In Yoonji’s defense, she’s trying to be better. She’s trying to be kinder and more open-hearted, even if it doesn’t always come across. She’s trying to talk about how she feels.
For example, she’s gotten very good at telling Hoseok what she wants, in lots of different situations. She can tell him when she needs to go home, or when she wants to go out, or when she’s had a stressful day and needs to just be quiet. And she’s getting better at other things. She doesn’t cringe when he looks at her naked body anymore, so that is progress. It feels more romantic than it sounds.
She’s really trying. It takes all her energy. She’s crying all the time lately, and taking things personally. But she’s also feeling better than usual, and laughing more easily, and feeling more strongly about things. Opening herself to anything is opening herself to everything; she already knew this.
Yoonji is not perfect yet. She doesn’t know if she’ll ever be brave enough to do certain things, like walking alone after dark, attending a high school reunion, or breaking her silence with Mina. She wants to, but knowing that the friendship rests in her hands to nurture or let die makes it terrifying.
She wants to talk to Mina. More and more, she thinks it’s stupid that they’re fighting. She thinks about how much Mina has been there for her. How she’s always been patient and kind. She keeps thinking about something she misremembered on purpose: that when Yoonji came out, Mina wanted to stay together.
Yoonji hasn’t told anyone that. She hasn’t specifically lied, but it feels wrong to say so plainly. She words it like, “It just didn’t make sense for us to keep dating,” and, “Mina has been very supportive.”
But supportive isn’t really the right word. Mina was more than that. With no time to adjust, with no warning, she was selflessly kind. She cried when Yoonji came out to her, and then she apologized for crying and said it was only because she was surprised, and worried for Yoonji, and then she said she didn’t know what it meant for them.
“We need to break up,” Yoonji said, still crying, but a little condescending.
But Mina begged. She said, “I can be here with you.”
“That wouldn’t be fair to either of us,” Yoonji said. She thought it was the diplomatic thing to say, but it was just mean. Saying the words that she thought Mina should hear and giving her none of the truth. In her defense, she had just given Mina the biggest, ugliest truth of her life.
Mina was graceful about that, too. “Whatever you need,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks as Yoonji laced up her sneakers and got ready to go home. “If you need anything from me. If there’s anything I can do. I love you, you know?”
Yoonji said, “Thank you,” and left. She didn’t say I love you too, because she didn’t think she did.
When Mina came back into Yoonji’s life, she was unembarrassing as ever. She messaged Yoonji out of the blue that she missed her, that she thought about her every day, that she wasn’t angry and that she wanted to catch up. I hope things have been excellent for you, she sent.
She relentlessly understood. In their relationship, at the end of their relationship, in their new friendship. Everything. No wonder she was finally angry at the end. Yoonji was a jerk for years and had the nerve to be surprised when Mina called her on it. She had the nerve to expect more from someone who was also just trying to live her life the best she could. Yoonji should have seen that earlier.
It’s a painful perspective, to know that she’s been guilty every time this has happened, and that good relationships have always eluded her because she’s always been rude to the people who want to love her. All it has taken for her to have a good relationship with Hoseok has been to try to hold him close, even when it’s hard. That’s all. She just has to keep facing it when she’s stressed out. Yoonji and Mina never opened up to one another. They never tried to talk about pleasure, or what scared them. They were very present. Yoonji never felt a lot of pressure to talk about her past, or her secrets, which is why that relationship worked when it did and also why it stopped working.
Yoonji has been a lot worse to Mina than she deserved. She’s too sorry to reach out, even though she needs to. Even though Mina doesn’t deserve to keep taking this on.
She thinks about it a lot. She thinks about it more and more, for days and days. She types a message but never sends it. She even tells Namjoon about it, and he makes her promise that she will. He says that he always liked Mina, that he thinks she’s “a real one.” Yoonji still doesn’t do it.
Finally, one afternoon, Mina must either reach the end of her frustration or sense that Yoonji is thinking of her, because Yoonji checks her phone while Hoseok is in the bathroom and sees a new message.
Hey yoonj. Been thinking of you.
Was i harsh?
hi mina. you weren ’t.
Okay. do you want to hang out soon?
I miss you.
I miss you too.
First, they meet for coffee and catch up. It’s been months, and it’s weird. They don’t know what to say. It’s hard to be normal, because nothing has ever been normal for them. So they meet at a coffee shop and talk until they’re tired.
Mina talks about her promotion at her job, says that she and Jaebum are moving in together at the end of the summer. Mina looks great, she changed her hair. It’s longer, and she’s growing out her bangs. She looks ironed, professional, like she has her shit together. Yoonji wonders if she herself has grown up at all. The deeper she digs, the more she feels like a teenager who never get over the small stuff. But maybe that feeling is adulthood.
Mina is so understanding and such a patient listener, and for the first time, Yoonji sees that this is what she has always been like. She has always understood past the point of her own comfort. And that is really sad, and something Yoonji never really understood or saw until now. In response to nothing in particular, Yoonji says, “I’m sorry.”
“You’re okay,” says Mina earnestly, reaching her hand across the table to put on top of Yoonji’s. An old habit that Yoonji used to see as overly romantic and sort of inappropriate, but that now she can see is only meant to be warm. She turns her hand palm-up to hold Mina’s better. So small, so small in hers. She tries not to think about that.
“It’s been… overwhelming,” says Yoonji to the table.
“You’ve done a lot for me.”
“You’ve gone through a lot.”
“You don’t have to be selfless.”
“Sometimes,” admits Mina, “With you, I do.”
Yoonji just looks at her for a minute. Her lips are tight. She blinks. She says, “I’m gonna be better about that.”
For some reason, the first time they hang out, Yoonji doesn’t mention Hoseok. Even though she goes straight to his house from her meetup with Mina, takes a walk with him as the sun goes down, falls asleep in his arms. It feels like a secret, even though it shouldn’t. Maybe she thinks Mina will be upset.
The second time they meet up, it’s easier, like they got through the icky parts and now they know how to act like friends. They walk circles around a shady park with a pond in the middle, and then Mina gets them both ice cream. While they’re sitting on a curb in a neighborhood that isn’t theirs, in weather that’s starting to become really friendly, Yoonji says, “So, I have a boyfriend.” It comes out so quiet, but stays in the air for a long moment.
Mina looks over at her. “You do?” she says, garbled around ice cream. Then, like she understood the words a little late, she makes a shocked face. Her pretty eyes go round, her cheeks perk up from behind her cake cone. Yoonji smiles, a glowy little thing that happens when she thinks about him, and nods.
Yoonji hides her face a little.
“Oh my god, Yoonji. You little sneak. You have to tell me all about him. Right now.”
So, on the curb, the air smelling like rain, smelling like Hoseok, she talks about him. “He is… a good person,” she says at first, thinking about everything all at once. She tries to pull out something small. “He’s kind.” That sounds stupid, too.
“Do you have a picture?”
Of course that’s what she thinks of first, but Yoonji knew this about Mina. She’s not shallow, she just won’t understand what he’s like until she has an image to tie him to. “I do, actually,” says Yoonji softly.
She scrolls to the photo she had in mind, from a harebrained hike in the hills when it was still objectively too cold to be outside. Yoonji had pulled out her phone to take a picture of the view, but the front camera pulled up instead. Hoseok made an excited noise, pressed his cheek to hers and grinned. In the photo, he looks so happy, lighthearted, and she’s grimacing. Yoonji likes it because Hoseok looks like himself, his old peach-colored hair falling in his eyes, his cheeks shiny and flushed. He looks almost as alive here as in real life. His face is blurry.
Yoonji shows the picture to Mina, and Mina takes her phone away and zooms in on Hoseok’s face. His eyes, squinched up, and then his nose, and then his wide, bright smile. She says, “That’s your boyfriend?”
“Don’t act so surprised,” says Yoonji, to her knees. She’s blushing because it surprises her, too. He is a really beautiful person.
“He’s hot,” says Mina. “He looks sweet.”
He is, and he is. Yoonji’s smiling at her legs, her sheer black tights and her bones. Mina doesn’t sound upset at all. She sounds happy for Yoonji. She says, “I’d love to meet him sometime, if you ever. I don’t know. We could do a double date or something. I feel like you might like Jaebum if you gave him a chance.”
On the curb with Mina, eating their ice cream in the middle of spring, Yoonji nods without making eye contact and says, “Yeah. Yeah, I think so. I’ll have to ask, but I think so.”
Yoonji asks Hoseok, and he says yes just like she knew he would. He is down for anything, and he likes going outside with Yoonji. He likes being seen with her, which she doesn’t think will ever not make a little part of her feel very special. He is admittedly a little apprehensive about hanging out with Yoonji’s ex, but she tries to console him.
“It’s been a really long time since we thought of each other like that,” she tells him. “We’ve both changed a lot.” Not just me. “She’s moving in with her boyfriend soon, I think they’ve been dating a year? Almost a year. It’s serious. I promise it’s like, not a thing.”
“Cool,” says Hoseok. He doesn’t look totally convinced, but he trusts her enough to leave it there. Yoonji thinks his wariness is sort of cute, even if it makes no sense.
They make a plan to meet with Mina and Jaebum, and after they confirm the day, Hoseok says nonchalantly, “Thanks for introducing me to all your friends.”
“Of course,” she says. He’s a part of her life now. She’s proud of him, except in the small moments when she’s embarrassed to be seen with someone who shines so much more brightly than she does. But even then she wants him to know her friends, because she wants him beside her all the time.
And, Yoonji isn’t totally selfish. As easy with people as Hoseok is, as quickly as he makes friends, she knows he’s a little lonely. He plays it down a lot because he doesn’t like to look sad, but Yoonji is starting to notice.
“When I left,” he told her once as they walked to the pizza place close to his house, “I thought I was gonna take a break from my church people for three months. I was gonna let the air clear and figure some stuff out, but I never really planned to ditch forever. But I have to, I mean, obviously. Sometimes I think about it and it seems like some Wizard of Oz nonsense. Like I keep meeting all these new kinds of people, and every one is another stretch of this crazy journey away from all the things I was raised to believe. Thinking about talking to my old friends is kind of disgusting now. I wouldn’t be able to just stand there anymore while they made gay jokes and like, degraded women. Should have learned sooner.”
It’s so foreign to Yoonji. She’s been online since middle school and she doesn’t remember a time in her life when she didn’t comfortably accept that gay and trans people spent time in the same places that she did. She’s known everything forever, it feels like. She’s been frustrated by gay jokes since people started using them on her, when they were all too young to know what the words even meant, except that being called them was really bad and embarrassing. Unfortunately, Hoseok’s old church friends are probably the same people who taught her young that those kinds of words didn’t apply to good people.
“It’s really lucky for me that you’re not like those guys anymore,” she told him.
He let go of her hand to press the crosswalk button, then he grabbed it again. “I should have learned sooner,” he said again. “Anyway. Good people or not, I have always had a lot of people. So it’s scary to only have a few now.”
Yoonji is happy to share her people with Hoseok. She doesn’t have very many, but they are all very, very good, which is probably better than a lot of mediocre ones.
Hoseok and Tae have bonded very quickly, which Yoonji loves. It took her by surprise at first, but they have something very intrinsic in common. The color of their aura is the same, which isn’t something Yoonji would ever sincerely say, but is something both Tae and Hoseok would definitely say. It’s summer-afternoon sunbeam gold, the kind of light that makes Yoonji want to take a nap.
Hoseok and Jimin are getting close too, which Yoonji never expected. At best, she thought they would one day tolerate each other, but she never thought Jimin would accept any boy that Yoonji liked. Jimin’s ideas about how Yoonji should be treated are too strict; it’s impossible for anyone to be good enough for her. But if no one can be good enough, the next best thing is probably striving to be. Jimin seems to like Hoseok because he’s trying really hard, and probably also because he treats her like the queen of the house. Yoonji’s impressed by how hard he tries, too. Hoseok’s heart is so right that even when he messes up, it’s okay.
Like, it wasn’t very long ago that he told her he wanted her to meet his sister. He told her, “I really think you’ll like her and her wife.”
“Suran, right?” she said. Now that Yoonji knew that Namjoon’s cousin was a woman, she remembered meeting Suran once, in college. Suran came to town and stayed with Namjoon for a weekend, when he was moving into his first off-campus apartment. Yoonji hadn’t transitioned yet. “I met her once.”
“Cool,” said Hoseok, a little anxiously. “That’s actually good, because, I sort of told my sister about you.”
“About me?” Yoonji said flatly. That never meant, I told her you were funny or I told her you dress well and care about your friends or I told her you write. It meant one thing, always. I told her about you. I told her what you are.
“That you’re trans,” he said. “She’s my best friend, and it came up, I guess.”
And Yoonji, more angrily than she needed to be with someone who was trying his hardest, said, “She was gonna find out anyway. If it came up, it came up. Don’t be weird about it.”
“I…” Hoseok stalled. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Yoonji said, lying.
“I wasn’t trying to be weird. I just didn’t want to lie. It’s your thing to talk about with people. I felt guilty for telling her.”
“I don’t care who you tell,” she said. “I’m not hiding it.” Are you?
“Then…” said Hoseok, “why are you mad?”
She looked up at him, and they locked eyes, and Yoonji suddenly felt the way she was holding her face. Her eyes were narrow and her nostrils were flared and her mouth was set tight. She was tipping her chin up, challenging him. She softened her expression on purpose and said, “Because.”
He kept looking at her.
“I don’t know,” she said finally.
“Okay,” said Hoseok. “Let me know if you think of it.”
Then she wasn’t mad at him anymore, just at herself for being so easy to freak out, and it helped to hold his hand.
They’re meeting each other’s people. They’re in each others’ spaces, they’re spending their nights together. Yoonji usually needs a lot of space, but she hasn’t wanted it from Hoseok yet. Maybe someday, but she still wants him poured over her like warm water. She wants to be covered in him, she wants his smell on her. She wants him in every corner of her life.
Their double date with Mina and Jaebum is on a Thursday at a crowded bar where a friend of Jaebum’s works. They squeeze around a table, and Jaebum says, “Let’s get a bunch of appetizers to share?”
“Hoseok’s vegetarian,” says Yoonji, right as Hoseok says, “Sorry, I’m vegetarian.” Mina laughs.
“No problem,” says Jaebum. “Let’s just do like, fries and mozzarella sticks. And pickles. Cool?”
“Sure,” says Hoseok amicably.
Jaebum and Hoseok both order beer, Mina orders a whiskey sour, and Yoonji orders a red wine. When the glasses come, Yoonji and Mina cheers them, then Hoseok and Jaebum cheers theirs, then they all cheers.
Everyone seems comfortable. Mina is happy to be here, and Jaebum is a lot more charming and goofy than Yoonji gave him credit for, and Hoseok is great with people. It’s the ideal situation for Yoonji: she doesn’t need to talk much, but she keeps doing it anyway, just because she keeps having things to say.
She has some fries and finishes her wine and leans back in her seat as Jaebum and Hoseok have a conversation about camping that feels inaccessibly masculine. Jaebum says, “My sleeping bag’s negative ten, man,” and Mina looks at Yoonji like, boys.
Yoonji just curls up in that. That warm feeling from the wine in her veins and the way Hoseok talks to a boy differently than he talks to her, how Yoonji isn’t a part of it, how she and Mina are getting along, how Hoseok throws his arm around her shoulder and whispers in her ear, “You good, baby?”
She nods, and he kisses the top of her head, and she melts. This is her life. The easy life she gets to have. A night out with her boyfriend and another straight couple. A kiss on the head. A sweet boy who calls her baby. She never thought she’d be so satisfied by this kind of normalcy. She never really wanted it before.
It’s so nice. Yoonji and Mina keep making each other laugh, like in the best parts of their relationship, except better, because now they’re the friends they were probably always supposed to be. Hoseok’s arm settles behind Yoonji’s back and stays there. As he gets up to go to the bathroom, he presses a kiss to her temple. Yoonji’s warm and she keeps smiling. Mina holds out her hand across the table for Yoonji, and Yoonji takes it, and Mina squeezes. Like she’s so happy to see Yoonji happy. Yoonji thinks, everything I’ve ever been scared of has been stupid. There’s never been anything to worry about.
After they leave, when they’re walking to the bus stop to go back to Yoonji’s apartment, she tells Hoseok, “That was really nice.”
“It was,” says Hoseok, so easy. “I like them a lot. Sorry for being worried about Mina and you, I didn’t really know what to expect.”
“It means a lot,” she starts, but her voice is weak, so she clears her throat. “That I’m normal to you.”
Hoseok sighs. Sucks his lips in for a second, pensive, still looking ahead as they walk to the bus stop. Then he says, “I know it means a lot to you, but I’m not really doing it on purpose.”
“I know,” she says. “That’s why it’s special.”
“Okay,” he says. “Well, I feel weird taking credit for that.”
Hoseok leans over to bump shoulders with her. Yoonji leans over to bump shoulders again. She says, “I’m sorry I act like such a freak all the time.”
Hoseok shrugs. “I understand it. You’re good.” He says, “You’re easy to be around.”
“Means a lot,” says Yoonji again, even though she knows he isn’t doing it on purpose.
At home, to Jimin, she says, “Am I like, betraying my people?”
“What people would you be betraying?” asks Jimin, who is baking a cake just because, wearing a shirt of Tae’s with her hair in a high ponytail. She honestly gets more beautiful every time Yoonji looks at her.
Yoonji says, “Well, I mean, isn’t it, like, backwards? Shouldn’t I be above wanting to fit in with straight people?”
Jimin says, “You are not the person who needs to worry about that.”
“Why not?” says Yoonji. She’s exactly the kind of person who should be worrying about that. She’s the kind of person who knows better.
“You don’t get to just go out,” Jimin says, gesturing with her wooden spoon. “You always have to go out with your walls up. It’s not like, your job, to get used to being stared at, and expect that, and seek it out. It’s everyone else’s job to make the world easier for you. You’re doing enough already.” She licks the spoon, and before she swallows, she says, “You’re allowed.”
Yoonji nods, and then she says, because she can’t help it, because this perspective is huge for Jimin, “You and Tae made up, huh?”
Jimin nods, and then looks away quickly. “Yes,” she says. “We won’t be able to stay in love if I can’t meet them halfway. I mean, we’ll stay in love, but we’ll make each other miserable. Or, it’ll be mostly me, making them miserable.” She sets her spoon down and leans against the counter next to Yoonji, and then she thinks for a minute, and then she says, “I’m trying to untangle everything.”
This is a lot for Jimin to talk about. Yoonji tries to make a gesture that tells her she appreciates the trust, that it’s not lost on her, but she ends up just sort of grabbing at the air. She swallows. “I appreciate the trust.”
“You’re my sister,” says Jimin, then, “I have to get real about this stuff. It’s what Tae deserves from me. It doesn’t matter that it’s hard, you know? I just have to do it. This is my life, so it just has to be my life. And Tae is my soulmate, so we have to coexist. And I don’t ever want to make them cry again.”
Yoonji says, “Mm,” to give Jimin a chance to go on, but she doesn’t. She goes back to making her cake, and eventually, Yoonji wanders back to her room, and she lets herself feel normal until she falls asleep.
Yoonji used to live alone. Her apartment was quiet and dark, and she’d only invite people over when she thought she wanted to be seen, which was almost never, of course. She kept her apartment almost too clean, curtains always drawn, hardly any food in the pantry or the fridge. Even when she tried to make it her own, it felt generic, like a hotel suite.
There is a kind of peace in that. In everything having its right place, in complete control over your space. It’s predictable and inoffensive. It adds no stress to your life. Yoonji has always craved order like that, and she felt that living in an apartment where the furniture lined up with the grain of the floor was good for her.
Now, Yoonji’s apartment is full.
First of all, she’s been having Hoseok over all the time. They haven’t slept apart more than twice a week in over a month, and it turns out that Yoonji’s space is just a little bit more comfortable for them to share than Hoseok’s. Hoseok has the bigger bed, but Yoonji’s is softer, and her blankets are fluffier. That’s more important than having more space, since they sleep so close and neither of them are very big anyway. Hoseok has not left anything at Yoonji’s house yet, except a shirt once by accident, but his presence stays, even if she’s the only one who notices. His smell sticks to her bed, and the light that comes through her blinds in stripes lands on her bedsheets even when Hoseok isn’t there to catch it.
The biggest presence in Yoonji’s house is Jimin, who leaves a lot of debris in her wake. Bags, shirts, makeup, cups and plates on end tables, shoes, perfume smells, dishes on the rack in the kitchen, leftovers in the fridge, lone socks, overfull trash cans. For someone who tends to look almost airbrushed, she is surprisingly messy. But it’s because she can relax at home; she doesn’t have to worry so much about looking put-together. That’s what she told Yoonji once, sheepishly picking up the pieces of the outfit she shed in the living room the previous day. Ever since, Yoonji has wondered if the meticulous way she’s always kept her own space is due to never having found a way to relax: not at home, not in her body, nowhere. To test that, Yoonji took off a dress and left it crumpled at the foot of her bed for most of a week. It didn’t feel great, but she didn’t think about it unless she was looking at it, so she thinks she might be really good at relaxing now.
Part of having Jimin around is also having Pumpkin around. He takes up his own space, he’s loud and he gets hair on all of Yoonji’s black clothes and he has more toys than any other cat in the world, partly because Tae can’t stop lavishing gifts on him. Even when Yoonji says it’s fine, Pumpkin is fine, the fluffy mouse per square-foot ratio is perfect as-is, they’ll come back the next week with another one, like they can’t stop.
They do that with Jimin, too. They just bring her stuff. Flowers. Hair accessories, scrunchies. Notebooks. Coffee mugs. Yoonji would think it was cute, but the apartment honestly already has enough stuff in it without Tae bringing Jimin every cute oven mitt and succulent that makes them think of her.
Tae has a key now, so they’re over all the time. If they were anyone else, and if Yoonji loved Jimin any less, and if Yoonji wasn’t also having her person over every night, it would bug her. If it were three years ago, two, she’d be terribly uncomfortable. It would feel like somebody was getting their fingers all over her stuff. She wouldn’t trust her spatulas to be clean anymore. But it’s Tae, so it’s nice.
Yoonji’s learning that allowing herself to be surrounded by people who love her is a good thing. Even if they’re messy, even if they give their partners keys without technically asking, even if they laugh and sing at one in the morning on weeknights sometimes, even if they drag her from her den of darkness to feed her when she’s alone. That’s not an intrusion, it’s love. It’s warmth that people are supposed to need from one another to survive, and figuring out how to live cold and alone never made Yoonji much stronger after all.
Jimin may have given Tae a key without asking, but Yoonji wants Tae to come over. Even unannounced, even if no one else is home. Who cares? Yoonji wants them to be comfortable. She trusts them with her life, she can trust them with her home, too.
It seems like, the way Tae and Jimin are, they’re always hanging out, so they don’t really make plans. They just wind up together, at the same place at the end of every day. Tae shows up sometimes when Jimin isn’t home, on her way back from work or out doing something. Sometimes, while waiting for her to get back, Yoonji and Tae hang out together.
They are very close, but they have so rarely spent time without Jimin around that sometimes the energy is strange between them. Like one afternoon in April, when they walk in, peek around, see that Jimin is out, and then apologize to Yoonji for intruding.
“She’s just at the store,” Yoonji tells them. “She’ll be back. Stay.” It comes out more like an order than a gracious gesture, but Tae knows what she means.
“Are you sure?” they ask, seeming a little weird, a little like they don’t know where to put their limbs. They’re wearing shorts and a purple pullover sweater with puffy sleeves and cuffed wrists, a little medieval. Though they probably didn’t have pink hair dye in medieval times. Then again, maybe they did. Yoonji doesn’t know. She should ask Namjoon, he’s always trying to talk about when colors were invented.
“Sit,” says Yoonji. “You want tea?”
“Oh, sure.” Tae sits down at the table.
Yoonji starts the kettle, sits down across from them, and says, “How are you?”
“Oh, fine,” they say. “Good.”
Yoonji thinks about something Hoseok told her, that Tae might have more going on than they talk about. Hoseok and Tae seem very close, despite never being alone together and not seeming to talk much on their own. They understand each other in some inexplicable way, and it makes Yoonji wonder if Hoseok sees something in Tae that she can’t.
The way Hoseok talks about Tae, it’s almost like he thinks they’re an unhappy person. And they’ve seemed uncommonly squeamish since their fight with Jimin. So Yoonji keeps looking at them, to give them a chance to really answer her.
“Why are you glaring at me?” they ask nervously.
“Not glaring,” says Yoonji. “I’m being emotionally available.” She keeps looking at them, but tries to make her face look nicer. She doesn’t know how well it works, so she adds, “This is just what I look like.”
Tae laughs. “You’re so intense.”
“How are you, really?” Yoonji asks again, more serious and quieter.
Tae sighs. “Good,” they say, but they don’t mean it, so Yoonji just keeps staring at them until they give up and tell her what they’re thinking about.
“I’m good,” they say, squirming a little under her attention. “Really. Just tired.”
Yoonji won’t let them get away with that. Even the way they said it was dejected. She keeps looking at them until they say, “I’m just tired.”
Yoonji looks at them like, go on.
“I just need to quit I guess.”
“I’m tired of being there. I don’t think people take me seriously. I mean, they do.”
“But they don’t,” says Yoonji.
“I think people just think I know about fashion and I don’t care about anything else. People are always really surprised to hear that I like, read books. So I think I need to… I don’t know.”
Yoonji keeps looking at them until they say, “Maybe go to college?”
“Oh, cool,” says Yoonji, a little surprised. “To study what?”
“I don’t know,” admits Tae. “I think I just need more substance in my life. More ideas moving around. People think I’m just what I look like.”
Yoonji nods. She knows how much there is to Tae — their kindness, and their generosity, and the warmth that surrounds them and how much of it they have to share. The way they listen and seem to understand you, no matter where you come from, no matter even if they disagree. The way animals love them, the way they can make anybody laugh and anybody feel welcome.
They’re also really, really clever. Maybe not so book smart, though Yoonji doesn’t know. She’s never known them to have to be book smart. They’re quick with words and they calculate tips the fastest, they know weird facts about everything and they fixed the sink that one time and they’re the best with directions, even if they’re a terrible driver.
But it’s true, they do stand out, and they draw a certain kind of attention because they’re serious about the way people speak to them, and they talk about their identity easily and openly. Much more than Yoonji, certainly more than Jimin. Tae’s generous to the point of real bravery, willing to explain themselves to anyone who wants to know. Because, they say, sometimes it just takes a kind conversation to humanize something. Sometimes, too, they waste their breath on people who don’t want to understand, but they never seem to take anything too harshly.
People think they’re just what they look like, because they’re incredibly beautiful and even when they aren’t wearing strange and perfect outfits or lots of makeup there’s something in the way they hold themself and fill up space that is noticeably feminine. They’re a noticeable person, carrying a unique, graceful energy. Yoonji has held their hair back while they puked after a big karaoke night, but she still sees them as sort of otherworldly. Floating just a bit above reality. Yoonji has heard Tae say that they don’t always feel like a real person, but never in a way that felt very serious. Because, Yoonji realizes, she never thought they needed anything from anyone, so she never took it seriously when they said things like that.
“People don’t know that I would still be me no matter what I looked like. Or what I wore.”
“I really get that,” says Yoonji. It’s so true; she refuses to believe that all the years she spent feeling torn apart because she wanted to be a girl were years in which she was a boy. She never was one, really. Maybe when she was tiny, before she knew the difference. But no matter how she looked, no matter how long it took her or how long it could have taken her or even if she never, ever came out, there’s something unchanging about things like this.
Tae says “I could wear gym shorts every day for the rest of my life and I would feel exactly the same. And honestly I’d still expect people to respect me. But I don’t know if I’d really be able to get away with that.”
“If that was what you wanted,” says Yoonji.
“But, I mean, it’s complicated, right?” says Tae. “Like you’d feel weird in slacks all the time even if it was what you wanted to wear, right? Because people might look at you like, well, if she wants to wear slacks, she must not care that much. Which is bullshit but you know what I’m saying. But for me it’s like, I have to find a balance, because I can’t be too girly either or people think this is just like a stepping stone on the way to transitioning, or they talk to me like a drag queen. Which, let’s be real, people do anyway. But it’s worse if I overdo the highlighter. But then if it’s not enough people look at me like, why are you insisting on being called they if you look like a dude to my dumb straight eyes?”
“Why do you care what people think so much?” says Yoonji. And why is this the first she knew of this? She always thinks of Tae as the person in her life who is the most self-assured.
“Because I don’t want anyone to think I’m crazy and I don’t want anyone to hate me.”
“You and Jimin are always like, Tae is so perfect, Tae doesn’t care about anything. Like I’m glad you feel that way but I have problems too. And there are things I hate that I can’t change. And my feelings get hurt.”
“Are you talking about Jimin? I thought you two made up.”
“We did,” sighs Tae. They’re resting their face in their hand, limp and lusterless. “We did. I forgive her.” They take a breath before going on. “But before we got into that fight, we had just come home because somebody clocked her and she was too embarrassed to keep being out with me. So. I don’t know. I forgive her, but I don’t know if I’m totally over it.”
Yoonji is about to reply, but Tae is still following their thought. “I don’t ever want that to happen again. But if it does, I don’t want my first thought to be poor Jimin.”
“That is so unfair,” says Yoonji. She thinks about what she’d do if Hoseok did that to her. Dump him. Dump him, or seriously consider it. Tae is too nice, even to Jimin, who deserves everything.
“No wonder you’re exhausted,” says Yoonji. She’s seeing Tae in a way that they’ve never let her see them before. “You give so much that you don’t get back.”
Tae says, softly, “It’s weird that she’s being so difficult, because she was so much of the reason I figured everything out.”
“Was she?” asks Yoonji. She was under the impression that Tae had always been like this. Never struggled. Never worried. She’s blind or stupid, probably.
“Yeah.” They smile a little, somber. “I mean, she’s why I started taking it seriously. Before, I was like, oh no, I’m just gay, just kind of androgynous, whatever. People took me more seriously if I was still a guy. But hanging out with Jimin. I don’t know.” They seem embarrassed, looking at the palms of their hands. “When we hung out, we did girl stuff. We didn’t even talk about it. We just hung out like girls. And then I’d go home to my boyfriend who was like openly against me being too feminine.” They’re talking really quietly now, blushing at the table. “I realized that it didn’t mean nothing.”
They heave a sigh, look back up at Yoonji, and say, “Was that emotionally available enough?”
“I didn’t know that about you,” says Yoonji, going to get the kettle. “What kind of tea?”
“Anything caffeinated,” they say. “Bergamot?”
“Got it,” says Yoonji, pulling tea bags from the cupboard and mugs from the shelf. With her back to them like this, it’s easier to say, “You’re the kindest person I know. You deserve to do whatever you want.”
She hears them exhale from behind her. “I don’t know if we live in a world where that’s practical.”
“Yeah,” says Yoonji, pouring the tea for both of them.
When she brings it back to the table, Tae says, “So, yeah. I think I wanna quit my job and do something meaningful. And one day I want to be known for my work, and I want that to speak for itself so much that people learn that I’m nonbinary second. Instead of before they meet me. Instead of, like, the only thing about me. I just want to be bigger than the thing I didn’t even do on purpose.”
“Fair. So fair.”
“Not that I’m not proud.”
“Well,” says Yoonji, “You can be proud and frustrated at the same time.” She says, “I’m pretty proud to be trans.” It comes out awkwardly, but she means it. “But I also wish no one would ever look at or speak to me.”
“You need a break,” says Yoonji.
“I need a nap.”
Quiet, Yoonji says, “Thanks for telling me all that.”
Tae shrugs like it’s fine, but looks away kind of awkwardly. Maybe they really needed to get this off their chest. But they take a sip of their tea and look back at her and say, in their normal voice, which no one would ever guess was struggling or ever faltered in its confidence, “What about you? What’s on your mind?”
“Nothing,” says Yoonji, and she doesn’t let them push it any further. For once, she wants nothing in return. She just wants to listen to them. Because that’s what they’ve always done for her, and because that’s what friends do for each other.
It’s a Friday afternoon, and Yoonji and Seokjin are packing up from work at exactly the same time. Seokjin has a car parked under the building, but he and Hoseok are friendly now, so he’s been sometimes coming down and saying hello. He sees Yoonji off, plays the part of an annoying older brother. In his weird, hysterical voice, he’ll say something like, “You keep her out of trouble, buster!”
“Of course, sir,” Hoseok will play along, more sincere than silly, but still so charming.
Today, Hoseok has texted Yoonji specifically. Brng SkJn down! I wanna say bye 4 wknd.
Yoonji thinks it’s weird, but not weird enough to question. Later, she will be offended that he was part of the scheme while she was left out of it. She’ll gripe to Namjoon, who will just say, “I knew you’d snitch.”
Regardless, Yoonji does what the message says and tugs on Seokjin’s ‘90s windbreaker as they get up to leave. “Hoseok wants to say bye to you,” she says. “Come with me.”
“Excellent, excellent,” says Seokjin, throwing his bag over his shoulder and nodding, like a jock in a teen movie.
When they get downstairs and walk across the street to the park, Yoonji sees that it’s not just Hoseok there to say hello to Seokjin. She looks to Hoseok frantically; Namjoon is also at the park, in a suit with an armful of roses.
“Oh my god,” says Yoonji. Bad. This is not good.
Hoseok laughs nervously as he comes to stand with her.
Seokjin, very slowly, very quietly, says, “What.”
“Seokjin,” says Namjoon.
Seokjin quietly screeches.
Namjoon is projecting his voice. “A very wise, very grouchy woman once told me that it’s worth great risk to your ego to be with someone you like. She said that it’s worth being embarrassed. So I’ve come here today. To embarrass myself, for you.”
If Yoonji were in Seokjin’s place, she’d be horrified. She’d already be telling Namjoon to stop making a scene. She’d have died of humiliation. This isn’t the kind of embarrassed she meant. Seokjin does appear to be hyperventilating, but Yoonji can’t tell if it’s good or bad. Dude’s always enjoyed a gesture.
“I know that it’s been a few months since we last saw each other,” Namjoon says. His hair is gelled. He’s wearing the same outfit he wore to their college graduation, probably the only really nice clothes he has. “I still think about it. I think we missed out on something that could have been huge. And I don’t want my fear to be what lets that slip away.” He crosses the space between them. A small crowd is gathering, and Yoonji is embarrassed just to be here.
A picturesque breeze blows between Seokjin and Namjoon, ruffling Namjoon’s coat sleeves and Seokjin’s hair, carrying off a few loose petals. Somberly, leaning in, Namjoon says, “Since the beginning, my heart has beat because of you.” Then he holds his armful of flowers out to Seokjin and says, “Will you accept these roses?”
Seokjin reaches out slowly. Tentatively. He takes the bundle. Holds it to himself. Smells the roses slowly. Looks up at Namjoon with wide, shining eyes. He says, “Oh, fuck yeah.”
“What about Jeongguk?” Yoonji asks Hoseok later on, after the gathered crowd has finished clapping and the two boys have very, very awkwardly kissed right there in the daylight. Yoonji and Hoseok linger for a minute, but Namjoon made a fancy dinner reservation for himself and Seokjin three weeks ago, so they have to be off. After the excitement, Yoonji and Hoseok are left just with each other and their normal Friday evening plans.
“I don’t think Jeongguk and Seokjin have officially broken up,” says Hoseok, swinging their hands between them as they walk to the bookstore. “But Seokjin said he was about to call him. And Jeongguk told me last week that he thinks they’re platonic life partners.”
“Did he say what that meant?” asks Yoonji.
“He was like, I could wake up to his face every day for the rest of my life, but I feel nothing when we kiss.”
“That’s kind of how I feel about Namjoon,” says Yoonji.
“You and Namjoon have kissed?” asked Hoseok. “But isn’t he ga—you’re right, nevermind.”
“We tried to fool around in college, but I think it was just because we were both there. No spark,” shrugs Yoonji. “I wasn’t into it. He’s my brother.”
“Gross,” agrees Hoseok. “Anyway, Jeongguk and Seokjin are probably still gonna hang out all the time.”
“They’re like inseparable,” agrees Yoonji. “But Seokjin and Namjoon have been weird over each other for a long time.”
“Here’s to their communication,” smiles Hoseok.
“Here’s to that,” agrees Yoonji. “Here’s to them bothering each other instead of me,” she adds, but her smile is in her voice and she sounds too much like a fond sister for it to mean anything.
After talking with Tae, Yoonji thinks a lot about her own job. How it’s meaningless, how little is expected of her versus how well she is paid, how complacent she is, how tired she gets every afternoon because caring is so hard. How she picks fights with Seokjin just to feel alive. She tries to remember what she used to want to be as a kid, but all she can remember is how she wanted to be a doctor, until her appendix burst and she learned how horrified she was by surgery in general, by the whole idea of the human body. Everything about it, really. Nerves, bones, muscles, skin. Brain, blood. Thinking too hard about any of it makes her sick.
She thinks harder and remembers the year she really wanted to be a figure skater, which makes her laugh while quietly cuddling Hoseok.
“What?” he says, a little muffled as he tucks his chin down to look at her better.
“I just remembered I used to want to be an ice skater.”
He laughs too, so she hits him. “It’s not funny,” she says, but then she laughs again.
“It’s funny,” says Hoseok. “You would be so cold, oh my god.”
“I know,” says Yoonji, giggling. “And I would break all my bones.”
“Every bone,” agrees Hoseok.
“I don’t know why I thought I’d be any sort of candidate for that lifestyle.”
Hoseok is so much more flattering than he needs to be. “You’re graceful, though.”
“Not a word I’d use to describe myself,” snorts Yoonji. Seokjin is always calling her a creepy crawly goblin, and Namjoon describes the way she walks as “scuttling, like a friendly crab.”
Hoseok shrugs. “Maybe poised is a better word.”
“Do you want something from me, or?”
He blinks at her like he doesn’t know what she means, but she knows this face now. He just doesn’t think she’s being sensible enough to acknowledge.
“You’re nice,” she says.
“You’re beautiful,” he says.
About a week later, Hoseok goes home with Yoonji, and instead of heading straight into her room, he asks if they can talk about something.
In a stupid shaky voice, trying too hard to sound chill, Yoonji says, “Sure… thing.”
Of course he’s not trying to break up with her, but of course that’s the only thing in Yoonji’s mind. The reasons race through her head: it takes too much energy to love someone like her, she’s not the right kind of pretty for someone like him, he can do better, he can be with someone who would make his family proud. Of course. She knows all these things and has to work to keep them from eating her, and usually she does alright, but god. Even after four months of dating, in hard moments, she worries. Maybe especially after four months, because he’s had enough time to learn what it’s like to be with her.
Yoonji’s palms sweat and her hands shake at her sides under the table as Hoseok starts to talk to her. “So, like, you know how I’m a park ranger.”
She just nods.
“I obviously don’t plan to stay where I am this summer,” he says. “I’ve been applying for stuff. Mostly local. I thought I was gonna be able to do the summer camp I did last year, but I guess they have a bunch of college kids interning and, I don’t know, they get paid a lot less than actual employees, and budget cuts, so, I don’t think I’ll get to do that again this year.”
Yoonji just waits for him to get to it.
“So, I’ve just been sending my resume around. I’ve been offered interviews at a couple places, which is promising. There’s one that looks really good, that I actually did a phone interview for last week, and I got an offer today, and I kind of want to take it.”
Yoonji clears her throat.
“It is… not local,” he says. “It’s three hours from here.”
Yoonji makes a quiet, guttural horrified sound.
“And it starts in under a month.”
Horrible. Even when Yoonji is terrified that Hoseok is going to dump her, a small part of her brain keeps reminding her that she’s being crazy. But he’s actually here to dump her.
“I wanted to talk to you about that.”
“Yeah,” says Yoonji, small, tight, heartbreakingly resigned. “Your career is more important, I understand.”
“Wait,” says Hoseok. “More important than what?”
“Us,” says Yoonji. She’s so embarrassed at how her voice breaks, but she won’t let herself cry until he’s gone.
“No,” says Hoseok, in a really low, serious tone. “It’s not.” He doesn’t give her a chance to respond before he says, “That’s why I’m asking you. I mean like, as my girlfriend, you should be part of this decision.”
“Uh,” says Yoonji.
“If you’d be okay with being apart for most of the summer,” he says. “I’d have some weekends, but not a ton. I’d probably be able to come back once a month for a couple days. And if that’s too much for you, I can just turn it down and find something local, you know?”
“There’s also, and I know this is kind of a long shot because I know you have all your people here and your job and your life and you hate the outdoors and everything, but I thought I’d mention it anyway. That like, you could come with me. For some of the time. Or all of it, but I know that’s too much. But it’s totally doable and allowed as long as you’d be okay with the living situation.”
“What,” rasps Yoonji, “Would the living situation be.”
“We’d have to share a cabin with pretty limited amenities.”
“Like, no wifi?”
“Like no electricity, maybe,” says Hoseok. “I don’t know the details exactly, maybe I should have asked.”
Yoonji can’t believe she’s doing this, she doesn’t even know why she’s saying it, but she says, “I’ll go.”
“Really? For how long? A week?”
“How long are you there?” she asks. “May to September?”
Yoonji’s face is blank, her voice flat. “I’ll go.”
“O-oh. Just like that? You’ll go?”
“Yes. I’ll go.”
“You can think about it,” says Hoseok. “You don’t have to—”
“I’m going with you.” She’s gaining a little confidence. “I don’t care.”
“What about your job?” asks Hoseok, and he seems like the one who is unsure now, because Yoonji suddenly knows exactly what’s going on.
“I’ll quit my job,” she says.
“What about your apartment,” says Hoseok.
“Don’t care,” says Yoonji. “I’ll go with you.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I want this. I wouldn’t have said anything if I didn’t mean it. I’ve just never seen you do anything impulsive before.”
Yoonji says, “I’m going to the forest with my boyfriend for the summer. Wait, will I have to work?”
“You can help if you want,” says Hoseok, “But technically no. I’d be busy, but it kind of comes and goes. Yoonji, you don’t have to do this.”
“I’ll catch your spiders for you,” she says. “I’ll keep you company. I’ll read fifty books and sleep whenever I want.”
“Are you being serious?”
“Yes,” says Yoonji. “I am going with you.”
He finally gets it. This isn’t his choice anymore. She sees the moment when he stops trying to reason with her and gets genuinely excited about the prospect, and the way his eyes widen and the way the smile crawls over his face is all the confirmation she needs that she is actually invited.
The day after she agrees to go with Hoseok, Yoonji figures out that it is a terrible idea. She is certain that everyone will think she is crazy, and it’s not as simple as just going. She has to literally quit her job, she has to figure out her apartment, she has to pack, she has to tell people that she, Yoonji, is going to the forest for months so that she doesn’t have to be away from her boyfriend. It’s so off-brand. It goes against every bit of the image she’s been cultivating since her birth. She’s not someone who makes hasty decisions, she’s not someone who lets love lead her forward.
But honestly, it’s time for a change. It’s time for her to chase the things that make her happy, even if they’re off-brand or if people think she’s crazy. It’s worth the risk to her ego for the chance to be with someone she likes. It’s worth a lot of embarrassment.
No one, actually, tries to convince her not to do it. Seokjin is delighted, making lots of loud comments about how love really does change lives. “Remember the time I tried to take a walk with you after work,” he says, “A couple summers ago?”
“No,” says Yoonji, though she probably would if she thought about it.
“The sun wasn’t gonna go down until like 9:30, and it was beautiful out and I wanted to walk around the lake but I needed a buddy? And I said, hey, Yoon, wanna come with me, and you said, and I quote, I don’t do that. I was like, don’t do what? Go outside? Move your creaky little bones? But now look at you. A whole summer in the forest. You are gonna hate it.”
“I won’t hate it,” says Yoonji. She’s been enjoying walks with Hoseok. She’s been enjoying the smell of the air outside, the noisiness of nature and the absence of human noise, and feeling time slowly as the sun passes over her. “It’s not even about whether I like it. It’s about doing something different.”
Seokjin doesn’t stop. “Remember when I was trying to bang my yoga instructor and you came with me as a wingwoman,” he says, “And after it was over you were like, my bones hurt, and I was like, that doesn’t sound super promising, have you checked in with your orthopedist, no part of this is supposed to make your bones hurt, and you were like, my bones are healthy I just don’t think a person should have to fold in half? You’re literally the most rickety person I’ve ever met. You’re a Halloween decoration. You’re gonna have to pick up something heavy on your second day there and you are going to complain to your boyfriend for the rest of the summer about how it made your skeleton feel bad.”
He’s getting hysterical. “I brought you berries from my mom’s backyard and you said, no thanks, those are from the dirt. Literally everything is from the dirt! There’s so much dirt in the forest!”
“Seokjin,” says Yoonji again, fighting a smile. “Babe. It’s fine. I’m just gonna deal with it. I’m, like, opening myself to this experience.”
“You sound like a body thief right now.”
“I get it,” says Yoonji. “I’m actually sorry for putting you through so many years of complaining about my skeleton. I still maintain that yoga is a sham, but like, I’m sorry. I’m just trying something new.”
“You’re a freak and I hate that we’re related now,” responds Yoonji, whip quick. They don’t even have to think to insult each other anymore.
“Wait, we’re related?” asks Seokjin.
“You’re basically my brother-in-law,” she says. “Through Joonie.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess so.”
“I’ve actually been meaning to ask you, how’s Jeongguk doing? Do you know?” The one night she slept at Hoseok’s this week, Jeongguk was out. She keeps thinking she’ll reach out to him.
“He’s fine, why would I not know how he is?” says Seokjin. “Oh, because I dumped him out of the blue for someone else?”
“He’s fine. We had a fight for a minute but we’re cool.”
“Really?” asks Yoonji. This thing with Seokjin and Jeongguk both, where they react with their bodies and not their hearts, will never make sense to her.
“Well, sort of a fight. He yelled at me. And then I was yelling because he was yelling, so we were both yelling, but I don’t know if we were that mad. He was just like, you can’t do that, dog, and I was like, I know that, but I did, so now we have to deal with it! But no, we’re cool. We didn’t talk for like a day and a half, but, I don’t know. It’s not like we were intimate anyway. Like, I love him. I’m a little in love with him for sure. And he’s definitely impressive looking. Which is a kind of hotness. He is, like, cut.”
“He has the best body of anyone I know.”
“Tied with your Jimin, I think,” says Seokjin. “Did you know I had the hots for her?”
“When you and her first started hanging out. She’s like…” and he does an hourglass motion with his hands while making a kind of sick face.
“I’m gonna tell her you said that,” she says.
“So she thinks I’m a creep? You’re being a bad friend right now, Yoonji.”
“No, because it’ll make her feel good. Why didn’t you ask her out?”
“Um, because the one time we all hung out Tae was there? And how could I compete with someone like that?”
“Are you serious? People ask you if you’re a model all the time.”
“But Tae would model for Gucci, and I’d model for, you know, Zyrtec. Anyway, that’s not what I mean. I mean I can’t get in between soulmates like that. I’d do a lot of despicable shit, but not that.”
“You and Tae could both model for Gucci,” Yoonji says placatingly.
“You know what I’ve been thinking?”
“Just because I can date someone with a perfect gym body doesn’t mean I need to.”
“What if what I’m really into is wacky tube men who know everything about Stonehenge?”
“Seokjin, that’s really sweet.”
“He’s so fucking weird, Yoonji. His mind. I don’t know where his thoughts come from. It’s amazing. And he laughs at my jokes.”
“Don’t hurt him, okay? He’s soft inside.”
“I think I’m gonna marry him. That’s fucked up but I feel like I know. I feel like I already know.”
“He thinks he knows, too,” sighs Yoonji. She can’t be too worried about such hasty statements when she’s trying to teach herself to love like this too. To love like a crazy person. To just go for it. To burn her whole life down around her feelings for somebody, if she needs to. It’s fine. She’ll be fine. There are so many people who want her to be okay. She says, “As someone who knows both of you better than you know each other, I bless this union.”
“Aw,” says Seokjin, suddenly big-eyed. “That’s actually touching. That actually touched me.”
Yoonji, well. She’s becoming a better, kinder person, but she doesn’t know if she’s ready for that. She says, “Don’t get used to it, sicko.”
Jimin and Tae both get really excited when Yoonji tells them about her plan to move. Yoonji spends a minute feeling incredibly offended that they’re so excited to be rid of her, until Tae asks Yoonji if they can move in and pick up her rent. They’ve been living in a house with too many people and have been looking for an excuse to leave since the beginning of the year.
“Your room can be Pumpkin’s room,” says Tae. “Slash overflow closet.”
“Sounds fine with me,” says Yoonji, “As long as I don’t have to beg my parents to let me store my shit in their garage. I don’t want to have to explain this to them.”
“Oh, no honey, you have to tell them where you’re going,” says Jimin immediately. She and Tae are on the couch, draped over one another. Their hair is the same shade of pink, dyed from the same bottle. They’re inseparable.
“I can’t,” says Yoonji. “They’ll be weird.”
Tae agrees, “If you’re trying to rejoin your family, you really shouldn’t do this without telling them.”
“You’re definitely moving,” says Jimin, “Like, I think you have to. But you also have to own up to it.”
“But,” says Yoonji, plopping down on the floor in front of the couch to sit cross-legged in front of them, “They don’t even know I have a boyfriend. They don’t… I don’t think I ever even told them I’m attracted to men. My mom’s always looking for an excuse to be like, do I even know you?”
Jimin says, “You assume they’re gonna be pissed, when it sounds like they just want to know what’s going on with you. Which is actually really cool.”
“Well, yeah,” says Yoonji slowly, trying that perspective. “They do want to know about me.”
“I want to see you get right with your parents,” says Jimin. “Just because like, I know you can. And I think if you can, you should.” Yoonji sees Tae give Jimin’s thigh a comforting squeeze. They’re too sweet, it’s embarrassing to watch. But it’s good to see them back to this level of comfort with one another.
Yoonji hates it, but they are right. “Fine,” she says. “Fine, I’ll tell them.”
When Yoonji came out to her parents, she was at Namjoon’s house. He was the only one she trusted to see her like that, so scared and weak.
They were sitting on Namjoon’s bed and he was holding her hand. They had tried it a lot of ways, he had tried to make her laugh, tried to press the green button on her phone for her, he even told her he’d do it for her if she wanted. “Hi, this is Yoonji,” he’d practiced, but she’d whispered, “Not Yoonji yet,” and it hadn’t made her feel any better.
In the end, she put the phone on speaker, gripped Namjoon’s hand so hard that it left him with bruises later, squeezed her eyes shut, and in the shakiest little voice she said the words to her mom.
Not to be dramatic, but this is almost as bad as that.
She’s alone this time, pacing her room in her pajamas, black shorts and a big t-shirt and her unwashed hair in a ponytail. She’s on the phone with her mom, making dinner plans. Instead of waiting to be invited this time, Yoonji asked first if she could come over. Of course it’s an event now, with her aunt and uncle and two younger cousins and a great-aunt who lives nearby all planning to be there. She should be grateful to be invited back into the family like this; she’s trying to be.
But she still hasn’t said the thing she called to say. She’s said, “I’ll probably be there by six,” and, “Yes I’ll wear something nice, no it won’t be all black like I just came from a funeral,” but she hasn’t said what she called to say.
“Do you think you can pick up some--”
“I’m moving to the forest with my boyfriend for the summer.” She pushes it out, as fast as she can, on the one breath that feels strong enough to carry it.
“You’re moving to the forest…” says her mom, stunned, “With your boyfriend?”
“Yes, and I’d like you to meet him,” says Yoonji flatly, “before we go.” Without the fear left to hold her up, she feels slack, so she falls backward into her bed.
Her mom doesn’t say what Yoonji expected. Nothing about how this is the first she’s heard, no weird passive judgments of what sort of person he must be, she doesn’t even say anything about how Yoonji hates the outdoors. Yoonji certainly thought her mom would at least be horrified about the forest part. She imagined her mom saying something like, “What about how many medications you have to take?” In real life, she says, “Well, sure, bring him by. What’s his name? And when are you leaving?”
“His name is Hoseok,” croaks Yoonji. “We’re leaving on the sixth.”
Her mom is quiet for a minute, but then she says, “Well, I’ll make sure there’s a place for him.”
When they get there, Yoonji tries to reason with Hoseok. “We don’t have to go in,” she says. “Like. We can turn around. Please? I can take you to the frozen yogurt place I used to go to. Anywhere. We can go to my high school and make out in the football field.” She’s losing it. “I’ll show you my old pediatrician’s office.”
“No way,” says Hoseok, turning to her across the console of his new car, which he finally broke down and picked out a couple weeks ago in preparation for not having access to public transit all summer. It’s a Subaru. “We’re going in there.” He gestures toward the front door just as Yoonji’s brother peeks out.
Yoonji groans, and Hoseok has the nerve to laugh at her, and then he reaches between them to the back seat to grab the bottle of red wine they picked out together. He kisses her sweetly on the nose and then opens the driver’s side door.
Yoonji dawdles for a couple seconds, pouting, and then follows him up to the house.
“Are you Junseo?” Hoseok asks Yoonji’s brother as he approaches. He sticks out a hand to shake so confidently, so respectfully.
Junseo nods and shakes. “You must be Hoseok? Welcome.” Then he tips his chin up and says, “Sup, Yoonj?”
Yoonji waves halfheartedly and, heroically, rearranges her pout into a friendly grimace as Hoseok puts a light hand on her hip to guide her through the doorway.
Yoonji’s mom comes in from the kitchen, wiping her hands off on a dish towel, and hugs Yoonji before even acknowledging Hoseok. “It’s good to see you,” she says in a pinched, warm way. Then she pulls back and sizes Hoseok up, then she says, “You must be Yoonji’s boyfriend.”
“Yes ma’am, I’m Hoseok, it’s nice to meet you, we brought wine,” he says, and then Yoonji’s mom offers him a hug, too.
As he squeezes her, he beams over her shoulder at Yoonji, who is looking at her childhood home with a newcomer’s eyes and seeing something very different than she ever has before.
Yoonji waves at everyone else, gathered in the living room, smiling and catching up with snacks before dinner.
Hoseok meets everybody quickly, but before anyone can drag him into a conversation, Yoonji whispers in his ear. “I’ll show you around.” She feels dumb, nothing has even happened yet and she is already wasting her one escape plan, like a kid with a marshmallow. But she’s already overwhelmed, and she just needs another minute before she jumps in.
“Oh, sure,” says Hoseok eagerly. He sets the wine bottle down on a table in the living room and follows Yoonji down the hall.
The polished wood floor creaks under their socked feet. Yoonji puts her head down as they pass the old photos on the walls, but Hoseok doesn’t even seem to notice them.
Her room is the last one at the end of the hall. Smaller than Junseo’s, even though her brother is younger, because she wanted the one that was farthest from everyone else, even as a nine-year-old when they moved here. The door is closed, and it still has her name on it, a custom license plate that some relative got her made when she was a tween. She changed it to her new name with a big mailing label and a permanent marker last year when she cleaned everything out, but it looks stupid. She thought it was funny and defiant until right now. She should have taken it down instead of ruining it.
She leads him inside and says, “This was my room.”
It’s colder in here, and smells dusty. It feels darker, even though it’s the same as the rest of the house. They stand in front of the bed and look around.
“I like it,” Hoseok says, though there’s nothing really to like. It’s sterile and plain.
There’s an ache that Yoonji always feels when she’s here. Usually she tries to ignore it, but it’s worse now, all of a sudden. She wants to show Hoseok something from her childhood. She doesn’t know why, but she needs him to know.
Yoonji goes out on a weird limb and opens her closet. She digs out a storage tub and asks, “I headed the yearbook club my senior year of high school. So it’s actually good, wanna see?”
“Are you a nerd?” asks Hoseok.
Yoonji thinks about all the marching band pictures and her face goes hot, but she doesn’t stop. They sit down on the edge of her old bed together and Yoonji dusts off the plain faux-leather cover, even though the book is already clean. She can feel through Hoseok’s body that he understands. He’s being quiet like he doesn’t want to startle her. She opens it.
She takes her time. She knows that if it’s too hard and she has to stop, Hoseok would let her. He has an arm around Yoonji’s waist almost aggressively, like he’s reminding her that this won’t change anything for him, or maybe like he’s holding onto the version of her who sits here now, so that he doesn’t forget her when he sees the other one.
She shows him some of her favorite teachers, and some of her friends, and then, finally, her senior portrait, in the marching band uniform. The picture is unflattering, obviously. She wasn’t taking great care of herself; her cheeks were hollow and her eyes were ringed in purple and she looked too tired to really smile. That’s what makes her sad, more than the rest. How long it took her from that point to learn how to feel good. She spent so many years looking sunken and worn-down. Nobody even thought there was a version of her with bright eyes and full cheeks. That’s harder to think about than anything else.
It says her old name, but Hoseok probably already knows it. And, really, she wants him to know it. She’s desperate for him to know it.
“Oh,” he says. “I didn’t think I’d recognize you.”
“I looked almost the same.”
“No,” says Hoseok seriously. “You looked super different.”
She rips her eyes away from the picture and stares at Hoseok instead. He isn’t looking at her any differently than before, except for the extra warmth, somberness to match the situation she’s forced him into.
“But you know that,” says Hoseok quietly.
She admits it with a little nod.
He sighs. “I had horrible braces in high school. With the, you know, rubber bands. And I had the worst hair, and the worst fashion sense. Like, oversized polo shirts, but I wore them by choice. And bangs up to here.”
“You don’t have the hairline for that.”
“Believe me, babe, it was horrible. I’ll show you sometime.”
“Okay,” she says quietly. She feels like she might cry, but she doesn’t know exactly why.
“I don’t know why I thought I wouldn’t recognize you,” he says offhandedly. “Just because you’re so pretty now. It’s hard to imagine. But high school Yoonji was pretty too.”
“I wasn’t a girl yet,” she says, like she has to point it out. Like he should just know everything about her, even though she doesn’t talk about it very well. This is the first time she’s ever shown this to someone by choice. Hoseok is the first person she’s ever loved who didn’t know her before, and she knows it should be freeing, to get to let go of all that. But she wants him to know everything about her. She wants it to be okay that she used to be this fake-smiling, sick-looking, pale teenage boy.
“Does it bother you that I think you were? A girl.”
Yoonji just stares at him. It’s almost like, it has to be fake. There has to be some part of him that doesn’t really believe all these gentle things about her. She’s embarrassed. “It doesn’t bother me,” she says flatly, her voice thin and hoarse.
She groans and falls back onto the bed. Hoseok lowers himself back, too. Yoonji says, “I don’t know how to deal with how complicated this is.”
“I’ve noticed,” says Hoseok. “But, I don’t know.” his voice is kind of stretched-out and thoughtful, like Namjoon gets when he’s about to talk about aliens. “I just like you. Or, well. Is this a bad time?”
“For what,” says Yoonji, just mouths it.
“I love you.”
“It’s a bad time,” rasps Yoonji, but into the end of it she says, “What?”
“I love you,” he says, more clearly.
Yoonji’s turn. “I,” she says, then clears her throat. “I love you.”
Hoseok makes a satisfied sound. He kisses her cheek, right by her nose. Then he sits up, and then he says, “Do you want to show me more of your yearbook?”
Yoonji sits up, too. Clears her throat again. “That was all,” she says.
“Can I see the rest of the house?” he asks.
Yoonji nods. They get up. Hoseok tangles his fingers in hers and lets her lead him.
They peek into Junseo’s room, but only for a moment, because he currently lives there. Then she shows him the bathroom, and then they walk through the living room and the kitchen to the back yard.
Yoonji’s dad is sitting on a deck chair. He smiles placidly as the door closes behind them.
Yoonji is already cold; the sun is going down, and she’s wearing a short sleeve dress with no jacket. Hoseok, absently, reaches behind her to rub the goosebumps off her arm.
“Well hey, Yoonji,” says her dad, standing up. “And, you’re Hoseok, right?”
“It’s nice to meet you, Sir,” says Hoseok, so respectfully, letting go of Yoonji for just long enough to shake his hand, then pulling her close again.
“You too,” says her dad. “I’ve heard a lot.”
That’s a lie, he’s lying. He’s heard nothing. All he knows is what Yoonji’s mom told him, and all Yoonji told her mom is, “His name is Hoseok,” and “He’s a park ranger.”
“I’ve heard a lot about you, too,” says Hoseok. Also a lie. All Yoonji’s told Hoseok about her parents is that she looks like her mom, and things are still weird.
But they’re not being weird right now. They’re being un-weird. They’re being warm, and kind, and welcoming. Their house is cozy. So many people have loved Yoonji so much.
It’s weird that she grew up to be so emotionally damaged, with all this warmth around her. She’s probably going to spend the rest of her life figuring out how to give it back to all the people who have kept her so safe.
Hoseok and her dad have started talking about birdwatching, which is very charming. Her dad is an easygoing person, and Hoseok gets along with everyone, so they’re already friends. Yoonji wants to go hide, but Hoseok is holding her around the waist, so she stays.
They start talking about the eagles and the herons and hawks Hoseok has seen when out working in parks, and then her dad asks, “You gonna take care of her out there?”
“Yes, sir,” says Hoseok, and he drums his fingers on Yoonji’s hand.
She decides to let it be this easy, to stop complicating things for herself and just let these people love her, and she squeezes Hoseok’s hand back.
Yoonji’s parents love Hoseok. Of course they do, he’s a very lovable person. So handsome, so polite, so good to Yoonji. They tell her, between dinner and dessert, when Hoseok and Junseo are off boy bonding. Her mom says, “Where did you find him?”
“He’s Namjoon’s friend,” says Yoonji.
“Of course,” says Yoonji’s mom, who, during college, used to treat Namjoon like the kid she’d wished she had instead of Yoonji. But Yoonji can’t find any bitterness about that right now; she was really cagey and distant in college, and Namjoon has always been a sweetheart. “Well, I hope you and Hoseok have a good time this summer.”
“Are you really, like, supporting this?” asks Yoonji.
“We support you,” says Yoonji’s dad.
“But do me a favor, Yoonji?” asks her mom.
“If you get out there and you start getting sick of him, come stay with us for a week. Don’t be a martyr. Promise me.”
“Sure, mom,” says Yoonji. “I promise. But I won’t get sick of him.”
“No? Why not?”
“Because,” she says through her teeth, “I… love him.”
Yoonji is at Namjoon’s house getting stoned. This is their thing, the thing they’ve done together at least once a week since he started smoking her out in college. Ever since the horrible, overpriced shit they used to blow out their dorm windows, it’s always been just the two of them.
But Hoseok’s getting into weed now, too. It seemed silly and forced at first, like he was just trying to impress Yoonji, but it actually seems to work for him. It makes sense, his head’s always full of a million things, and he appreciates a little help in slowing down.
Yoonji tried to keep it away from him for a while, but spending all your time with someone is different than spending some of your time with someone. If you only spend some of your time with someone, you get enough alone time to catch up on all the things you do in private. Like showering, eating spoonfuls of peanut butter straight out of the jar when you need a hit of protein, like lying on the floor without moving for several hours straight, like ripping off your bra as soon as you walk in the door and just, like, flinging it somewhere. For Yoonji, it’s things like being stoned basically all the time.
Spending all their time together means Yoonji and Hoseok are learning about each other’s most secret selves. This is something Yoonji has never allowed into her life before, but it’s going very well. The worst thing about private Hoseok is that he squirms in his sleep, and once, he slept in the shirt he wore all day, and then he wore it again the next day. But it didn’t get stinky until the very end of the second day, and even then it wasn’t that bad, because his clean, vegetarian armpit sweat is almost pleasant. She’s gone for him.
She tried to introduce it into her routine with Hoseok slowly, but it only took about a week before she was back to business as usual: walking into the apartment, flinging her bra somewhere, and packing a bowl.
So Hoseok is here, very adorably getting blasted off one hit while Yoonji and Namjoon put away as much weed as they can find lying around.
Also, Namjoon’s obsessed with his new boyfriend, and they’re not spending time apart right now. A year ago, Yoonji would have found that stupid and excessive, but she understands it now. Seokjin doesn’t really smoke weed, but his whole life is a highdea, so he can hang. He’s currently inside, in the kitchen of the big Victorian house making what he says will be snacks, but whether they’re actually edible, in Yoonji’s opinion, remains to be seen. Dude made Jeongguk a cheesecake out of muscle milk, so Yoonji doesn’t trust his culinary sense for a second.
Seokjin and Namjoon seem to be sort-of adopting Jeongguk, which Yoonji doesn’t fully understand yet, but seems nice. He’s been around pretty much every time Yoonji has seen Seokjin and Namjoon lately. He doesn’t seem like a third wheel at all; he seems fully invited into their personal space in a way that is just a little perplexing. So he, of course, is also here. He’s sitting on the ground on Namjoon’s back patio messing with his phone.
Since Yoonji and Hoseok are leaving for the forest next weekend, Hoseok’s sister Sooyoung and her wife Suran are visiting. And Suran is Namjoon’s cousin, so they’re here, too. Sooyoung politely declined the pipe any time it was passed to her, but Suran did not. They’re sitting on the porch swing, and Suran, with her artfully faded blue hair and nonchalant cool energy, is splayed across Sooyoung’s lap. Sooyoung is running her fingers through Suran’s hair and just seems happy to be here. She has a vibe like Hoseok, a little innocent, mistakable for naivety, but not exactly that. A little less jaded than most of the people Yoonji knows, less guarded, more genuine. A minute ago, Sooyoung and Namjoon got started talking about some esoteric thing, about whether there is such a thing as perfect silence, and they’re still talking, though Yoonji isn’t trying to follow the thread anymore.
So, basically, it’s a party.
“What do you think Tae and Jimin are doing right now?” Hoseok asks.
“Gazing into each other’s eyes and being like, you’re beautiful. No, you’re beautiful. No, you are.”
“I’m gonna text Tae,” says Hoseok, unsticking his face from Yoonji’s shoulder and taking out his broken old phone. She watches him type a message, slowly, like an old person. Come 2 NJ’s house? Every1 is HERE.
Seconds later, Hoseok’s phone buzzes. He opens a message from Tae that says, WHO?
OK we’ll come over. See u all later!!!
Hoseok clears his throat and says, in the kind of nasally voice he gets when he’s sleepy or high, “Tae and Jimin are coming over.”
“Hell yeah,” says Namjoon.
“Who are they?” Sooyoung asks, vaguely directed at Hoseok.
“Yoonji’s friends,” Hoseok says. “Everybody’s friends, really. They’re a couple. They’re really beautiful and sweet. Jimin seems a little judgy and maybe superficial at first but she’s actually one of the realest people I know, and Tae is a human sunflower. You’ll like them.”
Yoonji smiles at Hoseok. She says quietly, just to him, “You’re so sweet.”
His face happens to be in a sunbeam. He smiles at her and then kisses her temple.
She says, “How do you describe me to people?”
“Dresses like Wednesday Addams, full of cotton candy, prettiest girl.”
“So sincere,” she says, to avoid seeming flustered.
“How do you describe me?” he asks.
“Nice,” she says. “And good.”
Seokjin comes outside with a tray of various cheeses, vegetables, and breads. It looks semi-appealing.
He sets it down on the glass-topped table in the middle of the patio and then clambers awkwardly onto Namjoon’s lap. Hoseok takes a carrot stick.
“Hey,” says Namjoon as Seokjin kisses him hello, way too intimately for a public place when they’ve been apart all of seven minutes. But Yoonji gets it. “Tae and Jimin are on their way over.”
“Sick,” Seokjin breathes into Namjoon’s face. Jeongguk stretches his legs out to tap his bare feet absentmindedly on Seokjin’s ankles. Yoonji tries to make eye contact with Jeongguk about it, but he’s still messing around on his phone.
Little comfortable conversations go on around her, and Yoonji just sits, quiet and grateful, with Hoseok leaning into her and all the warm voices of all her warm friends.
Honestly, she doesn’t deserve it. She’s not even nice, so she doesn’t understand how all these people have surrounded her, stuck with her even when she was so unpleasant. When there’s a break in Namjoon’s conversation, Yoonji leans over to him and says, “Why do you still love me?”
An ungraceful way to say it, but he knows her. He knows how to pick through her gracelessness and figure out what she’s really trying to say. “Because you’re the best person I know,” says Namjoon, huddling in toward her.
“I’m really mean,” she says.
“You’re grouchy,” says Namjoon. “But you’re not mean. You were never mean. People don’t get to where you are by being mean.”
“I don’t think you see yourself very clearly yet.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she says, though she almost sounds, to herself, like she’s about to cry.
“You give a shit about everything. I know that you would lay down your life for any person here. You used to be so tired, but you have always listened to me when I needed somebody, brought me food when I was hungry, you tricked me into going to the doctor that time I wouldn’t admit I had bronchitis. Just because you’re not outgoing or affectionate doesn’t mean you’re not kind. I am safe with you, so I want to keep you safe.”
“You’re the best friend I’ve ever had, and you deserve a perfect life, so.”
“Okay,” she says. “Thanks.”
Ten seconds later, she is crying. Also, ten seconds later, Tae is reaching over the back fence to unlatch the gate.
“Hi, everybody!” says Tae. They’ve got a bottle of rosé. Jimin waves from beside them.
It’s silly, but Yoonji really loves them. She loves to see them smile. She feels so at home that it hurts. She sobs, and everybody looks at her. Jimin says, “Oh no, favorite girl,” and hurries over.
“I’m fine. I’m not crying,” she says, crying.
“Finally having regrets about leaving all of us?” says Seokjin.
“Don’t look at me,” Yoonji says. She buries her face in Hoseok’s chest and can feel that everyone is still looking at her. So she just says it anyway, in a weepy, muffled, hysterical voice. “You’re my best friends. I would die for any of you.”
Someone pats her back, but she doesn’t know who. There are so many gentle hands it might be.
Yoonji’s hands are not much, big and weird and full of bones and veins, but they are what she has to hold with. So she turns around to take her friend’s hand in hers, to tangle her fingers with it and to hold it as well as she can.