She was back in prison, or the place she considered as such, the house with open doors, and she almost couldn’t cope with it. Almost. But there was something about walking in that building, stepping through the old-fashioned tidy living rooms with the lingering cigar smoke and the spoken words that hung from the ceiling lifeless now, and there was another thing about being able to do it without feeling afraid at all. The place stopped being a prison when she left – not her prison any more, at least – and the words that hurt her before had now done their duty and faded. The eyes that drew tears from her heart were gone. And they would never come back.
The doors were open because she didn’t know what to do with it. The house. She didn’t really want it. She wished it never existed in the first place.
In the muted silence, she strolled. Her rubber soled sneakers were quiet on the carpet. It used to be luxurious, thick fibre, so soft and warm in winters when she would smile at the feeling of her bare toes upon it. It thinned over time, a little worn, a little forgotten. Other things had pressed down on it too hard, stifling its comfort. She kept her shoes on, and the scuffs of dirt she left on it gave her no feeling at all.
Her bedroom was the same as it had always been. They hadn’t removed anything or moved any of it. She could dump an imaginary backpack on the ground by her desk and throw herself down onto the dense covers of her bed, and sigh, and be back in high school with her frown.
She could. But she couldn’t.
There were messages on the answering machine by the phone in the hallway. The blinking red light caught her eye and she frowned. There was no reason to call this place. There was no one to talk to here.
“Hey, Taeyeon?” a voice huffed, lilting with uncertainty. “I, uh, I don’t know if you remember me, I’m Tiffany Hwang. I- I heard about what happened. With your parents. I’m so, so very sorry for your loss. And… well, I know a little something about what you feel right now. Probably. So, um, calling this number was a long shot…”
Taeyeon drifted a short way down the hall as Tiffany’s voice fluttered through the house. There were pictures on the wall in dusty wooden frames. No brightness. Only tense indifference. They had taken down the pictures of the happiness that once they shared.
“… and I don’t know if you’ll even hear this, but I just wanted to – well, I just wanted to talk to you, I guess.”
She ran the tips of her fingers over the glass covering a black and white photograph. Traced the lines of the flowing white dress, tapped the grey rose in the lapel of a black tuxedo, and smothered the smiles because she couldn’t bear to look at them.
She halted. The care in that voice. The emotion, tenderness and sentimentality, made her eyes go wide. She turned, searching. And she remembered it was only recorded on the answering machine that was out of her sight. Tiffany.
“Taeyeon,” her voice repeated, “please talk to me. I think we both need it. We can just talk about… oh, I don’t know, we can talk about what you want to do with your parents’ house, if you want, but I just. I need to see you. I miss you,” and her voice broke.
Taeyeon closed her eyes. She listened to the amplification of Tiffany’s shaky inhale.
“You remember me, right?” the whisper barely made it out of the machine. “I always wonder if you’ve forgotten me.”
The muscles of Taeyeon’s lips twitched briefly. She didn’t need to say a thing.
“Call me, or – or just come over. I still live with my father. He’s… he’d like a visit from you. Um, okay, well, I should go. You know where to find me.”
There was a click and a little whirr, and then it moved to the next message. Taeyeon didn’t have a chance to let it all sink in – and there was so much waiting to be absorbed – before her lawyer spoke.
“Ms Kim, hello again. You said you would be at the house for a while so I thought I’d call you there. I just wanted to remind you of the deadline for finalization on your option to sell the house to your father’s business partner. He is eager to take possession of the property. He called my office twice this morning just to enquire about your decision. We’ve discussed it, I know, and I’ve given you my advice, but please make a decision before Friday so that we can commence proceedings before the weekend. Thank you.”
Nothing followed the final click. Taeyeon sighed. She looked around, not really seeing her surroundings, and wondered if she wanted to sell the house to the new director of her father’s company.
He was keen to have it, because he knew exactly what kind of profit he could get out of it in auction, and letting him have it would be by far the quickest solution. She could call her lawyer right now, tell him she wanted to do it, and it was only four o’clock so she would have enough time to go to his office and sort out the terms, and it was only Monday so the whole thing could be finished within a few days – she could leave soon, and never have to come back.
She didn’t want the place. She didn’t want to be there. So why couldn’t she just throw it away?
Opportunities arose for her escape since she arrived a week earlier to arrange the funeral, until now as she stood in the house that she received in the reading of the will a few hours ago. She could leave. But she didn’t seem to be able to do it.
She pressed the buttons to erase the messages, resisting the rising thoughts of Tiffany and her words, and she walked out to her car.
She zoned out completely as she drove, the mechanical movements of her body keeping the car moving forward at a moderate pace and stopping at the red lights. Sometimes the corners of her eyes would snag on the scene outside. There were a few people out, walking along the chilly grey pavements, some laughing with friends in a way that steamed their breath, and others digging their faces into scarves and day-dreaming about hot chocolate. The season was getting colder. Taeyeon liked it. She liked the bite of frost in the morning to nip her out of bed, and swathing herself in a thick blanket at night.
Winters in this place were more than some biting frost and chilly pavements. There would be snow, and when she was about fourteen there had been so much snow that she almost couldn’t walk. The frozen fluff came up to her knees. She remembered pouting at her legs – or what she could see of them – as she stood only a block away from her house with four blocks left in her journey to school. Other kids had rushed past, playing snow games with each other or curling up their shoulders and wishing they could move faster. At least they were moving. And it looked less like a struggle, the way the taller kids strode steadily through the snow.
Except for that one girl, whose height was similar to Taeyeon’s. A couple of inches didn’t make enough of a difference in the snow sea. She ploughed along, doggedly determined to make it to school on time and in one piece. She didn’t even seem to mind her soaking pants, and her shoes had to be full of slush. She just needed to get there.
Taeyeon had watched her make her way down the street, until they were level and the other girl stopped. They blinked at each other, equally surprised.
“Are you okay?” the girl asked.
“Eh,” Taeyeon said. She glanced down at her legs again, and then at the girl’s. “I’m okay. How about you?”
The girl shrugged. “I’m okay.”
They stared. Taeyeon gestured at the girl’s backpack, which hung haphazardly on one shoulder.
The girl smiled. It was just a small curve of her lips, and Taeyeon knew she had a whole range of expertise when it came to smiles. “No, thanks. Do you need help?”
Taeyeon shook her head. “Nah, I’ll be all right.”
“You’re Taeyeon, right? I’m Tiffany.”
Taeyeon nodded. “From Bio. Yeah. Hi.”
“Hi,” Tiffany rebounded, and her smile grew a few notches. “So are you just hanging out here for fun, or what?”
“This is the hottest scene in town, didn’t you know,” Taeyeon replied, and beneath her confidence a light warmth brushed over her cheekbones.
Tiffany shoved at the snow with her knee. “Yeah. So hot.”
The warmth flared into heat and spread along Taeyeon’s face. Maybe it was the embarrassment of struggling with the snow, or the lameness of her wit, or maybe it was the way she had noticed how Tiffany’s knee was accentuated through her thin, ice-soaked skinny jeans. In fact, it was probably the sudden fascination with the bones of Tiffany’s knee, the way she wanted to examine its sharpness closely, that made her blush so deeply.
“Wanna walk to school together?”
Taeyeon had blinked. “Sure.” And then she looked away sheepishly. “Uh, it might take a while though. I’m kinda slow.”
“That’s okay,” said Tiffany, and she grinned an almost-full grin at last. Taeyeon’s heart skipped so many beats she paled at the thought that she might drop dead right there. “We’ll be fine.”
Now Taeyeon drove for hours, thinking and trying to stop herself from thinking and then thinking again about why she was thinking and why she was trying to stop herself from thinking. She parked at the hotel where she was staying, and got out of her car.
She stared at her shoes in the dim light that was about to become dark, and then she got back in the car and drove away.
It didn’t take long to reach Tiffany’s house.
Her feet crunched over the familiar gravel walkway, her fingers trailed over the rose bushes that lined the path, and she took a breath of the fresh air that she enjoyed so much when she was younger.
High school. She tried to forget it. For a long time, she tried to forget everything that ever happened to her in her whole life. She wanted to start anew, completely, without a past. And of course, it didn’t work. Every time she blinked, every time her shoe touched the ground on the way to Tiffany’s front door, she remembered.
There was a small smile on her face when Tiffany came to answer the ring of the doorbell.
For a moment, Taeyeon saw juxtaposition. Tiffany at age sixteen, her new school uniform neat but for the loosened tie and top button, frozen in a beaming grin, laughter waiting to burst – and Tiffany at age twenty-three, her pyjamas worn and comfortable, tired face stilled in surprise, questions slowly welling up.
“Taeyeon,” she said. An exact echo of the recording on the answering machine but with so much more impact.
“Hi,” Taeyeon replied, her voice sounding far away to her own ears. She cleared her throat, bringing herself back. “Uh, sorry to bother you so late. I didn’t really realise what time it was.”
Tiffany blinked. Her lips were parted slightly as she stared. Taeyeon could glimpse the edges of Tiffany’s white teeth. Tiffany seemed to be holding her breath at first, and then a small “hi” coasted out on an exhale.
The house was slightly different. The CDs that lined the rack in the corner of the living room had more acoustic and classical music, the DVDs in the shelf by the television had more art films, and the newly ringed stains on the coffee table were from actual coffee mugs, right next to the memories of cold sodas and ice cream.
Taeyeon sat down on the couch she used to spill popcorn on. Across from her, Tiffany lowered herself onto her father’s armchair, and crossed her arms nervously over her stomach.
Taeyeon took a deep breath, thinking of what she wanted to say, all the things she needed to discuss. She held that breath for a while. And then she let it all out, and said, “I miss you too.”
Tiffany didn’t meet her gaze, looking instead at the floor. A tiny smile played across her lips. She relaxed in her seat and started to play with her fingers.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “So, how are you? How’ve you been?”
Taeyeon smiled. “Two very different questions. I’m okay now. But after I left, everything was pretty bad.”
Tiffany looked at her. It was that look. That look that showed she was tapping into the pain in the air. The way her eyebrows tilted up a little and drew together, and her lips parted slightly, and she seemed to be sitting on the edge of her seat, ready to go to Taeyeon. The sight of her warmed Taeyeon’s chest.
Taeyeon took a deep breath. “My parents didn’t speak to me ever again. Which was fine by me, most of the time. It gave me time to accept myself, which turned out to be pretty hard. I mean, I thought I already accepted myself, but everything… everything just seemed completely different. I spent a lot of time thinking about you, too.”
Their eyes met.
“You know it was you, right?” Taeyeon asked softly. She closed her eyes for a moment before opening them again. “It was you.”
Tiffany bit her bottom lip. “Yeah, I know. I knew then, too. I wanted to see you before you left, but I just couldn’t do it. When I heard what everyone was saying about you at school, I wanted to run to your house. Somehow I knew you would be curled up in your bed, covering yourself, shaking with tears, because after all, your parents had just broken your heart. You thought they loved you unconditionally, and all of a sudden there was an obstacle. What they saw as an obstacle. A problem. Reason enough to send you far away from their warm hugs.”
Taeyeon got up suddenly, and knelt on the floor in front of Tiffany. Her eyes glistened as she looked up into Tiffany’s face, and after a moment of awkward hovering, she took Tiffany’s hands in her own, absorbing the ripple of electricity that reached her.
“Something I’ve always wondered,” she murmured, “could you tell me… On the day I told my mother, I intended to tell you, not her. What would you have done after I told you?”
“What would you have told me, Taeyeon?” Tiffany said. Her gaze, sharp and intent, melted into Taeyeon’s. “What exactly would you have said?”
Taeyeon, at age sixteen, was nervous. She fiddled with her own hands, she fiddled with her clothes, she fiddled with bits and pieces of everything around her. When she fiddled with the button in the car door that made the window whizz up and down, her mother clicked her tongue and snapped, “Don’t do that, please.”
Taeyeon wiped her palms on the fabric of her school uniform. She fiddled with her tie, loosening it and inhaling deeply.
“Um,” she said loudly, and then softened her voice. “Um, I need to tell you about something.”
They reached the school, and the car’s brakes squeaked as they stopped. Her mother glanced at her watch.
“Can it wait? You’re already late.”
Taeyeon looked out at the school, the students trickling into buildings, and sighed. “Yeah. Of course. Thanks for giving me a ride. I’ll see you after school.”
She wandered towards her class, fiddling with the strap of her backpack. She had been so close to saying it right then and there, which was not in her original plan, and after a few deep breaths she decided that it was better to stick to the plan, otherwise she might not get a chance to see Tiffany if her parents reacted badly. And that would be stupid, she scoffed. Tiffany first. After all, she had the most right to know.
The teacher’s half-hearted scolding when she walked in a few minutes late just washed over her, and she was already eyeing Tiffany who sat on the other side of the room and winked at her. Finally she sat down next to her, and beamed at her.
“Can we go off campus for lunch?” she whispered. She didn’t know the name of Tiffany’s perfume, but she knew it used to belong to Tiffany’s mother, and that Tiffany would always become quiet and go to another place in her mind when she thought of her mother. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
Tiffany smiled, a glint of anticipation reaching her eyes. “Sure. Now pay attention before you get scolded for real.”
Taeyeon did pay attention, but not to the teacher. She paid attention to the way Tiffany’s hair fell over her face as she leaned forward to take notes, the curve of her nose when she raised her face to watch the teacher writing on the board, the slight tension in her spine as she worked on the sheet of math problems they were given, and the relief that relaxed her body when she finished it.
The sight of Tiffany’s expression, proud of herself and her hard work, pushed Taeyeon’s heart over a few beats. She knew it all so well.
They went down the road and got ice cream at lunch time, and sat on the low wall by the school gates with their shoes barely brushing the pavement.
“So, what’s up?” Tiffany asked. She wiped absently at the ice cream at the corner of her mouth. Her glinting gaze was trained on Taeyeon. She was ready.
“Um,” Taeyeon hummed for a long moment. “I didn’t really plan the exact words here.”
They stared at each other. Tiffany laughed briefly and shoved Taeyeon’s shoulder playfully.
“Come on, what’s going on?” she asked, grinning. “Just tell me.”
Taeyeon’s breath hitched in her lungs. Her mind raced as fast as her heart. The muscles of her fingers clenched and unclenched, and she gulped air quickly. Tiffany’s smile dimmed, a light crease formed between her eyebrows, and she rested a hand on Taeyeon’s knee.
“What is it, Taeyeon?” she murmured. “You can tell me. Just do it.”
Taeyeon fell into Tiffany’s brown eyes, the warmth and comfort engulfing her. She found herself moving, shifting towards Tiffany, and they sank into a hug. Their hold on each other was loose, unmoving. Taeyeon could feel Tiffany’s heartbeat.
“Tell me,” Tiffany repeated. “In three, two, one…”
“I’m completely, madly in love with you, Tiffany.” The words slipped from her mouth as simply as that, rolling over her tongue and ducking between her teeth, brushing over her lips. “I’m so in love with you, I get dizzy. I’m in love with you.”
Now Taeyeon rested her head on Tiffany’s knees, tracing the curve of Tiffany’s knee cap with the tip of a finger, remembered the way it had strained against the sodden jeans the first day they talked. She felt the heat of Tiffany’s body against her cheek, and she closed her eyes.
“I love you.”
Silence. Tiffany didn’t move at all. Taeyeon breathed slowly.
“Do you want my honest answer?” asked Tiffany. The vibration of her words reached Taeyeon’s cheekbone. “My complete honesty?”
Taeyeon nodded, rubbing the softness of Tiffany’s pyjamas against her skin. “Yes. I always want honesty from you.”
Fingers ran through Taeyeon’s hair, a light touch that carried tenderness behind fingertips.
“I would have panicked. For a long, long time I would have freaked out and said a bunch of crazy stuff while I tried to figure out what was going on in my head and in your head. I would have thought a lot about you, a lot about me, and a lot about everyone else. But you know what? That was exactly what I ended up doing when you left.”
Taeyeon’s head was raised by Tiffany’s hands on her jaw. Tiffany moved their faces close, so close that they could have kissed.
“I knew how you felt about me,” Tiffany said. Her eyes were flowing with emotion again, and Taeyeon read every little muscle on her face. “I knew how I felt about you. I knew how everyone else felt about you, and me, and the possibility of us. And I would have freaked out, and I would have hurt you, and I would have kissed you.”
Taeyeon smiled. She pulled her head away, and looked at Tiffany. “I see.”
“What are you going to do with your parents’ house?”
Taeyeon stood up and turned away. “Sell it. My father’s business partner wants it. I’ll make the arrangements, and then I’ll leave. And I’ll never come back.”
“How’s your father?”
“He’s…. He’s the same. He would like to see you before you go. He might not have much time left for clarity.”
Taeyeon gazed up at the ceiling. “He still remembers only the kid who walked his daughter to school in winter, huh?”
“What would he have done, if I had stayed? If you had freaked out and hurt me and kissed me?”
Tiffany stared at the carpet, wiggled her toes in its fibres. “Maybe he would have been upset. Maybe not. To him, we’re always just kids, still trudging through the snow. I’ll never be able to leave this place.”
Taeyeon nodded. “I know. And I’ll never be able to stay.”
She turned around. They watched each other for a moment. Tiffany stood up, and stepped closer to Taeyeon.
“Couldn’t, could’ve, would’ve,” she said. “Let’s try something new, now. We’ll be fine.”
Tiffany hugged Taeyeon. It was a fluid movement. She took her sleeves and pulled her closer, and slid her hands over Taeyeon’s shoulder blades, one upwards to the back of her neck, her other arm cradling Taeyeon’s waist. She leaned her chin on Taeyeon’s shoulder, nose nuzzling the warm skin of Taeyeon’s neck.
Taeyeon took a deep breath, feeling like her lungs were going to burst. Her mouth moved on its own, bearing a wide grin. She wrapped her arms around Tiffany as tightly as she could, as if she could squeeze them together forever. Every curve and softness of Tiffany’s body touched her own.
“I loved you,” Tiffany said. “I was completely, madly in love with you. It made me dizzy. I wanted to talk to you. And now, I miss you.”
Taeyeon closed her eyes. In the rear corner of her mind, she was back in the winter of her fourteenth year, tripping in the snow, listening to Tiffany’s laughter that was as bright as the sun they couldn’t see. And she was fiddling with her backpack on the last day she saw Tiffany, psyching herself up to tell Tiffany the truth. Honesty.
“Here,” she breathed. “This is what I always wanted. Since the day I blushed when I talked to you. I just wanted this embrace.”
She shifted, adjusting her hands, gripping Tiffany with her fingers. Tiffany still wore the same perfume. She took a deep breath, feeling the way Tiffany’s breathing matched her own and moved against her own lungs.