At noon on a Friday, Yoonji wants more substance than a granola bar, so she goes to the cafe on the ground floor at lunch. It’s overpriced and too fancy, but convenient. She picks out a pre-prepared sandwich to help heal Seokjin and gets herself a bowl of soup. She plans to order a green tea until she sees a sign by the espresso machine. In curly handwritten script, it says, Yes, we have Pumpkin Spice!
She sighs like someone’s forcing her to do this and tells the barista her order. While they’re making her drink, she picks out some bags of chips and granola bars for her desk. Then, realizing there are several drinks to be made before hers, she stacks the items under her chin and carefully gets in line to pay.
She’s fishing her wallet out of her coat pocket, holding a granola bar wrapper between her teeth, when she sees Hoseok walk through the glass doors. He kicks his wet boots on the mat. He’s wearing his khaki park jacket and the hat that folds his ears over. Yoonji ducks her head behind the gift card stand and hopes he doesn’t notice her there, but she doesn’t really have to worry about that. He goes right to the pre-prepared sandwiches, grabs something crinkly, and gets in the other line without looking at anything. He still looks all messed up.
She finishes paying and goes to hide at a corner table near the espresso machine, half-shielded by a baguette display. She sneaks looks at Hoseok as he finishes paying, and thinks she’s in the clear as he starts to sign his receipt, but then the barista calls out, “Yoonji?”
She acts natural as she gets up, not looking in Hoseok’s direction.
“Pumpkin spice latte?”
Well, better just die.
“140 degrees, with soymilk?” the barista loudly confirms as Yoonji comes up to snatch the cup off the counter.
“Oh my god,” she whispers. “That’s enough.”
“Yoonji?” comes a voice behind her. It’s Hoseok, of course, but he sounds exhausted.
She turns around, smiling with her face all scrunched up. “Oh, wow, Hoseok?”
“Fancy meeting you here,” he says, trying to be jovial. “Pumpkin spice latte, huh? Kids temp?”
“No,” she says, but it’s as much an admission as anything. She deflects. “Are you sick?”
“Sorta,” says Hoseok, though he doesn’t sound sure. He looks over at the table where she’s left her bag and coat. “Can I sit?”
She wants to say no, but she can’t go back upstairs until she’s finished her latte, because she’s worried that Seokjin will see PSL scrawled under YUNJIE in black marker and make fun of her. And there’s no nice way to tell someone they can’t sit at your table, so she shrugs and lets him follow her.
She pulls her bowl of soup from the bottom of the paper bag and digs for the spoon she stashed with it. Hoseok takes off his hat and ruffles his hair, then unwraps his vegan sandwich with a loud crinkling noise. As she blows on her first spoonful, she glances up at him. He’s looking at the sandwich with a determined face, like it is something to overcome.
“You okay?” she asks.
Hoseok looks up at her. He says, “I have to eat this.”
Yoonji is a little worried about him, in the way that she’d be worried about anybody who looked this nauseous.
“I just yarfed,” he says. “But I don’t get another break until four and if I don’t eat before then I’ll be starving.” He sighs. “Can I tell you something?”
She hopes he’s not really sick. If he’s dying or something, she’ll feel really bad. She doesn't want that on her conscience, cruel to a dying man. It looks like it might be bad. She nods, idly stirring her soup.
“This park is cursed.”
Thank god. It’s all in his head. “Is it?” she says.
“Pigeons keep dying under the benches.” He hasn’t been able to approach his sandwich; it’s just sitting there limp and unwrapped in front of him, and Yoonji is reluctantly interested in where this could possibly be going.
“I think because it’s dry and there are food scraps,” he says. “It’s getting cold, you know. Some of them can’t survive.”
“That doesn’t sound like a curse,” says Yoonji slowly. “It sounds like the circle of life.”
“It’s a curse if you’re a pigeon,” says Hoseok. Then he looks up at her so solemnly that she almost chokes on her sip of pumpkin spice latte. “Or a park host.”
“Who else is gonna pick them up, you know?”
“I’m just supposed to put them in the trash like it’s nothing. It’s so…” he visibly shivers. “Gross.” He huffs out a quick breath to steady himself. “It’s so gross. But it’s part of my job, I guess.”
“This happens a lot?” she says.
“Once a week, maybe.”
“And you yarf every time?”
“Not the first time,” says Hoseok. “I didn’t know what it was gonna be like the first time. But now I yarf.”
Yoonji wonders why he can’t just get someone else to do it. She takes another sip of her pumpkin spice latte.
“I have to eat this,” Hoseok mumbles, staring down his sandwich.
“Why is it so bad?” she asks.
“Cause they’re all stiff,” he says. Yoonji sees that he is fragile for the first time. “And I hate birds.”
“You’re a park ranger and you hate birds?”
“Well, I like them if they’re not touching me.” He sticks his tongue out, disgusted. “We had chickens growing up. They thought I was a weak hen.”
Yoonji doesn’t know anything about chickens. She just raises her eyebrows. Go on, bird boy.
“Sometimes if there’s a weak hen, the stronger chickens will bully it to death.”
Yoonji takes a bite of soup instead of laughing at him. She says, “They tried to bully you to death?”
“I was a puny kid. I think they thought I was a bald chicken.” He takes a quick, determined breath and makes eye contact with Yoonji. “Sorry,” he says. “Thanks for listening. I don’t know if this sandwich is gonna happen.” He starts wrapping it back up, still sick, but lighter without all those words trapped inside him. Yoonji is a little relieved; she was almost worried about him.
Before he goes, Yoonji says quietly, “Well, if you need help in the future, you know where to find me.”
Hoseok is stuffing his poorly re-wrapped sandwich back into its small paper bag. He says, “Oh, that’s okay, but thank you.”
“If it’s ever not okay,” she says. “You know where to find me.”
He pauses, then he nods. “Thank you, Yoonji.”
“Not a problem, Hoseok,” she says, and then he goes back to the park and she finishes her lunch by herself.
After Yoonji dropped out of college, she moved back in with her parents and got a job at the grocery store down the street. She met with a therapist, started taking antidepressants, and got used to carrying something heavy in her guts.
She thought about who she was going to be and what she was going to do. She didn’t look at herself in the mirror. She cut her hair really short and wore hoodies that were too big, until she could pass that off as her fashion sense. To stop caring about this one thing, she had to stop caring about everything, but it wasn't so bad. The way days ran together made it less difficult to get through many of them at a time.
By the time Yoonji was ready to go back to school, at the public university close to home, it was almost second nature. She could always feel it in her stomach when she twisted a certain way, when she sat too still, when she was falling asleep and when she woke up, when she tried to eat, when she was undistracted, but sometimes she could drown it out. Especially when she went back to school, she found that focusing elsewhere was a kind of cure.
To keep her soreness from destroying her, she focused hard on school. She took extra credits, got good grades, she wrote for the school paper, and eventually started DJing on the college radio station. She and Namjoon hung out all the time, and she had a fairly serious girlfriend for most of her last two years. It fizzled out, though. They broke up a little after graduation instead of going long distance. Yoonji took on more than she could handle, but the pressure was the only thing that moved her forward. It kept her alive.
After graduating with honors, Yoonji bounced around jobs for a while. Living back with her parents, she worked at a laundromat, then she made sandwiches, then she was a cashier at a department store. Eventually, she got her writing job. She sold her car to put a deposit on a nice apartment in the city. Barely after unpacking her apartment, she met Mina. Things moved really fast.
It took a while to get settled in at work. She moved frantically until she felt she had proved herself completely. She struggled to adjust to a work environment that wasn't demanding, and to job requirements that weren't defined. She was full of thoughts that she could only hush when she was under pressure.
Yoonji and Seokjin became deskmates and their work got much better. Yoonji worked in bursts that came and went with inspiration, and usually what she wrote did very well. Seokjin wrote a constant stream of low to medium-quality material. Judged as a team, they were quite productive.
Things with Mina stayed good for a long time. They looked good together. They could talk without overly editing themselves, and they respected each other’s space. Especially the first year, it was really easy with her. They could go days without talking, then meet up and it would be sweeter. When there was distance between them, it was comfortable. Yoonji believed that it was what she wanted, even if she’d never exactly gotten rid of the heavy thing in her guts. It was what she wanted, because she would always be quietly aware that she was living someone else's life. She thought she would live that life diligently.
When things changed, it was sudden.
It came when she got complacent at work. It was when she had her nice place to live, her routine, friends she really cared about. It was when she was basically comfortable. It was when Mina put on this black dress with a thick waistband and straps across the back, and Yoonji had the passing thought that she wanted one like it. She spent the rest of that weekend trying to shake the feeling that she might not have been attracted to Mina at all, she might just have wanted to be her. She tried to get rid of that feeling, but couldn’t, and after that, she couldn’t think about anything else. It knocked everything down.
Even in the best of times, the wrong word from someone could worm its way into Yoonji's brain and wrench her up for days. She remembers the one time Mina called her pretty in a joking voice when she put her scarf on her head, and then she went home and cried for so long without even knowing why. This whole thing just hurt, a lot, and the longer she gripped it so tightly to herself, the more it hurt. She knew that it was getting worse. She was afraid of it. But she’d made her decision, and some days it meant feeling floaty and unattached, others like her chest was torn open and bleeding, and sometimes she felt so fragile that her bones would break if the train to work shook too hard. Some days were that bad, and other days she hardly thought about it. She even remembered, for a time in college, being able to look at herself in the mirror and recognize the person who was making frustrated, shallow eye contact with her. She just wanted to get that back.
Instead of things becoming quiet again, something happened and she couldn’t keep it in her stomach anymore; it was everywhere. It was the only thing she thought about for two months. She tried to force it to go away, pushing away the thoughts and pushing through her routine like nothing was wrong. When it only got worse, she tried to wait it out. The days of quiet between her and Mina started to feel tense. She struggled to get to work on time, struggled to sleep at night, struggled to get dressed and eat. She fought it in the way that had worked before, with fists and teeth; she cut her hair really short and threw herself into work, even though it was too loud in her head to think of anything clearly.
One day, Seokjin asked if she was okay. Truly, he didn't seen very concerned. He asked it in passing, sort of cheekily, like he thought she might have a cold. At first, Yoonji was angry that he couldn't tell how miserable she was, how much she had to focus on every breath to keep her muscles and joints in place, how easy it would be to slide apart and become nothing. How much she had wondered lately if it was even worth it. And then she thought, am I not okay?
Having a hard time was one thing, but she hadn’t thought that maybe she wasn’t okay. That felt more serious, more intrinsic. She hadn't thought seriously about how she might have to live with this pain, here in her chest and her head and her spine and her stomach, forever. She hadn't considered that she might not be okay. She wrote pros and cons in a listicle because it was the only way she could think with any clarity. The next day, she made an appointment with a therapist.
It wasn’t specifically a gender therapist, but she read online somewhere that the doctor had experience with trans patients. That was how she protected herself; she didn’t have to decide until she got there. She could just say she was struggling, she could get different meds and learn how to tamp it down again. She didn’t have to say anything. But she could say something, if she wanted.
It only took her two sessions to out herself, but even then, she was convincing herself that it didn’t have to be this. She was in tears in a room with a kind almost-stranger, admitting that she’d felt backwards since seventh grade, talking about the time she stole a wig from the costume room at her high school’s theatre and wore it in her room sometimes before she knew how hard this whole thing would be. Talking about how she was 25 all of a sudden and she couldn't even look at her hands without feeling herself start to die, but it didn’t have to mean anything. She didn’t have to do anything.
But by their fourth session, Yoonji's nerves had been all frayed for something like three months, and Mina was worried and Seokjin was actually worried and she’d been doing her best to ignore Namjoon because she knew that he’d know and look at her all sympathetically and she was worried she might cry.
During that session, Yoonji said something like, “I just want to make it bearable again.”
And her therapist said, “Why are you here?”
“Because,” said Yoonji. “I’m anxious.”
“Let me ask you something.”
“Okay,” said Yoonji, crying just by virtue of being here, in the room with the only person she’d ever spoken to about this.
“Where do you see yourself in… let’s say forty years. In your sixties. Where do you see yourself?”
Weird question. “Um, retired, hopefully,” started Yoonji, slowly. “So I guess at home. With a book or something. I don’t know. A house would be nice. I want a yard. Maybe… I don’t know. A spouse.”
“That sounds great,” said her therapist. “But I’m wondering, can you picture yourself as an old man?”
Yoonji winced, she knew the therapist saw her. “I wasn’t thinking about it. I was thinking of it from my perspective. Not looking in on myself.”
“If you’re looking in, can you see a man there?”
Yoonji sighed. “I can.”
“Do you want to?”
“Can you see yourself as an old woman?”
Yoonji couldn’t help but go a little hot in the face. She could imagine that. She usually tried not to, but it was really easy. Grey hair in a messy bun, a comfortable dress. Maybe she’d knit or something. If she didn’t have her own grandkids, she’d befriend the neighbor kids. Yeah, it was too easy. She was looking down at the ground, and a tear dripped straight into the carpet. She sat up, folded her lips in, and nodded.
“What do you think?” said her therapist.
Yoonji hiccuped like a kid. She said, “I think I don’t know what to do.”
Her therapist nodded. “What do you want to do?”
“Feel normal.” Easy. But then it itched at her. Normal, for her, could not exist the way she was. She had never felt normal before. That was what she was being asked. “Okay,” she admitted, thinking about how each one of these sessions had a 25 dollar co-pay and she wasn’t going to waste it being coy. “I want to be a woman.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Because this is easier.”
“You know what I mean, it’s easier to be in society. Take the bus, go to the store, talk to my parents.”
“You told me you’re having trouble doing things like that already.”
“And it’s hard to think about. Everything I’d have to do. Easier not to do any of it, if it’s gonna suck so much either way. At least being in the closet is free.” She laughed, but it didn’t convince either of them.
“See, I think we differ there,” said her therapist. “I’m not usually one to urge my clients toward a course of action, but everyone I’ve worked with has felt better after transitioning. Every single person. Society is certainly a concern, but there’s no substitute for working through that dissonance.”
She was right. Taking control did so much more than Yoonji even knew it could, after living her whole life not knowing what it was like to be comfortable. Everything, from the moment she decided to transition until now, has been better and better, past and past and past what she thought it could feel like to be alive.
Once, a couple months after she came out, Yoonji tried to describe it Namjoon. She was stoned, and words felt like a lusterless way to explain so many life-quaking changes. What she felt was bright, a beating heart, growing like flowers and climbing vines, sunlight and moonlight and a body that was light and healthy enough to walk through both. What she said was, "I put all my strength somewhere better."
“What does that mean?” Namjoon had asked. He was laying on his couch, all the way across with his feet dangling off the end, and she was sitting with her head tipped back against his calves. She was still growing her hair out, she felt it flow back pleasantly from her face. There was a nature documentary muted on the TV.
“Well, social norms are kind of a defense,” she said. “If you have no confidence, you can just be what people expect. That’s relatively safe.”
“I’m following,” said Namjoon, but it sounded a little mushy because he was eating a choco pie.
“But if you feel really good about yourself, it doesn’t matter as much if you fit in. It's okay if people notice you, because if someone looks at you weird, you're not gonna cry for days about it. And it’s better, because you can control how you are, but you can’t keep people from thinking shitty things about you. So you’ll never really win if you don’t like yourself.”
“So you’re invincible now?” asked Namjoon, craning his neck down to look at her.
“Could be,” she said. “I mean. Soon to tell, you know?”
“I know I keep saying this,” said Namjoon, then he finished swallowing his bite and spoke clearly. “But you seem really good.”
She took a big breath. “I feel good,” she said. “Everything weighs a million pounds and I have to pee constantly and otherwise nothing has changed. But it’s good.”
“Nah,” said Namjoon. “More than that has changed.”
“Maybe it’s just cause you feel good now. Your face looks a little different. I was noticing.”
“Ah,” she said, trying not to look too happy and goofy. “Probably just ‘cause I feel good now.”
On a Saturday at the very beginning of the holiday season, before everyone starts travelling, when celebrating isn't a chore yet, the most excellent event of the year takes place. That’s what Namjoon says, at least. He lives in a big house with a couple other smart twenty-somethings who make more money than they need, and they host a Christmas party every year. They call it Early Christmas, except for Namjoon’s roommate Youngjae, who calls it Sexy Christmas despite the fact that themed costumes are mandatory and everyone who shows up, except Yoonji, is a nerd.
This will be Yoonji’s fourth year in attendance, since it is Namjoon’s fourth year living here, and Yoonji has to admit that it's always a nice time. It’s always funny to see so many people in ugly sweaters get drunk in and around the beautiful Victorian house Namjoon lives in, decorated warmly with a fire in the hearth and soft wintery piano records playing in the living room.
Yoonji’s favorite part of the party is eggnog pong, and her least favorite part is Secret Santa. This year, she got one of Namjoon’s roommates, Hyungwon, who doesn’t like anything as far as she knows. She’s gotten him a gift card to a bookstore near the house and hopes he won’t give her the look he gave his Santa last year when she knit him a scarf.
Yoonji really wanted to bring Jimin and Tae, but for some reason, Seokjin seemed really interested in being Yoonji’s date. She brought him last year, too, so he must have had a really good time. Even on Friday afternoon, when his eyes are still all red and he’s still sneezing violently every time Yoonji starts to relax, he says, “I’m gonna pick you up at 8:30 tomorrow, right?”
“You sure you wanna come?” asks Yoonji. “You don’t wanna rest? I have other people I could bring.”
“Nah,” says Seokjin slimily. “I have my Secret Santa gift all picked out and everything.”
“Who’d you get?” asked Yoonji. “I’ll make sure they get it?”
“It’s not a secret if I tell everybody who wants to know,” he says matter-of-factly, and she rolls her eyes.
So at 8:30 on Saturday, Yoonji runs down the steps and gets into Seokjin’s passenger seat. He’s wearing a red turtleneck under a green cardigan, a headband with reindeer antlers, and one of his eyes is swollen almost closed. Still, he looks like he tried to get handsome, which doesn’t take much. The short, choppy bangs he’s been trying out look more intentionally styled than usual, and he might be wearing lipgloss. Yoonji can’t really tell; he probably just looks like that.
Since she knows they’re serious about the costumes mandatory thing, Yoonji is wearing dangly earrings with little sparkly snowmen, a Santa hat, and red tights instead of black ones. She also let Jimin help with her makeup earlier, red and white and shiny. It’s almost too much, but Jimin knows exactly what she’s doing.
“You look great,” Seokjin says, “But you smell so much like weed.”
“I always smell like weed.”
“Trust me, I know that. But it’s like, really bad right now. I haven’t been able to smell anything all week, but right now, wow. Are you… are you storing like a bud in your mouth or something? How stoned are you right now?”
“Four?” she says.
“Out of five or out of ten?”
“I have anxiety, you shit lord,” she says, but there’s no punch to it. “I can’t socialize otherwise.”
“I’m anxious too, but you don’t see me… smoking ten bongs before I leave the house.”
“Have you ever tried weed?” says Yoonji. “Ten bongs? That’s preposterous. And since when are you anxious?”
“Everyone’s anxious,” says Seokjin like it's obvious. “It’s the millenium.”
Seokjin goes to say more, but sneezes instead. Then he sneezes four more times, and Yoonji is worried that he is going to crash the car. He sneezes one more time, his face all red and a sad little tear gleaming on his cheek, then explains himself soggily. “I think it’s a good sign. I think I’m, you know, purging it now.”
“Poor big baby,” says Yoonji, patting his shoulder.
As they drive closer, she gets kind of anxious, but in a good way. She realizes that the word for that is excited. Before transitioning, she had very little social energy and was always the first person ready to go home. Now, it’s just hard to be around drunk strangers who are allowed to come up and talk to her. But the good thing about this party is that she’ll know most of the people there, and more or less be able to expect the people she doesn’t know to be chill. And if anyone isn’t chill, she can just have Namjoon kick them out. So she’s not nervous, but excited.
When they arrive, it's crowded enough already that Yoonji has to weave toward the kitchen to deposit her champagne in the ice bucket, then set her Secret Santa gift on the designated table. On the way back, she runs into one of Namjoon’s roomates, Momo, who is wearing an ugly Christmas sweater, a hat with elf ears, and a miniskirt. She shakes Yoonji’s hand and says, “Hey, you made it! Good to see you!”
“You too,” Yoonji says. “Nice sweater. Have you seen Joon?”
“He’s in his room, I think. Still getting ready.”
She decides not to go up and bug him, and instead sits down on a couch in the living room in front of a big TV on which It’s A Wonderful Life is already muted. She pulls out her phone and texts Namjoon, am here.
Seokjin gets a cup of wine for Yoonji and something with brown liquor for himself, as well as a plate of hors d'oeuvres. “For both of us,” he says insincerely, setting the drinks down and starting in on the cheese and crackers. Yoonji lets him have all of it like is clearly his plan anyway. She takes a sip of her wine and makes a face. It's bad.
In the relative quiet, she evaluates herself. The last time she was sitting on a couch drinking challenging wine out of a solo cup, she felt like she might wither up and die. She didn’t want to talk to anybody, was stiff and obligated and ugly. Now, she’s none of that. Not stiff; quite relaxed, actually. Namjoon’s couch is comfortable enough to sleep on. Not obligated either, as Namjoon is never that bothered when Yoonji backs out of plans, which somehow makes it easier to show up. And as for ugly, well. She always feels a little ugly, but definitely less than she used to. No longer so helplessly. It’s not like Mina’s party, where she felt like she was filling up too much space, distracting people even when she was just sitting. Right now, it’s easier. She just feels like maybe she's the only person who will ever look at herself and think, that's good.
But, overall, she’s comfortable. She drinks more wine, and Seokjin crunches away at his snacks next to her, chattering about something. More people start arriving, some of whom Yoonji knows, and eventually she's standing up and talking to someone from college who she hasn't seen in person in a couple of years.
It's okay, she's as emotionally available for this kind of conversation as she'll ever be. And she knows he's nice; they've messaged a little since she came out. Mostly he scolded her for disappearing, and then they caught up on each other's lives like it was nothing.
Still, it's different in person. Always different, like meeting people she knows for the first time. She doesn't think there's anything else like it. Having history with someone, but having to start over in some very basic ways. Some people, when they meet her again, completely change the way they treat her. They use different words, their tones change. Some people talk to her like she's undergone an illness, like something bad has happened to her rather than something really good, and some people get condescending.
But this old friend, Jeongguk, he doesn't act like anything has really changed. After a quick, "Wow, hey," he pulls her in for a hug and tells her that he's missed her.
"You too," she says, and she kind of means it. She cut a lot of people off for a while, but Jeongguk has always been a nice person, somebody who does his best and expects the best from other people.
"I love your earrings," he says.
"Thanks.” She lets him reach out and lightly tap one of her snowmen. She says, "I like your costume." Jeongguk is overdressed for this event, sort of self-conscious in his red vest and pointy green hat.
"I'm one of Santa's elves, I guess," he says. "Joon said they needed another one."
"God help you," Yoonji smiles. "They used to try to make me be one of the elves."
"Oh no," gasps Jeongguk, smiling with his teeth, "Did I make a mistake? Should I not have agreed?"
"Just get ready to herd a bunch of drunk people," she says. "You might need one of those, like," and she does a motion with her hand and her neck, flopping her tongue out. "Sheep things."
"A shepherd's crook?" says Jeongguk, enunciating and looking proud of himself.
"Love that you know that," says Yoonji. "Do you want to meet my friend Seokjin? I feel like you two would get along."
"Your friend?" says Jeongguk.
"Ew, yuck. Yeah. Hey Seokjin, meet my college friend."
Seokjin sneezes a greeting, and Jeongguk laughs, and the two of them are joking around in no time. Yoonji backs out of conversation a little, content to watch her friends become friends.
Just as she starts to lose interest, at the top of the staircase, hobbling down precariously, comes Namjoon. He takes careful steps as he walks because instead of wearing shoes he is wearing a wrapped gift on each foot. On his body, he is wearing a full size felt Christmas tree, covered in what look like real ornaments. Just his round, bitter face peeks through the front, and his legs are too long for the costume, so his calves stick out the bottom. He looks uncomfortable. Yoonji covers her mouth to keep from laughing.
As he comes down the stairs, he makes eye contact with Yoonji, who is really trying not to laugh at him. Then he sees Seokjin, and he looks back at Yoonji again, a little frantically.
Yoonji raises her eyebrows in question. Namjoon makes a face like she should know something. Yoonji makes a face like she doesn’t know anything. Then she looks to Seokjin, who is staring with one wide eye and one swollen one up at Namjoon. He blinks. Yoonji looks back at Namjoon just as he trips on the bottom step and almost falls, grabbing the banister for support. She can’t keep from laughing anymore.
But before Yoonji can make her way to Namjoon to mock him properly, the front door jingles open and two people come in. She knows the first one, and the dread that floods her is sudden. It’s Jihyo, one of the park hosts from below her building. She hopes this doesn’t mean… but, yeah, it does. Hoseok walks in behind her.
Yoonji lowers her head and goes to the staircase to get to Namjoon, who’s accepting initial compliments on his costume. “Why did you invite him?” she hisses. He knows who she means.
“‘Cause he’s my friend,” hisses Namjoon's face from its green hole. “Why did you invite him?”
“Who, Seokjin? 'Cause he wanted to come, I don’t know. Was I not supposed to?”
“You told me you were bringing Jimin,” he says. They’re so close to each other, Yoonji glaring up into his face, whispering. Namjoon says, “I look like a shit lord.”
“You are a shit lord.”
“Hey, guys,” says Hoseok obliviously.
Yoonji turns to him and snaps, “I am not a guy.” She didn’t realize how close he was standing, and finds her red-tipped finger about an inch from one of his eyes. He ducks away from it, looking uneasy.
“You’re right, sorry,” he says. Yoonji lowers her hand.
“Sorry,” she mumbles. She’s trying to stop being mean to Hoseok. She’s turning over a new leaf. “You startled me,” she says. “Hi, Hoseok. Fancy meeting you here.” She kicks one of Namjoon’s Christmas present shoes.
“Hey, man, glad you could make it,” says Namjoon, immune to Yoonji’s wrath after so long. “You find the place okay?”
“Oh, yeah,” says Hoseok. “No problem. Where should I put my Secret Santa gift?”
Ugh. Yoonji is so betrayed. Namjoon invited Hoseok long enough in advance that he got on the list for Secret Santa. He should have warned her.
“There’s a table in the kitchen. Feel free to grab a drink while you’re in there.”
“Sure,” says Hoseok, then he looks at Yoonji, then back to Namjoon. “See you two around, I guess.”
As soon as he’s gone, Namjoon says, “Jeez, Yoonji, he told me you two were cool.”
“We are,” she says through her teeth.
“He doesn’t have that many friends. Have mercy on him. I don’t get why you’re so tense about it. Do you need some vegetables?”
“You can call it weed, I’m not a cop. And I’m not tense.”
“Um, hey, uh. Am I interrupting?”
Namjoon whispers, “Hell.” Then he says, in a voice that is trying very hard to sound smooth, “Hey, Seokjin. What a nice surprise.”
Yoonji looks between them and finally sees it. Seokjin’s insistence on coming as Yoonji’s date, even if it kills me, he’d said. The way they’re looking at each other, like they're in slow motion while the world swirls around them. Namjoon freaking out, thinking he looked silly. He does.
“Well, yuck,” says Yoonji, and she goes and sits down for a while. She doesn’t wanna get in the way while they figure it out. She predicts that whatever happens, it will be a mess. She drinks most of her wine, then Hyungwon comes to sit with her for a minute. She likes him because she thinks she understands him. She thinks there’s more to him than he shows, even if she's never seen it. Yoonji and Hyungwon talk about work, then run out of things to say. Hyungwon gives her a sick little smile and gets up to go hang out with someone else.
Yoonji stays where she is and listens in on a conversation happening near her. When she gets bored of eavesdropping on two guys bragging about backpacking, she gets up to find Jeongguk again or something.
Instead, she runs into Youngjae, another one of Namjoon’s housemates. He’s wearing the Santa costume. He says, “Yoonji! Hey! Glad you could make it,” but he does it in a Santa voice.
“Hey there, Kris. Or wait, is it Nick?”
“It’s Youngjae,” he says, insulted, and pulls down his fake beard so Yoonji can see his whole face.
Yoonji smiles and nods. “Ah,” she says. “Youngjae. Good to see you.”
“You too. Hey, you seen Hyungwon anywhere? I think he has my bag o’gifts.”
“I just had him in the living room,” she says. “If I see him I’ll tell him you’re looking.”
“Welcome,” she says.
He pats her on the shoulder and goes into the next room. The way the house is set up, there are two living rooms, one of which is a sort of study with a table and bookshelves and two stately damask armchairs facing one another. The other has the big red leather couch and a TV and leads to an open kitchen. Finally, through the kitchen is an entryway, and the grand staircase with the shiny wooden banister. It’s possible to walk all in a circle between them. All the doorways wide open, and light and conversation bleed between rooms. Yoonji tries to loop away from where she saw Hoseok going, but runs into him right away instead. He is talking to Jeongguk. They’re laughing.
“Yeah, it was wild,” says Jeongguk. “Who knew morel hunting could be so dangerous?”
“I’m just glad you survived,” says Hoseok sincerely, taking a two-handed sip from a beer bottle.
Yoonji means to keep walking undetected, but Jeongguk lightly taps her arm as she passes. “Yoonji, hey. Have you met Hoseok?”
“Yes,” she says. Hoseok smiles at her with just his mouth. “A lot.”
“Oh, cool! How do you two know each other?”
“Through Joon,” says Yoonji.
“Yeah,” says Hoseok. He looks at Yoonji uncertainly, with wide eyes. This time, among all the times he’s given her this look, like he’s not sure if his feelings are hurt yet, she's embarrased about it. She keeps having to be reminded that he exists even when he’s not in her personal space, not having that many friends apparently. She never tries to be cruel, but something about his presence puts her right on edge. Makes her feel all wiggly and exposed, like anybody could do anything to her. Makes her feel all weak and queasy.
Then, looking at him talking easily to someone he just met, beer in his thin-fingered hands, red dyed hair all flouncy from not being crushed under a park hat all day, wearing a halfhearted ugly Christmas sweater and tight jeans instead of khakis, it hits her, in the same way it hit her to see Seokjin and Namjoon making weighty eye contact a few minutes ago. It’s the same thing, but more disgusting. “Well, yuck.”
She’s got a crush on Hoseok.
Because she is sure the revelation is written on her face, Yoonji tries to avoid Namjoon. She can’t let him win. Not that he’s won anything anyway. His attempt to get them together was useless, but she knows he’d take credit if he knew Yoonji was thinking about Hoseok’s pointy face with anything but contempt. She can hear him doling out advice already. She doesn’t need it; she feels disgusting enough.
But because the house is arranged in a freaky circle and it’s impossible to hide unless you go upstairs, Yoonji runs into Namjoon right away in the kitchen, where she goes to refill her solo cup with more awful wine. His Christmas tree is a little rumpled, and the present shoe that Yoonji kicked is caved in on one side, the gold foil paper peeling off the old Prime box he wrapped.
To deflect from her own guilt, she says, “How’s it going with my deskmate?”
“I really should have noticed earlier. You two ask about each other all the time. Who’s the matchmaker now?” She laughs nervously. Nailed it.
“I hope you enjoy him," she says conceitedly. "He’s a mess.”
“He sneezed on my face.”
“He,” starts Namjoon.
“He sneezed on your face?”
Namjoon gestures to his face, draws a circle around it. “Right on it.”
“Then he went outside and I haven’t seen him since. I tried to tell him it was okay. I was like, Ha-ha, I’ve done worse, and at least you’re not dressed like a Christmas tree, but he was already gone.”
“I like, really hate us,” says Yoonji.
“Cheers,” says Namjoon.
They clink solo cups. Yoonji takes a gulp of wine and winces. “Oh, Joon, this wine is bad. Whoever brought this wine should go to prison.”
“I bought it,” says Namjoon, who is paying more attention to the label on a bottle of vodka than to Yoonji. “You’re the only person who prefers wine and as much as you dogmatize I know you have no standards.”
“You are a shit lord.”
“Santa’s gonna start passing out gifts in a minute.”
“Alright, I guess I’ll go find Seokjin and tell him.”
“Tell him that snot doesn’t even gross me out,” says Namjoon wistfully, looking up at her from inside his sad Christmas tree. “Tell him I like it.”
Yoonji takes out her phone.
whered u go?
secret santas abt to start
across the street
I’ll come back now
just needed some air
i need air too
Yoonji finds him sitting on the curb at the edge of a sloping patch of grass. He looks up at her weakly when she comes to join him.
“‘Sup?” she says, plopping down. “You moping?”
Seokjin sniffles. Yoonji thinks he’s crying, and looks at him in shock, but then he sneezes three times instead. “Confound this snout,” he says when he finishes, wiping his face off on his sleeve.
“You wanna talk about it?” she says, sounding more patronizing than gentle.
“No,” he says.
“Cool,” she says. Then she shoves her hands deeper in her pockets, folding her lips in to keep her teeth from chattering, and they they sit there in quiet for a minute.
She looks across the street at Namjoon’s house with the porch and the bay window. The downstairs is lamplit, and Yoonji can see silhouettes of people moving around, while the dark trees out front go bare and still for the winter. Yoonji is cold.
She’s so cold. Even in her pockets, her hands are frozen. Her toes are frozen. Her ears are cold. Breathing hurts, but it seems like Seokjin still needs a minute.
She stares across at the warm house, at the people and the lights, the glittering Christmas tree, up in November against all etiquette. She can see art on the walls, but she can’t make out any faces.
She doesn’t want to think about Hoseok, but she can’t avoid it, really. He’s inside; he’s going to be inside when they return. He’s going to keep working at the park below her office, and she’s going to keep running into him there. And he’s friends with Namjoon, so he’s going to keep being around. He’s in her life now. She can’t avoid him, even if she and Seokjin both leave right now and go home and try to hide forever from their problems.
Yoonji doesn’t even want to avoid Hoseok. She wants to run into him. Even though she’s not ready for anything. Even though being single is really good for her, and she's still figuring out what she wants. Everything is still complicated; she doesn’t need romance to tangle her life up even more. She doesn’t think Hoseok knows how easy it would be to hurt her. He definitely wouldn’t know what he was getting into. But even that is getting ahead, she realizes as her face pulls into a grimace. There's no evidence that Hoseok likes her at all; he’s just a nice person, and he doesn’t have many friends, so of course he’s trying to make more. It’s not realistic to think that he’d like her, especially now.
Always, when Yoonji feels like she’s in over her head, when someone has the power to hurt her, she isn’t nice. Before they have a chance to hurt her, she makes them want to leave. She did this to Mina, and she still feels sick about it sometimes.
“I always do this,” she says.
“What do you always do?” asks Seokjin.
“Act like shit to nice people. Just because I can.” She hugs her knees up to her chest.
“Have you considered... not doing that?” says Seokjin.
“I’m considering it right now,” she says. “Can we go back inside?”
“I kind of want to go home,” says Seokjin stuffily. “Can you get a ride?”
“Sure,” says Yoonji. “Easy. Sorry about your anxiety.”
“‘S’fine. I’m just tired.”
“Okay,” she says. “I’ll get your Secret Santa for you and bring it on Monday.”
“Okay, thanks,” he says, pushing up onto his feet. “Thanks.”
Back inside, Secret Santa is happening. Jeongguk and another elf are trying to help match people to their presents while Youngjae tosses gifts around and does a little dance. As Yoonji steps in the front door, shivering violently, she hears someone drunkenly wail, “Santa, please! That one’s fragile!”
“Take it up with the elves!” booms Youngjae, thoughtfully rattling a gift next to his head. “Sounds like beans!” he yells. Youngjae became Santa last year, which has brought new life to the event.
Yoonji finds a place to sit cross-legged on the floor between a stranger and an acquaintance. Across the circle, she sees Hoseok. She looks at him until he makes eye contact with her, and then she tries to smile nicely. Hoseok is such a joke; he points to his chest and mouths, me?
Yoonji rolls her eyes, but can’t hide a tiny, silly smile.
“Ho, ho, ho. Just in time! I have a gift here for Yoonji! It feels super cheap!”
He lobs it at her and she catches it, just barely. It’s not wrapped very well, and for a second she wonders if Namjoon is her Santa, but the handwriting on the side is nice. To: YOONJI. From: SANTA. That could be anyone.
She quietly opens it as Youngjae moves onto the next gift, which happens to be for him. “Guess Santa was a good boy this year, too!” he yells, chucking his gift at an elf.
As he tosses more gifts around, Yoonji gets hers open, and is surprised at how thoughtful it is. It must be from someone who knows her, because she’s pretty sure for the three facts about herself she was asked to list, she just put Medieval Torture Devices. It’s a bunch of packs of hand warmers. The note says, This is my favorite brand. I hope they come in HANDy. She’s flattered. “Aw,” she says to herself. Her eyes scan across the circle, wondering who her Santa might have been. When she gets to Hoseok, he looks away quickly, as if he’s been watching her. Her heart beats weird, and as she tells it to shut up, Youngjae yells, “Seokjin! Is there a Seokjin in the house?”
“I’m passing his gift on to him,” calls Yoonji. Her voice cracks: horrible. “He had to go early.”
“Can I trust you, little girl?” yells gross Youngjae as Yoonji makes sympathetic eyes at Namjoon.
“Just gimme the gift, butthead.”
Youngjae throws it at her face.
Namjoon finds Yoonji afterward, standing in a shadowy corner up against the staircase. Everyone’s mingling again and Namjoon has hijcaked the AUX cord and put on an ‘80s pop mix instead of the twinkly piano music. It changes the mood, but in a good way. He’s still diligently wearing the Christmas tree, though it’s getting progressively more crumpled and he’s done away with the presents on his feet altogether.
“So, he left?” he says as he comes to stand next to Yoonji. He leans against the staircase, feigning nonchalance.
“Yeah,” she says. “Sorry, buddy. He seemed really embarrassed.”
“It’s okay,” says Namjoon. “Guess I just wasn’t meant to be happy.”
Yoonji groans. “I hear that.”
“Some people our age have like, toddlers. Do you ever think about that? But I’m dressed like a Christmas tree and the hottest guy I’ve ever met just basically sneezed into my open mouth.”
Yoonji thinks about telling him she likes Hoseok. She wants to. He’d understand how fucked up it is. They could commiserate. But she still can’t let him win, so she says, “Yeah, get your shit together dude.”
“By the way, who did you get for Secret Santa? And why are you still wearing that costume?”
“I lost a bet. Have to wear it all night. And I got Youngjae. Got him a beer stein so he can pretend to be a viking or something. You?”
“Hyungwon,” says Yoonji, pretending to sweat. “I wonder who got us. My gift was really sweet.” She pulls the hand warmers from her purse. “Look.”
“That’s actually really thoughtful.”
“I said the same thing.”
“I got a notebook,” says Namjoon. “A nice one, but. I feel bad.” Yoonji nods sympathetically. Namjoon has trouble writing by hand. In college, he had to get an accommodation from the disabilities office to bring a laptop to some of his lectures. “I’ll regift it, it’ll be good. Actually, do you want it?”
“Oh, sure,” says Yoonji. She takes a lot of notes by hand, and still sometimes tries to keep a journal.
“Cool. I’ll give it to you when my Santa isn’t probably still here.”
“Sure,” she says. “Do you want another drink?”
Namjoon looks like he’s thinking for a second, and then he says, “Yeah. That would be good. If there’s any punch left?”
“Yeah. Got you.” She pats him on the shoulder, accidentally crushing his costume a little. “Oops,” she mumbles, trying to straighten it. Then she gives Namjoon a thumbs up, and he smiles at her, and she goes into the kitchen.
The punch is basically gone, so she starts checking bottles to see if she can whip something up for Namjoon. Before she’s decided, there’s a pat on her shoulder.
She turns to see Jeongguk. “Hey,” he says, leaning against a counter across from her. His body language is a little awkward. “Can I ask you about something?”
“Oh, sure,” she says, finishing sloshing around the bottom of a bottle of vodka and setting it down on the counter. She pretends she’s not apprehensive; conversations that start like this sometimes get really intrusive, but she thinks Jeongguk is probably above that.
“So, I got Seokjin as Secret Santa,” he says.
“Oh.” She starts to pull the gift out of her bag to give back to him.
“No, no,” says Jeongguk. “I still want him to have it. It might be stupid now, ‘cause I picked it before I met him, but whatever.”
“What is it?”
“Oh, no. He’ll love it.”
“Okay, cool, because he listed his interests as like, baker’s confections, jousting, and being a bad bitch. He was hard to shop for. But uh, I was wondering if you could give him something else.”
“Ah. Yeah, I can do that.”
“Yeah,” says Yoonji. “I think he likes someone, but I’m not sure where that stands. So yeah. I’ll pass him your info.”
Jeongguk sinks back, shaking his head. “I can’t believe you know him like that.”
“We work together, I don’t get to choose if I know him,” she says. But that’s not fair. “He’s one of my best friends.”
“He’s… very hot.”
“Yeah, I guess,” says Yoonji. “Not really my type.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” laughs Jeongguk, gesticulating. “He’s everyone’s type. He looks like someone painted him.”
“Yeah, I think that’s why?” says Yoonji. “I think he’s like, too good looking.”
“Very nearly,” agrees Jeongguk wistfully. “What’s your type then?”
“Uh, currently?” says Yoonji. “Well, guys.”
Jeongguk looks a little surprised. When Yoonji knew him in college, she had a pretty serious girlfriend. They dated for most of two years before breaking up a little after graduation. And Jeongguk probably saw her and Mina together online; that relationship got serious really fast. Yoonji’s never had a boyfriend before.
“That’s cool,” he says. “Is that new?”
“No,” she says. “I feel differently about it now, though.”
“Is that because of the… you’re on hormones, right?”
“I have a friend who turned totally straight when she went on estrogen, it was wild.”
“Well, kinda,” she says. “Maybe. I don’t know. I’m not overthinking it. It’s just something that’s happening right now.”
“Okay, so, what kinds of guys?”
Ugh. Skinny. Dyed red hair. Tight jeans. Scared of birds. “Um, like, fun types. Good attitudes. Smiley.”
“So, the opposite of you.”
“Yep,” says Yoonji. She takes a breath. “Hey, Jeongguk?”
“Yeah?” His face is open.
“No problem,” he says solidly. “For what?”
“Just, you know,” she says, realizing she’s kind of mumbling through her teeth. “For like. Acting normal.”
“Aw,” says Jeongguk, looking a little sad. “No, you’re good. I was serious when we messaged before. I just wondered where you were. I’m glad you’re okay. Really okay.”
“Yeah, I’m super good,” she says quietly.
“And, I’m sorry,” he says awkwardly, furrowing at the label of his beer. “I should probably tell you. I’m trans, also.” The end of the sentence kind of trails off as Jeongguk stares into an empty doorway.
She looks at his face. She didn’t know that at all. “Are you?”
“Uh, yeah. Well. I’m intersex, technically. But yeah.”
“That is great.” She’s surprised to hear that about someone she's always known to be so easygoing. “That’s great.”
“So. I don’t wanna say I get it, but I’m with you, you know?”
“How come you never told me before?” she asks, not upset, just wondering. The two of them caught up via text a few months ago, and he never mentioned it at all.
“Ah,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck and looking a little less than comfortable. “It’s weird to say. I don’t tell that many people anymore.”
Yoonji nods. She wouldn’t tell people if she didn’t have to, either. If no one noticed, she’d never talk about it. “I get that. But I guess it makes sense that you hung out with Joon so much in college.”
“I actually kind of thought the same thing,” says Jeongguk, “When you came out. Like, oh yeah. Joon really has never met a straight person.” His face cracks into a smile, and she sees him trying to lighten the mood, so she smiles back.
“Yeah,” she says, leaning back into the counter and feeling comfortable in a way that’s still fairly hard to come by. “He won’t admit it, but I really think he always knew.”
“He’s so cool,” says Jeongguk dreamily.
“He is. I don’t know where I’d be without him.” Then she laughs. “I say this, but I think I threatened to kill him earlier.”
“I bet he deserved it,” says Jeongguk, still smiling all wide and endearing, his big front teeth showing.
“‘Course he did.”
Jeongguk takes another drink of his beer. He looks at her seriously. “So, things have been good?”
“Oh yeah,” she says, a little quiet. “You know. Some things are hard, but I’m happy.”
“It’s good to hear that,” says Jeongguk. “And I can tell you’re happy. You were always kinda like. I don’t know how to describe it. Like, watching the room really closely all the time. Does that make sense?”
Yoonji laughs. “Yeah, it does. I don’t think I ever learned how to relax.”
“I hear that,” he says honestly. “And, well. Yeah. I’m happy for you. Also, you’re really pretty. I wanted to say that earlier but I didn’t want to be weird. I love your hair like that.”
“Thank you,” says Yoonji again, smiling kind of hazily. She looks down at the cup she’s still holding to mix Namjoon’s drink in, blushing a little. She’s an idiot, but it means a lot to hear that. She laughs. “Now I made it weird, right? It was fine and now it’s weird.”
“Nah, it’s not,” says Jeongguk. “But hey, I think I’m gonna head out. I’m staying with my parents right now, and they don’t go to sleep until I’m home.”
“Aren’t you like 23?”
“Oh yeah. They don’t expect me back, but my mom sleeps with one eye open till she knows I’m safe in bed.”
“That’s darling, Jeongguk.”
“My mom is awesome.”
“What brings you back home, by the way?”
Jeongguk shrugs self-consciously. “Not a lot of money in fine art, I guess. Or, not enough… yet. To pay bills. So I think I need to evaluate what the hell I’m doing with my life.”
“Hence sucking up to mom?”
“Hence,” agrees Jeongguk. “But yeah, you should keep in touch. And I’d be very grateful if you gave Seokjin my number.”
“I will do that,” says Yoonji. “See you around.”
Jeongguk goes in for a hug, and Yoonji accepts it. He squeezes her kind of tight before letting go.
Yoonji is about at her capacity for social interaction now, she realizes as she takes a deep breath and goes back to rummaging for Namjoon's drink.
She settles on the syrupy bottom of a bottle of rum and some flat coke, then she starts looking for Namjoon. It’s the point in the night when people are starting to be really drunk and anyone might be anywhere. She hears people out back, which is an area she has so far avoided.
It seems like the party has moved there, so she grabs her coat and goes to investigate. As soon as she shuts the door behind her, stepping onto the deceptively warmly lit patio, she sees that everyone has come here to watch eggnog pong. It looks like Namjoon is losing severely to Momo, so Yoonji decides he probably won’t need his shitty rum and coke and starts drinking it herself as she sits down on a broken old chair under the gazebo.
It’s cold, but she’s got hand warmers now, so she breaks out a couple and feels immediate relief as they spread warmth through her fingers. She half-drunkenly visualizes the sensation traveling up her arms, to her heart, pumping through her with her blood. Her eyes close and she wills herself to be comfortable.
Eventually, Namjoon loses his game of eggnog pong and comes to sit with her. She asks if she can sleep over, since she forgot to find a ride, and Namjoon says of course, and then she says, “I’m gonna go find Hoseok.”
“Oh, he left,” says Namjoon. “Why do you need him? You gonna curse him?”
“No,” she says, a little sleepy and swirly from having too much to drink. “Actually, I wanted to be nice to him for once in my life.”
“Aw, sis. You seem tapped out. You wanna go to bed?”
“Okay, let’s go upstairs.”
“Thanks, Joonie. My tolerance is... I’m still learning.”
“You’re good,” he says. “I’m just glad you made it.”