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.
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
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
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.