“Just tell her I'm a friend. A nice Chinese girl.”
“You're not just a nice Chinese girl.”
“I'll fake it.”
- Saving Face, 2004
The new school year hasn’t even started yet when you first receive Aster’s message.
You’ve been following her since you’d left Squahamish for Grinnell, when Paul went and demanded that you make at least some social media platform to help with keeping in touch. (“No, Ellie, you can’t choose Facebook, that’s for boomers.") It had taken some back and forth between the pros and cons of some platforms – "what the fuck do you mean the pics you send delete themselves after they're opened?" – but eventually you settle on Instagram.
You’d followed Paul first, of course, and naturally, other acquaintances from high school had eventually shown up in your recommendeds and notifications too— Aster included.
Paul had told you to follow her. You had blatantly ignored him.
But then the little Aster Flores requested to follow you notification had popped up on the home screen of your new iPhone, and well, how could you ever refuse that?
Not that it ever really mattered. Suddenly four years had gone by without a single message between you, and before you’d even realized it, your four years of undergrad at Grinnell had come and gone as well.
You’d enjoyed your double major in philosophy and English, and somewhere down the line, you’d been coerced on to the debate team only to realize that you loved it. In retrospect, maybe you should’ve realized earlier, between the bantering letters with Aster from high school and the excitement that ran through your body whenever you’d argue over random topics with your peers in class.
Either way, you find yourself at Columbia Law School for your graduate degree regardless.
You only have two posts on Instagram— one of you, Paul, and your Ba eating Paul’s first attempt to make you braised pork, and another of you and Ba standing on that grassy Columbia lawn after a successful move-in, complete with big, victorious grins on both of your faces. (Paul had come to help move everything too, actually; he was the one who took the picture, and you made sure to tag him like he’d shown you.)
So naturally, even when the congratulations roll in from friends and distant family alike, the only thing that really catches your attention is the GhostMessenger you receive a few hours later:
DiegaRivero: you’re in nyc too?
SmithCorona: Yeah, it looks like!
SmithCorona: Wait, what do you mean “too”?
You meet up with Aster Flores in Central Park for the first time in nearly half-a-decade, and the first thing your brain decides to do is notice how the girl you’d so clearly had a crush on has changed so much, and yet at the same time, hasn’t.
For starters, the signature jean jacket is still there. On the other hand, floral dresses have been traded out, at least this time, for form-fitting black jeans and a dark red blouse. And beyond even that, there’s this air of weightless confidence Aster seems to carry around with her, effortless; an aura of authentic, steady assurance that hadn’t been there in high school, an understanding that comes as easy to Aster as curling a lock of her long, wavy hair around a finger. It's attractive— Aster is attractive.
Aster has always been beautiful and you’ve known this since the day you first laid eyes on her, but now you look at her and think about how you could write poems of her beauty like the Greeks did of goddesses.
She’s the first one that speaks, though.
“You let your hair down,” Aster says, smiles, hands in her pockets.
“I did,” you reply, brushing back your own dark waves from your face.
“You shed all the layers,” she says, nodding at your tight long sleeves shirt that hugs your torso just right.
“I did,” you chuckle. “It’s too warm here.”
“You even lost the glasses,” Aster remarks, and you shrug.
“Those are at the apartment. I figured I’d do the contacts thing today.”
“You look happier,” she says with a note of finality, and you freeze.
“I—” You blink, tilt your head, thinking. Slowly, a smile spreads across your lips. “I guess I am. Bold strokes, right?”
And with that, Aster merely beams, grabbing your arm with her own two and cradling it close to her body, declaring that she knows a great Italian restaurant nearby.
She becomes a permanent staple in your life soon enough.
Somewhere between the hectic activity of your law degree classes at Columbia and Aster’s further education for a Bachelor of Arts at NYU's Tisch, you somehow manage to meet for lunch twice a week.
“You’re late!” Aster accuses, but her words hold no weight and the smile gracing her lips is genuine as she pulls out her earphones and snaps her book shut. She looks comfortable, sitting on Columbia’s grassy common and waiting ever-so patiently for you, but she stands up nonetheless, shoving the novel into her bag.
“Sorry,” you apologize with a sheepish grin, hoisting your backpack further up your shoulder. Something tinges in your chest; you’d never get tired of leaving class to see Aster’s familiar figure. “My legal studies professor insisted on us covering some search and seizure cases with the two minutes we had left.”
“I guess it’s okay if you learned something,” Aster hums in seeming consideration before striding forward, wrapping herself around your right arm, and bumping her shoulder against yours. “I’m hungry though. The usual place, or are you thinking somewhere new?”
“There’s this new cafe that opened last weekend nearby, I heard it has great salads,” you tell her, and you try not to think about the way you can feel the heat of her body pressed into yours as you lead her down a sidewalk.
Aster’s the taller of the two of you, just by a bit, but if you've noticed one thing that's changed since all those years ago in Squahamish, Washington, it’s that Aster likes to cling.
Or maybe Aster had always been clingy and you’d just never realized. Momentarily, you churn through those memories, back when all you wore were hoodies and converse, and Aster's silhouette seemed entire worlds away. You can’t remember Aster ever clinging to Trig or Paul’s arm like this, but back in high school your gaze had always been unrelentingly fixated on the ground anyway.
Despite having only reunited a month ago, when the two of you walk the streets of New York City together, it’s Aster who likes to curl around your arm, tangle her fingers into the fabric of whatever flannel you’ve managed to throw on, press as close to you as possible; electric. And it’s not like you've ever questioned it out loud— you figure there’s not much of a need so dire, especially when Aster is so quick to feel your gaze on her, quick to smile whenever your eyes happen to meet.
If anything, it’s grounding . Aster’s soft grip on your arm is a reminder that you’re both really here, in the moment, a world away from your old home but at the same time, home nonetheless. You would never say these feelings aloud – you’re together physically, but it’s not like the two of you are dating or anything, no matter what Paul insists over the phone – but you've got a good thing going, there's no need to rush.
Truth be told, the fact that you even get this second chance to start over and be friends is a miracle in itself— lightning never strikes twice and yet somehow, here you are. And so you grip onto your blessings much like how Aster grips onto you, counting every single one of them and cradling them close to your heart.
It’s a Saturday afternoon when Aster takes you out to a bookstore a few blocks away from your apartment. You’d opened your door to see her buzzing with excitement, and when she takes your hand and leads you along as you navigate the streets, you can’t help but think the skip in her step is nothing short of adorable.
“Sartre was right when he said, ‘Hell is other people,’ ” Aster notes jokingly as you pause at a stoplight swarming with busy pedestrians.
“I don’t think this context is the right one,” you reply in amusement, following obediently as Aster steps off the curb when the light flashes green.
“I think it’s open to artistic reinterpretation,” she merely replies in a singsong tone, and you laugh but allow it.
Thirty minutes later and you’re sitting in a comfy chair by the bookstore window with Aster sitting in the chair across. There are two steaming mugs of coffee on the table between you, and you’re already deep into a book by the time Aster’s finally picked a novel out from the pile she’d accumulated.
“ ‘I am a red balloon,’ ” you read aloud, the particular line catching your attention, “ ‘A red balloon tied to an anchor.’ That’s really poetic and sad. I can see why you liked this book so much.”
“I never even knew books like The House on Mango Street existed until I left Squahamish," Aster admits, and you find yourself nodding in understanding. At Grinnell you'd found yourself in a similar situation, face-to-face with books about all sorts of different cultures you'd never even stopped to consider before. The high school library had been your haven for so long, so you hadn't even realized you'd been missing out on so much.
“I started searching for more books from authors of color after that,” she tells you, and you make a noise of agreement. “As much as I love reading the rambles of old English philosophers, it was refreshing to read something from a Hispanic perspective.”
“Beyond that, the prose itself is just amazing,” you say honestly, mentally patting yourself on the back when Aster's eyes seem to light up, bouncing in her seat eagerly. “I love vignette writing, I've always meant to practice more of my own.”
“You should write your own vignette collection,” Aster giggles. “ The House Across the Sausage Shop, maybe?”
“Sandra Cisneros's publishing company would strike me with a plagiarism accusation so fast,” you reply, stifling a laugh.
“ The House by the Train Station?” Aster offers, and you roll your eyes playfully.
“Somehow I don't think that would cut it.”
“Do you have a book like that, Ellie?”
“A book like what?”
“You know.” Aster shrugs, gesturing to The House on Mango Street still in your hands. “A book that made you realize that the world is so much grander than you'd initially thought.”
“Oh.” You pause, taking a moment to think back to that first Asian-American literature class at Grinnell that had gotten you so engaged in discovering storytelling in a way you’d never experienced. Then, you stand from your seat and Aster follows as you start scanning the bookcases.
Meanwhile, you feel Aster’s curious gaze on you the entire time, her eyes seeming to try to soak in your whole presence as you wander around the various sections of the bookstore, and you feel a heat rise to your cheeks even as you find what you’re looking for and tug it out of its place. You cough into your fist before turning back to her.
“ ‘You look at what you have, and not what you miss, and you move forward,’ ” you recite, and Aster's eyes widen slightly in surprise.
“Where's that from?” she asks quietly, transfixed.
“ Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” you say, and you hold out the novel to her. “It’s, um,” you clear your throat, “A different kind of love story, between a Chinese-American boy and Japanese-American girl during World War II. They, uh” – and now you're just blushing, stammering – “write letters to each other. It’s an amazing read, and it’s stuck with me a lot these past few years.”
And Aster takes the paperback in her hands, running her fingertips over its cover before looking up at you like you’d just handed over a part of your soul— and in a way, you feel like you have. Except when you see how careful, gentle Aster holds Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet in her hands and declares that she’s going to buy it, there are no regrets to be found, and you smile as she leads you back to your seats.
(You purchase The House on Mango Street before you leave, tuck it safely away into your bag, and Aster looks at you like you’d hung the stars.)
You've always loved discussing literature with other people, especially with those who were just as passionate as yourself— if not more . Still though – and so what if you're a tad biased? – there's nothing better than talking about literature with Aster Flores.
Maybe it’s because your tastes had lined up so perfectly with hers back in high school, or maybe it's the thrill to know that she's expanded her tastes just as much as you have. Or perhaps, it's just special because this is Aster Flores, the girl you've had a crush on since forever, who you fell even harder for the moment she called you out for "taking inspiration" from Wings of Desire in that first letter.
Aster's always been one to issue a challenge, so it comes as no surprise when you suddenly find yourself quizzing – and by extension, getting quizzed by – Aster Flores on famous quotes in literature as you lounge on the grass in Central Park.
“ ‘We all need mirrors to remind ourselves who we are. I'm no different,’ ” Aster recites, and you chew on your bottom lip for a moment before answering.
“That’s from that movie, Memento,” you tell her, and Aster raises an appreciative eyebrow.
“There’s a lot going on in that movie, I’m surprised you recognized that line,” she praises.
“It’ll sound less impressive when I tell you that I watched it several times and rewound all the scenes so I could piece together the actual motivations behind the storyline,” you admit.
Aster smirks at that. “That's fair. I ended up watching it at least twice too, since I refused to just Google the plot. It's a confusing film.”
“Okay, what about this one,” you raise. “ ‘We dream in our waking moments, and walk in our sleep.’”
“Easy, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter,” Aster answers effortlessly, but her nose scrunches up in obvious distaste.
You chuckle. “Not much of a fan?”
“The old English started really grating on me about fifty pages in, and I didn't like the characters much,” Aster shrugs, moving to lay her head on your lap. Absently, your fingers come to twine themselves in her hair, and she makes a noise of content as you massage her scalp.
“I didn't like it much either,” you offer, and she giggles.
“Your turn, Ellie Chu! ‘It matters not what someone is born, but what they grow to be.’ ”
“… Did you really just quote Harry Potter to me? J.K. Rowling? Really, Aster?”
“Which book, Ellie?” Aster grins, and she reaches to grab your wrist.
You roll your eyes and pretend to bite at her hand before answering.
“Goblet of Fire, you normie,” you tease, using your free hand to tickle her stomach, and Aster shrieks, swatting you away. “Okay, this is my last one for you.”
“Lay it on me,” Aster says confidently, sitting back up.
“ ‘I see now that the circumstances of one's birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.’ ”
And oh, it’s so, so satisfying to see the way Aster’s brow pinches in confusion, and through the minute of silence that passes by, you can see the gears churning furiously, working overtime to try and identify the source of the quote.
Finally, Aster sighs, her shoulders slumping as she shakes her head.
“Alright, I've got no clue. Who said that one?”
“Mewtwo in Pokémon: The First Movie.”
You’re pretty sure everyone in Central Park hears the way your laughter rings out, swirls up, up, up into the blue sky above, after Aster’s shocked expression gets replaced with a mischievous one and she tackles you to the ground, vigorously showering you with tickles in a punishment that truth be told, you probably deserve.
You’re grinning the entire time.
"You're meeting the friends? Prepare to be grilled.”
- Saving Face, 2004
The days continue to roll by like this, you and Aster becoming intrinsically intertwined in the tapestries of your lives. You'd think if your soul were to be colored now, it would be a bright crimson, bright enough to match the signature red that Aster's managed to fashion for herself.
Your weekends have inevitably become “Aster Days,” which is interesting in itself because you see her enough during the week that it's hard to go more than a day without her presence in your schedule.
Sometimes she’s in your apartment, bringing her laptop and tablet to work on digital assignments as you study. Other days, you're the one bringing your materials to one of Tisch’s studios, or back to Aster's place, or even outside if need be— wherever Aster needs to be present for her paintings.
You meet her new friends and she meets yours, and although nobody comments on it, you can tell by the teasing glances and subtle (not subtle at all) remarks that they all think that something’s going on.
“We were going to set her up on a blind date,” one friend of Aster’s tells you. “But then she introduced you on game night and now we get why she was so against the whole idea.”
“You seem like a really good fit for her,” another adds before the two of them burst into suspicious giggles.
You really don’t know what to say to that.
“Did you ask Aster out yet?” One of your law school buddies calls out when you walk into his apartment with a batch of dumplings your Ba had sent to share, and you immediately toss back your head in a groan. “You're basically dating already, what’s the problem?”
So they’re not right, but they’re not entirely wrong either.
And it’s strange because, like that oxymoron, you find yourself hating this weird limbo and loving it at the same time.
You try not to think about it, but then you wonder what would happen if one of you were to make that bold stroke and cross that boundary.
You wonder if you would be happier than you already are now.
You’re not quite sure whose idea it was, but one late autumn Friday you find yourself at a bar with Aster and the rest of your friends.
Ever since that party after the talent show, you haven’t really been one to drink— one glass, maybe, to nurse through the night but nothing more than that, and you’re more than okay with being the designated sober mom friend.
Aster disentangles from your side at one point or another, only after you’ve basically had to shoo her off to have fun with everyone else. Thus, you sit off at the table you’ve miraculously snagged, rolling your eyes as the third guy of the night tries to hit up Aster to no avail.
“You look lonely,” a new voice suddenly says, sending your train of thought screeching to a halt, and you startle from your slouched position, immediately straightening up.
“I’m sorry?” You reply instinctively, the foreign words leaving your lips without even having to think and you send a mental Thank You note to your Ba. You spin around, meeting the fox-like eyes of another Asian girl, a coy smile quirking at the corner of her mouth as her lips curve around the familiar sound of Mandarin.
“I said that you look like you could use some company,” the girl says, giggling, and you raise an eyebrow as she juts her thumb over her shoulder, pointing to where a small group of Asians have gathered around a dart board. You recognize some of them, actually; some are studying at Columbia from overseas. “Have you ever played?”
Have you ever played darts? Well, yeah. You still remember those days with the same clarity as yesterday— your friends at Grinnell had been absolutely affronted that you’d never learned, and they made you play with them until you could hit the bullseye as easily as quoting your favorite authors.
And so you stand up and let this girl lead you over to the board, her friends swarming you and suddenly it’s like a hurricane of Mandarin all around, even as you’re handed a dart and the space in front of you is cleared.
A few rounds later and you’re laughing as your opponent grumbles under his breath before just missing the center ring. The crowd around you cheers and you allow yourself to bask in it with a wide grin, but suddenly there are hands gripping onto your arm and you don’t even have to look, you know from touch alone that they’re not Aster’s.
Gently, you separate yourself from the other body – it’s the girl from earlier, the one with the fox-like eyes who’d invited you over here in the first place – and you flash her an apologetic smile.
“Sorry,” you say. “It was fun but I really should be getting back to my table now.”
“I didn’t even get your name,” the girl pouts dramatically, and you chuckle to yourself.
“I’m Ellie,” you tell her in English.
“Do you have a Chinese name?” she asks you, and you’ve just begun to open your mouth when a pair of familiar arms encircle around you in a warm, possessive hug, tugging you close, a head coming to rest against your shoulder blade; a familiar, right weight.
“Ellie,” Aster says softly. Her fingers press insistently against your collarbone. “I’m tired. Let’s go home?”
Home. You take a deep breath. “Do you want me to take you back to your place?”
You feel the way Aster shakes her head.
“No, yours,” she mumbles, and your heart stutters in your chest. Aster visiting your apartment isn’t new, but Aster staying overnight in any capacity definitely is. “I can stay on your couch or something. Just, don't leave me alone tonight, please.”
“Like hell you’re taking the couch,” you mutter, feel the way Aster presses a smile into your back. You turn your attention to the girl back in front of you, whose fox eyes latch on to the way you’re so naturally pressed against Aster with what must be amused curiosity.
“I’m really sorry,” you say again, already moving to steer Aster out of the bar. Aster takes her regular position, clutching your arm close, and despite the bar already being crowded enough, there’s something comforting about the heat. “But I really have to go now.”
“It’s okay,” the Chinese girl says with perfect English, smiling innocently. “There’s always next time!”
Aster’s hold on your arm tightens, and you feel her heave a shuddering breath against you.
You don’t comment on it, even when you get outside. If Aster doesn't want to talk about it, you won't push her; if she wants to say something, she will . Still, there's something in the air, with what little space remains between the two of you, and the entire walk back to your apartment has Aster lost in thought.
“Bold, huh?” Aster murmurs to herself as the two of you wait to cross at a traffic light.
You furrow your brow.
“Don't worry about it,” Aster smiles, opting to stroke the back of your hand with her thumb instead.
Later that night your phone makes a noise from where it sits on your kitchen counter, and you furrow your brow as you swipe at the screen, not recognizing the username in the little notification bubble.
One tap later and you recognize the image of the Chinese girl from the bar.
“Oh,” you say in surprise. “That girl who asked me to play darts earlier just requested to follow me on Instagram. I don’t even know how she found me. Should I accept?”
Aster, sitting on the couch, stays quiet.
You frown and decide to lock your phone, leaving the request unanswered; a problem for later.
For now, you join Aster on the couch, settling down against the opposite end.
“Hey, Ellie,” Aster says, looking out the glass door to the balcony. Even from where you sit, you see the way her gaze drifts out, out, out, over the cityscape, lingering on all of the lights.
“Do you remember when I told you to watch me, because in a couple years I’d be sure of myself? It was back on that day before you left for Grinnell— back when you kissed me?”
“I—” As if you could ever forget. Your throat feels dry. Out of all the times to have this discussion, you can’t believe it’s happening now, on some random Friday night, in the living room of your apartment, when you’d just came back from some random bar, and Aster’s just been talked up by some random dudes, and some random girl just added you on Instagram, and— “Yeah, I remember.”
Aster seems to straighten up at that. She shifts away from the view, turning to meet your eyes, unwavering.
“Are you watching me now?” she asks.
“As if you don't know,” you tell her, swallowing. “You know I can’t take my eyes off you.”
“Are you sure about that, heathen?” she questions further with a note of teasing.
“One hundred percent,” you say, absolutely serious.
“Good,” Aster murmurs, leaning in close. “Because I’m sure now, too.”
You inhale sharply, haven’t even noticed how the space had vanished— less than a second ago, she was on the complete opposite side of the couch, you swear. And yet there she is, in your space, forehead nearly against yours, and your heart is stuttering in your chest, hummingbirds fluttering in your stomach because there’s no way butterflies could ever cause something like this.
“Oh,” you whisper in awe because even under your apartment lights, Aster is beautiful, a goddess, and you are drawn to her like a moth to a flame; because even though once upon a time you’d written six different takes on Plato, your entire verbose vocabulary seems to have abandoned you along with the very ability to articulate.
“Mine,” is all Aster says before she pulls you in by the nape of your neck, breathes you in like the air she so desperately needs, soft lips brushing against soft lips like the clouds; twists her fingers into the hem of your sweater, seeking you like flowers seek the sun.
You choke out a wet laugh, a single tear escaping before you surge forward like the ocean; kiss her like she’s the blue sky you’re seeing after rain.
Aster Flores tastes like a sunrise, and you can't get enough of her.
You rise with the growing light in the morning and wake up lying on your back, a feeling of warmth and completeness pulsing through your body like the beat of a drum. You have to resist the urge to tangle your fingers into Aster's dark hair, brunette locks resting gently on skin, lying across white bed sheets and covers.
Aster herself has her head on your chest, her ear pressed right against where your heart thrums beneath it, and she clings to you like a koala, snuggled as close to you as possible.
She must feel you stir though, because immediately she mumbles something incoherent and tries to burrow further against your body. A lock of hair falls across her face, and you laugh under your breath as you raise a hand to push it back.
“Clingy much?” You say teasingly, fondly.
Aster only hums.
“It reminds me it’s real,” she mumbles, lips moving against your skin just as you start tracing circles onto her back. “Means we’re both here.”
“We’re both here,” you repeat, and you try to hold her even closer, until there’s no space left between. Maybe it’s a sign from someone, how your thoughts still manage to run parallel to hers even after all this time apart. How you’d managed to go so long with an Aster Flores-sized hole in your life, you don’t even know, but now you can’t bring yourself to imagine it without her again. “I wonder what would’ve happened if I stayed in Squahamish. I wonder if I made the right decision.”
“ ‘The hardest choices in life aren’t between what’s right and what’s wrong, but between what’s right and what’s best,’ isn’t that right?” Aster suddenly says, cutting through your thoughts and peering up through still-sleepy eyes to meet your own, a gentle smile overtaking her lips.
“ Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” you say with a chuckle, smoothing back her hair. “You read it?”
“Finished it,” Aster corrects, and she reaches up to squeeze your hand with a wink. “I was hooked from start to finish.” She hums. “We seem to have a thing with longing, huh? So what do you think, then?”
“I think we made the best decision,” you say. Aster resumes her position on your chest, listening to your heart. “We really needed those four years— or maybe not all of them were necessary, but y’know, absence makes the heart fonder, or something.”
“We’ve got plenty of time to make them all up anyway,” she agrees, then pauses. “Did you ever find something to believe in?”
“I didn’t need to look so much as I just needed to wait,” you tell her.
Aster doesn’t say anything to that— just smiles, bright and bold and the universe’s greatest masterpiece it’s ever created, here in your arms.
“ ‘It doesn’t matter how nice the home is— it just matters that it feels like home,’ ” you quote, and some part of your heart aches in the best way possible at how a weightless, effortless giggle bubbles up from Aster.
“Are you saying I feel like home, Ellie Chu?” she asks cheekily, rising to press a kiss to the corner of your mouth, and in that moment, you could move mountains.
“Something like that, Aster Flores,” you say, grinning, and it feels like your world has shifted on its axis, tranquility in your pocket of the universe; a new beginning.
“Vivian Shing, I'm asking you to dance with me.”
- Saving Face, 2004