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girls just want to have fun

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“Are you sure you don’t want to order?” says the waitress. She’s appeared at the table very suddenly, startling Yoonji away from the spot on the wall she's been zoning out on. “Or,” she says more quietly, refilling the water from a clear plastic pitcher. “You don’t have to stay.”

Yoonji smiles weakly up at her. “I’m giving it 'til 8:20,” she says, sounding more defeated than she really feels. “But thank you.” She means that; she’s grateful for the sympathy. Her own self-pity is probably enough, but at least she waitress’ tone makes it feel justified.

This afternoon, she took the time to put on something nice, eyeliner and blush and the unusually form-fitting black dress Jimin made her buy a couple months ago. At the time, she'd promised she’d never wear it, but Jimin usually doesn’t bother to speak if she isn’t right. When Yoonji was looking in her closet this afternoon, the dress was the obvious option. It’s nice enough that she looks like she belongs on a date, subtly shimmery and cut a little low, but it doesn’t feel desperate. Which is true; Yoonji isn’t desperate. She doesn’t want to be here in the first place, and every minute that passes without her date showing up makes her wish that she’d ditched, too.

It’s not even something she can blame the guy for, she just wishes he’d cancelled beforehand so she could still be at home in pajamas. She put on a good bra for this. She came all the way back downtown, to this hip gastropub that’s so far from her own sensibilities that she almost couldn't bear to pass the threshold, and now she’s been here, alone like an idiot, for almost half an hour. She’s surrounded by beautiful couples and is seated near a group of laughing men. She’s the only person here alone. She has trouble enough going out, and it’s a slight. A personal slight, from this friend of Namjoon’s who was supposed to be here sixteen minutes ago.

Bored and bitter, she texts Jimin.

 

joon set me up on a blind date and the guy is ditching i think. ha ha.

 

Jimin replies right away.

where to begin w this message?

why r u going on joons dates when u act like u cant hear me when i try to set u up w people????

what does joon have that i dont have???

taste? I dont think so!!!!!

dude wears birkenstocks every day!!!!

 

joons a tender soul i cant just ice him out like i can with u

 

also since when are you going on dates w guys?

u told me u wanted to live and die alone

and u also vowed to live a man-free life

 

oh yeah my vows r still on. joons out after this too

u & tae r my only friends now

oh wait the guy is here maybe

 

Someone comes in, half-throwing the door open and looking around frantically. He finally makes eye contact with Yoonji in her corner and points at her brightly.

She waves vaguely, smiles insincerely.

He darts over. Scooting into the other side of the booth, he stabs his hand out for a shake and says, “Yoonji? Hi. I’m so sorry I’m late. I missed my bus connection, sorry, the first one ran late, I should have planned better because of the rain and all, and I would have called you, but Namjoon wouldn’t give me your number.”

“He wouldn’t give me yours either,” says Yoonji warily. “Hoseok, right?” She’s mad, but she takes the bus too, and Namjoon is some kind of Victorian-era romantic who thought it would be sweet to keep them from communicating until they officially met.

“Yeah, that’s me,” says Hoseok with his whole body as he settles into the booth. He pulls off his denim jacket and drinks most of the glass of water that the waitress set out for when he arrived. He has bright red dyed hair with very new dark roots and all of his features are pointy. He sets the glass down and says, “Namjoon told me you’d probably be haunting a corner. I didn’t know what he meant, but I think I get it now.” He’s breathing hard. “I knew you right away. You look really good, by the way.”

Yoonji finds Hoseok abrasive, but he sounds surprisingly genuine. “Thank you,” she says lowly. She starts to return the platitude.

“I’m sorry again that I’m so late,” he interrupts as the waitress approaches. She refills Hoseok’s water glass and gives Yoonji a sympathetic smile.

“Can I start you off with something to drink?” she asks Hoseok. Yoonji is already working on a glass of red wine. She’s been trying to make it last, but it’s almost gone. As she lifts it to her lips, Hoseok raises his eyebrows, and it almost makes her smile.

“An IPA would be awesome, if you have one,” says Hoseok, handing the waitress his ID.

“Sure thing,” she says as she examines it. Then she hands it back and says, “I’ll be right back with that.”

As soon as she walks off, Hoseok starts back in. “I’m sorry again,” he says. “I would have called if I could. I even texted Namjoon, but I don’t think he saw it.” He talks so fast. “I feel really bad.”

“It’s okay,” says Yoonji finally, even though the date’s already ruined and Hoseok will never get another first impression. “You don’t have to keep apologizing. I get it.”

The waitress comes back with Hoseok’s drink. She takes their food orders and goes again, and Hoseok’s beer is immediately halfway gone. He chugs it like water, like he’s hydrating after rushing here. Yoonji is a little bit impressed, if only because it’s gross.

“Namjoon told me you’re a writer?” he says, looking openly at her. She doesn’t like how it feels like he’s studying her face.

“A journalist,” she says. Sort of. “What about you?” She refuses to sound interested, on principle. Now that he’s less a flurry of motion, it’s so clear that he’s not her type, so skinny and pointy. His cheekbones look like they’re trying to burst out of his face. She’s a little cold, and the wine isn’t doing anything for her except making her tired. This date was a bad idea. She knew it would be; she wants to go home.

“I’m a park ranger,” says Hoseok, almost wistfully.

“Great,” she says. The outdoors are fine, but not Yoonji’s favorite. Especially since the winter is hitting hard and sudden, and freezing rain has fallen every day for a week. She wouldn’t last five minutes outside a climate controlled room. “What’s that like this time of year?”

“Cold,” he says squarely.

Yoonji doesn’t smile. “I can imagine.”

“And wet. But it’s worth it for the summers. Fresh air is important.”

Yoonji doesn’t like the summer either. Too hot. She says, “That’s true.”

“What kind of journalism do you do?” he asks.

“I work for an online publication,” she says. Please don’t ask what it is.

“Awesome, what is it?”

“You probably haven’t heard of it,” she says. Such a lie.

“You’re probably right,” says Hoseok after taking another gulp of beer, so big that Yoonji can see it go down as he swallows. “I don’t go online that much.”

Thank God. “That’s a good way to be. It’s probably better for you.”

“Totally,” he says. “But that’s really cool, though. Is that what you studied in college?”

“Journalism, yeah,” she says. “That’s where I met Namjoon.”

“That’s what I was gonna ask,” says Hoseok, smiling. “‘Cause he works for the paper and he said you two go way back.”

“We met freshman year,” she nods. “So yeah, I’ve basically known him forever. What about you? He told me you were related to him somehow, but I don’t think I followed.” She sees that Hoseok’s beer is gone and finishes her wine.

“His cousin married my sister this summer. We got to talking at the wedding and found out we both live in town, so we’ve kept in touch. We meet up sometimes, but I don’t know him super well.”

Yoonji nods, but then realizes she’s looking too engaged. She doesn’t want Hoseok to get the idea that she cares about him, so she sinks back farther in the booth and looks at her empty glass instead of at Hoseok. The waitress comes over, and Yoonji orders more wine, and Hoseok asks for water.

Their food comes quickly, and they eat for a minute in relative quiet, except when Hoseok takes a bite of his veggie burger, and says with food still in his mouth, “Oh wow. This is so good.”

Yoonji is almost halfway done with her chicken sandwich when Hoseok is finished with his burger and fries, and he sighs, drinks a bunch of water, and dabs at his face with his napkin. She’s in the middle of a bite when he says, “So, did you do anything for Halloween?" 

She finishes chewing and says, “I went to a party.”

“Oh nice, what did you go as?” he says. He’s so high-energy, and it’s overwhelming for it all to be directed at her.

“A witch,” she says. She wore black and white striped stockings and a pointy hat, a cape and lots of dark makeup, and Jimin’s joke the whole night was I’m surprised they let you in without a costume. “You?”

“I was a flower. Just something I had laying around.”

Yoonji can’t help it. She’s got food in her mouth and she doesn’t want to be here; she’s only doing this to prove to Namjoon that sending her on dates is a bad idea, but Hoseok is this grinning, wild energy, and of course he has a flower costume just laying around. She laughs; it just bubbles out of her.

Hoseok laughs, too. “What?” he says. “I used to work with kids. You collect stuff.”

“Why’d you need a flower costume?”

“I was a camp counselor at a park, and nobody ever liked the nature walk, where we’d go around for an afternoon and I’d talk about all the native plants. They’d tell me it was boring, so I got the flower costume to spice it up.”

“Did it work?”

“Absolutely. Nature walk is everyone’s favorite now. Flower Hobi is a hit.”

Yoonji sort of thinks Hobi is a sweet-sounding nickname. She also sort of wants to ask to see a picture, but she doesn’t. Anyway, she sees his phone a few minutes later, and he wouldn’t be able to show off his Halloween pictures even if he had them. He’s using a beat-up old flip phone with a massive scrape across the front, cracking the outside screen so that instead of lighting up with the time, it just flickers when he opens it.

“That,” she says, “Is an old phone.”

“I get that a lot,” he says, shrugging. “But I promised myself I wouldn’t get a new one until this one stopped working.”

“How long ago did you promise yourself that?” she asks.

“Four years,” says Hoseok immediately. He looks straight into her eyes and says it so seriously that she’s not sure if he can tell he’s funny. But her face cracks into a little smile against her will, and Hoseok laughs, too.

They finish eating, and Hoseok insists on paying, which Yoonji opposes in general but finds flattering enough to allow this once. Then, before Hoseok has a chance to invite her anywhere else, she says she’s got to get going. Hoseok is totally amicable; he says, “Sounds good. I had a great time, though. This was fun.”

“It was,” she says. She figures that’s a fair enough thing to give him. He’s definitely fun. Too fun for Yoonji, but at least he can have it.

Outside the restaurant, she says, “Well, I’m this way.” He goes in for a hug, and she accepts it though she doesn’t really want to. But, for such a skinny guy, there’s a surprising amount of him, and for someone so sharp, he’s gentle with her.

 

 

“So how did that date with Hoseok go?” asks Namjoon, days later, as they smoke a bowl at the foot of his bed. Their socked feet are lined up next to each other on the wooden floor.

“Did you talk to Hoseok?” she asks. She says his name like it tastes bad.

“I don’t talk to him that much,” says Namjoon. “So no. But how was it? He’s really cool, right?”

“Sure,” she says. “If you think being 20 minutes late and laughing at your own jokes is cool.” She takes the first hit, since she brought the weed, and holds it in as she passes the pipe to Namjoon.

“That sounds like a lot of your friends, actually,” says Namjoon. He takes a hit, takes his time, and she chips at her nail polish. “Sounds like Seokjin. And me. I laugh at my own jokes a lot.”  

Yoonji agrees. The other day, he laughed until his eyes were teary after saying “All Sith are shit lords. That’s a quote from Obi Wan.”

“Maybe that’s why you like him so much,” she says. “Maybe you should try to date him instead of making me do it.”

“You’re so gross. He’s related to me.”

“Oh, barely,” says Yoonji, gesturing for him to pass the pipe back.

“I believe,” says Namjoon pontifically, “that a cousin is a cousin.” He takes another small hit and she grabs her pipe from him.

Yoonji lights up. “It’s not blood.”

“Don’t come to my house and try to justify incest,” he says, playing offended. “Also, he’s straight.”

“Sure, I get it,” Yoonji says, dismissive. “I won’t try to set you up anymore if it makes you uncomfortable. Wow, see how easy that was?”

“You’re mean,” says Namjoon, smiling warmly in the way he starts to do when the weed’s working. “I’m trying to help you.”

Yoonji knocks the spent ash into a jar by the couch and starts digging around for more. As she starts packing another bowl, she says, “I’ve changed my mind anyway. I don’t want to date.”

“But do you not want to date for good reasons?” Namjoon tips his head back onto the bed, and his mouth hangs open a little as he blinks at the ceiling fan. His neck is long, his hair, even when it’s this short, finds a way to be messy, and he’s wearing a holey shirt that he’s had since college.

“The reasons don’t matter,” she says. “I don’t wanna do it.”

“I just think,” says Namjoon, speaking a little slow and low, so Yoonji prepares for some philosophical speculation, “Feeling desirable is a human right.”

“Oh,” she says flatly. “It’s not about that.”

“No?” says Namjoon. She can’t tell if he’s trying to be wise, or if he just lost his train of thought for a second and caught it somewhere else.

“No, I just didn’t like him. Too active. Too nice for me.” It’s not that she doesn’t feel desirable. It’s not about that at all.

Namjoon breathes out smoke Yoonji didn’t realize he was holding in. She didn’t even see him take the pipe from her. It makes her want to laugh, but she just smiles. She looks down at her hands, a little faraway, and all the knuckles and bones are fascinating and foreign, like hills and valleys. She looks at them for what feels like a long time, wondering how they’re hers, then decides she’s done. “Are you done?” she asks, her voice rough.

“Mhmm,” says Namjoon. Yoonji looks over at him, and his eyes are squeezed closed like a cat in the sun. He cracks one open and smiles. “Whatever you do is good,” he says. “Because it’s you.”

“Thank you,” she says. “Means a lot.” She watches the show that’s muted on Namjoon’s laptop for a minute, not paying attention to what’s really happening, but looking at the swirls of color as the camera pans, the shifting light as a character’s shirt bunches up and spreads out again. I’m desirable, she thinks. Then she says, “Is there a way to get prosciutto delivered?"

 

 

Yoonji works in a high-rise office building downtown, on the tenth floor, exactly halfway up. Her company has the whole floor, which is set up mostly open and without barriers to promote co-working. Yoonji shares a desk with another writer named Seokjin, near windows that look right across at more high-rises. Windows on another side look down toward the river, but the view of water is mostly obscured except from a very specific angle, though one of the bridges looks pretty against the sky on clearer days. On the side opposite from Yoonji, the building overlooks a block that’s paved over and called a park, all ringed and shaded and imposed upon by more tall buildings. Everything around her is cement, brick, glass and gleaming steel, and this time of year the cloudy light mutes any remaining color into flat grey. It makes her cold and tired.

“Hey,” says Seokjin across the open-plan desk as he pulls out one of his earbuds. “Oh, sorry, are you power napping?”

Yoonji rubs an eye with the back of a hand. “No,” she lies, sitting up. “I’m brainstorming.”

“Oh,” says Seokjin. “Don’t let me stop you. Have you got anything?”

Yoonji sighs. She doesn’t. Someone glared at her on the elevator this morning, startled out of the way when she stood too close, and it’s made her feel like her shirt’s on backwards all day. “Surrender Body To God Of Mountain.

“Um,” Seokjin sounds skeptical. “That has potential.”

“Don’t humor me,” says Yoonji. She stretches upward and her back cracks. It’s a small relief. “Do you need something?”

Seokjin yanks out his other earbud. “Yeah,” he says, bright-eyed. “Would you proofread this?”

Yoonji tucks her hair behind her ear. “You’re on a roll,” she says, impressed. “What is this, your fourth piece today?”

Seokjin nods. “Meeting quota for both of us,” he says proudly.

“My hero,” says Yoonji blankly. “Yeah, send it over. Then I’m gonna take a walk or something before I die and no one notices.”

“Someone’s having her existential crisis early today,” says Seokjin, clicking around on his laptop screen.

“How do you mean?” says Yoonji. Crisis, that seems like a strong word. She clicks Seokjin’s chat notification and follows the link to his draft.

“You usually don’t start talking like Camus until like, 3pm. But it’s not even 2 yet.”

“Wait,” says Yoonji, looking at Seokjin’s piece, titled 16 Crazy Toothbrush Hacks You’ve Been Missing. “You really got sixteen? And I never quoted Camus.”

“I think it’s sixteen? And yes you did. Directly before falling asleep at your desk, you said every day is the same until you die and even that doesn’t matter. I swear I read that in Nausea.”

The light from his laptop screen changes as he types something, and Yoonji says, “Don’t google it. And Camus wrote The StrangerNausea was Sartre.”

“My mistake,” says Seokjin mockingly.

She stops herself from leaning on her elbow on the desk. “I’m gonna read your article now.”

“The only thing stopping you is death’s relentless encroachment.”

Yoonji starts reading.

 

These crazy uses for your old toothbrushes will stun and delight your friends. Try out #7 at your next soirée!

 

Yoonji makes a gagging sound.

“Someone has to actually create content around here.”

“At what cost?” says Yoonji, but she isn’t really serious. She’s down at number four already, and is always impressed with Seokjin’s craft, even if he’s willing to write absolutely anything. When she gets to the bottom, her only critique is, “I’d like to see more focus on how many cool things everybody’s been missing all these years. Bring home that regret.”

“Oh, true,” agrees Seokjin, already typing his edits. Yoonji types 75 words per minute on a good day, but Seokjin once nonchalantly told her that he tests between 100 and 115, depending on how much coffee is in his blood.

Seokjin sends his article to their team leader. He receives an almost immediate response to publish it, posts with dramatic flair, then leans back and says, “Today is my day.” He pops an earbud back in and focuses on his screen again.

“I’ve never been this tired,” mumbles Yoonji. She raises the setting on her chair a little more to account for the amount she’s slumped. Seokjin is now on his fifth piece, and Yoonji is still being taunted by an almost-empty document. All she has to show for her day is:

 

Ideas.

1. green juice a tasty scam?
2. top 10 fantasy villains who just needed love 
3. you’ll be surprised these celebs aren’t scorpios

 

Seokjin looks at her with some genuine concern. “Maybe you should go home?” he says.

She scratches at a cheek. “Yeah,” she says. “Maybe.”

“You’re just off your game right now. You always get it back.”

Yoonji knows that, but it doesn’t make her any less bone-deep tired. She says, “Yeah, I’m useless. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“No,” says Seokjin.

“Oh, are you out tomorrow?” she asks, gathering her stuff back into her bag. Tinted chapstick, a notebook, the nice pen she brought from home, a granola bar wrapper. She struggles into her big hooded sweatshirt without standing up from her chair, then wraps her thick grey scarf around her face, and finally puts on her hat and coat. Can’t be too careful out there.

“Today is Friday,” says Seokjin. “It was Free Cookie Friday, remember?”

“Oh, yeah,” says Yoonji, muffled through her scarf. She remembers now; she ate some of those free cookies. “Then,” she corrects herself, “I’ll see you Monday.”

“Have a good weekend,” says Seokjin. “Remember to only drink the blood of the evil.”



 

The park at the foot of the building where Yoonji works is mostly paved, with trees around the edges and a tall sleek glass awning overhanging an area with tables. Yoonji looks out from the tenth floor around lunchtime some days to see the tables fill up with people in business attire, eating their lunches in the bit of sun their schedules allow them. During the summer, Yoonji is sometimes one of them, but now that the weather is so bad, she’s content to eat at her desk most of the time, only going into the park when she darts across it at the end of the day to catch her train home.

However, since it’s downtown, and the park is paved and somewhat covered, people use the area for events even in the winter. Usually it’s boring stuff, business mixers and job fairs. Once, during a particularly difficult week at work, Yoonji caught the tail end of a medieval chorus performing, and she contemplated running away with them. When she tried to talk to a few of the singers, though, they were rude to her, so she decided against a lifestyle change that day. She can’t sing anyway.

Today, as she exits the lobby of her building and cold rain slides in sheets off the low edge of the tall awning, Yoonji catches a glimpse of a gazebo set up with a banner that says Western Wines.

Yoonji doesn’t like very many things, but she does like wine. And a quick scan of the gazebo shows little translucent plastic cups set out on a velvet-covered table, behind which stands a bald man fake-smiling at someone trying a taste of something dark.

Yoonji’s been off all day, and the cold just makes it worse. She keeps thinking about the way that guy in the elevator cringed when he thought she was standing too close to him. Usually, she can let that stuff roll off, but sometimes it sticks with her, and she can’t figure out why. Maybe it bothers her more when she’s tired, or maybe it’s on days when she thinks she looks good, since there’s a further to fall. She had a good morning before work; her eyeliner came out even and she felt like she knew her reflection. So maybe that’s why it hit her in such a strange place, right under her ribs. Maybe she’s just upset that he couldn’t see what she can see. Anyway, some wine sounds really good right now. So, instead of running straight across to the train stop, she goes to the wine gazebo and starts throwing back one of every sample.

"Hi there, how are you today?” says the man starchily from behind the table. She doesn’t like him. When she doesn’t answer, he says, “We’re just out here with some samples today, have you heard of us before?”

Yoonji shakes her head and throws back a white labeled Pinot Gris.

“That's our 2015 vintage, you'll notice the flowery notes,” says the man. “And. Oh, that's the house red; that's been our best seller this year. And that one's our cabernet sauvignon. Okay, and that's our pinot noir. And that one’s moscato.”

Yoonji throws back the last one. The man is beginning to sound strained. "And that one's a riesling,” he says. “Do you have any questions?"

“Nope,” she says, finished. She turns to take her little stack of used sample cups to the nearest trash can. When she turns around, though, in a ridiculous clear poncho and a khaki Parks Service uniform, stands a startled-looking Hoseok.

Yoonji has been feeling prickly and wrong all day, and she just drank the equivalent of a glass of wine in the space of 40 seconds. Her eyes meet Hoseok’s and she tries to make three faces all at once.

“Oh,” says Hoseok, looking pleasantly startled. “Yoonji, hi. I thought that might be you, but it’s hard to tell since you’re wearing so many jackets. But hey, it’s good to see you.” He sounds so genuine, and she wonders what his game is.

“You work here?” she says doubtfully. When he called himself a park ranger on their failed date last week, she thought of misty mountains and, like, elk and shit.

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m here for the season. Just started, hm, three weeks ago? Are you up there?” He tips his head up toward her building. His poncho crinkles.

“Yes,” she says, pulling her scarf back up over her face.

“That’s great,” he says, face lighting up in the grey day. “What a coincidence.”

“Yeah, crazy,” she says.

“Well, how have you been?” He asks as he starts to walk with her. He looks really interested.

“Just great, thanks for asking,” she says. She clears her throat, and then quickly says, pointing across the block, “Well, I gotta go. My train.”

Hoseok folds his lips in and, looking thoughtful, says, “That sounds good. I guess I’ll see you around.”

It sounds like he starts to say something else, but Yoonji is already pulling her hood back over her head and jogging to her stop.



 

The first thing Yoonji does when she gets home is lay down on the floor next to where Pumpkin’s sitting, face to the window, eyes closed blissfully. “Hey, big boy,” she says.

He opens his eyes halfway to look at her. She reaches over to pet him and he hops out of the way, meeping offendedly.

She groans. “You think you’re so cool, don’t you? You’re just like your mom.”

Pumpkin sniffs at the air from across the room and dramatically licks at the spot on his back that Yoonji tried to pet.

“You smug piece of shit,” she mutters, and makes herself sit up.

She sits there mocking him for a minute, then she goes and puts her hair up, washes her face, changes into a big shirt and some old sweatpants, and falls asleep face first on top of the covers of her bed.

She wakes up when Jimin comes in. She’s singing along to her headphones, and she slams the door in time to the music. Yoonji gets her bearings in space as Jimin crashes around in the kitchen, rumpling paper bags and opening cabinets to put away groceries, her high, clear voice still ringing through the apartment.

Yoonji grapples at her phone to check the time and sees a message from Mina. You’re coming tonight, right?

“Hell,” says Yoonji, still half asleep, squinting at the bright screen. She forgot that was today. “No, I am not coming tonight,” she gripes as she types a reply. of course i am (:

Yoonji has a bad habit of flaking on Mina, and has been dreading this party for most of a month, but she promised that she’d make it to this. They’re both aware of the symbolism of the event even if they don’t say so. Yoonji is sure Mina sees this as some ultimate proof that they can be friends in a way that forgets the past, but Yoonji just thinks it sucks. She promised, though. She agreed to get Mina’s new boyfriend a gift card to the sporting goods store and show up to his party and prove that everything is different now.

She puts on the black dress that Jimin made her buy, admitting secretly to Pumpkin that she really did need it. She wears some tights and a black denim jacket, does her makeup again, eyeliner and blush and lipstick, and puts mousse in her hair to make it smoother. She keeps making eye contact with her own grimacing face in the mirror, but she has to be pretty when she hands Mina’s new boyfriend his stupid birthday card. Maybe this impending, half-forgotten thing is why her day’s been so bad.

She wraps herself back up in her scarf and coat and takes a hit from a stale, half-finished bowl by her bed. As she leaves, she sees Jimin in the kitchen in a tank top and shorts, cooking something. Yoonji peeks in to say bye, and Jimin says, “Where are you going?”

“Mina party,” says Yoonji.

“Oh, bleh,” says Jimin.

“Bleh,” agrees Yoonji.

“Tae and I are doing something later, we can come get you if you need a rescue.” Jimin doesn’t look at her, she’s flipping something in a pan.

“I’ll be okay, but thanks,” says Yoonji. “Have fun with Tae.”

“Of course. You too.” Jimin waves goodbye, and Yoonji goes to the bus stop.

 

 

Mina’s new boyfriend lives in a townhouse where all the units face outward into a courtyard, frozen and bare this late in the year, and dark like midnight even though it’s only 7:30. It’s a little fancy; on the way up she walks past an artificial pond and along a row of trees planted close together to arc over the path. She doesn’t know the unit number, but sees three nicely-dressed people holding solo cups on a front step. Yoonji follows them and squeezes her way inside, stepping from the dark courtyard into a warm little house.

Inside it’s busy, but not too crowded, and the people milling about are having mild conversations. They look mostly professional, and like they might be married, might even be parents to little kids at home. It’s weird that so many people around Yoonji’s age are settled down with careers now, when she feels like she’s still figuring out the basics. Even Mina has a job now that could become a career, and apparently Jaebum is an engineer. Yoonji wonders if Mina and Jaebum will get married someday. She wouldn’t be jealous, but something about it still sits wrong with her.

It’s more comfortable in here, so she breathes warmth onto her stiff fingers and painstakingly unbuttons her jacket. She has it folded over her arm and is almost done unwrapping her scarf when Mina spots her from the kitchen.

“Oh my god, Yoonji,” she says, lighting up. She’s wearing a small silver dress, shiny red lipstick and dark eye makeup. Her hair is half up, her legs are long. She looks beautiful. “Let me take your coat. I’m so glad you made it.”

“Me too,” says Yoonji unconvincingly. Mina hangs her coat and scarf up for her and offers her a hug. Yoonji accepts it, then she accepts the weird, deep, knowing eye contact that Mina always makes with her. “I’m really happy you came,” she says again, quieter.

“No problem,” says Yoonji.

“You look super cute, by the way,” says Mina. “You always look so nice.”

“Thanks.”

“Do you want to meet Jaebum?”

“Of course,” says Yoonji. She hears her own voice and is impressed at how much it sounds like she doesn’t want to be here. Mina is leading her by the hand into a room off to the side, where people are milling around a TV with some dumb blockbuster on mute.

Yoonji knows Jaebum when she sees him. Though she’s never met him, she's seen his pictures with Mina. He’s tall and masculine, with slicked-back hair and a sharky face. She’s sure he knows her, too. When he sees her, he gives her a forced smile, and she returns it. It’s fine, Mina probably wants this to work out badly enough for all three of them.

Jaebum raises his eyebrows at Mina, and she says, “She made it. This is Yoonji.”

Jaebum reaches out a hand to shake, and Yoonji takes it. She feels so bad. “I’m Jaebum, nice to meet you,” he says. “I’ve heard a lot.”

“Good things, I hope,” Yoonji chokes out, though she knows they aren’t. She knows what Jaebum has heard. She knows the way Mina talks about things, and then makes you promise not to tell, because it’s private, but if you’re dating her she’ll tell you anyway because couples can’t honestly be expected to keep things from each other. It’s what keeps Yoonji up at night, imagining the kinds of things Mina has said to Jaebum about her. Yoonji was Mina’s boyfriend once, too, so she knows.

“Yeah,” says Jaebum, equally forced, but the silver lining is that he doesn’t look threatened or uncomfortable, but more like he’s sorry that Yoonji has to go through this.

“I need a drink,” says Yoonji, breaking eye contact.

“Cool,” says Mina, smiling and looking oblivious, though Yoonji is sure that’s on purpose. “There’s a lot of choices.”

Yoonji returns from the kitchen a minute later with a cup of wine. She wants to go home and take a bath. She’s already done what she came to do, so she can probably leave soon without hurting Mina’s feelings too much. She can’t honestly be expected to stay.

She sits down on an empty couch to pass time. A few people she knows are here, and she can’t hide from them, so she just waits for them to come up and talk to her. Some of Mina’s close friends, who only acknowledge Yoonji now when they have to, exchange awkward pleasantries. Mina, on the other hand, has always been inexplicably energized by chatting with strangers, so she’s very caught up in conversation for a while, but when Yoonji’s about halfway through her wine, she comes to sit.

“You don’t have to stay away from everyone,” says Mina, but it’s more out of politeness than anything because they both know this situation is everything that makes Yoonji uncomfortable. She just nods; it still means something that Mina is thinking about her comfort.

“I didn’t think you were gonna really come,” Mina says quietly. She has this way of talking to Yoonji now that’s so soft-edged, so different from what it used to be. It’s been two years since they broke up, and a little under a year since they started talking again. Yoonji is waiting for the moment when Mina will stop talking to her like she needs to be held with the gentlest hands. It usually comes sooner than this.

“Of course I came,” Yoonji mumbles. “It’s important to you.”

“I’m still happy,” Mina says. “How are things?”

“Fine,” Yoonji answers automatically, but all the day’s discomfort is spreading through her with the wine, and it’s starting to become unbearable.

“Yeah?” says Mina. “How are your parents?”

Yoonji is glaring at the leg of one of the chairs at the table. She hates that her face feels hot and there are tears behind her eyes already. She hates how easily she cries now, when she needs to be tougher than ever. Maybe this kind of thing is why Mina talks to her like she’s sick. “They’re okay,” she says, keeping herself even. “You know. Doing their best.” Their best is not great, but they seem to be doing it.

“Yeah,” says Mina knowingly. “I’m happy to hear that.” She sounds a little overcome, too.

“I don’t think I can do this right now,” says Yoonji quickly, glancing over at Mina, who is so concerned for her. It wasn’t very long ago that they hated each other, and it’s hard to figure out what this relationship is supposed to be anymore. “Sorry.”

“No, I completely understand,” says Mina. Yoonji takes a gulp of wine that’s bigger than she intended, and her face scrunches up. Mina says, “I’m just happy you made it. And, you know, as always, I’m happy you’re in my life. And I think you’re doing a really good job.”

Yoonji glares so hard at the chair leg that it blurs. “Thank you.” Mina will be offended if she doesn’t return the platitude, so she says, “It’s good we’re friends.”

“Can I hug you?” asks Mina.

Yoonji nods. Mina wraps her arms around her lightly from the side and rests her head on Yoonji’s shoulder for a quick moment. Yoonji weakly returns it, forcing herself not to be crying in a stranger’s house. Then Mina lets go and stands up in a swift motion. All of a sudden, she’s bright and energetic again. “Come find me before you leave, okay?”

“Sounds good,” says Yoonji. She drinks more wine as Mina goes back to talk to Jaebum and his friends in the kitchen.

After a minute, Yoonji pulls out her phone to text Jimin.

 

just met minas new bf

ew, is he hot?

 

Yoonji is in the middle of typing yeah actually he is when Jimin sends another message.

 

are you ok?

lost 2 years off my life but yeah. i am holding up

do u want me to pick u up

me & tae are about to head out anyway

Yes.

i got u girl. send me ur location we will leave asap

 

The weight on the couch shifts as Yoonji slides her phone back into her purse, and she looks up to see Jaebum settling in next to her. “Thank you for coming,” he says. He sounds like he means it. Yoonji tries to give him a chance; she doesn’t hate him as a person, just everything he represents.

“Welcome,” says Yoonji.

“Mina loves you,” he says. “She’s really happy you’re here.”

“Well, I’m here for her.”

“She’s told me a lot about you. I’m glad you two are still friends.”

Not still friends, she thinks. Friends again. She digs in her purse. “I got you this. Happy birthday. Thanks for inviting me.”

“Oh, it’s no problem, and thank you,” says Jaebum, taking Yoonji’s card, with one corner all crumpled and her scrawly handwriting on the back. “You didn’t have to.”

She did have to, but it’s okay. She’s most of the way through her too-full solo cup of wine, and she has something else for him. “You better be good to her,” she says. She means it to be imposing, but she feels so small. “She deserves a lot of respect. And no bullshit.”

Jaebum nods, almost like he’s taking Yoonji seriously. “I wanna do right by her,” he says. “I think she’s really special.”

Yoonji can’t be too mad at that, but this whole thing still makes her sore. She says, “Okay, mister. I’m watching you.” She takes a gulp of wine and sets the cup down on the side table, then she gets up without saying anything else. She goes to the kitchen to tell Mina she’s leaving.

“Already?” says Mina, half-drunk, acting like everyone is feeling the same things as her. “What about the cake? I think it’s soon.”

“I don’t want cake,” says Yoonji. “I’ll talk to you soon, though.”

“Okay,” says Mina, seeming a little sad. She tries to take Yoonji’s hand and Yoonji pulls back.

“Sorry,” she says. “I have to go.”

Mina frowns. “Yeah,” she says. “Well, alright.”

“Talk soon, though.”

“Yeah, talk soon,” says Mina tightly, and then she turns around and goes back to talking to one of Jaebum’s friends.

In the entryway, Yoonji puts on her big scarf and her jacket. She tries to let Mina’s disappointment roll off her instead of getting under her skin, joining all the other things that lodge in her ribs. Then she goes and sits outside shivering until Jimin comes to get her.

❅ 

A little while later, Yoonji runs across the complex’s parking lot to get into Jimin’s car. Tae is driving, and Jimin is navigating from the passenger seat. Yoonji practically dives into the warmth of the back and throws the door closed behind her.

“In a hurry?” asks Tae.

“Get me out of here,” says Yoonji, teeth chattering.

“We’re going to karaoke, wanna come?” asks Jimin, turning around in her seat as Yoonji buckles herself in and Tae gets back on the road.

Yoonji pushes her hair back and takes a deep breath. “I’m already drunk,” she says. “And I’m having a bad day.”

“Then… wanna come watch us do karaoke?” says Jimin right away. “You’re already all cute, might as well save your night, right?” She smiles back at Yoonji. Streetlights flicker by as Tae drives a little too fast, and the changing light on Jimin’s highlighted cheekbones is fascinating.

“Yeah, save your night,” says Tae, swerving across two lanes to get to the left. “We’re gonna get wild.”

“Who are you meeting?”

“Nobody,” says Jimin. “And we’re going to Marie’s, so it’ll probably be dead. Tae just wanted to sing.”

Yoonji is still uncomfortable, but she figures it would be better to break down with her friends than alone at home, if she’s got to choose one. And she already feels a little less stifled and exhausted. Seeing Tae and Jimin is a relief, so she agrees. “I’ll come.”

Jimin grins and reaches back to squeeze Yoonji’s hand. Hers is so small and soft, but she has perfect acrylic nails, right now a pinkish mauve. She’s soft with a hard, glossy shell. Yoonji has a harder time feeling shitty about herself when Jimin is around. Jimin mouths You good? and Yoonji nods, smiling and trying not to seem disingenuous.

Tae screeches as they almost rear-end someone, then says, “Whoops!”

“Tae, please don’t crash my car. So embarrassing.”

“I’m trying,” says Tae, “But these people are driving like maniacs.”

 

This karaoke bar is in a quiet part of town, and can usually be depended on to be nearly empty. It survives mostly on being part of a chain with several far busier locations. Yoonji doesn’t know why they keep this one open, but she appreciates it. Even when it’s busier, the people who come are usually a little older, a little less trendy. The pressure is low enough that even Yoonji has been persuaded to sing, on two separate occasions, when she was drunk enough. The first time, she sang Heart's These Dreams, and the second, she drunkenly mumbled through Heart of Glass

The lighting is low, the walls are mostly bare, the drinks are cheap and strong, and the song selection hasn’t been updated in five years at fewest. Tae and Jimin usually prefer to show off when they go out, but this half-dead dive bar is one of Yoonji’s favorite places. She wonders if Jimin and Tae re-routed their evening plans when they decided to invite her along.

As they walk up from the car, the sound of someone butchering a standard bleeds in from outside. Under her beige wool coat, Jimin is wearing a pale pink silk shirt tucked into a tight skirt, and her long pastel grey hair is curled perfectly. Tae is wearing slacks and an explosively-colored blouse with a high ruffled collar. Yoonji can almost hear them calling it a Goodwill Steal – who would get rid of such a treasure? Compared to the two of them, in her plain dark colors, Yoonji feels comfortably underdressed.

The bouncer who checks their IDs recognizes them, which is nice. Yoonji looks old enough and probably surly enough that she doesn’t always get carded anymore, but is still little anxious whenever it happens. It was a lot worse before she finished updating her ID last year, but there’s stress left over. She thinks people look at it harder than they used to.

Jimin insists on getting everybody’s first round, but Yoonji says, “I think I want to sober up. I’ll drive home later. You two have fun.”

“You sure?” says Jimin.

Yoonji nods. She’s teetering right now; she thinks another drink is likely to end in tears. “Get me water,” she says.

As Jimin goes to get drinks, Yoonji and Tae head the other way, to the big room where someone is now trying to rap. Yoonji heard laughter and chatter as she walked in, but she doesn’t realize how many people are actually here until she and Tae are scoping out tables. It looks mostly like one big party, Yoonji thinks, just as she sees someone at one of the big tables with a pile of gifts stacked in front of them. Above the stage, there's a tinsel banner that says Happy Birthday, swaying and glittering in the stage lights. There must be thirty people here. Yoonji takes a deep breath.

Tae looks down at her and makes questioning eye contact. Yoonji shrugs. “Where do you want to sit?” she yells.

Tae points at one small table off to the side. There are glasses on it, but they look like just ice. Yoonji leads them there.

They sit across from each other. Tae has sparkly pink lipgloss on and a shimmery blue clip in their hair. They smile at each other. One thing that is comforting about Tae is that Yoonji doesn't have to say that much for them to understand each other. Tae looks happy that Yoonji came along, and Yoonji returns the same look, though she doesn’t know how she actually feels. She’s avoiding overthinking it. She’s safe with her friends, but she probably should have gone straight home.

Jimin comes to the table, holding three glasses gracefully between her hands.

“What’d you get?” asks Tae as Jimin sits down next to them.

“Screwdriver,” says Jimin. “They ran out of punch.”

“Poor thing,” says Tae, squeezing Jimin’s shoulder.

“I got you a margarita.”

“Yay, thanks.”

“And water for the designated driver,” Jimin says, sliding a glass over to Yoonji.

After a minute of drinking and deliberating, Jimin and Tae put in songs together. When they come back, Tae says, “KJ told me there are 15 songs before us, so get ready to wait around.”

Yoonji does some math in her head about how long 15 songs take. Then she looks at the time on her phone, and she decides she can do it. An hour to sober up and sit with her friends is not a bad thing.

Some of the people with the big party sing very bad songs, but some of them are very good, exciting and impressive. Tae and Jimin get really into someone’s rendition of a Vanessa Carlton song, and Tae yells, “I almost picked this one, but she did it better!”

Yoonji tries to pay attention to the singers instead of focusing on herself. She claps at the end of every song. She finds herself having a good time; she relaxes her shoulders, and she starts looking forward to Tae and Jimin’s songs.

It doesn’t feel like much time has passed when the KJ calls Jimin to the little stage. Yoonji and Tae yell for her as she takes the mic and strikes a pose. Behind her, the screen lights up: Seven Wonders, in the style of Fleetwood Mac.

“Yes!” Tae yells, clapping loudly. “Incredible!”

Jimin is both a talented singer and a talented dancer, as well as being very beautiful. Her voice is much softer and clearer than the original song, but she sings it with conviction while making eye contact with her audience. Even some of the people who came here for the stranger’s birthday party stop talking to watch her. She is hard not to admire. She’s small-framed but sturdy, with the proud posture of an athlete. Her makeup is interesting today; rather than the heavy no-makeup makeup look that Yoonji is used to seeing, she’s got fairly outlandish pink glitter on her eyelids and cheekbones. She’s shiny. She looks happy. She is so important to Yoonji.

Tae is a different kind of beautiful. Directly after Jimin, they sing If I Could Turn Back Time, as soulfully and attention-loving as Yoonji’s ever seen. They do flowy moves and make dramatic faces, and both Yoonji and a flushed, smiley Jimin are torn between laughter and awe. As soon as Tae sits back down, Yoonji can read Jimin’s lips say, “You’re amazing.” The two of them are so nice to each other.

Yoonji remembers the guy in the elevator this morning who didn’t want her to stand too close. She thinks about running into Hoseok in the park this afternoon, and about Mina, talking to her like she’d crumble if a breeze blew too hard through the room. Yoonji thinks about a lot of things all the time, but she doesn’t feel so overwhelmed right now. She’s not great at expressing herself when she feels vulnerable, but she’s trying. “Thanks for taking me out,” she says, a little suddenly, as Jimin and Tae are cackling at each other about something.

“Love you!” says Tae, grinning. Their eyeliner is a little smudged, but they’re still beautiful.

Jimin just smiles warmly and pats Yoonji’s shoulder across the table.

They start to get up to leave, because it’s getting late and Yoonji is exhausted. Tae is smiley and friendly, and Jimin seems content and relaxed. Yoonji is happy that she agreed to tag along; her night is much better than it would have been at home. All of them are comfortable, laughing as they pull their jackets back on and making sure they have their things before they leave. It’s always times like this when someone has something to say.

It’s a couple of guys from the big party. They’ve been passively staring a little, but if Yoonji was angry about everyone who passively stared she’d never have time to seek inner peace. These two guys don’t want to let them leave without saying something, so from a couple tables over, one of them spits a word they all hate.

Yoonji winces. She looks stonily at Jimin instead of in the direction of the two guys, and there is fire behind Jimin’s eyes as she glares. Then Yoonji looks to Tae, who is frowning, looking more disappointed than hurt. Yoonji hears the guys laugh. They don’t even sound cruel, they almost sound embarrassed. But they have nobody to impress by shouting slurs at strangers, and Yoonji really feels it. Her skin’s thin today. She refuses to look over at them, stares forward at Jimin instead.

But while Jimin’s fire doesn’t go out, she also doesn’t react with rage or pain. She just slurps at the ice in her glass, then smiles a little evilly across at the other table, waving with her fingers. “Good one,” she says.

“Yeah, ouch,” says Tae, also smiling. Then they look at Yoonji and laugh lightly.

“Do you have more for us?” says Jimin, loud enough for other people to overhear. “Or are you good?”

Yoonji finally glances over at the two guys. They look a little weak and ashamed and ugly, and she thinks they’ve probably never said something like that before. They were probably just feeling drunk and brave, but she doesn’t sympathize.

The guys have nothing else to say except to nervously laugh, and Tae scoffs as they walk by their table to the front door. “You’re fools,” Tae says, and it somehow sounds a lot more clever and powerful than what the two guys called them. As they walk out the door to Jimin’s car, Yoonji finds herself smiling again.



 

“Whoa, what happened to you?” says Yoonji, slinging her bag and jacket over the back of her rolly chair before plopping down. It’s a bright Monday morning after a week when it didn’t stop raining, and she’s enjoying the sunlight, if nothing else.

That’s not the case for Seokjin. He’s usually incredibly handsome, like a medieval prince, but today one of his eyes is almost swollen shut and his face is red and splotchy. He’s sitting limply, like he’s given up on himself. “You look wrecked,” she says.

Seokjin pouts, wincing. “It’s not what you think,” he starts.

“What do I think?”

“You think I have this rock-and-roll lifestyle,” he mutters. “Always… partying with local folk heroes, getting to steer all these fancy boats.” He gesticulates weakly. He looks so hungover.

“I do not think think that,” says Yoonji.

“The truth is much less glamorous.”

Yoonji scoffs; Seokjin looks up at her with sick, puffy eyes. “My parents are staying with me this week.”

“Okay,” she says. “Did you and your mom go on a daiquiri bender?”

“No,” he says. “They brought their new dog. Sophie. But she should be called Sneezy.”

“Clever,” says Yoonji. “I didn’t know you were allergic to dogs.”

“Some dogs,” he says. “Only some. It’s a mystery yet unsolved by modern medicine.” He takes a sip of his iced coffee, stretching his lips grotesquely to the straw so he doesn’t have to move his head from where it’s resting on a weak fist. “I think I’ll be fine. Sneezy just rubbed her body on my face all night. But I took like three allergy pills earlier, so I’ll probably be fine.”

“Three, huh?”

“Yeah,” Seokjin croaks. “Three times the strength.”

“Does it work that way?”

“Probably. But how was your weekend, Yoonji?” he asks, feigning enthusiasm. “Did you do anything cool?”

“No,” she says. “Unless getting wine drunk and crying in my best friend’s car counts.” She winces; that comes off a little desperate. “Just kidding.”

“Namjoon?” Seokjin asks, looking piqued.

“No,” she says. “Jimin.”

“Oh.” He takes another weird sip of his coffee. “Isn’t that what you and Jimin always do?”

“Forgive me for being in touch with my emotions,” Yoonji grumbles, and Seokjin laughs so hard that he chokes. It sounds bad, and Yoonji wonders idly if he needs help. She bites back a smile, too, and says, “Oh, get bent.”

Forgive me for being in touch with my emotions, she says.”

“My foot’s gonna be in touch with your caboose.”

“What were you crying about?” says Seokjin.

“What?”

“In Jimin’s car?” He snorts his allergy snot back up his nose.

“Oh,” says Yoonji. “Nothin’. But thanks.”

“Anytime,” says Seokjin, doing sad, crooked finger guns, then he coughs so hard into a tissue that Yoonji has to put her headphones in to drown it out.

 

 

Late that afternoon, Yoonji runs into Hoseok as she cuts across the park on the way to the train. Or, Hoseok runs into her. She’s almost to the crosswalk when she hears him jogging up, stupid clear poncho crinkling.

“Hey, Yoonji,” he says, hands in the pockets of his park jacket with a name tag she didn’t notice before: Hobi. “How’s it going?”

Yoonji isn’t sure why he’s asking her personal questions as if they are friends. She says, “Fine.”

“You’re off early today,” he says, smiling, walking alongside her.

“I make my own schedule,” she says. She came in early this morning because she made happy hour plans with Jimin.

“Cool,” says Hoseok. They’re about at the edge of the park, and it seems like Hoseok has picked up that she doesn’t want to talk to him right now. “Well,” he says, a little defeated, “Have a good afternoon.”

“Sorry, yeah. I’m kind of in a hurry.” Yoonji isn’t trying to be rude, but she doesn’t like how familiarly he talks to her. They’re not friends like that. They’re not friends at all. She leaves him at the corner of his block and half-jogs to the train stop.

She thinks about it as she watches downtown pass by out the window: her building, the sprawling mall, then down at the grey river as the train crosses a tall bridge. She wonders why Hoseok thinks she still wants to talk to him, after such a failure of a date. She wonders why he doesn’t just let it go.

When she gets home, she’s surprised that Jimin’s keys aren’t on the hook, but then she looks at her phone.

 

On my way!

oh, yuck

oh yuck

 

Jimin walks in a few minutes later, throwing her bag on the couch and saying, “Sorry I’m late. This lady walked in three minutes before close and would not leave.” She does a mean impression. “I have combo skin and I need special cream.”

“It’s fine,” says Yoonji, who is standing at the kitchen counter eating cold leftovers. “But we should get going pretty soon if we don’t want to miss happy hour.”

“Sure, let me just change,” says Jimin.

If Yoonji didn’t know better, she’d ask Jimin what was wrong with what she was already wearing. Even at her most bedraggled, Jimin looks more put together than Yoonji at her best. She’d tell Jimin she looked fine, they should just go, but she knows that the answer is always going to be the same. Jimin will never leave until she’s ready, and no force of heaven or earth can fight it.

Yoonji follows Jimin into her room and plops down on her bed, lying back on top of the covers with her phone open while Jimin chooses an outfit.

She has a message from Namjoon.

 

mausoleum tour today

u were supposed to take me??

service is bad -- I’m in a crypt. will let u know how it went.

awaiting a full report.

 

Jimin chose her room in this apartment based on its bigger closet. She slides the mirrored door open and takes out three tops before she even tries one on. Instead of puzzling over them, she throws off the grey sweater she wore to work and pulls on one of the shirts she set out. It’s a soft knit in burgundy, low-cut and drapey. She looks at herself in the mirror and says, “Oh. This is good.”

“It is,” agrees Yoonji. “It’s boob-y.”

“Great. I’ll look available.”

Yoonji sort of scoffs, but tries to hide it. If Jimin is available, then Yoonji is a sweetheart. She’s so blind to what’s in front of her, but it's not Yoonji's job to play matchmaker. 

Jimin tugs at her shirt a little to get it to sit right, and is satisfied enough to start looking for pants. Yoonji is amazed it was that easy, though Jimin is still not nearly done fussing. But, though she spends a while fixing her makeup, she seems uncommonly easygoing about her appearance today.

She peeks out of the bathroom and says, “Am I wearing too much highlighter?”

“No,” says Yoonji placatingly.

“Guess I need more,” says Jimin, and she goes back in and gets even shinier.

“Hey,” says Yoonji.

Jimin peeks out.

Yoonji puts her phone down. “I like you when you don’t take yourself so seriously.”

Jimin laughs self-consciously, then acts like she doesn’t know what Yoonji is talking about.

“You know,” says Yoonji. She’s only willing to be so sentimental in one go.

“I guess I’ve been talking to Tae,” says Jimin, back in the bathroom across the hall, just out of Yoonji’s line of sight.

“Really?” asks Yoonji, wondering if this means what she thinks it means. That maybe they admitted they were soulmates, or whatever. Though Yoonji would certainly have heard about that before now. They’d probably both have told her immediately.

“Yeah,” says Jimin. “About… what you said. Taking everything so seriously. They said something interesting.”

“Hm?” says Yoonji, locking her phone and setting it down on her chest, still laying back in Jimin’s bed.

“They said, that seems uncomfortable.”

“What does?”

“Something I was wearing. That blue top with the laces up the sides. I can't really move in it.”

Yoonji doesn’t really get it, but she says, “Okay.”

Jimin, now all luminescent, comes out of the bathroom and spreads back on her plush bed next to Yoonji. “I’m uncomfortable a lot, you know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“Tae’s almost never uncomfortable.”

“I admire that about them,” says Yoonji. Tae is so comfortable in their skin, so amicable, so difficult to offend. Yoonji’s talked to them about that before, too.

“We’ve just been talking, I guess.” Jimin sighs. She seems like she’s going to say more, but maybe doesn’t want to, or maybe doesn’t have the words, so she sits up. “Should we go? I think I’m ready.”

 

 

Yoonji and Jimin are seated in the dim corner of a trendy bar just over the river long before happy hour is over. It’s Jimin’s turn to order for them, so she leaves her bag and her coat hung over the back of the chair and goes to the bar. Yoonji checks her phone to a bunch of messages from Namjoon.

 

I love this shit.

All the volunteers were old people dressed in goth period attire

Look, it’s you. 

 

He sends a picture of a mourning angel statue, her face draped in sheer fabric. 

 

thanks i guess

 

There was scary accordion music playing when i went into these catacombs and i didn’t know if it was a recording or live.

And then i walked all the way to the end and there was a goth girl playing accordion in a pitch black crypt.

 

u need to take me asap

 

“I got you whiskey soda,” says Jimin, tossing her hair back as she slips into the booth and puts two drinks down. “Wine’s not on happy hour.”

“What kind of a bar is this?” whispers Yoonji as she sets her phone face down on the table, pulling her drink over and sipping through the stir straw. “Why did you bring me here if the wine’s not on sale?”

Jimin takes a sip of her drink, too. It’s deep pink, with berries and mint leaves floating in a mason jar. “Should have called ahead,” Jimin agrees.

“What did you get?”

“Some kind of jungle juice,” shrugs Jimin.

“Is it good?”

Jimin smiles, straw between her teeth, and takes a big drink. “Sure,” she says unconvincingly. Then she asks, “What’d you do today?”

“Uh,” Yoonji thinks. “Wrote an article about fidget spinners. And made a lot of progress on 10 Things You Didn’t Know About The Moon.”

“That’s an honorable use of a journalism degree. Truthfulness, accuracy, what is it?”

“Accountability, fairness, humanity, objectivity. Yeah. Fidget spinners.”

“Proud of you.”

Yoonji goes on. “I have to step up because Seokjin's been hallucinating all week. He took three allergy pills yesterday, and when I asked him what he was working on, he was just like, I’m astral projecting all over the place.”

“He’s such a mess,” smiles Jimin.

“I love him, but if he doesn’t stop blowing his nose every thirty seconds, I might have to end him.” She thinks back on her day. “Oh, and I saw that guy I went on a date with the other week. Did I tell you he works below my building?”

“No,” says Jimin, gossipy, taking a sip of her jungle juice. “Joon’s friend, right?”

“Yeah, he said he was a park ranger, but he’s actually a park host.”

“What’s that mean?”

Yoonji shrugs. “Don’t know. Probably that he’s a liar. Anyway, he always wants to talk when I see him.”

“But you hate to make friends,” nods Jimin.

“No, I just don’t want to make friends with him.”  

“But isn’t he actually sweet?”

“I think too sweet. For me. I don’t know if he’s smart.”

“Well,” says Jimin. “You don’t have to like him just because he’s Joon’s friend.”

“Whatever,” says Yoonji. “What about you? What was your day like?”

“Oh, normal. I just worked.” She’s distracted, looking above Yoonji’s head at the TV over the bar. “Hey, would you want to go see The Darkening with me? It’s supposed to be actually scary.”

“Sure,” asks Yoonji, twisting around to catch the tail end of the preview playing on the muted screen. The screen goes black, then the title slashes across the screen in red like tearing claws. “Tonight?”

“Maybe tomorrow? I’m meeting Tae after this.”

“Tomorrow’s good,” shrugs Yoonji. “How’s Tae?” she asks, at the bottom of her weak drink already.

Jimin smiles without her eyes. “Oh, good. Super.”

“Not convincing.”

“Thanks.” Jimin looks a little morose. “It’s the usual stuff. I don’t wanna fuck it up.”

“Just” Yoonji says, “Just… be yourself.”

“Wise,” says Jimin. “I’ll make sure to follow that advice.”

Yoonji’s phone vibrates on the table. She looks at it, then sets it back down without opening the message. When Jimin looks at her questioningly, Yoonji says, “It’s just Mina. Go on. You’re in romantic love with your best friend, what else? What are you two doing after this?”

“Ew, what does Mina want?”

“To make plans this week.”

“You can invite her to The Darkening with us, if you want.”

“She hates horror movies,” mutters Yoonji. They always make her scream, and then she gets embarrassed and stops having fun. She’s always cranky by the end. “Do you think I could just ignore her?”

“Not if you want her to think you two are cool.”

Yoonji messes with her hair. Her bangs are getting kind of long. “I don’t know if we are cool.”

Jimin slurps at the bottom of her drink and looks up at Yoonji, a little concerned. “You don’t have to be cool.”

“It’s just weird,” says Yoonji. “I don’t know if she knows how weird it is.”

“You’d think she would,” says Jimin.

“I guess it’s nice of her to want to talk to me.”

“Take care of yourself first,” says Jimin, looking at Yoonji seriously, and then she swoops out of the booth. “Another? I’m getting another.”

Yoonji checks her phone for the time and sees another message from Mina. It’s still early. “Sure, another,” she says.

 

❅ 

 

After high school, Yoonji got to go to her first choice college. It was huge and far from home, and she thought that she’d be able to become a girl without anyone really noticing.

She knew, logically, that it wouldn’t go like that, but she thought it might be easy. She’d lay low until it was over and then she’d be fine. She had been forming her plan since tenth grade. 

It wouldn’t have worked in high school. She grew up in a smallish suburb, and she didn’t want the people who had known her since she was tiny to watch her undergo this change. She didn’t think they’d let her do it. After it was over, she’d figure out how to come home proudly, but she wanted to disappear while she figured it out.

But she planned it too exactly, and didn’t think about the way the world is; harsh, and inconvenient, and surprising. On a level, she’d known that she’d need to be tough, but she hadn’t realized exactly how tough. She thought she was ready. 

It was impossible to lay low completely, because she still had to go to class, still had to leave her room a lot. She didn’t want to hide inside anyway, when the fall weather was so comfortable and the campus was so pretty. And she didn’t really follow her own rule not to make any friends. It all got messier than she wanted.

She started to collect new clothes, grow her hair out, wear subtle makeup and generally try to trick new people into thinking that she’d always been like this. But it was hard not to take things personally. People said things, sometimes asked things, and she didn’t even know how to talk about it yet. She didn’t know how to say, actually, I’m a girl. That’s second nature now, and sometimes it doesn’t even bother her to say it. It’s not like she can blame people for having their heads up their asses. Well, she can, but if she spent her whole life being mad at everybody who doesn’t know better, she’d never rest. Life is hard enough. Her general grudge against the universe probably covers most uncomfortable day-to-day interactions. 

Now, she’s got the thick skin she didn’t have the first time she went to college. When people at convenience stores say, have a good day, sir, she’s good at looking at them like, what the fuck. “Actually, I’m a woman,” she sometimes says. Especially if she’s buying alcohol, because her ID says F and it was a hassle to change and it’s just bad form for people not to acknowledge the money and patience and hard work that goes into these things.

It’s now more of a problem with old friends than it is with strangers. Strangers behave themselves more often than not, but people from before can be surprisingly hard to convince. Her parents live an hour from her, so has to visit sometimes, and she's caught up with a couple of old friends since transitioning. People from high school or her first jobs that she ignored for a long time, thinking she had to choose between two lives. But part of doing this so late was trying to accept that it’s not feasible to meet all new people and make all new friends. She can’t run from her life again. She just has to deal with the fact that people she trusted still sometimes say her old name.

“Honestly, it’s not that hard,” she told someone, one of the more recent times she was home. She was going to eat dinner with her parents later, but met up for coffee with a high school friend on the way. It was a girl she’d either had a crush on or wanted to be; she can never figure out the distinction when she looks back. She’d never acted on it, though, and they’d just been slightly awkward lab partners as juniors, then slightly awkward friends as seniors. “It’s one letter different. Yoonji. With a J.”

“It might be easier if it was a completely different name,” said her old friend. “It’s hard to remember since it’s so close.”

Depending on Yoonji’s mood, she responds to things like that on a sliding scale from slightly vindictive all the way up to hateful. This time, she said, “Guess I wasn’t thinking about you when I chose my name.”

It’s not even that she really minds her old name. She even considered keeping it, but thought that might send a message that she didn’t really mean it, didn’t care that much if people gave a new version of her a chance. And that’s the only reason she doesn’t like it now; she only hears it when people don’t take her seriously.

She thought about a lot of names. The first time she went to college, she was sure it was going to be Haneul. But the first time she went to college, she was trying to become someone else. Her expectations are different now. She’s not grasping at an identity she doesn’t understand anymore, she just wants to like herself.

Now, it’s more like she’s getting rid of things that were always in the way before. She’s still finding, day by day, an estimation of the person that she’s always been. In college, the first time, it wasn’t like that. It was a frantic grappling at this image of femininity that she didn’t even relate to. And she didn’t want anyone to know what she was doing, and she was terrified.

The biggest problem with college, the first time she went, was that she didn’t have an accurate view of what her life was going to be like. She didn’t even know how to regulate her own sleep schedule or keep herself fed; she had no idea what it meant to be an adult. The problem was that she thought it would be easy, but she had no idea about anything. That first semester, she started having panic attacks, and she developed this paranoid anxiety that never really went away. She went to school that semester a sweet and optimistic person, but she hasn’t found that again since.

By the time she went back home, she’d rethought a lot of things. It was the hardest part of her life, harder even than the months leading up to coming out for real, six years later. She had an image of the world that was proven very wrong very quickly, and the plummet was painful.

Looking back, a lot of things caused it. She was depressed, she was scared, and she thought people were looking at her all the time. She thought they were talking about her. She’d realized that she had chosen, between two paths, the one that would require her to be constantly vigilant, forever. The one that had gotten her yelled at, once, as she crossed the street to the campus bookstore, and the one that had made the tentative math friend she’d made at the beginning of the semester decide he didn’t want to look at her anymore.

That’s her life now, too. When she came out, her office friendships changed. Though her company is supportive, she knows which of her coworkers are uncomfortable. People in cars yell out their windows at her. More than once, on the train, men have sat down next to her and struck up conversations just to tell her she’s misguided, as if she invited that at all. Sometimes, she reads comments on things online, and it quickly reminds her. No matter how many people love her, no matter how lucky she is to have an intact life and a job and parents, there are people in the world and people around her who do not think she is a woman, or even really a person.

In college, she realized she had chosen one of two paths, and when she realized how hard it was going to be to live the rest of her life as a girl, she reassessed. She measured the two paths against each other. The different kinds of misery that came with each one. The kind of misery that came from other people and was costly and would take a long time, or the kind that she could just hold onto in silence for the rest of her life. She decided on the second one.

Because of this, and because she was too anxious to go to class much and too embarrassed to show her face, she dropped out of school and moved back home. It was just too much all at once, she told her parents. She just wasn’t ready.


 

The next morning, Yoonji gets to work early with two green smoothies. She’s trying really hard to beat the discomfort that’s been nagging at her lately, and, according to everyone, eating and sleeping well are supposed to help. Though a few years ago she’d try to argue with claims like that, she now understands that her mind and her body are intrinsically connected.

“Hey, Allerjin,” she says, forcing herself to be upbeat, scooting his smoothie across the table. “I got you vitamins.”

“Yuck,” he says, “What is this?” He makes a grossed-out face, which isn’t that different from what he looks like already, with his eyes all swollen like that.

“It’s gonna heal you. Jeez, can you not lock Sneezy out of your room at night?”

“I did,” says Seokjin. “But her hair is already everywhere. And after spending yesterday in the fifth dimension, I no longer know how I feel about Zyrtec.”

“Are your parents doing anything about this?”

“They’re trying to find a dog sitter, but nothing yet.” He sniffles. “Thanks for the vegetables,” he says pitifully.

“Anytime,” she says, then she tries to get to work for both of them.

 

 

On Wednesday, Yoonji and Hoseok take the same train.

Yoonji is reading on her phone, so she doesn’t see him until he comes and stands right over her. “Yoonji, hi,” he says. He looks happy to see her there. The train is dim from the sky gone grey and rainy again after a few days of cold November sunshine. He’s wearing the park hat that doesn’t fit right on his weird head and folds his ears over, but has changed into a denim jacket.

She pulls her headphones out. “Hi, Hoseok.”

“Hey, how are you?” he asks, and he sits right next to her.

This feels like a violation of personal space. Yoonji doesn’t know why Hoseok thinks they’re best friends just because they work near each other and met one time. “I’m not interested in dating you,” she says, just so he doesn’t get the wrong idea.

“Wow,” he says quickly, eyes big, a hand coming to his chest. “I didn’t think you were. We’re just on the same train.”

“Stop following me,” she says. “It’s weird.”

“I’m… not,” he says, looking hurt. “We’re on the same train.”

She feels suddenly like she is in over her head.

As she searches for a response, Hoseok says, “Um, what’s your problem? I’m just being nice because I see you everywhere. I’m trying to be friendly.” When she looks up at him in mild shock, he seems really upset. “You don’t have to be rude.”

“Okay,” she says, because she doesn’t know what else to say. She wants to say something else, but she doesn’t know what, so she just looks at him. “Yeah.”

That is not good enough for Hoseok. He gives her a mean look, then grabs the railing to steady himself as he slings his bag over his shoulder and goes to sit at the other end of the train.

 

 

One time, toward the very end of their relationship, Yoonji made Mina cry.

They were arguing about something so stupid, what movie they wanted to see and when and where, but both of them were starting to take little arguments too personally, Yoonji especially.

“Why are we even doing this?” Yoonji snapped, after Mina took her phone out of her hand to scroll showtimes.

Mina let Yoonji take her phone back and frowned. “Do you not even want to try?” she said. They were already dressed to go out, Mina in a suede skirt and a flowy floral blouse, and Yoonji in jeans and a beanie. “That’s it? You just don’t want to go?”

“Not if it’s like this,” said Yoonji, pushing Mina’s hand away when she tried to reach out, like a kid having a tantrum.

“I’ve hardly seen you all week,” said Mina, starting to get watery. “I was really looking forward to this, and now we can’t even pick a showing of Jurassic World. Dude, what do you want?” She sounded so defeated.

What do you want. Yoonji laughed. She wanted lot of things, some so badly that she couldn’t think about anything else, and for so long that they felt like a part of who she was. Not the things themselves, just the wanting of them. But that wasn’t what they were talking about. “I don’t want to see Jurassic World.”

“That’s not what I asked you,” said Mina, tears in her eyes, standing close to Yoonji and getting tall like she had to prove she could stand her ground. “What do you want?”

Yoonji took a deep breath and said, “I want to order in and watch a movie here.”

And that’s when Mina cried.

Yoonji didn’t understand it at the time; she thought she was giving Mina what she wanted. A date, the basic maintenance of a relationship, even though Yoonji couldn’t stand being around anyone right then. She thought she was compromising.

A year later, one of the times they met up to clear the air, Mina laughed at her for that. “I know,” she said. “You thought you were meeting me halfway, but I just wanted to know what you were thinking. I thought you hated me, I didn’t even know why we were still together. I thought you were cheating.”

Yoonji was sad to hear that. “I didn’t know you thought I was cheating.”

Mina made an apologetic face and said, simple, “I found lipstick in your bag.”

“Ah.”

“Sorry. I didn’t really go through it, I was just looking for a lighter.”

“Cool,” said Yoonji. She wasn’t mad, just uncomfortable, which was kind of just the way. “That’s fine.”

“I get it now,” said Mina awkwardly.

Yoonji took a sip of her tea. To cut the tension, she said flatly, “Well, the lipstick was mine.”

Mina smiled a little, so selflessly understanding that Yoonji had to return it. 

Yoonji wasn’t in the habit of carrying makeup before she broke up with Mina, so she thinks she knows the exact night that Mina found the lipstick in her bag. She almost remembers the diner, how she was exhausted, late spring in the dead of night, nobody on the road, and the trip to the bathroom that she spent locked in the stall gathering herself. She took so long, she thinks, that Mina reached into the front pocket of Yoonji's plain black backpack to find a lighter, but grabbed an unassuming silver tube of lipstick instead. Yoonji knows the shade: Uptown Girl, almost blood-red. She still wears that color often.

She knows why it was in the front of her backpack instead of with the others at home, shoved into an old plastic drug store bag in the back of a bathroom drawer behind razors, extra deodorant, a bottle of mouthwash; she knows why it wasn’t pushed into the dark and hidden back there as if she didn’t live alone, as if anyone would even care if they knew it was there.

Yoonji had seen Jimin that day. They weren’t really friends, but they had this kind of understanding, and Yoonji trusted her, albeit in a strange and hesitant way. Yoonji had trust with Jimin that she couldn’t even have with Namjoon, exactly. Probably because he already knew too many of her embarrassments, and wouldn’t allow her to get away with carrying around another one.

Yoonji was an increasingly frequent visitor to the small makeup store where Jimin worked in the outdoor mall downtown. Over the past month, they had developed a sort of routine. On a Tuesday or a Wednesday on her lunch breaks, Yoonji would walk two blocks to Jimin’s store. Then, if Jimin was working alone and if there were no customers inside, Yoonji would go in and pretend to be looking for gifts for her girlfriend.

That never felt good to say, even though, in this lie, the girlfriend wasn’t Mina. It just felt stupid, and Jimin knew it as well as Yoonji did. Yoonji knew right away that telling Jimin the truth would feel better than lying, whether to keep her secret or just out of habit. But there were a lot of times through the years when telling the truth would have been easier. A lot of times when it would have been harder, too, and the nature of Yoonji’s problem was that one didn’t come without the other. Either come out with it, and be strong enough to face all the good and all the bad, or don’t, and hold it under your skin like the soreness is just part of who you are.

But, Yoonji thinks that might have been the day she finally told Jimin. She remembers Uptown Girl and she remembers being so shaky and overwhelmed later that night that she’d hidden in the men’s bathroom at the diner instead of lighting up in the alley with Mina. So Mina had dug for a lighter and found blood-red lipstick instead.

Whether it was the same day or not, Yoonji remembers telling Jimin with perfect clarity. It’s one of the clearest memories of her life, along with the appointment with the endocrinologist when she’d gotten her anemia figured out and they finally prescribed her hormones, and breaking up with Mina, and standing on a bridge in the middle of the night during freshman year of college and willing herself to let go of whatever was keeping her from jumping into the black water.

Jimin was wearing what Yoonji has since come to know as her standard makeup look. She calls it a no-makeup look, but it involves a lot more makeup than Yoonji knows how to apply, even still. She had a french braid around the side of her head but the rest of her hair was loose, curled and bouncy. Her hair was honey blonde at the time. Yoonji wanted to be her.

“Back again?” Jimin asked, looking blandly up from the phone that she didn’t even bother to hide behind the register. They both knew why Yoonji was here. They both knew this was a lie they were telling because Yoonji couldn’t bear to say the truth yet, even though the truth was right there, in kicks and ripped jeans and a beanie, glaring at the mascara display and refusing to ask incriminating questions. They both knew why she only visited when Jimin was alone, and why, when she described the girlfriend she was ostensibly there buying gifts for, she always had the same skin tone and eye shape as Yoonji did. It was so obvious, and finally, maybe the same day that Mina later found the lipstick in her bag, Yoonji figured she had to just say it.

Though, honestly, it wasn’t only because the lie had become unsustainable, or because Jimin had mentioned being trans, or because she was always so gentle and helpful and worded her questions in a way that never assumed anything. It was also because Yoonji’s therapist had made her promise to tell someone that week.

“Whether you want to or not, whether it’s their business or not,” her therapist had told her, “You’re going to have to tell every person you know, one way or another.”

“I know,” Yoonji had said.

“Have you considered coming out to your girlfriend?”

“Not yet,” she’d said. She was going to tell Mina and dump her at the same time, because she was the worst. She wasn’t ready for all that yet. As soon as she told Mina, everyone would know. Mina couldn’t know until Yoonji was ready. All the way ready, to be herself all the time, forever.

Her therapist had made her promise to tell just one person. She’d hinted that it should be Namjoon, or maybe Seokjin. Yoonji chose to tell her acquaintance, an employee at a makeup store.

The small store was grey and cool like a cave, but the lights that cut down from the ceiling were hot and harsh and bright. Yoonji usually hid out of the spotlights, but when she told Jimin, she was lit from above like someone on a stage. She felt garish and on-display , but it didn’t stop her from saying it once she had decided it was time. It was just too stupid to keep saying things like, “My girlfriend says Crazy for Coral is too pink. It doesn’t suit her.”

She didn’t use any of the keywords; those were still uncomfortable. She just interrupted Jimin in the middle of describing a kind of eyeliner and said, “This is for me.”

“Hm,” said Jimin quietly. “That’s good info.”

“Okay,” said Yoonji, stomach-sick even though she knew it was fine; maybe just sick from the physical release of her private words into the still air of the store.

“This will help because you can make sure the colors are good before you buy them.”

Yoonji exhaled, inhaled, exhaled. She said, “I think I want to try some really red lipstick.” Before I met you, I was still using makeup I stole from my mom in high school.

“I think that would suit you,” said Jimin. She looked quietly proud, and it didn’t make Yoonji feel any less exposed, but it wasn’t painful. It was overwhelming, but now that her heart was slowing down, she almost felt like laughing.

Yoonji tried a few colors before she found the shade that she ended up taking home, without a bag, just tucked into the pocket of her backpack. They were alone and spoke quietly, except for a customer who came in while Jimin was helping Yoonji try on a color that ended up being too orange.

“Welcome in,” said Jimin. “Can I help you find anything today?” From her tone, she clearly meant, You’re interrupting a private conversation.

The other woman left as Yoonji hid her face in her hands, silently laughing with embarrassment. Jimin turned back to her, immediately gentle and sweet again. She could be like that: soft-voiced and accommodating, loving you exactly where you were, then gossipping like a snake the next second.

Yoonji didn’t know exactly what to make of that until they had been friends long enough for Jimin to stop being so soft with her. She used to be so protective, but unlike with other people, there wasn’t pity in it, just care. Just understanding. Still, it felt good when Jimin finally stopped speaking to her so gently. The trust to be alright without her guidance felt like a victory.

 

 

Pumpkin is one of Yoonji’s best friends. He hangs out with her when she's bored or lonely, and he is interesting. He is also a great conversationalist with apt comedic timing, but he never lets Yoonji pick him up and carry him around like Namjoon is doing now, a blunt hanging out of his mouth. Not ever. Namjoon can do anything to Pumpkin and he loves it.

“Hey, can I shotgun your roommate’s cat?” Namjoon laughs, eyes crinkling at Pumpkin as he smiles.

“No,” she says, grabbing the blunt from his mouth. Pumpkin flinches, and she rolls her eyes at him. “The answer is always no. We hotbox the poor kid enough.”

“I think he likes it?” says Namjoon. He rearranges Pumpkin so his fluffy belly is all spread out and his little white hands stretch above him, kneading at the air.

Pumpkin says, “Grrow?”

“See, he likes it. He just said he likes it.”

Pumpkin quickly bites Namjoon’s arm. Namjoon yelps and drops him, and he skitters away into Jimin’s room, making noises.

“Tell me more about how much he likes it,” says Yoonji, passing the blunt back to Namjoon and sitting cross-legged on the couch. “I swear, if Jimin saw the half of what you do that that poor cat.”

Namjoon takes a hit and sits down on the floor in front of Yoonji, head tipped back onto the cushion. He smiles up at her. “‘Sup,” he says. She pats his head.

“Nothin’,” she says. “‘Sup with you?”

“Thinkin’ about how much money the government spends on UFO research.”

“How much money?” asks Yoonji.

“Billions,” whispers Namjoon, eyes closing. He adjusts himself to sit up straight. “It’s so scary.”

“The government is scary, or aliens are scary?”

“UFOs,” he corrects. “We don’t know if they’re aliens. The U is for unidentified. And both are scary. The whole thing is super scary. Like, what if we’re just livestock for a higher race? Or what if the earth is fake?”

“What if you’re fake, Joon?” she says, poking his shoulder.

“Don’t say that. I couldn’t handle it if I was fake.”

“Okay,” she says. “Sorry. You’re not fake.”

“Neither are you,” says Namjoon, reaching up to awkwardly pat Yoonji’s arm. “What are you thinkin’ about?”

Yoonji scoots down to the ground next to Namjoon. She takes a hit and passes the blunt back. She says, “I think I was mean to someone today.”

“Who?” asks Namjoon. “Seokjin?”

“No,” says Yoonji. She’s always mean to Seokjin; he can take it. “Hoseok. I saw him on the train.”

“Why?” says Namjoon. “He’s a really, really, really nice person.”

“I was just joking,” she says, “I think.”

“What did you say?”

She laughs at herself. “I told him to fuck off.”

“Yoonji,” Namjoon chides, passing back the blunt. “That’s not a very funny joke.”

“I know,” she whines. “Why did I say that?”

“Hey,” says Namjoon, getting a little serious, though he still talks and moves like the air is more solid than usual. “He’s a really nice person. If you don’t like him, that’s fine. I feel like you two could really get along, but that’s fine. But don’t make it your project to ruin his life just because he’s there and it’s easy to make him squirm.”

She goes to say something offended, how she’d never do something like that to someone, but Namjoon is still talking. “He’s going through some shit, too. He’s going through this big old ugly breakup and… hell.” He takes another hit, and Yoonji laughs even though she’s kind of hurt at the things Namjoon is saying. “I just think you’re both,” starts Namjoon, “like, beginning these beautiful new chapters of your lives.”

“Well,” she starts.

“‘Course it’s not the same thing,” Namjoon says, before Yoonji even has a chance to tell him that. “I just think you might have more in common with him than you think.”

“You’re a shit matchmaker,” she says, just because she started feeling really crappy really fast.

“Don’t date him,” says Namjoon, waving a hand in front of his face. “Whatever, you were right. You’re not ready. But don’t be mean. I love you because you seem mean but you’re actually darling. You can’t be actually mean or you’ll ruin it.”

She pulls her knees up to her chest. Namjoon offers her the end of the blunt, but she waves him off.

“Sorry to get real,” he says. “But he’s my family, so. What can you do?”

“He’s not your family,” she says weakly.

“Whatever he is,” says Namjoon, finishing the blunt, coughing a little at the end. “He’s this, this whole person with all these subtle things going on, and we don’t even know about most of them. Crazy, right?”

“Sure it’s crazy.”

“He’s the center of his own universe. The whole universe, from his eyes, emanates outward from his own self.” He gasps a little. “Well that’s cool.”

“You’re stoned,” Yoonji says. Namjoon smiles. Yoonji says, “Can we put on some TV?”

“For sure,” he says, fumbling the remote into his hands. “More Sailor Moon?”

“Yes, please.”

 

 

Of the million things constantly on Yoonji’s mind, two are in the forefront this morning. The first is to keep meeting quota for both herself and Seokjin, since Seokjin is still too swollen to be useful. According to him, his parents found a sitter for Sneezy, but the damage has been done, and even if the allergies are subsiding, he’s got days of snot to blow out his nose and one side of his face is still rashy.

The second, which is less technically difficult but far more stressful than writing three listicles, is apologizing to Hoseok.

She doesn’t really think she should have to, but after Namjoon left last night she spent the rest of the night feeling shitty and stupid. It surprised her to hear Namjoon talk about Hoseok going through a breakup; she hadn’t really been thinking about him as someone who did things other than wear stupid hats and bother her. She’s alright with being judgmental, but she doesn’t want to be cruel. She doesn’t ever look back and like the way she acted when she was too wrapped up in her own misery to be careful with other people.

So, Yoonji has made the decision to go down to the park and try to tell Hoseok that she feels bad about the way she acted. It’s not the kind of thing she’s in the habit of doing, but it feels important right now, if only because she’ll probably keep running into him and she doesn’t want it to be awkward. But, really, that’s not fair. The reason she wants to apologize is that she feels bad for hurting Hoseok’s feelings.

Come noon, Yoonji has written a respectable amount of I Am Too Old To Learn Snapchat. It’s a relief to get up and go breathe different air, even though it’s raining hard and it’s so cold. She takes her lunch bag and her phone, puts on her hat and jacket, and goes downstairs to the park.

What she didn’t consider was that maybe Hoseok wouldn’t be here. After five minutes at a corner table under the tall awning, eating her leftover stir fry with chopsticks in frozen fingers, listening to the rain pour angrily and gurgle down to the storm drains at the bottom of the street, she realizes that Hoseok probably isn’t working. She sees another one of the park hosts walking around in a poncho and assumes she’s here alone. Yoonji pouts as she boxes up the rest of her food. Even though she doesn’t really want to be doing this, it’s disappointing to have nowhere to put all the nervous energy she’s been collecting.

Before she goes back to her building to warm up, she peeks around the park one last time. Yoonji knows there’s a park office in the building in the corner with the bathroom, so on her way back to the front doors of her office building, she walks by and casually peeks into the open door.

Hoseok is inside. He makes eye contact with her and then looks away quickly, frowning. He looks kind of fucked up and soulless, shaky and pale with his eyes unfocused. Maybe he hasn’t slept or something. Maybe a vampire bit him and he is undergoing the great change. Upstairs, two of her coworkers are sick, too; maybe there’s something going around.

She stares through the doorway, waiting for him to look back up. He doesn’t; instead he stands up from his chair and closes the door in her face.

For a second, she just looks at it. It’s frosted glass, sleek like everything in this downtown neighborhood. It says, in a non serif modern font, Park Employees Only. She knocks.

“Jihyo?” comes Hoseok’s muffled, quiet voice, hardly audible over the rain.

“Still me,” says Yoonji.

Hoseok opens the door a crack, peering through it, and sighs. “Are you here to insult me?”

“No,” she says, a little small.

“Then what do you want?”

“To apologize for yesterday.”

He looks at her uncertainly for a moment, then he opens the door.

They look at each other for a second. Hoseok is so sallow. He says, “Well?”

“I’m sorry for yesterday.”

“Okay,” says Hoseok. “Apology accepted.”

She doesn’t know what else to say. She shifts from foot to foot for a minute, and then she says, “Well. See you around.”

“Sure,” says Hoseok as she turns to go.

Chapter Text

At noon on a Friday, Yoonji wants more substance than a granola bar, so she goes to the cafe on the ground floor at lunch. It’s overpriced and too fancy, but convenient. She picks out a pre-prepared sandwich to help heal Seokjin and gets herself a bowl of soup. She plans to order a green tea until she sees a sign by the espresso machine. In curly handwritten script, it says, Yes, we have Pumpkin Spice!

She sighs like someone’s forcing her to do this and tells the barista her order. While they’re making her drink, she picks out some bags of chips and granola bars for her desk. Then, realizing there are several drinks to be made before hers, she stacks the items under her chin and carefully gets in line to pay.

She’s fishing her wallet out of her coat pocket, holding a granola bar wrapper between her teeth, when she sees Hoseok walk through the glass doors. He kicks his wet boots on the mat. He’s wearing his khaki park jacket and the hat that folds his ears over. Yoonji ducks her head behind the gift card stand and hopes he doesn’t notice her there, but she doesn’t really have to worry about that. He goes right to the pre-prepared sandwiches, grabs something crinkly, and gets in the other line without looking at anything. He still looks all messed up.

She finishes paying and goes to hide at a corner table near the espresso machine, half-shielded by a baguette display. She sneaks looks at Hoseok as he finishes paying, and thinks she’s in the clear as he starts to sign his receipt, but then the barista calls out, “Yoonji?”

She acts natural as she gets up, not looking in Hoseok’s direction.

“Pumpkin spice latte?”

Well, better just die.

“140 degrees, with soymilk?” the barista loudly confirms as Yoonji comes up to snatch the cup off the counter.

“Oh my god,” she whispers. “That’s enough.”

“Yoonji?” comes a voice behind her. It’s Hoseok, of course, but he sounds exhausted.

She turns around, smiling with her face all scrunched up. “Oh, wow, Hoseok?”

“Fancy meeting you here,” he says, trying to be jovial. “Pumpkin spice latte, huh? Kids temp?”

“No,” she says, but it’s as much an admission as anything. She deflects. “Are you sick?”

“Sorta,” says Hoseok, though he doesn’t sound sure. He looks over at the table where she’s left her bag and coat. “Can I sit?”

She wants to say no, but she can’t go back upstairs until she’s finished her latte, because she’s worried that Seokjin will see PSL scrawled under YUNJIE in black marker and make fun of her. And there’s no nice way to tell someone they can’t sit at your table, so she shrugs and lets him follow her.

She pulls her bowl of soup from the bottom of the paper bag and digs for the spoon she stashed with it. Hoseok takes off his hat and ruffles his hair, then unwraps his vegan sandwich with a loud crinkling noise. As she blows on her first spoonful, she glances up at him. He’s looking at the sandwich with a determined face, like it is something to overcome.

“You okay?” she asks.

Hoseok looks up at her. He says, “I have to eat this.”

Yoonji is a little worried about him, in the way that she’d be worried about anybody who looked this nauseous.

“I just yarfed,” he says. “But I don’t get another break until four and if I don’t eat before then I’ll be starving.” He sighs. “Can I tell you something?”

She hopes he’s not really sick. If he’s dying or something, she’ll feel really bad. She doesn't want that on her conscience, cruel to a dying man. It looks like it might be bad. She nods, idly stirring her soup.

“This park is cursed.”

Thank god. It’s all in his head. “Is it?” she says.

“Pigeons keep dying under the benches.” He hasn’t been able to approach his sandwich; it’s just sitting there limp and unwrapped in front of him, and Yoonji is reluctantly interested in where this could possibly be going.

“I think because it’s dry and there are food scraps,” he says. “It’s getting cold, you know. Some of them can’t survive.”

“That doesn’t sound like a curse,” says Yoonji slowly. “It sounds like the circle of life.”

“It’s a curse if you’re a pigeon,” says Hoseok. Then he looks up at her so solemnly that she almost chokes on her sip of pumpkin spice latte. “Or a park host.”

“...Oh?”

“Who else is gonna pick them up, you know?”

“Oh.”

“I’m just supposed to put them in the trash like it’s nothing. It’s so…” he visibly shivers. “Gross.” He huffs out a quick breath to steady himself. “It’s so gross. But it’s part of my job, I guess.”

“This happens a lot?” she says.

“Once a week, maybe.”

“And you yarf every time?”

“Not the first time,” says Hoseok. “I didn’t know what it was gonna be like the first time. But now I yarf.”

Yoonji wonders why he can’t just get someone else to do it. She takes another sip of her pumpkin spice latte.

“I have to eat this,” Hoseok mumbles, staring down his sandwich.

“Why is it so bad?” she asks.

“Cause they’re all stiff,” he says. Yoonji sees that he is fragile for the first time. “And I hate birds.”

“You’re a park ranger and you hate birds?”

“Well, I like them if they’re not touching me.” He sticks his tongue out, disgusted. “We had chickens growing up. They thought I was a weak hen.”

Yoonji doesn’t know anything about chickens. She just raises her eyebrows. Go on, bird boy. 

“Sometimes if there’s a weak hen, the stronger chickens will bully it to death.”

Yoonji takes a bite of soup instead of laughing at him. She says, “They tried to bully you to death?”

“I was a puny kid. I think they thought I was a bald chicken.” He takes a quick, determined breath and makes eye contact with Yoonji. “Sorry,” he says. “Thanks for listening. I don’t know if this sandwich is gonna happen.” He starts wrapping it back up, still sick, but lighter without all those words trapped inside him. Yoonji is a little relieved; she was almost worried about him. 

Before he goes, Yoonji says quietly, “Well, if you need help in the future, you know where to find me.”

Hoseok is stuffing his poorly re-wrapped sandwich back into its small paper bag. He says, “Oh, that’s okay, but thank you.”

“If it’s ever not okay,” she says. “You know where to find me.”

He pauses, then he nods. “Thank you, Yoonji.”

“Not a problem, Hoseok,” she says, and then he goes back to the park and she finishes her lunch by herself.

 

 

After Yoonji dropped out of college, she moved back in with her parents and got a job at the grocery store down the street. She met with a therapist, started taking antidepressants, and got used to carrying something heavy in her guts.

She thought about who she was going to be and what she was going to do. She didn’t look at herself in the mirror. She cut her hair really short and wore hoodies that were too big, until she could pass that off as her fashion sense. To stop caring about this one thing, she had to stop caring about everything, but it wasn't so bad. The way days ran together made it less difficult to get through many of them at a time. 

By the time Yoonji was ready to go back to school, at the public university close to home, it was almost second nature. She could always feel it in her stomach when she twisted a certain way, when she sat too still, when she was falling asleep and when she woke up, when she tried to eat, when she was undistracted, but sometimes she could drown it out. Especially when she went back to school, she found that focusing elsewhere was a kind of cure. 

To keep her soreness from destroying her, she focused hard on school. She took extra credits, got good grades, she wrote for the school paper, and eventually started DJing on the college radio station. She and Namjoon hung out all the time, and she had a fairly serious girlfriend for most of her last two years. It fizzled out, though. They broke up a little after graduation instead of going long distance. Yoonji took on more than she could handle, but the pressure was the only thing that moved her forward. It kept her alive.

After graduating with honors, Yoonji bounced around jobs for a while. Living back with her parents, she worked at a laundromat, then she made sandwiches, then she was a cashier at a department store. Eventually, she got her writing job. She sold her car to put a deposit on a nice apartment in the city. Barely after unpacking her apartment, she met Mina. Things moved really fast.

It took a while to get settled in at work. She moved frantically until she felt she had proved herself completely. She struggled to adjust to a work environment that wasn't demanding, and to job requirements that weren't defined. She was full of thoughts that she could only hush when she was under pressure. 

Yoonji and Seokjin became deskmates and their work got much better. Yoonji worked in bursts that came and went with inspiration, and usually what she wrote did very well. Seokjin wrote a constant stream of low to medium-quality material. Judged as a team, they were quite productive.

Things with Mina stayed good for a long time. They looked good together. They could talk without overly editing themselves, and they respected each other’s space. Especially the first year, it was really easy with her. They could go days without talking, then meet up and it would be sweeter. When there was distance between them, it was comfortable. Yoonji believed that it was what she wanted, even if she’d never exactly gotten rid of the heavy thing in her guts. It was what she wanted, because she would always be quietly aware that she was living someone else's life. She thought she would live that life diligently. 

When things changed, it was sudden.

It came when she got complacent at work. It was when she had her nice place to live, her routine, friends she really cared about. It was when she was basically comfortable. It was when Mina put on this black dress with a thick waistband and straps across the back, and Yoonji had the passing thought that she wanted one like it. She spent the rest of that weekend trying to shake the feeling that she might not have been attracted to Mina at all, she might just have wanted to be her. She tried to get rid of that feeling, but couldn’t, and after that, she couldn’t think about anything else. It knocked everything down. 

Even in the best of times, the wrong word from someone could worm its way into Yoonji's brain and wrench her up for days. She remembers the one time Mina called her pretty in a joking voice when she put her scarf on her head, and then she went home and cried for so long without even knowing why. This whole thing just hurt, a lot, and the longer she gripped it so tightly to herself, the more it hurt. She knew that it was getting worse. She was afraid of it. But she’d made her decision, and some days it meant feeling floaty and unattached, others like her chest was torn open and bleeding, and sometimes she felt so fragile that her bones would break if the train to work shook too hard. Some days were that bad, and other days she hardly thought about it. She even remembered, for a time in college, being able to look at herself in the mirror and recognize the person who was making frustrated, shallow eye contact with her. She just wanted to get that back.

Instead of things becoming quiet again, something happened and she couldn’t keep it in her stomach anymore; it was everywhere. It was the only thing she thought about for two months. She tried to force it to go away, pushing away the thoughts and pushing through her routine like nothing was wrong. When it only got worse, she tried to wait it out. The days of quiet between her and Mina started to feel tense. She struggled to get to work on time, struggled to sleep at night, struggled to get dressed and eat. She fought it in the way that had worked before, with fists and teeth; she cut her hair really short and threw herself into work, even though it was too loud in her head to think of anything clearly.

One day, Seokjin asked if she was okay. Truly, he didn't seen very concerned. He asked it in passing, sort of cheekily, like he thought she might have a cold. At first, Yoonji was angry that he couldn't tell how miserable she was, how much she had to focus on every breath to keep her muscles and joints in place, how easy it would be to slide apart and become nothing. How much she had wondered lately if it was even worth it. And then she thought, am I not okay?

Having a hard time was one thing, but she hadn’t thought that maybe she wasn’t okay. That felt more serious, more intrinsic. She hadn't thought seriously about how she might have to live with this pain, here in her chest and her head and her spine and her stomach, forever. She hadn't considered that she might not be okay. She wrote pros and cons in a listicle because it was the only way she could think with any clarity. The next day, she made an appointment with a therapist.

It wasn’t specifically a gender therapist, but she read online somewhere that the doctor had experience with trans patients. That was how she protected herself; she didn’t have to decide until she got there. She could just say she was struggling, she could get different meds and learn how to tamp it down again. She didn’t have to say anything. But she could say something, if she wanted.

It only took her two sessions to out herself, but even then, she was convincing herself that it didn’t have to be this. She was in tears in a room with a kind almost-stranger, admitting that she’d felt backwards since seventh grade, talking about the time she stole a wig from the costume room at her high school’s theatre and wore it in her room sometimes before she knew how hard this whole thing would be. Talking about how she was 25 all of a sudden and she couldn't even look at her hands without feeling herself start to die, but it didn’t have to mean anything. She didn’t have to do anything.

But by their fourth session, Yoonji's nerves had been all frayed for something like three months, and Mina was worried and Seokjin was actually worried and she’d been doing her best to ignore Namjoon because she knew that he’d know and look at her all sympathetically and she was worried she might cry.

During that session, Yoonji said something like, “I just want to make it bearable again.”

And her therapist said, “Why are you here?”

“Because,” said Yoonji. “I’m anxious.”

“Let me ask you something.”

“Okay,” said Yoonji, crying just by virtue of being here, in the room with the only person she’d ever spoken to about this.

“Where do you see yourself in… let’s say forty years. In your sixties. Where do you see yourself?”

Weird question. “Um, retired, hopefully,” started Yoonji, slowly. “So I guess at home. With a book or something. I don’t know. A house would be nice. I want a yard. Maybe… I don’t know. A spouse.”

“That sounds great,” said her therapist. “But I’m wondering, can you picture yourself as an old man?”

Yoonji winced, she knew the therapist saw her. “I wasn’t thinking about it. I was thinking of it from my perspective. Not looking in on myself.”

“If you’re looking in, can you see a man there?”

Yoonji sighed. “I can.”

“Do you want to?”

“No.”

“Can you see yourself as an old woman?”

Yoonji couldn’t help but go a little hot in the face. She could imagine that. She usually tried not to, but it was really easy. Grey hair in a messy bun, a comfortable dress. Maybe she’d knit or something. If she didn’t have her own grandkids, she’d befriend the neighbor kids. Yeah, it was too easy. She was looking down at the ground, and a tear dripped straight into the carpet. She sat up, folded her lips in, and nodded.

“What do you think?” said her therapist.

Yoonji hiccuped like a kid. She said, “I think I don’t know what to do.”

Her therapist nodded. “What do you want to do?”

“Feel normal.” Easy. But then it itched at her. Normal, for her, could not exist the way she was. She had never felt normal before. That was what she was being asked. “Okay,” she admitted, thinking about how each one of these sessions had a 25 dollar co-pay and she wasn’t going to waste it being coy. “I want to be a woman.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Because this is easier.”

“Is it?”

“You know what I mean, it’s easier to be in society. Take the bus, go to the store, talk to my parents.”

“You told me you’re having trouble doing things like that already.”

“And it’s hard to think about. Everything I’d have to do. Easier not to do any of it, if it’s gonna suck so much either way. At least being in the closet is free.” She laughed, but it didn’t convince either of them.

“See, I think we differ there,” said her therapist. “I’m not usually one to urge my clients toward a course of action, but everyone I’ve worked with has felt better after transitioning. Every single person. Society is certainly a concern, but there’s no substitute for working through that dissonance.”


 

She was right. Taking control did so much more than Yoonji even knew it could, after living her whole life not knowing what it was like to be comfortable. Everything, from the moment she decided to transition until now, has been better and better, past and past and past what she thought it could feel like to be alive.

Once, a couple months after she came out, Yoonji tried to describe it Namjoon. She was stoned, and words felt like a lusterless way to explain so many life-quaking changes. What she felt was bright, a beating heart, growing like flowers and climbing vines, sunlight and moonlight and a body that was light and healthy enough to walk through both. What she said was, "I put all my strength somewhere better." 

“What does that mean?” Namjoon had asked. He was laying on his couch, all the way across with his feet dangling off the end, and she was sitting with her head tipped back against his calves. She was still growing her hair out, she felt it flow back pleasantly from her face. There was a nature documentary muted on the TV.

“Well, social norms are kind of a defense,” she said. “If you have no confidence, you can just be what people expect. That’s relatively safe.”

“I’m following,” said Namjoon, but it sounded a little mushy because he was eating a choco pie.

“But if you feel really good about yourself, it doesn’t matter as much if you fit in. It's okay if people notice you, because if someone looks at you weird, you're not gonna cry for days about it. And it’s better, because you can control how you are, but you can’t keep people from thinking shitty things about you. So you’ll never really win if you don’t like yourself.”

“So you’re invincible now?” asked Namjoon, craning his neck down to look at her.

“Could be,” she said. “I mean. Soon to tell, you know?”

“I know I keep saying this,” said Namjoon, then he finished swallowing his bite and spoke clearly. “But you seem really good.”

She took a big breath. “I feel good,” she said. “Everything weighs a million pounds and I have to pee constantly and otherwise nothing has changed. But it’s good.”

“Nah,” said Namjoon. “More than that has changed.”

“Oh?”

“Maybe it’s just cause you feel good now. Your face looks a little different. I was noticing.”

“Ah,” she said, trying not to look too happy and goofy. “Probably just ‘cause I feel good now.”

 

 

On a Saturday at the very beginning of the holiday season, before everyone starts travelling, when celebrating isn't a chore yet, the most excellent event of the year takes place. That’s what Namjoon says, at least. He lives in a big house with a couple other smart twenty-somethings who make more money than they need, and they host a Christmas party every year. They call it Early Christmas, except for Namjoon’s roommate Youngjae, who calls it Sexy Christmas despite the fact that themed costumes are mandatory and everyone who shows up, except Yoonji, is a nerd. 

This will be Yoonji’s fourth year in attendance, since it is Namjoon’s fourth year living here, and Yoonji has to admit that it's always a nice time. It’s always funny to see so many people in ugly sweaters get drunk in and around the beautiful Victorian house Namjoon lives in, decorated warmly with a fire in the hearth and soft wintery piano records playing in the living room.

Yoonji’s favorite part of the party is eggnog pong, and her least favorite part is Secret Santa. This year, she got one of Namjoon’s roommates, Hyungwon, who doesn’t like anything as far as she knows. She’s gotten him a gift card to a bookstore near the house and hopes he won’t give her the look he gave his Santa last year when she knit him a scarf.

Yoonji really wanted to bring Jimin and Tae, but for some reason, Seokjin seemed really interested in being Yoonji’s date. She brought him last year, too, so he must have had a really good time. Even on Friday afternoon, when his eyes are still all red and he’s still sneezing violently every time Yoonji starts to relax, he says, “I’m gonna pick you up at 8:30 tomorrow, right?”

“You sure you wanna come?” asks Yoonji. “You don’t wanna rest? I have other people I could bring.”

“Nah,” says Seokjin slimily. “I have my Secret Santa gift all picked out and everything.”

“Who’d you get?” asked Yoonji. “I’ll make sure they get it?”

“It’s not a secret if I tell everybody who wants to know,” he says matter-of-factly, and she rolls her eyes.

So at 8:30 on Saturday, Yoonji runs down the steps and gets into Seokjin’s passenger seat. He’s wearing a red turtleneck under a green cardigan, a headband with reindeer antlers, and one of his eyes is swollen almost closed. Still, he looks like he tried to get handsome, which doesn’t take much. The short, choppy bangs he’s been trying out look more intentionally styled than usual, and he might be wearing lipgloss. Yoonji can’t really tell; he probably just looks like that.

Since she knows they’re serious about the costumes mandatory thing, Yoonji is wearing dangly earrings with little sparkly snowmen, a Santa hat, and red tights instead of black ones. She also let Jimin help with her makeup earlier, red and white and shiny. It’s almost too much, but Jimin knows exactly what she’s doing.

“You look great,” Seokjin says, “But you smell so much like weed.”

“I always smell like weed.”

Trust me, I know that. But it’s like, really bad right now. I haven’t been able to smell anything all week, but right now, wow. Are you… are you storing like a bud in your mouth or something? How stoned are you right now?”

“Four?” she says.

“Out of five or out of ten?”

“I have anxiety, you shit lord,” she says, but there’s no punch to it. “I can’t socialize otherwise.”

“I’m anxious too, but you don’t see me… smoking ten bongs before I leave the house.”

“Have you ever tried weed?” says Yoonji. “Ten bongs? That’s preposterous. And since when are you anxious?”

“Everyone’s anxious,” says Seokjin like it's obvious. “It’s the millenium.”

Seokjin goes to say more, but sneezes instead. Then he sneezes four more times, and Yoonji is worried that he is going to crash the car. He sneezes one more time, his face all red and a sad little tear gleaming on his cheek, then explains himself soggily. “I think it’s a good sign. I think I’m, you know, purging it now.”

“Poor big baby,” says Yoonji, patting his shoulder.

As they drive closer, she gets kind of anxious, but in a good way. She realizes that the word for that is excited. Before transitioning, she had very little social energy and was always the first person ready to go home. Now, it’s just hard to be around drunk strangers who are allowed to come up and talk to her. But the good thing about this party is that she’ll know most of the people there, and more or less be able to expect the people she doesn’t know to be chill. And if anyone isn’t chill, she can just have Namjoon kick them out. So she’s not nervous, but excited.

When they arrive, it's crowded enough already that Yoonji has to weave toward the kitchen to deposit her champagne in the ice bucket, then set her Secret Santa gift on the designated table. On the way back, she runs into one of Namjoon’s roomates, Momo, who is wearing an ugly Christmas sweater, a hat with elf ears, and a miniskirt. She shakes Yoonji’s hand and says, “Hey, you made it! Good to see you!”

“You too,” Yoonji says. “Nice sweater. Have you seen Joon?”

“He’s in his room, I think. Still getting ready.”

She decides not to go up and bug him, and instead sits down on a couch in the living room in front of a big TV on which It’s A Wonderful Life is already muted. She pulls out her phone and texts Namjoon, am here.

Seokjin gets a cup of wine for Yoonji and something with brown liquor for himself, as well as a plate of hors d'oeuvres. “For both of us,” he says insincerely, setting the drinks down and starting in on the cheese and crackers. Yoonji lets him have all of it like is clearly his plan anyway. She takes a sip of her wine and makes a face. It's bad. 

In the relative quiet, she evaluates herself. The last time she was sitting on a couch drinking challenging wine out of a solo cup, she felt like she might wither up and die. She didn’t want to talk to anybody, was stiff and obligated and ugly. Now, she’s none of that. Not stiff; quite relaxed, actually. Namjoon’s couch is comfortable enough to sleep on. Not obligated either, as Namjoon is never that bothered when Yoonji backs out of plans, which somehow makes it easier to show up. And as for ugly, well. She always feels a little ugly, but definitely less than she used to. No longer so helplessly. It’s not like Mina’s party, where she felt like she was filling up too much space, distracting people even when she was just sitting. Right now, it’s easier. She just feels like maybe she's the only person who will ever look at herself and think, that's good.

But, overall, she’s comfortable. She drinks more wine, and Seokjin crunches away at his snacks next to her, chattering about something. More people start arriving, some of whom Yoonji knows, and eventually she's standing up and talking to someone from college who she hasn't seen in person in a couple of years.

It's okay, she's as emotionally available for this kind of conversation as she'll ever be. And she knows he's nice; they've messaged a little since she came out. Mostly he scolded her for disappearing, and then they caught up on each other's lives like it was nothing.

Still, it's different in person. Always different, like meeting people she knows for the first time. She doesn't think there's anything else like it. Having history with someone, but having to start over in some very basic ways. Some people, when they meet her again, completely change the way they treat her. They use different words, their tones change. Some people talk to her like she's undergone an illness, like something bad has happened to her rather than something really good, and some people get condescending.

But this old friend, Jeongguk, he doesn't act like anything has really changed. After a quick, "Wow, hey," he pulls her in for a hug and tells her that he's missed her.

"You too," she says, and she kind of means it. She cut a lot of people off for a while, but Jeongguk has always been a nice person, somebody who does his best and expects the best from other people.

"I love your earrings," he says.

"Thanks.” She lets him reach out and lightly tap one of her snowmen. She says, "I like your costume." Jeongguk is overdressed for this event, sort of self-conscious in his red vest and pointy green hat.

"I'm one of Santa's elves, I guess," he says. "Joon said they needed another one."

"God help you," Yoonji smiles. "They used to try to make me be one of the elves."

"Oh no," gasps Jeongguk, smiling with his teeth, "Did I make a mistake? Should I not have agreed?"

"Just get ready to herd a bunch of drunk people," she says. "You might need one of those, like," and she does a motion with her hand and her neck, flopping her tongue out. "Sheep things."

"A shepherd's crook?" says Jeongguk, enunciating and looking proud of himself.

"Love that you know that," says Yoonji. "Do you want to meet my friend Seokjin? I feel like you two would get along."

"Your friend?" says Jeongguk.

"Ew, yuck. Yeah. Hey Seokjin, meet my college friend."

Seokjin sneezes a greeting, and Jeongguk laughs, and the two of them are joking around in no time. Yoonji backs out of conversation a little, content to watch her friends become friends.

Just as she starts to lose interest, at the top of the staircase, hobbling down precariously, comes Namjoon. He takes careful steps as he walks because instead of wearing shoes he is wearing a wrapped gift on each foot. On his body, he is wearing a full size felt Christmas tree, covered in what look like real ornaments. Just his round, bitter face peeks through the front, and his legs are too long for the costume, so his calves stick out the bottom. He looks uncomfortable. Yoonji covers her mouth to keep from laughing.

As he comes down the stairs, he makes eye contact with Yoonji, who is really trying not to laugh at him. Then he sees Seokjin, and he looks back at Yoonji again, a little frantically.

Yoonji raises her eyebrows in question. Namjoon makes a face like she should know something. Yoonji makes a face like she doesn’t know anything. Then she looks to Seokjin, who is staring with one wide eye and one swollen one up at Namjoon. He blinks. Yoonji looks back at Namjoon just as he trips on the bottom step and almost falls, grabbing the banister for support. She can’t keep from laughing anymore.

But before Yoonji can make her way to Namjoon to mock him properly, the front door jingles open and two people come in. She knows the first one, and the dread that floods her is sudden. It’s Jihyo, one of the park hosts from below her building. She hopes this doesn’t mean… but, yeah, it does. Hoseok walks in behind her.

Yoonji lowers her head and goes to the staircase to get to Namjoon, who’s accepting initial compliments on his costume. “Why did you invite him?” she hisses. He knows who she means.

“‘Cause he’s my friend,” hisses Namjoon's face from its green hole. “Why did you invite him?”

“Who, Seokjin? 'Cause he wanted to come, I don’t know. Was I not supposed to?”

“You told me you were bringing Jimin,” he says. They’re so close to each other, Yoonji glaring up into his face, whispering. Namjoon says, “I look like a shit lord.”

“You are a shit lord.”

“Hey, guys,” says Hoseok obliviously.

Yoonji turns to him and snaps, “I am not a guy.” She didn’t realize how close he was standing, and finds her red-tipped finger about an inch from one of his eyes. He ducks away from it, looking uneasy.

“You’re right, sorry,” he says. Yoonji lowers her hand.

“Sorry,” she mumbles. She’s trying to stop being mean to Hoseok. She’s turning over a new leaf. “You startled me,” she says. “Hi, Hoseok. Fancy meeting you here.” She kicks one of Namjoon’s Christmas present shoes.

“Hey, man, glad you could make it,” says Namjoon, immune to Yoonji’s wrath after so long. “You find the place okay?”

“Oh, yeah,” says Hoseok. “No problem. Where should I put my Secret Santa gift?”

Ugh. Yoonji is so betrayed. Namjoon invited Hoseok long enough in advance that he got on the list for Secret Santa. He should have warned her.

“There’s a table in the kitchen. Feel free to grab a drink while you’re in there.”

“Sure,” says Hoseok, then he looks at Yoonji, then back to Namjoon. “See you two around, I guess.”

As soon as he’s gone, Namjoon says, “Jeez, Yoonji, he told me you two were cool.”

“We are,” she says through her teeth.

“He doesn’t have that many friends. Have mercy on him. I don’t get why you’re so tense about it. Do you need some vegetables?”

“You can call it weed, I’m not a cop. And I’m not tense.”

“Um, hey, uh. Am I interrupting?”

Namjoon whispers, “Hell.” Then he says, in a voice that is trying very hard to sound smooth, “Hey, Seokjin. What a nice surprise.”

Yoonji looks between them and finally sees it. Seokjin’s insistence on coming as Yoonji’s date, even if it kills me, he’d said. The way they’re looking at each other, like they're in slow motion while the world swirls around them. Namjoon freaking out, thinking he looked silly. He does.

“Well, yuck,” says Yoonji, and she goes and sits down for a while. She doesn’t wanna get in the way while they figure it out. She predicts that whatever happens, it will be a mess. She drinks most of her wine, then Hyungwon comes to sit with her for a minute. She likes him because she thinks she understands him. She thinks there’s more to him than he shows, even if she's never seen it. Yoonji and Hyungwon talk about work, then run out of things to say. Hyungwon gives her a sick little smile and gets up to go hang out with someone else.

Yoonji stays where she is and listens in on a conversation happening near her. When she gets bored of eavesdropping on two guys bragging about backpacking, she gets up to find Jeongguk again or something.

Instead, she runs into Youngjae, another one of Namjoon’s housemates. He’s wearing the Santa costume. He says, “Yoonji! Hey! Glad you could make it,” but he does it in a Santa voice.

“Hey there, Kris. Or wait, is it Nick?”

“It’s Youngjae,” he says, insulted, and pulls down his fake beard so Yoonji can see his whole face.

Yoonji smiles and nods. “Ah,” she says. “Youngjae. Good to see you.”

“You too. Hey, you seen Hyungwon anywhere? I think he has my bag o’gifts.”

“I just had him in the living room,” she says. “If I see him I’ll tell him you’re looking.”

“Thanks, lady.”

“Welcome,” she says.

He pats her on the shoulder and goes into the next room. The way the house is set up, there are two living rooms, one of which is a sort of study with a table and bookshelves and two stately damask armchairs facing one another. The other has the big red leather couch and a TV and leads to an open kitchen. Finally,  through the kitchen is an entryway, and the grand staircase with the shiny wooden banister. It’s possible to walk all in a circle between them. All the doorways wide open, and light and conversation bleed between rooms. Yoonji tries to loop away from where she saw Hoseok going, but runs into him right away instead. He is talking to Jeongguk. They’re laughing.

“Yeah, it was wild,” says Jeongguk. “Who knew morel hunting could be so dangerous?”

“I’m just glad you survived,” says Hoseok sincerely, taking a two-handed sip from a beer bottle.

Yoonji means to keep walking undetected, but Jeongguk lightly taps her arm as she passes. “Yoonji, hey. Have you met Hoseok?”

“Yes,” she says. Hoseok smiles at her with just his mouth. “A lot.”

“Oh, cool! How do you two know each other?”

“Through Joon,” says Yoonji.

“Yeah,” says Hoseok. He looks at Yoonji uncertainly, with wide eyes. This time, among all the times he’s given her this look, like he’s not sure if his feelings are hurt yet, she's embarrased about it. She keeps having to be reminded that he exists even when he’s not in her personal space, not having that many friends apparently. She never tries to be cruel, but something about his presence puts her right on edge. Makes her feel all wiggly and exposed, like anybody could do anything to her. Makes her feel all weak and queasy.

Then, looking at him talking easily to someone he just met, beer in his thin-fingered hands, red dyed hair all flouncy from not being crushed under a park hat all day, wearing a halfhearted ugly Christmas sweater and tight jeans instead of khakis, it hits her, in the same way it hit her to see Seokjin and Namjoon making weighty eye contact a few minutes ago. It’s the same thing, but more disgusting. “Well, yuck.”

She’s got a crush on Hoseok.

Because she is sure the revelation is written on her face, Yoonji tries to avoid Namjoon. She can’t let him win. Not that he’s won anything anyway. His attempt to get them together was useless, but she knows he’d take credit if he knew Yoonji was thinking about Hoseok’s pointy face with anything but contempt. She can hear him doling out advice already. She doesn’t need it; she feels disgusting enough.

But because the house is arranged in a freaky circle and it’s impossible to hide unless you go upstairs, Yoonji runs into Namjoon right away in the kitchen, where she goes to refill her solo cup with more awful wine. His Christmas tree is a little rumpled, and the present shoe that Yoonji kicked is caved in on one side, the gold foil paper peeling off the old Prime box he wrapped.

To deflect from her own guilt, she says, “How’s it going with my deskmate?”

“Uh,”

“I really should have noticed earlier. You two ask about each other all the time. Who’s the matchmaker now?” She laughs nervously. Nailed it. 

“Well,”

“I hope you enjoy him," she says conceitedly. "He’s a mess.”

“He sneezed on my face.”

Yoonji blinks.

“He,” starts Namjoon.

“He sneezed on your face?”

Namjoon gestures to his face, draws a circle around it. “Right on it.”

“Then what?”

“Then he went outside and I haven’t seen him since. I tried to tell him it was okay. I was like, Ha-ha, I’ve done worse, and at least you’re not dressed like a Christmas tree, but he was already gone.”

“I like, really hate us,” says Yoonji.

“Cheers,” says Namjoon.

They clink solo cups. Yoonji takes a gulp of wine and winces. “Oh, Joon, this wine is bad. Whoever brought this wine should go to prison.”

“I bought it,” says Namjoon, who is paying more attention to the label on a bottle of vodka than to Yoonji. “You’re the only person who prefers wine and as much as you dogmatize I know you have no standards.”

“You are a shit lord.”

“Santa’s gonna start passing out gifts in a minute.”

“Alright, I guess I’ll go find Seokjin and tell him.”

“Tell him that snot doesn’t even gross me out,” says Namjoon wistfully, looking up at her from inside his sad Christmas tree. “Tell him I like it.”

Yoonji takes out her phone.

 

whered u go?

secret santas abt to start

 

across the street

I’ll come back now

just needed some air

 

i need air too

brt

 

Yoonji finds him sitting on the curb at the edge of a sloping patch of grass. He looks up at her weakly when she comes to join him.

“‘Sup?” she says, plopping down. “You moping?”

Seokjin sniffles. Yoonji thinks he’s crying, and looks at him in shock, but then he sneezes three times instead. “Confound this snout,” he says when he finishes, wiping his face off on his sleeve.

“You wanna talk about it?” she says, sounding more patronizing than gentle.

“No,” he says.

“Cool,” she says. Then she shoves her hands deeper in her pockets, folding her lips in to keep her teeth from chattering, and they they sit there in quiet for a minute.

She looks across the street at Namjoon’s house with the porch and the bay window. The downstairs is lamplit, and Yoonji can see silhouettes of people moving around, while the dark trees out front go bare and still for the winter. Yoonji is cold.

She’s so cold. Even in her pockets, her hands are frozen. Her toes are frozen. Her ears are cold. Breathing hurts, but it seems like Seokjin still needs a minute.

She stares across at the warm house, at the people and the lights, the glittering Christmas tree, up in November against all etiquette. She can see art on the walls, but she can’t make out any faces.

She doesn’t want to think about Hoseok, but she can’t avoid it, really. He’s inside; he’s going to be inside when they return. He’s going to keep working at the park below her office, and she’s going to keep running into him there. And he’s friends with Namjoon, so he’s going to keep being around. He’s in her life now. She can’t avoid him, even if she and Seokjin both leave right now and go home and try to hide forever from their problems.

Yoonji doesn’t even want to avoid Hoseok. She wants to run into him. Even though she’s not ready for anything. Even though being single is really good for her, and she's still figuring out what she wants. Everything is still complicated; she doesn’t need romance to tangle her life up even more. She doesn’t think Hoseok knows how easy it would be to hurt her. He definitely wouldn’t know what he was getting into. But even that is getting ahead, she realizes as her face pulls into a grimace. There's no evidence that Hoseok likes her at all; he’s just a nice person, and he doesn’t have many friends, so of course he’s trying to make more. It’s not realistic to think that he’d like her, especially now.

Always, when Yoonji feels like she’s in over her head, when someone has the power to hurt her, she isn’t nice. Before they have a chance to hurt her, she makes them want to leave. She did this to Mina, and she still feels sick about it sometimes. 

“I always do this,” she says.

“What do you always do?” asks Seokjin.

“Act like shit to nice people. Just because I can.” She hugs her knees up to her chest. 

“Have you considered... not doing that?” says Seokjin.

“I’m considering it right now,” she says. “Can we go back inside?”

“I kind of want to go home,” says Seokjin stuffily. “Can you get a ride?”

“Sure,” says Yoonji. “Easy. Sorry about your anxiety.”

“‘S’fine. I’m just tired.”

“Okay,” she says. “I’ll get your Secret Santa for you and bring it on Monday.”

“Okay, thanks,” he says, pushing up onto his feet. “Thanks.”

“Yeah. Welcome.”

Back inside, Secret Santa is happening. Jeongguk and another elf are trying to help match people to their presents while Youngjae tosses gifts around and does a little dance. As Yoonji steps in the front door, shivering violently, she hears someone drunkenly wail, “Santa, please! That one’s fragile!”

“Take it up with the elves!” booms Youngjae, thoughtfully rattling a gift next to his head. “Sounds like beans!” he yells. Youngjae became Santa last year, which has brought new life to the event. 

Yoonji finds a place to sit cross-legged on the floor between a stranger and an acquaintance. Across the circle, she sees Hoseok. She looks at him until he makes eye contact with her, and then she tries to smile nicely. Hoseok is such a joke; he points to his chest and mouths, me?

Yoonji rolls her eyes, but can’t hide a tiny, silly smile.

“Ho, ho, ho. Just in time! I have a gift here for Yoonji! It feels super cheap!”

He lobs it at her and she catches it, just barely. It’s not wrapped very well, and for a second she wonders if Namjoon is her Santa, but the handwriting on the side is nice. To: YOONJI. From: SANTA. That could be anyone.

She quietly opens it as Youngjae moves onto the next gift, which happens to be for him. “Guess Santa was a good boy this year, too!” he yells, chucking his gift at an elf.

As he tosses more gifts around, Yoonji gets hers open, and is surprised at how thoughtful it is. It must be from someone who knows her, because she’s pretty sure for the three facts about herself she was asked to list, she just put Medieval Torture Devices. It’s a bunch of packs of hand warmers. The note says, This is my favorite brand. I hope they come in HANDy. She’s flattered. “Aw,” she says to herself. Her eyes scan across the circle, wondering who her Santa might have been. When she gets to Hoseok, he looks away quickly, as if he’s been watching her. Her heart beats weird, and as she tells it to shut up, Youngjae yells, “Seokjin! Is there a Seokjin in the house?”

“I’m passing his gift on to him,” calls Yoonji. Her voice cracks: horrible. “He had to go early.”

“Can I trust you, little girl?” yells gross Youngjae as Yoonji makes sympathetic eyes at Namjoon.

“Just gimme the gift, butthead.”

Youngjae throws it at her face.

Namjoon finds Yoonji afterward, standing in a shadowy corner up against the staircase. Everyone’s mingling again and Namjoon has hijcaked the AUX cord and put on an ‘80s pop mix instead of the twinkly piano music. It changes the mood, but in a good way. He’s still diligently wearing the Christmas tree, though it’s getting progressively more crumpled and he’s done away with the presents on his feet altogether.

“So, he left?” he says as he comes to stand next to Yoonji. He leans against the staircase, feigning nonchalance.

“Yeah,” she says. “Sorry, buddy. He seemed really embarrassed.”

“It’s okay,” says Namjoon. “Guess I just wasn’t meant to be happy.”

Yoonji groans. “I hear that.”

“Some people our age have like, toddlers. Do you ever think about that? But I’m dressed like a Christmas tree and the hottest guy I’ve ever met just basically sneezed into my open mouth.”

Yoonji thinks about telling him she likes Hoseok. She wants to. He’d understand how fucked up it is. They could commiserate. But she still can’t let him win, so she says, “Yeah, get your shit together dude.”

“I gotta.”

“By the way, who did you get for Secret Santa? And why are you still wearing that costume?”

“I lost a bet. Have to wear it all night. And I got Youngjae. Got him a beer stein so he can pretend to be a viking or something. You?”

“Hyungwon,” says Yoonji, pretending to sweat. “I wonder who got us. My gift was really sweet.” She pulls the hand warmers from her purse. “Look.”

“That’s actually really thoughtful.”

“I said the same thing.”

“I got a notebook,” says Namjoon. “A nice one, but. I feel bad.” Yoonji nods sympathetically. Namjoon has trouble writing by hand. In college, he had to get an accommodation from the disabilities office to bring a laptop to some of his lectures. “I’ll regift it, it’ll be good. Actually, do you want it?”

“Oh, sure,” says Yoonji. She takes a lot of notes by hand, and still sometimes tries to keep a journal.

“Cool. I’ll give it to you when my Santa isn’t probably still here.”

“Sure,” she says. “Do you want another drink?”

Namjoon looks like he’s thinking for a second, and then he says, “Yeah. That would be good. If there’s any punch left?”

“Yeah. Got you.” She pats him on the shoulder, accidentally crushing his costume a little. “Oops,” she mumbles, trying to straighten it. Then she gives Namjoon a thumbs up, and he smiles at her, and she goes into the kitchen.

The punch is basically gone, so she starts checking bottles to see if she can whip something up for Namjoon. Before she’s decided, there’s a pat on her shoulder.

She turns to see Jeongguk. “Hey,” he says, leaning against a counter across from her. His body language is a little awkward. “Can I ask you about something?”

“Oh, sure,” she says, finishing sloshing around the bottom of a bottle of vodka and setting it down on the counter. She pretends she’s not apprehensive; conversations that start like this sometimes get really intrusive, but she thinks Jeongguk is probably above that.

“So, I got Seokjin as Secret Santa,” he says.

“Oh.” She starts to pull the gift out of her bag to give back to him.

“No, no,” says Jeongguk. “I still want him to have it. It might be stupid now, ‘cause I picked it before I met him, but whatever.”

“What is it?”

“Mad Libs?”

“Oh, no. He’ll love it.”

“Okay, cool, because he listed his interests as like, baker’s confections, jousting, and being a bad bitch. He was hard to shop for. But uh, I was wondering if you could give him something else.”

“Um, sure.”

“My number?”

“Ah. Yeah, I can do that.”

“Is he…?”

“Yeah,” says Yoonji. “I think he likes someone, but I’m not sure where that stands. So yeah. I’ll pass him your info.”

Jeongguk sinks back, shaking his head. “I can’t believe you know him like that.”

“We work together, I don’t get to choose if I know him,” she says. But that’s not fair. “He’s one of my best friends.”

“He’s… very hot.”

“Yeah, I guess,” says Yoonji. “Not really my type.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” laughs Jeongguk, gesticulating. “He’s everyone’s type. He looks like someone painted him.”

“Yeah, I think that’s why?” says Yoonji. “I think he’s like, too good looking.”

“Very nearly,” agrees Jeongguk wistfully. “What’s your type then?”

“Uh, currently?” says Yoonji. “Well, guys.”

Jeongguk looks a little surprised. When Yoonji knew him in college, she had a pretty serious girlfriend. They dated for most of two years before breaking up a little after graduation. And Jeongguk probably saw her and Mina together online; that relationship got serious really fast. Yoonji’s never had a boyfriend before.

“That’s cool,” he says. “Is that new?”

“No,” she says. “I feel differently about it now, though.”

“Is that because of the… you’re on hormones, right?”

“Oh, definitely.”

“I have a friend who turned totally straight when she went on estrogen, it was wild.”

“Well, kinda,” she says. “Maybe. I don’t know. I’m not overthinking it. It’s just something that’s happening right now.”

“Okay, so, what kinds of guys?”

Ugh. Skinny. Dyed red hair. Tight jeans. Scared of birds. “Um, like, fun types. Good attitudes. Smiley.”

“So, the opposite of you.”

“Yep,” says Yoonji. She takes a breath. “Hey, Jeongguk?”

“Yeah?” His face is open.

“Thank you.”

“No problem,” he says solidly. “For what?”

“Just, you know,” she says, realizing she’s kind of mumbling through her teeth. “For like. Acting normal.”

“Aw,” says Jeongguk, looking a little sad. “No, you’re good. I was serious when we messaged before. I just wondered where you were. I’m glad you’re okay. Really okay.”

“Yeah, I’m super good,” she says quietly.

“And, I’m sorry,” he says awkwardly, furrowing at the label of his beer. “I should probably tell you. I’m trans, also.” The end of the sentence kind of trails off as Jeongguk stares into an empty doorway.

She looks at his face. She didn’t know that at all. “Are you?”

“Uh, yeah. Well. I’m intersex, technically. But yeah.”

“That is great.” She’s surprised to hear that about someone she's always known to be so easygoing. “That’s great.”

“So. I don’t wanna say I get it, but I’m with you, you know?”

“How come you never told me before?” she asks, not upset, just wondering. The two of them caught up via text a few months ago, and he never mentioned it at all.

“Ah,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck and looking a little less than comfortable. “It’s weird to say. I don’t tell that many people anymore.”

Yoonji nods. She wouldn’t tell people if she didn’t have to, either. If no one noticed, she’d never talk about it. “I get that. But I guess it makes sense that you hung out with Joon so much in college.”

“I actually kind of thought the same thing,” says Jeongguk, “When you came out. Like, oh yeah. Joon really has never met a straight person.” His face cracks into a smile, and she sees him trying to lighten the mood, so she smiles back.

“Yeah,” she says, leaning back into the counter and feeling comfortable in a way that’s still fairly hard to come by. “He won’t admit it, but I really think he always knew.”

“He’s so cool,” says Jeongguk dreamily.

“He is. I don’t know where I’d be without him.” Then she laughs. “I say this, but I think I threatened to kill him earlier.”

“I bet he deserved it,” says Jeongguk, still smiling all wide and endearing, his big front teeth showing.

“‘Course he did.”  

Jeongguk takes another drink of his beer. He looks at her seriously. “So, things have been good?”

“Oh yeah,” she says, a little quiet. “You know. Some things are hard, but I’m happy.”

“It’s good to hear that,” says Jeongguk. “And I can tell you’re happy. You were always kinda like. I don’t know how to describe it. Like, watching the room really closely all the time. Does that make sense?”

Yoonji laughs. “Yeah, it does. I don’t think I ever learned how to relax.”

“I hear that,” he says honestly. “And, well. Yeah. I’m happy for you. Also, you’re really pretty. I wanted to say that earlier but I didn’t want to be weird. I love your hair like that.”

“Thank you,” says Yoonji again, smiling kind of hazily. She looks down at the cup she’s still holding to mix Namjoon’s drink in, blushing a little. She’s an idiot, but it means a lot to hear that. She laughs. “Now I made it weird, right? It was fine and now it’s weird.”

“Nah, it’s not,” says Jeongguk. “But hey, I think I’m gonna head out. I’m staying with my parents right now, and they don’t go to sleep until I’m home.”

“Aren’t you like 23?”

“Oh yeah. They don’t expect me back, but my mom sleeps with one eye open till she knows I’m safe in bed.”

“That’s darling, Jeongguk.”

“My mom is awesome.”

“What brings you back home, by the way?”

Jeongguk shrugs self-consciously. “Not a lot of money in fine art, I guess. Or, not enough… yet. To pay bills. So I think I need to evaluate what the hell I’m doing with my life.”

“Hence sucking up to mom?”

“Hence,” agrees Jeongguk. “But yeah, you should keep in touch. And I’d be very grateful if you gave Seokjin my number.”

“I will do that,” says Yoonji. “See you around.”

Jeongguk goes in for a hug, and Yoonji accepts it. He squeezes her kind of tight before letting go.

Yoonji is about at her capacity for social interaction now, she realizes as she takes a deep breath and goes back to rummaging for Namjoon's drink.

She settles on the syrupy bottom of a bottle of rum and some flat coke, then she starts looking for Namjoon. It’s the point in the night when people are starting to be really drunk and anyone might be anywhere. She hears people out back, which is an area she has so far avoided.

It seems like the party has moved there, so she grabs her coat and goes to investigate. As soon as she shuts the door behind her, stepping onto the deceptively warmly lit patio, she sees that everyone has come here to watch eggnog pong. It looks like Namjoon is losing severely to Momo, so Yoonji decides he probably won’t need his shitty rum and coke and starts drinking it herself as she sits down on a broken old chair under the gazebo.

It’s cold, but she’s got hand warmers now, so she breaks out a couple and feels immediate relief as they spread warmth through her fingers. She half-drunkenly visualizes the sensation traveling up her arms, to her heart, pumping through her with her blood. Her eyes close and she wills herself to be comfortable.

Eventually, Namjoon loses his game of eggnog pong and comes to sit with her. She asks if she can sleep over, since she forgot to find a ride, and Namjoon says of course, and then she says, “I’m gonna go find Hoseok.”

“Oh, he left,” says Namjoon. “Why do you need him? You gonna curse him?”

“No,” she says, a little sleepy and swirly from having too much to drink. “Actually, I wanted to be nice to him for once in my life.”

“Aw, sis. You seem tapped out. You wanna go to bed?”

“Yes, please.”

“Okay, let’s go upstairs.”

“Thanks, Joonie. My tolerance is... I’m still learning.”

“You’re good,” he says. “I’m just glad you made it.”

Chapter Text

Because Yoonji and Namjoon are always stoned when they hang out, her memories are sometimes a little hazy and hotboxed. But a few things stick out to her, when she thinks back.

The first: second semester, freshman year, when she had just started school again and had only known Namjoon a few months. College was full of new ideas and new kinds of people, and Namjoon’s sheltered, wealthy upbringing was beginning to fall apart. Before eventually calming down and becoming a conspiracy theorist, Namjoon spent months angry .

“Money is fake,” he said emphatically one afternoon.

“Yeah,” said Yoonji, taking a hit, maybe not stoned enough yet for this conversation.

“And, fuckin’, wage labor is fake.”

“It’s all fake,” Yoonji agreed.

“Even college is fake.”

“Yep.”

“Even though I’m learning a lot. And, I think, sexuality is fake.”

“Is it?”

“Well, to an extent. The way people talk about it is fake.”

“Yeah, I feel that,” said Yoonji. “I don’t understand the big distinction.”

“Also,” Namjoon added, like it was related, “Gender is fake.”

“Oh, fuck yeah it is,” said Yoonji.

“Fuck yeah it is?” said Namjoon, looking with raised eyebrows over at Yoonji.

“I mean, yeah,” she said, smaller. “It seems like it might be, you know. Largely constructed.”

“Oh,” said Namjoon. “Yeah. Cool.”

She thought he’d let it go, eager to keep complaining about society, but he didn’t. He looked in her eyes in a way she’s since gotten really used to, though not really from him, and he said, “You can talk to me about anything, you know?”

“I know,” she said, voice cracking. This was a very specific feeling, and one she was explicitly trying to avoid.

“Okay,” said Namjoon. “Because you can.”

Then he went back to talking about politics, but from then on, Yoonji was more careful not to let things slip, and she could feel Namjoon being careful with her, too.

The second: toward the beginning of sophomore year. Namjoon was considering trying to change dorms after overhearing a conversation his roommate had with his girlfriend. “He was like,” said Namjoon, laying on the floor in Yoonji’s dorm, “ I don’t hate them, I just don’t think it’s possible for two men to really be in love . News flash, you shit lord. You hate them.”

“I didn’t know that was a real thing people actually said,” Yoonji mumbled, spread out on her bed gripping the bars on the headboard, stretched out all the way.

“Oh, he’s got all the lines,” said Namjoon. “He’s worried every gay guy wants to have sex with him. But he’s lived with one for three months and I promise there’s been no burning desire.”

“None?” teased Yoonji. “I find that hard to believe.”

“Fuck off,” said Namjoon, smiling, pushing his hair back off his forehead to fan out on the ground above him. “Maybe for like ten minutes. But I don’t like the way he moves. I like dudes with finesse.”

“I feel it,” said Yoonji. “Are you gonna move dorms?”

“It’s late in the year,” he said, “but I feel weird all the time now.”

“You should talk to your administrator. Your argument is good.”

“I’m seriously fucked up over this,” Namjoon said, a little emphatically, bringing his hands up in front of him. “You know, my family loves me, I came out when I was fourteen, I’ve never been afraid of anybody.”

“Very lucky,” said Yoonji.

“You too, right?” he asked her. “You’re pretty comfortably out too, right?”

“Well, as bisexual,” she said.

“Wait,” said Namjoon, looking up at her a little confusedly. “Is there more?”

“No?” she said, trying to sound natural as her skin went all prickly and the muscles in her throat and chest pulled tight to get her ready to puke. Why did she say it like there was more?

“Oh,” said Namjoon nonchalantly. “You said it like there was more.”

“No,” said Yoonji, high up in her throat. “Just that.”

“Well, cool,” said Namjoon, and he went back to talking about his roommate.

The third: also in sophomore year, when Namjoon got really into magic and tried to do Yoonji’s birth chart.

“I’m a Pisces,” she said. “I don’t want to give you any more or you’ll try to know me .”

“I already know,” said Namjoon, mocking. “I know where you were born, and I know it was ‘94. March ninth, right? I’m gonna find your moon sign and learn all your secrets, buddy.”

“Not all of them,” she said. “And I was born in ‘93.”

“Really?” he asked. “Why didn’t I know that? And why aren’t you a junior? Gap year?”

“Somethin’ like that,” she said. “I tried college right out of high school and it didn’t work out. Moved back home for a year.”

“Oh, nice,” said Namjoon. “I wish I’d done that. What did you do in between?”

Tried to leave the house, eat, spend enough consecutive hours awake to keep my parents from worrying. Went to therapy, got on good meds, learned to live with misery. “Worked at a grocery store.”

“Glad you’re here instead,” said Namjoon. “Not that grocery work isn’t noble.”

She didn’t tell him the real reason she was a year late in school until the day she finally came out to him, four years later. That night, they sat in Yoonji’s room talking until the sun came in pink through her bedroom window. All Yoonji and Namjoon have ever done is sit around and talk, but that night was something new.

Just like she knew it would be, telling him was only stressful because of her. Namjoon was actually an activist. He went to Pride. If everyone else ditched Yoonji completely, she was sure she’d still have Joon to rely on.

Though that made it more daunting. If anything did go wrong with Joon, then maybe she’d have no one. But when she told her therapist that, she asked Yoonji if that might just be a complicated excuse not to tell him at all.

“You’re probably right,” she agreed, and promised to do it that week. She had some practice telling people now. She’d told Jimin, and she’d met Tae and told them too, and was starting to believe that this was something she was really going to do.

That night remains a fond memory of their friendship. None of the usual sarcasm they throw at each other, none of Namjoon’s meandering threads of conversation. She expected him to tell her that he’d always known, but he didn’t. He just reached out his arms and hugged her.

And he kept hugging her. He squeezed her so tight and let her go through it in a way nobody ever really had before. She cried in front of him for the first time in all the years she'd known him. She cried on him, and he sat strong for her, and rubbed her back with his warm hands and didn't say anything until she was done.

When they pulled back, there were tears in his eyes, too. He sniffled and wiped them. He said, "It's okay," and she said, “You dummy,” but in a voice that was too sweet to even be hers.

“You’re very important to me,” he said. “I love you a lot. You’re like my little sister.”

“I’m older than you,” she said, instead of acknowledging how it felt to hear herself called a sister, so soon and so easily.

“Yeah, but littler,” he said. “Older sister, smaller sister.”

“I love you too,” Yoonji mumbled.

“It doesn’t mean the same thing if you say it like someone’s forcing you,” said Namjoon. Yoonji was tired from crying, still crying a little. She was light from getting this out of her, from keeping Namjoon’s love, and from knowing now that if absolutely everyone else rejected her, she’d still have enough. But she was also relieved to hear him talk like himself again. “Try it again,” he laughed. “Say you love me, but this time, try to convince me.”

“Nope,” she said, shaking her head and sealing her lips. “That’s all you get, Kim.”

“Okay,” sighed Namjoon, still smiling. “Then I guess I’ll take it.”

 

 

On Monday, Yoonji goes to the park at lunch. Not because she wants to find Hoseok but because the sky is clear again, and the more time she spends outside, she thinks, the better she feels. Even if she hates it. She has all these hand warmers now, and she heated up her ramen way too much in the office microwave before coming downstairs. So she’s nearly comfortable. It’s not about running into Hoseok at all. It’s not that she’s been thinking about him.

But she’s also not totally offended when he sees her from across the park and waves.

She smiles a little to invite him to sit, but he doesn’t. Instead, he starts doing magic.

He picks up a discarded paper bag that’s skittering across the ground and it looks like he sees something in the bottom. A couple people in the park are watching, and Hoseok flicks something into the air, watches it arc above him and catches it again in the bag with a popping sound.

Okay.

He does it again, this time higher in the air. It arcs above him, pops . And again, so high that it doesn’t make sense for him to catch it again. He steps back and watches it fall. Pop .

He’s not actually throwing anything, and Yoonji snorts. What a goof. The smile on her face is disgusting.

Hoseok throws the invisible thing to one of the people in the small crowd that has gathered to watch him. They mime throwing it back, but too hard, and he has to run back exasperatedly and pick it up off the ground. Then he throws it to someone else, who underhands it, and he watches it arc up, up, too high, but then, pop , he catches it in the littered bag, grinning.

Then he throws it at Yoonji. She blinks. He points at her table, like it’s landed next to her ramen.

She rolls her eyes. Pretends to pick it up. Tosses it back.

He smiles so big. Pop .

When he’s done, he throws the bag in the trash and comes to sit with Yoonji.

“You’re a magician,” she says.

“I used to work with kids,” he says. “You pick stuff up. Are those hand warmers?”

She nods and shows him. She’s holding them around her hands with hair bands so she can still wear them while she eats. “Got them for Secret Santa,” she says.

“Is that a good gift?” asks Hoseok, looking concerned. “Or a bad one?”

“Oh, amazing,” says Yoonji, adjusting one. “The best gift.”

“Great,” he says quickly. “I was your Secret Santa.”

Yoonji narrows her eyes. He’s trying to trick her. He knows sleight of hand. “Prove it?”

“Hope these come in hand y,” he says, raising his eyebrows.

“Well shit,” she says. “Thanks, Hobi.” She eats a bite of noodles.

“Don’t mention it. But did you see, I got two packs and I crammed them all in the same box. So it says there’s six but there’s actually twelve.”

“I did notice,” she says. “You’re sneakier than I thought you were.”

“I noticed you seemed cold, so.”

“I am so cold.”

“Then, uh, do you need to go back inside?”

Yoonji looks at him. She can’t tell what he’s thinking. His face rests almost in a smile. She says, “No. I’m good out here.”

 

Hoseok tells Yoonji how he became a park host. Apparently, he was a park ranger, over the summer, but that job was seasonal. It will be easier, he tells her, to get that job again next summer if he stays in the parks system all year. “But I kind of hate it,” he says, hushed, like maybe his boss is listening. “I mean, it’s fine. It’s just not my idea of the outdoors. I don’t like working downtown.”

“Me neither,” she says. Then, completely off-topic, because she’s been thinking about it, she says, “I like your hair.”

“Oh, I like yours too,” he says, then takes a drink from the water bottle he set down on the corner of Yoonji’s table.

“Why red?” she says. She’s been thinking about it.

“‘Cause I didn’t have to completely bleach it,” he shrugs. “I wanted something crazy, originally, like green or something, but the guy at the salon said I’d have to do two sessions for anything other than red or orange.”

“And that was too much?”

“Well, I did it on a whim, so. I went with red. But I like it. Though, can’t decide if I wanna keep it up or not.”

Yoonji likes it with the dark roots. She nods. “You should.”

“Have you ever dyed your hair?”

“I used to bleach it sometimes,” she says. She looks away.

“Oh, cool,” says Hoseok. “I bet that looked nice.”

“How come you keep talking to me even though I’m mean to you?” she asks, then immediately slurps some noodles. She remembers this feeling. Knowing she likes someone, and being unable to say anything sensible around them.

“Ummm,” he says. “You’re not being mean to me now.” Then he kind of winces. “Are you thinking of being mean to me?”

“No,” she says quickly.

“Oh, good.” Yoonji can’t tell if his relief is sincere or joking. Then he says, “Well, the truth is, Namjoon told me you were tsundere . I didn’t know what that meant, but I looked it up online. It means you act all cold, but secretly you’re nice.”

“I’m gonna kick his ass.”

That makes Hoseok laugh, and Yoonji has to try hard to keep from laughing, too. Hoseok says, “He said maybe a date was a bad idea because you take so long to warm up to people. But now we see each other all the time, so I thought. I don’t know. We have mutual friends, might as well be friends ourselves.”

She wonders why he bothers, but says, “I’m not a cat, you can’t trick me.”

“Not trying to trick you,” says Hoseok easily. “Just trying to meet some new people.”

“What else did Namjoon say about me?”

Hoseok looks like he’s thinking. “That you wear black every day and aren’t afraid of anything,” he says. “That you’re his best friend in the world and that he thinks you’re a very special person.”

“He said that?” says Yoonji.

“Oh yeah. He thinks you don’t know how cool you actually are. And he said you’re really pretty.”

“Well,” she says, heart-full and flattered. “That’s sweet of him.”

“Yeah,” smiles Hoseok. “Bet you don’t wanna beat him up anymore.”

“No, I do,” she says. Then she concedes, “But nicely.”

Hoseok huffs out a breath. “He was right.”

“About what?” she squeaks.

“All of it. Especially the last part.”

She clears her throat. “Thanks,” she says weakly.

Hoseok makes her act so stupid, but glancing up, she sees that he’s just as flustered as she is. Quickly, with a shaky voice, he says, “But is it true that you’re not scared of anything? Not even really big spiders?”

“Not big spiders,” she says, exhaling with gratefulness for the topic change. “But I’m scared of some things.”

“Like what?”

Loneliness, rejection, strangers, death, the past. She says, “You know when a plane first lifts off, that first second you’re airborne. I hate that.”

“Oh my god. So do I. But I’m scared of everything.”

“Everything?”

“Every single thing,” he says plainly. Then he clears his throat. “What did Namjoon tell you about me? Before we met?”

She thinks before saying, “Well, he told me that you didn’t have that many friends.”

“Um,” he says, a little thoughtfully. “That’s true.”

“You’re so nice, it doesn’t make sense.” She feels like she’s coming on strong, but she’s been thinking about him all weekend.

“Thank you,” he says, like he can just take the compliment and not think about the rest. “But, I lost a bunch of friends. Pretty recently.”

Yoonji pictures something grisly and her heart sinks. But Hoseok says, “In a breakup.”

He keeps doing this; he keeps getting her worried. She says, “That sounds hard.”

“Yeah, it has been.”

She thinks he’s done talking about it, and she doesn’t plan to push it anymore. But Hoseok says, “I kind of look like a villain in the whole situation.”

“Are you a villain?” she asks. “It’s okay if you are.” She has been, too.

Hoseok shrugs. “Maybe. I don’t know. But I think even if I was evil, it’s been good for me.”

“Then it’s good,” she says. “If it’s good for you, it’s not evil.”

 

 

Yoonji’s parents have tried hard to take care of her. They’ve let her move back home whenever she’s been too depressed to go anywhere else. They remind her that they’ll always have a room ready for her if she needs it. Her mom calls her way too often and invites her over all the time. She’s got a good excuse not to visit, though. Her parents’ house is only an hour drive away, but she doesn’t have a car, so it’s harder to get to them.

She still goes over fairly often, but she sort of avoids them now. Her mom leaves voicemails saying she’s worried, and Yoonji doesn’t know how to respond to them. She has trouble trusting her mom, and struggles to talk to her dad at all, sometimes.

They think they’re doing a really, really good job handling having a trans kid. And, in a lot of ways, they are. The fact that they call her at all makes her feel guilty for being uncomfortable. Jimin doesn’t talk to her parents anymore, and even Seokjin’s family, while still in his life, have had a strained relationship. A lot of people like Yoonji can’t call their moms at all, but it’s still, just. Hard.

Yoonji’s mom hasn’t been able to understand yet that it isn’t about her. She doesn’t understand that there’s nothing she could have done. She couldn’t have supported Yoonji more, seen more signs and helped her do this sooner. Yoonji knew she was trans for thirteen years before she told anyone. Her parents never stood a chance at reaching her.

Her mom used to also wonder out loud if there was anything she could have done to prevent this. She’d wonder if she somehow encouraged Yoonji toward femininity, or something. Those thoughts were harmless enough, easy enough to write off. But sometimes thoughts like that turned really ugly. Sometimes her mom would talk to Yoonji like she was something that had possessed her son and was trying to ruin him.

Like she remembers once, early on, when her mom cornered her in her room. “You know I support you,” she said, the way she still starts every sentence that’s going to make Yoonji cry later. “But I’m worried about you.”

“I’m good,” Yoonji said, ignoring whatever might come next. “Thank you, though.”

Her mom sat at the foot of her bed. “I just want to make sure you really know what you’re doing.”

“I do,” Yoonji said.

“Because with your mental health the way it can be,” her mom started, looking like she was trying to find the way to word something delicately.

But, Yoonji didn’t like where that was going. “It’s not about my mental health.” Except for how much better it was starting to get.

“I’m worried,” said her mom clearly, “Because you’ve tried to hurt yourself before.”

Yoonji rolled her eyes, half to keep tears from betraying her. It wasn’t even the conversation, she was just crying about everything lately. She said, “I’ve never tried to hurt myself.” She had thought about it a lot, but she had never done it. If she were feeling more sarcastic, she’d have said something like, Everyone considers jumping off a bridge in college .

“Can I ask you something?” She didn’t really give Yoonji a chance to reply. “Are you considering getting the surgery ?”

That was the first time Yoonji heard it in her mom’s voice. The hint of some fear, not just that Yoonji was making bad decisions, but that something evil was happening to her. That was the first time she talked to Yoonji like she might be a monster instead of her kid. It was icy in her stomach, and she was stony when she answered, “Of course I am.”

“I really think that’s a shame.” Yoonji’s mom is the one who taught her to put words together so they came out sharp. Her dad was the one who taught her when to be quiet.

“I really think you completely misunderstand what this means to me.”

“Have you considered what this means to me?” said her mom. “I’m trying to protect my child.”

Now they were arguing. “I’m trying to take care of myself,” said Yoonji. Her mom didn’t care about how Yoonji had put on some weight lately, how her skin was brighter and her sleep was better. What she was saying was not about Yoonji’s health or safety at all.

“By doing damage to your body?”

“I’m trying to fix it.”

“It isn’t broken!”

“Yes, it is. It’s broken. It is.”

It was tense between them, and the room was very quiet. Yoonji heard her dad and brother talking somewhere out in the living room or the kitchen. Yoonji and her mom looked at each other until finally Yoonji said, “Junseo’s gonna drive me home, so I should go. If he wants to be back before it’s late.”

“That’s fine,” said her mom. Yoonji wondered if that was guilt in her voice.

Yoonji said, “Sorry.” She was. For making her parents scared for her, and scared of her. For not telling them for so long. For all the ways that being herself affected them, even if she wasn’t sorry for being herself.

“I love you,” said her mom.

Yoonji didn’t know if she could return that right then. She said, “Thank you.”

Then she left her mom sitting on her bed. She went to the kitchen, found her brother, and told him she was ready to go.

In the car, she cried, and her brother awkwardly tried to give her space, looking ahead at the road like he was alone. They had once been close, but Yoonji was still figuring out how to talk to anyone in her family. Though her younger brother had always kept a bit of an eye out for her, and he seemed to understand better and accept more easily than their parents. They were from a different place and a different generation than their parents, and they understood some things in a different way.

“Sorry,” Yoonji said, sniffling into the crook of her arm.

“You’re okay,” said Junseo. “I think they’re gonna come around. You know how mom can be.”

“Really mean?” said Yoonji.

“Yeah, like you,” said Junseo. “You’d both rather argue than admit you’re upset.”

“Mmm.” Yoonji wiped the last of her tears off on the sleeve of her sweater. Her makeup was probably a fucking mess. She felt gross.

Hesitantly, Junseo said, “You look a lot like her.”

“I hate her right now,” said Yoonji. “That doesn’t feel like a compliment.” And she’s always looked like her mom, that wasn’t new. The joke growing up was that Junseo got their dad’s features, and Yoonji got their mom’s. It was always disturbingly satisfying.

“I bet you’re gonna look just like her when you’re her age.”

“I’ll dress better.”

“You already do.”  

 

After about six months of similar arguments, Yoonji’s mom abruptly called her with an apology. She said she’d been to a support group, and she made Yoonji cry recounting a story she’d heard from a father who never got the chance to accept his daughter. Yoonji was grateful, even if it felt a little cheap. Even if it felt like her mother was accepting what was left of her child after realizing that all of her could die. But it was a start, and Yoonji was certainly grateful.

Since then, they’ve learned to talk again. It’s different than it used to be, and Yoonji’s mom still sometimes talks to her like she’s an impostor, but they’re doing better.

Yoonji’s dad has always been less awkward than her mom, but still very strange. His acceptance of her has never wavered, but the two of them have only ever been able to talk about it a few tense times.

The first time was when she came out to him. “Don’t try to stop me,” she’d said on the phone, “Because I’m already doing it.” It was true; she waited to tell them until she couldn’t avoid it anymore. She waited until she had to go visit, and she thought they’d be able to tell how different she was starting to look, and that she was growing boobs.

“I wouldn’t try to stop you,” he said. “It seems like you’ve made up your mind.”

The second was after a little more than a year. He was still using her old name, still talking to her like he always had. It had been a comfort at first, when everything with her mom and the rest of her family was so wild and different, to feel like her dad was at least reliable. But it got more grating as time passed, until one day, she tried to gently tell him.

She went to him in his little office, where he was trying to finish something before they all ate dinner. He invited her to sit and looked at her earnestly.

“You know I’m a girl, right?” she said, no pleasantries about it.

He nodded difficultly.

“I appreciate that you don’t try to treat me differently. But I would like it if you treated me like I’m a girl. Because I am one. I’m changing my birth certificate.”

“I try,” he said. “But you come around so little. You’ve only come over a few times since you…” He didn’t even know what to call it, he probably thought he’d hurt her feelings by speaking plainly. “When I think about you, I remember when you were a little boy. I found some pictures last week, do you remember when you were maybe ten and you and I went camping for a weekend? We left mom and Junseo at home.”

Yoonji said, “I’m not that person anymore.” It felt a little wrong and harsh even then, because she does remember going camping with her dad, and she remembers riding on his shoulders when she was really little, and she remembers how he was always supportive of what she wanted to do, even when it was joining drumline instead of playing a sport in high school, or studying journalism instead of engineering.

But she wasn’t that person anymore. That was true. “That’s not me now.”

Now, her dad tries, but he flip-flops between talking to Yoonji like the boy she used to pretend to be and treating her like someone he’s just met. She wishes it wasn’t so hard to get to know people again.

The only other time Yoonji and her dad have come close to talking about it was when he asked her, one evening after dinner, out on the back patio, just them. “Why?”

“Why what?” she said.

“Why were you so unhappy as a man?”

That question was so simple and so complicated. She thought about it for a long minute. She thought of saying, I don’t know , to end the conversation and go back to the quiet they’d been sharing, looking out over the backyard with beers as the sun went down in front of them. But eventually, she tried to tell him. “Did you ever hear that joke,” she said. “I must have heard it at camp or something. Somebody goes to the doctor and says, everything hurts .”

“I don’t think I have,” said her dad.

“The doctor says, show me where , so the patient touches their knee. That hurts , they say. Then they touch their elbow, hurts too . And their wrist, and their stomach. Their head. It’s everywhere, but the doctor can’t see anything wrong with them.” She glanced over to see if he was following. “Finally, the doctor looks at the patient’s hand and sees that they’ve sprained their finger.”

“Alright,” said her dad.

“It seems small enough to be inconsequential, you know? Everything else is good. But a vital part is all fucked and you can’t do anything without it hurting.”

She knew that wasn’t really what he was asking, but it was the best she could do. He didn’t ask anything else, at least.

After a minute, she said, “Mom thinks it’s evil, but it’s been really good for me.”

“Oh no, it’s not evil,” he said. “If it’s good for you, it’s not evil.”

 

 

“Don’t lie to me, I know you yarfed,” says Yoonji.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” says Hoseok, but he’s way too sincere to be convincing.

Just admit it,” says Yoonji, standing in front of the bench he’s on with her hands on her hips. “There’s a dead bird somewhere at this park, and you’re trying to hide it from me.”

“Why do you like dead birds so much, gross,” mumbles Hoseok.

“Why won’t you let me do this for you?”

“Because it’s my job and it’s way too horrible. You’ll definitely yarf.”

“Just let me get it this once, and if I yarf I’ll never try to do anything nice for you or anyone else ever again, so help me God.”

Hoseok looks a little intimidated. “Okay, fine,” he says. “It’s um. Under that bench.” He pulls his hand out of the pocket of his khaki park jacket and points across the park with a weak finger. He seems so nauseous that it's hard for him to move.

Yoonji nods once. "Be right back," she says, starting to head over there.

"No, wait."

"You can't stop me, Jung."

"You need a trash bag. You're supposed to like," he stands up, but presses his eyes closed as he does it. "Grab it like a glove and then turn it inside out." He demonstrates, then starts heading to the park office to get one.

She follows, hovering outside the door while he digs around an obscure shelf just out of her sight. He comes back and hands her a heavy-duty black trash bag that’s bigger than her, and she says, again, "Thank you. I'll be right back."

She means to hurry over there and get it done before Hoseok has to look at the bird again, but when she gets to the bench, she's got to make a plan.

Under the bench, she sees that the bird has died pressed back as far as it can go against a low cinderblock wall that marks off the edge of the park. It's less gross than she imagined; it looks at peace. She tries to figure out which part of it to grab.

By the time she's ready to go for it, Hoseok's come over and is standing above her. He doesn't say anything, but she can hear him breathing fast. She's hit with a badly timed wave of fondness for him: his baited breath, the sweet, pitiful face he makes when he's uncomfortable. As she shoves her arm into the trash bag, on her hands and knees in her thick black denim jacket, and starts feeling around under the bench, she's thinking about how nice Hoseok is. She has to press the side of her face to the filthy ground to get traction, and the cold, slightly sticky feeling seems synchronistic.

She grabs the bird. It's not pleasant, and it is gross, though not gross enough, she thinks, to admit that to Hoseok. She grimaces and holds her breath as she drags it out from under the bench.

"Don't look," she says and she pulls it out, quickly turns the bag inside out and ties it as tightly shut as she can.

She's breathing a little hard, too. Her heart is beating fast, and the weight in the bag she holds is unpleasant, though less heavy than she imagined it would be, less heavy than it felt like it would be when she was dragging the bird across the cement.

"Can I open my eyes now?" he says quietly. She looks at him. His face is all scrunched shut and his shoulders are hunched up. He's so cute. He's so, so cute.

"You can look," she says. "I got it. It's done."

"Thank you," he whispers, opening his eyes slowly. "If you give me the bag, I'll go throw it away."

But Yoonji shakes her head. "Nope, I'm not letting you touch this bag. No more yarfing for you today."

"Okay," he says, obviously relieved. "Then, it's this way."

She follows him across the street to a cavernous dumpster room in the ground floor of one of the office buildings. There's an enormous trash compactor and a huge metal cage for cardboard boxes. The fluorescent lights flicker weakly. As they walk in, someone is dragging a trash can out. She nods at them in vague recognition, or maybe she just sees Yoonji's key card and Hoseok's park jacket.

"We share this trash room with like three restaurants," says Hoseok, walking up a ramp to the huge drawer of the trash compactor. Yoonji follows, and Hoseok says, "Well. This is where he goes."

"That's so sad," says Yoonji.

"Yeah," says Hoseok. "He lived a whole pigeon life, and this is where he ends up. Seems unfair."

Yoonji will never be able to fully relate to how Hoseok feels about this, but she does see it now. Though she's not in danger of yarfing and she's not heartbroken or anxious, it's impossible to avoid thinking about mortality when you're about to throw a creature in the trash. She says, "You okay, Hobi?"

"Yeah," he says, but it's a little weak and watery. "I'm good."

"I think you should do a eulogy."

Hoseok nods seriously, pressing his lips together so his dimples poke out. "Okay. Um. Well, Pigeon. Gosh. I didn't know much about you. I think you might have been male, but I'm not really sure. In life, I didn't know you, and I regret that."

Yoonji lowers the bag into the drawer.

"I'm sure that you didn't get your due. I just hope that you enjoyed eating old french fries, that you had some nice pigeon friends. I wish you had gotten a better ending than this, but... you won't be forgotten." He looks over at Yoonji. "Amen?"

"Amen," she says. "Okay, you might not want to watch this."

Hoseok methodically turns away as Yoonji pushes the button on the trash compactor.

As they go back to the park, Hoseok shudders and looks at the ground, and Yoonji understands. It's gross, she agrees, but it's not too gross. Not too gross to do again for Hoseok.

 

 

Now that Seokjin is back at his physical peak, and Yoonji is working frantically to avoid thinking about her boy problem, they are an unstoppable team. They’ve been going above and beyond all week, writing such thoughtful pieces as 10 Big Ugly Bugs Who Died In My Basement And No One Said A Word (Seokjin), Tell Us Which Kitten Is Cutest And We’ll Tell You The Day Of Your Death (Yoonji), The Signs As Arby’s Menu Items (Seokjin), and 35+ Reasons I Need A Nap (Yoonji). This is good, because during their various bouts of uselessness lately, their team manager has been coming up to stand over their shoulders and asking things like “Whatcha workin’ on?”

Yoonji is doing alright. She’s writing a lot in order to have something productive to focus on. She’s trying not to visit Hoseok every day because she’s busy, and she does not want to look desperate. When they met, she wasn’t desperate, but now she is. The change is tangible, and it is consuming her. She eats rice at her desk and tries not to think about Hoseok.

He texts her on Wednesday. He doesn’t text much; it’s hard for him because he has to press the 3, 6, and 9 keys really hard ever since a car ran his phone over. It makes it more meaningful when he sends her messages, unlike Namjoon’s constant non sequiturs. Today, Namjoon sent Yoonji four messages about a frog he saw on his way to work.

I would have given my life to that frog

It was doing such important work.

Hopping around.

Then,

I was late for a meeting and got in trouble. Damn the frog.

 

Hoseok’s message comes in when she’s eating at her desk, thinking about him.

 

No lunch 2 day?

All caught up with work today sorry ):

Ok

 

She feels kind of bad, but she doesn’t really know what she’s supposed to do. She’s just not ready to confront it, or even think about it. So she doesn’t.

 

After she eats, she takes out the notebook that Namjoon regifted her after Secret Santa. It really is nice, leather bound with smooth, thick paper. She almost doesn’t want to ruin it with her scratchy handwriting.

But she does. She's gotten to the end of her last notebook, a thoroughly ruined composition book that's been bouncing around her backpack for the better part of six months. It's full of weird notes to herself, to-do lists, mostly bad ideas for work, directions, things to remember. It's also got a couple of embarrassing journal entries, mostly written as lists, and some dreams. She likes to pretend those don't exist past the point of being written, but she flipped through the notebook this morning and revisited some things.

October 15. Dream
Accidental explosion. Someone died but I don't remember who. I hugged Namjoon while he cried.


She saw notes about what Secret Santa gift to get for Hyungwon, and she saw the directions she'd written down to the restaurant where she first met Hoseok for that awful date.

But that notebook is full, and she wastes few sentimentalities in breaking open the nice new one from Namjoon's anonymous Santa.

She opens the first page and starts writing, black liquid ink on smooth white paper.  


Updates.
Jin said he wanted ice cream and a root beer float. Bought him both, turned out he was joking. I kept the root beer float and he ate the ice cream.
Tried to take a nap under the desk; failed
Called my mom yesterday. Still weird.
First crush?  

Seokjin eats lunch at the downstairs cafe, and when he comes back up, he plops back in his chair across from her, leans over to see what she's doing, and says, "You journaling?" Then, "Wait."

"Hm?" she says, looking up at him and slapping the notebook closed. She loves Seokjin, but if he saw that she had just written He told me I was pretty? he'd find a way to ruin her life with it.

"That looks like one that..." he starts, and then he makes grabby hands at her. "Can I see that?"

Yoonji is too busy saying, "Don't read what I wrote, I trust you," to think about why he's asking what he's asking.

"Interesting," says Seokjin as soon as the book is in his hands.

She doesn't think of it right away. Seokjin looks across at her, and it’s been a long time since she’s seen him so sad . She sees him pathetic, disappointed, and lamenting his life while incredibly drunk, but he hasn’t looked so much like his heart hurts since Don’t Make Me Cry .

"Oh, god. I’m sorry," says Yoonji. "He um. Can't write." She tries to remember what Namjoon’s problem with writing is called.

He flips through the notebook and opens it to a page about halfway through. At the bottom corner, in his girly handwriting, there is a note.

whenever I see you, I am always amazed.
I can't breathe. I think it might be love.
since the beginning, my heart has beat because of you.

S


And then his phone number.

Yoonji says, "Aw, Jinnie."

Seokjin looks like he is going to cry. "I hate what he does to me. I don't even know him."

She doesn't want to tell him that she relates, because she doesn't want to lose. She feels for him, though, so much that her heart is sore, too. She says, "You have to call him."

"I don’t think I want to," says Seokjin dazedly. "I don't want to feel like this anymore."

He closes the notebook and tries to hand it back to her.

"You can have it," she says. "Just let me tear out the page I used."

"No," he says.

He's so dramatic, he's making it so hard on himself, but she completely understands why he's using fourth-grade logic to make life decisions. She's doing the same thing, so she can't be mad at him without being mad at herself. And she refuses to admit failure, so she takes the notebook back from him, slips it into her backpack, and says, "You'll be okay, you big baby."

 

 

At lunch on Tuesday, Yoonji sits at one of the tables in the park, hand warmers strapped to her palms and noodles microwaved too hot to eat. It’s too cold to bear, but it’s worth it. On her way to the table a minute ago, she ran into Hoseok, who said he’d hurry to come meet her.

As she waits for him, she checks her phone. She has messages from Mina.

 

What are you doing on Friday night?

Can I come over?

 

let me chekc and ill get back to you

I know you don’t mean to avoid me.

 

okay.

heard that. i’ll find time this weekend for sure.

I’m basically free. Just let me know.

 

“Who ya textin’?” Hoseok plops down across from Yoonji, slapping his food container down on the table.

Yoonji locks her phone and looks up at Hoseok. “Old friend,” she says. “What are you eating?”

“Tempeh BLT,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s good yet, so we’ll find out together.” He picks up half of his sandwich and takes a bite. He chews, contemplates, and then nods. “It’s good.”  

“Are you vegan?” Yoonji asks.

“Just vegetarian,” he says. “The main challenge with veganism is ice cream. Though,” he thinks, “they’ve got some really good alternatives. I had rice cream recently? Delicious. Maybe I’ll go vegan sometime, but I’m not ready. I’ve only been vegetarian for a couple months.”

“Oh, that’s recent.”

“Yeah, I wanted to for a long time, but I didn’t really have the chance.”

“Why not?”

He takes another bite of his tempeh sandwich and looks at her like he’s deciding whether to tell her something important. She looks back at him just as skeptically. He says, “I told you I had a breakup, right?”

“Yes.”

“Well,” says Hoseok. “A lot has changed for me since then.”

“When was it?”

“Three months ago,” says Hoseok. Then his voice gets quiet, like he’s embarrassed to admit it, “We dated for eight years.”

“Holy shit,” says Yoonji. She has never done anything for eight years straight. “How old are you, again?”

“26. We started dating right after high school.”

Yoonji’s heart clenches in a funny way. She’s watching Hoseok devour his lunch, listening to him chatter about his life like he has no secrets, and he seems so bright and alive. He’s got a nice face, nice hands. She likes him more than she’s liked anyone for so long, and it’s strange to think of him being with someone else for all of his adult life. She wants him; it’s uncomfortable. She says, “I thought you were younger.”

“How old are you ?”

“27.”

“I thought you were younger, too.”

“Why’d you break up?”

Hoseok finishes chewing his bite before answering. “A lot of reasons,” he says. “I guess we wanted different things.”

Yoonji eats one very hot noodle.

“I think, after that long, and at our age, you know. Some things start to be expected.”

Yoonji doesn’t really know what that means.

“Settling down,” he says. “Getting married and everything.”

“Oh,” says Yoonji. It’s so weird that, in a similar reality, Hoseok might be a stranger’s husband. “That’s not your thing?”

“It’s not not my thing,” he says. He folds his lips in, sighs, and says, “I’m about to sound really cold. But it wasn’t my thing with her .”

“Ah.”

“I thought about it a lot. I looked at rings and everything. But it never felt like the right time, and then I figured it wasn’t the wrong time, it was just the wrong thing. I didn’t want to marry her, and then, I guess, I didn’t want to be with her at all. I thought about how I’d never been single before, how I wasn’t doing a lot of things I wanted to be doing. I was living with her, and it was, like, we were already acting 40. Arguing over the mail and stuff. I didn’t like it anymore. It was selfish.”

“I don’t think that’s selfish.”

“It is selfish. It stopped being fun, so I left her, and now she’s disappointed her family and she thinks she’s too old to find a good man.”

That logic is so foreign to Yoonji. Her parents are like that, her brother is a little like that, but she’s always felt very distant from that kind of life. “You don’t strike me as the traditional marriage type.”

“I never felt like that type, either. That’s a whole part of it. Our families are both really conservative. I mean, my parents hate me right now. Pretty much everyone does. They think I ditched right when it was important and broke her heart for no reason, you know? But I still think this is better than getting into an unhappy marriage, even for Dasom. I think someday she’s gonna marry somebody who loves her better than I did.” He looks away from Yoonji quickly and takes a really big bite of his sandwich.

Quietly, so no one overhears, Yoonji says, “I’m sorry you’re going through that.”

Hoseok shrugs and smiles. “Thank you. I don’t regret it. It sucks for everyone. But I don’t regret it.”

“I have this ex,” says Yoonji, even though she had decided to keep her mouth shut. “It’s not a similar thing, but I understand. We didn’t break up because we hated each other or anything. We just deserved to live different lives than we could live together.”

“Oh, exactly,” says Hoseok. “That’s exactly it.”

“Takes guts,” she says.

He nods seriously. “It does.”

Yoonji’s noodles are just about cool enough to eat, so she takes a bite, and Hoseok finishes the first half of his sandwich.

“It’s been good to hang out, Yoonji.”

“I agree,” she says. She’s kind of choked up. It feels like he’s about to say something.

“I think you’re so awesome.”

Yoonji very slowly takes a bite of noodles. She stares at the broth, the little bubbles of oil floating on top. She swallows, then she looks up at Hoseok and says, “I think you are, too.”

 

 

“Hey, which celebrity sideboob do you think is, say, most notorious?” asks Seokjin, later in the afternoon.

“I’m not having this conversation again,” says Yoonji. “Just write your stupid article and don’t rope me into collaborating. It shouldn’t take two brains to write 15 Celebrity Sideboobs That Made Me Think Twice .”

“I guarantee you would be surprised,” says Seokjin. “It’s difficult work.”

“Yeah, we do difficult work here,” says Yoonji.

Seokjin looks at her a little questioningly. “Are you having a bad week?”

“No, what?” she says, but realizes she’s grimacing and turns it into an unconvincing smile. “I’m great .”

“You’re being all grumbly,” he says. “You make weird sounds at yourself when you’re pissed off.”

“I’m not doing that,” she says.

“You are,” he says. Then he does an impression; it sounds like Pumpkin when he’s hungry. “What’s wrong?”

She refuses to answer. She’s fine, she’s not messed up over a boy. “I said it’s nothing,” she says. “Have you talked to Namjoon at all?”

“God no,” says Seokjin. “I sneezed in his face .”

“I know you did. But he told me to tell you he was into snot. He said he wants to be sneezed on sexually.”

“I can never look him in the eyes again. And he hated his notebook.”

“I didn’t even know you liked him until Saturday,” she says.

“Well, seeing as my last few romantic endeavors have been spectacular failures,” Seokjin laments, “I was trying to keep it to myself.”

“I wouldn’t say spectacular failures,” says Yoonji.

“I have a new rule. No more celebrities,” he says, pointing at her like he’s expecting her to hold him to it. “Even notorious locals. Even people with, like, over ten thousand twitter followers. It’s all glamour, Yoonji. It’s skin deep.”

“What does this have to do with Joon?” He’s only notorious among people who follow local journalism way too closely, and college students, because he used to sell so much weed.

Seokjin rests his face on a fist. “I. Really. Need to learn to stop leaving a trail of wreckage everywhere I go.”

Yoonji pouts over at him.

“I’m chaotic.”

She goes to console him, but his dark mood has already passed, or maybe he’s shoved it to the side. He changes the subject so fast that Yoonji startles. “Would it be tacky to include two separate Miley sideboobs? Notoriety-wise, I want to say that two is fair, but I just wonder if the readers will think that’s a cop-out.”

“Two seems fair,” says Yoonji, conceding just a little. It’s the least she can do. “I mean, sideboob is basically her brand.”

“You’re so right, Yoonji, thank you.” Then he puts his headphones back in and starts clattering at his keyboard again, eyebrows furrowed, pausing only once before he’s finished, continuing to type with one hand as he takes a swig of coffee with the other.

 

 

“If I invite Mina over on Saturday, do you think you’d want to hang too?” Yoonji is lying on the couch in a sheet mask after a long day, and Jimin’s cooking something healthy-smelling in the kitchen.

“Saturday what time?” asks Jimin. She peeks around the doorway. She’s still dressed from work, all smooth and pretty. Yoonji is fascinated with the way her hair is braided; she’d ask her how she did it if she thought she’d ever be able to replicate it.

“Dinner, maybe?” she says.

“Yeah, sounds good,” says Jimin, disappearing back into the kitchen. “Can Tae come?”

“Of course,” says Yoonji. “You don’t need to ask. Tae can always come.”

“Great,” says Jimin. “Then yeah.”

“I’m gonna ask Joon to come, too,” she calls into the kitchen. “I don’t want to be alone with Mina right now.”

“Girl, are you that scared of her?” yells Jimin back.

Yoonji adjusts her position on the couch. She blinks up at the mottled ceiling, at the fan spinning lazily. She says, “I’m not scared of anything. I just think things are getting weirder with her again. Have you noticed that?”

“What, like,” says Jimin, then she slides into the living room and sits on the arm of the couch by Yoonji’s feet. “Like how she’s pressuring you to hang out?”

“Kind of,” says Yoonji. “But she’s always like that. It’s more the way she looks at me.”

“I wouldn’t know, babe,” says Jimin. She gets up. “I only really know her through you. She’s normal to me, though. And cool to Tae, so.”

“That’s true,” says Yoonji, maybe too quietly for Jimin to hear as she goes back into the kitchen.

She sends Namjoon a message.

 

tae+jimin and mina are hanging out at our house saturday. tag along?


Always. Should i bring food? Weed? Weed and food?

I’ve been craving like a lemon meringue pie.

But from an actual bakery. I’m not taking kirkland signature.

weeeeeed

and yeah bring me a fancy pie

please.

youve saved my life more than once kim.


:P

 

On Friday, Jimin goes to hang out with Tae and, apparently, their mom. Yoonji uses the evening at home alone wisely. She puts on a Heart album and yells along to the whole thing, alternating between frantically dancing around the living room and lying on the couch scrolling through her phone. Then she makes herself a nice dinner, then she takes a bath.

Jimin really likes these big, dramatic bath bombs that look like easter eggs, but Yoonji just uses a lavender epsom salt and smokes some weed as soon as she gets in. She makes the water too hot and closes the curtain on herself to trap the steam in, and it’s the only time she really, truly relaxes.

Yoonji feels relaxed in her bed, and with Namjoon, and sometimes even when she has no reason to be relaxed. She’ll just notice every so often that her shoulders aren’t hunched, she’s not holding herself together very tightly. She’ll trust a chair to hold her up, trust a room not to turn against her. Baths, though, are something even deeper.

The tub is small, so she has to change her position every few minutes to keep all of herself warm, but right after she slips in is the best. It’s almost uncomfortably hot, and steamy, and it smells like healing. She props her feet up on the sides of the tub and slides down so that her ears are underwater. She can feel the dripping echoes of the faucet, and she can feel herself breathing, and she can feel the hum of the fan on the other side of the curtain, vibrating through the whole room.

She stays like that for as long as she can. Blinking up at the ceiling, feeling the heat, letting her joints loosen and trying to focus on the faucet dripping instead of anything else. It’s times like this when her mind feels really loud, and she tries to make it quiet. She pushes everything away like clothes on the floor of her room, making space to move around in.

It’s nice, it’s working, she feels very present, until she’s startled by Pumpkin’s little hand. It pops out from under the shower curtain and bats at her, but touches hot water first and recoils. Yoonji scoots up and lifts her head, water streaming back from her hair, just in time to hear him make a sad little trapped sound.

“Well, that’s your fault,” she says through the curtain. He responds with an offended sound.

She flinches at the cold air when she moves the curtain aside. Pumpkin is licking his little hand, white with orange rings and long fluffy tufts growing between his fingers with their perfect pink pads. He’s dramatic like this because Jimin adopted him when he was a kitten taken from his mom too soon, so she taught him everything he knows.

“You followed me in here, stupid.”

Pumpkin sasses her back.

Yoonji closes the curtain again and drains a little cooling water to add more hot. She sinks back in for a minute, listening to the echoey underwater sounds. The stirring when she moves again to fit more of herself underwater, spread open now that she’s melted into the shape of the bathtub. It smells so nice, natural, and the steam swirling above her is comforting.

Her toes are cold, so she sits up a little more to fit her feet in. She puts them flat on the bottom so her knees stick up, and uses the cup by the side of the tub to run some water over them, until she gets bored and would rather be still and a little cold than keep at it.

She looks down at herself with no thoughts but warmth for a long minute. Her stomach, the curve in of her hips, her chest. She notices that even though she’s lying flat on her back, she can hardly see her ribs. She used to be able to see them all the time, but now they’re just small ridges under soft skin. Her stomach is soft, too, in a way it never has been. And the tops of her arms, and her thighs. She touches her stomach idly, squeezes at it, and it’s nice. It feels good. It feels alive and it feels healthy and loved.

Then she takes her boobs in her hands. They’re not very big, but they’re still growing, she thinks. It takes a while, and they’re still sore sometimes, so she thinks. She hopes. This was the thing she was most excited for when going on hormones, a thing she’s wanted very badly for a very long time, and it’s been a little underwhelming. Not so bad, though. They’re there, small handfuls, and nobody really gets to choose how these things play out. She’s happy to have them at all. Small, but soft, and there.

She looks down at her knees still poking out of the water. They’re bony, a little goosebumpy from the cool air and spotty with old scars. They poke out of her legs in a weird way, she’s always thought so. They’re awkward. So are her hands, idly holding her boobs, nails painted dark purple. Her hands are bigger than they should be, full of bones and veins. She used to look at them and feel so mortal. So human, full of all these ugly parts that hardly fit together. She was trapped in this weird body that didn’t love her. She doesn’t feel so much like that anymore.

She washes her hair and her face and her body, then she lies there for a few more minutes, then she drains the tub. It’s too cold now, there’s no way to help it without starting over. She towels off, and then she goes to put her pajamas on, but Pumpkin jumps up on the counter and tries to get Yoonji to pick him up. She shoos him down and catches a shadow of herself in the fogged up mirror.

She wipes the mirror off and stands in front of it. She doesn’t move for a minute, just watches herself. Her chest moves when she breathes. She has hips, sort of. She’s still skinny, but not like she used to be. She’s got a different texture now. Her angles are smoother. Her lines are curved. She turns sideways and then backwards, but can’t really see behind her. She turns back around. She thinks about the things she still hates. There’s no avoiding them sometimes, but she sees herself with an odd sort of peace right now. She isn’t scared.

“Hey, lady,” she says, quiet and self-conscious.

Yoonji is lucky. There are makeup tricks and camera angles and cuts of clothes that can sometimes make her blend in. Never quite like Jimin, who’s rarely known, if ever. Though it’s not like Yoonji thinks blending in is very important. If she did, she’d never be happy. She can’t live for other people like that.

But she’s noticed. She knows the things she can do to be left alone. And one of them is not to talk.

She says to the mirror, “You’re working hard,” and she listens to her voice.

Trying to make it higher just sounded fake and stupid, like she was doing a cartoon impersonation of a woman. And she could never stick to it anyway, as soon as she stopped thinking about it. Eventually, she stopped trying so hard, and her voice found its own place somewhere softer, but it’s really obvious. “Hey, lady.” It sounds like she’s talking to someone else. It sounds disappointed. It’s all she’s got.

She doesn’t do this much. Doesn’t try to be aware of all the pieces of her all at once. Usually it’s too uncomfortable, not even possible to see herself as a whole. This is the first time ever that she’s stood in front of a mirror naked and looked at herself without cringing. She’s aware of that as she looks closely at details that she’s taught herself to ignore.

She had a conversation about this with Tae once. “You and Jimin both,” they’d said, rolling their eyes. “Stop saying you have boy parts . That doesn’t make sense. Which boy’s parts are they?”

“Um,” Yoonji had tried.

“Like, how can they be a boy’s if they’re yours? Do they belong to someone else?”

“Well,” said Yoonji, a little darkly, “they don’t feel like mine.”

“Okay, yeah,” said Tae. They were clearly choosing words. “I hear that. And I’m sorry, I know it’s hard for you. But it’s weird for me to hear that stuff all the time. Because I just like, disagree completely, and I think it’s wrong and it affects me. So.”

“You’re right,” said Yoonji quickly. She agreed, she’d just been talking without thinking. “Yeah, you’re right.”

She tries to think of it differently now. It makes perfect logical sense, and it’s right, and she agrees. Every part of her body belongs to her, and she should find that empowering.

But it doesn’t always help. She watches her chest heave a little with a sigh.

She’s still looking at herself. The fog at the edges of the mirror is starting to go streaky. Pumpkin is batting at the door like he needs to be let out, so she cracks it and lets him slip through, then closes it again. Yoonji looks back at herself and isn’t offended, just a little confused. Just a little sad that it has to be this way.

And then, because she’s always thinking about Hoseok a little bit, she thinks about Hoseok. She doesn’t think it’s likely that he’d be able to look at her as gently as she’s doing. She thinks she’s the only one who can, and even so, barely.

He’s straight. Namjoon said so. He’s from a family that values tradition. She’s non-traditional, and she wonders if he’d be okay with that. She doesn’t think it’s likely that he would be.

It’s a deal-breaker sort of thing, for nice boys like him.

It wouldn’t even really be his fault if it was too much. She doesn’t know that she’d hold it against him. This thing is complicated.

Yoonji has a hard time feeling like she gets to be a girl like everyone else. She has a hard time being optimistic enough to think that Hoseok might want to be close to her, even though.... even though.

But she’s getting ahead of herself. There are a million reasons they’ll never be close, so it won’t get to that. She doesn’t have to worry about explaining it. Trying to explain. She doesn’t have to think about it. How he might be upset, or might be really angry.

She’s still staring at herself.

She doesn’t need to dwell any more on the things she hates. Nobody loves everything about themselves, right? Nobody thinks their boobs are perfect, or their hands, or their knees. It’s normal not to feel ideal. What wasn’t normal were the years when she couldn’t recognize herself, when she’d sometimes look at herself in the mirror for so long, trying to piece together that it was her. She’d touch her face, pull at her skin. Pinch herself and watch her face react. She’d get really close and say her old name, watch her mouth move around it, watch it steam up on the glass. Think, that’s my voice. That’s my face. This is me. I’m in here.

Now, her face is hers. Her own lips, her own nose, her own eyes. Her ears, her earrings. She’s got three piercings in each ear, she likes those. She’s wearing silver hoops in the top two, but she took her little dangly gold earrings out before she got in the bath. And she likes her eyes, and she likes her hair, even if it’s drying all sideways already. She combs it out. Her bangs are too long. She’s going to get Jimin to fix them this week, but she still likes it. Her hair is about at her shoulders now, the longest it’s ever been, and she thinks it grows in finer and shinier than it used to. It’s really black, and her face is really pale, and she looks nice.

Even if her face is a little strong-boned, her jaw a little square. Even if she’s still got an adam’s apple and those boxy, skinny shoulders. That all feels cosmetic, stuff she’d change if she had access to magic, but nothing that feels earth-quaking. She doesn’t feel like she’s done yet. But she doesn’t hate so much about where she is. It’s not perfect, but she looks at herself in the mirror and doesn’t have to struggle to find how she , Yoonji, fits into that body. She’s already there. And it’s nice.

 

 

It is a good day. Yoonji doesn't see another soul until Jimin gets home on Saturday afternoon and opens the door on her chasing Pumpkin around the house.

"Oh, hey," says Yoonji as she plops down on the couch, playing it cool. "You're home late."

"You're still in your pajamas?" asks Jimin as she hangs up her keys and drops her bag on the floor.

"I'm not going anywhere," says Yoonji. "Just hanging out with your kitty. Where’s Tae?"

“They’re going home to change and then they’re gonna pick up their friend and come back,” says Jimin. “You’re not expecting anybody until like 7, right?”  

“That’s when I told Mina to get here.” Yoonji gets up from the couch and follows Jimin into the kitchen. She leans against the counter and watches Jimin pour herself a big glass of water from the fridge. She's wearing a big t-shirt of Tae's and her pants from yesterday, pink jeans with shiny threads running up them. Her hair is up in a messy, unstyled bun, and she's wearing some eyeliner, but maybe no other makeup. She catches Yoonji staring and says, "What?"

"You know what," says Yoonji. She missed Jimin, and couldn't help but get a little poetic with herself yesterday about their friendship. She was sad when Jimin didn’t come home last night. It's good to see her. "You didn't get dressed."

"Well, it was just Tae," says Jimin, smiling a little to herself. "I was just coming back here."

"And Tae's family, right?"

"Just their mom. She's cool."

"You know what I'm gonna say," says Yoonji. "So I'm just not gonna say it."

Jimin seems a little content. She's drinking her water and looks so comfortable. Her skin looks nice; Yoonji wants to compliment her, but she knows she’d just shrug it off and try to explain why it wasn’t true. Jimin says, "I know. But it’s good right now. I don’t want to mess with it."

Yoonji nods, but still says, "It could be your wedding day and you'd still refuse to tell them you loved them."
Jimin sighs. “Honestly, if that would keep things this good.” She takes a drink of water, but doesn’t look away from Yoonji.

“You don’t want anything to change?” asks Yoonji.

Jimin mulls that over, finally breaks eye contact. “Okay. I want a few things to change.” She looks back to Yoonji flatly. “We slept in the same bed last night.”

“Spicy,” says Yoonji. “How was that?”

Jimin groans. “Terrible. Their bed at their mom’s house is a twin. But we were trying so hard not to touch.”

“Why didn’t you sleep on the floor?” says Yoonji. That seems obvious.

Jimin makes a face like the answer is lost on her. “Neither of us suggested it.”

“You were both hoping the other one would make a move. But who’s gonna do it, right? You’re both weak.”

Jimin gets self-consciously jokey. “Well, romance isn’t dead just because you hate it.”

“If spending all your time with someone but lying about how you feel is romance, then yeah. I hate it.” But Yoonji immediately sees that this makes her a hypocrite, and under her breath, she says, “Shit.”

“Shit? Shit what?”

“Nothing,” says Yoonji, too fast. She doesn’t want to admit her feelings to anyone, but she likes him so much that songs are about him.

Jimin’s looking at her like she knows. “Yoonji…”

“What?”

“Are you sweet on someone?”

Yoonji rolls her eyes. It’s too late. “Fine. Yes.”

“It’s Hoseok, right? I knew it. You kept saying he looks like Jack Skeleton . You wouldn’t stop.”

“Well, he does, so.”

“Well, I haven’t seen him, so I trust you. But it can’t be that bad if you love him anyway.”

“I don’t love him.” Gross.

“You absolutely do love him. I know how you are.”

Yoonji wants to fight it so badly, and normally she would, but she’s not in her right mind. She’s never felt someone pushing at the edges of all her thoughts like this before. She’s a middle schooler with a picture of a boy in her locker, and she whines, “He’s nice .”

“I know. I wanna meet him. Did you invite him over tonight?”

“No,” says Yoonji. “Of course not. We don’t know each other like that. And Mina’s coming.”

“Mina subjected you to her boyfriend, I don’t see why you can’t force her to meet yours.”

“Okay, he’s not my boyfriend. And it’s different.”

“Oh yeah? How is it different? Exactly how?”

Jimin looks so self-satisfied, she’s trying to get Yoonji to admit that it isn’t different, but she’s wrong. It is. Mina likes to show her friends off, she likes strangers, she’s comfortable with everything about herself. If Yoonji and Hoseok were a couple, they wouldn’t be a graceful, socially appropriate couple like Mina and her boyfriend are. Yoonji is the worst thing that ever happened to Mina. She thinks Mina sees Yoonji as a tragedy that happened to her. She can almost hear Mina talking about her. She probably says, I dated a boy who dumped me to become a woman. But he - no, she and I are still good friends.

Things are still so weird. And the weirdness falls on Yoonji, because she’s the weird one, and Mina is the one who is doing her a charity by coming back into her life. It’s not the same. They’re never going to just be two girls, friends showing off the boys they like. Even when things between them heal, it will never be like that.
Yoonji says, “It doesn’t feel like it’s the same.”

“You should have him over sometime, anyway,” says Jimin, backing off as she sees it's hit Yoonji in a weird place.

“Sure, maybe,” says Yoonji, thinking about how unlikely that really is.

 

 

Jimin has only been truly angry with Yoonji once. She has seen Jimin angry with other people, and now that they live together, they have petty arguments about things like celebrities, and bathroom time, and dirty dishes, but it’s not the same. There’s this quiet fury that Jimin sometimes shows, and Yoonji never wants to receive it again.

They’d known each other a handful of months, and Yoonji was really stressed out. She was having all these wild emotions that she wasn’t used to, like she was sliding on ice, barely in control all the time. In some ways, it got worse before it got better, and she was still learning everything .

But, Jimin was always there to keep Yoonji sane. She was there to listen, and to offer suggestions when she had them. She had been through all this before, and she was eager to pass on her knowledge. She seemed proud, of herself for knowing how to help, of Yoonji for taking care of herself, of their friendship for being so easy, even though they were both a little difficult. Jimin was good. She was really good, and Yoonji took her advice to heart, with medical things especially.

But there was one day when Yoonji felt Jimin cross a line. It wasn’t the first time, but this came on a day when Yoonji was feeling crazy and someone at the grocery store was talking about her so loudly that she could hear it and she actually wondered if she was doing the wrong thing. If it was too late to pretend this never happened, or to move to a Swiss mountaintop. It was so scary. She was so scared.

She told Jimin about it, and Jimin said, “People are always gonna be mean.”

And Yoonji said, “What do you know about that?”

Jimin’s face fell to something almost threatening, and she said, “What?”

Yoonji needed to cry for a week and sleep for two, and she could hardly think. She said, “I get stared at, you don’t. You don’t know. I’m not perfect like you.”

“Oh,” said Jimin, clearly straining to keep her voice even. “I would have to disagree.”

“Why?” snapped Yoonji, being mean and hating it and not knowing how to stop. She knew Jimin came out when she was young, she saw how effortlessly feminine she was. It wasn’t the same, and it wasn’t fair for Jimin to sit on this throne of perfect knowledge and act like she knew what it was like to be Yoonji .

“I don’t think you realize what I’ve been through,” said Jimin. She looked angry. They were going to go out later, she had done a smoky eye and she looked so intense. “You think nobody’s ever talked about me? You think the kids at my high school were nice to me? Or the teachers, even? Or, like, anyone?”

Yoonji felt all bloodless and scared. Jimin was angry like she knew she had no one to back her up. She was angry like she knew how to fight to stay alive, and Yoonji wanted to take it back. “Sorry,” she whispered.

“It’s fine, but that fucking sucks. I do know what it’s like. I know exactly what it’s like. And I didn’t have as many fucking friends as you do, and I didn't get to make my own medical choices. Must be really nice to have people to cry to.”

“I’m sorry,” said Yoonji, really dry and hollow.

Jimin took an angry breath, and then she shrugged, and then she said, more softly, “There’s a lot of shit I don’t like to talk about. But don't think I don't know you.” Then she went back to curling her hair.

 

 

Mina arrives later, a little before Namjoon and a little after Tae and their friend Seulgi. Yoonji is happy to see Mina, as much as she can bring herself to be. Mina says, “Wow, hi Yoonji.” As they hug, she says, “Thanks for inviting me over.”

“Of course,” says Yoonji, pulling back. “Hey, I’m really sorry it took so long to meet up. I’ve been really busy at work, and stuff.”

“Don’t mention it,” says Mina. She looks up at Yoonji and seems really genuine. “You look great.”

“Oh, thanks,” says Yoonji. That’s flattering. She’s not really wearing anything special, just a black pullover and a comfortable skirt. Mina, though, looks excellent. Under the beige coat that she lays over the back of the couch, she’s got on tight jeans and a light blue blouse. She wears everything so well.

Yoonji is looking on the bright side. There are things about this friendship that she doesn't get anywhere else. Mina's sense of humor is a lot like Yoonji's, and they laugh a little when they catch up in the living room. And they have the same taste in music, except for where Mina’s taste gets a little more mainstream and Yoonji’s gets a little weirder. Yoonji’s put some obscure old electronic album on in the background, and Mina recognizes it, which is nice. And Yoonji can never forget that there used to be a time when they could hang out in the same room for hours in comfortable quiet.

Of course, since transitioning, Yoonji wouldn't describe spending time with Mina as comfortable. They get along now, but it’s a clear effort for both of them. It’s not simple. It takes energy. As they all find their own little conversations, comfortable is not quite how Yoonji feels.

Mina and Seulgi find their way to a conversation in the kitchen. They've met before, but Yoonji’s never seen them really talk. They get along well. Tae and Jimin are sitting near them, but are, as usual, somewhere off alone together. Yoonji and Namjoon are having their own quiet conversation in the living room, sitting on the couch with cups of hot cider arguing about Star Wars. Yoonji's about to look up the answer to something on her phone, but Namjoon hasn't let her yet. "Gone are the old days," he's saying, "When we found the answers to our questions person to person."

"Sorry, are you sober enough to drive me to the library to research this like the old days?" says Yoonji, finally taking her phone out of her pocket. "Okay, I was right. Max Rebo is an Ortolan."

Fine," says Namjoon contentedly. "I was close. Did you know that in the past, people didn’t need phones because they had these advanced systems for memorizing everything? Whole taxonomies, maps, and genealogies going back thousands of years. If we were ancient Polynesians, we wouldn’t need Wookieepedia. Oh, hey Mina."

Mina plops down on the couch. "Hey, Joon," she says across Yoonji.

"How have you been?" asks Namjoon.

"Oh, fine," says Mina. "My boyfriend and I are going to his parents' for Christmas, I’m looking forward to that. Just to get out of town, you know? It’s been a while." She takes a polite sip of her cider.  

"Cool," says Namjoon, with a little forced smile. Yoonji loves him. "Have you uh, met his parents yet?"

"I haven't," says Mina. "I think it’ll be really fun. I’ve heard good things about them."

They're talking over Yoonji like she's not even there, so she gets up from between them and goes to where Tae and Jimin are standing. If she’s got to encroach on someone’s conversation, it might as well be theirs.

They move apart a little to welcome her in, but don’t make her say anything. She listens to them talk while silently telling herself, You have to have a nice time. You’re obligated to enjoy yourself.  

“No, we don’t have to,” says Tae.

“I want to,” laughs Jimin. “It’s fine.”

“Okay, but we don’t have to,” says Tae, smiling sweetly. “She said it’s fine if we don’t.”

“No,” says Jimin, “I really want to.”

Yoonji doesn’t know what they’re talking about, but it doesn’t really matter. She’s not trying to eavesdrop, anyway. She’s just trying to have a nice time.

Tae is wearing this sweater that’s too big on them, camel-colored with huge pearls sewn all over it. Yoonji knows this one, she complimented it once when they were still new friends, and Tae said, “Thanks, it was my grandma’s.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Yoonji had said guiltily.

“For what?” Tae had said, grinning. “Oh, no, I just stole this from her closet. My grandma’s fine. She teaches water aerobics. Virgos never die.”

Under the sweater, they’re not wearing anything, and the collar is wide, so a lot of their neck and shoulder is exposed. They’re not wearing much makeup, just enough to make their eyes a little brighter, their eyelashes a little longer, their lips a little pinker. Their hair is all messy like they didn’t even touch it today, a little wind-stirred, and it still looks perfect. Yoonji had a good day yesterday, but she’s having trouble remembering what that felt like. Tae is so tall and pretty and doesn’t ever seem to care about the things that bother Yoonji. She wants to tell them, It’s not fair .

Jimin’s a little dressed down, too. She’s wearing a fair isle sweater and leggings, and her makeup is surprisingly casual. Yoonji counts the people in their apartment. Six, all together. Almost enough to consider a party , certainly a get-together , but Jimin did her makeup in under ten minutes. It’s kind of amazing. Yoonji’s going to bring it up after everyone leaves. She might try to thank Tae, though she’s not sure for what.

She tries to bask in some of their positive energy, take some of it for herself, but then she thinks that’s what a vampire does and stops. She’ll generate her own good energy. She can.

Tae and Jimin look so nice together. They look like… Yoonji tries not to be so sentimental, but they look more like themselves when they're standing together like that. Jimin has mentioned that she doesn't think she'd ever need a break from Tae, for any amount of time. Though just thinking about doing that with someone makes Yoonji feel crowded, sometimes she can understand how that can be true for them. She wants to take them by the backs of the heads and push their faces together. She could.

Even though all her friends are here, Yoonji feels nearly alone. It’s some kind of crash after last night to remind her that things don’t just get to feel good with no consequences. She feels outside everything, and a little like she’s not invited to her own party, so when the food comes she sits at the table with a bowl of pho and doesn’t really try to talk to anyone.

Mina and Seulgi seem to have hit it off, and they start talking about music they like. Yoonji likes that music, too, but nobody really asks her.

Namjoon wanders into the kitchen a minute later and comes to sit next to Yoonji with an understanding look. He doesn’t have to ask if she’s alright; they know each other better than that. Yoonji doesn’t want to talk about it. She says, “I invited Seokjin, but, you know.”

“Yeah, I know,” says Namjoon. “I just wish I knew what I did wrong.”

“Nothing,” says Yoonji. “You’re great. He’s just afraid.”

“Of me?” says Namjoon. He smiles meekly. “I tripped on Pumpkin earlier.”

“Afraid of love,” says Yoonji. “You know about Don’t Make Me Cry , right?”

“The song?” asks Namjoon. He tries to sing the chorus, but it doesn’t sound good and he just ends up laughing.

Yoonji folds her hands in front of her. “I’m glad you’re sitting down,” she says seriously.

“What?” says Namjoon, looking a little anxious.

“That song is about Seokjin.”

Namjoon looks concerned for a minute. “You mean, I should learn from it?”

“I mean, he and the singer dated, and after they broke up, she wrote a really great album about it.”

 Jessi ? Didn’t she win a Grammy?”

“Not a Grammy,” says Yoonji. “A People’s Choice Award. But, yeah. For the song she wrote about Seokjin.”

Namjoon blinks. Then he says, “Jessi? Are we talking about the same person?”

“Yeah. The pop singer. Before Don’t Make Me Cry she was performing at small venues in town. She did pretty well, but nobody important knew who she was.”

“That’s brutal. I heard that at the grocery store yesterday.”

“Yeah,” says Yoonji. “So. He kind of swore he’d never love again.”

“Music is powerful,” says Namjoon, but it looks like it hasn’t really hit him yet.

“I can’t believe you didn’t know about that. I’d have told you if I knew you two were gross for each other.”

Namjoon looks down at his food like it’s not good anymore. “I mean, she’s a really talented musician. I... bought that album.”

“Are you talking about our band?” asks Tae across the table, breaking out of conversation with Jimin.

“No,” says Namjoon distantly.

“Can we be? I thought of my concept.”

“Okay, for the last time,” starts Namjoon weakly, but Tae isn’t done.

“So I think I’m gonna do like a space glam thing.”

“Okay, no,” says Namjoon. “When I said concept band I didn’t mean we were going to pick a concept. The concept has been picked. It was picked before I asked you to be the frontperson.”

“But I think I want to do a space glam thing? I stole this jumpsuit from the thrift store last week and I think it’s gonna be my concept .”

Yoonji subtly covers her mouth with her hand so Namjoon can’t see her smiling.

“No,” Namjoon tries again. “Because I already wrote a bunch of songs and they’re all about slaying dragons and destiny and the queen and shit.”

“And I’ll sing those songs,” says Tae placatingly. “But in my new lamé jumpsuit. I have some really good shoes, and I’m thinking blue, maybe green makeup. All metallic. Really bring home the intergalactic idea I had for my concept. It’ll be great.”

 We are not a space glam band .”

Everyone has quieted down to watch this conversation, and Seulgi joins in, too. “I was thinking my concept could be some kind of sexy witch?” she says. “Red velvet, you know. My stage name could be Drusilla.”

“Not you too.”

“Yeah, won’t that be fun? What’s Joohyun’s concept?”

“High Fantasy,” says Namjoon, irritated. “Which is the concept of my concept band.”

“What’s this band?” asks Mina. “I didn’t know about this.”

“I wrote some songs about a knight, but I can’t sing, so I asked Tae if they’d be my protagonist. And they’re ruining it.”

Tae looks way too proud. 

“But I don’t want to form my band anymore, because I’m in love with someone who hates musicians, apparently.”

“Oh, my god,” says Yoonji. “Don’t say that. This is gonna be your magnum opus.”

“Glad someone has faith in me. One single person.”

“That’s funny,” says Mina, but it doesn’t look like she really thinks it is. The table goes quiet.

“Yum. Good food,” says Namjoon quickly, before the sudden awkwardness has a chance to sink in. “Pho was a good choice, I think.”

“Oh my god, this place,” says Jimin, jumping right in. So graceful. “We’re so lucky. They just opened up and they deliver and it’s so good. Yoonji tried to convince me that delivery pho was never gonna be good, but wow. It’s like, all I eat now.”

Tae pats their belly in a satisfied way to confirm. Yoonji realizes it’s better that she didn’t invite Hoseok, because all he’d be able to eat is the sad little salad that came on the side.

“This is as good as that place we used to go,” says Mina, just to Yoonji, but everybody hears.

“Oh, yeah,” says Yoonji without looking up.

“Do you still go there?” she asks. It’s like she’s forcing eye contact.

“Not really,” says Yoonji. The last time she tried, she caught the waiter staring at her from the kitchen.

Mina looks actually disappointed by that. Yoonji wants to say, What’s your damage? She doesn’t do what she used to do. She doesn’t eat where she used to eat. This feels so gross. Everyone is looking at her.

“I’ll be right back,” says Yoonji. The chair scrapes on the tile as she gets up. She leaves it pulled out when she goes to her room.

She lies face down on the covers of her bed and takes some deep breaths through the fabric. Then she gets her phone out and opens it, but nobody’s sent her any messages. They’re all here, having fun in the other room, except for Hoseok. She thinks about messaging him, but locks her phone instead.

It must not have been a full minute when Mina peeks in through the cracked door. “Hey,” she says thinly. “Can I come in?”

“Sure,” says Yoonji, forcing herself to sound welcoming, though it doesn’t really work.

Mina does, and Yoonji sits up with a little headrush. She pats a spot on the bed and Mina comes to sit next to her.


“Nice comforter,” she says, running a hand over the light blue stripes. There are spindly patterns between some of the stripes, and a couple matching floral print pillows up against the headboard. Yoonji got it recently because it was nice, and on sale, and she’d been using her old plain one since college.

“I like your room,” Mina says. “I haven’t been in here.” She’s looking around, and now so is Yoonji. There’s a full length mirror on the back of the door, a coat hook on the wall where she’s hung her black denim jacket, some scarves, a smaller purse she sometimes uses instead of the big one she takes to work. There’s a grey dress thrown over the back of the chair by the dresser, and a pair of crumpled up striped socks at the foot of her bed. On the nightstand, a small pile of books, a pair of earrings and two rings that she accidentally tried to sleep in the other night. Some lotion. It’s a plain room, but Yoonji looks at it in the same way Mina must be looking at it. Every detail about the way she lives is different than it used to be. For a second, Yoonji feels like she shouldn’t be here. This room is full of things that don’t really belong to her. But that might be more because she’s been anxious all day than because she really believes that she’s imposing on her own life.

“Um,” says Mina.

“Hm?” says Yoonji.

“Should I go?”

“No,” says Yoonji.

“Okay. Because it feels like you don’t want me here.”

Yoonji doesn’t respond.

“I don’t know what I have to do.”

Yoonji sighs. She doesn’t want to have this conversation.

“You’re hard to get ahold of and you always seem miserable when I see you. What am I doing wrong?”

It's harsh, but Yoonji's frayed and it just comes out. “You still see me as your ex-boyfriend.” She’s thinking about the pho place, how that was something she and Mina used to do together but she can’t do anymore.

“No, I don’t,” says Mina, taken aback. She looks hurt. “That’s not me. That’s you. I don’t see you that way.” She looks over Yooni’s head at the top of the doorframe, like she’s thinking or trying not to get upset. “I see you as my friend who I’m trying really hard to get to know again.”

“You know me already,” says Yoonji. It’s preposterous to think that she doesn’t.

“I don’t know how you can say that,” says Mina, resolve cracking just a little, “when you used me to convince yourself you were someone you weren’t, basically the whole time we knew each other.”

God. So it is about that. “That’s not true. I wasn’t using you.” 

“Yeah, right,” says Mina, rolling her eyes. “We both know you did. That’s what it was about.”

“No, it wasn’t.” Yoonji doesn’t know why she’s defending herself. She shouldn’t have to.

“I’m sorry, but this sucks, Yoonji. That you can’t even admit that our relationship was a sham. Like,” she says, finally looking at Yoonji. “I’m fine with it. I’m at peace. I’m glad my presence in your life helped you come to terms with something. But at least own up to it.” She looks like she’s done, but has to add, “I mean, geez. You dumped me out of the blue and were unreachable for a year, like, clearly it didn’t mean that much to you.”

Yoonji doesn’t want to have this conversation. “Is this what you wanted to talk about?” she says flatly. She hears how cold she’s being, but can’t stop it.

Mina groans. “I was so wrong to think that coming out would make you less mean.” She doesn’t let Yoonji respond. “No. I wanted to ask whether you really wanted to try to be friends. Because I thought we were good, but you’ve been acting like you want me to leave all night.”

“Because,” says Yoonji, low and even. “You’re the only person here who won't get used to it.”

“I am used to it, Yoonji,” says Mina, sharp. But then, pleadingly, “I don’t know how everybody else managed not to piss you off like this.”

“What?”

“I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. You don’t give me a chance.” She sounds worn out. 

Yoonji doesn’t know exactly how to argue that. It feels wrong, it feels like she’s the one who doesn’t get a chance, but she’s too tired to try to argue. She says, “I can’t… figure this out right now.”

“You know what,” says Mina. She looks really upset, her mouth is downturned and her eyes are shiny. “I’ve been really patient. I’m tired of feeling like a burden to you. So I’m done for now, I guess. I’ll be around when you want to meet me halfway. I think you’re a really important person, and I’m proud to know you, but this isn’t fair anymore.” Yoonji doesn’t respond right away, and Mina says, “Okay?”

“Yeah,” says Yoonji, but she’s trying not to cry into her hand.

“I’m going.”

Yoonji doesn’t say anything else, even though she wants to. She feels terrible, but Mina is gone before she can think of an answer. And this is why. This is why Mina has to go. Yoonji feels like shit.

She feels like a stupid kid, hiding in her room while everybody else has fun outside her door, but she hasn’t gotten up yet when Jimin knocks on the door a minute later.

“Did you make her leave?”

“I don’t want to talk about it?” tries Yoonji, but then she’s definitely going to cry. All the emotions she’s been distant from all day and all the separateness from her friends hits her in the same spot. 

“I’ll be out in a few,” she manages as the tears well up her throat. 

It hurts. Still.

Not in the same way, and not nearly as bad. It just feels futile sometimes. No matter what she does, or how hard she works at this, or how much she lets roll off, she’s going to be working at this forever.

And that’s not Mina’s fault, but Yoonji just wants to relax. She just wants to be able to look at the things in her room and feel like she gets to own them.

She doesn’t want to have to be so aware of this, all the time. She wants to forget about it, at least in her own house, in her own room. Sometimes she wonders if everyone is just humoring her because they pity her. Sometimes she doesn’t feel very dignified.

Someone knocks on the door.

“I’m okay,” she says. “I’ll be right back out.”

She hears the door crack, and wants to tell them to leave. Jimin says, “Me again. Do you need anything?”

“No.”

“Do you need a hug?”

“No.”

“Do you need Joon?”

“No.”

“What about Tae?”

Yoonji thinks about that for a moment. “Yes,” she says.

“Okay. One second.”

Yoonji hears Jimin walk away, and then she hears someone walk up, but she’s still got her eyes squeezed shut as she hugs a pillow and hides mostly under the covers.

“Hey,” comes Tae’s voice, rich and smooth. “Can I come in?”

“Yeah.”

Yoonji hears them come in and close the door lightly behind them.

“Pumpkin’s in here, too.”

Yoonji doesn’t want to move.

“Can I sit with you?”

“Yes,” says Yoonji.

“Sweet,” says Tae, and they gently settle in at the edge of the bed.

“Yarf,” Yoonji says.

“Yarf?”

“Yeah. Yarf.”

Tae gently pulls Yoonji’s blanket off her head a little so they can pet her hair. “You’re tough.”

“You too,” says Yoonji.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“No,” says Yoonji. But then she talks about it anyway. “Mina’s mad.”

“You don’t have to be friends with her,” says Tae.

“I want to be,” says Yoonji. “It’s just taking a long time.”

“Sorry,” says Tae. “Seems hard.”

Yoonji is crying, but trying not to. Tae is so nice to her. They don’t owe her this.

“I feel all fucked up,” she says, all watery and half into her pillow. “Like I’m faking.”

Tae says, “I feel like that a lot, too.”

Yoonji doesn’t really believe that.

“Um,” says Tae. “You know Seulgi?”

“Yeah.”

“We’ve been getting really close lately. She’s… I’d consider her one of my best friends. But the other week, she was like, so are you just, like, saving up to transition? 

“Oh, yuck,” says Yoonji.

“It ruined my life for like three days? I guess I’m not really anything?”

“But you are.”

“Doesn’t stop me from making friends who think I’m incomplete.” Tae sighs.

Yoonji finds Tae’s hand and tugs it a little to get them to lie down with her.

They do, facing her a few inches away. Under her lamp, their skin is warm and smooth. It’s like sitting by a campfire.

“Was that supposed to make me feel better?” she whispers.

“I don’t know,” says Tae. “I think there will always be people who can’t understand right away. But you can still love them. I think I made her feel bad.” Tae laughs nervously. “After I’d thought about it a little. Maybe I was harsh. But we’re still friends. And most importantly, I know she didn’t mean to hurt my feelings.”

“I feel like Mina talks about me to her friends.”

“Yoonji, I think she’s trying really hard . I think you should just sit her down and tell her how you feel and what you want, and I think she’ll do her best.”

“I feel like I’ve been coming out for two years.”

Tae laughs, and then reaches up to wipe a tear off Yoonji’s face. “I hear that. I feel like I’ve been coming out since I was a kid.”

“It’s never gonna end.”

“It’s better than the other option.”

Yoonji thinks about the other option. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know if she’d even be okay right now if she’d stuck with that. She’s not positive she’d be alive. She says, “It was too hard.”

Tae blinks slowly. Their eyes are really big and pretty. “I feel like I’m making it worse.”

“No,” says Yoonji. It’s helping. “Keep talking.”

“Okay,” says Tae. “Uh. It’s hard not to feel insecure. I was insecure like, all the time, until kind of recently. And even now I still feel held back.”

“In what way?” Tae is the least held back person Yoonji knows, and they don’t talk like this very much.

“Just. Having trouble thinking about what I’m gonna be doing in a couple years. Can’t work at a thrift store forever. Or, I can, but it would suck.”

“Mmm.”

“Sometimes I want to be part of society.”

Yoonji doesn’t really know what they’re talking about, but she’s not crying anymore. She takes their hand.

“I want. I want to feel like I get to do stuff, like have money and a family. And get old. I don’t want to fight until it kills me.”

“I didn’t know you felt like that.”

“Well, you and Jimin don’t need to hear this shit.” They take a breath that flares out their nostrils. “Yeah. Well, I really like someone. And I don’t want to feel like I’ll never have what it takes to be a good partner or a stable person. It’s thinking way ahead, but it’s freaking me out to think that I wouldn’t be able to keep her from being worried. I think this person deserves someone who can keep her really comfortable. So it’s holding me back.”

“Jeez, Tae, you like someone?” Yoonji can’t help that she sounds insincere.

“A lot,” whines Tae, but Yoonji sees the smile that spreads across their face just thinking about it.

“Is it someone I know?”

Tae chokes out, “It’s Jimin. Don’t tell her.”

Yoonji laughs. She can’t help it, it bubbles out of her. She’s so emotional, and Tae is ridiculous. “You thought I didn’t know that?”

“Is it obvious?” they whisper.

Yoonji wants to say, you’re both obvious , but she doesn’t think it’s her place to make matches or tell other people’s secrets. She just says, “How complicated.”

“I want to be good enough for her.”

That’s one thing Yoonji won’t abide. “You are,” she says. “You’re the most generous, kind person. You’re braver than all of us. You’re always here when somebody needs something.”

“Oh,” says Tae, a little dazed. “Thank you.”

“And you look perfect, like, all the time.”

“So does she,” says Tae.

“God, I know. I can’t handle being around you two. I look like a gremlin.”

“No, stop,” says Tae. “You look great. I’m jealous of your style.”

“How can you say that?” giggles Yoonji. Tae wears the best clothes, things that Yoonji would never be able to pull off, and is beautiful in all of them.

“I like that you actually have a style,” says Tae. “I can’t stick with anything. I like that you’re reliable, but you keep it interesting. I admire your sense of self.”

“My sense of self.”

“Yes. Your sense of self. I admire it.” Tae lets go of Yoonji’s hand. “Can we go back out? I miss Jimin.”

“I’m ready,” she says. “But will you do me a favor?”

“Anything,” says Tae, a little dramatically.

“Don’t make this thing with Jimin harder on yourself than it has to be.” She should follow her own fucking advice. “The simplest answer is usually the best one.” Yeah, she says that, but the simplest answer is also usually full of complexities that are impossible see from outside. Simple answers are easy to prescribe.

“I will… keep that in mind,” says Tae as they start to get up, waiting for Yoonji to take their hand and come with them.

 

 

Yoonji gets another bird for Hoseok. This time, he texts her that he needs help, and this time, it’s easier, because she knows what to expect. Methodically, she pulls her hair back, rolls up her sleeves, takes a deep breath, and drops to her hands and knees. She pulls the dead bird out from under the table as Hoseok stands over her shoulder. Then she stands up, ties the bag tightly closed, and says, “You don’t have to come to the trash with me.”

He does anyway, and he gives a eulogy that’s just as solemn and heartfelt as the first, and Yoonji presses the button on the compactor, and then they go wash their hands in the park bathroom and sit together for lunch.

Neither of them have an appetite after that, so they just sit and talk. At first, of course, the mood is funereal, but then they make each other laugh, and Yoonji is aware that she blinks like a wide-eyed idiot whenever their eyes meet.

Hoseok looks a little queasy, but not like he did when he had to do this himself. Yoonji is okay with carrying the burden with him. He says, "Thank you for doing that for me."

"No problem," she says. She pulls a pair of hand warmers from her purse, then takes her hair down and finger combs it a little to get it to sit right. "Can't have you yarfing every day."

He sighs. "It helps a lot. I know it's the worst thing in the universe, so. I appreciate it."

"I know," she says. She tears open the hand warmer package and shakes the pads before strapping them on. "But there are worse things."

Hoseok messes with the sleeve of his jacket. He looks at Yoonji a little closely. She doesn't know what he's looking for. He looks like he's thinking about something. Then he says, "Did I tell you, Jeongguk is moving in with me."

"Oh?" she says. That's a little weird for an instant, too close, but Namjoon and Jeongguk were really good friends in college, and Hoseok is Namjoon's friend before he’s Yoonji's. She doesn't get to claim Jeongguk, or Hoseok for that matter.

"Yeah, we got to talking at Sexy Christmas. He's staying with his parents, and I still need a new roommate. So he's moving in. Really soon actually. Next week."

"That's cool," she says. "He and I were friends in college. He's nice. He's interesting."

"He's an amazing artist," says Hoseok. "I looked him up."

"Oh yeah," says Yoonji. "He's scary talented, but so humble. I didn't even know he was good until I was almost graduated. He never showed me. And then he let me flip through his sketchbook." She remembers how he wouldn't look at her, and how she sort of expected his art to be bad. But then his sketchbook was full of all these crazy, beautiful monsters, so detailed, so alive on the page that some of them have stayed with her all this time. Since college, he's done illustrations for a trading card game and cover art for scifi books. He seems like a nerd.

"He seems great," says Hoseok.

"I appreciate him," says Yoonji.

The conversation sort of trails off, which is weird, because they've never had that problem before. But Hoseok seems like he's keeping from saying something. Yoonji says, "What are you thinking?"

Hoseok makes a thoughtful face that pokes out two dimples. Yoonji stares at him. He says, "Still nauseous."

"Yeah," she says.

"But I'm happy to be here."

She raises her eyebrows.

"The weather has been gross,” he says. "I've been sad."

Yoonji adjusts one of her hand warmers.

"Fresh air is good for me. The outdoors. My head gets so loud otherwise. But at this job there's not really anything to do. And I don't know if it's the weather, or just that there's nothing natural around, but it's not the same."

"No, it's not," says Yoonji. This park is nice, but it's not nature.

"I spend all my time just standing around and thinking about things I don't want to think about."

"Like what?"

Hoseok hangs his head. "Dead birds. Wasting my life.” He glances at Yoonji and then away. “How my family was counting on me, and I failed them. And how I don't know my future anymore."

Yoonji really feels that. "Right."

"It's just been hard to calm down."

"It is hard."

"But it's really nice when you come hang out. That's what I was thinking."

Yoonji scrunches up her face against the smile that tries to take her over. She focuses on fixing the hair band that straps a hand warmer to her palm.

"I could always tell you were secretly nice."

"I'm not nice," says Yoonji, looking back up at him.

"You're really, really nice. I could tell from when we met."

"I could tell you were obnoxious," says Yoonji, but they're both smiling now, and it would feel almost flirty if she didn't know that it wasn’t.

“I annoy you?" says Hoseok to her quietly, looking a little proud. "That's probably why you hang out with me every day."

"Watch it," she says.

"You're very nice," says Hoseok. "Not just nice. You have a good heart."

“So do you,” she says before she feels herself think it. It comes out kind of breathy, and she makes a shocked face at herself. Hoseok returns it, mocking her, and it makes her laugh, and then his face cracks up, too. When he laughs, he looks so bright and happy that she almost forgets that she's cold.

 

 

On Thursday afternoon, Yoonji's phone buzzes at her desk.

 

do U hav dinner plans 2morrow?

I don't!

i m off @ 5. want 2 meet up?

I do.

 

"Yoonji, a serious question."

Yoonji looks up across the desk. "Yes, Seokjin?" She locks her phone and sets it down.

"Are you in love?"

"What?" she says too quickly. "No."

"You looked like you found God in your phone just then."

"Don't," she warns.

"Just an observation. Either you just found a good Amazon sale on eye of newt or you're in love."

"Okay, the former," she says. "I'm working on a really foul potion. You know, which is it? Sometimes you say I'm a vampire, sometimes you say I'm a witch, sometimes you say I'm an apparition that haunts the ruins of a Welsh palace. Like, pick one and stick to it.”

He's making fun of her. "Oh no, Yoonji. You’re none of those atrocious beasts. You've found the one thing that makes us human." He leans in. "How does it feel to love ?"

"Don't talk to me until you get your own life together," she scoffs, but she’s blushing, and almost feels tears prickling at her eyes. She could cry if she wanted to. But she doesn’t. She wants to win . "You can heckle me all you want once you figure out your own life. Honestly, heartbroken over someone who likes you ." She thinks that'll be it, and he'll cede.

But then he says, "Oh, my love life? You mean the date I have this weekend?"

"With... Namjoon?" She's sure she'd have heard about that.

"No. I'm a new man. Your friend from college texted me. He was all, Hey man, we met at Sexy Christmas and I had a great time ." Seokjin purses his lips and does a weird voice.

"Shit. Jeongguk?"

"You bet. He's cute ."

"He could crush you to smithereens. He could ruin you."

"Oh yeah," says Seokjin lasciviously. "I hope he does ."

"Well, I hate this," says Yoonji, and she goes to put her headphones back on.

"No, wait. Yoonji. Yoonji ."

"What?"

"Listen, I'm not trying to slither my way into your personal life. I know you hate that. I'm just genuinely, like, happy for you."

"You're just genuinely, like, a punishment."

"Dammit, Yoonji," he says, shaking his head. "I'm trying to be serious for one second. You have to let me. You have to."

She holds her tongue.

"I've seen you suffer a lot."

"Oh my god, Seokjin. I can't have this conversation."

"No wait. I'm almost done. Then Fun Jin will come right back."

"Fine."

"You've been through more than you ought to have and I think you deserve people in your life who make you smile at your phone like that and a lot of people who love and understand you because you're a really good person and you're important to a lot of people including me and I'm glad you're part of my life."

There's a pause. Yoonji blinks. She says, "Take a breath, Seokjin."

"Fun Jin is back now."

"Thank you."

"You're welcome."

She puts her headphones back on.

 

 

As soon as Yoonji gets downstairs on Friday afternoon, the rain starts dumping harder, and she thinks it’s an omen. Sure, it rains on and off all day, and it’s always this dark when she leaves work now, but something about the weather this evening feels personal. The wind whips her hair around and tiny drops of freezing rain pelt her face, cold and stinging, as she makes her way across to the park office.

The cramped little space is just lit with the computer screen and a desk lamp, casting a warm glow on Hoseok’s face as he types an e-mail.

“Hey, Hobi,” she says from the doorway, a little familiarly.

He startles, hand to his heart and eyes all round. But then he laughs, whole body shaking, and Yoonji cracks a smile, too.

“Yoonji,” he says. “Hello.” He motions for her to come in out of the rain. She does, but the office is too small to fit two people comfortably. Hoseok says, “I’m just finishing sending my boss the daily report. You know, I picked up a diaper, told someone he couldn’t sleep on the benches, unclogged a storm drain , the usual.”

“Very exciting.”

“I miss the woods,” he says wistfully, and clicks to send his e-mail with finality. “Okay, I’m off. I’m gonna go change.”

“Sure,” she says.

She’s not sure where she’s supposed to wait until he stands up and guides her to his desk chair. He touches her, pushes her a little until she sits down, and she thinks about his light fingers on the tops of her shoulders the whole time he’s gone.

She sees that she has a message from Namjoon.

I got my winter bonus early. Can i take u to the festival of lights this wknd

Very sweet. I’d love to.

But you should take seokjin

I dont think he wants to talk to me

I texted him but he didnt reply

Maybe bc i lifted his # from ur phone

You’re dramatic and a creep

Hm, Maybe i’ll take youngjae to the festival of lights!!!

Ur uninvited!

 

Hoseok comes back from the bathroom. He’s wearing nice black pants, a blue button down and a green bomber jacket. It looks like he’s run some water through his hair to unflatten it after wearing a hat all day. It’s always a little shocking when he’s wearing something other than his baggy park uniform; he looks all lithe and handsome. Yoonji really likes when he’s not wearing a hat. His hair is kind of overgrown and shaggy with black roots. But she likes it when he wears a hat, too, how his ears poke out. She says, “Nice shirt.”

“Thanks,” says Hoseok, grinning. “You always look so nice, I figured I had to step it up.”

Yoonji tries not to pass out. This feels unreal. She tries to be smooth but just sounds suspicious when she says, “Well, you look good.”

“Well, thanks,” smiles Hoseok, and then he grabs his bag off a hook and says, “Shall we?”

He flips off the desk lamp and locks the door and then they run across the park together to the bus stop.

They chat as they wait. “I keep meaning to try this restaurant, it looks really good,” Hoseok tells her. He’s taking her to a vegetarian place that just opened on the other side of the river. “I was reading reviews online, and one of them said this place invented tofu. I don’t think that’s true, since tofu’s been around since ancient times, but that’s fine.”

“I think they’re just trying to say that it’s really good tofu.”

“Oh, maybe.”

On the bus, Yoonji is aware of the place where their legs brush, unavoidably. She’s aware of what they look like, dressed a little nicely, talking closely. Hoseok keeps smiling at her. She wonders if he can tell how she feels. When she looks at him, he glows almost gold.

The restaurant is cozy and small, a respite from the dark and the rain. They pick a corner table, and as soon as they sit down, Hoseok says, “I’ll get us water.” As he goes across to the table with self-serve silverware and pitchers of ice water, she physically pulls her eyes off him and back down to the menu. Had she realized he had a butt before? Those pants are tighter than she usually sees him wear.

It’s a problem for Yoonji that he doesn't do anything to try to look like this isn't a date. He brings back her glass of water, and takes her purse and puts it in the seat next to him. When they're looking at the menu, he suggests they split an appetizer. It's weird .

There's an orangish lamp hanging over their little booth, reflecting off the green tabletop and casting bright, plasticky shapes in light on Hoseok's face. He's got this one bit of hair out of place next to his ear, and she wants to reach out and fix it. He's got a red spot on his forehead. His lips look a little chapped, his voice is a little scratchy. She wonders if he's prone to getting sick because he's out in the rain all the time, and then he sneezes violently and she frowns with sympathy. She suggests he order some kind of soup, and he says, "That's a good idea."

Yoonji thinks about a lot of things all the time. She thinks about Seokjin's notebook, and how she likes to pretend romance doesn't exist. Maybe for other people, but not for her. Not like this. Not with someone like Hoseok, as much as she wishes it could be. Not even as he smiles at her over the spring rolls they’re sharing.

Their food comes, and it's really good. Hoseok makes her laugh and she feels really comfortable. She wants to know everything about him. It's so stupid, but the note Seokjin wrote in the notebook has been in her head all day. I can't breathe. I think it might be love .

"How's your soup?" she asks, up in her throat.

"It's super ," he says. "Nothing like good food and good company."

She has to look away. No one has ever made her feel like this before. Hoseok is so nice. He does magic for kids at the park because he's bored all day. It’s so obvious that she isn’t right for him, but she doesn't know what to do anymore. This feels like a date; she thinks about his stupid folded-over ears when she falls asleep. She's going to explode here. She's going to explode and all she's going to leave behind is a beating heart, and she wants Hoseok to eat it.

"Are you okay?" he says.

"What?" she says, and it comes out so cutting on reflex that it makes her blush. "I mean," she tries again. "Yeah. I'm good."

"Is this weird?"

She doesn't know what he's asking. Her reality is just a slightly different color than it used to be. Yes, it is weird. It's weird in every way. She’s drowning. "No," she says.

"Okay," he says. Then he looks like he's going to say something else, but he doesn't.

When the check comes, she doesn't let him pay. She makes more than him anyway, it's absurd to let him do that. She pays for her half and covers the whole tip, and avoids looking at Hoseok because she's afraid that it's finally happened, her crush has reached this floating height, and it's about to burn up in the atmosphere. She's about to melt from it. She can't even talk to him anymore.

Back at the bus stop, Hoseok has picked up the change in Yoonji's mood. It seems like he doesn't know what to do, so he stands close to her without touching and looks off in another direction. He looks down at his boots, shifts from foot to foot.

It's so dark and so cold, and the bus shelter doesn't shield them completely from the rain. It’s pouring, it’s flooding the sewers. Yoonji watches Hoseok's breath cloud in front of him, and then hers. She imagines that she can feel the outline of all her nerves, spreading through her hands up her arms and down her spine. She feels fragile and sore; she doesn't know when this became a crisis, but it did, and she can't stand so close to Hoseok right now.

She reaches into her bag to get a pair of hand warmers. She's shoved the whole box in there, and she's been using them religiously. She feels around, trying to dig one out. But her hand hits the bottom of the box, and the sudden dread is irrational and crushing. They're just gone, her one comfort from this. The bus is taking so long to show up, and she doesn't know how to defend herself anymore.

"What's going on?" asks Hoseok, looking over at her. He looks so concerned.

"Nothing," she says, but she's shivering so much, more than just from the cold. It’s because she's in over her head, and she's not right for this, and there are a million things she'd have to tell him and each one is a reason that he'd want to back out. She's complicated, and nice, normal boys like him don't like girls like her. She's terrified. She says, "I ran out of hand warmers."

He looks so concerned. He looks down at her blanched hands. He looks at her face. He blinks. He says, quietly enough that she almost doesn't hear it over the rain, "Are you that cold?"

She nods, looking up at him, wide-eyed.

He looks at her hands again, then back at her face. Then he reaches out and takes her two hands in his.

He holds them lightly at first, giving her a chance to pull back. But, as unsure as she is of everything else, she really doesn’t want him to let go. Somehow, his fingers are still warm. He wears an old-looking digital watch that reads 6:17 .

They stand like that for a moment; under the bus shelter in the dark and the pouring rain, a little apart from each other with their hands in between them, Hoseok’s on top of Yoonji’s. Her hands are bigger than his, which is awkward. His fingers are thin, spread over her knuckles. But his hands are warm, and they don’t feel small. And even if she’s aware of how her ugly, bony hands fit under his pretty ones, Hoseok doesn’t really seem to be. He holds her like she’s delicate.

She lets him lace his fingers with hers, and then she lets him pull her in a little closer, so they’re not standing away from each other anymore. Her heart is beating so loudly in her ears, and the warmth that Hoseok shares spreads through her hands and she doesn’t think about anything except that.

The bus comes, and he keeps holding her hands. Even when he pulls out his bus card, he does it with one hand and holds hers with the other. He keeps changing his grip to get different parts warm, but mostly he keeps their fingers tangled.

Yoonji is scared, she’s overwhelmed, weak and unsure of herself. But she’s not cold anymore.

Yoonji’s transfer stop comes before Hoseok’s, but before they get there, Hoseok says quietly, “Do you want to come to my house? Just to… keep hanging out. Nothing else. It’s just still really early.”

Yoonji nods, looking down at their hands, still intertwined. Her nails are purple, his hands are tan. He makes her feel good. “Yeah. I do.”

When they get to the front door, Hoseok squeezes Yoonji's hand before he lets it go to pull out his keys. Then he doesn’t take it again. Probably because it’s warmer inside, and she doesn’t need the protection anymore.

Hoseok’s apartment is a little out of the way in a friendly suburban neighborhood, and inside, it's half-finished. There are some boxes pushed to the side in the living room, and it looks like things are missing. There are spaces on the walls that look conspicuously bare, indents in the carpet where there used to be furniture. It takes Yoonji a second to realize. Hoseok and his ex-girlfriend used to live here together. It stresses her out.

"It's not much," says Hoseok. He pulls off his shoes, and Yoonji starts to do the same. "Still in progress. But, do you want a tour?"

"Sure."

"Okay," he says, leading her but not reaching out. "Well, here's the kitchen." There's no table, no coffee maker. But there are clean pots and pans on the drying rack and an apron folded over the oven handle.

He takes her down the hall. "Here's the bathroom, if you need it."

"I'm good," she says.

"This one's Jeongguk's room, so we won't go in. But here's my room." He pushes open the door and leads her inside.

It's plain. He's got a bed and some bookshelves and an open curtain. There's a world map on the wall with pins in it.

"Is this where you've been?" she asks. He doesn't talk much about traveling, so she’s surprised.

"It's mostly where I want to go," he says. "I haven't gotten a chance to travel much, but I really want to. Beautiful natural places, mostly. Places I want to hike around. Switzerland, Japan, New Zealand."

"I hope you get to do that," she says, looking at all the pins, scowling at the one that he's put in Antarctica.

"I just needed something for the wall," he says, a little bashfully.

It strikes her that this looks a lot like her room at her parents' house. The comforter is a masculine, earthy color, and the bookshelves are dark wood. It's a boy's room, but last year at her parents' house, Yoonji put away anything that said her old name, anything that used to identify her. It's a room that her parents keep for her, but it's clear that no one really lives there. Hoseok's room feels like that, too. It makes her sad.

"You're like, completely reinventing yourself, huh?" she says quietly. They're standing in the space between the foot of the bed and the door.

Hoseok nods. "I'm still figuring it out."

"Me, too."

They’re a little close. Their faces. The room feels very still. She watches Hoseok look at her lips, then back at her eyes. She can almost feel him take a breath. For a moment, he looks almost awestruck. Then he blinks, and it’s gone, replaced by decision. He turns his head away, and she exhales tightly.

He steps away and slides his hands on his thighs like he’s wiping them off. He balls up his fists quickly and then opens them up and shakes them out a little at his sides. Then he turns back to her.

“Do you want to put a movie on?” he says, too loud in the still room. “Do you want tea?”

“Yes,” she says. “To both.” She wants a lot, but she’ll take what she can get.

Chapter Text

The first time Jimin met Tae, they were both nineteen. Jimin thought Tae was older, because they were so tall. Also, because she met them at a gay bar. Jimin thought she was clever, sneaking into a bar using someone’s brother’s old ID, but people could probably tell. She’s always looked young for her age, and she probably looked as out of place as she felt. She’s sure she did, or Tae wouldn’t have approached her.

It was misty, and a little tense. Jimin’s boyfriend had tried unsuccessfully to get her to have a good time, but was being distant now that he’d failed. Her boyfriend didn’t always understand how to be nice, and sometimes Jimin couldn’t just pretend to be okay with that. He was drinking a lot more than she was, and she thought she might want to go home, even though she was the one who had begged to go out in the first place.

Her boyfriend got up to go to the bathroom. Close to her face, he said, “Don’t go anywhere,” then he squeezed her ass as he walked away. Under the shifting colored lights, he snaked around the bar, and she subtly fixed the bunched up fabric of her dress to pull it down before someone saw her underwear.

Her boyfriend’s third martini glass sat empty on the sticky bartop, but Jimin hadn’t even finished her first drink. She didn’t eat much and she didn’t drink often, so she was fuzzy. Everything was a little vague and unreal, and when a warm weight settled into her boyfriend’s seat, she thought he had returned very quickly. Even as she saw that the person there was wearing something different, a denim jacket covered in patches over a dark and light striped shirt with colors she couldn’t make out in the strange lights, she thought it was her boyfriend.

But she looked up at their face, and it was a stranger. Their expression was a little bit concerned. They smiled when she looked up, but it was tense, and their eyes still looked sad. She thought they were really, really good looking. Their chin-length dark hair was fluffy and backlit a little, haloed like an ‘80s music video. They were wearing red lipstick, but no other makeup. They said, “Hello.”

“Hi,” she said. She was a little drunk and in awe, and a little guilty for being spoken to by someone else when her boyfriend was going to come back any second.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes,” said Jimin.

“That’s good,” they said. Then they handed her a napkin. “Well. Here’s this just in case.”

She took it and put it in her purse without looking away from their face. “Thanks,” she said, a little quiet. She couldn’t hear herself under all the chatter and the synthy throwback hits coming from somewhere overhead. But the person probably read her lips.

“You looked a little lost, is all.” They looked a little lost, too. They moved like they were going to get up. “And my boyfriend has a car. So, if you need something. I don’t want you to have to be alone.”

“Okay,” she nodded. “Thanks,” she said again, but a little louder, and then she took a drink of her screwdriver. She hit ice at the bottom.

They smiled again. “Anytime.”

Jimin didn’t think they actually meant any time. She thought they probably just meant this time. But the way they said it stuck with her.

 

She didn’t call, and that moment faded in her mind. It had struck her in a strange and portentous way, but she soon forgot how it felt. It had been unrealistic, from the soft focus of the person’s face to the napkin that she never looked at, just shoved to the bottom of her purse so her boyfriend wouldn’t see it when he came back. It had been very quick, and the person had been very beautiful. More beautiful than the rest of her night, even more beautiful than her boyfriend’s nice, brand-new townhouse, the spotless chrome of all his faucets and doorknobs. It passed through her thoughts weeks later, when she saw someone in the shade of red lipstick the person had been wearing, and she thought it might have been a dream.

 

Then one day, when she was desperate, she remembered.

She and her boyfriend had gotten into a fight over something. Something stupid, she wasn’t even sure what it was by the end. It felt like they were just fighting ; it felt like he didn’t want to be nice.

He was moody sometimes. Sometimes he didn’t listen very well, or want to understand. Jimin was aware that he had flaws, but she had heard that accepting a person’s flaws made it real love.

But usually, he didn’t raise hands against her. When he did that, it didn’t really feel like love. She’d left in a hurry after he’d grabbed her upper arm hard to keep her from walking away when he was yelling at her. She’d said, “I think I need some space,” but she hadn’t thought about how she’d get home. The room she rented was on the other side of town, and she couldn’t call a cab. She couldn’t afford one, her card would decline. So she kept walking.

She felt out of place in a dark neighborhood half a mile from her boyfriend’s apartment. She was no longer worried he was following her, no longer walking with purpose, but she still had to call someone to pick her up. Her friends would make her feel bad, they’d tell her that he was wrong for her. But getting home might have been more important than her pride right then. She could handle shame as long as she didn’t have to sleep outside. It was cold, she was underdressed.

She dug for her phone for a moment, hands shaky, then slowed down and stopped. Her phone was at her boyfriend’s house, in the kitchen, plugged in next to the microwave.

So she had to go back. She couldn’t walk ten miles home in heels and a miniskirt. She wasn’t even sure she could get there without losing her way. It would be safer to just go back and let him be angry. Maybe they could talk it out. That hadn’t seemed possible when she left, and she didn’t like the idea of going back now, but maybe he’d be kinder if she apologized.

She just didn’t want him to think that she needed him to care for her. At times, she had to be careful to prove that she could make her own decisions. She had to be strong about this, or he would think he could grab her whenever he wanted and she would always come back sorry. She needed a lot from him, but she wasn’t going to give him her dignity.

She sat on a curb and thought about what she could do.

She didn’t have any of her friends’ numbers memorized, so they were out of reach unless she went back for her phone. She had a friend who lived not too far from here, and she could show up at her door. But this wasn’t that kind of friend; they went out and had fun and had never talked about anything serious, and Jimin would be embarrassed to go to her house all messy like this with no warning. And buses way out here didn’t run this late.

After she got through this, she’d keep a list of phone numbers in her bag. She needed to look out for herself better than this.

Then she remembered the vague interaction she’d had with the pretty person at the gay bar a while back, and that she still had their napkin shoved into the bottom of her purse.

She had to empty a lot of her things onto the sidewalk to get to it. Hunched over, pushing tubes of lipstick and single-use packs of ibuprofen out of the way, she thought that if anyone passed by and saw her like this, they’d think she was pitiful. It made her start crying very suddenly. She didn’t want to be stuck out in the cold dressed like this, no phone, no money, trying to find the napkin with a stranger’s number written on it because it was all she had. She didn’t belong in this neighborhood at eleven at night. She wasn’t clean enough. She had done so many things to avoid failing, to avoid looking like she was failing. She had done so many things that felt degrading so that she wouldn’t have to be a person who was alone on the street at night with nowhere to go, and none of them had protected her.

She found the napkin, though she couldn’t quite read it. The nearest streetlight was at the end of the block. She gathered her things back into her purse. A few blocks down, there was a main street. She didn’t know what street it was, but it was bright and she saw lots of cars, so she headed that way.

Even when she got there, she had to walk several blocks before anything was useful. First she passed apartment complexes, built away from the street behind tall hedges. In the next block she passed closed restaurants and a barred-up pawn shop, and then a dark tire center. The street was lit bright and blue, and paved so recently that the asphalt was still clean black and all the painted lines were smooth and clear. A car sped by every once in a while, though it was late. There was a cold wind that worsened after she stepped out of the close-packed neighborhood of identical houses. The wind felt like the only other thing that was alive. She stopped herself from crying, because it wasn’t helping her.

Finally, she saw a bar at the end of the block on the other side of the road. She ran across all four empty lanes and ducked in.

It was dark and muggy inside. A few men sat at the bar. They didn’t look like they’d be friendly to her. One of them turned his head when she walked in and then didn’t look away.

Before she had a chance to ask for a phone, the bartender said, “Can I see your ID?”

Jimin looked over at her and nodded, sniffled without meaning to. The bartender’s voice was tired, and her eyes were round and her eyeliner was smudged, and Jimin felt like they were the same. But she was looking at Jimin with something like hostility, so she just dug for her ID.

“I just need a phone,” she said as she searched. Her purse was all rearranged now. “I don’t want to order anything.”

“You have to buy something if you want to be here.”

Jimin nodded. She had a couple bucks, she could get a cheap beer if she had to. She found her wallet at the bottom of her purse, plastic and purple and sparkly, tattered from use. She pulled out her friend’s brother’s old ID and handed it over.

The bartender looked it over. She checked it under a blacklight. She handed it back. Jimin knew she wasn’t welcome, but she just needed a fucking phone.

“So, what can I get you, sir?” It was like she said it just to be nasty.

“Your cheapest beer. Can I use the phone?”

“Sure,” said the bartender stickily, getting a glass and pouring the beer. Jimin sat at the stool. It was too quiet. People were looking at her. She wasn’t sure she didn’t deserve it.

The bartender made Jimin pay before she handed her the phone. She took her time. As Jimin put her wallet back together, the man who had been starting at her said, “What are you doing out here?”

She looked over at him, but she didn’t say anything. The bartender handed her the phone. It was old, off-white plastic smudged with old scum. The cord barely stretched over the bar. Jimin flattened out the napkin that she’d folded into the front pocket of her purse. The number looked like it was written in eyeliner, a little warped after sitting crumpled for so long, and underneath, it said, TAE.

She was more nervous to dial the number into the receiver, soft buttons glowing faint green, than she had been when her boyfriend grabbed her. It wasn’t fair that being hurt felt normal, she knew it wasn’t fair, but she didn’t know what there was to do about it.

She dialed the number.

It rang three times and no one answered. That was bleak and obvious.

Then there was a crackly sound and a lot of background noise, and a voice that said, “Hello?”

Even though she’d only met this person for a moment, she knew it was them. They answered the phone like they were excited to be greeting an unknown number. Jimin’s eyes closed with relief.

“Hello,” she said. Then she didn’t know what to say for a second. She looked up at the dirty ceiling. “Is this Tae?”

“Yes, this is Tae. Who is this?” The background noise faded, she could sort of hear them going somewhere quieter. Jimin didn’t know them, but she thought they were an angel.

“This is Jimin. Um, the girl, from. Central Station bar. A while back. You wrote your number on a napkin.”

“Hmm,” said Tae, like they were thinking. Then, “Oh. Oh my god, yeah. Hey. Are you okay?”

Everyone was listening to her. The bartender was hovering really close, waiting to take the phone back. Jimin quietly said, “No.”

“Got it. Where are you? I’m gonna come pick you up.”

“You don’t have to,” Jimin muttered. But if not that, she didn’t know what she was asking for. “Um. One second.” She took the phone away from her face and asked the bartender, “Can you give me the address?”

The bartender put a menu on the counter and pointed to the address with a bony finger, nail painted red. Jimin read it out loud.

“Oh wow,” said Tae. “That’s a little far. But hang tight, I’m gonna leave right away.”

Jimin didn’t have the grace to say anything but, “Thank you.”

“Don’t go anywhere,” they said, and it was so gentle. Then they hung up, and Jimin hung up, and she handed the phone back to the bartender.

 

She went outside to wait because everyone inside was looking at her. She sat on a curb in the parking lot and waited in the cold. Nobody bothered her. It was still; the street was lonely and the light in the parking lot was sterile, too crisp, like something in a science lab. Like she was being laid bare so she could be studied better. She leaned over herself. She wiggled her fingers, but they were still cold. She wished she’d had some of that beer instead of leaving her glass full on the counter just to prove something. Maybe she’d be warmer or less hungry. She pulled out her compact mirror and did her best with her face and hair. She touched up her lipstick. It felt like she waited a really long time.

A black Prius pulled into the parking lot. She didn’t think much of it until it pulled up next to her and the window rolled down.

“Hey,” said Tae. They looked more human under the bluish light in the parking lot than they had all backlit and perfect at the bar that night, but no less kind. They reached across the front seat to open the passenger door. “Hop in,” they said.

Jimin climbed in hesitantly. The car was clean and smelled good inside. She was out of her element. As she buckled the seatbelt, she said, “Thank you.”

“Yeah,” said Tae. “Of course. I’m not gonna just leave you when you need somebody.” Before they left the parking lot, as they sat at the mouth of the driveway with the blinker on, Tae took a deep breath and looked at Jimin in a strange, searching way. Then they said, “So, where are we heading?”

She gave them her address, and they laughed. “We’re like, neighbors,” they said as they started driving toward the highway. “What are you doing all the way out here?” Then they glanced over at her again.

“Uh, my boyfriend lives nearby,” she said. She was really tired, now that she wasn’t in danger.

“Oh. Is that the guy… you were with? At Central that time?” They were acting really nice, but it sounded sort of forced. Like they might be really scared for her.

“Yeah,” she said. She went to say something else, but it was all really complicated.

Tae said, after a silence, “This sucks to ask, but did he… did he hurt you?”

“No,” she said quickly. She didn’t want this to be about him, if she could help it. She just wanted to go home.

“I can take you to the hospital,” said Tae. “If you need like, a rape kit.”

“Oh,” she whispered. “No. I don’t.” Now she felt like she was overreacting. He’d just grabbed her, it was just a bruise. She’d been scared, but it wasn’t serious. She said, “I’m sorry for making you do this.”

“I wanted to,” they said, like it was nothing. “If you change your mind and you want to go to the hospital, just let me know.”

Jimin didn’t respond, just leaned back into the seat with her eyes pressed shut and felt the road move under her.

Tae didn’t ask anything else about what had happened, and it was quiet for a minute. Then Jimin said, “It’s not always like this.”

Tae was merging onto the highway, and Jimin looked over at them as gold lights passed over their face. They had glittery cheekbones and green eyeshadow, and were wearing some kind of embroidered, loose-sleeved crepe tunic. They said, “Seems like it’s like this often enough.”

“No, he’s good to me,” she started.

“He’s not here,” said Tae, like they weren’t saying anything that mattered. “I’m not gonna tell him.”

Jimin looked down at her hands. Her manicure was getting really messy, but she couldn’t afford to fix it yet. She said, “Tonight was an exception.”

“Good,” said Tae. They merged lanes really suddenly and Jimin startled. “Sorry,” they said. “Just got my license.”

“Congrats,” said Jimin. She thought maybe she should be worried, but the feeling didn’t come. Though her own rule was not to trust anyone too soon, she was having trouble being wary of Tae. They were doing something so kind.

In the car, Jimin’s stomach growled loudly, and Tae insisted on taking her to a drive-through for burgers. They wouldn’t take no for an answer, and Jimin was really hungry and didn’t have anything at home. After eating half of the fries Tae got her, still sitting in the parking lot, she cried into her hands.

They handed her the stack of napkins that came with their food. They didn’t try to stop her. They just sunk into their seat and sighed like they had something achy inside them, too.

Jimin was still sniffling a little and feeling sorry for herself when Tae got back on the road to take her home.

“I’d take you back to meet my boyfriend, but you seem like you need to go to bed.”

“Thank you,” said Jimin.

“Next time,” they said. “Let’s hang out under like, nice circumstances next time. I’ll just text you when we have a get together or something.”

Jimin nodded. She was wide-eyed and exhausted. This was a waste of Tae’s time, but it was the nicest anyone had been to her since she could remember, and she made a promise to herself right then. That she’d take what they offered, because she needed it. And that she’d find a way to return it, no matter how hard it would be to give them anything quite as good.

 

 

Jimin likes Tae because they’re beautiful. That’s everything. That’s all of it. They’re beautiful, all the way through. She used to think they were an angel, like, literally. She used to imagine them coming down from heaven to look after her. She didn’t even believe in that stuff, but Tae made it hard to doubt goodness, so bright and tangible that it must have been from someplace more special than anywhere Jimin belonged. She used to look for signs sometimes, she didn’t know. Strange feathers, weird lights. It was crazy, she thought they had been assigned to her. To help her. It made her feel worthy. And even after she knew that Tae was just a person, the feeling of worthiness didn’t go away. Someone this special wouldn’t come into her life and stay if she were as ugly and broken as she liked to feel.

Even now, Tae, while not an angel, is more special than most people. And that’s not a slight toward most people, it’s just a fact about Tae. People like them are rare. People don’t listen like Tae does, and people don’t try so hard to understand and love everybody while never giving themselves away. Tae is just a person, but they’re a person of a quality that Jimin has only really encountered once.

 

 

Jimin met Tae’s boyfriend. He was tall and handsome. He had a beard and a bunch of tattoos. He was really nice to Jimin, but she’d sort of been expecting him to glow and shimmer like Tae did, and was disappointed that he wasn’t an angel, too.

Jimin’s boyfriend, on the other hand, never really warmed up to her friendship with Tae.

“Oh, great,” he’d said, when she first told him that she’d made a new friend, that they’d gone to get frozen yogurt together and sat around talking for hours, and how easy and comfortable it had been. She told him she’d like him to meet Tae sometime, and he said, “You’re hanging out with another man, and I’m supposed to be excited for that?”

“Well,” said Jimin. She hadn’t thought of it that way. While she and Tae hadn’t really talked about any of the gender stuff, she assumed. She didn’t know what she assumed, exactly, but it didn’t seem to matter very much. For her, it mattered, and was something that was lacking in everything she was and did. But for Tae, she didn’t think it was the same. Tae didn’t start exclusively using gender-neutral pronouns until a couple of years after they came into Jimin’s life, but even in the beginning, it made her uncomfortable to think of Tae as something in the shape of another man . Jimin has to be savvy when she’s around men, she has to be careful and she has to be strong. Even around men she really loves, even around Yoonji’s friend Namjoon, or boys she’s tried to date. But Tae has never done anything that made her feel like she had to protect herself.

She couldn’t explain that to her boyfriend, so she said, “You really don’t have to worry about that.”

She didn’t stop spending time with Tae, even when her boyfriend told her she should. She didn’t like to lie, but Tae was too important to let go for someone else, even for someone she loved.

She didn’t stop lying. It filled her with constant, prickly guilt, but under all of it, there was the feeling that she was doing the right thing. Tae mattered to her, and she mattered to Tae, and when they were together she sort of felt like she mattered, too. She started to have hope. It was nice to have someone who saw her, truly and completely, and loved her anyway.

 

 

Jimin never really got a break from the gender thing. Since she was fifteen it had dominated everything. Sometimes it felt like it was the only thing about her, or the only thing that mattered to anyone. It was impossible to escape, even when she wasn’t talking about it. Even with her friends who didn’t mention it, it lived at the edges of all their conversations.

Her boyfriend brought it up a lot, like he had to remind her that he knew, that he noticed. There was no winning. No way to ignore it without feeling lonely, and no way to talk about it without feeling misunderstood. She thought that was how her life would be. She thought she’d have to carry this thing around by herself, and everyone would watch and no one would help.

Truthfully, she and Tae argued about it early in their friendship. The one time the conversation went there they made each other angry; it seemed they felt too similarly to forgive each other their differences. But mostly, Jimin had been really mean. She looks back on it now and just wants to find Tae wherever they are and hug them tight, hold them until their heartbeats sync up. They’d told her that they didn’t need to change anything, but they felt like a girl, and she’d said, ”Well, you don’t look like one.”

Tae’s expression had gone flat, and their voice had been a little shaky when they said, “Well, thinking like that doesn’t help anyone.”  

She was going through a lot, but now that she knows Tae well, she knows she made them miserable. They trusted her, and she told them the same old shit they’d been hearing their whole life, right in the moment when they were trying to relate to her. It was like crushing a butterfly or something. She thinks that’s why they never brought it up again.

But something happened in the space they left alone. They didn’t talk about it, but they came to understand each other anyway. Because they spent a lot of time together, and learned each other. Because when they were out at a bar or walking around and someone stared or shouted at them, it was both of them. Fighting over it didn’t make sense when they both understood how it felt to be a joke, what it was like to worry about talking to strangers, to have trouble finding clothes that fit right, to be misunderstood. It made more sense for them to take good care of each other than to argue. So the space between them only grew smaller, and their differences made them more valuable to each other. They both wanted the same things, and they both wanted to be helpful to one another.

 

 

A few months after Tae and Jimin met, they finally sat her down and told her, “I hate your boyfriend. Every time you talk about him, I cringe.”

It was true, they did have this face they made, like there was something bitter in their mouth, but they were trying hard not to spit it out. It made Jimin just stop bringing him up at all. But right then, face to face with Tae, across the table at the cute little apartment they lived in with their boyfriend, she finally admitted something. “I need him,” she said dryly, and pressed her eyes closed.

“You don’t, really,” said Tae.

“No, I do,” she said. She opened her eyes. “He pays all my bills.”

Tae breathed tightly out their nose and then whispered, “Oh.”

“I don’t know what I’d do otherwise.”

“I sort of wondered,” said Tae.

“I tried really hard to find a job,” she said. “I applied everywhere.”

Tae nodded, but they were making the face.

“So,” she said, “He does a lot for me. It’s not all bad.”

Then Tae made her cry. Instead of pointing out that her behavior was disgusting and that she was disgusting, they said, “Oh, Jimin, I’m so sorry.”

“It’s not so bad,” she tried, but saving face just made it worse. Tae did this to her a lot, without even meaning to. She made them cry sometimes, too. Neither of them were used to having somebody around who understood like this.

There was so much wrong with Jimin. It kept her from finding love with someone who didn’t like her because of all the things she couldn’t stand about herself. It kept her from respectable jobs, and from being safe. It would hold her back forever, and it would never be any better than it was right now. That was what she believed. It was what she was trying to accept so that she could move forward instead of being upset over what she couldn’t change.

But Tae… sometimes she wondered if being around them might be bad for her. They were too good, maybe. They were the best person in the world, and they had so much hope for her. When she was with them, she could see in front of her. She felt good and comfortable and right in ways that she had given up on otherwise. It made the rest of her life look bad.

But the rest of her life was bad. She lived in a room in an apartment with a grimy couple that used all her shit without asking. Her boyfriend didn’t pay her rent until she let him fuck her like he wanted. She was too tired to keep looking for jobs, and she felt like a horrible monster, like something that shouldn’t even be alive. It was hardly worth it. She could try forever and nothing would ever change.

 

 

Jimin and Tae didn’t hang out very often in the beginning. Jimin went to their house a few times, and they took her out for coffee occasionally, but she spent a lot of time with her boyfriend and sometimes it was hard to get away. But they texted almost every day, right from the beginning.

Often it seemed like Tae was checking on her, and she was grateful, but she wanted to stay even. Their conversations started out looking like,

 

hey, how are you?

 

super , how about u?

 

so good.

have u been having a good week?

 

the best.

urs?

 

No complaints :P

 

But they had too much in common to worry about keeping it balanced. They liked the same music, and they both had a lot to say about pop divas. Tae once told Jimin she looked like Ariana Grande, and she was flattered, even though there was certainly no resemblance other than the ponytail she had that day. But Tae sounded so sincere when they said it, and it stuck with her anyway.

They talked about their friends, and their boyfriends, but sometimes it wasn’t even that. Sometimes they just said what was passing through their heads. I’m doing laundry , or, my roommate used all my shampoo?? It didn’t always matter what they said, it just felt good to be talking.

Tae invited Jimin to every get-together they went to, and she always said no. Hanging out sometimes was one thing, but going to parties with someone was different, and she didn’t know how she’d explain it to her boyfriend. Sometimes it felt like he wanted to be the only person she knew.

He was even upset with her when one of Tae’s friends helped her get hired at the grocery store where she worked. He said, “Do I not do enough for you?”

She didn’t say anything at the time, but when she thought about it, she felt backed-in. She barely had enough of anything, and if she didn’t find another source of income she’d never be able to afford surgery. She was starting to wonder if that was what he wanted.

Finally, she said something. Her boyfriend was telling her to quit her job again because it was keeping her away from him some nights, and because she shouldn’t need more than he gave her. “I work hard for you,” he said.

“I need to save up,” she told him. “And what if I want to splurge sometimes? You don’t give me splurge money.”

“I can’t afford to give you splurge money,” he said harshly.

“I’m not asking for more, I’m just saying,” she said. Then, quietly, she said, “Sometimes I want to live better.”

Then he said, “You want to live in luxury? You’re not that kind of girl.”

That wasn’t new. That wasn’t the first time he’d talked to her like that. But Jimin had been spending time with Tae, and she was starting to really believe that there might be more for her. Just seeing how Tae lived – with someone who loved them, plants in the windows and a clean kitchen and nice sheets on the bed, made her think that it might be within her grasp. She just didn’t want to feel dirty anymore.

Her boyfriend said that to her, and suddenly what used to be her biggest fear just sounded evil. She wasn’t heartbroken, just angry that she’d lived alongside words like that for so long.

That was the last night that she spent in his house, and the last time she let anyone talk to her like she wasn’t important.

 

 

Yoonji has this one particular smell. Jimin doesn’t know what product it’s from, and she can’t place it as a fruit or a flower or a food. It’s slightly unnatural, but not overpowering or saccharine. It might be some kind of lotion, or a mixture of things. It doesn’t really match up with the way Yoonji presents herself, but Jimin associates it with her now. Sometimes she thinks it might be strawberries, or roses. It’s a young smell, the kind of product that tweens use when they’re still excited about all the work it takes to grow up and be a woman. Like kid perfume. Jimin is a respectful roommate, so she doesn’t smell Yoonji’s shampoo bottles or go through her bathroom cabinet, but sometimes she wants to.

Yoonji is bony, and her face is angular, and she has big hands. She’s sharp and intense, with eyes that always look slightly narrowed, preemptively offended. Sometimes it seems like that’s what she wants people to notice about her. She looks like she’s just about to scoff all the time. She looks like she’s about to tell you to fuck off. She looks like she doesn’t want to be talked to, which Jimin admires, as someone whose face is stuck in an inviting position. Yoonji wears a lot of dark colors, she paints her nails black and dark purple and midnight blue, and she wears simple silver earrings. She doesn’t wear a lot of makeup, but she’s great at sharp winged eyeliner, and she wears red lipstick whenever she goes anywhere.

Jimin remembers when Yoonji was a baby , coming into her store and awkwardly buying makeup from her. She knocked over a small display on her first visit, then put it back together with the shakiest hands. She always blushed and avoided eye contact and talked out the side of her mouth like if she fully pronounced anything it might come to life and kill her. Jimin was gentle, because she knew, because nobody’s that scared of mascara unless they have something to hide.

Jimin remembers thinking that Yoonji was so cool. Right from the beginning, even before she was anything like she is now. She was so cool. She was funny, even when she was upset. And even though Jimin started hanging out with her during the most stressful part of her life, she always seemed to take everything in stride. Once, she was crying about something, and Jimin thought, god, she’s handling this so well .

She was there for Yoonji from the beginning, because Yoonji didn’t have anybody else right then. She was desperate. Jimin didn’t have patience for herself, but she had so much for Yoonji, who was scared and unsure of herself and in need of a little love from somebody who had been there and survived and come out of it still human, still able to care.

Yoonji used to even be too cool sometimes, too disaffected. She didn’t used to smile, really, and she’d talk about the things that mattered to her with this weird distance. Like she could say that she cared, but it didn’t reach her heart. She was sometimes unemotional, sometimes wouldn’t talk to Jimin for a while, and sometimes seemed uninterested when they did talk. Sometimes it was hard, but Yoonji was a good friend when it counted, and she was going through a lot.  

Yoonji was cool from the beginning. She’s still so cool. But now she smells like kid perfume. And she laughs at everything, and she’s animated in a way she didn’t used to be. Her face is so expressive, even though she’s still usually pouting. It’s cute now, not intimidating. Yoonji used to wear these really perfect outfits, back when she dressed like a boy. Like she’d done some science and figured out the exact combination of garments that would keep people from ever suspecting anything was off about her. She’s still pretty meticulous, but Jimin’s seen her go to work without brushing her hair, or run to the convenience store in sweatpants she’s had since college. She used to be icy, and she still has her moments, but now she’s something sweet dipped in chocolate that cracks as soon as you bite it. She’s not even really trying anymore, she just looks like that. She’s so important to Jimin.

Jimin is really proud of Yoonji. She thinks that Yoonji deserves to have somebody around to make sure she’s okay, to tell her that she’s pretty even when she doesn’t feel that way, to put up with her when she’s mean and make sure she takes care of herself when she doesn’t want to. Jimin wants to be that for Yoonji.

Lately Yoonji has been talking about a boy, and Jimin hopes he’ll hold her up too. She’s excited to see Yoonji trying to date someone, as much as Yoonji insists that it’s nothing and he’s stupid . When she talks about him, she blushes and squawks like a bird. She deserves to have a normal crush on a normal boy who makes her heart beat fast.

Yoonji is so good, and so strong. It’s easier for Jimin to see it in someone else than in herself. Jimin still sometimes looks at herself and really, really can’t see a girl there, even though everyone tells her they wouldn’t even know . She’s never looked at Yoonji like that. She’s never thought that Yoonji would be a better woman if she changed something. And she’s never thought that Yoonji was unfinished, or ugly, or like, inherently repulsive. She thinks Yoonji is beautiful and impressive, still getting brighter day by day, and that she should have the best kind of life. She thinks Yoonji is too hard on herself.

Jimin just wants to be a force in Yoonji’s life that can keep her from being lonely. She wants Yoonji to grow up and never have to feel like there’s no one to love her, because it might be impossible to come back from that. As much love as Jimin has been able to build up around her, she won’t ever forget having been alone. If Jimin didn’t get to grow up with that part of herself intact, the least she can do is give it to somebody else.

 

 

The first time Yoonji met Tae, she hated them. She told Jimin about it later, after they’d gone back to Yoonji’s apartment and spent a long time in sheet masks and then wiggled into Yoonji’s big bed. It had seemed like she was trying to hold her tongue, but when they were staring up at the ceiling in the dark, it was hard not to say what they were thinking. “I know they’re your best friend,” Yoonji had said, “But I got a shitty vibe.”

“Oh, did you?” said Jimin. “That’s an interesting thing to say about an angel.”

“They sure have the act down, don’t they?”

Jimin was offended on Tae’s behalf, but she also knew Yoonji well enough already to know that the griping was part of her, and that it lead to nothing and meant nothing. She just needed to complain, and Jimin honestly found it charming. She was smiling when she said, “You’re being so mean.”

“It’s just… you know. How dare they?”

“How dare they what?”

“How dare they be so… fucking, like...” Then she’d groaned.

Jimin laughed. “Oh, you mean like, gorgeous.”

“And confident ,” whined Yoonji. “And nice. And how dare they.”

Jimin waited for Yoonji to get where she needed to go.

“How dare they not have to suffer like us.”

“Right.”

“So I hate them.”

“Sounds like you’re jealous,” said Jimin.

“Wish I could just feel like I was already good enough and everybody else could go to hell.”

“They’d never tell anyone to go to hell,” said Jimin mirthfully.

“No, of course they wouldn’t.”

“Also,” Jimin had added hesitantly, not sure if Yoonji really wanted to hear it. “They go through a lot. We don’t talk about it much, but I think they go through as much as you and I do.”

“Hard to believe. They’re so fucking smug.”

“Oh my god , Yoonji, chill ,” Jimin laughed, and Yoonji giggled too. That was a good sound.

After that, Yoonji seemed a lot more forgiving, and she and Tae got close really fast. In fact, Jimin started overhearing conversations between Yoonji and Tae about things she never knew.

Once, not long after they all started hanging out together, they were at Yoonji’s apartment. Jimin had just taken a call, and when she came back into the living room, Tae was saying, “I mean, I wish I had advice for that, but I never really had to come out to my parents?”

“How is that possible,” Yoonji whispered, pouting like she hated it.

Tae said, “My mom was a big part of me figuring it out. She was always into talking about it.”

Jimin stopped hovering in the doorway; she stepped all the way in and sat down at the end of the couch, next to Yoonji in the middle.

Tae gave her an uncomfortable little smile, like they weren’t sure Jimin wanted to hear or talk about this, and she rolled her eyes. She wouldn’t be here if she didn’t want to hear about it.

Tae said, “So I have this uncle, he’s gay. He’s great. My mom’s brother. He came out in the 80’s and my grandparents shunned him. Like, it was really bad. Really really bad for him. My mom was the one family member who was still there for him.”

“That’s nice of her,” said Yoonji.

“While my mom was pregnant with me, he attempted suicide. I remember it being really messy for a long time. He stayed with us a lot when I was growing up. He used to take me for ice cream. My dad wasn’t really around, so. My uncle was a big part of my life as a kid.” They were looking away from Jimin and Yoonji on the couch, sort of toward the front door. “I think that affected my mom a lot. That my uncle never had anybody to talk to about anything, and it ruined so much of his life. So my mom was always there to talk shit out. She was always, like, super understanding. And she stuck up for me.”

“So she just knew?” asked Yoonji. “Right from the beginning?” Her voice was thin and high like she felt sick. Jimin realized this conversation was about how Yoonji was still trying to figure out, months after telling all her friends and starting hormones, how to come out to her parents.

Tae said, “I don’t have memories of like, coming out to my family. I just started talking about it as soon as it started happening. I was definitely open about everything by high school. Not sure what I was out as exactly, but I wore a dress to prom, so.” They did a self-conscious shrug.

“Did you have friends?” asked Yoonji.

“Of course,” said Tae, like that wasn’t even a question. Jimin looked away from Tae’s face. Of course they had friends, because they were a tall, beautiful angel-person, universally adored and adoring.

Jimin realized she was grimacing. Tae glanced over at her, then looked away again and said, “But that’s like, entirely because I was supported. I don’t think anything would have been easy for me if I didn’t have a bunch of people backing me up all the time.”

Jimin didn’t mean to, but she made a small judgmental noise in the back of her throat.

Now Tae was looking across an apprehensive Yoonji at Jimin. They said, “I got to feel normal. It meant a lot.”

Jimin looked away. She didn’t want to have this conversation anymore. It just felt unfair that they got so much and she got so little. When she was in high school, her classmates laughed at her when her voice started dropping and she had no way to stop it. She got up off the couch and went into Yoonji’s room to cool off. She didn’t want to say anything shitty to Tae.

But they are some kind of empath or something. Jimin used to think it was one of their angel powers, how good they were at reading what she needed. The second her anger faded and she started feeling guilty for being petulant, Tae came to her in Yoonji’s dim bedroom.

They didn’t say anything at first, just settled in next to where Jimin was sitting at the edge of the bed, facing away from the door and counting the hangers in Yoonji’s closet. They rested their head on her shoulder and put their hand on her leg, long fingers with nails each painted a different color.

Jimin took a breath so deep that Tae’s head jostled on her shoulder. Tae said, “Whatever it is, I’m sorry.”

“You didn’t do it,” she said. “I’m super happy that it was easy for you.”

“I was really lucky. I know you weren’t. But I think you’re doing great.”

“Thanks,” she said, because she didn’t want to say anything else.

“Love you.”

“Love you,” said Jimin, then Tae took her hand and squeezed it.

 

 

The two revelations came at the same time. Tae’s boyfriend had just dumped them, and they had come straight to the apartment where Jimin rented a room, gotten in her bed and started crying.

They were so sad. They cried for weeks, like they’d never been hurt before. Like they were going to die. It was nothing like when Jimin had broken up with her boyfriend six months earlier: an explosive argument, and then victory, euphoria, terror, freedom. This was sadness so unbearable that Tae might not survive it. It was ripping them open. It was horrible.

The first day they lay in Jimin’s bed and she made them tea and gave them ice pops because that was all she had. Pumpkin, the prissy orange kitten she had adopted after Tae convinced her that having a pet would make her less lonely, huddled up on their chest and nosed at their chin with concern. Jimin lay down next to them and let them tell her all about it. Eventually, Tae fell asleep, but Jimin stayed up, and she thought, this is not an angel. This is just a person. And she thought, I am in love with them.

It was the wrong time. They’d never loved someone like this boyfriend before, and it took them a long time to be alright again. Then, when they were, they didn’t even consider Jimin. They met new boys and went on a ton of shitty dates and then told her all about them. In the time since Tae had met their now ex-boyfriend, they’d begun to think differently about some things. It was important that people used the right words with them, and it was important that they agreed on certain topics. They’d text Jimin after a lot of their dates with things like, it was going well until he tried 2 play ‘devils advocate’.

Anyway, Tae liked boys. But so did Jimin, and that didn’t stop her from liking Tae. That complicated things, too. If they didn’t like her because she was a girl, she’d be okay with that. She’d be honored that they saw her that way, even if it meant they couldn’t see her how she wanted them to. But Tae was a girl, too, mostly, and she liked them. She wondered if they’d be hurt to know that they were her exception. If it would make them uncomfortable. But Tae mostly dated gay guys, even still. They didn’t have a lot of other options, but they didn’t seem very upset about it. They said it was complicated, and that they didn’t really care what someone called themselves, as long as they were respectful. So, Jimin didn’t know. She just knew that they didn’t like her that way.

Instead of acting on her feelings, Jimin made peace with what she had. It was a lot already. They called each other when they needed something, and they talked every day, and they drove around in Tae’s car belting along to music for hours and hours sometimes. Tae was a touchy friend, they hugged her every time they said goodbye, and sometimes held her hand or absently fixed her hair or clothes. They told her they loved her a lot. The two of them were very close, and Jimin decided that she had enough already. She didn’t need more. She loved what she had.

 

 

Jimin and Yoonji moved in together a year after they met, just because the timing worked out. They worried that they’d come to hate each other, but it’s only brought them closer. They’ve made their home comfortable, they both like being quiet in their own space, and they’re clean in compatible ways. And it really helps Jimin that Yoonji quietly pays more than her share of the rent. She was doing that at first because Jimin was saving up for surgery, but Yoonji still hasn’t asked for more, even though it’s been almost a year now.

Surgery was the biggest, scariest thing Jimin ever did, and it helped a lot. There was no bigger relief in the world, for a while. She’d been looking forward to it for most of her life. Seeing herself the way she was supposed to be was the biggest happiness in the world, spreading outward like a little sun in her chest. It was perfect.

But, of course, it wasn’t the end. It wasn’t the end of everything like she thought it would be. Looking back now, it sounds stupid, but she thought she’d be done after that. She thought it was the cure. She’d gotten the hair removal and the tracheal shave and the breast implants and the bottom surgery, so she was supposed to feel better. She lived like trash for five years so she could afford this shit. It wasn’t supposed to be this hard to get a little peace.

Now, she’s learning that her problems aren’t all physical. She’s learning that, while it seemed like she’d be cured if no one ever, ever knew that she was trans and she could just live like she was supposed to live all along, she still has to suffer. As long as she thinks that there’s something wrong with her, she’ll suffer. As long as she associates what she is with the way her parents talked to her, her classmates, her first boyfriend, some of the friends she used to keep around, she’ll never be happy. She can’t have gotten surgery to avoid being insulted; she has to have gotten it for herself. That’s how it has to be, or she’s never going to appreciate it.

She has to learn from people like Tae and Yoonji, who are trying so hard to make their insides right first. She sees those people as beautiful, so full of grace and dignity. She sees them as stronger than she is. She has to decide to be okay with people knowing sometimes, because they always will, especially if she spends all her time with Tae and Yoonji. She has to see it as something that makes her strong instead of weak.

It feels impossible, but it’s what she’s working on, now that there’s nowhere else to go. She’s trying to be what she admires. About Yoonji, her need not to make herself perfect, but to force the world to give her what she deserves. About Tae, their peace and calm and openness. It’s hard not to think the world is cruel, but she can see that it doesn’t always have to be. She can see that she deserves to be confident, and that she deserves the best kind of life. She wants it.

 

Yoonji came to Jimin while she was eating dinner one night. She was wearing a hoodie and sweatpants and her hair was in a messy ponytail. She sat down in the chair across from Jimin without breaking eye contact, folded her hands under her chin, and said, “Hello.”

“Hi, Yoonji.” Jimin wondered if she was in trouble for something.

“I hate matchmaking, you know this about me.” Yoonji tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear.

Jimin took a bite of her stir fry. “I do,” she said.

“But you really need to tell Tae you like them.”

“No, I don’t.”

“You really do,” said Yoonji. “I’m tired of this, with you.” She waggled her finger.

Jimin smiled into a bite of food.

“You know I respect my friends’ privacy, right?” Yoonji said.

“Of course,” said Jimin.

“Good. Well. Then pretend I’m not doing this.”

Jimin raised her eyebrows. Yoonji pulled her phone out of her hoodie pocket, unlocked it with a frowny face, scrolled to something, and then slid it across to Jimin.

 

will you just tell her?

She doesn’t like me, so no.

you are a fucking idiot, tae.

Don’t be mean when im coming to you for advice!!!

My hearts torn asunder and u have the nerve to be cruel!

Ur the ice queen!!

Tell

jimin

You

Like

Her

Thats not the advice i came to u for!!!

I go to namjoon when i want prgmatic & logical

I come to u when i want to do mental acrobatics until the answer is DONT tell her. Never tell her. Keep it to urself until it kills u.

I hate u

I hate u soooo much

:*

R u gonna tell her

No

then i will

ur making me do this.

WAIT UP

NO

YOONJI

DO NOT

 

Jimin was smiling so big, she probably looked fucking stupid. Her phone was vibrating on the table.

Yoonji said, like a know-it-all, “I bet it’s them.”

Jimin looked at it. It was them. She pointed to Yoonji and whispered, “Go. Go away. You’ve done enough.”

Yoonji made an offended face, pushed her chair out, and waddled back to her room.

Jimin answered the phone. “Tae.”

“Hey, this is important. If Yoonji tries to tell you anything, it’s a lie. No matter what it is. I can’t give you any more information than that at this time but I have reason to believe that Yoonji plans on telling you a big, big lie.”

“Honey. She showed me your texts.”

“Shit.” Jimin heard them breathe. Then, they said, “Okay.”

It was tense and quiet for a second. Tae said, “What, um. How do you feel.”

Jimin squinted her eyes shut. She said, “Will you come over? I don’t want to say anything until you’re here.”

“Oh no. Is it really bad?” they whispered.

“No,” she said. “It’s not.”

“Okay. I’m leaving now. Don’t go anywhere.”

 

Ten minutes later, Tae walked in without knocking. They were wearing flannel pajama pants, an inside-out t-shirt, and ratty sneakers with the backs folded down, like they hadn’t had time to pull them on properly. Their hair was pulled back from their face in a funny little ponytail, which Jimin found really charming. She was waiting on the couch with her hands folded on her lap, staring at the turned-off TV. Yoonji peeked around the kitchen doorway. Tae said, “I hurried.”

Jimin had something in her throat. This was it, wasn’t it? This was the moment. Even though it might be about to go well, she was terrified. She’d held onto this for so long that she didn’t even know what she wanted anymore. The same, maybe, but even closer. She didn’t want to go on dates with Tae. She wanted to skip to being married. It was too much. She wanted her and Tae to be the same person spread out over two bodies.

She saw them swallow. She said, “Thank you.”

“Can I… Can I sit?” they said, flopping off their shoes in the doorway. Pumpkin had heard Tae’s voice and come in from Jimin’s room to greet them. They picked him up and hugged him and kissed his head before gently setting him back down and smoothing his fur before he bounded away. Jimin could cry.

She nodded, and Tae sat down next to her. They looked concerned, and Jimin was so full of… something. Everything. She was so in love with them, and they were so worried that she might not be. How ridiculous. She said, “I’ve loved you since we met.”

“That long?” said Tae, with the widest eyes, like they couldn’t feel her words yet. 

“Yeah. You saved my life.” She was whispering, and their faces were very close.

“Is that true?”

Jimin nodded.

Then Tae hugged her. They wrapped her up and held her all the way around and squeezed like they’d just hugged Pumpkin, like she was precious and they wanted to show her so much love and be so careful with her.

“You’re so beautiful,” they said.

“You are.”

They were squeezing her so tight. They said, “You’re my person.”

 

It was less climactic than she’d have imagined. They hugged for a long time, and then, because it was cold, they went into Jimin’s room and got under the covers and talked for the rest of the day. About how they felt about each other, and what they wanted, and what they were going to call each other now, and whether they wanted to update Facebook right away. They decided they’d waited long enough and did it on their phones right there.

“I got a relationship request, weird,” said Tae, smiling like it was hard to do anything else.

“Weird, who from?” said Jimin, then she reached across and smoothed a lock of hair out of Tae’s face.

“It says it’s from you?” said Tae, then they laughed like they’d been holding it in.

“You should probably accept that,” said Jimin gravely, then her phone pinged that they had.

They didn’t kiss the first day. Somehow, it felt more momentous than declaring their undying love. It felt further away from what they were already doing, so they didn’t kiss until the next morning, as soon as they woke up together. On the first day, they just lay there sharing warmth until they got antsy, and they went out for food, and then they came back and slept together in Jimin’s bed. They told each other the secrets they’d been keeping, and it was easy and a relief and not very scary. They held hands and figured out how to fit together as closely as they’d been holding back from doing.

Jimin told Tae, “I’ve loved you since the beginning, but I realized it when you got dumped.”

“That was… three years ago, almost?”

“Yeah. Sorry.”

“Why then?”

Jimin thought for a second. “You were so sad. I wanted to help so bad. And you kept saying that he’d dumped you because you were too much .”

“He did. What a jerk.” They didn’t seem so hurt anymore.

“You were worried that you were gonna be too much for anybody. You were like, terrified. You got really boyish for a while.”

Tae sighed, moved Jimin’s hand so it was open on their face. She said, “Then you dated a lot, maybe because you wanted to meet somebody who didn’t think you were too much.”

Tae said, “Yeah, to prove I still had game with shitty dudes.”

“I was just sitting there like. I’m here. You’re not too much for me.”

Tae’s eyes were so big, and their eyelashes were so long even without makeup, and they always smelled like lavender. They were so close that Jimin could envelop them, bring them to her and keep them there. They said, “You’re not too much for me either.”

“That means a lot.” Then she took a hitched breath, and she said, “This is what I want.”

“Yeah, for a long time,” said Tae.

Her hand was still open on their face, and she didn’t have to pull it away. She didn’t have to worry about looking at them too closely or for too long, or saying anything that felt too adoring. She saw their eyelashes press together when they blinked. She said, “For a really long time.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, nice lady.” Hoseok jogs up to Yoonji. She’s walking briskly across the park from her train station to her building’s entrance, holding her jacket tight around herself and shivering. She hears his boots skid on the cement as he stops beside her.

She stops walking and turns to him. He’s smiling self-consciously, but he looks really happy to see her. “Hey, nice man,” she says, breathing it out in fog. It warms her up to say it.

“Are you in a hurry?” he asks, glancing up at the shiny windows of her building. They’re standing facing each other in the middle of the park. The sky is grey, but clearing in little patches. Yoonji’s shoulders are hunched against the cold.

“No,” she says.

“Do you want to get some coffee before you go in?”

Yoonji used to wake up early enough to make coffee at home before she went to work, but now she sleeps until the last possible minute and runs for the train every day. She settles for the dingy stuff they brew in the break room now. “That sounds good,” she says. “Are you allowed to leave?”

Hoseok shrugs and starts to turn back toward the train stop. “Sure, I’ll just take my break early.”

Yoonji doesn’t argue, because she really does want to get a coffee with Hoseok. He doesn’t look cold or even tired. His red hair is starting to fade to a pinky-orange color, like clouds at sunset, and she’s starting to think his baggy park uniform is flattering. He’s so pretty . She lets him lead her up a block to an upscale coffee shop, and when he smiles at her as they walk, she imagines that she can see the bright light in his chest pouring out through him. She’s not as cold when he’s around.

Heat spills out when they open the door to the coffee shop. Inside, it smells like morning and forest, and there are wood floors and high ceilings and full-length windows. They’ve missed the morning rush, so there’s no line. The barista says, “Welcome in.” He’s overdressed and apathetic and looks like a turd. Yoonji doesn’t like his mustache. He doesn’t smile when he greets them.

“Hello,” says Hoseok, leaning on the counter so naturally and smiling in that bright, warm way. “How are you today?”

“Oh, so far so good,” says the barista, perking up a little. “How about you two?” Then he smiles and makes eye contact. Okay, maybe he’s not a turd. Yoonji feels a little guilty for being judgmental.

“Good,” says Hoseok. He looks contentedly over at Yoonji. “Really nice so far.”

Hoseok orders a hot chocolate and Yoonji orders a quad americano. When they sit down at a spare table to wait, Hoseok says, “What’s an americano again? Is that with milk?”

“Hot water and espresso,” says Yoonji.

“What do you put in that?” asks Hoseok. “To make it good?”

Hoseok is so cute. Yoonji has been thinking about him all weekend. She’s been thinking about what that kiss would have been like, if he hadn’t thought better of it. But she doesn’t even care that much right now. “Nothing,” she says blankly. But then she can’t help it, she smiles.

“I can never remember what everything is,” says Hoseok, grinning back. “Caffeine makes me crazy.”

Of course it does .

“My attention span is already… not great,” he admits, looking a little sorry, though he doesn’t have to. “My head is everywhere all the time. So I don’t drink coffee. I don’t think I’d stop talking.”

Yoonji wouldn’t mind if he talked even more than he does. The sound of his voice is comforting. She likes that he says what passes through his head without sifting it through a thousand filters first. It makes it easier for her to talk, too.

“It’s why I like the outdoors so much. I need a lot of space. Too much stimulation in the city.”

“You seem stressed,” she says. She considers reaching across the table and taking his hand; it’s right there. But it seems oddly out of reach now. She took the hint on Friday, and she’s not going to push it. She’s happy they can be friends, and she’ll work on the fact that she might be in love with him. That she might really, really love him. That he might be the only person she’s ever really wanted .

“I’m good,” he says, looking at her and smiling with just his mouth. “I’m super. There’s just a lot going on lately and I don’t know how to simmer down sometimes.”

She doesn’t know why she says it, because she certainly won’t follow through on this, but she says, “We should go on a hike or something.” He sounds like he needs some fresh air. And that’s totally a thing friends do, and anyway, any remaining interest he had would wither when he saw how frail she was.

“Oh, we definitely should,” he says, and he sounds so excited that Yoonji has to look away from him. She’s never hiked in her life. She would die.

“We can do an easy one,” she says, trying to meet in the middle.

“Of course.” He takes a sip of his hot chocolate. “Start small.”

 

 

On Friday, after something nearly happened but certainly did not, Yoonji and Hoseok sat down to watch a movie. It was just something that was on, and Yoonji couldn’t be bothered to try to care. Hoseok made them cups of tea, and they sat in front of the TV and valiantly tried to enjoy themselves from opposite ends of the couch. Yoonji focused on staring straight forward instead of at Hoseok. She could feel him glancing at her every so often.

Right as it started to get really awkward, Jeongguk came in the front door.

“Oh, hey Yoonji,” he said. He didn’t seem very surprised to see her, and she wondered if Hoseok talked about her.

“Hi, Jeongguk. You look nice.” It was true, his hair was styled out of his face and he was wearing tight jeans and a blazer. “Did you just go to the opera?”

“Almost,” said Jeongguk, smiling as he squatted in the doorway to undo his boots. “Seokjin took me to see Cars 3 .”

“Where is that still playing?” said Yoonji.

“At the dollar theatre by his house.”

“That was the date he took you on?”

“Yeah,” said Jeongguk, sliding across the wood floor on his socks to the couch and plopping down between Yoonji and Hoseok. “It was excellent. I think I love him. Things are looking up.” He threw his arms around Yoonji and Hoseok on either side of him. “How are you two? What is this, Minority Report?”

“We’re great,” said Yoonji. This sort of felt like her chance. “But I was thinking about heading home.”

“Cool, cool,” said Jeongguk as Hoseok looked over at Yoonji like he was hurt or confused. She tried to give him a reassuring look, but it was insincere.

As Hoseok politely asked Jeongguk about his date, she started to make her escape. When she had her shoes back on, Hoseok came up to her in the doorway.

“Sorry,” she said. “I have to get home.”

“It’s cool,” said Hoseok. “Don’t be sorry.” Then he chewed at the inside of his cheek, looking down at their feet. “But um, are we good?”

Yoonji was terrified, but she could still feel his hands holding hers. She was still thinking about how straightforward and uncomplicated he seemed, but how much there really was to him. She wanted to know about him. She felt like throwing up, but he asked if they were good , and they were. She took Hoseok’s hand and squeezed it to tell him so, and then she left him there.

 

 

Yoonji’s mom has been telling her to come visit, and Yoonji’s been avoiding her. Because that’s what she does. It’s never that bad when she gets there, but it’s too stressful to think about, so she doesn’t. She ignores her mom’s calls until she gets a voicemail that says, in a voice that sounds desperate and frustrated, We just want to see you.

She’s okay with being a distant child who has to be guilted into visiting, but she doesn’t want to be totally absent. For all the tension in their relationship, her parents keep their house open to her, and she knows. She knows she should visit more than she does.

So she goes to eat dinner with them after work on Wednesday. She goes around the side of the house to let herself in and her mom gets to the door before Yoonji’s even got it unlatched. She hugs Yoonji, a tangle of bones, and kisses her face with dry lips. She says, “It’s nice to see you.”

“You too, mom,” Yoonji says. She’s already feeling it. The tension and awkwardness that comes from her and then comes back to her, wrapping around her so tightly that nobody else even knows it’s there.

Her mom gives her a cup of tea that’s far too hot to drink, sits her down and asks her catch-up questions about her work and her friends and her habits that feel more like cold, invasive fingers prodding at her than friendly conversation. Then she tells Yoonji what’s new at the office where she’s worked since Yoonji was tiny, and talks about the neighbor’s dog that died last year and the plans she’s making to repaint the house.

Finally, her dad rescues her. He’s pragmatic, he just pats her on the shoulder from behind and says, “Hey, kid.”

Yoonji is overwhelmed. She’s babysat Seokjin all day, and she wrote, like, four really good lines of 18 (Yes 18) Things You’ve Been Doing So Wrong That Everyone Is Embarrassed For You , so she’s been busy . Also, she can hardly rest at night anymore because Tae and Jimin stay over every night and are even worse than they used to be. She hears them talking to each other when she’s trying to sleep. She regrets ever helping get them together; it is disgusting now, and she is certain they will never tire of each other.

Yoonji’s brother is home, too. She’s relieved to see him; his energy doesn’t seem as antagonistic as everything else. While her mom finishes getting dinner ready, Junseo leads her into her old room and they have a quiet catch up of their own.

“They’ve been getting worried,” he says.

“I’ve been busy,” she says. “Thanks for covering.”

“Anytime.”

“Have they been talking shit?” she asks.

Junseo looks at her for a minute before answering, “No.” He’s lying, but she doesn’t push it.

Junseo is three years younger than Yoonji, but he’s always had more going for him. He’s been living at home for the past year because he wants to save up for a house, and even though ostensibly he’s relying on their parents right now, everyone keeps saying he’s being so responsible. He’s making such a good choice, a sacrifice, and he’s there for his family while he’s at it. It just keeps hitting Yoonji lately that it’s taking her a long time to get her shit together.

“How have things been,” asks Junseo, “For real?”

Junseo is one of the few people who is allowed to ask questions like that. She falls back on her old bed, leaving him sitting up on the edge, and says, “You know. Complicated.”

“Usually,” he says, like he gets it.

He stays sitting up, and Yoonji rises back up on an elbow so she can look at him. He looks funny from this angle, she can see up his nose. It seems like he’s feeling strange, so she says, “What’s going on?”

“Nothing,” he says. He looks down at her, and then she sits all the way up, and then he says, “Nothing.”

“Yeah,” she says.

She gets it. Junseo doesn’t talk about his feelings very well, but he seems at least in charge of them. It’s always weird to be around him, because Yoonji is often the detached one in her conversations. She wants him to tell her what he’s thinking. Maybe that’s a symptom of something other than his silence, though. Maybe she’s just getting better at paying attention to other people.

He doesn’t tell her anything else, and they sit there, sort of understanding each other but also sort of worlds apart. She loves her brother, though. She’s never been worried about him. He’s fine, and he’s going to be fine, and even if they can’t talk about everything, they love each other. The quiet helps, anyway. She feels a little better when she heads back out to the living room.

Junseo goes ahead of her and Yoonji takes a minute. It sounds and smells like dinner is ready, and she’s anxious in all her bones. She’s being ridiculous, but it’s physically difficult to bring herself to go to the table. She dawdles in the hallway, just out of view of the dining room, wishing she was more stoned.

The lights are on at either end of the hall, but she’s in shadow here. For a minute, she doesn’t move. She just feels her own shallow breath. And then she feels that she’s hunched over, so she straightens her spine, pulls her shoulders back. Tries to stand tall and sturdy. Puts her feet into the ground like roots, feels the floor through her socks. Closes her eyes, takes a breath through her nose.

She opens her eyes again and comes face to face with a photo of herself as a high schooler. It was one of her senior portraits, the one where she was in her marching band uniform, smiling like she knew she was embarrassing but was having a good time anyway. This picture has been up in her parents’ house for almost a decade, but Yoonji usually avoids making eye contact with her past like this.

It isn’t so bad. She remembers high school as a time when she sometimes wouldn’t sleep for days, and other times couldn’t stay awake long enough to eat dinner with her family when she got home from school. She remembers her parents worrying, and she remembers acting so weird that her friends got sick of her, and watching her grades slip and being powerless to fix it, and fearing she wouldn’t get into any colleges that were far enough away that she’d be able to be who she needed to be. She remembers high school as the time when uneasiness made a home in her. It sat on her shoulders and sunk in slowly, into her skin and her blood and her skeleton until it became her.

But this picture of her, in the blue marching band uniform with the stupid hat under one arm and drumsticks in the other hand, is not that bad. It’s humiliating, but in a cute way. She wants to show it to Namjoon. She doesn’t hate this person, she just wishes she had something to give her from this far away. Maybe she’s giving her everything she can by just being here and trying.

Still, it’s rude of her parents to keep old photos of her up on the walls.

There are more; they line the whole hallway. She looks at one where she and her brother are both little. He’s sitting in her lap, he must be two and she must be five or six. She’s got a blue collared shirt and dumb gelled-up bangs because it was 1996. She’s smiling with missing teeth, and Junseo is staring angelically ahead. It’s cute. They were both cute kids, quiet and round.

There’s one from college of her and her family’s old dog. She’s wearing a sweater over a button-down and jeans and socks with no shoes. She’s sitting cross-legged on the wood floor with her face buried in his cream-colored fur. It’s kind of sweet. Her parents should have taken these down by now, but it’s still kind of sweet.

There are more photos, but she’s wasting too much time, so she stands up straight again and goes into the dining room to eat with her family.

Surrounded by all these relics, it feels like she has to prove herself every moment. She notices herself choosing words carefully. Choosing girlier words, speaking softer. She worries about the way she’s sitting, and the shape-swallowing hoodie she’s wearing with a plain skirt and tights. She’s worried she’s not doing enough. It’s why she doesn’t come home. People don’t get it. Jimin always tells her she’s lucky to have parents, and she knows she is, but it hurts how they look at her. It hurts what they think about her, what they say about her when she’s not around. She found out recently that it took her mom until this summer to tell anyone at work that Yoonji was a girl. It took her two years to stop being ashamed of what Yoonji has to do all the time.

It gets the better of her when they’ve finished eating and the conversation is growing strained and searching.

“Don’t wait this long again,” her mom says. “You live half an hour away, we shouldn’t have to go six months checking Facebook to make sure you’re okay.”

Yoonji has been holding it together, but she snaps. “Then take down the old pictures of me. It’s like you’re holding a fucking vigil.”

“Language,” whispers her dad.

“What do you want from us?” says her mom. “You want us to burn your baby pictures?”

“I don’t want to see them.”

“You make it hard,” says her mom. “You want to kill your past so badly, you’re leaving us behind, too. You were such a good kid. You were so sweet. I had two children until you—”

“Stop,” says Yoonji. She starts to get up to avoid saying anything she hates, but her mom stands up first. She snatches all the dishes off the table and goes into the kitchen. Yoonji looks down at her hands until the sink turns on and she can hear dishes clanking. She doesn’t know how a faucet can sound angry.

Her dad gets up quietly and goes to the fireplace. He looks back at Yoonji and gestures with his head for her to meet him. She mechanically gets out of her chair, pushes it back into the table, and walks over to him. Junseo straggles over, too, stands over Yoonji’s shoulder.

On the mantle, there are a few little things. A ceramic bird, an unburned candle. A framed photo that Yoonji didn’t notice there before.

She’s embarrassed. It’s a photo of a photo that she texted her mom in response to a message that just said, send me some photos. There’s a glare on the corner and the contrast is shit. Yoonji didn’t even try, but her mom printed it out onto photo paper and put it in a frame on the mantle.

It’s a polaroid Jimin took of Yoonji and Namjoon. Namjoon is smiling so wide that his eyes are closed, and Yoonji is smirking contentedly. Her hair was still pretty short, but definitely starting to resemble something. She was wearing a big shitty hoodie and no makeup, and she and Namjoon were really stoned and caught by surprise with the camera, but she just looks like… like herself. It was the first time she looked at a photo and could see it. She was cute. She stole the picture and kept it in her desk drawer, even though Namjoon said he wanted it.

That’s the photo she sent when her mom asked her for something, snapped off-center in bad lighting with her phone, and it’s printed out and framed now. More prominent than any of the photos in the darkened hallway. It’s a centerpiece.

Yoonji deflates. This is the only photo her mom has of her. This is the only thing Yoonji has given her. Her mom doesn’t have enough new photos to replace the old ones. She doesn’t have enough new to replace the old. She’s said that before, but this is the first time Yoonji has really heard it.

She hugs her dad next to her, even though it’s kind of weird, and then she walks carefully into the kitchen to help her mom with the dishes.

Neither of them say anything. Yoonji gets a clean rag out of the drawer and starts drying and putting away dishes as her mom finishes washing them. They stand next to each other tensely for a minute, but then they get into the work. They finish quickly together, then Yoonji’s mom drains the sink. They stand there for just a moment.

Yoonji is taller than her mom. And bigger, generally. But their hair is the same color and texture, and her mom’s hands that rest on the edge of the sink are a lot like Yoonji’s, too. This is the first time she’s noticed that. She turns to her mom and hugs her, and it’s a little less bony. Maybe they’re warm from the steam of the hot water, or from standing near the stove, or from being full, but something about it is softer. Yoonji’s mom rests their cheeks against each other, and pats her back, and then they let go.

“Sorry for yelling,” says Yoonji. It sounds so frail.

“So am I,” says her mom. She sizes Yoonji up, but in a different way than usual. Like she sees the same thing. They really look alike. They’re really related. They both want to win this argument, but neither of them ever will.

Yoonji thinks about Mina telling her that she doesn’t even get a chance. She thinks about how easy it feels to talk to Hoseok, how it’s made her realize how little she says to everyone else. She wants to say, I’m doing my best , but she isn’t. So she says, “I’m gonna do better.”

And her mom says, “So am I.”

 

 

When Yoonji said she’d go hiking, she didn’t know that Hoseok would take it very seriously, and when he started trying to make plans with her, she didn’t have the heart to tell him no. It was flattering that he wanted to take her, and anyway, she figured that if she had to catch hypothermia and die in the woods with anyone, it might as well be him.

On Saturday afternoon, Hoseok picks her up in a brand new green SUV, and she climbs in next to him and says, “Whoa, Hobi, did you get wheels?”

“Hi, Yoonji. No, it’s a car sharing thing. Cheaper than owning.”

“Cool,” she says. “Hey.”

“You look bundled,” he says. “Think you’re gonna be warm enough?” He’s smirking like he’s just made a joke.

“Hoseok, I’m going to freeze solid and fall over and shatter into a million pieces if I don’t wear everything I own all at once.” She’s almost serious about that; she’s got on jeans under a long-sleeved dress, two pairs of socks under boots, a cardigan, a hoodie, a coat, a huge scarf, a beanie that covers her ears, and a pair of mittens shoved into a pocket for when they get out there.

“It’s like forty degrees and sunny,” says Hoseok. “I don’t understand this.”

“You don’t have to understand it, you just have to accept it.”

Hoseok looks like he thinks she’s charming. He’s heading out of town, toward the coast.

“Why don’t you have your own car if you like the wilderness so much?” she asks as they get on the highway that will eventually connect to a curvy road through the woods. It’s not a very nice day, misting rather than raining, but Hoseok insisted it’ll be sunny where they’re going.

“I used to,” he says. “But me and Dasom co-owned. I got to stay in the apartment and she got to keep the car.”

“Doesn’t seem fair,” says Yoonji.

“Breakups aren’t fair,” says Hoseok. He makes quick eye contact with her as he looks over his shoulder and merges onto the highway.

She relates to that. She feels like it’s her turn to say something personal, so she says, very bluntly, “My ex and I are fighting.”

“Good that he’s an ex, then,” says Hoseok.

“She,” says Yoonji, a little surprised.

“Oh, really?” says Hoseok. “Are you, like, gay?”

“Bisexual,” she says slowly. Hoseok seems palpably relieved. She wonders why that would be, when he doesn’t even want to kiss her. She says, “We’re trying to be friends, but it sucks.”

“Why’d you break up?” he asks, as easily as anything else.

Yoonji says, “She only likes men.”

Hoseok winces with confusion. He says, “Weird choice for her to date you .”

Yoonji is done being forthcoming now. And she’s a little perplexed, because there’s never been a time when she said something like that and the person she was talking to didn’t connect the dots on their own. She wonders why he doesn’t. For a split second, she has a sinking fear that Hoseok might not know she’s trans , but that doesn’t make sense either. Just because they’ve never talked about it doesn’t mean he doesn’t know. Everyone knows.

They’re out of the main part of the city now and into suburbia. Soon, the houses will thin out, and then disappear altogether. There’s mist among the trees that fringe the highway. Yoonji doesn’t know where Hoseok is taking her, but she trusts him. She trusts that he knows what he’s doing.

Maybe just because he’s thinking about it, he says, “So my sister got married this summer, right.”

“To Namjoon’s cousin, yeah.”

“Dasom didn’t want to go to the wedding at all. She thought it was fake.”

“What?”

“She doesn’t believe in gay marriage.”

Yoonji says, “Hmm?”

“She doesn’t support it.”

“Wait,” says Yoonji. “Namjoon’s cousin is a woman?”

Hoseok looks over at Yoonji suspiciously. He says, “Oh, for sure.”

“Well, shit.”

“Very surprised you didn’t know that.”

Yoonji’s idea of Hoseok’s family is so traditional. She’d imagined the wedding between his sister and Namjoon’s cousin as magazine-perfect: a couple who looked just like their cake topper kissing under an arch twined with flowers, late summer, sundown. She didn’t consider this at all. She feels short-sighted and ignorant. She says, “Were your parents at the wedding?”

“They went to the ceremony, but not the reception. Dasom wanted to leave before the reception, too, but I made her stay. It’s my sister’s wedding , it’s not a house party we can just dip from.” It sounds like he’s still frustrated about that.

“I agree,” she says.

“But we got into a fight on the way and were mad the whole time anyway. That’s when I met Namjoon, actually. We were both getting fresh air. Outside the tent, in this field as the sun went down. It was beautiful. He asked me if I had a lighter.”

“Did you?”

“No,” says Hoseok. “But we talked for a little bit, and found out we lived near each other. He has a calming energy, have you ever noticed that? I was stressed, but it was really nice to talk to him.” He glances at Yoonji, and she looks away quickly. He says, “You’re like that too. I think I’m meeting calming people.”

“He’s got that effect,” she says. “He’s so cool with everything.”

“He really is. Hey, can you keep an eye out for Trillium Road? We turn left there.”

“Sure,” says Yoonji.

“Anyway,” sighs Hoseok. “Sorry I talk about this so much. You’re a really good listener.”

“It’s fine,” says Yoonji. “Talk about it.”

“I’m conflicted,” says Hoseok. They’re out of the city now, just passing occasional cross streets cut from misty forest. The road is winding more and the foliage almost meets overhead. It’s misty green and lush, though in the distance Yoonji can see snow-tipped evergreens. “After my sister came out, I had a lot of pressure to start a family with Dasom. Our parents are friends, did I tell you that?”

“You didn’t.”

“They go to church together. They wanted Dasom and I to get together like, since we were kids. And Dasom used to be really close with my sister, too. Until. Yeah.”

“Yeah.”

“So. I don’t know. Sorry for burdening you.”

“Not a burden,” says Yoonji. “That’s too much pressure. It’s good that you’re making your own decisions.”

“I know it’s good, but it’s hard. I’m doing this thing where I’m just,” he does a hand gesture that looks very final. “Completely separating myself, for right now. From everything. Other than my sister basically. Because nobody else can be nice about the choices I’m making.”

“Scary.”

“Scary, but worth it,” he says, and then they’re quiet for a minute. “I’m learning things about the world. And myself.”

Finally, Yoonji says, “Oh. I just saw a sign for Trillium road. Left in a quarter mile.

“Roger.”

“I’m worried I’m gonna freeze to death.”

“You’ll warm up when you get moving. You’re gonna regret wearing all those jackets.” He gestures to all her jackets.

“I won’t,” says Yoonji as Hoseok turns left onto a gravel road that hits a steep incline immediately. It seems like they’ve driven out from under the cloud that covered the city; the mist is clearing into large swathes of tree-painted sunlight, and with the heater on in the car, it looks pleasant. Yoonji won’t admit even to herself that she’s looking forward to taking a hike with Hoseok, but she’s not dreading it as much anymore. He says, “Trust me. At least leave the overcoat. You won’t want to carry it around.”

Hoseok politely pulls over as another car passes on the narrow road. Then he says, “We’re almost there.”

Yoonji goes out on a limb. “Okay, I’ll leave the big jacket. I’m trusting you.”

“We can always come back for it.”

“Fine,” she says, no bite to it.

“Are you excited?” asks Hoseok, turning left into the small trailhead parking lot next to three other cars. “At all? I’m worried you don’t want to be here.”

“I do,” says Yoonji. “I’m excited.” But she’s not convincing, and Hoseok looks like he’s suddenly very worried that he’s dragged Yoonji all the way out here and she might hate it. She reassures him before he can get too scared. “I want to hike with you.”

“You sure?” he asks.

“Yes,” she says. “Because it’s you.”

If she didn’t know he didn’t want to kiss her, if she didn’t have millisecond-specific memory of the moment when he looked like he was going for it and then changed his mind about her and turned away, she might think he wants her. His eyes pass over her face and linger just for a second on her mouth. Just for a second, not long enough to mean anything. But a million tiny moments should add up to something bigger.

Yoonji has always struggled to win against her feelings. She’s wanted to keep them tidy and organized, file them away for reference and in seven years destroy them. She doesn’t like leaving work on her desk; she doesn’t like leaving clothes on the floor of her bedroom. She can only relax when things are tidy and well-understood and in her control, but she has never been able to get the clutter out of her head. She cannot force herself to be an uncomplicated person, to feel less, or to feel differently. She can’t understand how it’s possible to be painfully and desperately in love despite all warning, but how it’s possible, too, to know someone loves you like that, and to be unable to return it.

Yoonji just wants to know why Hoseok looks at her like this if he doesn’t want to kiss her. If he wanted to, she would. If he wanted her, she’d want him back. He’s wearing a denim jacket and a beanie, and his stupid, stupid ears are folded over, and that is now her favorite sight in all the world. He looks so alive and comfortable even though it’s negative a million degrees outside, and she feels so much for him that she is terrified. She wants to be better so she can deserve someone like him. She wants to be more patient, more forgiving. She wants to talk about herself like it’s easy. She wants him to touch her in ways that have never felt good to her before.

They look at each other for just a sunlit second, not quite long enough for it to mean anything, and then Hoseok undoes his seatbelt and gets out of the car. It hurts Yoonji’s heart.

She leaves her jacket on the seat and follows Hoseok out onto a bluff. A wide dirt path leads down and then curves out of sight into trees. It’s winter, but it’s not really dead here. Yoonji saw a fat squirrel in the parking lot and the cold wind in the trees makes noises like deep breaths. She already wants to go back for her jacket. She follows Hoseok down and they disappear around the curve into the forest.

“So pretty,” say Hoseok.

Yoonji looks up from her feet quickly, but he’s not looking at her. He’s looking above him at the canopy drawn by mossy evergreens, smiling into clean, chilly sunlight.

She tries not to complain. She doesn’t want him to think she’s miserable. She isn’t, and it is pretty. The bluff keeps goes down at a steep incline below them as they walk along a trail cut into the hillside, and trees below them grow straight up into the sky even though their roots are skewed sideways. She thinks there’s some poetry in that, but she can’t figure it out before Hoseok says, as though far away, “You warming up?”

“Sure,” she says to placate him, but it’s actually true when she gets out of her head and into her body. She can feel her toes. Her joints are loosening up, even if she won’t say so.

“You look bouncy.”

“You too.” But always. How does he do it?

After they’ve walked for a while (though Yoonji can’t tell how long, so it could either be five miles or half of one), they come upon a little viewpoint. They came up the hill from the city, but they’re looking out over the other side, and there’s hardly anything here. Some fields cut off and patchwork-colored, a few tiny houses, a quiet street with a lonely car or two connecting large swathes of dried-up wintery farmland. In the distance, a mountain with its snowy summit in puffy clouds. The sky is clear and the colors of everything are crisp. Green trees, so surprisingly green for the time of year, yellow, brown fields. Blue sky, so bright, and thick clouds hanging here and there. They step out of the tree cover onto a fenced-off viewpoint and Hoseok goes to read a sign. Yoonji blinks in the sunlight.

Yoonji wakes up at the same time every morning and has the same amount of coffee every day. She always takes her medications at the same time, and she usually eats the same three meals and wears variations on the same outfit every day. She’s aware of it, but it’s hard to break away. Routine is good; it’s being and doing, not thinking and feeling.

Yoonji goes to a handful of places by choice and has to be dragged everywhere else. She doesn’t go on hikes , she’s scared of the world . People tell her she’s brave, but they have no idea how scared she is. Maybe they mean she’s brave because she keeps going anyway. That seems like a low standard for bravery.

Yoonji doesn’t see the sun much, which is why she’s so pale and knobbly. She doesn’t exercise much either, which is why every part of her is either too soft or too sharp, and it’s why she’s sweating , even though she’s still uncomfortably cold. Looking out over the patchwork farms with old snow piled up here and there and little cars snaking along below her, Yoonji realizes that she hasn’t been off pavement in years. She’d be scared, but she’s only really comfortable in a few places, and next to Hoseok is one of them.

“Wow,” says Hoseok, stepping back from the information card and looking out, squinting and shielding his eyes from the sun with one graceful hand. “This is really pretty this time of year.”

“It really is,” says Yoonji. Her voice sounds far away. She’s looking at Hoseok.

“Thanks for doing this with me,” he says. Their eye contact is growing more intense every time they break it and come back. He’s leaning against the fence that sits right at the edge of the dropoff, and his shoulders look so strong, firm, and he’s taken off his beanie, so his grown-out shaggy sunset hair with the dark roots is a mess from all the times he’s pushed it out of his face. This is the most sun she’s ever seen him under and he is the same color as the light. A breeze passes between them and whips his hair around a little. Yoonji’s hair is going everywhere too; she gets a strand in her mouth and has to ungracefully unstick it from her tongue. She moves closer to him and puts her hand close to his as they lean against the fence.

He moves his hand even closer, gripping the top of the fence with his hand, his dainty, pretty fingers right up against Yoonji’s so the sides are touching.

This is so stupid. Why is he doing this if he doesn’t want to kiss her? She puts her hand on top of his. She’s surprised he doesn’t wince away from her cold fingertips.

Under her hand, he turns his over, then laces their fingers.

At roughly the same moment, they both look up from where they’re watching their hands like separate creatures acting on their own.

Hoseok kisses her.

He kisses her. He is warm, and it’s so soft and hesitant, nervous and unsure that it feels like a first kiss. Not just a first between them, but a first ever. It feels like neither of them have ever done anything like this ever before.

Hoseok gives her a chance not to want it, but when he tries to pull away, she pushes into him until he has to take a step back to lean against the fence. He puts one hand on her hip and holds the railing behind him with the other. Yoonji smells earth and green and the plain, clean smell of Hoseok’s soap. She can feel his solid arms under his windbreaker, and she can feel his hips. His nose brushes over hers, his lips brush over hers. His hand flits from her waist to her upper back to her waist again. Her eyes close.

He pulls back before she’s done and she stops herself from trailing after it. She blinks at him, and then he moves away from her. They look at each other a little questioningly for a moment, from just a foot or two apart, but with the breeze stirring between them it feels like more. Hoseok swallows. Yoonji clears her throat, then she doesn’t let him hesitate anymore. She makes him stop flitting around like a timid bug; she catches him. She closes the distance and kisses him with the fury that he brings to her life.

She leans into him and takes his face in her hands. She’s decisive, because one of them has to be or neither of them ever will.

He makes a little surprised sound that she can feel vibrating against her mouth better than she can hear it. His hands come up to her sides. He’s letting her, so she keeps kissing him. Almost with rage, or something like that. She’s wearing so many stupid layers, she’s not even cold anymore, he was right. It’s keeping her from telling him what she needs to say. She wants to shove him to the ground, almost. She doesn’t. She’s furious. But she feels him take a deep breath, and then he’s kissing her back. Not pliant. No longer passive. He’s kissing her like he needs something, too. Like he needs what she needs.

Yoonji can feel Hoseok’s individual fingers pressing into her hips as he holds her. One of her hands comes off his face to awkwardly grip the top of his arm. She’s leaning her full body weight into him and she thinks that if he stops supporting her she will trip over the fence and tumble down the hillside and die a picturesque death in the fields. But she’s been tumbling. She’s braced for it.

He doesn’t let her go. He grips her sides hard as she pushes him against the fence. The bones of their faces are clashing. Yoonji can feel Hoseok’s breath, his ribs expanding against her, hot air in and out of his nose.

It doesn’t turn into anything else. Hoseok’s body isn’t electric, she doesn’t need him in the way she sometimes thinks she needs him. She wrenches her open mouth away from his and stares at him wild-eyed. With his eyes lightly closed and his lips all wet and red, he does chase after her, a little. And that stirs something else in her chest. The kiss was a desperate yes , but there’s also this. Hoseok’s eyelashes, and cheekbones, and the absence of shame in him.

For a long minute, until Yoonji’s blood slows down and her fingers and toes go cold again, Hoseok leans back against the railing with his hands on her waist, and they breathe together. Yoonji leans up against him, pulled back at the hips to look at his face, and at the crisp clouds in the cold blue sky over his shoulder, and his pointy nose and his wide, blinking eyes. And then, because it feels like time to back away, she lets go of his arm and his hip and she stands up straight.

They are a little quiet as they go the rest of the way to the place where the trail loops around. They stop at another lookout with a beautiful view of the valley into which the city is built, glittering pinkish gold even from under a frosty stormcloud as the sun starts to go down behind them. Hoseok hasn’t touched Yoonji since she broke contact with him, but by the railing at this viewpoint, he comes up behind her, puts his hand on her shoulder, and leans into her a little. With his other hand, he points. “I can see where we work,” he says.

“No you can’t,” she says. “We’re thirty miles away.”

“You can see that far,” he says. “I worked on a fire tower one summer. You can see forever. Forever and ever.” Maybe he leans a little harder, but she can’t feel his warmth through all the layers.

Yoonji takes out her phone to google it, but she doesn’t have service. Hoseok says, “We should head back before it gets dark.”

So they do, and then they get back in the car that Hoseok is driving for the day and go home with the sun at their backs.

 

 

 

“How are you, cold lady?” says Hoseok at lunch on Monday as Yoonji comfortably plops down at their regular table.

“I’m good,” she says, pulling her lunch out of her bag. She is good. “How are you?”

“I am great,” he says. “I’m so refreshed after our hike. Nature is amazing.” He leans back in his chair and tilts his face blissfully up into the weak sunlight. 

“I feel good too,” Yoonji has to admit. She slept really well on Saturday night, and she still feels clean and fresh. “It was fun.”

”Yeah. So fun.” He looks at her meaningfully. 

Yoonji’s not sure if they’re talking about hiking anymore, and it’s making her feel weird, so she says, “How long have you been a park ranger?”

“Oh, on and off for about four years,” he says. “I started the summer between my junior and senior year of college, but I didn’t go full time until about two years ago.”

“What were you doing before that?” she asks into a bite of her sandwich. 

“Uh, substitute teaching,” Hoseok says, self-consciously. “I basically completed a teaching degree, but I dropped out right at the end. As soon as I started student teaching I realized I hated it.”

Yoonji imagines Hoseok as a teacher and her heart feels good. “I feel like you’d be a great teacher,” she says.

“I still like the idea a lot,” he says as he unwraps a protein bar. “It’s just the, uh, rigidity of everything. There’s not a lot of freedom, and it’s so many hours inside. I only liked the fun parts, and everything else made me miserable. So I ditched. It wasn’t worth it. But I’m glad I did, because I really like parks. Maybe not forever, but it’s really good for me.” He makes a pouty face. “Or it will be good for me, once I’m off concrete again. But this is still better than being trapped in a classroom.”

He looks thoughtful, and he goes on, “When I was younger, they told my parents I had behavior problems. I couldn’t sit still and my focus could be really bad. They tried really hard to say I had ADHD, but I never fit enough of the criteria. I just can’t be trapped inside all the time, it’s not a disease.”

“No, it’s not.” Yoonji loves being trapped inside, but she thinks she knows Hoseok well enough now to understand him.

“Long story short, I wanted to become the teacher I needed growing up. And then I found out that was pretty much impossible and it was gonna kill me to try. So, parks.”

“Did you always want to be a teacher?” she asks. 

“At some point I wanted to be everything. Astronaut, entomologist, um, I had a long phase where I was really into being a dog catcher? I don’t even know what that means anymore.”

“You’d make a good dog catcher,” says Yoonji, smiling.

“I think I thought it would mean I could keep them.”

“Noble.”

“What did you want to be?” he asks. “When you were a little girl?”

Ah. That’s a knife in her side. She’d forgotten to be anxious at all for a minute. He didn’t have to word it like that. Curtly, she says, “Doctor.”

“What happened to that?”

“Squeamish.”

“Wouldn’t know it by the way you handle those dead birds,” he says.

“Those are slowing down,” Yoonji observes.

“My theory is either that all the sick ones have died or the five degrees we’ve gained in the last two weeks is just enough to keep them kickin’.”

Yoonji smiles, but she feels wrong until she goes back upstairs. She can’t stop thinking about that when you were a little girl . It’s a kind thing to say, but somewhat patronizing. And, no matter how much self-love Yoonji learns, she will never get to have been a little girl. She learned really early how to be fake, and it’s still hard not to be. It just makes her sad.

Before Yoonji goes back upstairs, they hug in a very platonic way, and she tries to focus on Here’s What Happens When You Only Eat Slime For A Week instead of everything she never got to have.

 

 

Yoonji and Hoseok start taking little walks after work every day. They’re both too awkward to invite the other anywhere, so they just walk around downtown. They kiss under the awning outside a bookstore one evening, and on a park bench the next, and at their table in a tea shop the next.

On Thursday, they’re both hungry, so they decide to walk to dinner. Yoonji meets Hoseok downstairs right as he’s finishing changing into jeans and a blue and red diamond-patterned Pendleton jacket. He’s got glasses on, these delicate-framed things that make him look his age for once, and Yoonji says, “You have glasses?”

“Usually wear contacts,” he says, a little breathless, like he’s been hurrying. He runs his fingers through his hair, fully pink now, no longer red. He closes the bathroom door behind him and looks around the park quickly like he’s making sure he did everything properly.

“I learn something about you every time we talk,” says Yoonji.

He smiles warmly at her, then comes up and hooks arms with her in a self-conscious, silly way. He says, “Good to go?”

“Good to go,” she agrees, and they start walking.

Hoseok is too timid. He won’t do anything unless Yoonji spells it out for him, so she unhooks their arms and takes his hand as they walk. He acts like it’s nothing, squeezes once.

In the next block, he changes the way they’re holding hands, laces fingers with her. In the next block, she walks too close to him and intentionally bumps their shoulders together. Then they’re at the restaurant, but before they go in, he pulls her off to the side and he kisses her. Quickly, sweetly. Softer than before, but more confident. He pulls away slightly and kisses her nose, then pulls away completely and leads her into the restaurant. She’s too flustered to do anything but follow him inside, her mouth open slightly in shock.

They’re seated at a corner booth. The restaurant is dim, tavern-like, all dark wood and emerald carpet. The backs of the booths are high and it feels pleasantly private here. Hoseok comes to the same side of the booth as Yoonji and sits right up next to her. He throws his arm around her back.

She blushes. She feels feverish. She looks up at him and he’s flustered, too. His eyes are all shiny and his mouth is open wide enough that she can see his tongue in his mouth.

Yoonji says, “We’re freaks.” Hoseok laughs airily into his hands until the waitress comes to fill up their water glasses.

They order drinks and Hoseok goes to the other side of the table. He says, “I didn’t want to come back here, but I want to look at you when we’re talking.”

Yoonji is still hot-faced. She says, “You’re considerate.”

“So are you,” he says. “Do you wear glasses?”

“My family all has shitty vision, but mine’s perfect.”

“You’d be pretty with glasses,” he says, straining. “But you’re pretty without them, too.”

He’s so awkward, but it’s making her heart beat fast. Yoonji can see it so plainly. He feels how she feels. Whatever is between them is like honey poured onto the table. Sticky, sweet, unavoidable. They’re trying to pretend it isn’t there, but it’s all over them. Neither of them know how to deal with it. They’re freaks. Yoonji wants to ask him, is this the first time you’ve felt like this, too? She wants to ask him if he loves her. Which is crazy, they barely know each other, they’ve only been doing this for a week and it’s still so weird, but she feels like she loves him. Namjoon’s mom once told her that she knew after one date that she was going to marry Namjoon’s dad; she’d said it was unmistakable. Yoonji always thought that was stupid, but she feels stupid, and she feels like there’s a lot of space to fill in with Hoseok but the love is there already. The blood and bones and fear of it are all already there.

She says, “Your glasses are,” and stalls for the smallest second, “handsome.” Oh my god.

She can’t believe she’s got to get through a whole meal like this. Hoseok clears his throat.

The waitress brings Yoonji her wine and Hoseok his Sprite. They aren’t ready to order; they’ve been busy staring at each other. They both take huge gulps.

Where Yoonji is sitting, she can see the bar and the register behind it. She’s not really watching, but she can’t make eye contact with Hoseok right now, so she’s looking over his shoulder. Yoonji can see the waitress go behind the bar and go up to another waitress and whisper something in her ear. Then they both look at her, and when they see that she’s watching them, they both look away quickly.

Sure. Yeah, Yoonji is stupid.

She’s just. A big idiot.

It’s sobering. She needed a little reality. Because, whatever. Whether Yoonji is in love or not, she’s got all this shit she has to carry around, and it’s unfair to make Hoseok share it with her. A minute ago, Yoonji was giddy and in awe, but the intensity has soured into shame.

“You okay?” Hoseok asks. He’s probably been staring at her this whole time, watching her remember that she doesn’t get to be reckless.

“The waitress was talking about me,” she says distantly.

“How do you know?” he asks.

“I saw her,” she says. And she just knows; it’s unmistakable . He shouldn’t be asking her shit like that; he should know, as soon as she says it, what she means. He should know, but he acts like he doesn’t, and it tugs at the fear Yoonji has. Maybe he doesn’t know . Which is so, so unlikely, because waitresses are talking about her and people on the bus harass her and her one coworker still really good-naturedly tries to tell her what she needs to do if she wants to be less obvious .

There’s no universe in which this is a good thing. Maybe Hoseok really doesn’t know. Maybe he’d be really angry if he found out, though that’s hard to imagine. Or maybe he does know, and he thinks he can ignore it forever. In that case, he still might be really angry. He might be expecting something she can’t give him; he might be expecting her to have altered herself in ways she hasn’t. He might think this is something they never have to talk about, but people treat Yoonji differently now and she’s prickly and aware of it all the time. Even when she’s relaxed, at work, at Namjoon’s house. It’s always there. Even when Hoseok lets her believe that it isn’t.

He acts like it doesn’t have to be any more complicated than just wanting each other , But it does, and it is, and Yoonji is terrified. She forgot to be terrified for a minute, but it’s back. It’s filling in the places she was saving for Hoseok.

“I don’t know if I want to order,” she says. She feels so stupid, and usually she can handle things like this, but right now she’s naked. She doesn’t want to be here. If she orders food, she won’t eat it.

“Oh,” says Hoseok. “That’s cool,” he says. “Do you want to go somewhere else?”

“Can we talk about it outside?”

“Sure,” says Hoseok, getting up. He digs a ten out of his wallet to put on the table and lets Yoonji slither away before the waitress has a chance to see that they’re leaving.

They walk back toward the train station, and Hoseok tries to ask her what she needs, but she doesn’t know. She wants to go home and hide. She’s afraid of this. She’s afraid that this cumbersome love she has for Hoseok is going to get her killed. But she doesn’t want him to think she is cruel.

So she tries to do what Hoseok would do. She tells him what’s going on. As they walk back up sidewalks that weren’t this dark just a few minutes ago, she says, “I’m having a hard day.”

“I’m sorry about that,” says Hoseok, looking at her with concern.

“I think I need to go home. But it doesn’t mean I don’t want to hang out with you. Because I do.”

“Do you want to… hang out at your place?” he asks.

He is so sweet. She tries to tell him, but she can’t get it out. She says, “I think I want to be alone.”

“Oh, sure,” says Hoseok. “Let’s just reschedule.”

“That sounds good,” says Yoonji. They’re at the train station now, and Hoseok is scuffing his boots on the sidewalk. She finally gets it out. “You’re sweet.”

He does a small, self-conscious laugh. “Thank you, Yoonji.” He takes a more confident step toward her and says, “Can I kiss you before I go?”

Yoonji nods, and he does, and it’s a different one than the ones that came before. Hoseok’s fingers lightly grip her wrist, his other hand comes to the small of her back, his mouth is warm and sure. This one isn’t hurried, and it’s careful with her, and it forgives her. It tells her she can go, because there will be more time. That might not be true, but it makes her feel a little less lonely when he lets go of her, leaving her standing under the bus shelter, chilling every minute.

 

 

Yoonji is sitting cross legged under the table, smoking a bowl on the kitchen floor. It’s quiet; she can hear the clock above and behind her ticking, and around the wall and down the hall, she hears the door to Jimin’s room unlatch. The door slides across the carpet, and then she hears Jimin come to the kitchen, though she walks lightly. Yoonji is focusing on nothing but the light footfalls.

Jimin lets out a very short wail of fear as she comes into the kitchen. “Oh my god, Yoonji,” she says, clutching her chest.

“Hey,” croaks Yoonji. She cranes her neck up and winces into the light.

“What’s up?” says Jimin, still sounding startled.

“Just hanging out,” says Yoonji, shrugging and frowning. She’s eye level with Jimin’s thighs, bare under cloth shorts, muscular but delicate, lithe and graceful.

“On the floor?”

“It’s where I ended up. Comfy.”

“Cool,” says Jimin. “Don’t let me disturb you. But I’m gonna start food for me and Tae. You want some?”

“Sure,” says Yoonji. She feels weird on the floor now, so she drags herself up into a chair in the fewest movements possible, then leans on her elbow over the table.

As Jimin starts pulling ingredients from the fridge, Tae comes out of her room. They look a little disheveled, like maybe they’ve just been napping. But they say, “Hi, Yoonj. Weren’t you supposed to hang out with Jack Skeleton tonight?”

“Nope,” says Yoonji.

“Oh, cool,” says Tae, scooting into the chair across from Yoonji. “Don’t know why I thought I knew your schedule.”

Yoonji smiles, and she knows it’s fake, but she’s always got something to fake smile about, and she doesn’t think anyone really cares.

Jimin puts water on to boil and sits down next to Tae. They continue a conversation it seems they were already having, and Yoonji doesn’t pay enough attention to follow. She’s watching them more than listening.

Almost immediately after sitting down together, Tae and Jimin start rhythmically bumping shoulders. They don’t even seem to notice. They have a normal conversation while tangling and untangling fingers with one another. Something about it makes Yoonji’s heart hurt.

She knows it took them a long time, but it seems so easy for them now. Last month, when Jimin told Yoonji about her first kiss with Tae, she’d said it didn’t feel first . It didn’t feel like they needed to spend any more time getting to know each other. They already knew. They knew how to kiss without ever having done it.

With Hoseok, every time they kiss, it’s another thing she’s never, ever felt before. His passion or his tenderness or even just the way he smells, the way his hair feels against her hand. It’s new and it is scary and she doesn’t think she’s very good at it. She doesn’t know how to translate her childish crush into action, and her desperate instinct to keep him close is keeping her from talking to him about an unavoidable thing.

Tae turns their face into Jimin’s cheek, nuzzles her a little and then turns forward again. It’s absolutely the sweetest thing Yoonji has ever seen, and she thinks she knows what her heartache is now.

“I love you two,” she says. Yuck . So sincere.

They both startle, and Yoonji fights a smile. “What?” she says.

“Nothin’,” says Tae.

“Love you, too,” says Jimin, and she lets go of Tae’s hand to squeeze Yoonji’s across the table.

 

 

Jeongguk and Yoonji and Namjoon only went to college together for a year. She was a senior at 22 or 23 when Jeongguk was a freshman. He was basically still a high-schooler, badly dressed and greasy and skinny and absolute trash at caring for himself. Yoonji never knew him very well, but he and Namjoon were pretty close that last year, and they never lost contact.

Namjoon’s a big brother by nature; even though he’s younger than Yoonji, he’s always been that for her, too. It’s not that he’s especially mature or has his shit together, because Yoonji’s seen him fuck up a lot. But he’s so warm , and he listens, and he looks at you like you’re the only person he cares about. Like he’s so proud.

Namjoon’s life is simple. He lives in a pretty house and works all week and smokes more weed than any other person Yoonji has ever encountered. It makes him really happy. It often feels to Yoonji like he knows something she doesn’t about what is important in life. He seems to have the right of it.

Usually, Yoonji and Namjoon hang out once or twice a week, but Yoonji has been avoiding him lately. Because the skinny, floundering 18-year-old Jeongguk whom Namjoon took care of in college is now a hot adult who is dating the love of Namjoon’s life, and Yoonji doesn’t have the heart to tell him.

She remembers a conversation they had at Sexy Christmas. Yoonji said, “Gukkie got hot, huh?”

“Do you not follow his Instagram?”

“No, I just follow you and Mina and this one talking crow.”

“Right, of course,” Namjoon had said. “Well, he posts videos of these insane workouts. He’s like a yogi or something. He can balance on one hand.”

“Good for him,” Yoonji had said, nodding.

“But he still has the same face he did five years ago. So it sort of looks like he’s wearing a meat suit, you feel me?”

“Wish I didn’t,” said Yoonji.

She can’t avoid Namjoon forever. She can’t even avoid him for a week. And she’s really, really trying to talk about shit right now. So she decides to go hang out with him, even if that means she has to break the news. Even if it makes him cry. He’s hugged her through tears so many times, so many times. She owes him one.

But when she gets to his house and she tells him, he doesn’t seem that upset.

“Oh,” he says distantly. “I’m glad they’re, like, enjoying themselves.”

“Are you really okay with this?” Yoonji says. “I’m here for you.”

“Yeah,” says Namjoon. “Seokjin was wrong for me, you know? I need somebody more like me.”

Yoonji doesn’t say that they are exactly alike because it feels like the wrong time.

“He’s too hot,” Namjoon adds. “Probably wants to attend stuff.”

Yoonji doesn’t say that Seokjin’s a homebody who spends a lot of his free time making elaborate, fucked up food that Namjoon would love when he’s high. She doesn’t say that they both keep just a couple of really close friends around, even though everyone finds them interesting and wants to hang out with them. She doesn’t say, “You’re both awkward, but you carry it well. You make it look mysterious.”

Namjoon says, “And he’s not, I don’t know. He’s not that nice.”

Yoonji doesn’t tell him about Seokjin’s subtle ways of caring, ways that work for her because she can only accept help if it’s passive-aggressive or couched in insults or, for some reason, from very sweet and sincere Namjoon. She doesn’t tell Namjoon that Seokjin was the one person in the office who didn’t say a fucking thing when she came out. Because Seokjin knew her well enough to know she was already tired and was just trying to go to work. He didn’t say anything, and he didn’t stare at her, and he used her new name like it was nothing starting from the very first day, and he never messed up. She doesn’t tell Namjoon that Seokjin is kind of a mess and he’s loud and often very annoying, but he’s a really deep guy. Deep enough for Namjoon, even. Deep enough to listen to him talk about the mind and the heart and the cosmos and find every word fascinating. She doesn’t say anything to Namjoon because she feels responsible for breaking his heart.

He asks her how she is, and she says she’s good.

She’s not sure he knows she’s been getting kissy with Hoseok, but he probably does because Hoseok tells everyone everything. She was going to make Namjoon recount the moment he set Yoonji and Hoseok up on their blind date, forever ago now. She was going to force him to tell her, word for word, how he described her to Hoseok before they met. She was going to make sure he told Hoseok she was trans, because if he didn’t, Hoseok might not know.

But it feels tacky now. Namjoon is distant and quiet and he sits through most of the movie they put on with his knees pulled up to his chest. Yoonji knows that if she told him what she was thinking about, he’d hear her out and help. But she wants him to think about himself right now.

On the other side, Tae and Jimin are too deep in love to burden with heartache right now. Yoonji doesn’t want to make them feel guilty for having something good, and she doesn’t want to distract them from each other. They’re gross, but they should be allowed their bliss if no one else gets to have any.

She could talk to Seokjin, she supposes. Or her brother. Or her therapist, who she doesn’t see regularly anymore. There are people she could go to about this.

But she could also just try to talk to Hoseok about it.

That’s something she could do. That’s what Hoseok would do with her, if he had something he needed to say.

It goes against what every nerve and bone in her body wants to do, but she could.

She wants to be what she admires in him. She wants people to trust her to be honest. She wants to say what she means. And under all the fear that Hoseok might not like her anymore, might not want to talk about it, might think she’s too complicated, might be uncomfortable, or even that he might say the wrong thing when she feels vulnerable and break her heart, she feels like she can trust him to try. He always tries. She sees him trying constantly.

She sends him a message in the morning.  

 

Hang out after work tonight?

I want to talk to you about something.

 

Yes!

Im off at 5

 

During the day, Seokjin keeps glancing across the desk at her like he’s worried, and it takes her until lunchtime to realize her jaw has been clenched for hours.

Finally, after they struggle through co-writing 19 Baby Animals Having A Better Day Than You , he says, “Did I do something?”

“No,” she says. She means it.

“If it’s about Jeongguk, I’m sorry, but we’re really hitting it off, so.”

“It’s not about Jeongguk,” she grumbles.

“Okay. Because he’s the funniest person I’ve ever met and it’s refreshing to be dating someone who is actually fun. He makes these crazy noises. He’s amazing. I’m not gonna stop dating him.”

“Happy for you,” says Yoonji. “Honestly. You deserve someone like that.”

“Jessi was not fun,” Seokjin says absently, looking at something on his screen.

“You’re right,” says Yoonji. Jessi appealed to a different side of Seokjin -- ruthless and sexy. That was fun to indulge for a while, but he tried too hard to sand down all his edges and it came out in weird ways. He’d get unhinged and loud sometimes, like he needed to prove he still could. He had all this energy in his fingertips. He’d type so aggressively. And as hard as he tried, she still broke up with him because he was weird. Poor guy. Namjoon aside (though it’s hard to put Namjoon aside), it’s good to see Seokjin liking someone who makes him laugh. Yoonji says, “Swear I’m not judging.”

“Then why do you look like someone put soy sauce in your coffee?”

“Because,” she says.

Seokjin nods like he gets it. Like she’s done. But Yoonji doesn’t like that. What if she does want to fucking talk about it?

“You’re not the only one with boy problems,” she says.

Seokjin lights up. “Lunch boy?”

“Yes,” she says.

“Oh, but it went south?” he pouts.

“Not yet,” she says. “We’re having a talk tonight.”

“‘Bout what?”

Yoonji points at herself.

“That could mean anything, honey.”

Yoonji doesn’t know how to explain it without making herself uncomfortable. So she just says, “I have to make sure he knows what he’s getting into.” She groans.

Seokjin understands now. He says, “That’s rough, but I bet it’ll be good. I doubt you’d get too far with somebody without knowing everything was kosher.”

“No,” she says, bloodless. “That’s the problem. We’ve made out every day this week, but never even mentioned it.”

Seokjin looks very impressed. “Yoonji, that’s amazing. Get some ass already.”

“I’m really nervous,” she says in a voice that is surprisingly high and frantic.

“Do you want me to stay close in case it goes bad?” he says.

“No,” she says. “I think I’ll be safe. I just. Oh my god. I’m scared he won’t like me anymore.”

And suddenly, she’s crying. Wild and blubbery, so much that she’s shocked at herself. “What the fuck,” she whines, covering her face and trying not to bother anyone else in the office. Seokjin looks at her in shock for just a second before coming around to her side of the desk and awkwardly standing behind her to pat her shoulders.

“Poor Yoonji,” he whispers.

“Oh my god,” she says, laughing and crying at the same time now. “What is happening to me?”

Seokjin says, “Love, I think.”

“I hate it,” she sobs.

“Yeah, fuck love,” says Seokjin.

Yoonji groans into her arms. “I feel like I’m dying,” she says, muffled.

“But you seem really alive.”

Yoonji just groans. Seokjin sucks, but he is wise. She hates so much about this, but he’s not wrong. It does make her feel alive.

In the afternoon, she’s still all wild and frayed. She still feels like she could cry at any second, or like she might have never stopped. It’s a precarious way to feel during this conversation with Hoseok, but she is so close to her feelings that at least she can tell why it’s important. Later, when Hoseok asks her what she wanted to talk to him about, she won’t be able to lie. She’ll have to say it, and she’ll have to be blunt, because he won’t understand what she means if she isn’t.

She’s so antsy. She wonders if they should go to her apartment to talk this out in private, but she can’t wait. As soon as she sees him, right on time, sitting at one of the steel tables under the glass awning waiting for her, she knows she doesn’t have a lot of time left before it’ll kill her to keep this to herself.

“Hey,” says Hoseok, smiling at her in that way like he feels it too, the same wild untameable energy in his chest, pulsating in his ribcage when he thinks about her. It’s encouraging.

She sits down awkwardly in the seat across from him. She keeps herself from opening with What the fuck?

She didn’t plan how she’d breach this, and it’s very hard, so she just starts talking. “Did I tell you that I had appendicitis once?” she asks.

“No,” he says, looking interested, but wary. He can tell that she’s jumpy and scared, he’s probably as nervous as she is. “What was that like?”

“Well, I almost died,” she says. “I tend to, um, swallow pain. I let it get really bad sometimes. So I had this stomachache for two days and I couldn’t really eat or sleep but I thought it was just something I ate.”

Hoseok nods like he’s following, but he’s furrowing his eyebrows.

“So my appendix burst. Which is so stupid. We have modern medicine to prevent this from happening. I really thought I was gonna die.”

“Super glad you didn’t,” says Hoseok quietly.

“But, um, that,” Yoonji says. She’s so awkward. She hates how flustered she gets in front of this person. “That’s the only surgery I’ve ever had.”

Hoseok squints, looking perplexed.

“Ever. No other time. Just the appendix.”

“Okay,” says Hoseok. She can see him thinking hard, but she doesn’t know about what. She’s gonna throw up for sure. But Hoseok says, “You mean to tell me you were born with that face?”

“What?” she hisses.

Hoseok makes a self-conscious appraisal sound, like a toned-down catcall. He says, “Nature gave you those lips?”

She breathes shallowly and stares at him.

“That nose? You kidding me?” He makes a really strained laughing sound and says, “God took his time, I guess.”

“I want you to know what I’m talking about,” says Yoonji desperately. “You’re very nice to me, but I want you to know what I’m trying to say.” The tears are back behind her eyes, but she pushes them down into her throat.

Hoseok nods once. He says, “Okay. Sorry. I know what you’re talking about.”

“Do you really?” she says, strained. “Or are you just saying that?”

“No, I do know,” says Hoseok. “This is about how you’re transgender, right?”

She lets out a big huff of air. “Thank you,” she says.

Hoseok swallows. He says, “Just so you know, I don’t care about that.”

“You don’t care?”

“No.”

“Like, you’re indifferent?”

“Uh,” he says, looking freaked out, like he’s trying to say the right thing.

“Hoseok,” she says. “You’re so honest. Just be honest.”

He looks like he’s thinking hard, like his brain is at its speed limit. “Yeah, sorry,” he says. “I really… I really worry I’m gonna say the wrong thing and hurt your feelings.”

She wants to say you don’t have to worry about that , but it’s complicated. He could hurt her feelings without trying. He hurts her feelings by pretending she isn’t what she is. She says, “I won’t be mad. I’ll try not to be. I just want you to be honest.”

Hoseok nods. “Okay. Well. Then no. I’m not indifferent.”

Oh no.

“But, I mean. I’ve thought about it. I didn’t know if you had, uh.” He falters. “But I figured that if I didn’t know this whole time, it must not matter that much. And it doesn’t…” He looks like he’s struggling to find words. “It’s not… it doesn’t make things different.” He looks away, then back to her, then he says awkwardly, “It doesn’t make me less attracted to you.”

Yoonji realizes that the thing he was struggling to say wasn’t I am okay with your body but I am attracted to you . Like a real romance. Like the fucked up crush she’s been trying to tame for months. She doesn’t feel less like she’s going to cry, but she smiles really big. As a last attempt at protecting herself, she hisses, “Don’t say it like that.”

“Yeah,” says Hoseok, a little more confidently. “It doesn’t change that I’m attracted to you. And it doesn’t make me less interested in... you know. Doing more. Doing… whatever you feel good about doing.”

“Thank you,” she says, because that’s all she can say. Because she came to this conversation prepared to defend herself, and out of all the possible responses, she never expected one this good.

“Can I ask, are you,” Hoseok says, “planning on doing it?”

That’s a fair question, and she promised to try to be open to this conversation, as much as it sucks to have. “I... don’t know,” she says. “I was going to. I was planning on it. But I feel so much better just doing what I’m doing. And surgery is expensive, it takes a lot of recovery.” She forces out, “If you want to like me, I think you have to like me where I am. because I don’t know if it’s gonna get much better than this.”

“Yoonji, don’t cry.”

“You’re really nice,” she says as he moves to the chair next to her and scoots it closer, then hugs her all the way around, pinning her arms down and resting his head on her shoulder. “You’re nice to me.”

“You’re really nice to me, too,” says Hoseok. “I like being your friend.” 

She groans, letting Hoseok hug her and letting stupid hot tears fall down her face and into the neck of her sweater and onto Hoseok’s pink hair.

“You’re way too cool for me, honestly,” says Hoseok, close to her face. He’s not kissing her, but she can almost feel his lips forming the words against her temple. “And you’re so funny. And you’re not timid about anything, and your friends are all really great and everyone loves you. You’re cranky, but it’s cute. You’re not mean.”

“I can be mean,” she says.

“But I get it,” says Hoseok. “It’s okay.”

He lets go of her but stays in the seat right next to her. She says, “Why did you act like you didn’t know? It scared me.”

“I wasn’t trying to act like I didn’t know. I just didn’t want to make it a big deal.” 

“But it is a big deal,” says Yoonji, still sort of weepy. That’s such a weird thing to admit, because she wishes most people could learn to ignore it. Maybe she’ll never be happy with anything. “It’s a big deal to everyone except you.”

“It’s… kind of confusing. I didn’t really know what you wanted. I haven’t really hung out with any trans people before you and Jeongguk. I asked him for advice and he told me that you probably didn’t want to talk about it if you didn’t say anything. And I thought that seemed right.”

“I thought you were uncomfortable.”

“I just talk to you like I talk to everybody else.”

“I’m mad at Jeongguk for telling you that.”

“I’m sorry I listened to him.”

Yoonji goes, “Yuck.”

“Yuck,” agrees Hoseok. He still seems freaked out, but he’s gaining confidence. He says, “I like you.”

Yoonji sniffles. “I like you, too.”

And then he kisses her, and it’s new again. It’s not timid. It’s not desperate. It seeks to prove nothing except that this is right and warm, and that there’s a way that they can share private things without having to fear being hurt.



 

After she’s done working one afternoon, clocked out and nearly alone in the office, Yoonji goes into the copy room. She pulls a photo out of her purse wrapped in a plastic baggie, the best protection she could find. She messes with the scanner until the quality is at its highest, and then she pulls the photo out of the bag and puts it on the glass.

She scans it to her e-mail, tucks it back into the bag and then her purse, and goes back to her desk.

She opens it to make sure it’s right, rotates it, fixes the contrast just a little, and then attaches it to a draft she has saved.

Already attached, she’s got a picture of herself that Namjoon took. She was across a dark wood table from him in a cafe with a porcelain mug of black coffee in front of her. The lighting was low, and in the picture he snapped and expertly filtered of her, she looks skeptical but comfortable. Cozy in an oversized knit sweater. And tricky. Not cruel, just mischievous. She was probably about to tell Namjoon something funny, but she can’t remember now.

There’s another one, of her and Jimin. Tae took this outside their apartment when the three of them were about to go to an ‘80s night downtown. Yoonji really didn’t want to go out, but Tae and Jimin tricked her into getting excited. Jimin did her makeup and Tae put on Material Girl in the living room and the two of them got her to smile. That night ended up being amazing, but the picture was taken before they’d left, so Yoonji just looks cautiously optimistic. She’s wearing what she usually wears -- a black dress with black tights and combat boots, but she’d let Jimin get creative in the bathroom earlier. She’d sprayed Yoonji’s hair with aerosol hairspray and then crunched it in her hands, brushed it backwards and sprayed it again, then put a giant bow in her hair, all the while complaining about how much work it takes to be beautiful. She’d put metallic purple lipstick on Yoonji, then rubbed the same color on her cheeks as blush and put some on her eyelids along with red eyeliner. Yoonji looked crazy, but it worked. Jimin knew what she was doing.

In the picture, Jimin’s hair, pale pink at the time, is all curled and flouncy. She’s wearing hot pink tights, legwarmers, and shiny black pumps. She’s got a thick belt over a slouchy black tunic that artfully slips off one shoulder to reveal the top of a hot pink bra. Her makeup is never very outlandish, but it is professional , and she looks stunning. She looks like she’s about to teach an aerobics class. She’s standing next to Yoonji, smiling with her eyes closed, resting her head on Yoonji’s shoulder.

Yoonji likes this one because it’s so like her and Jimin. It’s so like Jimin to know exactly how far she can push Yoonji out of her comfort zone without scaring her away, and to know the difference between Yoonji saying no to invitations because she really doesn’t want to go or just because leaving the house is nerve-wracking. And it’s so like Yoonji to let Jimin doll her up, to love it, but then to stand there like she’s been forced into something. It’s not the most flattering picture of Yoonji, but she likes it a lot. They look like cool people.

There’s a picture that Seokjin took of her as a joke. He likes to sneak photos and turn them into memes. Usually they’re atrocious, but this one makes Yoonji laugh. She’s standing in the break room at work, pouring herself a cup of coffee, and her bangs are all windblown out of her face and the tag is sticking out the back of her shirt and she is glaring into the mouth of her mug as she pours coffee into it like she wants it to know real suffering. The version Seokjin printed out and taped to the office fridge had a speech bubble coming out of her mouth that said I HATE MONDAYS in neon green, but he sent her the original when she asked for it. It’s grainy, zoomed in all the way with his phone, and Yoonji looks like some kind of office wight, and it’s the funniest thing she’s ever seen. The funniest. She looks so creepy. That picture is attached to the e-mail, too.

In the subject line, she types, recent photos .

Into the body, she types, i dug up some pictures. She types and deletes, attached is , and then writes, joon took the coffee shop one, and my coworker seokjin took the ugly one. i know it’s bad, but i think it’s funny. pink hair is my roommate jimin. last summer we went to this dance party, and as we were leaving she convinced me to go to the late night tattoo shop next door and get my ears pierced. crazy experience & very good memory.

there’s also a better quality version of the polaroid i sent you before. didnt realize you were gonna put it up in the house. this one should look nicer when you print it out.

She types and deletes, sorry it took so long , types and deletes thank you , types and deletes, I’ll come for dinner soon .

She doesn’t know what else to say, so she just writes,

 

-yoonji .

 

Chapter Text

One summer, Hoseok was posted at the end of five miles of gravel road in the middle of a dense, sunny, sweet-smelling forest. It felt very remote, but was only about a hundred miles from home; close enough to come back on weekends, when he had them. More often he was on call or exhausted from his various maintenance projects, from all the hiking, or from being the master of his own fate and destiny. That summer was probably when he knew that he wanted his life to be different.  

When Hoseok was a hundred miles from home, no phone service, doing work that was solitary and physical to an extreme he’s not sure he could bear again, he gained a brighter aspect to aliveness. Independence that he’d never been allowed. It seems simple, but for the first time, if he didn’t feed himself, he’d starve. If he didn’t stay safe when he was alone in the forest, he would die. Everyone warned him about wild animals and crazy people; his mom was terrified that he’d be ax murdered out there, but that was far less likely than breaking an ankle and getting trapped somewhere, falling into a ditch, losing his path and running out of food or water before he could find his way back.

No one else could reach him to care for him from this far away, and he loved it. He loved the fresh air and the power over himself. When he got home and right away felt trapped in his apartment like a hot car, air so close and thin and smelling of all the food and soap that he and Dasom had ever used, he told himself it was only that he missed the forest.

Independence isn’t easy yet. Not all the time. It’s hard to be solitary.

He’s trying to be alone but not lonely . He’s practicing, like it’s a sport. He’s taken himself out to dinner a few times. When he starts to feel eyes on him, watching, wondering why he’s doing things without friends, he thinks, Dasom wouldn’t want to eat here anyway . He could be on a break from work, he could be anyone. It’s not weird to eat alone.

Strange that something so good for him is also painful. At first it felt like losing a limb, but it’s nothing that serious. He thought it was a limb, but all along it was a crutch that never belonged to him. He never had to learn to walk on his own before, but he always could have. It’s just harder now because he’s so used to leaning. He’s building new muscles.

Once, over lunch at a cheap diner near Namjoon’s house, he tried to explain it, but Namjoon just seemed confused. “You don’t know how to eat alone?” he asked, like that was so crazy.

It seemed crazier that Namjoon was so confident on his own. Hoseok was raised around people who defined themselves by their relationships. He was raised around men who handled business and women who took care of their homes, and with the image of that sort of pairing as inextricable. His parents were like that, and Dasom was raised that way, too. Many of the people Hoseok grew up with married the first people they ever dated. Lots of them had kids in school already. It was archaic, he knew that, but his community was tight-knit, and he never learned any better. He learned that any other way of living was amoral, and anyone who tried to teach him different was pushing an agenda designed to infiltrate and destroy families like his.

After a bite of french toast, he told Namjoon, “By the time I moved out of my parents’ house, I had a girlfriend to take care of me.”

Namjoon frowned and said, “That’s fucked up.” It sounded like he was telling Hoseok, you’re fucked up. You chose to live your life in a fucked up way. It shocked him like a sudden clap on the back.

“I know,” said Hoseok defensively. This was exactly what he was trying to say. “I know it’s fucked up. That’s why I’m here. That’s why I’m excommunicating myself.”

Namjoon got a little softer, but still rolled his eyes vaguely. Hoseok tried to explain, “I know, I know. I’m not saying my life’s been hard. I’m just saying I didn’t know I could do something else. I didn’t have a chance. And now I am, and it’s a challenge, and I’m behind, because I never learned to be just one person. For eight years I’ve been half of two people.”

Namjoon had softened up at that, pursed his lips and nodded like he was trying to listen. He’d dumped several sugar packets and a ton of cream into his coffee, squinting like it was science, and said, “Sure.” He looked up uncertainly. “I’m just being hard on you, I guess. People like you make it hard on people like me.”

“I know,” said Hoseok. “And I don’t want to be part of it anymore.”

Namjoon nodded again. “You’re right. I shouldn’t judge so quickly. If I’m gonna call myself open-minded, that should be universal, right?”

Hoseok thought about that for another bite of french toast. He looked hard at the little ice cream scoop of butter slowly melting on the stack. Namjoon said, “In theory. But it’s hard to be open-minded toward people who hurt less powerful people.”

Still thinking, Hoseok nodded. Namjoon said, “But not you. You’re good. You’re a victim, too. I’ve heard a lot about your sister.”

“What about her?” asked Hoseok. He took his knife and smeared the butter as evenly as he could over his toast.
“That she,” Namjoon chewed thoughtfully, “was very conflicted. About being queer. That she’d disappear sometimes, and make Suran really worried. And talk about it like it was something she was getting out of her system. Suran almost left her.”

“I didn’t know any of that.” Hoseok had never seen Sooyoung seem unsure of herself.

“Because she didn’t come out to you until they were already getting married, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve probably seen more of your sister than you have over the past few years.”

“That’s really sad,” said Hoseok. Sooyoung was always his closest friend, until she slipped away. Never fully, never enough to worry Hoseok or their parents into thinking that she was gone-gone , but enough that Hoseok could feel her arm’s length.

“I agree,” said Namjoon. He took a gulp of his pale coffee. “But we’re here now, and that’s beautiful.”

Sooyoung came out to Hoseok when she came out to the rest of their family, four months before her wedding. She and Suran had been living together for two years. Hoseok is embarrassed that he was offended.

He was hurt that she’d kept this from him so long. He was hurt that she didn’t tell him first. He’d always known her the best out of anyone; they’d always been closest.

He should have known that she wasn’t going to follow the rules forever. They’d both been rambunctious growing up, but Hoseok had grown up into a man his family could show off, and Sooyoung had never shrunk herself to fit in.

When they were really young, Hoseok and Sooyoung used to hide under a card table set up against a wall in the youth room at their church. They’d disappear for a few minutes every week after service while their parents mingled in the courtyard. It was a ritual, for a while; in his pressed little Easter-colored button downs and her flowery dresses and clipped-up hair, they’d crawl under the table and whisper the worst things they could imagine to one another.

Sooyoung is a year older than Hoseok, which is nothing now that they’re adults. They might as well be twins, but when they were little, and Sooyoung was a year above him in school, Hoseok followed her lead in everything. When Sooyoung whispered things like, “When I’m a mom, I’ll never go to church,” Hoseok nodded along and said, “Me too.”

They were caught at that. Not the secrets, but the hiding. Their mom said they’d ruin their clothes, and they couldn’t be doing anything good down there anyway.

There were other ways to rebel. In middle school, they swore with the other kids. It seemed easy for Sooyoung, but Hoseok always had to think about it; he’d sputter awkwardly while pushing the words out, and it took away some of their power. In high school, Sooyoung occasionally stole Hoseok’s clothes and changed into them when she got to school, something he never noticed until it was too late. He’d tell her, “Could you at least ask me first?” and she’d say, “Be cool, Seok.”

The thing was, by high school, Hoseok was just… scared. He didn’t want to get in trouble. It wasn’t worth it. When Sooyoung tried beer and weed in high school, he was so mad at her that he didn’t talk to her for three days. Which seemed like forever. Which makes him sad now, because after she started dating Suran, he was lucky to check in with her twice a month.  

So Hoseok was the kid that his parents could rely on, and Sooyoung made mistakes and tried things and eventually moved three hours away to live with her best friend, now wife, and figure out who she was.

Hoseok visited often enough, so in flashes he saw Sooyoung become exactly the person she had always struggled with being. She didn’t seem so wild anymore, so prone to breaking down, or getting angry. She seemed cool and sharp and witty and confident. She was more beautiful than she had been before because she was happier.

Hoseok also met Suran, but just as a friend, just as a roommate. He never suspected anything, though if he’d realized that people he knew could be gay it might have been obvious. There had been a chalkboard near the door with their names on it, Sooyoung ♡ Suran , that he had just assumed was a best friend thing. He remembers that he’d thought, They’re lucky they get along so well as roommates. So blind.

When Sooyoung came out, Hoseok left Dasom at home and drove all the way to her apartment. When he got there, they hugged for a minute, and Sooyoung made a squished, painful face like she was not, under any circumstance, going to cry.

For a few minutes, it was beautiful. They drank iced tea and the sun was still out. Then Hoseok said, “You should have told me sooner.”

“I told you when I was ready,” Sooyoung said. They sat at the kitchen table, and Suran went into the bedroom to give them space. “You can’t be mad at me for that.”

“I thought we knew each other,” Hoseok had said. He sounded angry, but he was only hurt. He didn’t know how to talk about it, and he missed Sooyoung so much for such a stupid reason. He wouldn’t have been mad; he would have tried not to be. He would have understood eventually, because he loved her. She should have just told him. “You’ve been lying to me for so long.”

“Why should I have thought you’d be okay with it?” she said, a harsh whisper. Then she wiped a tear from her cheek and said, “You would have told our parents. I shouldn’t be explaining myself to you right now. You shouldn’t be here attacking my choices. You don’t understand how hard this is.”

He didn’t understand, and he didn’t understand why his anger was wrong, even when she told him, “This has been really lonely. I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t want to lose you. I didn’t want to lose you like this .”

And Hoseok frustratedly said, “You’re not losing me.”

Sooyoung sniffled. Her cheeks were blotchy, and she was speaking so quietly, he could barely hear her talking. “I didn’t want you to be mad.” She winced like that was embarrassing to admit.

“I’m not mad at you for being with a woman,” said Hoseok firmly. He was smart enough not to say but , even though he could have. He just left it there. That wasn’t why he was mad.

“Okay,” she said. “Thank you.” She wiped her face with the back of a hand.

“I’ve just really missed you.”

“I’ve missed you, too,” said Sooyoung. Her breath hitched, but she managed a small, wet smile. “I’ve wanted to talk to you about so much.”

“More than just Suran?” said Hoseok, still not getting it. Still not getting that Sooyoung’s whole life had changed in ways Hoseok had never seen.

“Oh yeah,” she said. Then she told him about some things that he’s since learned from experience. Dating casually, talking without thinking, loving people even if they aren’t like you.

“Will you come to the wedding?” she asked.

“Of course I will,” said Hoseok, trying a smile, not sure if she was ready for that yet. She was, she looked up at him with a little more brightness than she’d had a moment ago. “I’ll do whatever. Want me to be your best man?”

“I get a maid of honor, stupid.”

“Right,” said Hoseok. He wasn’t sure how it worked with a gay wedding. “I shouldn’t invite myself to be part of your ceremony anyway.”

“No, I’m happy you want to,” she said. “Really happy.” Then she got up and came around the table, tugged on the shoulder of Hoseok’s sweater until he stood up, and hugged him around the middle for a long time.

He did end up being Sooyoung’s best man.

It was a gay wedding, so they could do whatever they wanted. Suran had a maid of honor, her sister, which Hoseok thought was really nice. The wedding was beautiful. So classy, at a vineyard in the country, surrounded by gentle fountain sounds and birds chirping, rows of grapes and green hills and the smells of wine and healthy earth. Hoseok got a sense that Suran’s family was wealthy. His family was well-off too, but they didn’t help with the wedding.

It was a really nice day. The weather was perfect just for them, and Sooyoung and Suran were beautiful, and joyful, and Suran teared up at the end, and Sooyoung brushed her tears from her cheeks with her thumbs and then kissed her, and everything was right.

Alongside all that beauty, Hoseok had a complicated day. He had to check on his parents often, to keep them feeling like their presence was important. They were so uncomfortable, and he had to keep telling them, Sooyoung just needs you to be here for her today . Then there were his best man duties. Being there for his sister meant leaving his girlfriend alone, and being there for his girlfriend meant ignoring his duty to the wedding. Of course, he decided that Sooyoung was more important. Just on this one day, at her wedding, he thought he should put her first.

But Dasom had been struggling. She and Sooyoung had once been very close. When Sooyoung came out, Dasom told Hoseok she felt betrayed. “All that time,” she said. “She might have been in love with me.”

“I don’t think it works that way,” Hoseok had told her.

“People like that don’t have shame,” Dasom had snapped.

And the final complication: Hoseok was supposed to ask Dasom to marry him soon.

They didn’t talk about it plainly, but it was there, tangible, like the smell of something cooking in the next room. Any time anyone had said the word wedding in her earshot for the last year, Dasom had looked at Hoseok’s face, trying to find recognition in it. Hoseok had looked back at her for a while, but eventually he stopped reacting at all. Not to be cruel, just because he didn’t know. He didn’t know what he was going to do.

Dasom was bitter, he knew. That Sooyoung got married before she did. That Sooyoung got to have a wedding to someone she’d known for just three years, whom she adored, and they had a dog, and their wedding was beautiful, and they were gay. Dasom thought she deserved it more.

She wanted Hoseok by her side all day, but he was busy. He was hanging out with his sister. He was helping Sooyoung eat a bag of Cheetos because she was so anxious and she wanted them so badly but was already wearing her white dress. Ridiculous, but he was her best man, so it was his job to feed her Cheetos on her wedding day if that was what she wanted.

Dasom wasn’t always bitter like that. She rarely was. Most of the time, she was understanding, and adaptable, and gracious. Like, when Hoseok forgot their sixth anniversary. He’d been away all summer, then had come home to a very sick grandfather. Their anniversary came three days after his funeral, and Hoseok just spaced. And Dasom understood. She was disappointed, but she wasn’t angry. In fact, she seemed tickled at all the work he put into making it up to her. He never got the sense that she held onto any resentment about that; she never brought it up in arguments.

Dasom is a good person. Toward the end of their relationship, she was frustrated and weary, but never irrationally. She had reasons for being tense at Sooyoung’s wedding. She had been raised to wait patiently for Hoseok to propose; she didn’t get to do it herself. It wouldn’t be gracious for her to tell him that she wanted it. Meanwhile, Hoseok had been talking to his sister about what it was like to be free , and he didn’t know how to bring that up graciously either. In the end, it was Hoseok’s responsibility to marry her or let her go, and he waited far too long.

During the wedding reception, Dasom pulled him aside and said, “You’ve been ignoring me all day, what’s wrong?”

Hoseok said, more coldly than he wanted to be, “I’m Sooyoung’s best man. I’m doing wedding stuff. At my sister’s wedding.”

“You don’t get it,” said Dasom, and she stormed away like she wanted him to follow her.

He didn’t follow her, but he thought he did get it. Right then, it snapped into place that he really had some thinking to do. Not sometime, not soon. Like, now. He had to make a decision.

Hoseok went out past the party to sit on a rock over a field behind the venue and watch the sun go down.


 

When Hoseok broke up with Dasom, he promised himself that he would be single for one full calendar year. September to September. He’d keep himself warm all winter, smell the earth awakening by himself in the spring, hike and swim and camp at his own pace all summer, and get cozy by himself again as the leaves started to dry up next fall. He needed that. One cycle of seasons felt like enough time to be reborn as a person who made choices.

But one day in November, when they met up for lunch, Namjoon asked Hoseok, “Are you dating again? Or still too soon?”

“So far, it’s been too soon,” said Hoseok idly. He took a bite of his burrito, grilled vegetables. Delicious; Namjoon’s recommendation.

“Chill,” said Namjoon. “Are you open to dating? Or, going on a date.”

“Maybe, why?” asked Hoseok. He had a sinking fear that Namjoon was going to ask him out, but he squashed it. Just because Namjoon was gay didn’t mean he was interested, jeez. Kill that thought, kill thoughts like that. Get better, Hoseok.

“Because I think you’d get along with my best friend.”

Hoseok nodded into another bite, and made a noise as he chewed that he was open to hearing more.

“She’s been my best friend since my second day of college. We’re tight. Her name is Yoonji.”

“You think we’d get along?” asked Hoseok, not totally done chewing.

“Yeah. I don’t know why,” said Namjoon, looking thoughtful, absently stirring his beans with his plastic fork. “You’re very different. But I keep coming back to it. You’re both, uh. Hm.” He squinted like he was thinking of the word. “Squirrelly.” He didn’t give Hoseok a chance to answer before he said, “And you’re both making big life changes. You’re both inspiring me lately.”

That was vague, but appealing. Hoseok trusted Namjoon’s judgement. And, importantly, Hoseok was lonely. He was feeling weak. He wanted a girl to look at him. But he was honest. “I don’t want to say yes and then disappoint you. I’m not really looking for anything right now.”

“I don’t think Yoonji is either, honestly,” said Namjoon. “You both just need to relax a little. Get out there, you know? Change your perspective.”

“That sounds really good right now,” Hoseok admitted. “I’d be interested in that.”

“Cool,” said Namjoon. “Cool, I’ll set something up.” He looked nervous for a second, chewed on his bottom lip. “I have to tell you something about her, before you agree for sure.”

Hoseok shrugged. “That’s fine. What’s up?”

“She’s trans.”

Hoseok kept his expression the same. “Like,” he said. “She’s becoming a man?”

“Not like that,” said Namjoon, looking a little sick. “She’s a trans woman.”

“Okay,” said Hoseok. He looked at Namjoon’s shoulder for a moment. “Yeah. I’m still interested.”

“Good,” said Namjoon, inhaling quickly. “That’s good. If you change your mind, cancel with me before you meet her. I don’t want to force either of you on a date if it’s not where you want to be.”

“No, it’s really fine,” said Hoseok decisively. He was seeking new kinds of people and new kinds of experiences. This was the sort of thing he was actively looking for. He didn’t know what he thought past that. She would probably be interesting, if Namjoon loved her so much.

Before their date, his mind went a lot of places, but he tried not to make any assumptions. Namjoon, a romantic, wouldn’t show him any pictures or give him Yoonji’s phone number. So Hoseok would know how he felt when he got there.

Then he met her.

It wasn’t exactly right away that he liked her how he likes her now. But he likes her with an intensity that is totally, absolutely new to him. He keeps thinking, it doesn’t usually work like this, right? That she tells me her favorite brand of ramen and I think, she’s so smart . Sometimes, when he makes her smile, he completely loses his train of thought for a few seconds, unable to do anything but glitter and bask in it. She didn’t seem interested at first, but Hoseok had this prickling sense right from the beginning. That under her pouty little mouth and steely eyes, she didn’t want him to go away.

Yoonji is not straightforward like Hoseok. She was hard to read at first, emotionally flat, somewhat expressionless. Hoseok never saw it as deceitful, though, like he might have if it were someone else; he just thought she was protecting herself. Rather than being frustrated, Hoseok wanted to know what she was protecting. On their first date, she tried so hard to seem uninterested, but he kept seeing her swallow a smile, avert her eyes from his, and she kept looking at him with an emotion that he couldn’t figure out. This sort of tight-lipped, wary, interested look. Sometimes it seemed prey-like, like she was figuring out if it was safe to take a step into the open. Other times, the same look seemed predatory, like she was studying him and planning how she’d pounce. He noticed her change the subject when the conversation got too personal. He wanted to know what she wasn’t saying.

Yoonji’s coldness intimidated him, but in a way he liked. It was something he never knew about himself, this interest in what made him nervous. He usually avoided things like that, but lately he was approaching them. Often, he found that they were harmless up close, or appealing. Yoonji was a new kind of person, and it was way too soon, and she was broody and unapproachable, but he liked her.

Hoseok didn’t think he had a crush on Yoonji until the first time she got a bird for him at the park, sleeves rolled up and face set stony against the filthy, frozen concrete. And he didn’t think he wanted to really date her until the night he almost kissed her, after he held her cold hands and she left in a hurry. But after the first time they met, he knew the important parts. Yoonji is very pretty. And she’s fascinating, and secretive, and strange. And Namjoon promised him that she meant no harm, so, even when she was mean to him, Hoseok went with that. But he would have found any excuse to keep talking to her.

There was the night he didn’t kiss her, because she seemed so freaked out and frail and small. Her eyes were shining and he couldn’t tell if she was about to cry. He wanted to kiss her, her lipstick was so good, and her hair looked nice, and he wanted to reach out and take her hands again. But, on that day, he was still attached to his four-season plan. He didn’t want to do this with her if he couldn’t really do it. He didn’t want to kiss her and then leave her, when it came time to choose between Yoonji and freedom . But it was hard to look away from her mouth.

The timing was awful. Right at the end of a relationship, without even a chance to be comfortably single before he was attached to someone new. Was it something about him? That he couldn’t be alone, couldn’t care for himself? Dasom had a friend like that, a new serious boyfriend every year. Now that she was in her mid-twenties, it wasn’t fun anymore. Hoseok would hear her crying when she came over for girls’ nights with Dasom. When she left, Dasom would talk like, I’m so glad you finish what you start.

He promised himself that he’d take this journey on his own. But wasn’t this about doing what he wanted? Would he be growing up if he invented a rule against dating someone just on principle? Wasn’t it all about living under fewer rules? Yoonji doesn’t impede on his independence anyway.

Yoonji is fine on her own. She’s very self-contained. Self-assured. Self-controlled, self-aware. Self-critical, too. She is wound up into herself, even the way she stands; very separate, even when she’s with other people.

Hoseok admires it, because he doesn't have a skill like that. He’s an overfull pitcher at a kid’s lemonade stand, spilling out everywhere. He doesn’t have poise like Yoonji.

Yoonji is intimidating, but so are most of the girls he likes. He’s never told anyone that. He doesn’t know why. Probably just guilty, that he never really wanted to be who he was.

It feels good to like someone, yet feel un-dependent from her. It’s appealing to spend time with a woman who has her own space, and her own friends, and her own life, who was wonderful before he ever met her and remains wonderful when he isn’t right next to her. Who doesn’t need him, but wants him anyway. He thinks she’s special, and she makes him feel special too.

Yoonji is a whole person. He knows she’s going through stuff, but she’s not desperate for him to hold her up. Or, if she is, they’re desperate for each other, and only because the time they spend together is inspiring. Just like Namjoon said, they are very different. It’s inexplicable that they’ve clicked so well, but it makes sense, too. Hoseok can see them together. He can imagine it. It makes sense to him. It doesn’t look out of place in his head.

Yoonji is too pretty for him. For sure. She’s too cool. She dresses too well, in these really clean, simple dark outfits that fit her perfectly. Quiet poise; he loves that about her. And she’s too pretty, and all of her friends are beautiful, and a lot of people love her a lot. Which is well-deserved, because now that she’s melted toward him, all she does is smile and laugh when they're together, and he understands why people want to keep her safe. When she laughs, his stomach does this wringing-out thing, like a sponge squeezing out frothy suds. He wants to see her do that a lot.

 

 

Hoseok and Yoonji are in Yoonji's bed. They haven't been doing much but talking, kissing on and off. Now that they’re here, they're even more hesitant. They were braver when they knew exactly what was allowed; now they don't know where to go.

Hoseok still has things he doesn’t know how to bring up. Not because he thinks they will bother Yoonji, but because they don't feel sexy. He doesn't want to bring these things up at a time when they'll get in the way of the fun they're having, or make her tired. He still isn't sure how to move forward with this, though he wants to. He thinks about moving forward with this a lot, when he’s walking the perimeter of the park or eating leftovers at his house, sitting on the bus or trying to fall asleep or brushing his teeth.
Right now, Yoonji notices, or maybe she's thinking the same thing. Or it's just the lull, the place they've stalled, where they will kiss and Hoseok will hold her shoulders and touch her back over her shirt, but they won't do anything else.

"Are you nervous?" she asks. Her mouth moves, but not the rest of her face. They're in the dark, and there's a blue streetlight across the courtyard from Yoonji’s room that leaks in through her blinds. It falls on her face in thin stripes, illuminating the top of a cheekbone, the curve of a lip, part of her nose, some of her shiny, dark hair. She looks relaxed, head resting on her pillow, one hand under her cheek, the other thrown lazily across Hoseok's back. Relaxed, or maybe empty. She's wearing a hoodie, he's wearing a t-shirt. She's cold, she says, even though they're under a comforter and a heated blanket.

This has been really nice. They've done this a couple of times in the last week or so. Slept over, but done nothing sexual. It would seem very silly and juvenile, something for people a decade younger than they are, if not for the conversation Yoonji had with him, two days after the one where she told him about her appendicitis. This one was at Hoseok's house, where they were hanging out and watching a movie. Holding hands, too, and kissing a little. Yoonji had said suddenly, like something had happened inside her and she couldn’t hold it in anymore, "Uh, so."

Hoseok knew this was going to be a conversation, but not about exactly what. He made an open face and said, "So."

Yoonji groaned. Then she looked up at him and said, "Remember when you said you wanted to go as far as I was comfortable?"

Hoseok nodded. He couldn't keep himself from looking at her lips, then down her pretty, long neck, and to her oversized, obscuring sweater. Then back up at her face.

"I think I'm not comfortable. Right now."

Other than the rejection, that was okay. Hoseok understood. He said, "I like what we're doing. It's alright. Just let me know if you change your mind."

She looked so relieved that it made Hoseok ache. She assumed he wouldn't be okay with that. She thought he might want more from her than she could give. He said, "It's really up to you."

"Thank you," she said quietly. Then, hesitantly, "This is new for me."

"Which part?" said Hoseok.
"Almost everything," admitted Yoonji, eyes going a little dull, face going flat like she was closing off. Slowly, she said, "I haven't been with anyone since I transitioned."

"No one at all?" asked Hoseok. "Didn't you mention an ex?"

"Yeah, we broke up like, two and a half years ago. That was the last time.”

It clicked in Hoseok's brain for the first time, then. Something that might have been obvious if he had considered it. "I assumed you transitioned a really long time ago." He didn't know why he thought that. Just how self-certain she was. Or maybe it was a reflection of himself. He didn't think about her being trans that much. It was a background thing, for him, so he assumed it was for her too. An old thing. A dealt-with thing.

She said, "I came out two summers ago."

"That's so recent," said Hoseok.

"I know."

Hoseok didn't want to push, so he didn't say anything else.

Yoonji said, "Also, I've only been with girls."

"That’s alright," said Hoseok. He hoped he sounded like he meant it. It was alright, but Hoseok hadn’t realized. Selfishly, he’d thought he was the only one doing something new. That it was both of them made him unsteady, like a once-solid hill that slides apart in the rain. He had thought she’d be able to lead him. He had expected her to know how this worked.

"I mean. I've kissed guys. But it got too weird before, like. That much happened.” She was sputtering, and Hoseok reached out and stroked her hair. “So. I just don't know what I'm doing."

"But you're not, like, a virgin." Stupid question, Hoseok.

"God, no. I've definitely been with girls. But, you know." She got really flustered. It almost sounded like she was crying, but Hoseok didn't think she was. She was just talking high up in her throat and couldn't look at him. "Obviously it's different." Hoseok turned off the movie; the flashing was distracting.

"Yeah," said Hoseok. He took a weird breath and then said, "Forgive me if this is offensive.”

"You’re not offensive," said Yoonji to the armrest of the couch. "I’d tell you."

"I can’t imagine you not being you."

"Thanks," squeaked Yoonji. Her voice was so funny, like her lungs were filled with balloon air.

"I'm just surprised by all this because it doesn't seem like you've ever been anything else."

"I'm... a lot more comfortable now," she said. "More recently. The first year, I didn’t know what I was doing.”

It was a lot for Hoseok to think about. That Yoonji had only been this version of herself for a little while. That she was still figuring it out. That she was nervous. He had assumed that she was guarded because she didn’t want to let the outside in, not to keep herself contained, or to try to seem confident when she was insecure. He realized that this was more complicated than the way he was seeing it. Yoonji was aware of more than Hoseok knew about.

It began to make sense why Yoonji had been fearful of Hoseok never bringing this up. It started to connect that this was something he was going to have to be a part of, in some ways, if he was a part of her life. He couldn’t just witness it. Understanding the breadth of it made him uncomfortable, because he didn’t know anything. He didn’t know where to start.

He remembered something that happened just a few days before, somebody yelling out their car at them when they were waiting for a bus. He flinged a word from his car that was wrong and mean and hateful. Hoseok was angry because it was completely unprovoked, and because it was wrong. It was a word that didn’t apply to either of them, but the man in the car had thrown it so squarely. It made Yoonji cry.

Through small hiccups and barely-hidden tears, after moving to a better-shielded corner of the station, she said, “Sorry, that just startled me.”

Hoseok didn’t know how to help, so he shielded her from the street as well as he could, rubbed her back and said, “What can I do?”

Yoonji didn’t answer the question. “It always happens when I’m not thinking about it,” she said. “It’s always when I’m just, like, standing .” She hiccuped.

Hoseok said, “Should we get a cab back?”

Yoonji looked up at him with shiny eyes and nodded. “That would be good.”

Yoonji let him keep her close while he hailed a cab. She curled up into his side, stopped crying, and then started again, and that was when Hoseok figured it out.

He just didn’t understand. He just couldn’t.

So now, in Yoonji's bed, she asks him, "Are you nervous?" and he has to say, "A little."

"I see you wondering something."

Everything she does gets Hoseok a little bit flustered. She sees him wondering. She's watching him wonder. She watches so closely, her eyes all deep-set and dark. She's so pretty.

"I'm wondering a little," he says.

"Ask me," she says. "Ask me, and then you'll know."

It's dark and warm and their legs are lightly tangled but they are dressed, absolutely clothed. For all Hoseok knows, Yoonji could have no torso, she could just be a head on a hanger with a dress draped over it. That’s not really true; he’s felt her hips through her clothes, he’s run his hands down the outline of her sides, but he’s never seen her skin. He thinks about her skin, and then he says, "Do you have any tattoos?"

Yoonji smiles, and Hoseok's stomach does the sudsy thing. She looks like an elf. She looks like she could tell him a riddle that ended in his death. She's beautiful. She says, "I have one."

"Oh," he says. "Of what?"

"It's dumb. Got it in college. Friday the thirteenth thing with Namjoon. Vampire fangs. On my collarbone." With two pretty fingers, nails painted dark, she taps the part of her sweater under which there might be a tattoo. "I want more. Do you?"

"No," says Hoseok. "I'm scared of needles."

Yoonji nods. She wants him to say the real thing he’s wondering.

Hoseok says, "I wonder, just. About the whole thing. I don’t know where to start.”

Yoonji holds his gaze. It's hard to tell in the stripey bluish light, but he thinks there might be some pink at the tops of her cheeks.

"I wonder what it's like," he says.

Yoonji makes a thoughtful sound, but doesn't answer. He thinks she needs something more specific, but she answers him before he can think of any clearer words. "What it's like," she repeats. “Sometimes really uncomfortable. But better and better. I don’t wonder as much if it was a stupid thing to do. It used to freak me out when people looked at me, but not as much anymore.” Hoseok doesn’t know if she’s been thinking about this or if it’s just coming out. “When I was younger I thought being a girl would fix all my problems. It turns out it has fixed almost none of my problems. But I... want to be a person now. And I never did before. Which makes it easier to try.”

Hoseok asks, "Are you happy? Like, would you change it?"

He thinks for a minute that he's pushed her too far and she's going to back away, take her hand off his back. But she doesn't. She says, like she’s thinking about it in a new way, tasting it, "Yeah, I think so." Then she pauses, then she starts again. "Yeah. This is what I want. There are things I would change, but it’s what I want." She looks at Hoseok almost guiltily, like that's not what she's supposed to say.

He says, "I think it's cool, too."

"Do you?"

"I think it must make you strong."

"I don't know," she says.

"I think it's cool. It's something about you, so I like it."

Her face scrunches up into a funny little smile and she does a balloon-air whine like she doesn’t know what to do with a reaction like that. Hoseok kisses her cheek.

 

 

The first time Yoonji took Hoseok to her apartment, she insisted it was just to show him something. A book about skeletons, of course. She said it was full of beautiful pictures, but insisted that it was too valuable to take on the bus. "If you want to see it," she told Hoseok with a hint of slyness, "You'll have to come by."

He laughed. They both knew what this really was. Hoseok let Yoonji get away with pretending that they were really going to spend time looking at her skeleton book. Though, actually, knowing Yoonji, it might not be a ploy. They might really look at the book, as foreplay.

“When?” he asked.

"Are you free today?" she said.

"Yes," said Hoseok. "Today." He was always available.

After work, they got on the train together, and Yoonji seemed nervous, but not nervous enough not to hold his hand or to chatter about her apartment.

"My roommate," she said, "Jimin, I've told you about her. She's messier than me, so, if it’s a wreck, it's her." She practically interrupted herself, saying, "Oh, and she has a cat. You're not allergic to cats, right?"

"No way," said Hoseok. "I love cats."

And cats loved him, usually. But Pumpkin, Yoonji warned him, was prissy. A great friend, she said, but wary.

They sat on the floor in the living room going through Yoonji's book. She seemed like she was ready for Hoseok to kiss her, to stand up from the floor without breaking contact and lead her to the couch or the bedroom, but he was actually excited about the skeletons, thousands and thousands of bones lining walls in catacombs under Paris and Prague. He tried to imagine being around that much death, but he couldn’t think of a time he saw even one skeleton, let alone rooms and rooms of them.

Flipping through the last section of the book, Hoseok felt someone small and silky headbutt his elbow.

"Who's this?" he said, turning around to let the long-haired orange cat smell his palm, then scratching gently behind the ears.

Yoonji said, “Wow. He doesn’t usually do that.”

Hoseok was excellent with dogs, of course, and surprisingly good with cats. The trick was to give them space, but to make sure they could see you waiting. Pumpkin showed off his big fluffy belly and had started up a quiet, rumbly purr when Hoseok heard a door open in the hallway. A muzzy, high voice croaked out the door. “Is he bothering you? Pumpkin, baby, come here.”

Yoonji looked freaked out for a second and scrambled quickly to her socked feet. “I didn’t think she was home,” she said, and then hissed, “Wait here for a sec.” She started scurrying down the hallway, but it was too late.

Yoonji’s roommate slunk out into the living room, muttering baby talk at her cat. When she saw Hoseok, she went wide-eyed with horrified surprise and turned right back around. Hoseok caught a quick, blurry glimpse of a girl with a messy ponytail of pastel purple hair, blue shorts over muscular legs, and a big tie-dyed shirt cut into a crop top.

That was the first time Hoseok met Jimin, and according to Yoonji, it was bad. Bad enough that Yoonji insisted they immediately go for dessert to give Jimin back the house for a minute. As they walked to the place, Yoonji said through cold-chattering teeth, “She needs forewarning for these things. I was so sure she was at Tae’s house.”

“Tae is...”

“Her uh, partner. I think.”

“You think they’re dating?”

“I think they’re calling each other partners. They haven’t been together very long. But they’ve been in love a long time.”

“Cool,” said Hoseok.

“Jimin, sorry for oversharing, but she’s particular about how people see her. Being in her pajamas with no makeup like that, it’d be like me walking in on you naked. But like, as a stranger you didn’t know was in your house.” She winced. “I feel awful.”  

Hoseok nodded as Yoonji brought her hands to her mouth to breathe hot fog onto them. As soon as she pulled them away from her face, Hoseok took one and laced his fingers with it. That gesture still felt kind of silly, so he rubbed on the side of her hand like he was making a fire or something. She smiled like she was charmed.

Yoonji led them to a late-night coffee shop close to her house, where they got a raspberry scone to share and a pot of flowery tea and holed up at a tiny corner table. Yoonji tended to tuck herself into back walls where no one could come up behind her. She seemed most comfortable pressed into small spaces. Hoseok thought, this is something we’ll have to figure out, for the future .

Yoonji thawed out a little, pulled off her black wool coat, poured herself a cute little cup of tea, and went on about her roommate. “When I say Jimin is difficult, understand I mean it in the most gracious way possible.”

Hoseok nodded.

“I really didn’t meant to spring you on her like that. She’s had a hard time. I think she deserves some deference in her own house.”

“I think so, too,” said Hoseok. “Tell her I’m sorry for scaring her.”

Yoonji got a little more serious. “I will, but she’s not going to like you now. She’s gonna be really cold and scary when you meet her for real. But I still want you to.” The last thing, Yoonji almost mused. Which was interesting, because even when she was relaxed, her sentences usually came with forethought and structure. “We’re all difficult,” she said, looking up at Hoseok. “I’m difficult.”

Hoseok shrugged. It was a bad time to reply because he had just taken a huge bite of the scone. But she let him chew and swallow, watching him passively, patiently, in the quiet way she watched him. He answered before he was completely done swallowing, and it came out a little sticky. “I’m difficult too.”

The next week, Hoseok met Jimin officially. He would have preferred something casual, but that wasn’t going to happen after what he did. The plan kept growing, until it wasn't just going to be Yoonji and Jimin, but Jimin's partner was coming as well, and then it wasn't just a casual drink after work, but a whole meal out with the four of them. 

"So, a double date?" Hoseok asked.

"As if she'd let you off that easy," said Yoonji wryly, sitting across from him at the table they usually claimed against the low cinderblock wall at the edge of the park. Yoonji said, "It's a test. You’ll do fine, you just have to forgive her. She thinks she’s my mom sometimes.”

Showing up with Yoonji a few days later at a restaurant of Jimin's choosing, Hoseok was deliberately composed. Jimin and her partner were already there, on the same side of a booth talking lowly to each other with their faces very close. Hoseok didn't recognize them right away, but they saw Yoonji and grinned and waved. Yoonji squeezed Hoseok's hand, but he wasn't sure if it was to reassure him that it would be alright, or a physical twinge of anxiety.

They went and sat down, and everyone introduced themselves. Jimin was a lot like Yoonji had described and almost nothing like the girl he’d scared in the hallway: she was pretty, almost like a doll, with long, wavy hair. He remembered it being a sort of periwinkle color, but in the low light of the Thai place Jimin had chosen for them, it could have been grey, lilac, or sky blue. She wore a lot of makeup and a silk blouse that looked like it came from a fashion runway. She was short but substantial, muscular but soft, and had narrow shoulders, big pink lips, and big bright eyes.

Hoseok couldn’t remember if Yoonji ever told him whether Jimin was trans. He felt himself trying to figure it out, looking at her in a way that he wouldn’t like to be caught doing. Jeongguk once told Hoseok about this particular way people stare at him sometimes, size him up, look for evidence, so Hoseok stopped doing that to Jimin, just in case.

Tae was not exactly what Hoseok expected, but he hadn't known what to expect before meeting them. Yoonji hadn't described them much more than stunning and wonderful . And they were; beautiful and commanding in a high-boned otherworldly sort of way, but it took just a minute for Hoseok to figure out how to talk to them. He was intimidated. Their face was intense, and they were looking at Hoseok suspiciously, like they had read his mind and already decided he wasn’t good for Yoonji.

Hoseok tried not to think too hard. He looked this up online. Embarrassing, but he practiced in the shower. They are Yoonji’s friend, he said to himself. Their name is Tae. It will be easy to get along with them . They were supposed to be really nice. Funny and down-to-earth. In a loose camel-colored shirt with big sleeves, they looked like a witch, but a different sort of witch than Yoonji. Yoonji looked like the sort of witch who could hold up her hand and choke you against the wall from across the room, but Tae looked like the kind of witch who knew how to stick their fingers in the earth and coax answers from things that grew wild in their garden. Their hairstyle would have looked like an awkward growing-out phase on anyone else, but on them looked intentional, messy and falling in their eyes. Unlike Hoseok’s, which was just messy because he didn’t know what to do with it anymore. Tae was tan like they’d been out in the sun, but there had been so little sun to go out in lately. Hoseok was tan too, but in the winter he felt like he lost some luster, went grey. Still tan, but not bright. Tae was bright.

Hoseok didn’t have as much to worry about with Tae as he thought he did. In fact, just as Yoonji predicted, the two of them got along right away. Jimin spent a while sulking, observing, lips pinched together just barely, and Yoonji was quietly watching the room, curled in and vigilant, the way she did for a minute whenever they arrived anywhere. To make things worse, Yoonji and Jimin were having some kind of eyes-only girl conversation over the table that Hoseok couldn't begin to try to interpret, so for a minute, he and Tae were the only ones relaxed enough to actually interact. 

"I heard you were almost a teacher," they said. It was the first time they spoke after the initial awkward greeting, and Hoseok thought their voice was really pleasant. Low and warm, like a bass clarinet. Not weighed down.

"I almost was," said Hoseok, wondering how much Yoonji talked about him. He talked about her a lot too. "But it was too much time inside."

"I think I might want to be a teacher someday," said Tae wistfully. They were holding Jimin's hand on the table, and lifted her hand up with theirs to gesticulate. "But I don't really know yet."

"What do you do now?" asked Hoseok. He took a sip of his water.

"I buy clothes at a thrift store."

"Where do you buy them from?" asked Hoseok. He hadn't been to many thrift stores before. He mostly got his clothes from the mall.

Tae let out a low-pitched, reedy giggle. They were wearing this long dangly silver earring that caught the light. Hoseok decided very suddenly that he really liked them. He thought they were kind. "From people. They come in with their old stuff and I decide if it's cool enough to sell at a, like, thousand percent markup. It was fun for about a year, but I think I’m done."

"Any job where you do the same thing every day stops being fun after a while," nodded Hoseok. "That's why I like being a park ranger. You get to do different stuff constantly. Even if you go to the same place every day, it’s never exactly the same. There was this one trail at a park where I worked a couple years ago, and in the summer there'd be so many spiderwebs across the trail that you'd have to bring a stick to break them. But an hour later when you walked back, they'd have built them back across again." He had a sunny memory of that place, that trail, switchbacks up a hillside over a loudly running, clear shallow creek, glacial runoff clean enough to drink from. "And last year I worked near a lake when the tadpoles grew legs. For two weeks, they were everywhere. Everywhere you walked, these perfect little green baby frogs." He showed Tae how big with his thumb and forefinger, under an inch. "Small enough to sit on a blade of grass without bending it all the way over."

Tae was listening raptly, and Hoseok noticed that Jimin’s concerned look had gotten a bit more interested. He couldn't see Yoonji's face, but he could feel her where their thighs and the tops of their shoulders touched, and through those little places, he could feel her start to thaw.

"That," said Tae, "is so cool. Maybe I should be a park ranger. I would love to kiss tiny frogs all day."

"It has its advantages," said Hoseok, speaking all heart-free like he'd actually just been outside. He looked at Yoonji and said, "We should go on another hike soon."

"Sure," she said, a lot more easily than she had the last time, when he'd practically forced her. But that had gone alright.

The waitress came over to take their orders. Hoseok and Jimin ordered the same thing, which he thought might be a good sign.

That wasn’t enough to make Jimin like him, though. She started asking him questions as soon as the menus were gone. First, she asked him, "Your family lives nearby, right?" She wasn't good at pretending that it wasn’t an interview, but Hoseok got the sense that she could have made it seem more casual if she had wanted to.

He hardly had a chance to say, "Yeah, just south of town," before she said, "They're religious, right?"

Hoseok nodded, frowning without meaning to.

"Are you?"

Hoseok shrugged. "I haven't thought about it much lately," he admitted.

That didn't look like enough for Jimin, whose eyes were fiery and who was oddly threatening, even though she hadn't moved and the tone of her voice had hardly changed. But Hoseok didn't know what else to say. He really hadn't thought about it much lately; he’d been thinking of other things. He hadn't thought about it much in a while. It had been a long time since he saw God as anything but someone who made community, and since he was away from that community, he felt Godless. But not in a way that hurt much. It felt almost the same as the ties he'd severed with his old church friends, with his parents and Dasom and her family. They just had too many differences to bridge right now.

He felt guilt about it, but was torn. On one hand, he thought that he had done something wrong. Leaving his community behind in order to be selfish and indulgent and spend time with people they would not accept would get him harshly judged if he tried to come back. But the feeling didn't spread to his heart. He could repeat it to himself all day long, he could tell himself that he was being indulgent or giving in to temptation, but he knew he wasn't. Because he felt whole and he could breathe. So, he wasn’t angry with God. He just didn't feel like he knew God very well.

It was hard to figure out how to say that. Later on, Yoonji would tell him that Jimin had been raised in a house that used religion as an excuse to deny her what she needed, to deny her who she was, then to deny her warmth, and shelter, and finally communication. And later on, Hoseok would feel guilt about that. About letting himself think that he'd had anything hard.

“I mean, I was raised really religious, yeah,” he finally told Jimin, trying to really answer her question, even if she was just going to keep glaring. He wanted Yoonji to hear it, too. “But it’s always felt like something that makes a lot of sense to other people.” Jimin looked like she didn’t get it, and Tae looked thoughtfully interested. He wished he could see Yoonji, but it was enough that she was holding his hand under the table.

“Like,” he said, “Everybody around me always got it. It spoke to them. They had…” this was hard to word, “There was something inside them that was intrinsically spiritual. And I never felt like I had that thing inside me.”

Tae said, “That makes perfect sense.”

Jimin said, “Alright.”

Yoonji said, “This food is so tasty.”

The air got a little lighter after that, though Jimin remained fairly antagonistic. She asked him about his education, and his job, and his hobbies. He told her he didn’t really have hobbies right now, and she seemed sort of fascinated. “Nothing?” she asked.

“Well, I guess hiking, but everyone says that. Reading.” He was trying to be honest with her, and show her the best side of himself even though she was trying to make him flinch. He wanted to prove whatever she needed him to prove, because he knew that, no matter what Yoonji said, Jimin’s opinion mattered to her. He said, “I’m trying to figure it out. I’m pretty busy just taking care of myself right now.”

He didn’t expect that to resonate the way it did. Jimin’s expression softened, and she looked him almost like she pitied him, or something. But she just said, “Sure.”

She asked him more easy little questions, then finally, point-blank, she said, “What do you want with Yoonji?”

Before he could even figure out the question, Yoonji said, “Well, that’s enough.”

Jimin really did seem like Yoonji’s disapproving mom. She watched Yoonji move out of the corner of her eye, tested the mood against her. She asked Yoonji if her food was okay. At the end of the meal, she asked Yoonji if she needed a ride home. Hoseok was properly rattled by the end, but it was also nice to know that Yoonji had people like this in her life. She deserved this kind of care. Hoseok didn't really have that. He got a sense that Jimin didn't, either. And so he understood her fierceness.

When he had eaten most of his food and put the rest in a box, Hoseok went to finish his water, but his hands were so taut with nerves that he dumped half the glass down his shirt. And when everyone laughed, Tae low and reedy, Yoonji like purring, and even Jimin, like wind chimes, Hoseok was relieved that he may not have failed so badly.

 

 

Yoonji looks like a girl. In all the ways that make sense to Hoseok, she does. His image of what a girl is meant to look like is starting to get confused in his head, but he still knows this is true about Yoonji. His talks with Namjoon and with Sooyoung and with Jeongguk have mostly confused him, but also given him a sense that there’s some ethereal quality to gender that has nothing to do with the physical, and that this quality is important above anything else. He doesn’t exactly know the peachy, moonlit thing that makes someone a woman, but he knows that Yoonji has it.

She has shiny, well-kept almost-black hair, a small pouty mouth, and dark, worldly eyes. She’s skinny, but has an overall squishiness, and a soft edge that girls sometimes have. Hesitant, wise. She wears eye makeup, she paints her nails. She usually wears these suede boots with a small heel. Sensible, but stylish. She wears a dress or a skirt every day. He asked her about that once, in her bed, looking at the open door to her closet, with all the similar black and grey and dark blue dresses hung up meticulously. “Do you own any pants?” he asked.

She said, “I have some, but I don’t really wear them. I don’t want to give people an excuse not to know what to call me. In a dress, it’s like, you’re the asshole if you don’t know I’m a girl.”

“Do you like wearing dresses?” he asked.

“Yeah,” she said, like, obviously, like, didn’t you hear what I just said? But he didn’t hear her say that she liked them. He’d probably do the same thing though, if he were in her place.

The more Hoseok gets to know her, the less he can even tell which things about her make it obvious that she’s trans. He knows that it is obvious. It would be unfair not to admit that he was very aware of it at first. But now he can’t remember exactly why.

Her voice is sort of low, but it’s weird to think of in those terms. Her voice is like water on rocks, or the smoothed-out rocks that water runs over, glittering dark under stars. Her voice is soothing. Her hands are bigger than his, something he noticed at first. But her hands are careful and precise, and gentle when she lets him hold them. She folds them together over a knee when she sits with him at lunch, turns the thin silver ring she wears on a pointer finger when she needs something to fiddle with.  

The more he gets to know Yoonji and her friends, the less Hoseok thinks the differences really matter. They faded into the background until he just saw Yoonji as a girl, different than he’s known well before, but no more or less complicated than any other girl he’s liked.

Except that he might like her more than he’s ever liked another girl. He likes her more and more every day, as she carefully unfolds herself to let him in. He likes how she smells, like flowers and spearmint and a subtle outdoor smell, like dried grass and sour earth. He likes her face, he likes the way she puts her thoughts to words. He feels calm around her.


Hoseok and Yoonji talk about it a little at a time. Never enough in one go for it to bring the mood somewhere else, just small conversations about something with a lot still left to discuss. One night, she tells him about coming out to her friends, and the one after that, she tells him about transitioning.

At the part where she says, "And the estrogen gives me boobs," he stops her.

"You have boobs," he says. It's more of a statement than a question.

"Yeah," she says. "Have you not seen me wear shirts?"

Hoseok gets self-conscious. "I wasn't sure. If you really had boobs. Or if you just, like, padded."

"Well," she says, looking a little embarrassed, "I do pad. So they're not as big as you might think they are. But I think they're still growing."

"Cool," he says. He's trying so sound nonchalant.

Then Yoonji looks away from his face, down at the collar of his shirt. He watches her face as her nostrils flare, as her face furrows into something very serious, and then she says, almost a whisper, "Do you want to see?"

Hoseok is totally fine with waiting. He's totally fine with taking his time with Yoonji; he'd probably be okay with not going anywhere, ever. He’d have to figure out a way not to be so keyed up all the time, but he would. He just likes her. He doesn't know what he needs from a relationship, but so far, this has been satisfying, so he's okay with whatever it is.

But he’s been spending increasing time warm and close to this beautiful person. And he really, really wants to see her take her shirt off.

And she sounded so bashful, so determined. Like this isn't just something she’s offering so that Hoseok can inspect her body like a science project and see what changes have taken place. This is a different kind of offer. Hoseok tries to sound chill. "Sure," he says. "Cool. Yeah."

Her eyes snap up to his and she looks for a moment like she thinks he might just be humoring her. But she can read it on his face, and her expression goes sly. Like a sexy imp. She looks a little like she knows what she's doing.

"Okay," she says, and she scoots up to sit up at the top of the bed. Hoseok goes with her.

With a deep breath and a fluid motion, Yoonji pulls off her hoodie.

Then, in just a bra, she sits there and watches Hoseok's face.

Firstly, her bra is black with lace at the base and straps across the chest. She is very pale, and in the stripes of streetlight that come in through the window, she is all black and white. She's got a mole on her side below her bra. Her collarbone is prominent and he can see its line all the way to her thin shoulders. Angular, like most of her. The tattoo she mentioned is right under one of her bra straps.

The bra is black triangles. She's pressing her hands into the bed, grabbing at the sheets like she's trying not to bring her hands up over herself.

She's thin, with a line of muscle down the top of her stomach, but closer to her waistband it goes soft. She has hips, a place at her waist where her body curves in and then out again. She's wearing dark sleep pants that go up right over her belly button. Hoseok swallows.

"What?" she says, a little breathy and demanding, after he's been staring a couple seconds.

"You," says Hoseok. "Wow. You."

She must know what he means, but she still seems nervous. So suspicious of everything until she can prove it’s not out to hurt her. She looks like she needs more.

If she needs to hear him say it, he’ll find words, and try not to be too embarrassed to say them. “You’re really sexy under all the layers.”

“Oh,” she says. She’s staring at him blankly, but not in the closed-off way. More like this wasn’t one of the responses she’d prepared for.

“Um,” says Hoseok, tentatively reaching out to put his hand on the curve of her waist. She guides him there and leaves her hand on top of his. “You’re beautiful.”

She leans in to kiss him. His other hand goes to her other hip, and he holds her like that for a minute, her small waist, as the stripes of light shift over them. He expected her skin to be cold, but she’s not. She’s warm and smooth, silky under his trailing fingers. Then, as she takes the kiss deeper, pushing into him so he has to push back into her to keep from falling over, his hands travel up and down her sides, to the band of her bra where he can feel her ribs through her skin, and then down again to her perfect waist, and then under her arms and around her back to the tops of her shoulders, and then he breaks the kiss to trail his fingers over her stomach, then he goes to cup her boobs. She stops him.

It’s okay. He doesn’t want to push it. He understands that she needs to ease into this, to stay slow and warm and comfortable.

But she’s not stopping him. She’s just messing with his shirt, so he pulls it off.

He’s surprised to see her size him up in the same way he just did her. Wide-eyed and shocked, and he can see her breathing change, see her lungs move now that he knows how her body fits together. It’s flattering, the way she looks at him. Like he’s something special and not just an unsubstantial, plain dude who looks like this without trying. He watches her eyes trail up his stomach, and his chest, and his shoulders and then back to his face. But that’s just for a second, and then she’s back on him.

The way she kisses is often frantic, like this might be the last chance they’ll ever have. She pushes herself against him and holds one of his wrists and kisses his mouth and then his jaw and then his mouth again. But it’s not really forceful, it’s just less controlled than he’s used to seeing her. She gets a little wild with him, sometimes. She’s warm and she smells like apple candy. They’re sitting up in the bed, and their breathing is loud around them, and Yoonji is pressing up against his bare chest and he can feel the shape of her whole body. Her soft stomach against him, and the straps of her bra, and her boobs pushing up against his chest. He lets her push him over.

 

 

If Jeongguk is home, he’s usually sitting in the kitchen. Sometimes he has a sketchbook; often he uses a laptop and a drawing tablet. He usually sits barefoot, with one leg folded up under him, leaning over his work, with a concentrated face that makes him look younger than he really is. He’s usually wearing a big white t-shirt and loose black gym shorts. For the first month they lived together, Hoseok thought he wore the same clothes every day, but when Jeongguk invited him into his room one day to show off how well he’d been making himself at home, Hoseok saw many iterations of the same shirt and the same shorts. Jeongguk just knows who he is.

Hoseok likes that Jeongguk spends so much time in the kitchen. After months alone in his big apartment, it’s been nice to see life here. He likes the predictable perch that Jeongguk takes, the easy way they quickly began to share space. They don’t need to be talking just because they’re in the same room, though often they do anyway.

One evening, Hoseok was sitting across from Jeongguk in the kitchen, reading news on his computer. Jeongguk had taken off his headphones, and they were talking a bit while half-absorbed in their screens. Hoseok was having a meme explained to him.

“It’s from a gay porn video originally,” said Jeongguk in his lilting, sweet voice. Hoseok had heard him absentmindedly humming incomplete bars of pop songs, and it wasn’t surprising that he had a great singing voice. “The two dudes are going at it, but there’s a woman in the room who has just made herself some lunch and doesn’t expect this. So she says, ‘ Right in front of my salad? ’ And now people say that when someone is being inappropriate or overly affectionate.”

“Right in front of my salad,” nodded Hoseok. But he still wasn’t sure he understood the meme.

“Do you know Salt Bae yet?” asked Jeongguk absentmindedly.

“Is that a place?”

“He’s a person. Bae like babe , not like a body of water. Let me find the picture.”

He showed Hoseok, and Hoseok smiled and nodded, though he didn’t really understand that one either.

Just enough time passed that Hoseok hadn’t completely disengaged from the conversation. The refrigerator clicked on and Jeongguk’s tablet pen made a few smooth sounds. Hoseok said, “Can I ask you something?”

Over the tops of their laptops, Jeongguk looked at him with the same concentrating face he’d been making at his drawing. Jeongguk’s laptop was really nice, sleek and silver and always cool to the touch, glowing in a friendly way. Hoseok’s was heavy and slow and and the fan was always making noise. Jeongguk said, “Of course.”

Hoseok should have considered what to say before he grabbed Jeongguk’s attention like this. He said, “Well, I just wanted to ask, in general. If you had any advice.”

“About what?” asked Jeongguk, but Hoseok suspected that he knew already.

“I’ve been seeing Yoonji,” he said. “Well, a little. I want to. I like her.”

“She’s likeable,” agreed Jeongguk. “When she gets all cute around you, feels like you’ve won.”

“Right?” said Hoseok, a little louder than he meant to. He just, he felt that. Yoonji is cute .

Jeongguk smiled wide enough to show his big front teeth. Hoseok said, “It’s like when a really moody cat sits on your lap.”

“It’s exactly like that,” said Jeongguk.

“Like, she chose me.”

“Well, even I don’t feel chosen ,” said Jeongguk. “I think she just finds me amusing enough to tolerate in her space. But actually, at the party where you and I met, she and I had a baller conversation. So, I don’t know. Maybe.” He stared thoughtfully at the wall behind Hoseok’s head for long enough that Hoseok was tempted to turn around and find what he was looking at. Then his gaze snapped back to Hoseok and he said, “Sorry, so, why did you need advice?”

“Well,” said Hoseok. This was such a hard thing to bring up, which was the whole thing he was trying to ask advice about.

Jeongguk didn’t torture him. “Do you need advice because I’m the only other trans person you know?”

Jeongguk had bashfully told Hoseok he was trans before they agreed to be roommates. He’d said, “I know it’s cool, I just wanted to tell you. I had a roommate once, in college, who didn’t know, and... It probably won’t come up. I just wanted to be honest.” Jeongguk had seemed a little uncomfortable talking about it. Confident in his words, but like he was trying to get it over with. Hoseok should have known to keep his distance from the topic, but sometimes he missed out on subtlety when he wasn’t looking for it.

He said, “Yes.”

“Okay,” said Jeongguk, just a little cagey. “What do you need advice about?”

“I just don’t know what I need to know,” Hoseok said. “I know that’s unhelpful.”

Jeongguk shrugged. “You don’t need to know anything. You don’t have to talk to her specially. Just treat her like a person.”

“She is a person.”

“Then you’ve got it,” said Jeongguk, with an amount of finality that Hoseok didn’t understand after such an unenlightening answer. Hoseok already treated Yoonji like a person. That wasn’t the issue.

“If she doesn’t talk about it,” continued Jeongguk, “then she doesn’t want to. Let her lead the conversation, and if she doesn’t, then let her not talk about it.”

“Okay,” said Hoseok, and then he went with that, because Jeongguk was the only other trans person he knew, and that all checked out.

That made it confusing when Yoonji told Hoseok she’d been waiting for him to say something, and even more confusing, a few days after that conversation, when she came home with Hoseok after work and started a fight with Jeongguk.

Jeongguk’s kitchen perch is visible from the front door, so Yoonji saw him as soon as they walked in. She growled, “ We need to talk ,” pulled off her shoes, dropped her purse on the ground, and went to the kitchen. Jeongguk blinked up at her in confusion and closed his laptop most of the way.

Hoseok was left standing in the doorway, holding Yoonji’s water bottle.

“Hey, Yoonji, what’s up?” Jeongguk was saying, looking like he knew he was in trouble, but not exactly for what.

 You ,” Yoonji said in a low, threatening voice, “Are the complicator.”

“What did I... do?” Jeongguk asked, apology already in his voice.

“You told this nice man to pretend I wasn’t trans.”

“I didn’t,” said Jeongguk quickly. He looked up at Hoseok for help, but Hoseok didn’t know what was going on either.

“You told him I didn’t want to talk about it, you little jerk.”

“Well, yeah, but, not in a mean way.”

Yoonji scowled. Hoseok, still in the doorway, pulled his shoes off, picked Yoonji’s purse up off the ground and put it on the couch, and brought her water bottle to the table. She didn’t look at him, but groped around above her head until he took her hand. She held it above her head and squeezed it.

“What I said ,” said Jeongguk, “was that it was your conversation to start, which I think is fair.”

“That’s fair,” Yoonji conceded. “But why do you think you’re qualified to give advice about what want?”

“I don’t,” said Jeongguk. “I really don’t. He just asked me and I tried my best.”

“You don’t know me,” said Yoonji, eyes narrowed. “I knew you for five years before you told me. I can’t go ten seconds with new people, I don’t choose. It’s the first thing anyone notices. Constantly.” Her voice trailed off at the end. She seemed more hurt than angry. She let go of Hoseok’s hand above her, quickly enough that it was almost like recoiling, like she didn’t feel good about it anymore. Hoseok hovered awkwardly above her for a moment, but decided to give them some space.

“You don’t know me either,” insisted Jeongguk as Hoseok went to the couch and opened a book he had sitting on the end table. He was going to read instead of eavesdropping, but they weren’t trying to be quiet, and their conversation was hard to ignore.

“You don’t have to deal with this like I do,” said Yoonji, more emphatically than she normally was, especially, Hoseok had noticed, when on this topic. “I met you when you were 18 and you were already fine . You didn’t even say anything when I came out, which sucks by the way, because I was pretty much alone and I think people like you should look out for people like me. Just because you don’t have to think about it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.”

“I’m not sure if you know me like that.” Jeongguk’s tone was a little warning.

“I’m just saying.”

“What are you saying?” asked Jeongguk’s voice, deadly serious. Hoseok slowly looked up from his book at the wall. He couldn’t see Yoonji and Jeongguk, but he could hear them perfectly. He felt creepy sitting there in silence, so he pretended to cough. It sounded fake and waxy. Jeongguk’s voice said, “Look, I’m sorry I gave bad advice. I didn’t know what to say and I get that it sucked. So I’m sorry. But if you’re saying I don’t understand what it’s like to be trans, that’s wrong and I have a problem with that.”

A guilty hesitation before Yoonji’s voice. “Yeah.”

“I just didn’t want to make you talk about it unprepared,” came Jeongguk’s voice, not finished. “Sorry this whole thing has been so distressing for me that I can’t imagine a conversation about it that doesn’t hurt .”

“Okay, I’m sorry,” said Yoonji, deflated and sad.

“Like, what am I supposed to say?” said Jeongguk. “Nice to meet you, I was born fine but after a series of childhood mutilations I have to take hormones to live . Unfortunately, when they tried to raise me as a girl I wanted to die , so I’m sort of trans but mostly just doing damage control and trying not to think about it. How about you, what’s your most horrifying memory?”

“I wasn’t thinking,” said Yoonji. Her voice cracked.

“It’s not fun or approachable,” said Jeongguk. He sounded really upset.

Hoseok suddenly felt like overhearing this conversation was intrusive, so he went into his room with his book and read until Yoonji came to meet him. It took six pages, and when she gingerly slipped into the bedroom, she was crying. She could cry in front of him now. She was sharing her privacy with him.

“Oh, hey,” said Hoseok. “Come here, baby.” He’d never called her that before, but it came out easily. She curled up next to him on top of the covers, resting her face on his chest and molding her legs up against his.

She sniffled for a few minutes, then said, “I’m really self-absorbed.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” said Hoseok. He pet her head, a little awkwardly, but she seemed to like it, so he didn’t stop. Her hair looked really silky and light, but was actually quite thick. It was cool and smooth.

“I should have thought about him,” she said. “I act like I’m the only person with feelings.” She sniffled and brought a hand up to wipe a tear off her face before it fell onto Hoseok’s shirt. “I had no idea. I should have, but I didn’t think about it. I made him cry.”

“Is he okay?” asked Hoseok.

“Yeah, but he might hate me now.”

“I don’t think he does. He doesn’t seem like he hates anybody.”

“I’d deserve it. I’m a jerk.”

Hoseok thought for a moment. “It seems,” he said, maybe obviously, “like everybody goes through this differently. It’s sort of my fault, for assuming Jeongguk could answer questions about you. He’s nothing like you.”

It was quiet for a minute, just Hoseok petting Yoonji’s head, and Yoonji’s slightly hitched breathing. Then Hoseok said, because he was still thinking about it, “Forgive me in advance, but can I ask you what he meant when he said mutilated ?” When he’d heard that, Hoseok felt a searing nausea. He didn’t know what Jeongguk could have meant by it. He didn’t know how to imagine it.

Yoonji said, “I don’t know exactly, and I’m not gonna ask him. But a lot of times, with intersex kids, doctors will like.” She cringed. “Give them surgery right away to make their, like, junk look normal, whatever that means.”

“Babies?”

“Newborn babies,” Yoonji said. “The idea is that they want to get it out of the way so that the kid can live a normal life. But it doesn’t really go that way most of the time, and a lot of kids grow up just feeling. Yeah. Mutilated.” She swallowed like she was trying to push acid back down. “I can’t imagine.”
“You can’t?” asked Hoseok. He’d think she’d understand.

“No,” she said. “Because I can’t blame anybody. I used to be angry, but it’s easier to just move forward.” Then she admitted, “I’m still angry a lot. But it’s different than... I don’t feel like someone was negligent and ruined me. That must be horrifying.”

“Oh,” said Hoseok. “Yeah. That must be.” He hadn’t thought about it like that.

“I’m gonna go apologize,” she said decisively, crawling off Hoseok and padding back out of his room. “No time like the present.”

 

 

Hoseok takes Yoonji out to a movie one night. Something she’s mentioned wanting to see, so he buys tickets on his break and surprises her with them when she comes down for lunch. She smiles down at the table with her lips pressed closed, a face she sometimes makes when she’s so flattered that the words are shocked out of her.

Hoseok didn’t think about this: it’s Friday, so the theatre is packed, and Yoonji seems really anxious. But she won’t say so, and she insists that they go anyway, and he doesn’t argue. He gets them some popcorn and a blue-and-red mixed icee to share and they find seats near the back of the cinema.

It’s really good. Yoonji seems a lot more comfortable once they sit down. She eats a bunch of popcorn, and Hoseok says, “Someone’s hungry,” and she puts a huge handful in her mouth and loudly chews it next to his ear.

Yoonji seems so happy that it’s almost a shame when the previews start. The first one looks really bad, a bro comedy about swapping girlfriends or something, and Hoseok makes a snarky comment in Yoonji’s ear about it, and then she laughs like a baby . Light, and goofy, and totally unencumbered for the first time that Hoseok has ever seen. She throws a handful of popcorn into her mouth and a piece misses her mouth and gets stuck in her hair. He misses most of the next preview feeling her hand in his and thinking, I love her. Really. I love her.

The movie is really, really good. It’s affecting. It’s indie and slow, and the plot is hard to follow or maybe there isn’t really a plot. It’s just about these people in this town. He hasn’t seen a lot of movies like this. It feels longer than it is, and he’s is antsy by the end, even though he’s invested. It’s just hard to sit still in the dark for so long when he wants to be hanging out with Yoonji.

A scene near the end makes Yoonji cry, but he can’t tell exactly why. When the credits roll, he tries to ask her. He whispers it in her ear, but she says, maybe with a hint of silliness, “I wasn’t crying.”

“Oh,” he smiles. “My mistake.”

Before they get up to leave, Yoonji turns her face to him, cheek on the head rest. She holds his gaze and smiles. A little sad, he thinks for a second, but that’s not it. She just looks like she’s feeling a lot. Her thin shoulders heave with a sigh. Starry-eyed and smiling, she stares for just a moment. Then Hoseok watches her mind catch up with her, and her eyes go harder, she holds her face differently, intentionally, and then she clears her throat and looks away. And Hoseok thinks, Wow. She loves me too .

After the movie, they walk around for as long as Yoonji can stand the cold, and then they duck into a bar. Hoseok leads them to a Yoonji-safe corner table, takes her jacket and her bag for her, and says, “Red wine?”

“Yes, please,” she says, settling in, cheeks pink. She’s wearing a black turtleneck, and she’s half-outline in the corner, far away from the light over the bar. She’s always so beautiful in part-dark, not because she looks best hidden, but because halfway illuminated like this, she’s very angular and mysterious. She seems more comfortable sinking back like that; in full light she hides in the scowl that Hoseok sees now not as hostility, but miserable fear of almost everyone.

Waiting to order, he glances back at her. She’s watching him. He sees her red lipstick, dark-dark hair, tight posture, and the light cutting her out. She’s so lovely. He orders her a red wine and himself a beer and brings them back.

“Thank you,” she says. She doesn’t give him a chance to set the glass down; she takes it from him and brings it to her lips in one motion.

“Thirsty,” he says, smiling into a slurp off the top of his beer.

“Wine,” she says. “I love wine.” She swirls her glass, smells it, takes a dramatic sip, and chokes a tiny bit. Hoseok laughs so hard that tears come to his eyes.

It’s a night like that. They laugh so hard at everything, even things that aren’t funny. They’re happy to be here, not worried about any of the normal stuff. Hoseok feels younger than he is, and for once, not like he’s green-screened into a room full of people. He belongs where he is, in this corner of this bar with this girl, laughing loudly about nothing. He doesn’t have to try so hard to find his place in the world right now; it’s just here. He’s already in his place.

He gets them another round. When he sets the wine glass down at the table, he says, “Here you go, baby.” That time, he’s thinking about it.

Yoonji gives him an empty look for the length of a heartbeat. Then she blushes into a feverish gulp of the wine, puts the glass down slightly unevenly, avoids eye contact, tucks her hair behind her ear, then looks up at him and flashes a very fake smile. So, he thinks he should call her that more often.

She puts her foot on top of his under the table, and she starts to get quiet. Maybe it’s the wine, maybe she’s tired, maybe she’s had enough of being out, but she still seems totally content. She watches him talk with this tiny smile on her face.

They don’t finish their drinks before starting back to Hoseok’s. The logic, Yoonji says as she clings to him and shivers at the train stop, is that he has a nicer bed than she does. Hoseok thinks she might mean something by that, but she’s just as likely to want to get a good night’s sleep. It could be either with her. About that, he laughs into her hair, and it doesn’t matter that she doesn’t know what’s funny, because she laughs too.

In Hoseok’s living room, they run briefly into Seokjin and Jeongguk, who are watching a movie. Hoseok can’t help but notice that they aren’t touching at all, even though they’ve been dating for over a month. He thinks maybe Jeongguk hasn’t talked to Seokjin about being trans yet, but anything else is equally possible; Jeez Hoseok Not everyone is always touching.

Anyway, they seem very comfortable sharing space. Seokjin has been spending a lot of time over at the apartment, and they’re always playing board games or screaming about something. Hoseok walked in one day on Seokjin standing on the couch with his pants hiked up and a rolled-up newspaper in his hand, howling the word SPIDER . He startled when Hoseok walked in, stepped tenderly down from the couch, bowed his head and, as Jeongguk crawled in from the kitchen, said, “Welcome home, sir.”

Whatever they’re doing, it seems to be going well.

When they see each other, Yoonji and Seokjin make suspicious eye contact. Hoseok remembers, again, that Seokjin isn’t just dating Jeongguk. Seokjin and Yoonji spend all their work days in close proximity, and are very good friends. They’re journalists, or something. Seokjin explained it once, but Hoseok doesn’t go online very much, and a lot of the words he said didn’t make sense. So he doesn’t really know what they do, and at this point, he’s too afraid to ask. He only knows that Seokjin and Yoonji do it together.

“Hello,” Seokjin says respectfully to Hoseok. “‘Sup,” he croaks at Yoonji.

“‘Sup,” she mocks him. “Hey, Jeongguk.”

Jeongguk gives her a small smile and wave over the back of the couch. Maybe he’s not totally ready to let their fight go, but he looks like he still loves her. Hoseok is relieved by that; he’s been too afraid to ask Jeongguk about it.

Seokjin says, “You two drunk?”

“No,” snorts Yoonji.

“You are ,” says Seokjin. He looks up at Hoseok and says, gravely, “You take care of her tonight, son.”

Yoonji mocks him, but Hoseok doesn’t miss the tiny grin on her face.

“Well,” he says, “It was excellent to run into you two, but, we have to,”

“We don’t care,” says Seokjin. “Go in peace.”

So Hoseok leads Yoonji to his room, walking behind her with his hands on her hips. Then they’re in bed, Yoonji on her back and Hoseok hovering over her, breathing hard so soon. She puts her hands lightly on the sides of his face as he leans over to kiss her quickly on one cheekbone. He brushes her hair aside to kiss the top of her neck, and then he kisses the bridge of her nose and then stupidly he turns his face and kisses the palm of her hand and the base of her wrist before their lips ever meet.

Hoseok drops onto his forearms, but misjudges the distance and their noses smash together. They both laugh, and then Yoonji leans up to kiss the hand that Hoseok has clutched over his face.

Hoseok’s shirt is clinging and hanging uncomfortably, so he tears it off. Yoonji shimmies out of her dress, then Hoseok helps her out of her bra and he kisses her chest, all the places that were covered until a minute ago.

He lets her earrings clang against his teeth and he kisses behind her ear. She grips his back and arches her neck. She pulls his hips down against hers with what feels like all her strength, but then she gets a little stiff and changes her position, rolls out from under him a little and arranges herself on her side.

In the end, like every time, Hoseok winds up with nowhere else to put his hands. They end with their legs wound up together, Yoonji breathing shallowly into his neck, hands shaking against his back, and there’s just nothing else to do except kiss until their heartbeats slow down.

Yoonji curls up in front of Hoseok, her back against him, and he rests his hands on her soft, warm stomach. He buries his nose in her shoulder, smells her sweetness and earthiness and sweat. There’s nothing at all like this, like the solidness of someone in your arms at night. Like the warmth and the weight and the softness of her, her breath moving and her heart beating independently of your own. What they’re not doing is so insignificant in the scale of what they are. Yoonji was so happy tonight, and Hoseok is so content and comfortable and warm. As he falls asleep, he thinks, If every night is like this, I don’t ever need anything else.

 

 

“So, have you heard anything this week?” asked Hoseok on the phone.

“Well,” said Sooyoung, “I declined a call from Dad last week. But he didn’t call back or leave a message, so I don’t know what he wanted. Maybe a butt dial.”

“Maybe,” said Hoseok, flopping back onto the couch and stretching out.

“He didn’t call you, did he?” she asked.

“No, nobody’s called me.”

“Cool. Any updates on your end?”

“No, nothing. Nothing since the last time I talked to Mom.” That was more than a month ago, probably.

“They’re really icing you out, huh?” said Sooyoung. There was a noise in the background.

“Are you vacuuming?”

“No, that’s the blender. I’m making a smoothie. I told Suran that kale shrinks when you steam it, so she like, bought out the whole store. Imagine my shock when I came home to find the fridge absolutely packed with leafy greens. Can’t send her to the grocery store on her own anymore, I guess. I’m trying to use it all before it gets chewy.”

“Good luck,” said Hoseok.

“What’s new with you, though?”

Hoseok had been thinking about Yoonji so much that it just came out of his mouth. Like a reflex, like when you accidentally rustle the brush and a scavenging bird flits away. “Um, actually,” he said, “I’ve started seeing this girl.”

Sooyoung wasn’t very excited to hear that. While chewing, probably on a stalk of kale, she said, “Oh, Seok, already?”

“I thought the same thing,” said Hoseok. He sat up and unlaced his boots, holding the phone with a shoulder. “But she’s really special, I think. And it’s part of following my heart.”

“I guess,” said Sooyoung.

“I’m not thinking about future stuff. It’s just good right now.”

“Tell me about her?” asked Sooyoung.

Hoseok thought about her waiting for him at their table at the park, frowning and hunched up until she saw him coming, then smiling up at him, so big that he could see all her teeth. He thought about her watching him intently. He thought about her nice voice, her smells, her soft mouth. He said, “She’s uh, very pretty. She’s not like me, she’s not excitable. She thinks about everything.”

“What’s her name?”

“Yoonji.”

 Cute .”

“I know.” A breath. “Yeah, I really like her. It’s crazy.”

“Oh, you’re crazy about her?”

A laugh snorted out of Hoseok’s face so aggressively that he covered his mouth. He was.

Sooyoung asked, “So it’s like, completely done with Dasom then?”

Hoseok groaned. “Really done. Completely done. Been done.”

“Good, because I was gonna say, if it got back to her that you were dating this Yoonji , you’d have a lot of repenting to do. Didn’t know if you were just on a break, or whatever. It’s just hard to think of you as not being with her, jeez. Your relationship would be in what, third grade?”

“Well,” said Hoseok seriously, “If she found out about Yoonji, she’d never,” he huffed out a breath. Dasom wouldn’t have anything nice to say about Yoonji, unfortunately. “She’d probably never talk to me again.”

“Is she really that mad?”

“Well, uh,” said Hoseok awkwardly. “So, Yoonji is. She’s trans. So, Dasom wouldn’t understand. She’d never want to date me again, at least. Not that I really care about that. I just care about it, you know, conceptually. For Yoonji’s sake.” God, he felt so awkward. He hadn’t planned to say that, but as soon as he did, he knew he needed to talk about it. He didn’t want to involve Jeongguk anymore, and Namjoon would repeat any conversation word-for-word back to Yoonji later. And that, plus his sister, was everyone he trusted.

Sooyoung was quiet for long enough that Hoseok worried she was mad, or that the call dropped. But then she said, “That’s awesome, dude.”

“Okay,” said Hoseok warily.

“Wait,” she said. “Sorry in advance for what I’m about to say.”

“Alright.”

“You’re not dating her because you’re, like, trying to prove you can, right? This isn’t about testing your limits, or something?”

Honestly, Hoseok hadn’t thought about that. That didn’t mean it wasn’t the case, but his thoughts went right to Yoonji’s pretty hands and how much she made him laugh, even when she wasn’t trying to be funny. He said, “No. I really like her.”

“You’re not trying to do something that will freak our parents out or prove to Dasom that she was never right for you?”

Definitely not. “I’ve barely even thought about Dasom for weeks.” He still felt guilty saying so, but Sooyoung seemed relieved.

“Great,” she said. “Sorry about that, I just had to make sure. Well, I think that’s really cool, Seok.”

“Okay,” he said.

“I’m glad it’s going well.”

“It’s going really well. She’s so cool.” Then he thought about saying it, and then he decided not to say it, and then he said it anyway. “Except.”

“Except?”

“We haven’t, like. Had sex yet.” What a weird thing to be talking about with his sister. What a weird thing to be bringing up after all, after such a short time seeing a new girl, not even his girlfriend yet, when so many people he knew still waited until marriage. “I want to, but I’m nervous about it.”

“Ah,” said Sooyoung. “I get that.”

“I feel bad.”

“For being nervous? I wouldn’t sweat that. This is different, but it took me like, way too long to be comfortable with Suran. Oh, hang on,” she said quickly, and then away from the receiver Hoseok heard, “Yes, I’m talking about you. What do you want for dinner?” and then he could hear Suran’s voice but not the words she said, and then Sooyoung said, “Sounds good ,” then back into the receiver she said, “Sorry. Wife stuff. She just walked in.”

“That’s okay, tell her hi.”

“Hoseok says hi,” said Sooyoung. “Suran says hi back.”

“Great. Cool lady.”

“I think so,” said Sooyoung, smile clear in her voice. “Anyway, this girl you’re seeing.”

“You know, I’m sorry I brought it up,” said Hoseok, feeling like he was talking about things he should maybe just say to Yoonji or look up on Google. “I think I’ll figure it out on my own.”

“That’s fair, but just let me... Let me impart something first.”

“Okay,” said Hoseok.

“It’s all the same, basically.”

“Okay,” he said, even though he wasn’t following yet.

“We’re just all human people. We’re not that different from each other. I mean, superficially maybe we are. And I know a lot of people claim to have physical preferences, and I get that, and I’m sure that’s real for some people, but I think most people just say that because it’s easier than thinking. If we all really thought about what we wanted, a lot of us would come up with different answers than we thought we had.”

“Yeah.” He got that. It fit in with a lot of the conversations he’d been having lately.

“I mean, think about it. So your girl, I’m assuming, doesn’t have a vagina?”

Hoseok groaned. “That’s right.”

“Why does that make you nervous?”

“Because what if I don’t like it?” he sounded petulant even to himself.

“I guess,” said Sooyoung, “You might not. I don’t think it’s super likely, but it’s possible. But if you like her, I think it’ll be okay. Worst case scenario, you’re not that into it. Figure something else out, you know? There’s lots of ways to be close to someone.”

“Yeah,” said Hoseok.

“Just the fact that you’re trying is really big.”

“I don’t--”

“No, it is. I mean, to be real, it shouldn’t be a big deal that you’re being thoughtful about this. But we have so much to unlearn. Everybody, but you and me especially. I constantly feel like I’m years behind everybody else.”

 Me too . Exactly.”

“Even still. Like, Suran’s parents told her they’d still love her if she grew up to like women. They told her that as a kid , can you imagine? And, god, I just… trans women get so much shit. Don’t let it go to your head, but I think it’s really cool.”

“Okay,” says Hoseok quietly. “Thanks.”

“I see you out here trying your best, dude. Not just in this.”

“Thank you.”

“When I left home, I was too scared to cut off contact. I was too scared to be decisive about it until I knew I had people to fall back on. And, I… I feel bad that I left you behind. I know I didn’t make it easier for you. But it’s cool to see you just going for it . Running headfirst into this new life. It’s awesome. I just want you to know I see it.”

“Thank you,” said Hoseok.

“One more time?”

“Thanks,” said Hoseok, trying to be solemn, but he couldn’t keep a straight face. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, Seok. Okay. I should start dinner.”

“Enjoy. Tell Suran hi.”

“Just did, but I will again. Proud of you. Bye bye.”

“Bye.”



 

Hoseok wakes up to his first alarm, and he loves the crisp, new air of morning. He sleeps through the night, except for occasionally when he’s up before sunrise and can’t get back to sleep. He’s good at sleeping. He doesn’t love it, but he does it well.

That’s very different from Yoonji. She takes a lot longer to fall asleep, and wakes up a lot, sometimes gets up for a while in the middle of the night, and in the morning, she stays all squinty-eyed and rumpled for a while, peeking out from the blankets like a baby bird who really doesn’t want to hatch. She doesn’t like to give up warmth or be jostled too much. Usually, she wakes up when Hoseok gets up and insults him incoherently for leaving. She grabs at his shirt as he gets up and whines, “Ho- beeeee .”

To make it easier on her, he’s been starting coffee for her and bringing her a cup when it’s ready. Apparently, he makes it too weak, but Yoonji always says this with a sleepy smile as she struggles to sit up, and he’s starting to think that what she wants isn’t stronger coffee, but just the ground-up beans with enough hot water mixed in to make a paste.

One morning, when they’re sleeping over a couple nights a week and starting to figure out a routine, Hoseok goes to Yoonji’s kitchen to make coffee and finds her roommate Jimin already at the table with a cup. Pumpkin is standing on the table graciously accepting head scratches. Jimin’s hair is tied up and straggly, she’s not wearing any makeup, and she looks exhausted, but she smiles up at him. He smiles back.

Usually, Hoseok and Yoonji hide in her room when they’re over. Hoseok still hasn’t had a conversation with Jimin that didn’t feel just a little bit hostile, though lately it’s felt like she’s just acting on principle.

“Morning,” Hoseok says.

“Hey,” says Jimin. “There’s coffee.”

“I was gonna get some for Yoonji,” he says, going to the cabinet to get her a mug. The one she likes most is extra big, black on the outside and green on the inside, and the side says, Fire Burn and Cauldron Bubble, This Witch Needs Coffee or There’ll be Trouble . Goofy.

He fills it up most of the way and adds a little sugar. Not a lot. Not as much as he would need if it were for him. He’s just noticed that Yoonji likes it more if he adds some, even if she drinks it black when she makes it herself.

Jimin says, “How… is it going?”

“Well,” he says, “Fine.”

“I heard my cat likes you.”

She looks like she might want to be talking to him. He worries about the coffee going cold, but Yoonji was still mostly asleep when he left her, so he doesn’t need to hurry.

Hoseok sets the mug down on a table and sits at a chair that’s already pulled out all the way. As soon as he’s near the table, Pumpkin makes a chirpy sound and comes to get scratches from him, too. While he scratches at a good spot in the fluff on the side of Pumpkin’s face, he says, “We get along. I’m good with cats.”

“He’s so cute,” says Jimin groggily. “Look at his butt.”

“He’s a great cat,” says Hoseok. Pumpkin whines and bats Hoseok away and then goes back to Jimin. “Spunky.”

“He doesn’t usually like people right away,” she says idly. “But he has a good sense for people. He knows.”

“That’s encouraging,” says Hoseok.

“Tae does too.”

“They what? Have a good sense for people?”

Jimin nods. She looks at Hoseok. She takes a sip of her coffee.

“That’s cool,” says Hoseok. “Where are they, by the way? Don’t you usually sleep in the same place?”

She shrugs. “I have work early, and they stayed at their mom’s last night. But I slept like, really bad.” She rubs the back of her neck and makes a little sound like it hurts.

“Sorry about that,” he says.

“It’s fine,” she says. “But, uh, anyway, Tae has good people sense.”

“I think I can see that. They’re really friendly.”

“But they know when not to be friendly.”

“Okay, you’re right,” says Hoseok. “That is a good skill.”

Jimin takes another drink of her coffee. Her phone vibrates but she doesn’t look at it. “They really like you.”

“I like them, too,” he says. He feels like he could be good friends with them.

“You should bring Yoonji her coffee,” says Jimin. “Before it’s too late.” She smiles to herself.

“I should,” agrees Hoseok. “Good to um, catch up.”

Jimin says “Mhmm,” and when Hoseok looks back her face is already lit up in the glow of her phone screen.

 



One night the week before the official first day of Spring, at Hoseok’s kitchen table over cups of steaming tea, Yoonji says, “So.”

Hoseok raises his eyebrows, and Yoonji says, “I was wondering.” She looks away from him, so he’s certain she’s been thinking. “Would you still want to… try to…”

And Hoseok, realizing what she’s talking about, quickly says, “Of course.” Of course he does. It’s absurd that she thinks he might have changed his mind. He’s figured out how her breath sounds when she likes what he’s doing, and sometimes it’s all he can do not to tell her it’s fine , he wants it , when he’s gripping her hips and they’re as close as they can be with clothes in between them. In those moments, it’s impossible not to be aware of what they’re avoiding. Their bodies respond to each other.

“Okay,” she says. “Because I think I’m ready.” She looks finished, but if Hoseok stays quiet, she rarely is. She clears her throat. “My… general approach is usually not talking about anything.” She says this to his armpit, and then looks up at him. Her makeup is smudged under her eyes from all the lazy time they’ve spent together this afternoon. “That won’t work here.”

“I don’t think it will,” says Hoseok. Then, “I’m ready, too.” Then, “I’m happy that you want to.”

She laughs nervously, hides her face in her hands for a second, but plays it off like she’s smoothing out her bangs. Then she hunches over into a sip of tea, and then she says, “Cool.”

Hoseok clears his throat. He’s not sure what to ask. This is the unsexy part. He starts with, “Well, what do you want to do? Like, what... do you know what feels good?”

She swallows. “Um,” she says. “I’m sorry.”

“For what?” asks Hoseok. He’s so perplexed. She shouldn’t be sorry, she wants something that he really, really wants.

She rubs at her face. Presses on her eyes with her fingers. She says, “This is the most stressful thing in the world.”

“Well, I don’t wanna. You know. I don’t wanna have sex if you think it’s stressful .”

“I want you so bad,” she says. Her voice breaks a little. “I know you think about it too. But the longer it goes, the more I wonder if I’ll ever be ready like I want to be. If what I’m waiting for is this magical moment where it’s not awkward anymore, it’ll never happen.”

“You’re not selling me this idea,” says Hoseok.

“I want you,” she says again, “So bad.”

“I want you too,” he says. He means it.

“This is so hard.”

He nods. He doesn’t want to say it’s hard for him too, because it’s nothing like what she’s got on her plate. But it’s challenging to be so unsure of this, and it’s challenging to see someone so beautiful so uneasy about herself.

Yoonji says, “I’ve never talked about sex with anyone. With ex-girlfriends it was too weird, you know? And now it’s still weird and I never even learned to ask for what I want.” She looks up at him, soulless. “You don’t deserve this. I’m embarrassed.”

“What we’ve been doing has been really good,” he says, not for the first time. “It’s been enough. It’s okay if you’re not ready. I mean,” he sputters through the sentimentality, “I like sleeping with you. It’s just nice being close.”

“Why are you so good?” she says. She sounds like she really wants to know what he has to say for himself.

She runs her hand back through her hair. Her face is pink and she looks totally horrified, and he wonders if she feels like she has to do this. If she feels like she needs to do this for him, and she won’t ever feel really good about it, that’s not what he wants. If they do this, he doesn’t want it to be like that. He says, “We don’t have to.”

Yoonji says, like they’re arguing, “But it’s what I want.”

Hoseok nods. “It’s what I want, too.”

Yoonji clears her throat. “Good.”

The words don’t get any easier, but they work through it. They say the things they need to say, ask what they need to ask. They talk about the things they want to do, and how, and they promise each other that they really want to do them. Even if there’s more to it than there ought to be, even if sometimes the uncertainty is nearly as heavy as the wanting. Yoonji tells Hoseok, “Even if it’s weird the first time, we can keep trying,” and Hoseok tells Yoonji, “It’s never going to be good if we never do it.”

They don’t plan when , they only plan what .

This has been a slow thing. Before it happens, Hoseok still isn't completely convinced that it ever will. Even after they plan it out, Hoseok isn't positive. He isn't going to be sure they’ll do it until they do it. He isn't going to be sure he’ll like it until he likes it. Which is fine. It starts becoming difficult to imagine it going too badly.

It comes upon them on one afternoon when they go to Yoonji’s house after work. It’s about a week after their conversation, when the neck-burning awkwardness of having to say all the words has faded, when they both know they're on the same page about this, and when Yoonji is on top of Hoseok, kissing him and kissing him and kissing him. It’s been sitting on them, heavy since they talked, and Hoseok suddenly is ready to stop thinking about it. He’s ready to stop painstakingly translating what his body wants into proper logic. He wants her to know that he feels a lot about her. He wants her to know his body craves her body.

He flips her over and, with a leg between her thighs, he kisses her mouth. Then he kisses her nose, and the bone at the top of one cheek, and then the other. Her eyes close, and he kisses one eyelid and then the other. She makes a breathy sound, and he kisses her throat so he can feel her voice. He kisses the top of one shoulder, and then the other, and her hand tangles in his hair. He really, really likes that, and he makes a low sound, so she grabs it even harder. He kisses her ribcage, holds his mouth there long enough to feel it expand under him, and then he kisses her side, down to her waist, and buries his face in the divot where her hips curve out. Her skin smells sweet, and she’s warmer than usual. She squirms and makes another breathy sound, not quite voiced, but unthinking. She wouldn't make a sound like that on purpose, anyway; it's hard to even get her to loosen up enough to let her hands wander.

Hoseok really wants this to happen. He thinks about it a lot. He thinks about it more than he lets on, because he doesn't want to pressure her into anything. But, more and more, he thinks about this. He thinks about the vampire fangs she has tattooed on her collarbone, and the freckle below her bra line, and the perfect weight of her breasts in his hands. Just the right size to hold, just beautiful. The little softness to her stomach and the tops of her arms and thighs, her hair and her mouth and her neck. He thinks about it all the time. It doesn’t feel right to tell her so, but he kisses her like it's true.

He kisses around her side to her soft stomach, and kisses the same spot over and over, hovering over her on his hands and knees. Her chest is heaving and her hand is still tangled in his hair and she's making these little noises. He kisses across the top of the waistband of her pajama pants, lingering around the other side, on her hip bone.

Then he trails back up the center of her stomach, the underside of one of her breasts, her collarbone, her shoulder, her neck, the side of her face, and she turns her face to meet his mouth with hers.

Both of her arms come around his back, and she presses up against him, and he presses back, and he runs a hand down her side and then she says, "Can we?"

He says, "Yeah, yeah, yeah," and she says, "I mean, if you want," and he says, "Yes, please, I want to, I want to."

Yoonji falters a little, but her eyes look heavy, and her small mouth is open, so he says again, "Please."

She looks less turned on than determined as she shimmies out of her pajama bottoms. Her underwear matches the bra she was wearing today, a deep maroon, and Hoseok looks at her waist and thinks, here we go.

Other than their breathing, it gets quiet. It's a reverent moment, a still one. She must be so nervous, so nervous. Hoseok is still, after all this time, worried about how he’ll feel. But judging by the way he wants her, how hard it is to keep his hands off her, he thinks it’s going to be fine, fine, fine.

She pulls her underwear off, and she is naked.

And he still wants her.

He looks at her for a second. It's much less strange to him than he thought it would be. It's fine. It's cute. Hoseok's image of her doesn't need time to readjust.

Yoonji says, "Good?" and Hoseok says, “Really good."

Then she says, "Stop looking."

Hoseok's eyes snap up at her face. Then the distance between them is too much, so he closes it and kisses her.

She kisses him back for a second, but then she rips her mouth from his and says, “Are you sure?”

“I am,” says Hoseok. “Are you?”

She breathes out shakily and says, “I am.”

“Good,” says Hoseok. He presses a kiss to the side of her face. Her hair is a little sweaty, it smells a little more like her sweet shampoo than usual. He says, “Whatever you want.”

She still seems suspicious, like she isn’t sure if he really means this. Even as they’re in it. He’s going to make her know that he wants her like this. She’s breathing hard and has her arms thrown around his shoulders.

Hoseok doesn't want the awkwardness to settle, so he says, “Okay, okay, I’m going to…”

Yoonji nods quickly. “Yeah, yeah, you can.”

Hoseok kisses her, slow, deep, and hot, and smelling sweet and like mints and coffee and sour earth, and he thinks, This is exactly how I want this to be.

 

 

One time, right in the beginning, while freezing rain slapped at the diner window, Namjoon said, “I heard you and Yoonji have been hanging out.”

“A little,” Hoseok answered then. “We run into each other a lot.”

“That’s cool,” said Namjoon. Then he took a poignant pause, and then he said, “I think she likes you.”

“Cool,” said Hoseok, who hadn’t exactly gotten that vibe yet, through all the grimacing.

“It’s my job as her best friend,” said Namjoon, “to just get this out of the way. Don’t hurt her, okay?”

“I won’t,” said Hoseok.

“Cool. She’s the best person I know, basically, so. Keep her heart safe.”

“I will,” said Hoseok. And he tried.

Now, months later, on a chilly but bright day, walking back to Namjoon’s house after meeting up for lunch, he mentions her again. “She’s in love with you,” he says, simply, like it’s news about a community garden: something very nice, but not something that makes anybody’s whole world.

Hoseok chews on that for a moment, trying to keep his heart beating in time. “Is she?” he asks, like swallowing.

“For sure. I’ve never seen her like this.”

Hoseok clears his throat. He’s started humming like he’s plugged into a wall. He says, “I feel the same about her. But don’t tell her, because, you know.” His voice shakes. “It’s got to be special.”

Namjoon smiles. “I won’t,” he says. “Promise.”

“How are you?” asks Hoseok. “I heard about… Seokjin.”

“Of course you did,” laughs Namjoon, attempting to be mirthful. “I’m sure you’re all caught-up on what he’s doing with Jeongguk.” He makes a grossed-out face. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m dealing, you know?”

“Yeah,” says Hoseok.

“It’s fairly fucked up that I’m experiencing legitimate heartbreak over someone I’ve met all of four times, but maybe I just built it up.” He shakes his head sorely. They’re back at Namjoon’s house; he reaches a long arm over the wooden fence to unlatch it and lets them into the backyard. He leads them to the covered part of the patio, pulls a pack of cigarettes out of the front pocket of his tattered plaid flannel, and says, “Want some weed?”

Hoseok blinks for a second; Namjoon is nonplussed.

Hoseok says, “Weed?”

“Yeah,” says Namjoon, sitting down loosely on a lawn chair. He gestures aimlessly. “Like, weed.”

“You do that?” asks Hoseok as he sits down across from Namjoon.

Namjoon says, “Oh, shit.”

“What?”

“Yeah,” says Namjoon. “I do that.”

“Okay,” says Hoseok, trying to be open-minded about this. Just like Namjoon himself once said; if he’s going to be open-minded, it should be universal. He says, “Well, to each his own. But I don’t think it’s for me.”

“Oh, no,” says Namjoon.  

“Why do you keep saying that?” Hoseok asks.

“Have you and Yoonji ever talked about this before?”

“No,” says Hoseok. “Why?”

Namjoon makes a yikes face. “Your girlfriend is a stoner. I’m telling you this for your own good.”

“She’s not my girlfriend yet.”  

Namjoon nods, but he’s still sizing Hoseok up suspiciously. “Either way, she’s a huge stoner. Or, a tiny stoner, but she honestly puts it away. Her body mass to weed ratio is crazy. I keep telling her she needs a tolerance break or something. Have you not smelled it on her?”

“Interesting.”

“Sorry to break it to you.”

Hoseok takes a deep breath. “Namjoon,” he says, hiding the quaver in his voice, sitting up uncomfortably straight in the lawn chair. “Thank you for the offer. Yes, I would like to do weed with you.”

Chapter Text

Being cold is a fact of Yoonji’s life. Even in the summer: cold. Cold and uncomfortable, not wearing the right clothes, sore in a tense and exhausted way that is caused by the climate around her. Yoonji is always cold, so she always wears layers. Easy. It keeps the temperature from reaching her skin.

Thawing is new. It’s easier to move around when you’re warm, to relax, and to forget about things. It’s different from what she is used to. Even at her best, she’s never felt anything like this, pulling off her shirt because it’s more comfortable to lie down skin-to-skin with Hoseok. She slinks into her bed and lies on top of him. She snuggles up.

It’s because, she tells him, he’s toasty like he just came off a rotisserie spit. When she says that though, what she’s really thinking about is sunlight, how it lingers on his skin like a smell.

Talking about his smell, though, would be too intimate. Even though she knows the delighted face he’d make if she were brave enough to tell him that she’s thought long and hard, and she thinks the closest word is rain . Not the cold rain that falls in the park where Hoseok works, that smells like asphalt and mud and car exhaust. Hoseok smells like the rain in the summer that falls on clean, green earth and hangs in the air as the sun goes down. He smells like fresh water.

That’s something she would tell him if the words came easier. She got close once. One afternoon like this, at her apartment, she was so tired that she buried her face in his bare chest and breathed him in until her senses were all filled up and she couldn’t smell the rain anymore. Then she fell asleep, and when she woke up, her face was stuck to him and he was reading a book. She apologized until he threatened to send her home. So maybe she didn’t almost tell him. She just thought about it a lot with her face pressed against him.

She’s not so tired today, she’s just cold.

It’s spring now, not just in name. The sun has been out all week, and Hoseok’s energy has been infectious. The light pours through him in ways Yoonji can’t access on her own yet. When he’s not around, his bright source of energy goes too.

It’s nice to be with him after a long day, skin against skin. Hoseok usually lies down first, on his back, and then Yoonji curls up on top of him, and then he holds her. It’s romantic. Sometimes it makes her think about so many things that she could cry, but she doesn’t. She clears her head and feels his arms across her bare back, and she lives in the small moment.

“You feel tense,” says Hoseok today, running warm fingertips down her spine. He takes a deep slow breath, lungs expanding against her face. “You okay?”

She isn’t sure if she is, but it’s hard to explain to Hoseok, because he’s simple. Not simple like uncomplicated, or shallow, but in the sense that he doesn’t need very much. Like a plant, he only needs what keeps him alive: clean water, fresh air, space, and nutrients. He doesn’t need three of the same cardigan, or prepackaged cups of oatmeal with the right amount of brown sugar already measured in, or climate control, or a multivitamin and an antidepressant and a pill every day to keep his body from changing back into the worst version of itself. It’s worries like that, like what Yoonji would do without all the comforts she relies on, that make her tense. It’s just difficult to explain.

She doesn’t answer for a minute, until Hoseok rubs her back with a little more intent, and into her hair he mumbles, “I’ve got you, baby.”

“I’m good,” she says. Those little threads of malaise that tug at her all the time don’t need to rule her right now. Not when she’s in Hoseok’s arms like this, small and warm and cared about.

She kisses his chest.

 

 

Yoonji is eating lunch at her desk, which is something everyone does occasionally. Even people who usually have plans at lunchtime. Not everyone has to have a comment for everything, all the time.

Yet, voyeuristically, with a mouthful of cold spaghetti, Seokjin says, “Hey, what happened to your nice man?” Being beautiful has granted him too much liberty in life.

“He has Thursdays off, freak.”

“I thought getting a boyfriend would make you like, less of a hag,” he says. “You’d think the spinster attitude would fade. Love is supposed to make you beautiful and kind.”

“He’s not my boyfriend, he’s just a boy I’m seeing,” says Yoonji, in a voice that she believes is emotive. “And I’m way too young to be a spinster, you’re using that word wrong. Shrew maybe, or--”

“Fishwife,” supplies Seokjin. “Ogress.”

“Do you stop?”

Seokjin shrugs. “Not really. Anyway, he’s your boyfriend. Every day when you get back from lunch, you’re all,” and then he does this horrible thing where he tries to flutter his eyelashes, twitches and squints.

“I’m not like that,” says Yoonji.

“I’m just saying. Boy-you’re-seeing, boyfriend, either way he’s Your Boy so whatever, you know?”

“It’s not whatever,” says Yoonji, finally looking up from her container of food. “Because that word means more to him than it does to you.”

Seokjin says, “Oh, does it?” Like a challenge.

So Yoonji says, “Yeah, it does. You’re so fuckin’ loosey-goosey with everything. Remember the time you went on one date and were boyfriend-girlfriend at the end?”

“Well,” says Seokjin, as if to excuse himself, “That didn’t last very long.”

Yoonji just looks at him. She doesn’t need to dignify this. “I don’t need to dignify this,” she says.

“Then don’t.”

Yoonji gets to her point. “You’d be anyone’s boyfriend for any reason. It’s just a word to you.”

“Correct.”

“Hoseok has had one girlfriend.” She holds up a finger for emphasis. Only one. “He was raised super religious. A girlfriend to him is like, like, a commitment. It would mean it was serious. More serious than it is,” her words trail off, “with him.”  

“I don’t know,” says Seokjin. “It seems pretty serious. I hear things.”

“Do you.”

“My spiders hiss little secrets in my ears. Like that you’re over there every night. Except on the nights when he’s over at yours.”

“Well,” she says, small, “It gets cold at night.”

“You’re fucking gone for him.”

“I am normal for him,” she says.

“Yeah, alright. Live whatever lie is best, I guess.”

 

 

One Saturday, Hoseok and Yoonji walk to eat lunch and then back to Yoonji’s apartment. Hoseok has been here many times, but as soon as they walk in, he starts standing strange. Looking around. It’s odd enough to make Yoonji nervous.

Finally he stops beside the bong on her nightstand and says, “Nice weed stuff.”

Yoonji blinks. What a weird thing to hear a person say. Hoseok has never mentioned weed before; she sort of assumed he just didn’t care. But now he’s leaning on the doorframe and doing a really good approximation of nonchalance. “Cool bong.”

“Thank you,” Yoonji says slowly.

“Yeah, I’ve done weed before.”

“Congratulations.” What is she supposed to say? She’s been high for eight years.

“Yeah, so.”

“Are you asking me for weed?” asks Yoonji.

“No,” says Hoseok. “I probably couldn’t right now. I’d just… you know. Fall asleep. But sometime.”

“Oh.” Yoonji wonders if Hoseok is trying to relate to her. “Great,” she says.

Hoseok shrugs like he thinks he’s smooth and says, “Sick.”

Okay, he’s definitely trying to relate to her, and he’s truly failing. But even missing the mark, it’s cute to see him leaning against the doorframe, trying so hard to impress her, even though she’s always already impressed.

 

Yoonji has to admit it now, if only to herself. She’s in love. She feels things about Hoseok that are so intense they feel like secrets. She thinks he’ll be handsome when he’s old. She should probably make some attempt to cull it before it makes her much weaker, but she feels bouncy and she cares less about the things that usually bother her, and she trusts Hoseok to be careful with power over her.

Yoonji’s heart beats easily, and she can’t keep smiles off her face. She finds herself being nicer to people she meets in everyday life, and they’re being nicer to her, too. She’s starting to wonder if she has been misinterpreting the reasons people are so wary of her. Maybe by expecting it, and guarding herself so sternly against it, she’s caused it. Maybe most people don’t actually think twice about her. How freeing.

While Yoonji gets all spun up like cotton candy, her friends struggle with their people. One afternoon, she hears Tae and Jimin fighting. She’s in her room on her laptop with the door cracked, and it’s too late to close it all the way by the time she realizes what’s happening. Tae and Jimin would hear it click; they’d know she was listening. Yoonji’s headphones are in the living room, so she just has to try to think of other things.

She hears Tae say, low and reassuring, “Hey, you know I don’t mean it like that.”

“Then how do you mean it?” says Jimin, obviously choked up.

A pause, then Tae says, every word separate from the next, “We understand each other, and that’s really important to me.”

“I don’t think we do understand each other,” says Jimin, tears in her voice.

“Well, I don’t know what more I can do about that,” says Tae, and they don’t sound angry at all, just sad. Maybe they’re crying, Yoonji can’t tell. She’s trying not to listen. “I think I’m gonna go home.”

“I think you should,” says Jimin. “I need space.”

It hurts Yoonji’s stomach. They’re choosing words, trying not to say things they can’t take back. But they’re tailored to each other, they’re not supposed to be angry or self-conscious with one another. They fit together like they have never been apart before. Even the way their bodies are shaped, the way they slot together without even a breath of air between them.

 Before Tae goes, they say, “I love you.”

“I love you,” says Jimin back, flatly.

“Okay. Okay. I’m…” it sounds like they’re gonna say sorry , but then they think better of it, or decide they aren’t sorry. Instead they say, “I love you so much.”

Jimin says something in a low voice that Yoonji can’t hear. Then the door opens, and then it closes. Yoonji hears the deadbolt, and then she hears Jimin go into her room and closes the door.

After a few minutes, Yoonji gets up and goes to her. She can’t hear anything through the wall, but she can feel the miserable energy. She knocks on Jimin’s door.

“Come in,” comes a wet, muffled little voice.

Yoonji cracks the door, slips in, and moves Pumpkin out of the way as she goes around the side of the bed and gets in the bed behind Jimin. Jimin snuggles up, so Yoonji hugs her. She smells like her high-end sugary perfume. She mumbles, “Hey, what was that?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” says Jimin. But she always wants to talk about it, with Yoonji. She does a painful-sounding hiccup and says, “It was just a disagreement. It’s just.” She hiccups again, winces. “I really thought they saw me as a girl.”

That makes Yoonji so sad so suddenly that a sound tries to tear out of her. That hurts her chest. That is so painful. She says, “Honey, they do. What did they say?” What could they have possibly said?

“I asked them if we’d still be dating if I wasn’t trans.”

Oh.

“They said probably not.”

 Yoonji can’t say anything to that. What a thorny question. She thinks she understands Tae, that they don’t want to feel like it’s shameful or taboo. She doesn’t know how she’d have answered if she were them.

 “So like, what is this?” says Jimin through tears. “They’re not better than anyone else.”

It hurts Yoonji to hear Jimin comparing Tae to the people who have hurt her. Yoonji tries to be reassuring. “They care about it because they care about you.”

“I don’t want them to care about it. I don’t want it.” She hiccups.   

“Oh, I know,” says Yoonji soothingly. She runs her hand along Jimin’s side, the bunched up fabric of her tank top over her waist.

“I can’t be with someone who thinks about it all the time.”

That makes Yoonji so sad. Sometimes it helps Jimin to be around Tae all the time, someone so vocal and vibrant, but it must be exhausting to have to spend so much time outside her comfort zone. She’s trying so hard. It’s just so hard for her to find things in this to be proud of. Yoonji has been through a lot, but she has never hurt like this.

Yoonji says, “They love you so much.”

“But they don’t see me as a girl.”

It’s such a logical jump, designed specifically for Jimin to hurt herself. “Yes, they completely do,” she says. “Did they say why they answered you like that?”

“They said we met because of this,” Jimin says. “They don’t even know if we’d know each other if they hadn’t come and talked to me at first. But I know we’d have met somehow eventually. And, they said that they want to be with someone who gets it.”

“Does that not sound fair to you?” says Yoonji, as gently as she can.

“It would sound fair if I got it at all,” says Jimin, a little forcefully. She wiggles out from under Yoonji’s arm and flops around to face her. “They talk like I get where they’re coming from but I don’t.”

Yoonji thinks Jimin gets what’s important, the parts about standing up for yourself in ways that other people don’t have to, but she doesn’t say it. The difference between them is just that Jimin is afraid of so much.

“I’m just a girl, and it’s always gonna suck that I have to work for it. I’m trying so hard to be proud of who I am, but I don’t want people to know. I don’t want this to be my life.”

“Yeah,” says Yoonji. She finds Jimin’s hand and holds it; she tries to be comforting because Jimin is more upset than Yoonji has ever seen her, ugly-crying and not thinking before she talks.

“Tae is like, so much happier since figuring it out. It’s a huge relief for them. They’re so proud of who they are. They like, invite conversations about it. Intentionally. Sometimes I don’t even want to be seen with them. I would never try to take it away from them, but I see people’s faces when they realize. I see people look at me. I love Tae so much, but I’m tired.”

Yoonji has her face resting awkwardly on Jimin’s upper arm. “It’s hard,” she says.

“When do I get to stop being trans? And just be a girl? When is it gonna be over?”

They both know it’s never. Yoonji squeezes Jimin’s hand.

“Maybe they deserve someone who can be proud with them.”

Yoonji suspected that was what it really was. “You’re enough for them,” she says. “More than enough. I know you think it’s just what their face looks like, but they adore you. You don’t have to change.”

“I thought I was doing better,” Jimin says. “I thought I was feeling less fucked up about it. But I hold them back so much.”

“You try really hard.”

“It’s not enough.”

“It’s enough.”

Jimin takes a deep breath and exhales streams of tears. Nobody says anything for a minute, and then something new takes hold of Jimin and she covers her face for a minute to cry. From the guts, painful, curled up. Yoonji cried like that a lot in college, when she thought that she was doomed to feel how she did forever.

Yoonji rubs Jimin’s back. There’s so little she can do when it’s this kind of hurt. Jimin is sobbing and shaking. She’ll probably feel better when she gets it out.

Eventually, she gets a grip on herself. Wipes the tears away with the backs of her arms, leaving smeary wings of mascara on her arms and her face. She sniffles, hiccups, groans. Her face is puffy and shiny. Jimin has seen Yoonji like this, but Yoonji has never seen Jimin cry like this. Being in love makes everything so much more.

“What are you thinking about?” asks Yoonji, when Jimin finally looks up at her.

Jimin slows her breathing a little. She says, “I don’t know. High school.”

“Yeah,” says Yoonji.

“What were you like as a high schooler?” asks Jimin, a little hoarse.

“I was dumb, obviously,” says Yoonji. She’s still dumb. “I was into music, in marching band. Antisocial. People said I was goth.”

“People say you’re goth now.”

“This is just what I look like.”

“You knew, right?”

“Yeah. I knew.”

Jimin says, “I wish I had waited to tell people. I don’t know why I thought it would go well when I was still in Catholic school.”

“Because you were brave,” Yoonji says, “and you didn’t know how hard it was going to be.”

“I wanted to fix it and no one let me.”

“I know.” Yoonji tries to be soothing. “It’s so hard to feel good.” She tries to distract from Jimin’s misery. “Did I ever tell you how I tried to come out when I was eighteen, but I got so freaked out that I took it back. I literally just… moved away.”

“Sort of,” says Jimin.

“Somebody yelled out their car at me,” Yoonji says. She rolls her eyes at the thought of being so deeply affected by something like that. She was so weak then. Not strong enough. “Just one time. It scared me so much.” She went to the convenience store across from her dorm wearing a skirt over jeans. It was a dumb, small thing to try. She was expecting something bad to happen, and when it did, it confirmed what she was probably trying to prove to herself. It wouldn’t be possible; she didn’t deserve it. Jimin went through worse than that every day for years, though she’s private about it. Yoonji says, “You were brave, and you shouldn’t be ashamed of that.”

Jimin says, “Someone found out my locker combination and put a bunch of rotten food in it once. I think they dug in a trash can.”

“Disgusting.”

“My junior year math teacher failed me even though I did all the work for his class. Because he knew nobody would try to defend me.”

“I’m sorry that happened to you,” says Yoonji. But the words don’t convey her sympathy, so she hugs Jimin harder. Tucks her head against her chest and tries to make her feel safe. Tries to radiate all the love she has for her best friend, her sister, who encouraged her when she was scared, who works so hard to look so strong. Who, three years ago, was so beautiful and confident that Yoonji thought, I can do this too Really. I can.

Yoonji says, “I love you, lady.”

“Sorry,” says Jimin quietly.

“Please don’t break up with Tae.”

“I couldn’t,” mumbles Jimin.

“This is gonna be okay. Because you adore each other, and that’s more important than this.”

Jimin swallows. “I love them,” she says.

Yoonji gets it. Jimin loves Tae so much that it makes her afraid. Yoonji feels like that too, sometimes. She feels the outlines of all her nerves and the electricity flowing through them.

There’s no advice and no consolation for something like this. There’s nothing to say that doesn’t feel patronizing. There’s no way to take this pain away from Jimin, so Yoonji just hugs her. Jimin has done the same for Yoonji, in times when the only way to get through it was to wait until it was bearable again.

After a while, Jimin’s breathing steadies, and Yoonji pets her messy pink hair until her head clears enough to text Tae.

 

 

For the first time in her life, Yoonji is starting to wonder if she is the only person she knows who is doing alright. For once, she’s the one who is sleeping through the night, who is eating vegetables and remembering all her pills and spending her time warm. She and Hoseok have even started taking an evening walk around downtown when they get off work. The days are getting longer, so they get almost an hour in sometimes. Hoseok has taken her to so many hidden parks and fountains and overgrown byways, and pulled her aside to kiss her in little shaded green spaces that she’s never been able to find again.

One of these afternoons, he takes her to a courtyard in the very center of a city block, behind and between tall office buildings. It’s even smaller and more claustrophobic than the park where Hoseok works, but in a way that feels cozy rather than desolate. There are shady trees and ivy and the sun is almost entirely blotted out. He takes her to a pool of still water and sits at the edge with her. She rests her hand behind her to hold herself up, and he puts his hand on top of hers. A small gesture that never doesn’t feel like it felt the first time.

“How’s it going?” he asks her, then he flips his hair, because it’s in his face. Then he smiles. His mouth is… too big, maybe. It’s goofy. He has a freckle on his mouth that she always tries to kiss away.

“Good,” she says. Then she has to say it again, because the first was too bashful, a voice not hers. “Good.”

Yoonji never thought she’d feel so energetic and comfortable like this. She never thought she’d be excited to spend so much time outside. One day, she catches herself dancing along to a song Jimin has put on. Jimin respects her enough not to comment at all.

Maybe this comes at a price, either the price of everyone else’s happiness, or the price of seeing what she could never really see before: that she’s not the only one who suffers. Even when she could see that other people were having a hard time, she thought, they know how to handle it when it gets hard. Like it was inherent in some people but not in her, so this misery was just her lot.  

But she sees it now: people are all trying, and sometimes they’re failing. Like, maybe, concerningly, Namjoon. Yoonji goes to his house to get toasted one Sunday, and finally feels like she has to say something. He’s in a rut. His hair is more rumpled than normal, his room messier.

“Do you want to talk about what’s wrong?” she asks him as they sit on opposite ends of his bed with their legs crossed and Namjoon’s bong between them. Maybe she’s blunt, but she doesn’t have to be careful with him. Over the past month and a half or so, he’s been getting quieter and weirder. They used to casually touch, curl up on the couch to watch a movie snuggled up under the same blanket or lie on the floor with limbs thrown around, but he’s cringed away from her so many times that Yoonji has become careful around him in a way she never had to be before.

Namjoon shrugs his bony shoulders, rips the bong and blows the smoke the other way. After a minute he says, “I don’t really know what’s wrong anymore.”

Yoonji nods. She knows what that’s like, too. Sometimes having no reason makes it worse. Namjoon says, “I’ve just been off. I don’t know if I’m bored or something.”

“It’s not about, like, Seokjin, right?”

“No,” says Namjoon, scoffing and waving that idea off with the smoke. “Not even a little. I mean, it sucks, but I’m over it. I feel like an asshole for legitimately falling in love with him after meeting him twice. That’s on me. I want him to live a happy life.”

“You’re too good for him,” says Yoonji, thinking about all the horrible ways Seokjin plays with his food and all the foul things that froth out of his perfect mouth all day.

“It’s definitely not about Seokjin,” repeats Namjoon. “I’m just not sure what I’m doing with my life. Like, will it be cute in five more years for me to still just be like… this?”

“Like what?” says Yoonji, legitimately lost. She admires everything about Namjoon. He’s easygoing, confident, has a great mind and a big heart and seems content almost all the time. He’s never had a major problem that Yoonji has known. He’s never not known who he was.

“Still just be, you know, living in a house with four roommates, no car, never been in a significant relationship, and—”

“Namjoon, are you okay?” Yoonji is thinking, suddenly and anxiously, about the thing she’s been learning lately. Everyone has major problems. If they don’t tell you about them, that doesn’t mean they don’t have any.

Namjoon says, “Yeah, what? I’m just philosophizing, you know. Overthinking. No, I’m okay.”

“Are you?” accuses Yoonji.

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s fine. I’ve just been thinking about how, when I’m 35, is it still gonna be totally fine for me spend all my time stoned and talking about First Contact.”

Yoonji doesn’t point out Namjoon’s shirt. It was old and faded when he got it, but now it’s really loveworn. It’s black-and-white tie dye, and screenprinted on it is a cartoon alien in a UFO doing a peace sign. It’s a shirt that screams, I’m stoned and I want to talk about First Contact.

“Namjoon,” says Yoonji somberly. “I don’t know who you would be if not that.”

“Neither do I, and that’s what scares me. What if… what if I spend too much time thinking about aliens, and I forget everything that’s already here ?”

“Hmmm.”

“Like, what if all aliens and all cryptids and all conspiracies and all unsolved mysteries are all just ways for sad people to escape the confines of reality? Because reality sucks? What if I believe in this shit because I want some big fuckin’ aliens to come to Earth and make reality suck less?”

“Oh shit,” says Yoonji.

“But then,” says Namjoon, circling back on himself, “What if I’m right, and some unspeakable, gorgeous, cosmic shit is on its way as we speak?”

“Good point,” says Yoonji. She’s following, but she loses the ability to really carry on conversation when she’s this high. She has to catch every word out of the air, let it spread over her skin, chew on it and swallow. Namjoon is so much to consider all at once. What if there are aliens? What if there aren’t ? Good questions, all.

“I just don’t want to miss anything important because I’m too busy trying to decrypt the fucking Mothman. Like, the thing with Seokjin, okay, I felt like we were created for one another,” says Namjoon. “Like it was inevitable. Like it was bigger than us, and like, older. Like fate, you know? Like real fate, like, like unstoppable. Eternal shit. So, I’m insane.”

“It just sounds so much like the poem he wrote you,” says Yoonji.

“The poem? What poem?”

“In the notebook?”

“The notebook?”

“The notebook he gave you?”

“He… poem?”

Yoonji suddenly can’t remember if she ever showed Namjoon the poem. “I was sure you knew of the poem,” she mumbles, wondering if she’s an idiot.

“What?”

Yoonji has the notebook with her. She’s almost used it up, but she left the page with the poem blank. Her fingers stumble as she pulls it out of her bag and shows Namjoon. Yoonji’s handwriting is small and dense and scratchy and tilted far to the right. Her pen is solid black ink. Seokjin’s handwriting is all rounded corners, big and girly. The poem is written in purple ballpoint pen.

 

whenever I see you, I am always amazed.

I can't breathe. I think it might be love.

since the beginning, my heart has beat because of you.

S

 

And then his phone number.

Namjoon looks at it for a full minute. Then he looks up at Yoonji with dilated pupils and a skillfully straight face. And then he says, hollowly, “I didn’t know about this, Yoonji.”

“Oh,” she says nonchalantly.

“Is he still dating Jeongguk?”

“Yes.”

“Okay,” nods Namjoon. “Okay. Well. It doesn’t change anything. Because,” he straightens his face again, “I am over it.”

“You are,” encourages Yoonji.

“I am.”

“I know that you are.”

“I just need to think about some things.” He looks like he’s going to be done, but then the words fall out. “How serious are they?”

Yoonji shrugs. That relationship is really weird. She sees them together a lot, but rarely in an explicably romantic way. Usually when she sees them, they’re doing some freaky contortionist shit, yelling like demons with their shirts on upside down, chasing each other around the house, laughing so hard that they’re wheezing and gagging. Like children. Yoonji has never known this side of Jeongguk, though he has certainly always been odd. But even around Namjoon he was always a little reserved, a little shy, a little humble. Like Namjoon commanded respect that Seokjin does not. Jeongguk would do something crazy, some flaily slapstick, and then run away. Yoonji has never seen him embrace it like this, and she thinks it’s probably good for him. As for Seokjin, she thinks, it must be nice to have someone around who wants to play his games. Who can keep up. Who doesn’t reach a point where they lovingly tell him to fucking cram it. But Yoonji doesn’t know if they’re in love or not. She says, “They seem really close. I don’t know.”

“I hate this,” says Namjoon, reading the poem again. “I can’t even tell if it’s a good poem.”

“Me neither,” says Yoonji. Then, out on a limb, “I say go for it.”

“Why do you say go for it?”

Yoonji is stoned enough to be sentimental. “Because it’s worth the risk to your ego for the chance to be with someone you can’t forget about.” She sighs. “It’s worth a lot of embarrassment.”

Namjoon looks at her with enough recognition to make her feel hot and look away. He says, “Alright, damn. When you put it that way.”

“Never mind,” Yoonji tries weakly.

“Loud and clear, sis. Out on a limb.”

After that, he perks up, because Namjoon is always most alive when he’s scheming.

Yoonji is a calm, rational, and even-keeled person. She’s independent and needs no one. She doesn’t giggle, or blush, or get so flustered that she has to hide her face in a jacket. That is not who she is. Yoonji is never lonely, and she does not get excited.

She doesn’t get excited, but she is… looking forward, from an appropriate emotional distance, to seeing Hoseok later.

It’s just that he went straight home on Wednesday, and he has Thursdays off, and he was busy at lunch today. meetng an old frnd 4 lch , he texted her challengingly this morning. C U @ 5 ?

Sure thing ☺️ , she replied, grimacing at her desk, pressing on her phone screen so hard that rainbows rippled under her fingers.

She isn’t really bitter about that. Hoseok deserves to reconnect with people. It’s important, Yoonji thinks, to find a place between his old life and his new one. Both have things worth keeping. But Yoonji hasn’t seen Hoseok in three days, and that hasn’t happened since they started hanging out. It’s not that she needs him to keep from getting bored and antsy, destructive, tearing at the carpet and eating the couch. No, she’s fine without him. She just, god. She just likes having him around. She misses him. That’s not a stupid thing to say, is it? Normal people say that. She misses him.

At the end of the day, she does not hurry. She puts on her jacket and packs up her laptop methodically. So methodically that Seokjin notices and calls her YoonBot 3000 beep brrp beep , but that’s just Seokjin. She’s being normal.

She walks across the park normally, peeks around for Hoseok normally. He isn’t under the tall glass awning or by the cinderblock wall or outside the office or walking the perimeter of the washed-out concrete block.

He’ll probably be here in a moment. He’s probably in the trash room, or the bathroom, or the office. Yoonji can wait; she doesn’t need to snoop. She goes to their table and sits down to wait for him.

She looks at her phone, but nothing has changed in the last three minutes. So she looks at the shiny metal table, and her bony, veiny hands, and she gets her phone out again and then puts it away again, and then she watches a pigeon tear up an old french fry for a minute, and she thinks about what its body would feel like all stiff and dead and frozen, and then Hoseok is walking across the park to her.

He looks different.

First of all, he’s wearing his Satisfactory Pants . That’s what he called them, in this unbelievable ridiculous self-satisfied way, when she said they made his butt look good the last time he wore them. He said, “Oh, these? You like my Satisfactory Pants ?”

“Explain that,” Yoonji ordered.

“Nicer than jeans, but not so nice that it’s weird. Thought I’d upgrade tonight, stop looking like such a schlob next to beautiful Yoonji on all our dates.”

He’s wearing his combat boots and his nice jacket, too: the Pendleton. He’s wearing the exact outfit that he wears when he’s trying to impress her, but doesn’t want to look like he’s trying to impress her. But Yoonji is unfoolable.

Also, he got his hair done. It’s fresh, bright red again and short. He looks like he looked when he met her. She liked how shaggy and faded it was getting, because he looked like someone she could really know. Handsome and comfortable and easygoing. She liked the color as it faded, orangy pink and pastel, in time with him starting to tan as they emerged into friendlier weather. But like this, he’s hot. Not that she ever forgot, but right now, she remembers. His jawline is nice, his cheekbones. His eyes, his solid legs. His mouth. He’s really something special, she thinks. She doesn’t even stop checking him out when he catches her at it. He should know.

He’s walking stiffly, with one hand behind his back. Yoonji is too busy ogling to be very confused, but she does notice.

Usually, when he gets to the table, in jeans and his big grey Champion hoodie, he plops down across from her, already smiling. The kind of effortless male beauty that used to make Yoonji anxious. Today, he stands stiffly behind the chair and makes no attempt to sit down.

Yoonji squints up at him and says, “Hello.”

Hoseok says, “Hi, Yoonji.” Breathy.

“What’s going on?” she asks harmlessly.

“Um,” he says, looking mortified. From behind his back, he thrusts a red rose in front of her.

Yoonji knows a moment of true panic. Her eyes open all the way and she keeps her face blank. Don’t get down on one knee. Don’t you fuck this up. I could have loved you.

He’s still holding the rose, his hand quaking, so she takes it and clutches it in front of her.

“Yoonji,” he starts. The sincerity is too much, she’ll surely yarf.

Carefully, she says, “What’s this for?”

“Well,” says Hoseok. He clears his throat. “Will you be my girlfriend?”

Yoonji says, “Oh.” She stares at him.

“Yes or no,” he whispers.

“Yes,” she says.

But then she gets it. Because she knows. This is bigger than a rose. Bigger than this minute. He wants to work for this, for her. He wants her to be his girlfriend . She can’t take the fine detail of the moment, the sharpness of the red rose and Hoseok’s red hair and the cooing of the pigeon eating its fry. She says, “Did you get your hair done for this?”

Hoseok nods. “I wanted to look good.”

Yoonji’s breath stutters. He wanted to look good in her memories of this moment. In the future, he wants her to look back and remember him looking good right now. In the future, as far in the future as they make it. She’s worth an effort like that to him. She feels how hard she’s clutching the rose in front of her. Every petal is perfect, like a painting. Her breath stutters again, and she thinks, Don’t you fuck this up. Don’t you cry when this nice man is trying to make you smile. But it doesn’t help, and she turns a moment that could have been easy and joyful into another one where Hoseok has to wipe her tears with his thumbs and make himself big to wrap all of her up.

 

They make up for the romance later, when they’re at Yoonji’s house. Tae and Jimin have made up, or are making up, and Jimin is over at Tae’s, so they have the apartment to themselves, except for Pumpkin. Which is actually a problem, because Pumpkin is absolutely enamored with Hoseok. He keeps sneaking up to bonk him, getting his head stuck in bags just so he can wail until Hoseok frees him. Right as Hoseok’s pulling off Yoonji’s shirt, Pumpkin noses the cracked door open and jumps right on Hoseok’s guts, and it’s almost so jarring that they can’t get the mood back.

They kick Pumpkin out, though, and they find a way.

This time, instead of getting in the bed first and letting Yoonji come to him, letting her push as far as she’s comfortable, he lies her down in the bed and hovers over her. He pulls his shirt off, and her bra, and he pushes her hair out of her face, and he kisses her temple, right in front of her ear.

He kisses down the side of her neck, and across her collarbones. Down her stomach, back up the side of her ribcage. He kisses her knuckles and the tips of her fingers, and he says, “You’re beautiful.”

Yoonji squirms with embarrassment as much as pleasure, but she’s getting better every time. She squeaks because there’s no other way to respond. She lets him kiss her, she feels his warm mouth trailing and resting and kissing on every rib and on the insides of her elbows, a little damp with sweat, around the side of her head at the nape of her neck, then her forehead, chaste. Then he gets really close to her face, lips to lips, nose to nose, chest to chest, and says, “You smell like the ocean at night,” and she finally tells him, “You smell like the rain.”

Chapter Text

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.

 

yes

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.

“I know.”

“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!”

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.”

“From what?”

“Work, mostly.”

Yoonji looks at them like, go on.

“I just need to quit I guess.”

“Oh?”

“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.”

“Shit. Fair.”

“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.”

“Well, same.”

“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?”

“Uh.”

“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?”

“October, probably.”

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 sheYoonji, 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.”

“Seokjin.”

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 infuriating.”

“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?”

“Yes?”

“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?”

“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?”

“What.”

“Just because I can date someone with a perfect gym body doesn’t mean I need to.”

“Well, alright.”

“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.

“Okay.”

“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?

 

EVERY1!

 

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.”

He laughs.

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—”

“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.”

“Oh.”

“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.

 

 

the end