Rather than getting interested in decorating her new house, Taeyeon spent more and more time at Tiffany’s home, becoming comfortable in the heartfelt environment. On days when Tiffany didn’t have to be anywhere or only worked half-days, they would gather in her living room with their respective laptops and paperwork, a selection of refreshments, and Tiffany’s dog. The summer continued at a leisurely pace. If it weren’t for her calendar indicating that the season was almost over, Taeyeon would have expected it to carry on forever with her and Tiffany lounging around until late at night, working and talking and laughing.
The dog certainly enjoyed the attention. Looking at his little face as his stomach was rubbed until his leg twitched, Taeyeon could imagine having a dog of her own.
Spending so much time at Tiffany’s house provided Taeyeon with another benefit; escape. It was no longer just her own thoughts that plagued her about leaving her sister behind – now her sister wanted to know, too. Being next to Tiffany, across the street from her own house, made it easier to leave her phone at home and pretend she’d forgotten it. The only person she wanted to hear from was Tiffany, and it was easier and terribly cowardly to stay at Tiffany’s place for as long as possible, cut off from the other side of her life.
This also meant that, for as long as she could, Taeyeon wanted to keep those parts of her life separate.
“So when you say you’ve only climbed a tree once, is that because you got scared?”
“I wasn’t scared, I was just… cautious. And anyway, I wasn’t allowed to climb a tree again. I fell and broke my arm and that was enough for my parents.”
“Wow, you broke your arm the very first time you tried? That sucks. At least I managed three years of safe climbing before I broke my arm.”
“They wouldn’t even let my sister try once in case she broke her arm too.”
“You have a sister?”
Taeyeon paused in the act of ruffling Prince’s ears, causing a confused yelp from the dog. “Uh, yeah.” She picked up Prince and gave him a light squeeze.
“Younger? Older? What’s her name?”
Taeyeon put the dog on the floor and turned to lie on her back on the couch, tossing an arm over her eyes as if she was settling down for a nap. Her hesitancy to provide answers must have been obvious but Tiffany didn’t say anything, and Taeyeon could hear her typing on her laptop as if it didn’t matter whether Taeyeon answered or not. Partially for this reason, Taeyeon intended not to answer.
The doorbell rang before she could decide to change the subject. She kept her eyes closed and listened to Tiffany getting up and going to the door. The way she greeted the person there suggested she was surprised, and hushed discussion followed. Taeyeon slightly lifted her arm from her face and tilted her head in that direction, trying to hear something. After a while, Tiffany stopped whispering.
“Well I’ve got Taeyeon here right now,” she was saying, and Taeyeon tensed. “You’ve met her, right? Would you feel safe with her around?”
This made Taeyeon frown. She sat up, tucking her hands idly behind her back and straightening her spine. Her focus remained on the conversation at the door.
“Come on. You’ll be safe, I promise.”
What she did not expect at all was for their young neighbour to follow Tiffany back into the living room. He lingered behind her, eyes locked on the floor beneath his feet, clearly uncomfortable.
“Taeyeon, this is Lee. You don’t mind if he joins us for a while, right?”
Taeyeon stared at the boy. His gaze was drilling a hole through the carpet as if his neck was a hinge. The slight movements of his chests showed his breaths were shallow, uneven. Taeyeon pondered the lingering physical effects of a panic attack.
“Lee hangs out here sometimes,” Tiffany said.
Prince finally gave up on regaining Taeyeon’s attention and he hopped over to the teenager. His excited greeting suggested he was a fan of the boy, and Taeyeon watched quietly as Lee immediately crouched and accepted the dog’s kisses.
“Sure,” Taeyeon answered, far too late but feeling like she needed to show her acceptance if only so that the boy could adapt to the situation easier.
The dog squealed with delight as Lee picked him up and stood straight. The boy pressed his cheek against Prince’s fur. His eyes flicked over to Taeyeon, blank.
“Nice to meet you properly,” said Taeyeon, returning the look, “Lee.”
She was able to see him better for the first time as he stood in Tiffany’s living room. He was probably in his last year of high school, tall and gangly but baby-faced. His clothes were scruffy but not unusually so for an adolescent male’s lifestyle. Noticeably, he was only wearing one sock beneath his scuffed sneakers.
“I’ll get you a drink,” Tiffany said to him, and she turned to Taeyeon. “Do you want something too? You can give me a hand in the kitchen.”
Taeyeon took the opportunity. Trying to look as casual as possible, she got up and followed Tiffany to the kitchen, deliberately not renewing her eye contact with the boy.
Tiffany grabbed two glasses from the cupboard before she put them down again and took Taeyeon’s hand. Taeyeon twitched in surprise but didn’t pull away.
“You are okay with it, right? If he stays here?”
The questions caught her off guard. Tiffany was earnest, concerned.
“Yeah,” Taeyeon said when she found her voice. “Of course.”
Tiffany seemed relieved. Her hold on Taeyeon’s hand relaxed slightly, tangling their fingers together.
“He told me about the incident with the cars,” said Tiffany. “He thought you were upset and wouldn’t be nice to him ever again.”
That didn’t seem particularly surprising.
“I could tell he was feeling that way,” Taeyeon sighed. “I tried to show that I sincerely wasn’t upset but I guess it wasn’t enough to get past his personal instinct to blame himself.”
“Yeah, he gets that way sometimes. I’ve been talking to him about it. No matter how much I tell him he doesn’t need to feel guilty about every little thing, I can’t quite get him to feel better about himself. At least here he can relax for a while.”
Taeyeon nodded. “This is a good place to relax. You’re a very relaxing person.” Some small part of her only said that in order to make Tiffany smile, and it worked so it was worth it.
Tiffany’s other hand lightly brushed along Taeyeon’s arm and went to her shoulder. This recaptured all of Taeyeon’s attention, and she glanced at the point of contact before fixing Tiffany with a curious gaze.
A moment stretched between them, and then Tiffany removed her hands and stepped back. She turned to the fridge, running one hand through her hair absently.
“What would you like to drink?”
The physical contact confused her. Tiffany was an affectionate person but there had to be a reason for those particular touches. It all seemed as if Tiffany wanted to provide some comfort. Did Taeyeon seem panicked? She didn’t feel panicked. Uncomfortable around the boy, nervous and awkward; nothing especially alarming, she thought.
She narrowed her eyes at Tiffany’s back.
“We have orange juice, pineapple juice, grape soda, milk, water…”
When Tiffany turned around, her listing stopped. Clearly she could tell Taeyeon was thinking.
Taeyeon figured that if the boy spent time at Tiffany’s house and talked to her about things that happened in his life, then she knew something about his home life. This meant that if Taeyeon was right in her speculation about the boy’s situation, Tiffany would know about it, and maybe she noticed some similarities here and there or put together some pieces and she had an idea that Taeyeon would feel disturbed by the boy’s presence because –
They heard prince barking playfully in the living room, and the surprised laughter of the boy.
“I’ll have orange juice. Thank you.”
Mostly Taeyeon did not want to talk about it, but she definitely did not want to even think about it any further while Lee was in the house with them. It could wait. Possibly for all eternity.
Lee was quiet again when they returned to the living room. He must have assumed he would not be allowed to take the couch where Taeyeon was sitting, and so he was curled up on the floor with the dog hopping all over his body. The laughter from before didn’t seem likely to come again, but he had a small smile on his face that satisfied Taeyeon.
She didn’t know what to do with him in the room. He was capable of entertaining himself; especially with Prince hanging around, so she didn’t expect to converse with him, but previously this was her time with Tiffany. It wasn’t as if they were doing anything expressly private. Taeyeon just liked having Tiffany all to herself.
Tiffany would look at over at them both every now and then, appearing pleased that they were comfortable enough and nothing bad was happening. Taeyeon caught her eye and they smiled at each other, and a few times Tiffany instigated a brief conversation about something insignificant. There was nothing loud or tense or risky about their behaviour, and Lee became so relaxed that he closed his eyes. Prince cuddled up on his chest.
He stayed for two hours, leaving his own glass of juice untouched until he got up to leave. Taeyeon watched him down the drink rapidly. He grinned at Tiffany, waved at Taeyeon, and gave the dog a quick hug before he disappeared.
Once the front door clicked shut behind him, Taeyeon and Tiffany looked at each other.
“He seems like a nice enough kid,” Taeyeon said.
“He doesn’t talk much but he actually has a great sense of humour. When he opens up a bit more, you’ll see.”
Taeyeon shrugged. She dragged a section of text from one place to another in the word document open in front of her. Prince jogged out of the room, presumably to gorge himself on food.
“I think it would be good for you two to get to know each other,” Tiffany commented, going for the off-hand approach but failing.
Taeyeon pressed her lips together. One finger tapped the mousepad of her laptop a few times, highlighting and un-highlighting a superfluous sentence.
“You might have a lot in common.”
The words disappeared as she jabbed the delete button.
“Oh really?” she replied. The disinterest in her voice was deliberate and she knew Tiffany could tell.
“And maybe you could, I don’t know, give him some advice sometimes.”
She set her laptop aside, and clenched her fists on top of her thighs for a moment. She did everything she could to avoid looking at Tiffany, and eventually she could feel Tiffany’s gaze on her.
“He needs someone like you to help him.”
Taeyeon got up, and turned to face her.
“Okay, what are you doing?”
Tiffany hesitated, but only briefly. She rose to match Taeyeon’s pose, and started to wring her hands together.
“You’ve both experienced something that’s very influential to your lives. It’s something that only other people who’ve gone through it can relate to, really. As much as I want to help him, there are certain things that I just can’t do. If you were to talk to him, he would understand and he would listen and you could –”
“Do you even know what you’re talking about?”
“I think so.” Tiffany straightened up, losing her uncertainty, and set her jaw firmly. “I’m confident enough in my feelings about both of you. Are you saying I’m wrong? Didn’t you go through what he’s going through – the family thing?”
Taeyeon didn’t say anything. Anger was bubbling up in her chest, from the deepest pits of her emotions. This wasn’t something anyone ever asked about, this wasn’t something she faced in the daylight hours when she wasn’t having a nightmare and disintegrating until she was nothing but this one crippled soul whose only haunt was from the past.
“Talking about it with him could help both of you,” Tiffany started to say.
“Why would you even ask something you clearly think you already know the answer to? What do you think I’m going to say?”
It almost gave her a rush of energy to see how Tiffany faltered, slowing to a halt and then taking a step back. The confidence she’d managed to portray slipped away. Perhaps she hadn’t been expecting an open response.
“What do you want from me?” Taeyeon hissed. “What do you want when you ask me something like that?”
“I just want you to feel better,” Tiffany said, her voice breaking briefly. “You need to talk about this, Taeyeon, you can’t just let it burn you up from the inside forever –”
“Shut up!” She grabbed the first thing she could reach – her phone on the table beside her – and slammed it at the wall. “Stop talking. Stop it.”
Tiffany stared at the cracked screen of the phone that lay on the floor, before turning her fearful gaze on Taeyeon again. “No, you stop. You’re scaring me, and you’re hurting yourself when you do this.”
“You wanted me to let it out, didn’t you?” Taeyeon stepped closer. “Well that was all you’re getting.”
The new look on Tiffany’s face was not what she expected. There was thoughtfulness, tenderness, and finally resolve.
“Okay,” Tiffany said quietly. “You’re right. You don’t have to let it all out. You let some of it out by getting angry and that’s still valuable.”
Taeyeon blinked. She paused, her breath halting momentarily, her lips pressing together.
“Why do you do this?” Taeyeon asked eventually, barely even. She sounded like the small, fragile girl that she saw herself as. “Why do you put up with me?”
“At first, I was just curious,” Tiffany admitted. She felt safe enough to step closer but refrained from reaching towards Taeyeon. “I meet a lot of people that are hiding parts of their lives, but you were nice and you seemed like you were trying. I was interested. I wanted to know why you were making an effort to change your life, and I liked spending time around you because you just have this way – I don’t even know how to say it. I feel comfortable around you. You’re thoughtful and intelligent and caring, and funny and cute and I just want to know you as much as I can because I like you so much. I like you a lot.”
Taeyeon swallowed. She couldn’t bear to look at Tiffany anymore. Shame simmered inside of her.
“And I know I went too far this time,” Tiffany continued, her voice serene. “I told you I wouldn’t push you about things you don’t want to talk about and I really, really meant it. Usually I can tell that you aren’t ready but at the same time I want to be there for you so badly. I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I messed up.”
Pity was something Taeyeon had only a little contact with, but she knew it well because she was constantly expecting it. If people heard her life summarized in one or two blunt sentences, they would feel bad for her, they would think about how unfortunate it was that anyone had to go through that, and they would consider her a broken and lonely person. Taeyeon hated that. She didn’t want anyone to think anything of her; least of all when they got that little crease between their eyebrows that showed how pitiful the whole mess was because that mess was Taeyeon and it was all she had.
The look on Tiffany’s face had nothing to do with that kind of pity. She knew Tiffany felt sad about whatever bad there was in Taeyeon’s life, but only because it hurt and Tiffany wanted to help with that pain. Taeyeon could believe it when Tiffany said she didn’t mean to break her promise and go too far, and she could trust that Tiffany really meant to do what was best. This was something Taeyeon didn’t know quite as well as she knew pity.
Subsequently, her reaction was not ideal – but it was honest, and if there was one thing Taeyeon was starting to value most about their relationship it was the honesty.
“I’m sorry too,” said Taeyeon. She shifted her weight from one foot to another, ran a hand through her hair, and finally looked at Tiffany again. “This isn’t your fault. Yeah, you probably shouldn’t have asked those questions, but I shouldn’t have responded like that.”
She reached down and picked up her phone, stroked the crack on the screen with the tip of her forefinger.
“It’s not something I’m very good at controlling,” she murmured. “I’m not a violent person. This kind of thing… You’re right; I do need to deal with it. Just – not yet. Please?”
“Of course,” Tiffany said immediately. She stepped closer, her hand twitching like she wanted to reach out but she didn’t. “I’m here for you.”
Taeyeon stared at her for a long time, jaw tense, and saw her feelings mirrored in Tiffany’s expression. She slipped her phone into the pocket of her jeans, just to waste some time, because her heart was aching.
“I’m sorry,” she said again, the echo sounding like it wanted to continue a hundred times over in the way that it did when she apologized to herself for being lonely.
“It’s okay,” Tiffany said. The corners of her mouth tilted slightly. “You accept my apology and I’ll accept yours.”
Eventually, Taeyeon nodded.
“Can I…” Tiffany hesitated. “I mean, I know I have no right to ask this after what just happened, but can I hug you?”
Taeyeon nodded again before she could think because she knew it was what she wanted.
The sensation of a living human right in her face with their clothes making contact and warm bodies pressing together, just standing there with no intention of further movement while arms circled her body – it was different, something she was not accustomed to, but mostly awkward because she didn’t really know what to do. Hugs were not her specialty. Hugs conveyed an emotional intimacy as well as physical, and that was something Taeyeon generally avoided in her relationships with people.
It was not as complicated as she expected. Only kind of weird. It didn’t feel too uncomfortable, as far as standing still while being held could go. But it was definitely intimate.
She returned the hug, the movements unfamiliar and uncomfortable at first. Her arms went around Tiffany’s waist and she spread her hands flat along Tiffany’s lower back, not knowing how to stand or how to settle. Tiffany shifted slightly, relaxing into the hug and resting her chin lightly on Taeyeon’s shoulder.
“It’s okay. I’ve got you.”
Taeyeon tried to be less tense and it mostly worked. She trusted Tiffany could tell that hugging was not going to be a regular thing yet, and that it was the conclusion to their first fight.
She found herself sinking in to the embrace a little, getting used to the warmth and the awareness of Tiffany being so very close for long moments.
“Can you promise me something?” Tiffany murmured. “Please?”
“What is it?”
“Will you talk to me about it one day?”
Taeyeon wondered. She shrugged, lightly jostling Tiffany. “I can’t promise that. I’m trying but nothing is ever certain.”
“Then, will you let me know one day when I can kiss you?”
Taeyeon turned her head. Tiffany moved marginally to meet her gaze.
A stage further than getting used to a hug; their faces were close.
Tiffany understood so much already. She made a mistake by asking the wrong questions too early. She apologized and she meant it. She waited to express their resolution through a hug, knowing there was a chance it would not happen. She wanted to kiss Taeyeon, but on Taeyeon’s terms.
That was how she knew that when their lips touched, it was because Taeyeon was the one who leaned in.
It was entirely too overwhelming.
She pulled away immediately, ripping the embrace apart. She stepped back, almost stumbling, and her hands were shaking as if she’d tripped and fallen much further than expected.
“Sorry,” she said, “sorry, sorry, sorry. It’s too fast. I don’t know why I did that. Right after the conversation we just had.”
“Taeyeon,” Tiffany sounded like she was pleading and Taeyeon realized it was because her backward steps were taking her into the hallway. “Please don’t freak out. I shouldn’t have mentioned it –”
“Can we just not go through the whole mutual apologies thing again?” Taeyeon gasped. Her chest couldn’t quite keep up with her breaths. She turned around and sped towards the front door.
The slamming of the door cut off Tiffany’s shout. Taeyeon ran across the street without bothering to check for traffic. She couldn’t hear anything over the pounding heartbeat in her ears. A cat sprinted out of her way, heading to Lee’s house.
The second she was safe inside her own house, she leaned back against the door and slid to the ground. Her palms were clammy, making a sound against the wood as she clutched at it and dragged down. All the curtains were closed, giving her darkness in the hallway where she sat, and she felt tears well up in the corners of her eyes.
The conversation was good. Intense but necessary. They were honest, Taeyeon was angry, Tiffany was understanding. The hug was okay. It was doable. Awkward, but nice. Taeyeon got a little carried away and made a mistake.
It was too much.
She jumped up, feeling the compulsion to move. She paced around in a circle in front of the door. Part of her tried to calm herself but she knew she was freaking out.
She wandered into the living room. Papers and folders lay strewn over her coffee table. She dumped herself on the couch and leafed through them desperately, eyes skimming over words like non-taxable, refinancing, perpetuity – suddenly they had no meaning. All the time she’d spent studying this stuff just went right out of her head. Even the sight of the familiar documentation seemed wrong. None of this was going to make her feel better.
She stood again, letting the papers fall to the ground, not caring where they landed or what state they would be in later. She didn’t care. Right now she didn’t even know if there would be a later; a time when she would be able to focus on work again.
Tiffany was such a comforting person.
After everything that Taeyeon went through in her past, she didn’t allow herself to use a person for comfort. She spent a lot of time at home, she relaxed when she could, she played games and watched movies and read a book from time to time, and she avoided extreme sports or dangerous habits like smoking or over-drinking. In essence she was the provider of every likeable thing in her life and on a low-risk basis, and that was exactly how she wanted it.
But every now and then there were things she simply could not predict. Impulse control was not her specialty, in the same way she struggled to make good decisions when she was younger and now whirled around in confusion. She was torn between what was right, what she deserved, and the emptiness that held her back from it all.
Like lashing out. She got angry at Tiffany, she threw her phone, and right now she spun around and thudded her fist into the side of the bookcase.
The pain was instant, like a spear that shot from her knuckle through to her elbow in one smooth shot. She cringed, cradling her hand against her body and taking a deep, shuddering breath. It was exactly what she wanted.
It was because she was angry at herself for getting angry at all. Normal people would be fine with getting to know Tiffany, normal people would be glad to find out that Tiffany was interested in them, normal people would date Tiffany and feel happy and comforted and better about themselves. Taeyeon was a mess. On her own, she was able to have that mess and not need anything else. Now she spent so much time thinking about other people, her self-hatred grew and grew.
Taeyeon stared at the bookcase, pinpointing the area she’d just punched. This was a bookcase she’d bought specifically for this house. This was a house she’d chosen as her new start. The new start to her life that was already crumpling to the ground when it only just managed to rise slightly. Her work lay ignored on the floor here and in Tiffany’s house.
She had to get out.
When the music was so loud that she could feel the steering wheel vibrate beneath her fingers, Taeyeon knew it was time to go home. She’d been driving around for three hours, taking loops around the city along familiar routes and into unknown areas, every now and then reaching over absently to turn up the sound of Paramore dripping through the speakers until it could smother her thoughts. Slowly as the car swung around a corner, she remembered her list of things to do. Several documents awaited her return. There were a few chores to do around the house. They were things that should keep her calm, centred; the mindless actions of routine.
Taeyeon sighed. She pulled over and looked around for a sign to see what street she was dawdling on. The subtle humming of the engine crept through as she turned off the music altogether. The movement brought her knuckles into view again.
She sighed again, heavier. Clenching her fist made the skin stretch slightly. The redness was flaming.
A light pattering against the windshield made her look up. It was raining.
She curled her arms around herself and closed her eyes, leaning her head back against the seat and listening to the rain.
What happened with Tiffany was too deep. They were meant to be taking it slow. They were meant to be just friends. Barely friends, even, perhaps. They were not meant to go from tentative to extreme already. How was she supposed to slowly open up to her when things like that happened?
And she had no idea how to make up for it. There was no way she could just go back to Tiffany and be casual about it. She didn’t even know if they would be pretending it didn’t happen or if there was some way to go on from there. Every time she saw Tiffany, Taeyeon would think about it.
Maybe it was time to stay away from Tiffany for a while; give her bruise a chance to heal.
She bit her lip, hard. Hanging out at Tiffany’s house had been her way of escaping her problems, but now she needed to run the other way.
Maybe it was time to get her sister.
She didn’t bother going back to pack anything. The town was only three hours’ drive away. It was already two o’clock in the afternoon. She fully intended to get there, pick up her sister, and leave right away. They could be home by nine at the latest. Together. She’d let her sister have the bed for the night and in the morning they could go get stuff for the spare room so that she could stay longer.
That was the thought that she rolled around in her head as she drove. The rain followed her all the way, consistent and reassuring. It created the sense that barely any time passed, and suddenly she was pulling in to the driveway of her childhood home.
It was a small house, physically, but it carried an imposing force on her. No other place in this town could ever be so meaningful to her despite all the things she did when she lived here.
Taeyeon took a deep breath. She wrestled her phone out of her pocket, but she couldn’t get it to work. She rolled her eyes to cover the spike of fear; with no way to call her sister, she would have to go to the door. With falsified bravery, she hyped herself up to get out of the car.
If she’d arrived an hour earlier she’d have an almost pure guarantee that her parents would not be home but her sister would be. As it was, she was taking a gamble, because the time on her watch only just ticked into five o’clock.
Now she didn’t know when she could ever go home.