“All I know is singing. It’s all I can do.”
The temperature in the room dropped several degrees. A breeze crept in through the open window, sending chills along Taeyeon’s skin, and she shivered. She closed her eyes for a moment before she looked at the man behind the desk again.
“Please,” she whispered. “This is harder for me than it is for you. But I can’t stay in this place any more. I need to get out.”
“But Taeyeon, you just said that all you know is singing,” he said, jaw clenched. “Why would you throw it away like this?”
Taeyeon stayed still at first. She thought about all the reasons why she was throwing away the only dream she had ever truly felt all the way to her heart. The memory of that stranger’s rough hands on her wrist came back, his touch ghosting closer and clutching at her. There was an echo of the scream that was stuck in her throat on that day, and it clenched her throat. Why did she want to leave? Because she was afraid. She was terrified, and in despair.
She cleared her throat. “After much consideration, I decided that this isn’t worth it. The risk is starting to outweigh the benefits, and I can’t handle that. I made a mistake when I thought I knew what I was getting in to.”
He sighed before she even finished her sentence, and lowered his head into his hands. For a long moment, he rubbed at his brow with his fingers. Finally, he looked at her again, expression hard.
“We’re not an unreasonable company,” he said. “We can work something out if you really want to leave. But please, Taeyeon… you’re such an incredibly talented young woman. Please, I’m asking you this as a friend. Reconsider your decision.”
Taeyeon’s mouth thinned into a line. She remembered the heated tears that had streamed down her cheeks for days and nights. “Okay,” she lied. “I’ll think about it again.”
She took her time going home – the place she was struggling to still think of as home. Nothing felt right anymore after that day. Everything was uncomfortable. She couldn’t walk around the apartment without feeling the need to look behind her, she couldn’t sit on the couch without making sure the windows were all closed, and she couldn’t sleep at night until she double-locked and triple-checked every door. It was hard to feel at home.
And then there was the pity from the people she considered almost family. They tried not to, although at first they couldn’t help it, but she saw it in their eyes every time they looked at her. Every time they saw her with her shoulders hunched and muscles tense, their sadness blanketed her. Sometimes she smiled, not just for their sake, but because she knew they cared and every now and then it was almost enough to comfort her.
She clenched and unclenched the fingers of her hand, trying to pump blood along that arm – the arm that was taken by that man.
The door to the apartment opened before she even got her keys out. Tiffany stared at her with red eyes, wetness shining on her cheeks.
“Did you really do it?” she asked.
Taeyeon was expecting a firm demand from bossy Tiffany, who would try to shake her out of her reverie of leaving and ply her back with hot chocolate and a warm blanket. She was not expecting Tiffany’s voice to sound frail, and small, and so terribly sad.
“Did you?” Tiffany asked again. “Are you really leaving?”
Taeyeon hesitated. For a moment she considered that it seemed as if Tiffany was giving up. The one thing she never wanted was for Tiffany to give up trying to make her stay; because she knew Tiffany only ever gave up on anything when she was truly, deeply, irreparably wounded.
“I don’t know,” Taeyeon answered. Her heart faltered for a moment at the lie that she regretted. “I’m going to think about it again.”
Tiffany immediately hugged her, tightly wrapping her body around Taeyeon’s. “Come inside. Let’s talk for a while. No one else is home right now.”
Talking wouldn’t make much difference, Taeyeon knew, and it disappointed her. In some sense, she wanted to stay. She wanted to be able to stay. But it wasn’t even an option anymore; it wasn’t something she could choose. She could never stay here. She needed to get out.
Nevertheless, she followed Tiffany’s lead into the apartment. Tiffany didn’t take her wrist and tug her along like she used to. Ever since that day, Taeyeon would barely even get close to other people, let alone allow anyone to touch her arm. Slowly, Tiffany had made her way back into Taeyeon’s space. One time she tried to hold Taeyeon’s hand, but she moved too fast and Taeyeon nearly jumped out the window. Now they were left like this, half-close and yet far away.
“Taeyeon,” Tiffany said as soon as they sat down, “please just tell me what’s going on. What are you thinking? Why do you want to leave? I mean, I know it’s hard right now…”
Hard. What an understatement, Taeyeon thought. It was harder than hard. She knew that she didn’t feel like living, and it was her only hope that maybe she just didn’t feel like living like this. Haunted, feeling hunted, feeling a million times more aware of every eye that watched her, every heart that raced in her presence, the thought of all those people watching her on computer screens and what they could be feeling and thinking inside. Wondering when one of them would try to take her again.
“But please, please Taeyeon,” Tiffany stopped. She took a deep, shaky breath and gulped. A fresh tear made a line down her face. “Taeyeon, it won’t feel like this forever. You can feel okay again. Please let me help you feel better.”
Taeyeon met Tiffany’s eyes and examined her for a long, long time. She knew what Tiffany was saying, and even though she could see the sense in it – after all, nothing lasted forever and she had felt similar to this before – she just couldn’t feel it. In her chest, there lay a quiet, unmoving heart. She couldn’t shift it much anymore. When she was younger, the thought of singing on stage in front of many people would make her heart leap. Now, it cowered.
“Tiffany,” she began, and then she stopped. Slowly, she reached out and took Tiffany’s hands in her own, lacing their fingers together and trying not to shake so much. “Tiffany, I can still feel his touch on my skin. I can still feel his iron grip taking my wrist. I can still feel the way my muscles were pulled, the way my shoulder felt like it was dislocating, the strain of trying to pull my own arm back and trying again. And I can still see my feet dragging over the stage, helplessly stumbling, moving away from the rest of you. I couldn’t escape him, Tiffany. I still can’t. Not here, still doing this job, feeling so exposed. Not when I close my eyes and I’m back there again, being taken. I can’t. I need to get away.”
They stared at each other. Gradually, Tiffany broke. Her shoulders shook as her sobs built up, and the tears burst freely. Taeyeon squeezed her eyes shut. The last thing she saw was Tiffany’s head dropping low, her body curling in on itself, and the last thing she felt was Tiffany’s weeping sending tremors along her arms.
She had to go.
The apartment seemed empty every time it was quiet. She knew there were others there, in their rooms, but for moments when there wasn’t the sound of talking or the TV or someone in the kitchen, she felt completely, irrevocably alone.
Work went on as usual, and she could feel her enthusiasm dwindling. Every step she took in the practice rooms became weaker and weaker, and she couldn’t shake the feeling of wrongness at the sight of the reflection in the mirror. Almost everyone was there and a gaping hole where the last one should be, dancing a dans macabre. At first, she even tried to joke about it, saying that it wouldn’t be hard to adjust to practicing with one less member because Taeyeon was lazy anyway, and it got a few laughs before it wilted. She couldn’t kid herself anymore.
Tiffany missed Taeyeon.
She wondered what Taeyeon was doing. She wasn’t sure where Taeyeon went. She hoped that wherever she was and whatever she was doing, she was feeling better.
It hurt that she wasn’t able to help Taeyeon. When she noticed Taeyeon’s struggle, she wanted more desperately than anything to be able to bring her out of it, to soothe her and hold her, and help her grow again. The fact that Taeyeon couldn’t stay, even to be with the people she loved, sent a stabbing pain through Tiffany’s chest. She lost Taeyeon. She couldn’t save her.
Taeyeon had half-heartedly promised to call them all, her head down and her voice soft, fiddling with the strap of the suitcase by her side as she said the words but didn’t feel them. Tiffany knew it wouldn’t happen. The hopefulness she felt at first was quickly squashed.
She went on a rollercoaster of anticipation and disappointment, expecting somehow that Taeyeon would come back or would still be a part of her life somehow. Her absence was acceptable, not something she was unaccustomed to, and then it became utterly unbearable. She would lie in bed at night, sifting through memories, remembering the sound of Taeyeon’s breathing every time they had slept in the same room.
It hit her hard when she listened to their music. The new music. The songs without that characteristic voice. She couldn’t do it for long. The music sounded brittle and hollow, and she absorbed herself in the music from before that time. All day, she would have her ears filled with that missing link; Taeyeon’s voice. And when she sang with her own voice, she sang for Taeyeon.
Tiffany was jerked out of her cocoon by the knocking on her bedroom door. She blinked a few times, clearing her blurry vision, and sniffed, before getting up and opening the door.
“Hey, blubber,” greeted Sunny. “What’s up?”
Tiffany eyed her friend’s face, the lines of worry and the ebb of concern, and she sniffed again. “Oh you know, the usual.”
Sunny sighed. “Look, Tiffany, let’s talk for a while, okay? I think we need to sort out a few things.”
Tiffany grimaced. “Can it wait? I don’t really feel like doing anything right now.”
“You never do,” Sunny said blandly. “Come on. Five minutes. You can even coil up on your bed while we talk if you want. I know it’s what you usually do in here.”
Tiffany didn’t bother to protest, and did exactly as she usually did; she fell back onto her bed, twisted herself up with her blankets, and blinked blearily at Sunny who sat on the foot of the bed.
“What do you wanna talk about,” Tiffany stated.
“First of all,” Sunny began, and Tiffany knew instantly it was planned, “it’s been three months now, piglet. Three months of crying in your room whenever you can. I know what you listen to on your music player all the time. It’s Taeyeon. And I know what you’re thinking about at any given moment. Taeyeon. I’m not going to trivialize your emotions. We all miss her very, very deeply. But we have to keep going. Not only are we contractually obligated to work, and not only is it healthy for us to move on, but it’s what Taeyeon would want. You know more than anything that she wished she could stay and keep singing, so she would want us to keep doing it because we can and she couldn’t.”
Tiffany just huffed. She didn’t feel like talking.
“There’s a lot more stuff I could say,” Sunny said. She tapped Tiffany’s ankle. “Just think about getting up a bit more often, okay? Just think about it.”
Tiffany almost didn’t hear the click of the door shutting behind Sunny. She was already thinking about it. She was thinking about moving on and she was thinking about Taeyeon at the same time, and she didn’t think she could move on.
The keys to her new apartment lay heavy in the palm of her sweaty hand. This was it. Her new beginning. Her new home, where she could foster a new life.
Taeyeon took a deep breath in and out. No one knew her here. Well, that wasn’t quite accurate; a lot of people knew her here. But they were different, at least so far. Those who recognized her weren’t obsessed, intense; some were a little over-excited but she figured it was a good sign that one week had already passed without an abduction attempt.
Nothing had been able to fill the hollow space in her chest though, the gap that surrounded her heart, where there used to be a layer of warmth emanating from the ring of people she loved.
And part of her could feel the tug of the strands of Tiffany’s aching thoughts. She would be missing Taeyeon a lot. Taeyeon sighed because she was missing Tiffany too.
But this wasn’t the time to think of Tiffany, because she had about a million boxes that needed to be moved into her new apartment from their current spot on the floor of the hallway at the bottom of the stairs.
It had taken a week to sort everything out, and she was made comfortable at a hotel in town while all her stuff was delivered and the paperwork for her new apartment was approved. She did it all on her own. She cut off communication with the world she left behind; her family, her friends, her fans. No one knew what she was doing at any given moment. No one could find out her next step, her current breath.
So she opened the door to her new home, and she smiled.
“You’ll never guess what my boss said to me yesterday.” Taeyeon flopped onto her bed, bouncing on the mattress, and relaxed her tired muscles. Her lips were already curving into a smile. “It’s something I heard during my trainee days, too.”
“Hmm, you used to get a lot of criticism in those days, you were pretty useless,” said Tiffany’s voice through the phone pressed to Taeyeon’s ear. Her full laugh reverberated across the distance between them, and Taeyeon let her eyes slip shut at the sound. “Where would I even begin to guess?”
“Very funny,” replied Taeyeon. “You were no superstar yourself, as I recall.”
It was nice to be talking to Tiffany again. It had taken a lot of effort to dial those numbers, and she even double checked to make sure she got the code right for the overseas call. After a lot of stress, way too much thinking and feeling, a significant amount of lying around staring at the ceiling, she finally made the call. That was three weeks ago, and they’d been talking every single day since that first awkward conversation melted into familiarity.
“No, I certainly wasn’t,” Tiffany remarked, her voice lilting with reminiscence. “It never really hit me properly, what exactly I was training for. Not until that first day. I felt like it all blew up in my face. Wonderful and overwhelming, and just what I wanted.”
Taeyeon stretched out an arm above her head and then brought it down to lay her forearm over her closed eyes. She took a deep breath, and listened to the mirrored sound of Tiffany’s breathing on the other side.
“He told me I need to smile more,” murmured Taeyeon, her little smile fading with the words, “my boss. He took me aside and said I was doing a good job but I needed to smile more or the customers would think I hated working there.”
She expected Tiffany to laugh, at least awkwardly, because it was true that Taeyeon had been told the exact same thing when she was training to be an idol. The parallel was humorous in a way, or it felt like it surely had to be.
But Tiffany didn’t say anything. The only sound was her breathing, which was becoming uneven and Taeyeon could tell she was holding something back.
Finally Tiffany inhaled and exhaled deeply and purposefully.
“On a scale of one to ten, how selfish would it be for me to ask you to come back?”
Taeyeon’s heart hitched on a beat. She moved her arm to run a hand over her face, leaving a frown. She didn’t say anything; she couldn’t.
“I miss you so much,” Tiffany whispered. She sniffed, but Taeyeon already knew she was crying. “You don’t have to come back to the group, to the job, just at least come back to Seoul? I miss you so much, Taeyeon.”
Taeyeon stayed silent, not even breathing, and unable to even move her hand because it was covering her mouth and her lips were trembling with the effort of holding back sobs.
“I miss having you near me,” Tiffany said. She took a shaky breath and didn’t let it out right away. “I miss you.”
“I miss you too,” Taeyeon answered immediately. She knew she had to say it, and it was one thing she knew how to say. Everything else was still just a feeling she couldn’t change into words. “I miss you.”
“Can I come visit you? If you won’t come back?”
“When would you visit?” Taeyeon sighed. “It’s not like an idol of your stature gets enough truly free time to fly all the way to the US to hang out with me.”
“I do get some free time, though. I could do it. Even if it’s just for a few days – even a few hours! I just need to see you, Taeyeon.”
Taeyeon bit her bottom lip. The action came with the formation of thoughts and plans in her head, and from the urge to restrain the words threatening to spill.
“You’ll never fade away,” Tiffany said solidly. “You really should just accept that. I know you’d rather just disappear from my life, from my thoughts, so that we won’t feel pain when we’re apart but it’s not going to happen. I’ll never forget about you, never be able to ignore you, and I’m afraid that I simply won’t ever be able to live without you.”
Taeyeon blinked slowly.
Then she smiled. It was wide and uninhibited as a cloud lifted from her mind. She didn’t even fight to push back the tears that welled in her eyes.
“Got it. How’s your schedule for the next few weeks?”
It could be their new beginning. If they could work something out, they could work through the pain that came with their separation. They could work together on the pain and darkness that haunted them and pushed them to the ends of the earth, and guide each other over the holes in the ground beneath their feet which threatened to make them stumble and fall. Maybe they could be alright again, with time, and with each other.