“We’re so glad you could finally join us for dinner. After you ignored all our previous invitations, I was afraid we would have to give up on you ever returning to your family.”
Taeyeon kept her gaze firmly fixed on the plate of food in front of her. It was a good meal, hearty and healthy and made to look like it was imbued with a mother’s love. Everyone else was eating steadily but they kept watching her and she could feel it on her skin.
“Well,” she said haltingly. “Thank you for the wonderful meal, mother.”
“Oh, this? If I’d known you were coming I could have made your favourite, dear.”
An elbow jabbed her in her ribs and she briefly saw her sister nodding towards Taeyeon’s untouched plate. Taeyeon lowered her head further and took a sip from the glass of water by her hand, ignoring the unspoken suggestion to eat.
“I apologize for the sudden visit. I came to see Hayeon.”
If she didn’t look at them, it was almost as if they weren’t there in full force. Out of the corner of her eye she could sense the movements of her sister as she ate, and she could hear her parents on the other side of the table, but it was all like an echo.
“Today? But she has school tomorrow. You should let her rest and prepare.”
Taeyeon’s shoulders tensed even further. Faced with the wall her mother placed between her and her sister, she knew it would be a struggle to get them both out. Any excuse she came up with would be shut down with the prospect of school attendance and Hayeon’s age.
“Why are you slouching like that, dear? You should straighten up so you have better posture. And eat more of that food, you look like a skeleton.”
Taeyeon did as she was told, sitting upright and beginning to place food in her mouth with very little regard for the experience. She refused to look at them, though, so for as long as she could she tried to look down without slouching.
“I was thinking I could take her for a drive,” she drilled out. “Maybe we could get some ice cream. I haven’t seen her in such a long time; we should catch up so she can tell me how it’s going at school.”
“No, that won’t be happening,” said her mother, simply and neatly and painfully politely put.
There was no more speaking for a long while. Everyone else finished their food, and Taeyeon managed to consume almost all of hers without choking despite the tightness of her throat. She and her sister gathered the dishes and took them to the kitchen under the watchful eye of their mother.
Taeyeon was stacking the plates beside the sink when she felt a hand on her shoulder, making her jump and turn slightly. Her mother hovered just behind her, fingers clenched on Taeyeon’s shoulder, and with a stern look on her face.
“You seem to have forgotten how to behave properly since you left us, Taeyeon,” she said. Her voice wasn’t sweet but it had a tone that could be cited as happily inoffensive if questioned. “You can’t show up suddenly and think you can disrupt everyone’s schedules. Your sister needs a strict routine and she needs to focus on her studies, especially since her grades have been abysmal this year. Why would you suddenly want to take her away from that when you haven’t spoken to her in such a long time?”
Taeyeon’s eyes widened, but she didn’t know what was safe to say.
“Oh, she’s told us about how you ignore her, dear.” Her mother actually smiled slightly as if they were just chatting. “She was heartbroken. ‘Why doesn’t my big sister want to talk to me?’ This is a hard time for her, you know. Exams are just around the corner. Now you think you can come strolling back in and just whisk her away?”
Her mother removed her hand.
“Do you still drink coffee?” she asked. “When you’re done with the dishes, you can have coffee with your father and talk.”
Taeyeon saw the silhouette of her father pass by the doorway, heading towards his study, and she swallowed her nerves. She didn’t reply, simply providing her mother with a sedate expression, and her mother smiled again.
“Don’t take too long with your chores, dear.”
She petted Taeyeon’s sister gently on the cheek before she left them to clean.
They stared at each other, alone in the kitchen.
Her sister looked different. She was more tired, older, and Taeyeon felt as if she was standing here as a seventeen year old again, watching herself begin to crumble under the pressure of all those childhood years.
Taeyeon’s heart stopped briefly. “What? Why are you saying sorry? I should be the one apologizing to you. I left you here on your own.”
Hayeon sighed, leaning back against the counter. “I’m sorry you have to go through this again. I know why you left, Taeyeon. At first I didn’t get it, because you wouldn’t talk to me anymore and that hurt me a lot, but I can see it so easily now. You had to save yourself, I understand that, and I don’t hate you for it. Sure, I wish I could have done the same, but let’s be realistic. I’m still a kid even now, and when you left you would have had no way of taking care of me. It’s all right.”
Taeyeon balanced herself with a hand on the edge of the sink, looking down at the floor beneath them. She felt her hair fall into her face, shielding her face.
“It’s not all right,” she mumbled. “I was scared. I know you’re not like them but every time I thought of you or saw your name come up on my phone, I got scared and couldn’t do it. I couldn’t help you, and I should have helped you.”
“Is that why you’re here now? Are you trying to get me away from them?”
Something in her sister’s voice made Taeyeon’s resolve break even further. She raised her head, unsure of what to say, because it sounded as if her sister was disappointed already.
“You… You don’t want to leave?” Taeyeon ventured.
“I want to finish high school so that I can get into a good college, and I also want to leave with you, but what can you provide for me, Taeyeon? A place to live and the support of my big sister but what are we going to do? I’d have to change schools and you’re not my legal guardian. We’d have no way of justifying it. As far as everyone else is concerned, staying here would be what’s best for me and you taking me away would be what creates insufficient care of a minor.”
Taeyeon glanced over her shoulder at the empty doorway. The house was quiet, and she had no idea where her mother was lurking now. She looked back at her sister, frowning, and her heart was racing because she didn’t know what she was here for anymore.
Then suddenly her sister was pulling her into a tight hug and burying her face in Taeyeon’s shoulder.
“I miss you.”
For a moment, Taeyeon remembered very clearly a winter day many years ago when they made a snowman and it turned out perfectly. Her little sister said it was the best day of her life because she was having fun with her favourite person. It had been the first winter without their brother, and Taeyeon hadn’t known what to do for her sister but after that day she knew exactly what was needed. She just had to be there.
She’d failed miserably at doing that, and it wasn’t something she could forgive herself for even if her sister did.
“No wonder you’re taking so long to make coffee.”
They broke the hug and turned to see their father, unsurprisingly. The lack of dish washing taking place was a significant risk when Taeyeon already had other things forced onto her list while she was there. Their father crossed his arms and gave them a tense frown. Taeyeon could tell from the set of his jaw that it wasn’t just about the cleaning and the coffee; he was likely not interested in seeing her after her abrupt escape from the family, particularly when it was obvious to everyone that she was only there with the intention of taking her sister away. And yet he would still expect her to make his coffee and sit down with him in his study so that they could chat awkwardly and briskly about pointless topics because that was the necessary thing for the family.
She could remember the night her father threatened to throw her out of her bedroom window if she didn’t behave, and she could remember the days her mother wouldn’t let her speak unless it was about schoolwork – so she turned around and rolled up her sleeves to begin washing the dishes.
Her sister seemed to hold their father’s stare for longer but then bowed her head and helped Taeyeon.
As the dishes clacked against the side of the sink and they fell into the familiar rhythm of washing and drying, Taeyeon called herself useless. Here she was, an adult now, standing in her mother’s kitchen with her father watching over her as she did the household chores. Her mind could not compensate for the lack of disparity between this moment and the same years she spent here long ago. While she was away she thought she’d managed to change herself and her life at least enough to be better than her past even if it was still a mess – but now she’d gone right back around. Was it any different? She prepared a mental checklist.
Number one: she was uncomfortable because of her family’s presence. Number two: she was cleaning very particularly because if she didn’t do it right she would be sermonized. Number three: her mother had chipped away at her courage. Number four: her father was displeased and frowning at her for not being good enough. Number five: she was scared. Number six: she wished she was anywhere other than here. Numbers seven, eight, and nine: she couldn’t fix her own life, she couldn’t help anyone she cared about, and she wanted very badly to never have been born in the first place.
It was as if she was just a kid again, washing dishes with her sister. She could even reach up to number ten: she was starting to feel as if she was nothing at all.
The chore was completed quickly, and her sister didn’t look at her again before she went to her room. Taeyeon wondered if it would be the last time they saw each other. Her father sighed and left the kitchen, most likely going to the study to wait for her. Again. Taeyeon began making coffee. She thought if she lowered her head any further her neck would break, and she would sink into the ground. Briefly she began building momentum towards wishing it to be true, that she could disappear right now.
But then the coffee was ready, so she went to her father’s study.
Taeyeon thought they might actually go the whole time without making a sound as they drank and her father passively ignored her – but then he cleared his throat suddenly, which made her jump.
“Have you been enjoying life, Taeyeon?”
Taeyeon blinked at him. She felt instinctively as if it was a trap, despite the innocent sound of the question. “Sir?”
“I know you felt you would be better off without us, Taeyeon,” he said. “So, did it work? Have you made a good life for yourself?”
Taeyeon almost curled in on herself but thought she might be scolded for slouching as if her mother could pop over from the other side of the house every time she sensed bad posture.
“A good life?” Taeyeon echoed.
She had a job, a place to live, a car, a computer, games to play and movies to watch. The cats in the neighbourhood liked her. Especially that small ginger one that sometimes visited her at Tiffany’s house too – oh, and she had Tiffany. Somehow, whether as a friend or something else, she had Tiffany in her life, and Tiffany would probably still be there when she got back so technically she still counted. But she had nightmares, and she didn’t do her work for days on end sometimes, and she didn’t eat as much as she should or sleep right. She freaked out when Tiffany wanted to be closer, like that poor disastrous hugging kissing thing that happened and the questions about her childhood. She was only sometimes content and the rest of the time she felt unfulfilled and restless. The challenges in her life were not positive and she didn’t feel like she improved herself often enough.
Her father cut her off immediately. “What was that? ‘Um’? Is that a word?”
He clicked his tongue. “I told you about hesitating like that, Taeyeon. Don’t make such grunting sounds like an ape. You have to speak like a civilized person. If you’d ever served in the military you would be a laughing stock.”
Something in Taeyeon sparked an image of herself rolling her eyes. Her father brought up the military any time she didn’t speak correctly because when he was a naval officer he learned the value of eloquent speech and felt that anyone who wasn’t capable of doing it right was not worth the oxygen they breathed. Taeyeon was almost comforted by the fact that some part of her was still not willing to put up with him. Maybe she could get out of here without any further permanent damage.
“How’s your work?” her father asked. He set his cup to one side; his coffee was finished.
Taeyeon glanced at her own cup; she still had a bit left. “It’s going well.” She swallowed the rest of her coffee and set her cup aside too.
They looked at each other, acknowledging the mutual signs of being finished, and they stood up at the same time.
“And you’re still single?”
Taeyeon opened her mouth to reply, but an arm wrapped around her shoulders as her mother answered first.
“Of course she is.”
She said it so lightly, and she smiled at Taeyeon like she was laughing inside. Her father crossed his arms. Taeyeon hadn’t felt so cornered in a long time, feeling her gut draw in as she automatically tried to do the impossible by rolling herself into a ball. She shrugged her mother’s arm off and stepped away, taking a deep breath as if she was coming up for air after being trapped underwater.
“Thank you for your visit, baby,” her mother cooed. She reached out and pinched Taeyeon’s cheek.
Taeyeon shook her head and felt her body shiver. “Thank you again for the meal, mother. Thank you for the coffee, father. I’ll be on my way now. Tell Hayeon I hope she does well with school.”
It wasn’t Taeyeon’s fault that they were all trapped in that toxic house. She considered her sister’s wellbeing to be partly her responsibility but if there was nothing she could do then she had to get out. It was not her fault that her parents were like that, despite the way they looked at her sometimes and the things they said that made it seem like her flaws were what made them all miserable. She didn’t have to feel accountable for the state of their lives. They were older than her and had more than enough power to handle their own existence.
She reminded herself of this as many times as she could, making the words rumble around in her head and bounce off the walls as she trudged down the hallway. It was as if her parents’ eyes drilled into her back all the way out of the house, and their silence followed her like a bubble of pain trying to encase her.
It was raining again. She stayed focused, placing one foot in front of the other until she reached her car. She dropped her keys twice but did not get angry. She was holding her breath in order to keep her body upright.
Then she was slamming the car door shut, blocking out the world. The rain was muffled, the house was not visible in the darkness, and the connection to her family was broken off again.
She did her breathing exercises; eight seconds in, three on hold, and eight seconds out. She closed her eyes and opened them again. In the car her breath sounded louder, more ragged, as if she had just run a long way trying to escape. The longer she sat there with only herself for company, the more she remembered and thought and felt. All the times in the past when she blamed herself, all the times when they blamed her, all the times she had to tell herself it was no one’s fault, and all the times she cried so hard because she wanted to melt away.
Tears pricked at her eyes again at the memories. She slapped her palms over her face, trying to deny it. She grumbled at herself.
She sniffed, took another breath, and raised her head. The only one who could reach her in that car was herself, so she started the engine and began to drive home.
The road was difficult to manage as the rain strengthened and the night lengthened. Taeyeon found all her attention taken up by tense driving, for which she was grateful. It was much easier to focus on not crashing than to look for something to distract herself from her thoughts.
As she got closer to her house, she relaxed a bit more and let herself briefly split her attention in order to put on some music. The Good Charlotte song that played seemed appropriate for her surroundings, because despite the growth in number of streetlights the world seemed dark and silent, and again Taeyeon could comfort herself with the image of being completely alone. It echoed a loneliness she was familiar with, now like a pang in her chest, and yet she was safe, too.
When she closed the front door behind her, turned on the lights, and went through to the living room, it was only ten o’clock. She sat on the couch, playing with the keys in her hand, and stared at the wall opposite her.
Being so close to Tiffany made her wonder if she’d been gone long enough. The goal was to go get her sister and then she could easily avoid seeing Tiffany for at least a day while she tried to fix every other problem in her life. Now that hadn’t happened. She was home, her real home, the one she made for herself and chose to live in – without her sister but with Tiffany again.
All she had to do was cross the street.
She could wait until the next day, go over in the sunlight and try to make things right on a fresh morning. If she went there now she would still be barely containing all the hurt from seeing her family again and all the heaviness of what happened between her and Tiffany earlier.
But if she didn’t go now then she would most likely spend the remaining hours of the night sitting around agonizing about everything or she would try to play games and be absolutely horrible at them. Work definitely was not going to be an option.
Taeyeon stretched her jaw as far as she could; feeling the way it made her muscles pull woke her from her thoughts. She jumped up before she could second-guess, and she went right back out the front door.
Every house on the street was quiet, with the lights turned off and only the sound of leaves being rustled by the ongoing rain. Taeyeon paid no mind to the weather, watching her feet travel over the wet road. She didn’t stop to think that perhaps Tiffany was already asleep. Maybe some part of her assumed Tiffany would be awake until late, thinking about what happened. Taeyeon hadn’t looked at her phone and it probably wasn’t even working but perhaps Tiffany was trying to contact her, worried about her disappearance, wanting to make sure she was alright and looking for a way to help her.
She did have to pause when she reached Tiffany’s door, though. She needed to take a few deep breaths. She didn’t think about anything, she just didn’t want to fall over.
She didn’t know how hard she knocked on the door. All the sounds around her were fading as she stood there.
Tiffany opened the door quickly.
They stared at each other, Tiffany wide-eyed and looking panicked, Taeyeon lost for words.
“So, you’re okay,” said Tiffany. “I’ve been calling you.”
Taeyeon shifted awkwardly. “Yeah. Um, my phone is broken, somehow.”
Tiffany half-smiled, not seeming much more relaxed. “Somehow.”
“Can I come in? I was hoping we could talk.”
“Yeah, that seems like a good idea.” Tiffany stepped aside to let her in.
Taeyeon couldn’t tell if Tiffany was upset or not. It was awkward, as expected, and the request to talk hadn’t been denied which was possibly a good sign. But Taeyeon knew that even though they both made mistakes, she had to apologize for the way she left it. It wasn’t a good thing to do, running away like that as if she could solve her problems by avoiding them. Taeyeon didn’t know a lot about how to actually do the right things in life but she knew enough to recognize when she was able to recover from a fault. And Tiffany was important to her, so doing the right thing to salvage their connection seemed less imposing the closer she got.
“I’m sorry,” said Taeyeon as soon as they were standing in the living room.
Tiffany just crossed her arms and watched her silently.
“I shouldn’t have left you like that. It was a messy situation and we were going back and forth between anger and apology. Leaving right after what happened was a stupid thing to do, but I was scared and I ran.”
Tiffany didn’t say anything, though her eyes softened a little. She was getting closer to showing an expression.
Taeyeon sighed. She thought going to her family’s house to pick up her sister was hard, but this was a different kind of difficulty.
She stepped forward and held out a hand, palm up. Tiffany blinked at it, and then looked back at Taeyeon’s face. Eventually she reached out and placed her hand in Taeyeon’s.
Taeyeon came a little closer and lowered their hands to hang between them.
“Thank you,” she said quietly, keeping her eyes on Tiffany’s. “I know you’re doing your best and trying to be here for me, and that means a lot. I panicked because we kissed and I thought it was happening too fast. It wasn’t the right timing, sure, but I didn’t read my feelings correctly. I like you a lot. I didn’t need to freak out like that.”
“What are you saying exactly?”
Taeyeon glanced away for a moment, squeezing Tiffany’s hand. She searched for words. “I went to see my sister. I haven’t told you anything about her and that’s because I’m ashamed. There are things I’m still not sure how to talk about but your guess is correct in terms of my whole ‘family’ situation. Anyway, my sister told me some things I needed to hear and seeing my family again was a pretty big shock to my system. I’ve made a lot of mistakes but I’ve made a lot of progress with my life, too, and it’s easy for me to forget that. I’m ready to get back to trying, and to keep going with my new life so that I can really make things right.”
Tiffany moved, shifting her feet like she was nervous. “Taeyeon…”
“I’m not good with touching a lot,” she said, nodding at their hands, “and I’m not good with talking about my feelings but that’s because I’ve spent too many years being uncomfortable in my own skin. I can’t go back to that. There’s no reason for it. All it’s done is made me afraid. And you deserve better. I mean, I’ll still be like that a lot of the time, but you – I trust you. You’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met. And if it’s okay with you, I would like to kiss you.”
“Wait, wait.” Tiffany separated their hands. “Taeyeon, just to be clear for a second here; we had an argument, we apologized, you accidentally kissed me? I guess it was an accident, and then you ran off for the whole day – then you show up at night, soaking wet from the rain, and ask to kiss me. I just want to be sure you’re doing the right thing for yourself. Don’t let this all be because you’re having a messy day and your emotions are all over the place.”
Taeyeon almost laughed. “Okay, that’s true, I am having a messy day and my feelings are out of control for the most part. That’s kind of how I am a lot of the time. Being around you helps but only if I’m honest with myself, and today I wasn’t honest with myself until it was too late. Yes, I accidentally kissed you, but it wasn’t a bad thing to do, just a bad time to do it. Previously when we talked about our relationship I was being held back by my fear. I’ve been reminded of why that’s a bad thing.”
The look that Tiffany gave her was the most sincerely searching gaze Taeyeon had ever experienced. Tiffany really was worried that Taeyeon was doing the wrong thing and would regret it later. In truth, Taeyeon had no guarantee that she wouldn’t change her mind the next day when her terror had time to haunt her again, or in a week when she’d had her nightmares and stared at her broken self in the mirror. She didn’t know anything for sure, but she remembered what she’d always intended when she made the decision to escape and make her own life. She had to run away to get out. She didn’t have to keep running once she got away, no matter how much her fear and self-hatred tried to convince her that she wasn’t free when she was freer than she’d ever been before.
“We’d still be going slowly,” she said, as if to reassure Tiffany and herself. “And it’s not going to be smooth sailing or whatever, but I mean… we don’t have to hold back quite so much anymore. I want to get to know you better, too. I want to know how you made yourself into who you are. We can share that.”
Tiffany tilted her head as she considered Taeyeon.
Then she nodded.
“Okay,” she said. “Okay, you can kiss me.”
Taeyeon grinned, and it was the most honest reaction she’d allowed herself to have in several hours. She leaned forward and kissed Tiffany, softly but confidently, and was incredibly glad that she didn’t ruin it. She didn’t hesitate to return Tiffany’s hug afterwards. They were able to hold each other for a long time because she knew how it felt to hug Tiffany now and it was nothing to run away from. She knew what to expect. She was comfortable.
She hummed along to a random song when she went home, the smile on her lips made by her kiss with Tiffany still there with her as she crossed the street.
She even had a quiet night. She went through her bedtime routine and settled down to sleep at a record early time. At first she just lay there staring at the ceiling, and she felt some of the same dread she usually did at night, but it wasn’t overwhelming. She screwed up her day. Then she did one thing right. It was enough to get her to sleep comparatively peacefully at least for one night.
She still played her music loud in the morning as she got ready, but she ate more than half of her attempted breakfast and didn’t forget that she had to suit up for a meeting.
The buttons on her shirt needed a bit of fiddling so she had to keep trying with them as she went out the door, but it wasn’t stressful. She even managed to notice the sun shining and the birds singing and she was wholly on track to call herself a horrible cliché because she almost never had these kinds of mornings.
She twirled the car keys in her fingers as she went to check the mailbox.
A cat bounced up to her with a tiny meow.
“Oh hey, guy.” She crouched, holding out a hand for the cat to approach. “Haven’t seen you in a while. How’s it going?”
It was the small ginger cat. It purred happily, its tiny body vibrating beneath her palm as she stroked its back.
“I wish I knew your name, buddy,” she murmured to it. “Don’t tell the others, but you’re secretly my favourite.”
“His name is Lemon.”
She jumped up. The boy, Lee, stood a distance away and gave her an awkward smile. Taeyeon felt extremely self-conscious and pretended to ignore Lemon as he rubbed against her ankle.
“Oh, hey, Lee,” she said.
“It’s okay, it’s normal to talk to cats,” he assured her. He cleared his throat, clearly uncomfortable with talking so much.
She found it odd that he was making an effort, but she couldn’t perceive it negatively.
“So, Lemon, huh? Cute name for a cat.”
He shrugged. “He was about the size of a lemon when he was born, so I went with it. He’s the baby of the house.”
At the mention of his house, Taeyeon glanced towards it. She looked back at him. He could probably tell that she was thinking. She wondered if Tiffany ever tried to have the same conversation with him about the shared experiences between them, but figured it was unlikely.
So she took a deep breath, and said, “Have you got some time later? I think we should talk.”
Lemon curled up around her foot and lay there with his tongue poking out slightly.