“Well, I hate to be the one to say it yet again, but… Kim Taeyeon, you’re failing this course.”
No one had ever known a more apathetic response than the reaction given by Taeyeon when hearing of yet another failure in her academic career. And it wasn’t as if she cared about that, either. She yawned, and plucked a bit of stray lint from her pants, and turned her blank, uncaring stare to the world outside the window.
For nine months now she had wandered around the university campus, hitting a pass on a test here and there and dropping every other assignment like a piece of hot coal. Consistently attempting schoolwork was not something that happened easily with Kim Taeyeon. Just like making friends, or socializing in general, was not something that happened easily. She patiently sat her way through group projects, quiet and definitely a bit weird as seen by her classmates. Seasons passed and through every kind of weather, she floated to her classes, spaced out during the lessons, and floated away again. Attendance was worth ten per cent of her final grades; somehow she had managed to keep her course results at a minimum of ten per cent for her journey thus far.
Outside, a bird flitted from one tree to another. How interesting, she thought.
“Look, Taeyeon, I understand if you’re struggling. But you’re a smart girl; I’ve noticed how intelligent you are. You could easily achieve everything that is required of you and be out of here with your qualification in no time. If there’s something holding you back, making it hard to do the work, let me know. I’m here for you.”
“I just didn’t have the time,” Taeyeon replied absently. She could see the bird had settled on a low branch and was cleaning its feathers busily. “Some other things came up.”
There was a brief silence. The bird finished cleaning itself, ruffled its feathers, and looked off into the distance. Taeyeon heard the sigh from inside the room at the same time that the bird took flight, and imagined it was the sound of wings fluttering and stretching to reach higher. She closed her eyes for a moment. She thought about how the bird would soar once it reached the free sky. A small smile curved the corner of her lips, imperceptible.
“Is there something wrong in your personal life? Are you in trouble, or in danger? I can help you, Taeyeon.”
It was the only reply that she gave. After a moment, her eyes opened again, and she blinked before slowly standing up and stretching her back.
“Well, I have to go. I apologize for the inconvenience I’ve caused, Mr Lee. I’ll do my best to recover from my failures.”
She saw the bird again on her way to the bus stop, in a gutter on the side of the road, where it lay with bones broken. Her feet came to a halt beside it. Its eyes were closed, a fact she was thankful for as she gazed down at the crushed little body below, and a disgusted shudder travelled along her skin. Then she sighed, imitating the sound of wings aiming to soar, and tilted her head to one side.
The coffee tasted sour. She sat at a corner table in the small café, and pulled a face as she looked at the cup in her hand. It seemed the same as always, black and hot, but the familiar harshness that would scratch at her throat just enough to gain her attention was tinged with an almost painful aftertaste. She set the cup down on the table, and gently pushed it away.
“Oh, hi Tiffany.”
Taeyeon shifted, moving her chair slightly to one side, allowing Tiffany room to put her chair. She knew Tiffany’s habits well, her preferred place to sit in the café they visited frequently, and she could easily accommodate her mannerisms. Tiffany knew Taeyeon’s habits well too, the way she would often go out of her way to do something seemingly unimportant just for her.
“Fany, wanna go see a movie?”
Tiffany stared at Taeyeon. “You mean right now? I just got here! I’ve barely taken a seat.”
Taeyeon grinned. “Okay, you can sit for a while if you like. Hey, I’ll go get your coffee.”
And she shot away, heading to the counter. She already knew what kind of coffee to get. Tiffany watched her go, and sighed, slouching in her chair. Every time she met up with Taeyeon in the past few weeks, the girl seemed jumpy and wanted to do something different every five minutes. She knew it would be barely a quarter of the way into the movie before Taeyeon fidgeted right out the door.
When Taeyeon returned with the coffee cradled in her hands, her expression had totally changed and she looked as if she was about to cry. Tiffany blinked in surprise.
“Taeyeon? What’s wrong? Did something happen?”
Taeyeon looked up as she sat down, and her face broke into a wide smile. “Nothing. I just have a headache from thinking about stuff. Here’s your drink.”
Tiffany barely spared a glance for the cup that was laid in front of her, keeping her eyes trained on Taeyeon’s face, but her friend seemed determined to keep up her mask, and she didn’t get another glimpse of the pain she had seen.
“How much sleep did you get last night?” she asked quietly, lifting her coffee to her lips to take a tiny sip.
“Hmm, maybe just over three hours, I think. And you?”
Tiffany didn’t reply at first. She waited a moment, before placing her coffee back on the table. Her hands smoothed out her skirt carefully and then she finally returned her gaze to Taeyeon’s face.
“Taeyeon. You know that’s not enough sleep. When’s the last time you slept for longer than five hours consecutively? I recall that’s your record time so far this year.”
Taeyeon shrugged disinterestedly. “I don’t know. But how about you, Tiffany, did you sleep well?” Her eyes flicked upwards to lock onto Tiffany’s.
Tiffany just held the stare, and didn’t answer. For a long time, they observed each other intently in a sizzling silence. Eventually Tiffany pointedly looked away and took another sip of her coffee.
Taeyeon frowned, her expression showing the hurt she felt at being ignored, but she knew Tiffany was feeling hurt too. She could see it in the tears just beyond the edge of her silence, and that familiar truth just made her hurt even more.
She took a deep breath. “Well, I know what you’re going to say. I had that meeting today. They’re putting me on academic probation. If I don’t pass anything this semester, they’re kicking me out. And don’t worry; I know exactly how you feel about that. So, do you wanna finish that coffee or go see the movie now?”
Tiffany blinked. “If you know how I feel,” she murmured softly, “why don’t you ever care? You just wave away my concern for you. Taeyeon, do you even care about me?”
Taeyeon scoffed. “Please, Fany… don’t get me started. I could never explain exactly how much I care about you, and you know that by now. So please… let’s just go see that movie now, okay?”
She was up and away in a moment, already heading out the door. Tiffany bit her bottom lip. Briefly, her mind toyed with the idea of just letting her go. But it was an idea she had gone over many times during her friendship with Taeyeon, so with a familiar finality she gathered up her belongings and followed.
The movie was a simple, clichéd romantic comedy, the sort that they would normally go see so that Taeyeon could laugh derisively at all the sweet moments and yawn at the attempts of humour. Its plot consisted of hate-you, love-you, finally-decide-to-date-you; and Taeyeon was asleep in the first ten minutes.
Tiffany watched her friend doze off beside her. The flickering light from the movie screen provided her with a dim, inconsistent view of Taeyeon’s sleeping face. She thought of all the times in the past when she had made plans with Taeyeon only for them to be broken by Taeyeon’s sudden disappearance. Days would go by with no contact from her, no way to reach her, no sign of her. Then suddenly she would show up again, and for a while Tiffany would be uber-aware of the dimple by the corner of Taeyeon’s mouth when she smiled before they were back at square one.
Fingers met skin. Tiffany lightly, gently traced Taeyeon’s jawline, moving up slightly to reach the corner of her mouth. Her eyes examined Taeyeon’s bottom lip first, its shape and size and position, the way the light made it seem so unique and special. Then her fingers followed the route of her gaze.
Taeyeon opened her eyes and turned her head. She took Tiffany’s hand in hers. Her eyes flickered in the dim light.
For a long time, they stayed silent and kept their gazes locked. Taeyeon’s thumb started to gently stroke Tiffany’s hand at the same time that her eyes flicked down to Tiffany’s lips.
“Come on, this movie sucks. Let’s go do something else.”
It was getting dark outside when they reached the streets. Taeyeon walked fast, one step ahead of Tiffany, and was determined to keep their fingers intertwined. They dodged a few people who were making their way home before eventually reaching a more quiet area, where Taeyeon slowed down. It was visible in her shoulders and the straightness of her back as she relaxed. Her arms swung back and forth, taking Tiffany’s hand along.
The pavement wasn’t totally up to scratch, and had started to crumble in a few places, Tiffany noticed as her feet crunched over the surface. She sighed and hitched the strap of her handbag higher on her shoulder. She turned her gaze upwards to look at the late evening sky. The first few stars were distantly making their appearance.
“What if I told you,” Taeyeon murmured softly, “that I wanted to get drunk tonight.”
“If you told me you wanted to get drunk tonight, I would disapprove because I know you have class tomorrow, and you would completely disregard common sense and do it anyway. And you would sneak into my room at two in the morning through my window which I will leave open even though I know I shouldn’t enable you like that.”
Taeyeon nodded. “Well, that sounds about right. Drink with me?”
At this, Taeyeon stopped them both and turned to face Tiffany. Her eyebrows were slightly raised; she bit her bottom lip.
Taeyeon lifted Tiffany’s hand, lips rested against the inside of her wrist and there came a whisper of, “Please.”
When Tiffany came to her senses again, they were already in her room. From the corner of her eye she saw her blurry alarm clock ticking around near the number two. She was lying on her back on her bed, and she knew she was definitely drunk. It wasn’t the first time that she had gotten drunk with Taeyeon despite her best intentions, and time always flew faster when it happened. Taeyeon sat on the edge of her bed, cradling a bottle in one hand and staring at the floor in silence.
The clicking of the alarm clock was the only sound, becoming harsher and harsher with each tap against Tiffany’s head. She huffed and shifted, twisting around to lie on her side.
“I hope to one day be able to live a peaceful life,” Taeyeon breathed into the night. “Even if just for a moment. Before I die.”
Tiffany hesitated. She didn’t know what to say. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t even think clearly but after a moment she moved anyway, sitting upright and wrapping herself around Taeyeon from the side. With one hand, she knocked the bottle from Taeyeon’s grasp and pushed even closer against her. She clutched at her, squeezing her in her arms as tightly as she squeezed her own eyes shut.
“Let me help you,” she muttered, “please let me help you, Taeyeon.”
“Help me with what?”
“Let me help you find peace in your life. Please.”
When Taeyeon turned her head to face Tiffany, their cheeks brushed together before she pressed her nose against Tiffany’s cheekbone. She sighed, her breath tickling the skin of Tiffany’s neck.
Her fingers tangled with Tiffany’s hair, slowly and deliberately she pushed Tiffany’s head closer from behind.
“My beautiful Tiffany. I hope I’ll still have time to tell you.”
“Tell me wha-”
But her words were replaced by a small noise of surprise as Taeyeon’s teeth clutched at the skin of her jaw. She moved her head, frowning slightly. Taeyeon bit harder at the skin just beneath her jaw, sending a ripple of pain along her body.
“What are you doing?”
“I want you to be open. You always hold yourself back, Tiffany. You don’t know what to do with me so you don’t show yourself to me anymore. Wake up. Wake up for me.”
She broke off as Taeyeon’s tongue ran along the marks on her flesh.
“Taeyeon why are you doing this?”
“I hope I have time to tell you one day.”
And then she slowly turned Tiffany’s face to her with the hand on the back of her head and pressed their mouths together. Tiffany realised she had stopped breathing and suddenly gasped into the kiss, feeling her heart thump in her chest and her whole body shake.
So many times had she imagined the confrontation, the point they reached where she asked Taeyeon what was going on in her head and Taeyeon finally responded. Never in all of her thoughts would she have expected Taeyeon to kiss her so deeply, so intently, and with more commitment to a single act than she had ever witnessed. She had wondered briefly before, what Taeyeon’s kisses would feel like; if her lips were soft and agile and if she exuded a comfortable warmth from her being, if she became somehow different, fully showing that side of her that Tiffany had only been able to glimpse so rarely.
Now, sitting on the edge of her bed, she could only feel. She felt Taeyeon’s touches, Taeyeon’s lips, and Taeyeon’s breath, Taeyeon actively absorbing her and giving herself to Tiffany to be absorbed in return.
It was her dream that reminded her, with fluttering soft whispers and a heartbeat, of those words that had first left Taeyeon’s lips.
I hope I’ll one day be able to live a peaceful life… I hope I’ll still have time to tell you…
Before I die.
And a seed of worry burrowed itself in her mind; Taeyeon sounded as if she was dying and she knew it. Her thoughts threaded it all together, the apathetic attitude towards everything she tried to achieve, the inconsistencies in her behaviour and her expressions, the mystery of where her steps were falling as she wandered along her life’s path. Tiffany found Taeyeon to be the greatest puzzle. And she imagined, now, the puzzle was made of the shards of a shattered heart.
She awoke in fear.
Taeyeon was gone.