First love never dies.
Perhaps it’s the way Sooyoung smiles. Stretching from ear to ear, her teeth pillowed on her bottom lip. The way her nose scrunches, her eyes turning into crescents. Or maybe because Sooyoung is simply, well, Sooyoung. Her existence so loud in the continuous buzz of the world, drawing people in with interest. So, so, impactful. Jinsol believes that no matter where Sooyoung goes, she will always leave a mark. No matter how big or small. It carves in your heart with golden engravings, in a way that you would never dare to forget.
Jinsol has the same golden carvings on the side of her heart. Engraved by an 8-year-old Sooyoung on the playground from down the street. It was the way Sooyoung, still a stranger at that time, stood up for her, tiny fist raised to induce a fight. Just because Jinsol fell from the slides, forehead crashing on the rough patch of the ground because someone purposively pushed her out of the way. In a blink of an eye, she was bleeding. Panic coursing through her when she felt it trickle, staining her hand when she tried to wipe it off.
And Sooyoung, midway of climbing the monkey bars, hopped off, her shoes hitting the wood chips with a crunch. Although, her first initiative was to sock the boy who pushed Jinsol to her demise. Quite barbaric. It scared Jinsol, panic bubbling up at the thought that Sooyoung might hurt her next. Until, the other reaches out a hand, which Jinsol hesitantly took. She stood up, knees buckling and the wound still bleeding. Sooyoung, peculiar as she is, ripped a portion of her thin shirt, wrapping the fabric around Jinsol’s head carefully. Sooyoung explained that she saw a man doing the same thing in a movie when he got shot in the arm.
Looking back, it’s such a weird and funny way of a first meeting. The scar still very much present against her skin, but in a way, it serves as a reminder for a good memory. The girl from next door that she didn’t even know existed until that moment, suddenly filled every crevice of her everyday. Casually sliding through her life and giving it colors that she never knew she even needed nor wanted in the first place. Not that she’s complaining. She didn’t have a lot of friends growing up due to her self-esteem.
But Sooyoung contrasted her well. When Jinsol wants to show herself to the world, Sooyoung was there to hold her hand every step of the way. When Sooyoung wants to cower, a rest from all the expecting eyes upon her, Jinsol was there to welcome her with open arms. She was the breeze while Sooyoung was the waves. Push and pull, creating a dynamic. Never one without the other.
Perhaps Jinsol was weak. Not having the strength to push down whatever growing feelings she had nor having the courage to admit it when it finally dawned to her.
Jinsol never really thought of Sooyoung in any other way other than the boundaries of friendship, nor let herself venture in the possibilities of something more. Well, until, it was the second day of senior year. She woke up way too early. Early enough to catch the first glimpse of the sun, and early enough to see Sooyoung dancing in nothing but her pajamas from her window. Slow dancing, nothing but thin air as her partner, twirling around on her heels. The sunlight gradually spilling through her room, the yellow tint hitting her skin as she continued the routine. Jinsol couldn’t breathe for a moment, as if the supply of air inside her lungs was on standstill. As if Sooyoung stole it from her— together with her heart.
Was Sooyoung always this pretty? She wondered as she stood there, dumbstruck. Not knowing that she would get her answer by the time their eyes met halfway, like magnets drawn to each other. Sooyoung only smiled in a playful manner, as if an indication that she knew that Jinsol was watching from start to finish.
And that’s when she realized, Sooyoung was her first love. Always has been. Everything felt tender so suddenly, her heart wanting to leap out from her chest at the newfound discovery. She froze on the spot, standing there, her heart thumping inside her ribs. Slow and steady, considerate to take everything in and let it sink. She remained unmoving, even when Sooyoung was out of sight. Even when her alarm clock rang through the air, the continuous and annoying beep passing through one ear through another.
That was the first time she was ever late for school.
The second time was when Sooyoung mentioned someone on their way to school. It was out of the blue, Sooyoung almost shying away from the conversation even if she was the one who opened it up. Kim Jiwoo, resident sunshine and their school’s photojournalist. Always carrying the widest smile alongside her huge camera that she brings everywhere she goes. Everyone knew her. Everyone was drawn to her. If Jinsol was the breeze, gentle and free flowing, Jiwoo was the embodiment of the sun, casting its warmth for everyone to bask upon. It was almost inevitable that Sooyoung has taken a particular interest to her.
“I like her,” Sooyoung had said as they walked side by side, the glint of her eye proving her point. “I’m planning to ask her out later. Wish me luck, okay?”
Jinsol’s heart sank at the other’s words, crumpling the letter inside the pocket of her coat that she had held so dearly ever since Sooyoung knocked on their front door. She was dying to give it for weeks now, finding the right word to describe what she felt, paper after paper ripped and thrown before ultimately deciding to just write whatever comes to mind. But it seems… the sleepless nights were pointless now. What a timing. So, she smiles, masking the way her lungs constricts. Begging her to run away, get out of the situation to avoid herself from suffocating. But she stays by Sooyoung’s side, like she always does. Wishing her all the luck in the world through gritted teeth, and silently wishing that Sooyoung never heard the quiver that accompanied her voice. She spent the time composing herself inside the comfort room before heading to class, the teacher glaring daggers at her, but she doesn’t care. The hollowness overweighing everything that’s happening around her.
Sooyoung started officially dating Jiwoo after a month. And before she knew it, the bubble that they shared, so, so exclusively wasn’t just theirs anymore. Jiwoo suddenly became a reoccurring character in the story, and it irks her. Not because she was dating Sooyoung, but because the girl was an absolute angel, and Jinsol feels a tad bit guilty for harboring some sort of hate towards her.
Jealousy started to come in much more stronger waves. And so was the hurt, digging deep inside her heart whenever Sooyoung smiles at Jiwoo, because it was different. Sooyoung never smiled nor looked at her like that. Her eyes twinkling whenever she sees Jiwoo, and the small fond smile painted on her lips was enough to know that Sooyoung, with all of her heart, loved Jiwoo.
Suddenly, Jinsol became the extra of the story. Pushed to the sidelines as the spotlight redirects its way to Sooyoung and Jiwoo. But she lets it because as long as Sooyoung was happy, that’s enough for her. Even if the price was Sooyoung subtly pushing her away to spend more time with Jiwoo, or their affection, even if deemed friendly, caused nothing but brooding awkwardness between them. It couldn’t be helped, Sooyoung had a girlfriend and there were boundaries to set. That somehow drifted them apart. It was gradual. As if Sooyoung was slowly vanishing, floating away from her as she stays put. Unmoving and firm, until there wasn’t any Sooyoung anymore.
Jinsol wanted to believe that they just grew up. Not finding comfort in the other’s presence anymore because they outgrew each other. A part of her wants to blame it on Jiwoo, but what was the point of pointing fingers on someone who just wanted to love and be loved? Sometimes, she wonders, what if she garnered up all the courage to confess to Sooyoung weeks prior to that conversation? What if she didn’t throw away one of the countless letters that she had drafted? What if she just gave Sooyoung the letter after she knocked at their door that morning? If she did one thing different, would everything change? She doesn’t know and perhaps, she will never do.
Sooyoung slipped away from her just like that.
Time seemed to past by, because in a blink of an eye, she was attending her last year of university, far, far away from home. No sight of Sooyoung. No sight of the couple, still going strong even after all those years, together. It was peaceful, to say at least. Her time mostly spent in studying, or hanging out with Haseul and her foreign girlfriend, Vivi. She never had time to date nor want to. The scar was still so deep after all. Maybe even deeper than the golden engravings on the side of her heart.
She never went back to her hometown at will, not really keen to the idea of seeing Sooyoung after they pushed each other away completely, but after an hour of convincing, and scolding from her mom to spend the holidays on their family home, she couldn’t do anything but to comply to her wishes. It’s not like Sooyoung was still living there, she supposed. For all she knew, Sooyoung probably moved in together with Jiwoo, living their domestic life in the comforts of their apartment.
She was wrong. Well, partly, her initial assumption being true. Because, just like her, Sooyoung also came to visit for the holidays.
Jinsol doesn’t know if the world just loved seeing her in constant distress because when she went to check her bedroom, she spotted Sooyoung from across her window. Slow dancing in the dimly-lit room, the fairy lights the only thing that illuminated her features. Just like before, her partner was nothing but thin air as she glides through the room in a languid motion. And Jinsol is captivated again, the oxygen leaving her lungs, but this time, it hurts. It hurts so much. A complete opposite of the bliss that scattered inside her chest the first time. She heaved, hands going numb as she started to cry, her tears continuously flowing against her cheeks even if she wiped it away.
Sooyoung finally saw her, their eyes meeting halfway. The initial shock replaced by a smile. Jinsol wanted to laugh at how stupid she was because she never realized how much she missed Sooyoung all those time that she spent isolating herself. Her hair was shorter now, above her shoulders. And her face more mature compared to the last time Jinsol saw her, yet her smile remained the same. The same toothy smile that she would flash Jinsol whenever she opens the door in the morning, trying her best to fix her uniform as Sooyoung impatiently drags her by her hand all the way to the bus stop.
Jinsol continued to sob, her knees almost buckling. Sooyoung then mouthed, “It’s okay. Don’t cry.” And she realized, as she stood there, Sooyoung will always be her first love. It will never change. No matter what happens, no matter who comes in between, no matter how far she goes, no matter how much distance she puts between them. She loves Sooyoung with all her being, even if it diminishes into nothing but mere sparks, it doesn’t erase the fact that she does.
She wanted to hug Sooyoung so bad, wanting to feel her warmth against her skin, or the way her arms would wrap around her waist, pulling her closer. Much, much, more closer than possible. But the clock strikes twelve, the cheers from downstairs pulling her out of their bubble. The fireworks shooting through the sky as they continued to stare at each other in the silence of each of their rooms. And if Jinsol could flatter herself, she was sure there was a glint of longing in Sooyoung’s eyes.
Until, Sooyoung’s door opened. Revealing Jiwoo, the widest smile on her lips as she held an empty party popper. She didn’t change at all, the only thing that was different was her aura was stronger now, brighter than ever. She could see Sooyoung’s grin when Jiwoo started to scold her animatedly, threatening to hit her with the object on her hand. Jiwoo didn’t seem to notice her presence from across the window.
Jinsol smiled. It was bittersweet. She really was no match for that girl, even if she tried with all her might. Jiwoo was just this angelical force, so driven and pure, that Jinsol, herself, can’t even fathom how she exists in such a cruel world. At least, she knew that Sooyoung was in good hands, because Jiwoo would never hurt her. Not even unintentionally. That was enough for her.
“See you later.” Sooyoung mouthed, looking behind as she dragged Jiwoo out by her waist. Jinsol only nodded, mouthing the same words as Sooyoung slid the curtains. Perhaps that night was supposed to be her heart’s closure. The last stich to the scar, finally ready to heal completely and let her move forward.
She never saw Sooyoung after New Year’s Eve, or the day after that. Days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months, months turned into years. She almost forgot that Sooyoung even existed due to her busy day-to-day life. Only reminded of her presence when she passes by something nostalgic. A smell that she catches whenever she’s riding the bus, a song that she’s sure that she had heard before, a random book that she slipped out from the dusty shelves, or a movie that has such a similar plot to another one. And, so, so much more. That’s where she finds Sooyoung, residing on those little things. The remnants of Sooyoung in her world, suspended in time. A long-haired Sooyoung, her cheeks still making her look babyish, and the bunny-like smile that would light up the whole room in mere seconds. That was her Sooyoung. Not the one she saw at 11:58 PM years ago. It felt weird to even say her name out loud. As if it sounded out of place. So foreign against her tongue, as if she haven’t said the name everyday for almost half of her existence.
This time she was sure that they grew up, leaving behind everything that they couldn’t take ahold of. They weren’t the same kids running around the playground anymore, walking hand in hand with bruises on their skin on the way home. They weren’t the rambunctious teens, sneaking out of the house just for a late night stroll. They weren’t the same as they were anymore. Their shared world splitting into two opposite directions, never meeting, never colliding, like parallel lines.
From what she heard, Sooyoung was on her first year of residency. Wow. She’s finally going to be Dr. Ha Sooyoung soon. How she remembered Sooyoung vowing to herself that she would become a doctor in the future. Jinsol didn’t see it at first, couldn’t even imagine it with her eyes closed because Sooyoung was just so rough sometimes. So impatient and quick to boil. But then again, Sooyoung was Sooyoung. She hoped that Sooyoung knew how proud she was, wished she could say it personally.
On the other hand, she left her boring office job to become a daycare teacher. Her love for children and her desire to share knowledge burning passionately inside her heart getting the best of her. It was the first risk she took without Sooyoung holding her hand. Without Sooyoung creating the way for her, trust the only thing she has as she walks down. She prayed that a miracle would happen. In which Sooyoung would just magically appear from out of nowhere and tell her how proud she was too. But miracles are called miracles because they don’t happen.
So she goes on. If fate wanted them to meet, it will. And if not, what’s the difference? Finally, she welcomed the outsiders inside her walls, but never ever letting them touch her soul that resides on the tallest tower. Except for one person— her boyfriend. Who climbed dutifully just for a glimpse, his resolve never yielding as well as his patience. In contrary, Sooyoung held her hand every step of the way, leading her into the clear. He was different. Standing on the sidelines with all the moral support, letting Jinsol figure out everything on her own, setting a pace that she was comfortable to work in. He was the greetings in the morning, and the sweet whispers at night. A reminder that there will always be a tomorrow to try again. And Jinsol was thankful for that. So grateful that they ended up in front of the altar, exchanging vows and promises in front of their friends and relatives. (Haseul cried when the ceremony ended, clinking her wine glass with a fork in the reception, sobbing as she reminisced their memories.)
Jinsol was happy. So elated that she didn’t mind Sooyoung’s empty seat, even if she sent the couple a personalize invitation. She was a busy person, after all. Jinsol didn’t loom on it any further, choosing to enjoy the moment. Sooyoung was probably scurrying on her feet, in and out of sterilized rooms, saving lives here and there.
Five years passed and she received an invitation, almost throwing it out along with the junk mail if she haven’t skimmed through it again. It’s for Sooyoung and Jiwoo’s wedding. The burgundy paper littered with golden markings along with her name. When she opened it, she was welcomed by a picture of the two. Well, with a child in between of them, looking all grumpy with that triangular pout of hers. Seems like she wasn’t the only one busy in the parenting department.
Chaewon. Another light that came into her life, with grubby hands and soft giggles enough to melt anyone’s heart. But as bright as she is, she dulls so quickly, too. She’s been sickly and frail ever since she was born. A little drop in temperature can send her into a fever. Jinsol couldn’t count how many times she almost toppled panicking over her rising temperature, or how many late night hospital visits they made over the past five years. Still, despite the sleepless nights and the unwanted adrenaline rush, that made her love her little girl even more. But that doesn’t silence the fear inside of her. She was scared that in a blink of an eye, Chaewon would no longer be by her side. The unexpected sassiness in the morning, her gleeful screams as she played with her rubber duck on the bathtub, the cheeky tint of her voice turning into nothing but silence, when by any chance, the various illnesses she catches gets the best of her body. Jinsol wasn’t ready for that, nor will she ever will be.
So, it doesn’t matter how many workdays she’ll miss, what personal appointments she’ll skip. Chaewon would always be her top priority. Even if it means skipping Sooyoung’s wedding. It was so sudden, the phone call coming through when they were already on the way to the venue. The babysitter, frantic and out of breath, informed that Chaewon was burning up and wouldn’t stop crying. Jinsol panicked before she could even give out proper instructions. Her husband locked their hands together in assurance, maneuvering the car to the other lane and heading their way back home. The day was spent in the four walls of the hospital room again, with Jinsol holding Chaewon’s hands against her own as the little girl sleeps peacefully, her breathing finally steady.
Jinsol didn’t find the need to explain. How could she even explain the situation in the first place? It’s not like she had the couple’s contact details. It was a shock to her that they even knew her address. They probably got it from her mother, thinking that Jinsol and Sooyoung were still close. Either way, it was an emergency, so her conscience was clean. It’s not like she didn’t want to come. She really did, maybe to find out for herself if she was truly over it. Which was silly, considering she was married. Also, a bundle of sunshine along with that. She couldn’t, and wouldn’t dare ask for more.
Yet she was genuinely curious. How would Sooyoung look, walking down the aisle, buzzing with pure euphoria as the pianist plays a tune. Canon in D. Cliché as it is, but she could remember Sooyoung telling her in a hushed whisper that if she ever get married, that was the song that she would play. She could still remember the shade of pink spreading through Sooyoung’s cheeks, as if she spilled her most embarrassing secret. How would Sooyoung even react when she sees her? She wondered. Would she be happy? Awkward? Stiff? Surprised? Would she still flash Jinsol the same endearing smile, one that swept Jinsol off her feet time and time again?
Would she still feel the hurt burning her lungs?
For some reason, she remembered how way back, she held unto countless of images of Sooyoung inside her head, even if it wasn’t concrete. Just a figment of memories upon hundred of others. It was the only thing that remained of Sooyoung in their own little world before it collapsed, after all. As she held Chaewon’s hands, she remembers a 15-year-old Sooyoung grinning at her, her lips stretched out to show her pearly whites as their fingers intertwined together, waiting for the rain to stop. That was her Sooyoung.
“Hey, Jinsol. What do you think would happen to us after ten years or so? Would we still be friends?” Sooyoung had ask as she watched how the raindrops fell from the roof of the waiting shed. She didn’t wait for Jinsol’s reply. “I think we would still be friends since you can’t live without me.” Sooyoung snickered, answering her own query as she squeezed Jinsol’s hand.
Jinsol couldn’t remember what her response was after that. All blurry from the years that passed. And she doesn’t know why, but it made her cry. Her heart stinging, as her whimpers rang through the hospital room. She bit back a sob, scared that she might wake up Chaewon from her slumber.
She gets her answer.
It still hurts.
No, not because of the fact that Sooyoung never reciprocated her feelings, or knew of it, leaving her to suffer all alone. It was different this time. It hurts because she could see how the years have strained them. What was once inseparable was broken beyond repair. The breeze and the waves’ dynamic disrupted. Because when the breeze stops, the waves stills. But what happens if the breeze comes to a halt, yet the waves went on? It creates an imbalance. Their push and pull, turning into nothing but shoving each other away.
She wanted to blame herself. If it wasn’t for her feelings, then maybe, just maybe, things could have been different. If only she could go back in time, she wouldn’t let it cultivate, turning into something that she couldn’t even suppress. She was also the one who pushed Sooyoung away, forcing herself to create a gap between them, justifying the action with her relationship with Jiwoo. Boundaries were the only way that she could save herself from completely breaking her heart.
But never did it cross her mind to confront it. Facing it head-on, rather than brushing it under the rag for years. Giving herself a proper closure, because whether she admits it or not, she stills thought about the what ifs and what could have been. If Sooyoung had rejected her, then that was it. She could have moved on, rather than just continuously moving forward with the baggage.
She didn’t notice how Chaewon stirred awake, seeing her mommy cry beside her confused her. So she mimicked what her daddy does when she’s crying. She wiped off Jinsol’s tears with her tiny hand, asking what was wrong. Her voice slurred due to her sleepiness, the sound rolling off her tongue slowly.
Jinsol blinks, realizing what Chaewon was doing. She started to giggle through her tears, wiping it off herself. Oh, how pure and angelic she was.
“Mommy, it’s okay. Don’t cry.”
She nodded, the words familiar. So she promised, vowing to herself that she’ll do something about it. She was tired of cowering and running when there was happiness right in front of her, waiting for her to just let go of everything that hurts her.
It takes another year for her to gather up all the courage she needed. It was a slow progress, going back and forth and assessing her feelings. She lets it hurt, going through the various things that reminded herself of Sooyoung. She even found the crumpled letter from years ago, never having the heart to throw it away. She read it, feeling the yearning inside her heart but she lets it. She lets it seep in, opening the scars with every word written. Maybe she’ll give it to Sooyoung, even if it would be more meaningful for her part. Just a form of letting go, poetic as it is. Her husband was supportive. With Jinsol finally opening up about the guilt she felt whenever Sooyoung crossed her mind, or whenever her feelings resurfaced even if she already had a family, ready to envelope her with warmth and security. The man listened and was thankful that she trusted him, promising to help her with any way that he could. Sealing it with a kiss on her forehead, just above her scar. She couldn’t really ask for more.
It was a shock to receive a call from the middle of the night. Declining the call a few times because of the unknown number, Jinsol tried to close her eyes, placing her phone facedown. The caller continued to bombard her phone with calls until she ignored it completely. The caller seemed to give up, sending a voice mail which made Jinsol’s eyebrows arc. Just who was this person disrupting her sleep at 3 AM? She checked her phone, playing the voice mail with narrowed eyes, the light of the screen scorching her eyes. She could only hear heavy breathing at first. Eerily quiet for her liking, preparing herself to just lock her phone and go back to sleep. Until a shaky voice came out, as if they were holding back their tears.
“Hello, t-this is Jiwoo. Kim Jiwoo. This is Jinsol unnie’s number, right?” Jinsol’s eyes widened in surprised, sitting up abruptly. Not minding how her husband groaned in his sleep, turning around to face the wall. “Uh, I got your number from your mom. I’m sorry for calling this late. Things have just been… very busy. U-uh,”
It sounded like she was on the verge of crying. Jinsol furrowed her eyebrows. Confused and bewildered beyond belief.
A beat passed.
“I just w-wanted to let you know that S-Sooyoung passed away earlier at 7 PM. I-I just thought that I h-have to let you know.” Jinsol could hear her crying now, could feel her biting her lips to prevent the sobs from breaking free. She heard her heave a long, long breath before speaking again, “…y-you can contact me through this number. Goodnight, unnie.”
The voice mail ends with a click.
What the fuck.
Her phone slipped out from her grasp. Not believing what she just heard as she stared blankly at the wall. It was absurd. That couldn’t be true, right? She slapped herself, the sound of palm against skin resonating through their bedroom. It hurts, but it might just be a sick and wicked dream and she’ll wake up soon. Another self-inflicted hit lands on her cheek, and another one, and another. One after another, as it slowly sunk in that this was reality. She wasn’t going to wake up anytime soon. Her mind starting to fill with statics at the realization. She wanted to scream but she couldn’t. The only thing that came out of her mouth was a series of incoherent whimpers. Her husband, who woke up in red alert, had to physically stop her from hurting herself, hugging her tightly and whispering words after words to calm her down. It didn’t work, her sobs only getting louder every time it slipped out from her lips.
It hurts. The air knocked out of her lungs, rendering her breathless as she clutches the man’s shirt, as if it was the only thing to anchor her. The oxygen replaced by liquid fire, burning on her chest as she heaves, fueling the dread on the pits of her stomach as she wails, her body begging her to stop. She couldn’t, not until she eventually fell asleep, the tiredness lulling her to slumber in her husband’s arms.
Sooyoung, again, slipped away from her just like that but this time with no means of coming back.
For days, she functioned as a robot. The news still not fully sinking in. But she kept in touch with Jiwoo, though. She couldn’t even imagine the pain the other was going through. The love of her life taken away from her just like that. In just one night and in just a blink of an eye.
It wasn’t as bad as first. Jiwoo explained. Sooyoung was just often tired, fatigue weighing her body down, but she still continued to work her shifts despite that. Jinsol didn’t think it was possible, but Sooyoung was Sooyoung, her drive stronger than anything else, going way beyond logical reasoning. Next was the bruises, scattered against her skin in patches. Hyejoo, their daughter, was the one who noticed it first. Of course, Jiwoo was worried, but Sooyoung assured her that maybe she just hit something. Hospitals could be so busy at times, rushing back and forth in the hallways, bumping into each other or the various equipment. So she shrugged it off hesitantly, nodding along. It didn’t help that Sooyoung had frequent nosebleeds, too.
Until, Sooyoung just collapsed in the middle of the driveway. Just right after she had kissed Jiwoo’s cheeks by the doorway, their little tradition before Sooyoung goes to work, or before they part for a day. It was leukemia, approaching the fatal stages, their family doctor diagnosed. It was still treatable, somehow. It was quite ironic. A doctor in the stead of the patient. It left Sooyoung heartbroken, forced to give up her duties to take up the proper treatment. That went on for months. Sooyoung never seemed to get any better, her condition only worsening as time passed by. Most of the time, she couldn’t even talk. She was just sleeping for hours on end, only waking up to only eat what little to no portion of food. Her weight drastically dropped, the bed almost engulfing her whole being as she laid there unresponsive, tubes and apparatus connected to her body. It broke Jiwoo to see her that way. The twinkle of her eyes diminishing into nothing but dull space, trying so hard to keep it open. Her once loud existence blending into the world’s constant chattering. Nothing to distinguish or differentiate herself as she turned into nothing but statics.
Then the inevitable came, Sooyoung never woke up. The line going flat as the continuous beep rang through their ears. It was silence after that, the nurses checking Sooyoung’s vitals without any words exchanged. Almost as if it was only for formalities. It was unspoken, but they knew that Sooyoung was a goner. Even Jiwoo knew that she would lose Sooyoung in the battle, but she still fought. Just because it was for Sooyoung, always defying all odds, usually on the last minute time crunch. But perhaps, the universe had other plans. Maybe the universe needed Sooyoung elsewhere. Sooyoung’s mother told her as they grieved. She wanted to believe it, wanted to convince herself but she needed Sooyoung too, so why can’t the universe let Sooyoung stay by her side? For fuck’s sake, they just got married. Why did it have to be Sooyoung? Sooyoung who was nothing but kind, standing up for those who couldn’t. Sooyoung who pursued to be a doctor despite her being impatient, despite her nothing close to being delicate. Just because she wanted to help people and just because she saw how cool doctors were in the movies.
But, still, Jiwoo saw it coming. She didn’t even have the energy to cry, but when Hyejoo tugged her shirt, asking what happened to her mommy with a pair of doe eyes— that’s when the dam broke. The sleepless nights, the emotional strain, and the way she tried to be strong for the three of them finally breaking her down. Unraveling her piece by piece as she sobbed on the hospital floor. How could she even explain the concept of life and death to a mere child? That sounded like Sooyoung’s job. Hyejoo was so, so young and it broke her even further when she realized that Sooyoung would never see Hyejoo grow up with her own eyes. It felt like everything was taken away from her— from them. Stripped off of everything just because of an illness. Just because they couldn’t see the symptoms early on. All their plans in the future, ambitions, and promises gone with the wind.
She just wanted to give up. Close her eyes, and maybe, in some sort of miracle, Sooyoung was there to wake her up with a fond smile across her lips, her voice soft from the sleepiness that accompanied it. And with Hyejoo in between, cuddling up against the both of them with quiet little snores.
But miracles are called miracles because they don’t happen.
So, she tried to explain through her meltdown. As best as she could between hiccups. She wanted to piece it as nice as possible, wanting to say that her other mommy was called by angels and other bullshit like that. But it was impossible. She couldn’t. Not when she’s hurting too. Sooyoung was dead and they couldn’t do anything about it. It was grim, but it was the truth. That’s what she told Hyejoo, hoping that she would understand.
Jiwoo expected Hyejoo to go into a full-blown sob, knowing how sensitive she was. But Hyejoo just went for a tight hug. But she could feel it, feel how the little girl’s tears were spilling from her eyes, staining her shirt.
“It’s okay. Don’t cry.”
She heard Hyejoo say, muffled against her chest. And she sobs, a long-drawn whimper escaping her lips. Because that was one of Sooyoung’s trademark lines. Always said in assurance and all the certainty in the world, enough to make you feel that everything will always work out and everything will be truly fine if you give it time.
She cupped Hyejoo’s cheeks, staring at the tear-stained baby face with fondness. She was almost a splitting image of Sooyoung. Almost the same habits, the same expressions, the same retorts and remarks when teased, constantly inducing Sooyoung and the little girl into a playful bicker. Sooyoung was gone, but a part of her soul resided inside Hyejoo.
She couldn’t give up. Because Sooyoung’s greatest gift was still here, in her arms, telling her that it’s going to be okay. Not today, but someday.
So she goes on with newfound strength.
Jinsol attended the funeral with a heavy heart. Of all the places she could have met Sooyoung again, it happened to be in a funeral— her funeral. She looked peaceful, at least. Dressed in white, her hands folded against her stomach as she laid there as if she was only sleeping. The service went by in a blink of an eye, and Jinsol found herself going home empty. Hollow as she leaned her head against the window, watching as the streetlights passed by. The only sound inside the car was Chaewon’s soft snores as she slept in the backseat. Oh, how she wished that Chaewon met Sooyoung in a different setting. The little angel would have adored Sooyoung with all her heart. She’s sure of that. Although, Chaewon seemed to develop a liking to Sooyoung’s daughter after they stuck to each other the whole day, being almost the same age. That’s enough for her, perhaps.
That takes them to today. A month after the funeral. Jiwoo had called her early in the morning while she was convincing Chaewon to eat her breakfast. The woman had asked her if they could meet up. She agreed, also asking if she could bring Hyejoo with her per Chaewon’s request.
So here they were. In the playground where Sooyoung and Jinsol met ages ago. Their daughters playing in the sandbox as they sat on the bench. Both in a comforting silence as they bathe in the sun, taking in everything.
“Thank you for coming, Jinsol unnie.” Jiwoo says, disrupting the silence. “I appreciate it a lot.”
“It’s nothing.” Jinsol shrugs, flashing an assuring smile. “Chaewon wanted to see Hyejoo, too. How are you holding up?”
“I’m doing good.” Jiwoo replies, yet Jinsol doubts it. But she doesn’t say anything, only offering a sympathetic smile. “Honestly, Hyejoo is handling the situation better than I am.” Jiwoo smiles, a little bit strained. “She’s surprisingly a tough kid.”
Just like Sooyoung.
Again, there was a momentary silence. Jinsol watches Chaewon and Hyejoo running around, the wood chips crunching under their shoes. The scene so familiar and close to home. It makes her heart ache a little.
“You were Sooyoung’s first love,” Jiwoo starts, playing with the frills of her dress. Jinsol’s eyes widen, prying her attention away from Chaewon who was trying to climb the monkey bars with Hyejoo. Jiwoo elicits a soft laughter at her reaction, finally getting her answers from that alone. “I guess I’m right then,”
Jinsol blinks in confusion, her brain malfunctioning at the information. At first, it’s only as if someone had splashed her with a bucket of icy water. But when she remembers the years that passed by, it felt like someone pushed her into the freezing waters, the sudden plunge drowning her and pricking her skin with needles. Sooyoung seem to have a habit of taking her breath away.
All this time, it wasn’t one-sided, after all. She wants to laugh. It’s sounds so absurd and so, so stupid now.
“You didn’t have a clue.” Jiwoo hums to herself, looking at the distance. She pauses, as if she was contemplating, as if she was still finding the right words. “I think she might appreciate it if I gave this to you.” Jiwoo continues, before fishing something out of her purse, rummaging for a moment until she finds it. She hands it to Jinsol.
It was two envelopes.
Jinsol purses her lips together, holding it with shaky fingers.
It was addressed to her. The other one looked like it was hidden inside a cabinet for years, the paper thinning out and becoming dull. Although, the navy blue envelope seemed recent, her name written in a much more cleaner way. Still, she recognized Sooyoung’s handwriting.
“Sooyoung wrote that one a few months ago.” Jiwoo informs her as she continues to stare at the navy blue envelope. “A day after she got admitted. She started writing a bunch of letters. I got mad at her,” Jiwoo chuckles, yet the pain was evident at the way her face contorts. “Because it seemed like she gave up at the thought of getting better. It was like she was already writing her last will because she knows she wouldn’t make it.”
Jinsol only nods, biting her lower lips as she held the letters against her chest. As if she’s scared that the wind would take it away from her, slipping away from her grasp and never to be seen again.
“Everyday, she wished that she could see you again,” Jiwoo looks up at the sky, “Even if she didn’t say it out loud, I can tell that she did. I can feel it in my guts.”
“I’m sorry.” Jinsol feels her eyes prickling with tears, but she holds it back.
“Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not doubting her love,” Jiwoo smiles softly, letting the soft breeze graze through her hair. “I know that Sooyoung loved me. She never failed to make me feel that, even on her last days. Even now that’s she’s gone, I can still feel it.” Her gaze drifts to Hyejoo, draping on the monkey bars as Chaewon giggles at her from below. Sooyoung’s love is still here, but in another form.
Jiwoo looks at Jinsol again, as if she was trying to find something inside of Jinsol’s eyes. And, she finds it pretty easily, like it was already plastered on the other’s face. It was mutual. Jinsol loved Sooyoung, too. The softness of her smile was still painted as she tucks the loose strands of her hair on the back of her ears. “But I’ve always wondered if you could have made her happier.”
Jinsol, taken aback, stays silent. Still shell-shocked, lips parting only to purse it again when her words dies down before she could even utter it. She just wants to cry, but what would her tears even mean? She doesn’t even know why she wants to cry in the first place. It’s all so overwhelming. And as mean as it is, she wants to go back in time and punch Sooyoung straight on her jaws for never confessing to her back then. They were just waiting for each other, waiting for something to happen without taking the plunge. She feels the need to look at the other letter, the one that feels like it had years poured on it. It was a dull baby blue envelope, cartoonish stickers littered on it.
Written in a way that Jinsol instantly knew that a younger Sooyoung had written it with a pen that she stole from one of her classmates. Typical Sooyoung. She smiles, broken in more ways than one. This was from her Sooyoung. Long-haired, babyish face, bunny-like smile. The Sooyoung that was suspended in time inside their shared world. The Sooyoung that promised that in ten years time, they would still be friends because Jinsol couldn’t live without her. And maybe, she was right, after all. Losing the hand that held hers as she figured out the world with a pair of childish eyes, and never finding it again through the density of the crowd was one thing. It hurts, yes, but she knew Sooyoung was out there, enjoying life as it is, even if they were apart from each other. That thought made it bearable. But the fact that Sooyoung was completely gone now, and she never had the chance to find her and feel the warmth of her hands again even for a split second, makes the golden engravings that she left on the side of her heart burn.
She was my first love, too. Jinsol wants to say, with what’s left of her heart and all the little bits scattered, with the entirety of her soul. She wants to utter it out loud, hoping that it might reach Sooyoung, wherever she might be. But Chaewon shrieks comes first, her lithe voice piercing through the air, making her jump from her seat. She panics immediately, almost dropping the letter. It startles Jiwoo, too. She scouts the whole playground with her eyes, her eyebrows arcing in worry.
That’s when she sees it. Hyejoo on top of her daughter, because Hyejoo had fell from the monkey bars and into a shocked Chaewon’s arms. They pause for a moment, before Hyejoo broke into fits of giggle, standing up and dusting herself off. She offers her hand to help Chaewon’s back to her feet, and Chaewon takes it with hesitance. Hyejoo grins when she does.
And Jinsol doesn’t know if her brain is playing games with her but she sees a little Sooyoung, helping a little Jinsol because she fell from the slides after a boy had pushed her. She sees herself taking the hand that would lead her into a world that she, herself, didn’t know that she wanted to live in. She sees a glimpse of Sooyoung’s grin after she ripped her shirt, wrapping it around her head in a clumsy way. And she hears Sooyoung asking her name as they walked back home, never letting go of her hand since they left the playground. And she finally, finally cries after holding it back since earlier.
Sooyoung will always be her first love. A love that didn’t have the chance to flourish because of childish fears, because of useless uncertainty and doubts, and because they tried to save both their feelings and friendship, when they could have gotten both all along.
That fucking sucks.
Jinsol wails, covering her eyes because her tears won’t just stop. And Jiwoo, ever the angel that she is, engulfs her in a warm and tight hug, rubbing her back in a soothing motion. She holds Jiwoo close to her, crying on the crook of her neck, her chest heaving with every attempt to catch her breath. Jiwoo then rakes her finger through Jinsol’s hair as she shushes her softly in an attempt to calm her down, and for a moment, it felt like time had stilled, and she’s back at fifteen, because instead of Jiwoo’s hands, she felt Sooyoung’s ones, calming her down like she always does. It felt like she was back in their own little world, where she could be vulnerable and fragile to the touch.
“괜찮아, 울지 마.”
And perhaps, those words were enough for her to finally leave that world behind. Because, in a sudden realization, she made it to where she was standing right now without Sooyoung holding her hand every step of the way. Yes, Sooyoung was still right that Jinsol couldn’t live without her, but she’s sure that Sooyoung doesn’t want her to stop living just because she wasn’t there to witness it anymore, too.
So she goes on, with two pieces of Sooyoung in her hand, in a form of her writings. It was specifically just for her. Perhaps, that was enough.
After they went home, she retreats to the privacy of her personal office, sitting on the swivel chair. She sighs deeply, staring at the letters on the wooden desk. Decidedly, she opens the baby blue envelope slowly, careful not to tear it apart. She unfolds the letter. It was in a stationary paper, littered with apples. She smiles fondly.
“Jinsol,” It starts. The handwriting seemed to be as if Sooyoung was trying hard to make it look presentable as much as she could.
“Hello! Ah, this is so lame, writing like this when I could just say it personally in front of you. It makes me look uncool, but bear with me for a bit. If you received this letter, it means that you’re jealous of Kim Jiwoo, even for a tiny bit. It sounds stupid, right? Just put it this way, if you did glare at me, then that means that our feelings can be mutual. But, if you didn’t, that means I should just move on and respect our friendship. It still sounds stupid, right?”
Jinsol wants to laugh, leaning her head against the chair. So that’s what it was all about. It really was stupid. She wants to get mad at Sooyoung for being so illogical, but Sooyoung was Sooyoung. Her thinking was way beyond the box, even Jinsol couldn’t keep up sometimes.
“I saw it in a movie, and it seemed to work because the protagonist got the girl at the end. I know, I know, you’re probably thinking that reality is way different from the movies if you read this, but just remember how many times we got out of trouble because of it.”
Jinsol continues reading, memories of them getting detention for the silliest antics, even if they were both from different class, resurfacing. Come to think of it, Sooyoung used to convince their teachers to just let them go home, and it always worked without fail. It must be her natural charm, Jinsol believes.
She takes a glance of the next line, pausing for a bit, scared that it may overwhelm her again but she swallows whatever fear was trying to overrule her.
“Jinsol, I like you. I really do. I didn’t know how it started, too. But remember when we had a shared PE class together where we had to dance with a partner? I hope you do. I was just sitting there, watching you dance with a boy from your class. I didn’t know why but it irked me that he was holding you by your waist, and I thought, what if I was your partner? What would it feel to hold you that close? What would it feel to have your arms loop around my neck as I sway you side by side? Ah, that sounds so lame.”
Jinsol purses her lips together. She wonders if all along, the thin air that Sooyoung always danced with was suppose to be her spot. A spot reserved for her, where Sooyoung imagined the both of them in each other’s arms. Where she would hum a tune as Sooyoung swayed her, slowly, just enjoying the presence of each other.
“Of course, I had my doubts at first, maybe I was just being weird because I didn’t eat my breakfast that day, and Momo was gushing over this girl named Mina from your class, maybe it got to me somehow. But when I saw you watching me dance from across my window, I realized that I’ve always liked you, even if I was so embarrassed that you caught me.”
Oh, it was at the same time that Jinsol realized her feelings, too. What a timing. It was somehow funny. How the universe aligned them just like that, setting them up. But just on the opposite side of each other. Again, just like parallel lines. Never meeting, never colliding.
“Jinsol, I think that you’re my first love. Cliché, isn’t it? You’re probably laughing right now. But that’s how I truly feel, and it’s the truth. When you read this letter, tell me how you honestly feel about me, okay?”
Love, Sooyoung. It says on the end of the letter. And she wishes, wishes that she could have gotten a chance to read the letter years ago, wishes that a younger Jinsol could have replied with the crumpled letter that she wrote for nights on end.
A beat passes.
She sighs heavily, placing the letter inside the envelope again. She feels tired. Mentally and emotionally. She feels it straining but she wants to push through. This was the answer to her questions. And there was still one letter, after all. So, as she holds her breath, she opens it. Unfolding a part of the paper, welcomed by a much more cleaner handwriting. More mature, more precise. This was from the real Sooyoung. The one that grew up, the one that went on to discover the world.
“Jinsol,” It greets again.
“How long has it been? It feels like it’s been centuries ago since we met at that playground. How nostalgic. I’ll get straight to the point now. I love you, Jinsol. I wished that I had told you when I still had the chance. I, truly, genuinely, sincerely love you. You were my first love. Always will be. As I write this, I feel like I’m already on my deathbed, so I wanted to say everything. I’m sick, Jinsol. It sucks. It sounds so uncool, right? You probably think that I’m lame.”
Sooyoung still sounded like Sooyoung. Still so cheeky. She chuckles, ignoring the tears that were starting to well up.
“I asked the heavens for a sign. If Jinsol doesn’t attend my wedding, then it’s decided. It really wasn’t meant to happen. You didn’t. I know it sounds stupid to rely on signs and all that crap, but it works. Most of the time. In a way, I was relieved. So, so relieved. That means I could finally let go of my what ifs and could have been because there wasn’t something in the first place. Honestly, I was scared that you were going to show up. I would have questioned everything.”
Jinsol forgets how to breathe for a second, but she doesn’t seem to mind. Still so fixated on reading what Sooyoung has written. She continues to unfold the paper as she does.
“Just like that one time. When you caught me the second time dancing in my room. I still don’t know why you cried so hard that night. But at that moment, I felt like our feelings might have been mutual all along, and it scared the shit out of me. I’m sorry if I didn’t have the guts to show up again, even at your wedding. When Jiwoo entered my room that night, I started feeling a sense of dread deep within me. As if I’m caught red-handed. I didn’t want to hurt Jiwoo just because of the uncertainty at my part.”
“A part of me wants to go back in time and do things differently. Like in the movies, where the main protagonist goes back in time because she couldn’t get the girl. But a huge part of me thanks the universe because I didn’t force anything. Because everything that happened led me to great places, and into Jiwoo and Hyejoo’s arms, the greatest love that the world can offer me in this lifetime. You taught me the love of letting go, but Jiwoo taught me the love of staying. I’m thankful for the both of you, always. Life would have been so different if I haven’t met the two of you. So at least, I could say that I lived a happy life and I have memories to take with me.”
Her breath hitches, opening the last fold, revealing a picture of both of them from a photo booth dated years ago. The negative also attached on the paper. They were so, so young. Tears started flowing down her cheeks and to the paper as she reads the last paragraph. Her heart breaking but also mending at the same time.
“Hey, Jung Jinsol, do you believe in different lifetimes? I hope you do, because I’ll be waiting for you in the next one. I can at least promise you that. Maybe in that one, the universe would let it happen. But until then, live your life to the fullest and without regrets. See you later.”
Love always, Sooyoung. It ends.
She holds the letter by her chest as she sobs, the tremors racking through her body as she sat there, clenching the letter with quivering fingers.
“Fuck you, Ha Sooyoung.” Jinsol whimpers under her breath, trying to wipe her tears but it continues to stain her cheeks. “F-fuck you. I fucking hate you. Do you hear me up there?” She hiccups, looking at their picture as if she was talking to Sooyoung, disregarding the fact that she might sound and look crazy. “I hope you do. I hope you know how fucking lame you are, and I hope they kick you out of h-heaven,”
She strangles on a wet sob.
“I l-love you too, you idiot.” Her voice comes out in a whine. “So much. So, so much.”
Oh, how she wishes that she could have said it in front of Sooyoung’s face, but it doesn’t matter now. Because even if she didn’t get the chance to, it was a fact that she loves Sooyoung. With all of her heart, with all of her being, with everything that she could offer. It doesn’t matter if there’s two different Sooyoung residing inside her heart. One that she knows so deeply, and one that she only had a glimpse of. It doesn’t matter, nothing matters when the golden engravings on the side of her heart was still there.
Sooyoung will always be her first love. Nothing could change that. No matter how much time wasted, no matter how much they pushed each other away, no matter how noisy the world’s chattering becomes— she will always love Sooyoung.
Until the next lifetime, then.
Jinsol supposes, folding the letter.