometimes it takes that long. To be able to look at something without being scared of it, you know?”
“Yeah, I know.” Heejin kicks at a pebble on the sidewalk. “I never really had trouble with that, though. Probably I was just reckless and impatient or maybe just dumb.”
“Sounds like you had it all figured out, to be honest.”
Heejin flashes a smile. “I wouldn’t be the same without having grown up with them, though. Honestly, back then, I’d probably have killed someone for Jiwoo. I’m surprised I never did. We were ride or die.”
“Reminds me of this girl I know back home.”
Something freezes in Heejin’s expression. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. She’s two years younger than me. She used to follow me everywhere around the neighbourhood. I found it so annoying at first, and then I discovered that these mean girls at our school were giving her trouble and I lost it. Didn’t even realize until that moment that I started thinking of her as a little sister.”
Heejin’s expression settles again. “That’s cute. I can imagine you, standing up to all the neighbourhood bullies. A Band-Aid on your nose and everything. Straight out of a comic book.”
Hyunjin thinks about Yeojin, the scrappy kid who hovered at her elbow like a sidekick. “That’s... kinda fitting, actually.”
“My hero,” Heejin says, tone playful.
They’ve made their way deeper into the city, storefronts displays lit up in holiday colours though it’s only November, strangers bustling past in coats and scarves. Hyunjin and Heejin stick close together, their footsteps in tandem. The neon OPEN sign of a nearby ice cream parlour catches Hyunjin’s eye.
“Hey, hold on,” she says, “I’m kinda hungry.”
“For real?” Heejin says. “You want ice cream, in this cold?”
“You seriously don’t?”
Heejin thinks it over. “Fine, you’re right. Let’s go in.”
Inside, it’s warm and cozy, lit with gold. They sit at the counter by the window and take bites of each other’s soft-serve. Heejin, something fancy with slices of strawberry and honeycomb; Hyunjin, mint.
“Jiwoo and I used to chase after the ice cream truck when we were kids,” Heejin says. “Once we followed it five blocks, only to realize neither of us had any money.”
“When I was a kid, before we moved here, I had this friend whose older sister worked at a shaved ice place. She let us eat for free this one time.” Hyunjin sucks on her plastic spoon. “Best day of my life up until then, but also I was, like, eight, so it’s not like I had an incredibly high bar to clear.”
“When did your family move from Korea?” Heejin asks.
“When I was ten. I was against it, too. My parents tried to sell me on it being an adventure, but at the time, I didn’t like the thought of giving up what I had. I wanted to protect it. I still remember the fierceness of that feeling.”
“Well, you were a kid,” Heejin says. “And it’s a big move. All the way across the globe. It makes sense.”
“Yeah. Then I grew up, learned to deal with stuck-up bullies who made fun of my name, learned the language from children’s cartoons, learned how to live here.”
“And then you left home for college?”
“Like I said.” Hyunjin spoons another bite of ice cream into her mouth. “I grew up.”
“Huh.” Heejin spears a strawberry slice in half with her spoon. “I was born and raised here, and even when I had the chance to leave I didn’t. Guess that makes me a little kid, still.”
“No, it’s nice,” Hyunjin says. “What you have. I wouldn’t want to leave, either.”
“I left to see new things,” Hyunjin says. “To meet people, to discover what was out there, waiting for me. Now I think there’s a simpler way to put it: I left to find what you have.”
Heejin’s paused with her spoon halfway to her mouth. On the other side of the parlour, somebody laughs, says something they can’t hear.
“I think you’re really brave,” Heejin says.
Hyunjin just looks at her for a moment. This girl staring back at her, earnest, waiting. Fond exasperation thrown over like the fuzzy static of a warm blanket: you who found what you wanted and made it yours and held onto it all this time, going around and calling other people brave. How silly. How special.
“Your ice cream is melting,” Hyunjin says.
“Ugh.” Heejin shoves a spoonful of ice cream into Hyunjin’s mouth and leaves her spoon there, sticking out. Hyunjin takes it out and uses it to steal one of her strawberry slices.
“Do you miss it?” Heejin asks. “Korea?”
“It was a long time ago.”
“Yeah, but still. I’m sure you still have at least something to remember. Everything I know is from photographs. I’ve only visited once or twice, to see family. They were all so excited to meet me. A little less so when they realized I could barely speak with them.”
Hyunjin stirs what’s left of the ice cream in her cup. After a moment, she says, “I remember the sounds.”
“What kind of sounds?”
“We all lived together, with our grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins. There was always so much noise. That’s what I remember the most. Everyone always talking, my cousin watching TV, my older brother playing the piano. In the summer, the cicadas joined in, too. You couldn’t get anyone to shut up. It was probably annoying at the time, but then we moved, my parents and siblings and I, and that’s what I remember—everything being so quiet here. We lived in the suburbs in the middle of nowhere and my brothers were hanging out with their own friends all the time. Our parents also wanted us to learn English fast so we had to speak it around the house. So I refused to speak at all.” Hyunjin scrapes up the last bit of melted ice cream and sticks it in her mouth. “Growing up was pretty silent for a while.”
“If we knew each other as kids, we would’ve been friends.” Heejin says this definitively, like it’s a fact.
“Yeah, I would have thought you were so cool. I would’ve chattered your ear off, you’d get sick of it—you’d wish it were quiet. And we’d fight the bullies together.”
“So you don’t think I’m cool now?” Hyunjin says, keeping a straight face.
Heejin just smiles. It’s getting harder to fluster her, or maybe she’s just getting used to her. “No, I think you’re something else.”
“Dripping ice cream onto your sleeve,” Heejin says, and wipes at Hyunjin’s wrist with a napkin.
When they leave the ice cream shop the sky’s a few shades darker and the crowds have lessened. So another couple of hours slipped past, just like that. Time flowing fast. Hyunjin can’t remember the last time she talked this much to somebody. It feels a little dangerous, but it also feels so good. She didn’t realize it could feel this good, or maybe it’s something she used to know and then forget. Either way, she isn’t tired at all but completely awake, all her senses buzzing, alight in the winter chill as they plunge deeper into the night.
They kill time. They trample it completely underfoot to put it out of its misery. They cut through the park, pet a stranger’s dog (“Do you have any pets?” “I had a hamster when I was a kid, does that count?” “I have three dogs.” “Wow, so you’ve been holding out on me? Pics, now” ), get scared by a weird noise coming from the woods (“What if it’s, like, a wolf or something?” “I bet I could lure it out. I do a pretty good wolf howl.” “Don’t you dare—” “Don’t worry, I’d protect you.” “I don’t care, I’ll be long gone, you’d have to catch me—” “Excuse me, I did track in high school, I totally could”), chase each other through the streets, laugh until they have to stop running because they can’t breathe, window shop at random stores they pass by (“Stop, that hideous frog-shaped backpack reminds me of somebody I know sooo bad, I have to get that, wait what the fuck do you mean it’s 200 dollars—” “It looks kinda like you, actually—” “Oh, now we’re feeling brave, huh?”), enter a 24-hour grocery store and Hyunjin wanders the aisles running her hands over every box of cereal and bag of chips and stick of gum just because she can, split a pack of gummy bears between them (“I like the green ones best.” “You’re godless”), prank text Chaewon in the study group chat to no avail (“It’s a lost cause, she probably isn’t even awake, I bet she goes to bed at 10 PM every night with an eye mask listening to ASMR and everything”), prank call Yves (“Hi, can I get a large pizza with pepperoni and extra cheese? ...Hello?” “What’s she saying? Put it on speaker—” “Who is that—wait—” “SHUT UP, is that Jinsol?” “SHHH, I WANT TO HEAR THIS—” “Fuck, she hung up.” Dead silence. Then, at the same time: “Holy shit.”), get lost (“What the hell, I thought you lived here—” “SHUT UP, I’m trying to pull up Google Maps—” “What happened to ‘born and raised’ and everything—” “Fuck off, oh hey there’s a station nearby”), wait for the subway train (“Wait, where are we even going?”), get on (“Back to campus, I guess?”), sit down (“Oh. Okay. Yeah, I guess”), and listen to the clatter of the rails in something like silence.
The train car is half-full. They sit shoulder to shoulder and Hyunjin tracks their movement through the dark in the windows on the opposite side.
After a while Heejin rests her head against Hyunjin’s shoulder. Her hair tickles Hyunjin’s throat. For her, Hyunjin keeps still.
Heejin smells of something faintly earthy, like the woods.
A few stations later Heejin is asleep.
Hyunjin keeps her eyes straight ahead. She can just barely make out their reflections in the window. She watches them, in the glass.
They stay that way for eight more stops before they arrive and Hyunjin has to gently shake Heejin awake, lift her from her shoulder. They stumble out of the train and out of the station and down the streets and onto campus and towards the dorms, and when they get there Heejin yawns and tucks her hair behind her ear and says, “Um, that was great—”
Hyunjin leans in and kisses her.
Heejin has a soft, stunned expression on her face, like she’s just been startled awake from some dream. But she kisses back instantly, without hesitation, like her body is one step ahead and knows what it wants, what it’s been waiting for all this time.
“Yeah,” Heejin says when they draw apart, her breath shaky. “Yeah, like I said. That was great.”
Hyunjin snorts. But she can’t stop grinning. “See you later?”
Neither of them make any move to leave.
“See you later,” Heejin echoes.
They stare at each other. They’re just standing here in the middle of campus at night, freezing their asses off in the cold.
Heejin’s lip wobbles.
Hyunjin bites down on hers to keep a straight face.
Heejin bursts into laughter.
Hyunjin feels it bubbling up, too, and she doubles over laughing, for no real reason other than how good it feels, aching at the inside of her chest, her ribs; how good it feels to be standing here freezing their asses off together.
“Okay,” Heejin says, after a while, after their laughter’s petered out. “Okay.” She rubs at her eyes. “I’ll...” She visibly racks her mind for any phrase other than see you later. “Have a good night?”
“You, too,” Hyunjin says.
Hyunjin starts to walk away, but she does it backwards, and slowly, so she can keep watching Heejin, standing there, watching her back. Eventually she has to turn back around, because she’s gonna walk into a tree, or because she can’t even see Heejin anymore, or both. Then it’s just her and the quiet of the dark.
She feels something like invincible. It lasts all the way until she gets back to her own dorm and into her own room; by the time she opens the door, it’s mostly worn off. Her shoes lined up by the doorway, her mess of clothes strewn on her bed, her posters on the walls. Now she’s only ordinary again.
Yerim is snoring quietly in the other bed. Hyunjin slips off her shoes as noiselessly as she can. She crawls into her own bed, on top of her covers, fully clothed. She lies on her side and watches the night deepen through the shades of blue and black. All the things in the air she can’t see but can feel, like the sound of Yerim’s breathing, sure and steady and slow.
She sleeps through morning.
She wakes to blankets covering her to her chin and a phone full of messages.
jinsol: hey are you up
chaewon: Lol what is this? I was asleep
yerim: just letting you know i went out to the library to get some studying done! won’t be back till later~
yerim: hope you have a good sleep ^__^ you looked pretty knocked out
yerim: glad you’re making friends btw :3
jinsol: are you up NOW
heejin: last night was great but why do my legs feel like they’re jello
heejin: i havent run like that since i got really scared by this clown in a haunted house last halloween
jinsol: WAKE UP ALREADY PLEASE I’M IN TROUBLE IDK WHAT TO DO SOS SOS SOS
Hyunjin wipes the crust from her eyes. She responds:
to yerim: dont :3 me only im allowed to :3 people
to heejin: cute
to heejin: dw ill carry you from any clowns u encounter in the future
heejin: but you’re the biggest clown of them all?
to heejin: fine. then die
to heejin: that wont work on me
to heejin: dammit
to jinsol: omw. dont burn anything down
When she knocks on Jinsol’s door it’s Yves who opens it, which is how she finds out that Jinsol’s “emergency” had been waking up in the same bed as her ex, freaking out, locking herself in her bathroom, finally being convinced to come out after talking through the door for an hour, and then making out for another hour.
“You can’t be serious,” Hyunjin says to the pair of them now sitting side-by-side on the couch and sharing a vape pen. “This is some Netflix romcom bullshit. Nothing like this happens in real life.”
Yves shrugs from where she’s got an arm slung over Jinsol’s shoulder. “Get used to it.”
Hyunjin stares beseechingly at Jinsol.
Jinsol shrugs, too. “Sometimes shit happens, you know? And you’ve just got to roll with it.”
“You’re high, aren’t you.”
Jinsol pats the space next to her on the couch. “C’mon, Hyunjin,” she says, as though coaxing a grumpy cat. Looking all innocent in her ponytail and oversized sweatshirt. “I’m glad you actually came.”
“Why’d you text me, out of everyone?”
“You were the first person I thought of?” Jinsol says it like a question, as though being tested for a right answer. “Also, you totally disappeared last night at the party, I missed you.” She puts on a pouty face.
Hyunjin rolls her eyes and plops down beside her. “Looks like you found better to do at the party anyway. Why’d you two even break up in the first place?”
She only registers the rudeness of it after she’s already asked. Whoops. Early morning irritation can only forgive so much. “Sorry,” she starts to backpedal, but Jinsol shakes her head.
“It was on me,” Jinsol says, and is that just the weed that’s loosening her up, or is it the way she fits into the crook of Yves’s arm? “I was really scared, and really sensitive about a lot of things. I wasn’t ready for a relationship, and I think I just wanted an excuse.”
“Don’t give yourself so much credit.” Yves fingers at the hem of Jinsol’s sleeve. Something about the movement is almost gentle. “I was nervous, too. I had unfair expectations and I lashed out at everyone who couldn’t meet them, myself included. I didn’t really know myself, back then. It was just the wrong time.”
“Damn,” Hyunjin says. “And you two already worked this out, just now? I missed all the exciting stuff, didn’t I?”
Jinsol snorts. “It wasn’t pretty. But...” She laces her fingers through Yves’s. “There’s plenty more to not miss.”
Hyunjin resists the urge to gag. “Well, are you gonna at least feed me, now that I dragged myself all the way here and everything?”
“I’ve been told I make a mean grilled cheese sandwich,” says Yves.
“Fine, you can stay,” says Hyunjin.
Yves just smirks and saunters away to the kitchen.
“So... you’re okay?” Hyunjin asks. “Just like that?”
Jinsol worries her bottom lip between her teeth. “I know it seems sudden. But... sometimes, when you have history with someone, the weight of it feels immense—something you’ve been carrying around with you for so long, all those half-formed hopes and expectations... And it’s just such a relief when you find out that really, you can carry it together.”
Hyunjin idly traces the line of the floorboard with her socked foot. She doesn’t respond. She doesn’t have history with anyone.
“Is it always like that?” she asks after a while.
“Like—what you two were talking about. What you went through. False starts and missed chances. Being nervous, uncertain, scared. Is it always that difficult?”
“Oh,” Jinsol says. “Hyunjin, it’s not—” She hesitates. “It’s unfair to define it like that. You can’t only look at the messy parts, you know? But you can’t be scared of them, either. Some things are easy, some things are hard. You have to work for them, either way.”
“You act so wise when you smoke weed,” Hyunjin tells her.
Jinsol just snorts and punches Hyunjin’s arm real soft. From the kitchen comes sounds of the stove flicking on, the hiss of melting butter. Hyunjin sinks into the couch and pulls out her phone.
to heejin: u wont BELIEVE what i just found out abt jinsol and yves
heejin: are they dating now?
to heejin: how did everyone except me know about this.
heejin: it was kinda obvious tho
to heejin: was it???
heejin: some things u just know are bound to happen
heejin: sooner or later
But they’re not, Hyunjin thinks, the swell of conviction a rising tide in her throat. Things aren’t bound to happen, just like people aren’t bound to each other. There are so many ways things can happen, or not. It’s terrifying, and it’s thrilling: all the time they have left to make mistakes and make it up to each other.
to heejin: i hope so
“Hey,” Hyunjin says, still typing. “Just so you know—you’d be my person, too.”
“What?” says Jinsol.
“In an emergency. The first one I’d think of to call.”
Jinsol breaks into a slow smile.
“Hyunjin Kim,” she says, “I’m honoured,” and she throws out her arms to wrap Hyunjin up in a hug.
Hyunjin tolerates it, because Jinsol’s sweatshirt is really soft, and because of the promise of grilled cheese, and also because this is the only way forward through the unknown: to take a step, stand your ground, stake your claim. Chart your path through the here and now and you. Take ownership for what’s yours, and what you want.
“I kissed a girl last night,” Hyunjin says, and Jinsol shrieks loud enough in her ear to break the sound barrier.
Heejin walks into class with plans in mind. Preparations made. Determination set. She’s even five minutes early.
Then she spots Hyunjin waving at her from a back row with a paper bag.
“What?” Heejin says, sitting down next to her.
Hyunjin sets the paper bag on Heejin’s lap. “Here.”
Heejin warily peeks inside. It’s... “A bagel?”
Hyunjin looks at her like she’s sprouted a second head. “Yeah. You didn’t eat breakfast, right?”
“No, I never...” Heejin’s voice trails off. “You got me a bagel?”
The look intensifies. “No, I got it for my invisible friend. Yeah, I got you a bagel. What? Are you allergic to gluten?”
Heejin’s speechless. “I think this is the most romantic thing anyone’s ever done for me.”
“Please tell me you’re joking.”
“Well, there was that time my boyfriend in senior year asked me out to prom with a guitar and a bouquet of roses and everything, but it turned out he was cheating on me, so that kinda ruins it a bit.”
Hyunjin’s face goes scarily serious. “Whoever he is, he’s an idiot.”
“I wasn’t too broken up about it.” Heejin takes a giant bite of bagel. Mmm. It’s still warm. “His breath was always really bad.”
“Oh, really?” Hyunjin waggles her eyebrows. Starts to lean in. “What about mine—”
Which is when Chaewon sits down next to Heejin and clears her throat loudly as she starts to set up all her supplies.
“Oh, good morning to you too, Chaewon,” Hyunjin says innocently, like that was all she meant to do all along, and Heejin snickers around a mouthful of bagel.
Class passes fast. Afterward they convene for their study session like usual.
“I really need coffee, though,” Chaewon says, making a face. “Do any of you know of a good place? Preferably not too overpriced, and not too crowded for studying?”
“Oh, hold on,” Hyunjin says, an idea dawning over her face. “I know just the one.”
The coffee shop is cheap and empty, just as promised, though the girl behind the counter gets an alarming look of despair on her face when they enter.
“Your nametag is upside-down,” Heejin tells her.
The barista levels her stare at Hyunjin. “You again.”
“Hi,” Hyunjin says. “Don’t worry, we won’t bother you. Much.”
The barista looks past her, at Chaewon, and something in her face freezes.
Chaewon bites her lip. She looks suddenly shy for no reason Heejin can tell.
“Um,” the barista says. “Welcome to Eden Coffee. How can I help you today?”
Is she blushing?
“Oh, no fucking way,” Hyunjin says.
Chaewon quietly steps on Hyunjin’s foot. “Hi,” she says sweetly, to ∀IΛI˥O. “Can I get an iced latte?”
“Yes, sure, of course.” The barista punches the buttons of the cash register furiously. “Um, what’s your name? For the cup, I mean?”
“Chaewon,” the barista repeats. “That’s a really pretty name.”
Which is when Chaewon starts blushing, too. “Thanks. I like yours too.”
“Her nametag is upside-down,” Heejin repeats.
“It’s cute,” Chaewon says.
The barista’s face goes completely red.
Hyunjin looks at Heejin with horrified eyes, like, is this really happening right now?
And Heejin just looks at her, looks at them, and laughs.
A couple of hours and textbook chapters later Heejin has a headache mitigated only by the knock of Hyunjin’s shoe against her ankle under the table. That, and the knowledge of what’s coming, the buzz of excitement under her skin. She surreptitiously checks her phone.
jiwoo: WE’RE DONE!!!
Heejin slams her textbook shut and gives a big, exaggerated stretch, even a yawn for effect. “Okay, that’s enough. I’m done.”
“You lasted so long,” Hyunjin says. “I’m honestly kinda proud. Should we get something to eat?”
“Oh, hold on,” Heejin says. “I left something at Yves’s place, last weekend. Wanna come with me to get it?”
Hyunjin raises her eyebrows. “Now?”
“Won’t take long,” Heejin lies.
“Umm,” says Chaewon. She’s actually twirling a strand of her hair around her finger. “I think I’m gonna stay and get some more studying done. See you guys later?”
The barista behind the counter is visibly hanging onto her every word.
Hyunjin snorts and pats her shoulder. “Good luck, champ.”
They pack up their stuff and leave Chaewon and the barista locked in intense eye contact. The entire trip over to Yves’s place Heejin occupies Hyunjin’s attention with dog videos on her phone. “This is Nori,” she says, “and this is Tori, and that one’s Bori.”
“Okay, who named them? You?”
“Hey! Their names are cute!”
“I didn’t say they weren’t! Aww, how old is this photo? You look like you’re discovering your grunge phase.”
“You’re supposed to look at my dogs, not at me!”
“Why? You’re way cuter. Hey, you’re wearing glasses in this one!”
Heejin gets the sense that her plan has backfired somehow. “Oh, look, it’s our stop,” she says, hastily stowing her phone away. She isn’t used to feeling so thin-skinned, but somehow having her childhood self on display itches at a sore spot of vulnerability she didn’t even know she had.
But a few minutes later as they’re walking, her phone buzzes in her pocket. She pulls it out to see a text message of a photo: a baby-cheeked Hyunjin sitting on a playground slide, caught mid-laugh, canines showing. Heejin’s eyes go wide.
“Oh my god,” Heejin says. Her fingers zoom in on the photo as though trying to pinch Hyunjin’s cheek. “You were so...”
“Dorky?” Hyunjin suggests.
Heejin doesn’t have the word. But if she did, it would convey something about the simultaneous unfamiliarity and recognition: of course this is you, though I don’t know you, though I’m getting closer every minute of every day. How there’s so much left to discover. Her thumb hovering over Hyunjin’s crooked childhood grin as though she could reach out and caress it. Hold her face in her hands.
She can. She’s right next to her. She grabs Hyunjin’s hand and laces their fingers together.
“You look exactly the same,” Heejin tells her.
Hyunjin’s face twists in mock outrage. “Excuse me? Is that supposed to be a compliment?”
Heejin laughs. It’s all there, though, clear as day to anyone who’s looking; the mischievous glint in her eye, the carefree colour of her smile. But she keeps this observation to herself, like some lucky fool who’s stumbled across a treasure by chance and wants to hold onto it a while longer. A secret only she knows.
When they finally arrive, Heejin says, “Okay, look alive.”
Heejin flings open the door and watches Hyunjin blink at the darkness, then the sudden brightness of the lights being switched on, then the chorus of voices and faces springing out from their hiding spots: “SURPRISE!”
Hyunjin’s mouth opens, then closes again. Her eyes fall upon the colourful letters strung up across the wall: HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
“You’re kidding me,” she says faintly.
Jinsol emerges, honking a party blower in her mouth. “What? You weren’t expecting this?” She honks again. “It’s been in the works for weeks, sucker!”
Hyunjin slants her gaze at Heejin. “And you were in on this?”
For a brief flicker of a moment Heejin wonders if she’s overstepped. But the look in Hyunjin’s eyes is more disbelieving than offended. Like she’s genuinely shocked that somebody she’s only known for a short while would join in on this. Would help do something like this for her.
Heejin punches her arm, though she softens the blow at the last moment. “Um, duh? And it was all worth it for the look on your face!”
“You all...” Hyunjin shakes her head, but she’s biting back a smile. “How’d you even know it was my birthday?”
“You gave me your entire star chart when I asked for it?” Jiwoo says, brandishing a confetti cannon.
“Oh. Right.” Hyunjin points an accusing finger at her. “I should’ve been more suspicious of you all along, shouldn’t I?”
“They never see me coming,” Jiwoo agrees happily.
“Get in here already, you’re letting in the cold,” Yves says, and they do. The door swinging shut behind them, ushering them into the warmth.
Sometime after Yerim brings out the cake and they sing the song while Hyunjin makes increasingly awkward faces and she blows out the candles with her eyes on Heejin’s the whole time—make a wish—the afternoon mellows into a more comfortable sort of group hangout; finally the low-key get-together Yves always wanted. Jiwoo puts on one of her millions of playlists and Yves and Jinsol start slow-dancing to everyone’s simultaneous delight and chagrin and Jungeun narrows her eyes when Yerim starts singing along, softly, under her breath.
“You’re pretty good,” Jungeun says.
Yerim’s cheeks turn pink. “Wow, you really think so? Um—thank you!”
“Like, really good,” Jungeun says, and there’s something more thoughtful to it now, considering. “Have you ever—do you like singing?”
“Hey,” Hyunjin says to Heejin, drawing her attention away from all that’s unfolding. “Come here.”
Heejin thinks she’s going in for a kiss, and her heart rate picks up in anticipation. Instead Hyunjin hooks her in with an arm around her waist, presses their faces close together side-by-side, and lifts her phone up for a selfie. Click of the camera shutter.
“I think I blinked,” Heejin says.
Hyunjin checks the result. “No, you’re fine.” She starts typing something.
“Wait, are you uploading this to social media?”
“No. I’m sending it to somebody I know.”
“Your friend from home?”
“Yeah. You think this caption is alright?” Hyunjin angles her phone so Heejin can read the text waiting to be sent: so i got a gf.
Heejin sucks in a breath. The myriad of mixed emotions flicking through her, bubbles fizzing over in a shaken soda can: shock and nervousness and pure giddy hope rising clear up to the top, shot through her veins. It’s too soon. We could fuck it up. There’s still so much we don’t know about each other. But the fun’s in finding out together. I can’t believe I’m getting what I want. This is what I want.
Hyunjin’s gaze is on her, steady. “What do you think?”
This is what she wants, too.
“It’s perfect,” Heejin says.
Hyunjin’s smile creeps slow and self-satisfied over her face. “I thought so,” she says, and presses send. Her phone instantly starts vibrating in a frenzy of received texts. Heejin catches a glimpse of them—mostly just keysmashes from a contact saved as ANNOYING 🐸🐸🐸. There’s a story there, she’s sure.
“Hey, uh.” Heejin darts a glance at the others; Jungeun and Jinsol have turned this into an impromptu karaoke session, trying to wheedle Yerim into singing more. Yves and Jiwoo are smearing cake frosting on each other’s faces like five-year-olds. They’re all thankfully and predictably distracted. “Here. For you.”
She thrusts something into Hyunjin’s hands. Hyunjin blinks.
“You got me something?”
“Not exactly? I made you something.”
Hyunjin stares down at it. A sheet of paper, drawn in a mockup of a comic book cover. In the centre stands two girls, one in a bicycle helmet and overalls with a band-aid on her nose, the other with glasses and pigtails and a skateboard tucked under her arm. Matching childlike, toothy grins on their faces. Above their heads, in the twilight of the sky, reads the bold title text: SIDEWALK SUPERHEROES, starring HYUNJIN KIM & HEEJIN JEON!
“You made this?” Hyunjin repeats.
“It’s just a doodle. I was procrastinating on writing my lit essay. I mean, I know it’s kinda corny and I should’ve made you a card or something, but I couldn’t get this image out of my head, so...” Heejin shrugs.
Hyunjin runs a hand over the bright flashy colours, the details of the neighbourhood houses in the backdrop. The faint freckles over their faces.
“I wish I had known you as as kid,” Hyunjin says after a while.
Heejin pauses. There’s something quiet in Hyunjin’s voice she wants to be careful with.
“Well, this is the next best thing, isn’t it?” Heejin says.
Hyunjin’s mouth tugs into a smile. “Yeah. It is.”
“Sooooo...” Heejin says, expectant. “Does that mean you like it?”
Hyunjin looks her dead in the eyes. “I love it.”
Something like relief and embarrassment crashes into Heejin all at once. “Good,” she says. “That’s what I was hoping.”
Across the room, she catches glimpse of Yves and Jinsol, heads bent together, saying something too low to hear. How funny, that none of the rest of them had been able to see it, all this time; how sad, that they had felt the need to hide it and pretend, for so long. How they’d spent years being apart only to realize they both wanted the same thing all along; how they were fortunate enough to ever realize it at all. She has the urge to reach out for Hyunjin’s hand. Always the same childish fear: is this what lies ahead?
But this is different. She isn’t following in the footsteps of others before her, even if she’s younger, even if she’s new to all of this. This is her own, all of it—hers and Hyunjin’s. Their own territory they’re carving before them. Heejin can’t stop thinking: there’s so much she already doesn’t want to let go of. Is it greedy, to not want to miss a single thing? But there’s still so much to come, too, and isn’t it too much for her to grasp by herself?
“Hey,” Hyunjin says. “What are you thinking about?”
Heejin darts a glance at her, then finds herself unable to look back away. Hyunjin’s waiting gaze, pulling her out of fantasy, out of the future, back into the present.
“Us,” Heejin admits.
Hyunjin looks amused. “We’re right here, aren’t we?”
“Yeah, we are,” Heejin says, and has to take a moment to marvel: the wonder of it, the triumph of it. She takes a deep breath. “Let’s eat some more cake.”
There’s not much of it left after Yves and Jiwoo’s cakefight, though they look suitably contrite for their crimes. (“We got carried away!” “I was just defending myself!”) Still, what remains is better than anything Heejin’s ever tasted. She takes small bites, to savor in it, or else just to make it last: she’s not so sure of the difference.
“Hey,” Heejin says. “I’ve been meaning to ask. How come you always wear this tiny braid in your hair?” She reaches out, toys with the mini purple scrunchie in her fingers.
“That’s Yerim.” Hyunjin snorts. “She likes to braid my hair sometimes. It’s for luck.”
Heejin can feel herself grinning. “You’re kidding. Are you serious? That is way too cute. Does it work?”
Surrounded by friends old and new, haloed in the warm lamplight of the room, through the fading echoes of a familiar song, Heejin looks at her, face open and waiting, and Hyunjin looks back.
“Yes,” Hyunjin says. “It did.”