Taeyeon found it only fitting to use Deep Purple’s music for her morning routine. The new floors were smooth and the hallway had enough room for her air guitar as she slide-danced her away through the house. Another good thing about this area was the fact that the houses were far enough apart that she could blast her music as loud as she wanted without anticipating banging against the wall from disgruntled neighbours.
And there was the fact that she was free to do whatever the hell she wanted.
As the song switched, she pretended she knew how to play the drums and turned the corner into her kitchen with arms flailing. When she found the same two eggs in her fridge, she promptly spun around and swept back to her bedroom. If she got ready fast enough she could get some better breakfast before her morning meeting.
Most of her professional clothes were still crumpled from the move, but she managed to straighten them out well enough to look presentable.
Taeyeon hated meetings. Some of the more bureaucratic clients especially liked to make meetings unnecessarily long and complicated. Business talk got boring fast. But there were bills to be paid so Taeyeon shrugged at her reflection in the mirror, pulled a face, and almost sped out the front door without her shoes.
As an afterthought, she went back inside and turned off the music, too.
She tapped her fingers on the steering wheel absently and thought about how differently she would have behaved just a few years ago. Depending on which year she chose to think about, she’d either be remembering someone too scared to make any noise or someone too reckless to care. She clicked her tongue and started the car, trying to focus on the street in front of her driveway.
The random moments of contemplation were becoming more frequent as she got older. It had yet to happen while she was in a meeting, but often when she was working at home she would spend several long minutes staring into space. One day it could end up harming her productivity, but she shrugged it off anyway, because she spent so much time alone there wasn’t really any need to work fast.
And apparently thinking about not paying attention made her not pay attention, so she almost rammed into a car and figured she came close to stamping a hole through the floor of the car with the force she used to step on the brake.
It was the kid from across the street. He stared wide-eyed at her through his windshield, and Taeyeon knew that look. It wasn’t the shock of being in a car that just got hit by another car. It was the fear of facing punishment.
Taeyeon got out of her car hurriedly, the clumsy action of clambering past the door making her twist her wrist uncomfortably. When she reached the boy’s car, she tapped on the window impatiently before telling herself to slow down so she didn’t scare him further.
With trepidation, he let the window down, his mouth already moving to speak. Taeyeon had no doubt the apologies would be profuse, but she cut him off.
“Are you all right? I’m so sorry for hitting your car, I completely spaced out, which was really irresponsible of me.” Taeyeon swallowed her nerves and hoped her contrite expression was making the kid feel better and not worse. “I hope the impact wasn’t too rough on you.”
He blinked at her for a slow moment. “No I’m- I’m okay, thanks. It was probably my fault, sorry, I always make mistakes when I’m driving, I –”
“No, no, it’s not your fault at all!” Taeyeon said. She held up her hands in as placating a manner as she could manage while trying not to shake. “This one’s definitely on me. I got lost in my thoughts and didn’t pay attention to the road. I’m really sorry, I could have hurt you.”
He was frowning now, and he looked like he wanted to throw up. Taeyeon knew he still felt responsible but her behaviour was making it hard for him to form words. She stepped back and pointed at her watch.
“Anyway, I’ve got to get going. I’ll reverse back into my driveway and then you can go first, how’s that? If there’s any damage to your car, just let me know and I’ll pay for repairs, all right?”
She turned on her heel and got back into her car, doing as she said she would. The boy didn’t look at her as he awkwardly adjusted the positioning of his car, and the speed at which he left the street made it look as if he was expecting something to crush the back of his car at any moment. Taeyeon could picture giant steel jaws clamping down on the kid as he drove away, formed by his own guilt and dread.
Her head lowered automatically with the thought. She closed her eyes and focussed on her breathing. Eight seconds of inhalation, three seconds of pause, and eight seconds of exhalation. The only other sound in her car was the ticking of her wristwatch, and slowly she put her hands on the steering wheel again.
The incident with the cars didn’t take up much time, so Taeyeon still went to get breakfast when she reached the corporate district. She ran a finger over her mouth as she stared at the food in front of her, and her stomach suddenly felt like a solid wall of flesh. After trying to convince herself that it was worth it to eat, she abandoned the attempt. She was ten minutes late to the meeting.
The client wasn’t alone. His boss, the owner of the franchise chain, gave her a stern look and spent five minutes harassing her for being late. She knew before the real business was even discussed that this guy didn’t like the fact that she had been hired to be the document controller for this branch. Whether it was because she was a freelancer, a woman, or didn’t have as much experience as he preferred, she didn’t know, but these were the problems she had prepared herself for when she started the job.
They went over the documents, the schedules, and the upcoming general annual meeting for which Taeyeon needed to edit and approve the agenda and annual report input for the branch, and then the boss glared at her really hard before he let her leave.
She rolled her eyes when she was out of sight. Grown men were so childish.
In the safety of her car, Taeyeon tossed her folder onto the backseat and unbuttoned her blouse to near the point of indecency. She hated wearing office clothes. She got away with keeping it simple but it made her feel stiff and choked no matter how soft the fabric was.
She hummed along to a pop song on the radio as she eased her car along the near-empty streets to get home. Most of the work and school crowd had made their way through the city. Her window was down and she rested an arm half out the door, creating a breeze with her steady speed.
The humming progressed to whistling by the time she got home, and she was almost about to sing along with the chorus as she looked over her shoulder to back the car into the driveway – but then Tiffany Hwang popped up next to her window and she yelped in fright.
“Holy fu- fish sticks, where did you come from?”
Tiffany laughed and raised her eyebrows. “From across the street. I guess you didn’t see me since you were looking behind you.”
Taeyeon put a hand over her heart and started to make a joke. Then she noticed how Tiffany’s eyes followed the movement of her hand and lingered on her chest. In that split second she recalled the fact that her shirt was unbuttoned and Tiffany could most likely see her cleavage from that angle. With as much smoothness as she could muster in the wave of panic that flared up, she shifted her hand to cover a little more of her chest and cleared her throat nervously.
Tiffany’s gaze moved back up and she smiled. “So, what’s your schedule like for the rest of the day? Are you free for lunch later?”
For a brief moment Taeyeon let herself be confused; she wondered if Tiffany really just checked her out, and then she shelved her curiousity for later. “Um, sure, I’m free. My schedule is usually pretty flexible. What did you have in mind?”
“Well, today is my regular day off, and I always have ice cream on my day off. It just so happens there’s an amazing Italian restaurant next to my favourite ice cream place. How does that sound to you?”
Tiffany was leaning against the car now, smiling through the window at Taeyeon, and she crossed her arms just below her chest.
Taeyeon stared with much terror at Tiffany’s face. There was no way she would let herself get caught ogling her neighbour’s chest, but it was right in front of her and with the way she was standing and that shirt – Taeyeon coughed.
“Sure, that sounds great. What time were you thinking?”
“How about one o’clock? I’ll come get you.”
“Great. Awesome. Um, I’ll see you then.”
Tiffany grinned. “See you later, Taeyeon.”
Taeyeon kept staring at Tiffany all the way up until she disappeared into her own house. She shook her head at herself and murmured, “Was I being weird or was she being weird?”
The arrangement left her enough time to get some work done, so she settled at her desk in more casual clothes and opened all the relevant documents. She gazed at the screen for half an hour, daydreaming about commercial space travel, then she altered the formatting of the document in precise detail, and finally she spent an hour soaking up cat videos on the internet. She was smiling at a fat cat sleeping on its back when her smartphone started vibrating.
Frowning, she checked the display. The sight of an unknown number made her hesitate and bite her bottom lip, but eventually she steeled herself and answered it.
“Hey, it’s me. I haven’t heard from you for a while, how’s it going?”
Taeyeon swallowed hard. “How did you get my new number?”
“From that friend of yours. The really tall one. How come you changed it?”
“It was just time for a change. Did you need something?”
The voice on the other end chuckled. “No, of course not. I just wanted to hear what my big sister’s been up to. No one knows where you are these days, have you been busy with work?”
Taeyeon thought about how she spent the past month moving to another city, only told a few people about it, and did the bare minimum amount of work. “Yeah, I’ve been super busy. It’s that time of year, you know, companies are changing over to the new tax year. Lots of paperwork.”
“Well, that’s too bad. We should get together sometime and have coffee. Mother’s been asking about you.”
Taeyeon hesitated for as long as she dared. “Oh, is that so? Well, I guess you can let her know I’ve been busy. Um, I’m not sure when I’ll be free, but I’ll give you a call. I have to go now, okay? Let me know if you need anything. Any time. Love you, bye.”
She hung up before her sister could reply. Her fingers tightened around the phone in her hand, and she felt her palms getting clammy. Through the heavy thudding of her heartbeat, she tried to take deep breaths.
It was a stupid idea to avoid giving her new number to her sister when she moved. She couldn’t bring herself to tell her that she was moving, but hearing her voice made her feel like a bad sister. She wanted to be there if anything happened, and to help her, but instead she ran away without a word.
When she closed her eyes, she thought about the call. Her sister sounded so young on the phone. Small and frail. She was just a kid, even though she was almost done with high school. Maybe she was tired and that was why she sounded a little weak. Taeyeon probably sounded the same at her age.
Leaving her sister behind was a cowardly thing to do, and she felt it more now than ever.
She contemplated her options. For a moment she was seriously considering going back, just for her sister, but there was no way she could be in that place anymore. It would nullify the years she spent sleeping on friends’ couches while she studied and worked. She fought to get away, and finally she was completely gone. Maybe she should have taken her sister with her, but she knew her sister wasn’t ready for that.
“You’re pathetic, Taeyeon,” she whispered to herself.
There was a substantial weight in her chest. She had no idea how long she stayed sitting there, thinking and feeling, but it was long enough that she was shaken by the sound of her doorbell.
She blinked in the direction of the door. It was time for lunch with Tiffany. She took quick breaths. When she looked at her phone again, she saved the unfamiliar number under her sister’s name. Then she jumped up and went to meet Tiffany.
“Hey there. You ready to go?”
Taeyeon returned the smile and locked the door behind her. “Let’s go.”
Lunch with Tiffany turned out to be as comfortable as the evening they spent together the day before. Taeyeon managed to make a few jokes about her work that garnered sincere laughs from Tiffany, and the food was easy to eat. It didn’t take long for the phone call to be pushed to the back of her mind. It might have had something to do with the brightness of Tiffany’s expression, the excitement in her voice as she told stories about her career and her life, and the way she flicked her hair back every now and then.
“I don’t think I have much of a knack for fashion,” Taeyeon said, shaking her head. “I don’t get how it’s considered stylish to buy ripped-up jeans for hundreds of dollars. Or anything for hundreds of dollars, really. It’s insane.”
“Oh, I know what you mean,” Tiffany answered, rolling her eyes. She kept a hand in front of her mouth as she chewed, which amused Taeyeon, before she continued. “I always tell my clients that they don’t need to fall for that trap. Just because something costs hundreds of dollars doesn’t mean it’s better than everything else. Especially that ‘distressed’ look where the clothes are meant to look well-worn already. They don’t make the prices high because the material is superior. I want my clients to have an outfit that lasts, so I get them to look for the lower-cost, better-quality stuff.”
“You take good care of them,” Taeyeon commented. She shifted her cutlery around on her empty plate. “No wonder you’re so successful. Your clients must appreciate your attitude.”
Tiffany looked shy for a moment, but Taeyeon could tell she took pride in her success.
“I think they’ve gotten used to people assuming that they should spend a lot of money just because they have a lot of money. But if there’s one thing I learned from my father, it’s the importance of being smart with finances. Even celebrities can get a lot of value from a good bargain and a worthwhile investment.”
Taeyeon smiled and it was only a little strained. “Good advice.” She saw Tiffany’s plate was empty and said, “So, how about that ice cream?”
Tiffany’s favourite ice cream place had a variety of chocolate-laced flavours, which pleased Taeyeon immensely, and she was already absorbed in her treat when Tiffany led them to the nearby riverside to walk while they ate.
“I hope I’m not keeping you from your work for too long,” Tiffany said as they ambled along the path.
Taeyeon glanced at her watch. They’d been out for two hours. She was surprised, but not particularly concerned. “It’s okay. I was mostly watching cat videos. I can just work tonight.”
“Where did you live before you moved here?”
Taeyeon spent a moment consuming her ice cream. It was inevitable that Tiffany would ask more questions about her, since she already learned about Tiffany’s family – one business-owner brother, one forensics-student sister, one retired-CEO father, one deceased mother, one cat who ran away, and one small dog – as well as the book Tiffany was currently reading, and the fact that her car was making a weird noise but she couldn’t be bothered taking it to a shop.
“A small town a couple of hours away,” Taeyeon said eventually. “Well, I lived with a friend on the other side of town here but that was only for a few weeks while I looked for a place and found new clients.”
She felt Tiffany’s gaze on the side of her face but she ignored it and focussed on her ice cream.
“Do you have any pets?”
Taeyeon shook her head.
“Don’t like them or just didn’t have the time?” Tiffany ventured as she finished her ice cream, wiping her hands on her denim shorts and licking her lips.
Taeyeon paused. “Never really settled long enough, I guess. It wouldn’t be fair to the pet.”
Tiffany nodded in acknowledgement. Taeyeon could almost see the gears working in her head as she considered the next question.
“You should get a dog,” Tiffany said eventually. She turned to walk backwards so that she could give Taeyeon a grin. “Something small, like my Prince Fluffy.”
Taeyeon raised her eyebrows briefly. “I’ll think about it.”
Tiffany stopped walking, her expression softening into something less playful. Taeyeon could almost read it in her eyes. Concern, sympathy, hesitation; it was like she wanted to say a lot of things but was willing to say nothing at all if that was what was necessary. They stared at each other.
“You should come meet him some time,” Tiffany murmured. “My dog, I mean. You can get to know what he’s like and see if it’s what you want.”
Taeyeon tilted her head. Get to know the dog? Sure, she could do that. But figure out what she wanted – that was something completely different, and right now it had nothing to do with any dog.
Tiffany was really pretty.
“I think that would be great,” said Taeyeon.
Maybe if she got a dog, it would help her sleep better.
Not that she was really likely to get either.