All in the Value

If she closes her eyes for long enough, Tiffany enters into a dream, and in that dream she is able to see her daughter.

Even though only three weeks have passed since she confirmed the pregnancy, the child she sees in her dream is undoubtedly hers. She has Tiffany’s eyes, Tiffany’s mouth, but she has a little dimple in the corner of her mouth when she smiles and her ears are slightly too big. Her hair is straight and long, and Tiffany can so comfortably imagine how it feels beneath her fingers.

Always after this dream when Tiffany opens her eyes, she puts a hand on her stomach. She has no idea if the baby is a girl, or if she’ll look at all like the child in her dream, but there’s something about the way it makes her feel. She wants to chase that dream so that she can explore it further, and get to know her daughter, and it excites her that she’ll really be able to meet her baby in a few months.

But in the meantime, Tiffany has to work. So she stops dreaming, and looks up when a customer approaches the register. It’s a young woman who smiles nervously, and the sight of her dimple immediately makes Tiffany feel comfortable. Maybe it’s slightly weird that the woman’s dimple reminds her of her dream-daughter, and that this makes her feel comfortable, but presumably none of this is obvious to the customer.

“Hi,” Tiffany greets, “how are you today?”

The young woman clears her throat briefly before responding, “Great, thanks, and you?”

Tiffany eyes her. The woman places a loaf of bread between them. “I’m just fine. Lovely weather today.”

The woman glances outside, as if noticing the world for the first time. “Oh, right. So it is.”

Tiffany smiles at her, and scans the bread. She has to tap a few buttons on the machine to get the right product, but she’s distracted suddenly.

“Are you pregnant?”

Tiffany pins the woman with her gaze, and she doesn’t know what to say at first.

“Sorry!” The woman runs a hand over her face. “Okay, that was stupid of me. I just saw you, earlier, you had a hand on your stomach and you seemed really happy so I thought maybe you’re pregnant and I just wanted to know, I guess. Sorry, I shouldn’t have asked, especially not so bluntly, that was incredibly rude.”

Tiffany looked down for a moment, and rested a hand over her abdomen. When she meets the woman’s eyes again, she makes sure to smile. “It’s okay. You surprised me, but you’re right. I am pregnant.”

The woman takes a moment to accept this, and then she nods. “Cool. I mean, that’s great. Congratulations.”

“Thanks,” Tiffany says politely, and returns her focus to the cash register.

“Are you married?”

This time Tiffany looks incredulously at her, and the woman shuffles awkwardly.

“I’m sorry,” she says, closing her eyes and scrunching her face. “I’m really stupid. I just have this theory, like, you know it’s 2015 now, this country has been writing news about the declining birth rate, the declining marriage rate, the number of single women – I’m sorry. I’ll stop. I have no filter sometimes.”

Tiffany watches her for a long, hard moment. The woman coughs and looks away, before seemingly deciding not to avoid her, and reciprocates the stare.

“I’m not married, no,” Tiffany says eventually, running a finger over her left hand. “I’m single.”

“Oh, so the –” She stops herself, biting her lip. “Never mind. I’m sorry. Again.”

Tiffany feels almost bad for her. “It’s okay. The father of the baby is not involved anymore. He left before I found out about it.”

“You haven’t told him?”

Standing at the cash register of a convenience store in the middle of the afternoon talking to a stranger about personal things is uncomfortable but not all that bad. Sure, Tiffany knows it’s awkward, but is there really any harm in holding a conversation with this woman? Well, maybe she should find out her name at some point, at least.

“No. I doubt he’d be interested. And I don’t want him to be involved with the baby’s life.” Tiffany appreciates the look of understanding in the woman’s eyes. “He’s kind of a jerk.”

Her lips twitch with a smile. Then it’s as if she suddenly remembers the existence of the bread, and she looks at it. Tiffany blushes, and goes back to punching in the product code since the machine isn’t working properly anyway.

“Um,” the woman’s quiet voice tries. She clears her throat quickly again. “I’m Taeyeon.”

Tiffany glances at her. “Nice to meet you, Taeyeon. I’m Tiffany.” She briefly gestures to the nametag on her chest but Taeyeon has obviously already seen it.

“Sorry about all the questions,” Taeyeon says. “I figured I should at least introduce myself so you know I’m not a serial killer or something.”

Tiffany shrugs. “It’s all right. Well, it was kind of weird, but I’m okay with it.”

Finally the correct product code is in the machine and the transaction continues. Tiffany has to press some of the buttons extra hard but she informs Taeyeon of the total and watches as she reaches for her wallet.

“What was that you were saying about your theory? That stuff about marriage and the birth rate?”

Taeyeon blinks at her, hand still in her pocket. She pulls out her wallet, slower now. “I’m a statistics student. Specifically, I’m doing a Master’s degree in Applied Statistics. The majority of that is a giant research project, and I’ve been looking into national demographical trends over the past few decades.”

Tiffany can’t help that her expression portrays her opinion of that, and it makes Taeyeon become shyer when she notices it.

“It is actually interesting, I swear,” she murmurs, handing over some cash.

Tiffany grins at her and takes the money.

“Anyway, I’ve been noticing a few things about the number of marriages and the birth rate,” Taeyeon continues. “I mean, plenty of experts have been writing about it for years and technically my theories are completely unsubstantiated but I just think if there was more concrete data on the number of single parents and information on their circumstances for being a single parent, then there would be less of a stigma around having a child on your own. A lot of the data is marred by the number of parents who are together when the kid is born and only become single parents later, after the data has been recorded as a child born to two parents. Everyone gets scared when they’re left with a baby on their own, but there’s no fact that says they have to be scared of anything that other parents aren’t also scared of.”

Tiffany can’t help but stare at her, finger still on the button that makes the cash register pop open. Never before has she heard something that’s confusing and yet at the same time makes perfect sense.

“That’s,” she starts, then frowns, “that’s interesting.”

“Told you it’s interesting,” Taeyeon says, smiling, but she’s sheepish, looking down at her feet and back at Tiffany. “So, I felt obligated to ask you some questions when I thought you might be pregnant.”

Tiffany glances down at her stomach, and briefly touches it again. “Well, what would you have done if I was just fat? That would’ve been even more awkward.”

“Ah, I planned for that, you see,” Taeyeon says with a knowing expression. “I was going to turn and run away really fast – without the bread, of course.” She nods at her purchase. “Besides, you’re not showing that much yet.” This time she’s looking at Tiffany’s abdomen.

Once again Tiffany has to remind herself to keep working, and she gets Taeyeon’s change from the cash register quickly. So far there are no other customers, but she doesn’t want to get caught slacking off, talking to Taeyeon. She gives Taeyeon a good once-over when she hands her a few coins, and she considers.

“You seem like you really care about your research,” Tiffany says. She rests her hip against the side of the counter between them, and crosses her arms. “The subject matter must be close to your heart.”

Taeyeon pauses in the act of shoving coins into her pocket. She meets Tiffany’s gaze, and her eyes are quiet and reserved.

“It’s a good research project,” she says, perhaps a little defensively.

“Yeah, it really is. As a soon-to-be single mother, I appreciate that you’re going to be looking at the subject from that point of view.”

Taeyeon smiles. “Thanks for answering my questions. I know it was weird. Technically I won’t be able to use your responses in my project anyway, but I liked the extra insight.”

Tiffany tilts her head to one side. “You know, if you wanted some more insight, we could exchange numbers and meet up some time.”

The look of surprise on Taeyeon’s face gives Tiffany a feeling of affectionate amusement. What really makes her heart warm, though, is when Taeyeon grins and immediately agrees.

Taeyeon has a number of questions prepared next time they meet. Tiffany manages to get her to wait until they’ve ordered their coffee and settled down at a table outside, and then she lets Taeyeon begin asking. The café is close to the beach. Tiffany can almost smell the ocean from here and it puts her in the perfect mood for answering questions.

“So, since the father of your baby left before you knew you were pregnant, would it be accurate to say it was unplanned?”

Tiffany raises her eyebrows. “Getting straight to the good stuff, I see. Yes, it was incredibly unplanned.”

Taeyeon nods, clearly not surprised at the confirmation. “How long were you in a relationship with him?”

“About six months.”

“Were you raised by a single parent?”

Tiffany takes a breath. Their coffee arrives at the table, and she lets it be a distraction for a few minutes, adds sugar and stirs, takes a sip. Then she answers.

“Not at first. Up until I was eight years old, there was my mother and father. Then my mother passed away, and from then on it was just my dad.”

Taeyeon fiddles idly with her own cup of coffee, seemingly lost in thought, but Tiffany thinks it’s probably just to give her some time.

“Do you have any siblings?”

“Two. Both older.”

“So it became a one-parent, three-child household? That must have been tough.”

Tiffany leans back in her chair, and wonders. “Yeah, I guess it was. But we were happy.”

“Do they know you’re pregnant?”

That is practically a million-dollar question, because that is the issue that Tiffany has been wrestling with ever since she found out about the pregnancy. She knows her family would never abandon her, but she’s struggling to find the words to say “hey, I’m pregnant and single” in the least crisis-inducing way.

“I’ll take that as a no,” Taeyeon says eventually.

Tiffany bites her bottom lip. “Yeah, I’m still working on that.”

“How long have you known?”

“About three weeks. I just don’t know how to tell them,” Tiffany sighs. “My dad is going to freak out and get all over-protective.”

This makes Taeyeon smile. “Well, there are worse things.”

Tiffany leans forward. “Can I ask you some questions?”

Taeyeon blinks. “You want to ask me questions?”

“Yeah. If I may.”

“Um.” Taeyeon shifts in her seat, reaches out and touches the coffee cup in front of her before resting her hands in her lap. “Sure.”

“Were you raised by a single parent? You seem like you actually care about this as more than an academic assessment.”

Taeyeon shrugs. “Not a single parent, exactly.” Her gaze settles on Tiffany. “I’m an orphan. I had a few people who fostered me and tried to help me as much as they could… but no single parent.”

The words seem like they can go either way. Many parental figures rather than just one, or not even one parent at all.

“So you want to do this research to show…?”

“To show people that they shouldn’t be scared to be a single parent,” Taeyeon says. “The kid in the equation will likely be happy to have a parent at all, and that should be enough to give anyone strength.”

“Do you know what happened to your family?”

Taeyeon shakes her head tightly. A breeze picks up around them, strengthening the smell of the ocean, and the dark clouds in the distance suggest an incoming summer storm. This is a conversation for another time, another place, because even though they’ve advanced from convenience store conversations, they’re not quite here yet.

“Let’s go for a walk on the beach,” says Tiffany.

She ends up being glad that she suggested this. The sight of the water and the feeling of the sand between the toes of their bare feet seems to lighten Taeyeon’s mood after the conversation went downward. Tiffany watches her kicking up shells and laughing at the sand that sprays into the air. It’s easy to picture a younger version of Taeyeon doing the same. Tiffany can’t help but wonder who would have left behind a kid like Taeyeon. Her mind turns to the life developing in her womb, and she knows the fierce determination she feels is more than a matter of natural instinct.

They try to mimic a snowball fight with the sand, which almost goes horribly wrong but they still end up rolling around on the beach with sandy faces and gulping laughs.

When Tiffany daydreams about her daughter again, this time they’re playing together on the beach and Tiffany gets to imagine her daughter’s playful giggles and the wind toying with her hair.

She hasn’t told Taeyeon about her imaginings. They’ve been spending a lot of time together, talking about kids and parents and hobbies and interests and food, but just like explaining to her father that she’s pregnant, Tiffany can’t find the words to explain the dream-time she spends with her unborn daughter.

It’s not like she thinks it would be bad to tell Taeyeon about the daydreams. Taeyeon seems like a very open-minded person who looks for the valuable treasures in every encounter. Her attitude towards the details is one full of anticipation and appreciation. She has a surprisingly happy way of looking at things – and sure, Tiffany only thinks it’s surprising because Taeyeon clearly had a rough start to life, but she tries not to let that be an issue. She knows Taeyeon wouldn’t want to be pitied, but what Tiffany feels is more akin to admiration.

And anyway, Taeyeon already has a good opinion of the way Tiffany thinks about her child. She even says so.

“You’ll be a good mother.” They’re stretched out on a pile of blankets in front of the TV, windows open and volume low. “Your kid is barely the size of an orange and you’re wholly devoted to it already.”

Tiffany scrunches her nose. “Ew, don’t call my baby an ‘it’. Just because it’s the size of an orange doesn’t mean it is an orange.”

Taeyeon laughs. “No, I guess it wouldn’t be very interesting if all you had in there was an orange. But you don’t want to know the sex of that little orange before it gets born as a real life human baby, so I don’t know its sex either.”

The bump of her stomach is already more prominent. Tiffany doesn’t want to know the sex of the baby because she doesn’t want the dreams to end. She lays a hand over her unborn child and imagines an orange with eyes and a smile.

“Now I can’t stop thinking of an orange in there,” she whines, and whacks Taeyeon on the arm. The action elicits only further laughter.

Outside, the light breeze becomes stronger, and Tiffany slowly picks herself off the floor and goes to close the window before the storm hits. Taeyeon is quick to jump up and help. She even pours them each a glass of orange juice, chortling all the while at Tiffany’s expression.

Tiffany likes this. She never spends much time agonizing over the loss of her so-called boyfriend, preferring to focus on the incoming baby, and she never feels particularly bad that he will no longer be a part of her life because she is preparing to do this on her own. But it turns out there are a lot of benefits to having Taeyeon around, and lazy afternoons like this are a definite plus.

“I mean it,” Taeyeon says quietly, later, when the sun is setting and they can see it from their nest on the floor. “You’ll be a great mother. You care so much about that kid.”

Tiffany turns her head to look at her – to really look at her. Taeyeon is a young woman without a family, who has made it a goal in the form of academic research to prove to anyone at all that being a single parent should be life-affirming as if the power of numbers makes it a solid fact. When Taeyeon says something like that, about caring for a child, her voice shows how much she really means it. Taeyeon is someone who treasures that kind of love in the way only someone who’s lost it can.

She reaches over and takes Taeyeon’s hand, twines their fingers together. “How could I not? That’s not just some orange in there. It’s a human; a person who is going to be born so tiny and so precious. That person is going to be a little bit like me but a whole lot like an individual human. One day, that person is going to be an adult with dreams and opinions and a life that has good moments and bad, and that person will have to make difficult decisions and live with tragedies. I love that person no matter what.”

When Taeyeon curls up next to her and cries, Tiffany knows it’s because her words were meant for Taeyeon as much as for the baby. Whatever led to Taeyeon becoming an orphan, she never did anything to deserve it.

And as for that –

“I guess my mother never loved me like you love your child,” Taeyeon whispers. “Because she just left me like I was nothing. She probably thinks I don’t even remember her.”

Tiffany closes her eyes. She lays an arm around Taeyeon’s shoulders, pulling her closer.

“Maybe she thought she was doing the right thing,” Tiffany murmurs in reply. “And in a way, maybe it was the best thing for you. If she couldn’t become a mother, at least she let you become yourself.”

Taeyeon reciprocates the embrace and it’s tighter than any hug Tiffany has ever felt before.

Having had several years to contemplate the subject, Tiffany has already reached the conclusion that her mother’s death was not in any way related to her behaviour as a child or anything that her mother did intentionally. It was an accident. There is no such thing as being too young, or a concept of fairness. It happened, and had it not happened then Tiffany may have found cause to be displeased with her mother in the same way she is at times displeased with her father. The way she came to the realization that her parents were only human has become the same way that she loves her child for being only human, too.

They spend a lot more time like that over the next few weeks, curled up on the floor of Tiffany’s lounge, and they get to enjoy views of warm sunsets as well as falling asleep to storms lashing against the windows. The little orange in Tiffany’s womb keeps growing into a little human and Tiffany’s heart is growing with it. Before she had love within her for her family, herself, and the general populace in a blanketing kind of way. Now there needs to be room for her baby, and then there’s Taeyeon inching into it too. She’s not like everyone else.

Tiffany does finally come clean to her family about the pregnancy. They act as expected, but then they make her cry because there’s a group hug and her father is doing his over-protective thing but he’s also tearing up slightly because he’s going to be a grandfather for the first time and his little girl is all grown up. She’s graced with their support and it feels amazing.

The next time she sees Taeyeon, she hugs her again. This is the first time they’re hugging without some form of sadness involved, and it obviously catches Taeyeon off guard.

“Um, thanks?” says Taeyeon, sounding uncertain but returning the squeeze without hesitation. “What’s this about?”

Tiffany closes her eyes, and leans her head against Taeyeon’s. “Just spreading the love.”

Taeyeon thinks about this for a while. “You told your family?”

“Yeah.”

“Good.” Taeyeon’s arms around her waist shift slightly, getting a better grip, and they stand together for a long time.

They spend almost a whole night arguing about what to watch on TV before Tiffany kisses Taeyeon for the first time. It’s been two months since they met. It seems like those weeks have gone fast but she’s gotten to know Taeyeon at a depth that makes it feel like years. Their differing taste in horror movies leads to an hour long debate followed by endless scrolling through options while the light from the screen falls on their faces. When Taeyeon is explaining how crappy the sequels were to just about all the classics from their childhood, Tiffany leans forward and presses their lips together.

She knows she shouldn’t. It’s not like she’s given it much thought before, but the reasons have always been lurking in the background. Not only is the room so dark that she almost kissed Taeyeon’s nose instead of her mouth, Tiffany is well and truly pregnant and they’ve only known each other for two months. So maybe it wasn’t the best time – there wasn’t likely to be a best time. In a few months, Tiffany will have a child to raise; it is inevitable. She can’t expect anything from Taeyeon, and she doesn’t. She just kisses her.

Taeyeon pulls away first, slightly, and licks her lips. “Okay, I guess I don’t have to ask what that was about… but I kind of want to. Just to make sure.”

Tiffany smiles. She looks away, tucking her hair behind her ear. “In case you haven’t noticed, I like you quite a lot.”

Taeyeon reaches up, gently runs her thumb along Tiffany’s jaw, and then lowers her hand to lock their fingers together. “Wanna talk about it?”

“You know.” Tiffany sighs. “Having a child is a big responsibility. I shouldn’t be thinking about dating right now.”

“But you want to date me?” Taeyeon asks, bumping her shoulder against Tiffany’s and shooting her a grin.

Tiffany kisses her again, briefly. “I like what we have. I like spending time with you, hanging out, hugging, holding hands, talking about movies and orange babies, the past and the future.” She lifts up their joined hands and softly sets her lips against Taeyeon’s fingers. “I want to make it a thing. You know?”

Taeyeon’s response is to kiss her, hard, and pull her closer at the same time. She lets go of Tiffany’s hand and touches Tiffany’s neck, then cups her face.

She wonders how she ever kissed anyone else when they never kissed her half as well as Taeyeon does.

There’s a jump in her heartbeat, and then a jump a little lower down.

“Oh my god,” she breathes against Taeyeon’s mouth. “I think the baby just moved.”

They both look down at the bump in her abdomen, Tiffany laying both hands over it.

“Is that even possible at this stage?” Tiffany whispers. “Kid, what are you doing in there?”

“Well if it’s the size of an orange then it’s got to have legs and stuff already, right? Or is it just a head shaped like an orange?”

Tiffany laughs. She looks at Taeyeon again, and she takes in the expression on Taeyeon’s face in the dim light of the TV screen. It’s almost dawn. They’ve shared a moment she was expecting to go through alone, and a whole lot of kisses. She starts to think that she should try having no expectations at all. It’s something that could work out well for now and for later when she has to learn the reality of raising a child.

“You’re okay with this?”

Taeyeon meets her gaze.

Tiffany dips her chin in the direction of her baby. “You know.”

Taeyeon develops a smile slowly, like a map unfurling or wings unfolding. “Yeah, I know. I’m okay with it.”

She kisses Tiffany, and then laughs softly in the grip of their closeness.

“Not it,” she whispers. “That cherished little human.”

Think Twice. (Part 4)

As bearable as the summer weather had been thus far, there always had to be the odd overly-windy day. Taeyeon had a great dislike for windy days. They were fine when experienced from inside a house with the curtains drawn, but naturally she would not always have the luxury of being able to stay at home on a windy day. Her work allowed her much flexibility until she needed to hold meetings with clients again.

After spending the morning traveling between numerous companies to deliver and discuss the drafts of their most important documents, Taeyeon felt a sense of relief as she exited the final building. She unbuttoned her suit jacket, and then immediately buttoned it up again when the brisk wind caught hold of it. That was another thing about windy days; she could so easily lose control of her clothes.

But aside from finally being free of strenuous meetings, there was something else that cheered Taeyeon’s spirits. Tiffany was in the same part of the city for some work meetings of her own, and they were going to have lunch together.

Tiffany’s little speech about taking it slow had initially done little to diminish Taeyeon’s nervousness. While she previously felt pressure to figure out her intentions towards Tiffany, it was nothing compared to the knowledge that they were definitely edging towards to option of getting closer. At first she couldn’t stop thinking about it. She would imagine how various situations would be different if they were dating, and she would tell herself that she dreamed the whole thing – but then Tiffany would give her that smile or have a unique glint in her gaze or she would call Taeyeon cute, and Taeyeon was reminded that it was not a dream. Unfortunately her logic for handling the situation was still uncertain. Every now and then she would spend a good deal of time thinking about it, and then there were the moments when she felt so comfortable around Tiffany that it hardly crossed her mind. She still wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or not, but it didn’t feel too bad so she carried on.

Before the wind could completely tangle her hair, Taeyeon pulled a hair tie from her pocket. From where she was standing, she would walk around the corner and down the street a bit to get to the restaurant where they’d agreed to meet. She made sure which way she was going, and then lowered her gaze to the ground as she tied her hair while she walked. In a few minutes the crowds would thicken with other people going to get lunch, but for now she didn’t have to worry about bumping into anyone while she was distracted.

“Taeyeon!”

The call came as soon as she rounded the corner. She looked up in surprise but relaxed when she saw Tiffany waving at her from a short distance away. She smiled and waved back.

“You’re early,” she said when she reached Tiffany, and they stood to one side on the pavement as the wind strengthened briefly. “I thought I’d have to walk slowly to make up for extra time.”

“My meeting ended sooner than I expected. All the better for me.”

Taeyeon was only a little astonished when Tiffany linked their arms together and lightly squeezed her elbow. It wasn’t really a big deal.

“And for you, of course,” Tiffany continued, winking at her. “Now you get to spend even more time with me.”

Taeyeon put on a blank expression. “Lucky me,” she retorted, voice dripping in faux sarcasm. But she couldn’t hold it for long, and they ended up laughing together.

They barely made it two steps further before a loud squealing noise made them both jump. Tiffany dropped Taeyeon’s arm and turned when someone yelled, “Tiffany Hwang, is that you?”

A middle-aged woman with finely styled hair and just the right amount of makeup was tottering towards them on high heels. Taeyeon ran her gaze over the woman’s outfit, and wondered if she was one of Tiffany’s clients.

“Oh my god,” Tiffany squealed in response, and the two women air-kissed each other’s cheeks. “It’s been so long! How have you been?”

Taeyeon wanted to shake her head to get rid of the sound of Tiffany over-emphasizing the final word of each sentence. She eyed them both critically.

“Absolutely fantastic,” the woman replied. She tapped Tiffany lightly on the shoulder. “All thanks to you. You know, just the other day I went to an interview on that late night talk show, and I was wearing the black and red outfit you created for me, and guess what? The wardrobe people at the studio said I looked perfect! They didn’t want to change a thing.

Tiffany gripped the woman’s arm and they giggled together. “That’s great! I’m so happy for you.”

“When I mentioned your name, they even said they weren’t surprised! Everyone in the industry knows about you now.” The woman, having resumed normal speech patterns, finally caught sight of Taeyeon lingering by Tiffany’s shoulder. “And who’s this? It’s a pleasure to meet you, dear.”

The woman obviously assumed Taeyeon recognized her from television or whatever. Taeyeon cringed internally because, of course, she had no idea who the woman was, but she smiled politely and shook the hand that was offered to her.

“This is Taeyeon,” Tiffany said, before Taeyeon could say something to the same effect. “She’s a friend of mine. And my new neighbour.”

The woman looked like she was going to say something else, when another person jogged up to them. Taeyeon noticed the camera slung around his neck and her eyes widened. She instinctively took a step back.

“Mrs. Lee! Good afternoon to you. How about a quick photo and some questions? I’m from Star Daily.”

Tiffany reached out and took Taeyeon’s hand, ignoring the man as his focus remained on the other woman for the time being. She laced their fingers together and tugged, bringing Taeyeon back from the edge of the street. Taeyeon concentrated on the reassuring look that Tiffany was giving her.

Mrs. Lee made a sound of disapproval. “You again. Have you been following me?”

The man chuckled, but he circled his hands around his camera as if he was preparing to strike with it. “Of course not, Mrs. Lee. Just a quick photo? And maybe you’d care to comment on your husband’s latest scandal?”

Mrs. Lee rolled her eyes. She turned her back to the man, giving Tiffany an apologetic smile. “Sorry about this, Tiffany. I’d better get going, I don’t want you and your friend –” did her gaze just linger on their joined hands? “– to be inconvenienced by this rude man.”

The man popped his head around Mrs. Lee’s shoulder. “Oh, is that Tiffany Hwang? The stylist, right? Say, would you be able to confirm your attendance at the local fashion show this weekend? And how about the rumours that you’ll be launching your own winter collection?”

Mrs. Lee rounded on him, taking a step forward so that he had to stumble backwards. “How about you contact my publicist if you’d like to arrange an interview with me, Mr. Star Daily? For now I think you and I should both leave.”

She strode away with a huff of distaste, nose in the air. The man glanced between her and Tiffany, narrowly missing the sight of Tiffany releasing Taeyeon’s hand, before he decided to head after Ms. Kang, clearly searching for the possibility of a bigger story from the more famous person.

Immediately, Tiffany turned to Taeyeon and took hold of both her hands. “I’m so sorry about that! I didn’t think we’d have to worry about anything like that ever. Mrs. Lee was my client a while ago, but I didn’t expect a reporter would come up to us on the street. That was so awkward.”

Taeyeon was still tense, but she tried to make light of it. “You know what was even more awkward? She totally thought she was so famous that I’d recognize her instantly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her face before in my life.”

Tiffany stared at her for a moment. Then she laughed. “Oh no, you’re serious, aren’t you? You don’t know who she is?”

“Should I?” Taeyeon shrugged.

“No, I suppose not,” Tiffany said. She took Taeyeon’s hand again and pulled her towards the restaurant. “She’s an actress and her so-called scandalous husband is running for Mayor this year. I guess since you’re sort of new here you wouldn’t know about him, but she’s been in films and television for nearly two decades. You’re sure you’ve never seen her?”

Taeyeon shrugged again. “Didn’t really watch much television,” she muttered, her reply almost lost in the bustle as they entered the restaurant and were guided to a table. She could tell Tiffany heard her, though, because of the confused little frown and smile that she received from her. Taeyeon just waved it off and they picked up their menus.

“So, everyone in the industry knows about you now?” Taeyeon echoed. “Even that reporter knew about your schedule. You must be getting pretty famous.”

With typical grace, Tiffany looked sheepish. “Yeah, I guess so. Business has certainly been picking up lately. I even had to print a new set of business cards because I ran out; which may sound mundane, but it was a big moment for me.”

“That’s pretty impressive. Well, if you ever need a document controller, I’ll give you a discount.”

Tiffany giggled. “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind. How did you get into a job like that, anyway? Somehow I don’t imagine little Taeyeon telling everyone she wants to be a document controller when she grows up.”

The thought was amusing. “I doubt little Taeyeon would have known what a document controller was. I can’t really say I know for sure even now. I studied a certificate of business administration and the internship was offered to my class, so a few of us got positions learning how to do the job. Later I knew enough to go freelance, and here I am.”

“So you have a certificate in business administration? Is that like a shorter version of a degree?”

Taeyeon coughed awkwardly. “Yeah, it’s like a broad overview of the type of things that are covered in the degree. It focuses more on the day-to-day functions of administration and knowing your way around an office.”

Tiffany tilted her head. “Sorry, am I missing something?”

The waiter popped up beside their table and gave a customary greeting. Normally Taeyeon would have jumped on the chance to have a distraction, but she didn’t really want him to hang around a lot. Somehow she would manage to be more open around Tiffany, although she was pretty sure she already knew where her limits would remain. Taeyeon rattled off the name of the first decent-seeming dish she spotted on the menu and waited as Tiffany placed her order. The waiter filled their glasses with what Taeyeon thought of as fancy-lemon-water when they didn’t order any drinks, and he smiled too many times. Eventually he gathered up their menus and departed.

Tiffany just looked at her, clearly choosing not to say anything but still remaining on the same topic of conversation.

“I didn’t finish it,” Taeyeon said quietly. “I skipped the final semester. So, no, I don’t actually have a certificate in business administration.”

“Oh.”

For the first time in a long time, the silence between them was uncomfortable. Taeyeon closed her eyes for a moment and at first she cursed Tiffany’s ability to pick up on the subtleties of Taeyeon’s behaviour in a way that brought up her obvious avoidance. But blaming Tiffany didn’t last long, because there was no possibility that it was ever valid. Taeyeon’s own fault was in thinking she could do what they were trying to do.

Now she felt herself facing a choice. Some imperative need willed her to act right there in the restaurant. Either she was going to do this the way more normal people did and just be honest about herself and her past, or she was going to cover it all up again and run away from the issue until Tiffany realized she wasn’t worth it.

Having made up her mind in those quick seconds, she opened her mouth –

And promptly shut it again when the waiter returned with his silly jar of silly water and his silly smile that begged for a thirty percent tip.

Taeyeon just sighed when he unnecessarily refilled their barely touched drinks. She was being too dramatic anyway. A valued part of taking it slow was not treating every moment like a life-changing decision.

“So, what’s on your schedule for the rest of the day? More clients?” Taeyeon asked politely. She took a small sip of her water, fearful that the waiter would scramble nearer again if it dipped below a certain level.

“Oh, yes, actually it’s kind of exciting,” Tiffany said, carefully avoiding Taeyeon’s gaze at first as she ran a hand through her hair. “I’ll be visiting one of my clients at a photoshoot. He’s going to be in a fitness magazine and he said it’s an open set. I figured it would be a good chance to get an angle on the image he’s developing when he presents his personal side.”

“You do that a lot for clients? Help them when they’re doing stuff like that – magazines, talk shows?”

“Definitely,” Tiffany said. This time she looked right at Taeyeon and smiled. “Celebrities have an unfortunate duality in their lives already – their personal and professional sides both lack privacy. But they have the ability to control this by introducing a third position; the professional personal image. This would be how they present themselves on talk shows, in interviews, magazine articles that are meant to show them in their natural habitat. Some even the reach the point where their casual grocery shopping appearances are heavily co-ordinated. They can show something that’s meant to look like them but hides the most personal sides of themselves, so I help them get the right style to match that image.”

“That’s an honourable pursuit,” Taeyeon ventured. “I’ve never understood how a famous person could possibly cope with the horror of modern media.”

“It’s a challenge. That’s another reason I found that journalist outside just now so off-putting. I’m not used to a stranger knowing where I’m going to be during the weekend. And I’m not planning to launch my own winter collection, so I guess I have to deal with baseless speculation already too.”

Taeyeon nodded in commiseration. With disappointment she spotted the waiter zipping towards them and realised she had been steadily and absently sipping her water until the glass was half empty. She sat through his tending with a tight smile and he reassured them their food would be ready soon. When he was gone again she let out a sigh and fiddled with the glass, turning it in her hands but not drinking from it.

“You should come with me.”

Taeyeon looked up. “What?”

“To the photoshoot,” Tiffany clarified. She didn’t blink much as she watched Taeyeon and it made it seem like she had a lot to say but didn’t say it.

“Really? Would I be allowed?”

“Sure, especially if it’s with me. I mean, you don’t have to tell them you’re a document controller,” Tiffany almost laughed, “but you can just tell them you’re my – my friend and it’ll be fine.”

Taeyeon nearly wondered why Tiffany seemed to say something else when she used the term ‘friend’, but she knew they both knew. Unlike when she introduced Taeyeon as her friend earlier, it was different when they were alone.

“Okay,” Taeyeon said. “I think I’d like that.”

The set itself wasn’t particularly interesting. Lacking in child-like naivety, Taeyeon knew it was just another workplace, and the people certainly reflected that. They were focussed and professional, except for a few hanging around the buffet table presumably gossiping. The celebrity in question was probably the guy posing in front of the camera. At least it was interesting to watch someone move around and stand with comparatively odd facial expressions for a few minutes. Celebrities on magazine covers always seemed to be trying hard to convey a look that was different from normal people. In Taeyeon’s mind it was amusing and annoying.

Tiffany talked her through some of the details of the photoshoot, telling her about the usual processes and pointing out the wardrobe section where various outfits were prepared. The photographer was not in the fashion industry but often took pictures for movies and TV. Tiffany related this to the action-packed image that a fitness magazine would capture.

Taeyeon nodded along, quietly impressed with how comfortable Tiffany seemed here. Strategizing about images and appearances was clearly her specialty, Taeyeon knew that, but seeing Tiffany analysing every aspect of the professional environment was incredibly attractive.

As soon as the photographer called for a twenty minute break, Tiffany squeezed Taeyeon’s hand and went over to her client.

Are you free to talk right now?

Taeyeon glared at her phone. She didn’t know why she was angry so suddenly but at the same time she knew it wasn’t the type of anger that had a specific reason or a particular direction. She was just mad at life, and the sight of a message from her sister rapidly brought this to the surface even here in the unfamiliar environment of a photoshoot. She swallowed it down.

Not through call, but text is okay. Is something wrong?

She stared at the open conversation, anticipating a quick response. Then she figured it might take her sister some time to type if it was a lengthy answer, so she lowered her arm and the phone dangled by her side. Her eyes swept over the room. Tiffany was chatting with her client as workers changed the set for the next round of photos. There was probably nothing in the way Tiffany’s hand rested on her client’s shoulder; Taeyeon wouldn’t assume that Tiffany wasn’t going to be interested in other people just because of their discussion, but at the very least she was certain Tiffany would never date a client.

Her hand had been on his shoulder for quite a while, though. Tiffany would probably never date a client but Taeyeon started thinking that maybe some friendly flirting was not entirely off the table. She shook her head at herself. Tiffany was a friendly person, and sometimes her behaviour would seem like flirting – but only to someone who assumed that just about any interaction was flirting. Taeyeon was being foolish. Not everything Tiffany did was flirtatious, otherwise she would have been flirting with that woman they ran into before lunch, too, and that was not a thought Taeyeon wanted to entertain.

The phone in her hand was still when she checked it. She sighed and looked around again.

“Well, hello again.”

Taeyeon spun around. She was hardly surprised to recognize the man. He was tucking a small roll of cash into the pocket of his suit. He grinned at her, and gestured at the people around them.

“Show business,” he said, as if in explanation. “It’s become a steady income. The employees in this industry get awfully stressed and need something to energize them from time to time when they work long hours. Greener pastures, remember? It’s much better here. Back home my biggest payers were the council members and that was a little too dicey even for me.”

Taeyeon glanced towards Tiffany, who was now talking with her client over by the wardrobe area. “Look, I’m not your friend or anything. I only went to your little dinner parties three times, it should hardly count.”

“Yeah, you sure did get out of that whole game pretty quick, didn’t you?” His voice was light with reminiscence. “Well, that’s all right. I could tell you never really liked it anyway. It’s smart. You could have ended up like every other deadbeat addict in that town if you didn’t stop yourself. Good for you – and I really do mean that.”

Taeyeon swallowed nervously. “So why do you keep talking to me? Just pretend you don’t know me.”

His smile was softer when he answered, “Honestly? You remind me of your brother.”

Taeyeon’s eyes widened. Her heart sank lower as her chest deflated. She stared at the man and he stared back.

“Well, what am I supposed to say to that?” she muttered.

He chuckled. “Nothing. It’s fine. I’m not going to try to be your friend or anything. But every now and then, if I run into you, maybe I’ll say hi. I’d say I’m sorry but I’m not, so I won’t.”

Taeyeon looked at her shoes, unsure of what to do. Then she shrugged and met his gaze again. “Fine. Whatever.”

“You miss him too?”

Taeyeon sighed. “I’ll let you say hi sometimes but we’re not going to talk about it.”

The expression on his face was enough, anyway. He knew she missed her brother without either of them having to say anything more.

“Speaking of which,” he continued after a beat, “I didn’t think there would be a chance that I’d run into you very often, but here you are. You work in this industry?”

“No,” she replied.

He seemed to accept that she would not be elaborating on that. “Okay, then. Maybe I’ll see you around. And a word of advice, or maybe a warning: one day you’ll have to face your past. That includes him.” He gave her a little wave before he walked away and called, “Bye, Taeyeon,” over his shoulder.

“Who was that?”

Again Taeyeon whirled around in surprise. Tiffany was approaching her, without her client. Reflexively Taeyeon wanted to clench her hands into fists when she heard the question and she was reminded of the phone in her hand. She shoved it into her pocket and plastered on an innocent expression.

“No one,” she said. “I mean, I don’t know. He was trying to make conversation.”

Tiffany raised an eyebrow but didn’t say anything. For the first time Taeyeon was struck with the possibility that Tiffany may have overheard part of the conversation. If she knew the man had called Taeyeon by her first name or what he said before he left, then her act was not only diminished by her lack of skill in lying. Luckily or unluckily, Tiffany chose not to pursue the matter.

“Shall we go? I’m done here,” said Tiffany, adjusting her grip on a folder in her hands.

“Sure.”

The ride back to Taeyeon’s car was mostly quiet. The phone in Taeyeon’s pocket seemed to burn a hole into her leg through her pants as Taeyeon thought about all the things that her sister could possibly want to talk to her about. She didn’t want to check with Tiffany sitting right next to her, but it distracted her enough to kill her ability to initiate conversation.

By the time they were standing next to her car in the dim light of the parking garage, Taeyeon was caught off guard when Tiffany tried to hug her. She automatically stepped back and raised her hands.

“Woah,” she squeaked, throat tight with shock.

Tiffany looked surprised, but stepped back and lowered her arms. “Oh…? Sorry, I didn’t….”

Taeyeon straightened up again. “No, I should apologize. I’m not good with stuff like that. I should have told you. I’m sorry.”

Tiffany’s lips twitched into an uncertain smile that Taeyeon could tell was mostly forced, even with good intentions.

“It’s okay. No hugs. I get it.”

“It’s not because of you or what we talked about,” Taeyeon said quietly.

Tiffany nodded without a word, but it was the kind of nod that carried the disappointment of not being given something she innocently wanted. Taeyeon shuffled her feet. She knew Tiffany didn’t have a cruel bone in her body and wouldn’t seek to purposely hurt her physically or emotionally, and that the way she reacted to the denial of a hug was not a manipulation. She repeated this thought a few times, and then she reached out to lightly take hold of Tiffany’s fingers with her own.

“I mean it. I’m not good with physical contact but I do feel safe with you,” she said. “I don’t even mind holding hands with you sometimes, like we’ve done today.” She stepped closer. “I know I already told you I need time, and this is part of that. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t have to keep saying sorry, Taeyeon,” Tiffany finally said. She looked at Taeyeon in a very determined way. “I understand.”

Taeyeon wondered if she was willing to try the hug again right now, but reminded herself of that important value of taking it slow, and slightly tightened her hold on Tiffany’s fingers instead.

“We…” she hesitated. “We live in different worlds. I’ve enjoyed getting to see more of yours, and you’re seeing more of mine. And I know you’re capable of understanding a lot about my world, just like I’m learning about yours with every moment I spend with you. So far, I’ve been quite surprised. But I like it.”

Tiffany blinked at her and the action showed that her eyelashes were long enough to touch the hair that was falling into her face. “I wasn’t sure if you enjoyed seeing the photoshoot, you seemed kind of bored.”

Taeyeon smiled sheepishly.

“But I know what you mean,” Tiffany added softly. She squeezed Taeyeon’s hand, and let go.

“Thank you.”

Again, Tiffany demonstrated her ability to leave Taeyeon with an earnest feeling in her mind. Something about her made Taeyeon sense a kind of happiness that she wasn’t entirely familiar with. Once Tiffany was gone and she was alone beside her car, she took a few slow breaths.

Her phone was heavy and warm in her hand, the light from the screen too bright in the darkness.

Why did you leave me?

Think Twice. (Part 3)

When Taeyeon knew she wasn’t going to sleep well, she liked to stay up all night. It was a lot easier. She had a different kind of energy on sleepless nights, as if there wasn’t any chance of being tired in the near future. Those nights felt like days.

What she especially enjoyed doing on sleepless nights was playing games. Despite the fact that her job already required spending a great deal of time staring at a computer screen, she developed a habit of getting a little drunk and listening to weird bass-heavy music with her headphones on while tapping away at her keyboard and occasionally forgetting to blink. And then she was able to see the dawn at the end of the night, which was always a nice sight.

Nothing spectacular. Just nice.

For the most part, this was a valued habit for Taeyeon. It was an easy way to accept the inevitable sleeplessness without feeling like she was avoiding sleep or having to overthink the situation. In many ways, that ritual saved her a lot of stress.

She wasn’t used to having someone talk to her during that time.

Now she was distracted by a noise from her phone. She frowned, staring at the simulated people on her computer, and paused the game. There was one new message from Tiffany.

are u alergic to anything

Taeyeon stared at the wall as she thought, and finally replied.

nuts

She barely resumed her game and managed to click once before Tiffany messaged her again.

do u like e eeel

Taeyeon took a few minutes to absorb the experience of talking to Tiffany like this. In the month since they’d exchanged numbers, they had mostly just called or texted brief messages like times and locations to meet up. She hadn’t yet had the opportunity to see this kind of communication.

It’s okay I guess

Only okay??

Taeyeon smiled, frowned, and went back to playing her game. The next messages came in a rapid series that Taeyeon almost ignored.

I’m making dinner for us 2morrow nite

If ur free

and iff thats ok

I mean I figured u dont have a bf

or gf

but srry if im wrong

Taeyeon’s eyebrows could hardly go any higher. She wondered where all of that was coming from. Was she right to think Tiffany had been checking her out? It might even mean Tiffany was not as straight as Taeyeon assumed.

Also, did that mean Tiffany was asking her on a date?

Taeyeon swallowed nervously. Dating was not something she spent much time on in the past. She had little interest in attempting to develop a relationship with someone when she had so much baggage, choosing instead to save from wasting time. Here and there she’d tried something casual but the lack of any serious growth led the flings to an early and unsatisfactory end. Even if Taeyeon were to attempt something more substantial, her own fears were bound to make progress so slow it was hardly worth making an effort.

She couldn’t even tell if Tiffany’s messages were as serious as she thought. Either Tiffany was drunk or she typed like that all the time and Taeyeon didn’t know which was applicable. After all, it was the middle of the night.

Choosing to ignore the separate layer of communication, she answered.

Sure I’m free. What time?

And just like that, she was going to have dinner with Tiffany as a maybe-date.

After their arrangements were made and the conversation ended, Taeyeon stared at her computer screen without focus. The game didn’t seem so interesting anymore. The clock on the wall showed her she still had five and a half hours before her alarm would go off. She weighed her options, knowing the faded attention to the game would leave her alone with her thoughts if she stayed awake. Heaving a sigh, she got up to check the medicine cabinet in her bathroom.

Taeyeon popped two sleeping pills into her mouth and turned on the tap, cupping her hand to gather some water which she then used to swallow with. She brushed her teeth, criticized her reflection, and went around making sure everything was locked. Once all the lights were off and she was lying in bed, she closed her eyes and regulated her breathing.

Her house was deathly silent; it wasn’t a surprise when her own voice echoed in her head after only a few minutes. There were a lot of memories to sift through, discussions she had to have in order to work things out, but in all her years Taeyeon never took the time to actually do it, and she wasn’t prepared to start now. It was better to count sheep.

Clenching her eyes tightly shut, Taeyeon tried to ignore herself.

An image of sheep appeared in her mind. They stood in an empty field of hyper-green grass. The sky was cloudy but some form of light came from somewhere and left it looking distorted. The sheep didn’t have anything to jump over, so Taeyeon pictured a low fence made of wood and figured it was accurate enough. The last time she’d actually seen a farm was when she still lived with her family. Her brother and sister had convinced her to leave the house without telling their parents, and they wandered along the highway for about an hour. Taeyeon remembered the way they teased each other. At one point she’d had to pull her sister back to the edge of the road when she drifted away from her brother’s tickling.

Something in Taeyeon’s memory flashed as she recalled the movement of turning her head rapidly to see if any cars were coming. Of course the road was deserted. Her cheeks were hot when her brother made fun of her for being so uptight, but she kept a dutiful eye out when he started spinning around in circles with his arms spread wide and laughed up at the sky.

Taeyeon walked that road again a few years later, but it was raining, it was dark, she was alone, and a big truck went slow beside her for a good deal of the distance. That time, there was no teasing, and she had only herself to keep out of danger despite all the moments when she almost let herself drift into the middle of the road. That would have been the last time she saw that place, but the night was black and she could barely lift her head as she stumbled.

When morning came, Taeyeon slapped her alarm harder than was really necessary. She tried to adjust to wakefulness, lying on her back with her arms spread wide, blinking at the ceiling. She remembered trying to count sheep, and something about a road, but the sleeping pills always left her hazy for a day after she used them and soon the dream dissolved.

One thing she couldn’t shake was the faint, sick feeling in her stomach.

She recalled the year she spent waking up like this. She figured the best way to get sleep despite the nightmares was to take pills that could guarantee unconsciousness. The year she spent regularly taking sleeping pills had become a vague and uncomfortable memory of twisted nights and muffled days, before she had decided it wasn’t good to keep taking them.

Taeyeon went through her morning routine; she spaced out when she was scrolling through her music library but finally chose something, and she stared at the eggs in her fridge for slightly longer than was strictly required. This time she had more than just eggs in her fridge, so she made breakfast and ate quickly, humming along to the song as she cleaned her dishes afterwards.

Settling down at her desk at last, she turned down the volume of the music but left it playing as she opened her emails. It usually took anywhere between thirty minutes to an hour for her to go through her emails, and since it was a Tuesday she had even more to sort through. Most of her clients managed to stay away from work over the weekend and took the Monday to get back into it. Because Taeyeon worked almost all the time including the weekend and the middle of the night, she was able to have some documents waiting for them when they returned to work, leaving messages for her to sort through the day after.

She liked the routine. It fit well with her solitary lifestyle. And if anyone ever thought it was particularly odd to be receiving emails from her at three o’clock in the morning, they never mentioned it.

It wasn’t until after midday that her reclusive routine had to be disturbed. She searched high and low but there wasn’t any paper in her house. Sighing, she evaluated the importance of the documents that needed printing, and eventually she dragged herself together and left her house.

By this stage of her job she already had a preference for what kind of paper was best. She’d only been a document controller for a couple of years, having started through an internship in her last year of study, and she didn’t have to print a lot during this digital age, but she liked to get things just right sometimes. Her job was painfully dull but it paid well and she could work from home. It was the best thing for her, enabling stabilization in her life.

After spending ten minutes tracking down the perfect paper, Taeyeon wandered down the bustling street to get back to the parking garage where her car was waiting. She figured people were heading back to work after their lunch break, so she was completely caught off guard when someone put a hand on her shoulder to pull her to a stop.

She slapped the hand away immediately, feeling her heart swell up in her throat as she almost choked in fright, her eyes wild and unfocussed when she turned to see who it was.

And then she froze.

“It is you!” The young man smiled, charming and handsome. “Fancy running into you here. I never thought I’d see you again.”

Taeyeon blinked. Her brain was dead from shock.

“Guess we both moved here, huh?” the man continued. He chuckled darkly. “Greener pastures got you interested, too? Say, what are you up to these days? I know it’s been a couple of years, but I always have room for you at the table.”

The table. It wasn’t a dining table, Taeyeon knew. It was a coffee table, average size, made of hardwood, which was apparently expensive but had been acquired at a great price. Back in her hometown, the table was in a lounge with a dark grey carpet. They’d have gatherings and he’d call them dinner parties, but he rarely served food.

No matter how old she became, Taeyeon would remember that table the way it was when she woke up the next morning, since her face was usually pressed against it in a way that left the smattering of discarded white powder right in front of her bleary gaze.

She cleared her throat. “You must have mistaken me for someone else.”

He raised an eyebrow. Briefly, he stepped aside to make room for someone to go past, and then he flashed that reptilian grin at her again. “Oh, so it’s like that? It’s okay, I know how it is. Everyone does this to me eventually. You only came to my dinner parties a few times but I never forget a face.” His grin widened. “And I’ll never forget you.”

He started to back away, and waved. She noticed his smart suit, shined shoes, and the deep redness of his tie. His hair was even slicked back.

“My number’s still the same,” he called out as he moved further away. “Give me a call anytime. Nice seeing you again, Taeyeon.”

So many regrets. Taeyeon made so many mistakes those first two years. It was a thrill and a horror to be on her own. Her choices were no longer over-controlled or dictated by the lives of others, so they became empty and seemingly inconsequential. She was timid at first but with every action she took she thought it was the meaning of freedom.

She bit her bottom lip so hard it was probably going to bruise. Her head stayed lowered as she went to her car, and she sat alone in the darkness of the parking garage for close to an hour.

There was only work for her when she got home. She threw herself into it, going above and beyond to complete her tasks to an unparalleled degree of perfection. Her music was loud and angry to match her energy. Any time her computer was too slow, she’d slap it a few times and have to take deep breaths to calm down. In her mind, struggling to be seen behind her work, there were memories; entirely too many memories, clamouring for attention, so she drowned them out as much as she could. Every now and then a stray insult would slip into her thoughts and she’d clench her jaw.

After a while, the alarm on her phone went off. She jumped, and rubbed her eyes as if she had to wake up. Dinner at Tiffany’s was in an hour.

Moving slowly, she closed everything on her computer and shut it down. Her footsteps took her to the window above the kitchen sink that overlooked the street. The metal in front of her felt warm from the summer heat as she leaned her palms against it and stared at the world outside. It was a nice neighbourhood. Even with that boy across the street and his problems, she could imagine staying here for a long time.

Thinking of that neighbour made her frown. If she were to settle here, there was a chance that eventually she’d feel obligated to help him somehow; especially when she was being eaten away by the guilt of abandoning her sister.

Taeyeon rolled her shoulders and stretched. She shook her head to loosen her mind, and went to take a shower, singing along to a Green Day song.

The first thing Tiffany asked her when she opened the door was, “So have you thought any more about getting a dog?”

Taeyeon paused. “Um, yeah I’ve thought about it. I’m still thinking about it.”

“Excellent. Come in, and if my dog ambushes you, just accept his kisses. He’s super friendly.”

“Good to know.”

Tiffany’s house had a similar layout to Taeyeon’s, as mentioned by Tiffany during their first meeting. What made it vastly different from Taeyeon’s was the effort put into the interior design. Taeyeon barely looked away from her computer screen and therefore didn’t care to put things on her walls or colour-coordinate her furniture. She didn’t even know for sure what most of her walls looked like. Tiffany, on the other hand, had taken the time to create a theme for her home that was warm and comforting and very smooth. Considering her career, it wasn’t really surprising, but Taeyeon still took a good look around in slight awe as Tiffany led her to the living room.

“Nice place,” she commented.

Tiffany glowed. “Thanks. I’ve been living here since I moved out of my dad’s house, so this is very much my space.”

“It suits you,” Taeyeon said. She smiled, and held up the bottle of wine in her hand. “I brought a gift, as I hear people with manners do. I wasn’t sure what you’d like but this seemed alright, so…”

“Oh, this is great,” Tiffany gushed, taking the bottle from her. “I love this wine. Should we drink some now? The food will be ready in a little while.”

Taeyeon shifted awkwardly. “Sure, that sounds great.”

As soon as Tiffany left to get glasses, Taeyeon shivered. So far it was going well but they’d only made small talk and she was steadily approaching the outer edge of her comfort zone. She tried her very hardest not to think about the possibility that this was an almost-date.

A small white dog barrelled into the room and collided with her legs, making her squeak in surprise. The dog yapped up at her, tongue flying out of his mouth, and hopped excitedly by her ankle.

“Ah, I see Prince has introduced himself,” said Tiffany, returning from the kitchen. “You’re welcome to pick him up, if you want. I know he’d love it. He doesn’t bite.”

Taeyeon glanced at Tiffany’s reassuring expression. Hesitantly, she crouched down, and the dog huffed at her. She reached out with one hand at first, and lightly petted him on the head. The dog looked like he was going to combust with joy, and she smiled at him. He clamoured into her arms when she picked him up. By the time she was standing again, he was snuggling into her chest.

The dog licked the underside of Taeyeon’s chin, and she caught Tiffany’s grin out of the corner of her eye.

“He loves you already,” Tiffany observed. She placed the glasses on the coffee table between them and began opening the wine. “Dogs like him are very energetic. They can improve moods so easily with their optimism.”

Taeyeon raised her eyebrows, but said nothing. The dog wriggled in her grasp and she looked at him. Were dogs even capable of smiling?

When Tiffany held out a glass to Taeyeon, she lowered the dog to the ground and he skittered away.

“Does he need a lot of attention?” Taeyeon wasn’t sure if she was just making conversation or if she was seriously considering getting a dog like that for herself.

“A fair amount,” Tiffany replied. She gestured for Taeyeon to sit down and they settled on the couch. “I take him for a walk twice day and he has several toys. Chew toys are particularly important. I’ve had him since he was a puppy and he wrecked an entire couch before I realized the value of a chew toy.”

Taeyeon hummed in acknowledgement, taking a sip of her wine. “I’d be worried about electrical cables if I had a dog that was compelled to chew on everything.”

Tiffany nodded. “I can see that. You practically live on technology. But there are ways to protect your cables.”

Taeyeon felt self-conscious that Tiffany knew she spent so much time on her computer. It wasn’t exactly hard to find out, since her job required it, but she rubbed the back of her neck bashfully and looked away briefly.

When she looked back, Tiffany was just watching her. The expression on her face seemed faintly wistful and her eyes held a spark of fondness.

Taeyeon cleared her throat. “What?”

Tiffany shrugged one shoulder lightly. “I don’t know. You’re cute when you’re being shy.”

Taeyeon felt her nerves erupt and she almost choked on her own saliva. Desperate for some kind of shift, she took a longer sip of her wine. Tiffany laughed once, before setting her own glass on the coffee table and heading towards the kitchen.

“I’ll check on the food,” she called over her shoulder.

There was still no confirmation that it was a maybe-date. A comment like that definitely nudged it more in that direction, but Taeyeon was holding firmly to the belief that it wasn’t like that. She wasn’t sure why; Tiffany was fantastic, and one date couldn’t hurt. Taeyeon was hardly relationship material and she lacked experience with advanced social situations like dates, but she would be capable of handling one evening. Except she had no idea what she was feeling and that left her lost.

Tiffany was more than fantastic, and Taeyeon was certain of that even when they hadn’t known each other for very long. Tiffany was an undeniable source of light in a pressing darkness. She was almost too good to be true. Taeyeon was a little scared of her because she seemed so good that Taeyeon felt like shrivelling up in a ball and hiding every bad thing about herself. But at the same time, Tiffany was welcoming and accepting. She definitely seemed like the kind of person that would comfort anyone in a heartbeat.

This brought Taeyeon to another thought.

What if she finally allowed herself to trust someone again and that person was Tiffany?

She had to take a deep breath, realizing her lungs had been inactive while she was thinking. She glanced towards the kitchen, hearing the sounds of plates and cutlery, and pulled herself together. It was still only a maybe-date and Taeyeon was already strategizing as if they were going to end up getting married.

She scoffed at herself, drained her glass, and went to see if she could help Tiffany with anything.

Halfway into their meal, seated at the dining table with food-related compliments out of the way, Tiffany tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and made deliberate eye contact with Taeyeon.

“So, you never really responded when I mentioned your boyfriend or girlfriend,” said Tiffany. “Are you single?”

Taeyeon swallowed her mouthful of food so hard it felt as if the earth was being tugged down her throat. Tiffany looked thoughtful.

“Um,” she started. “Yeah, I’m single.”

Tiffany was still watching her.

“Don’t have a girlfriend,” Taeyeon clarified, “and won’t ever have a boyfriend.”

This made Tiffany smile. “Good. I mean, that’s cool. Well, not like it’s cool that you’re single or that you’re into girls, but I mean it’s cool…” She seemed to realize the circular nature of her speech and stopped.

Taeyeon returned her smile as well as she could, and immediately looked at her plate again. Tiffany didn’t let the silence linger for long.

“Okay, I feel like I should be totally honest with you,” she said.

Her cutlery came to rest on her plate and she leaned forward. She placed her elbows on the table and Taeyeon’s head echoed with the memory of a sharp rebuke at the behaviour. Their gazes met.

“I’m really interested in you,” said Tiffany, her expression serious. “I want to get to know you better. We’ve been hanging out and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. So much, in fact, that I’ve been thinking that we could be really great together. You know, together. I’d like to date you.”

Taeyeon wasn’t sure if her heart stopped beating or if she just couldn’t tell because of how numb she suddenly became.

So it definitely was a maybe-date.

“I’m not oblivious,” Tiffany continued, once her previous words had sunk in. “I can tell you’re reserved and there are certain topics of discussion that won’t go far. You’re carrying a lot of hurt around and I completely understand that it’s not something we can talk about at this stage. But I want to know more about you.”

Taeyeon braced herself, moving words to the tip of her tongue.

“So we can keep hanging out just as friends,” said Tiffany. “We don’t have to be dating or anything. I just want you to know how I’m feeling and tell you there are… options available here.”

The words faded from Taeyeon’s mouth. She gritted her teeth as she tried to organise her thoughts. Tiffany looked at her expectantly, but what she said was sincere, Taeyeon could tell. No matter how Taeyeon were to respond to this, Tiffany would be absolutely accepting.

“Well,” Taeyeon said. She swallowed. “I’d like for us to be friends.”

As expected, Tiffany’s face fell but she immediately tried to hide her disappointment.

“I like you,” Taeyeon added, quietly. “I like you a lot. I mean, not all my feelings towards you are strictly platonic.”

She turned her stare to the table. There was no way she could keep looking at Tiffany.

“You’re right, I was hurt badly in the past and it’s left me with a lot of damage,” she admitted. “I’m trying to change. I want to have a good life. And it’s sort of a no-brainer that you’d be able to provide some good in my life. But I can’t…. I can’t move fast.”

“It’s okay.” Tiffany’s voice was soft, tender, and Taeyeon could imagine she was on the verge of reaching out but deliberately holding herself back.

They looked at each other again. Some of the warmth from Tiffany’s gaze settled in Taeyeon’s heart.

This would stay a maybe-date, and Taeyeon was certain now that everything they did would be drifting that line between friends and everything that lay beyond. That knowledge terrified her, and intrigued her.

If she could hold herself together for long enough, maybe her life really would become better.