After Seungwan turned 16, the world grew a little gloomier. The reason, as usual, was a beautiful angel called Bae Joohyun. For a year, they’d both attended the same high school and Seungwan got to see her more often than she’d ever dreamed. In between classes, at lunch, sometimes even crossing paths on their way out of the school for a snack at the local convenience store before returning for more studying.
Even more miraculous than that was the fact that, all through high school, Joohyun never once had a boyfriend, or at least one serious enough to be called as such. She’d sometimes have ramen with a boy who’d asked and she’d accept the presents that she was given on romantic occasions or just because, but she had never really dated anyone.
And that meant that Joohyun had the free time to pay Seungwan and Seulgi the kind of attention that seniors rarely bothered to bestow on their juniors. She would smile at them whenever they exchanged glances and, every once in a while, when they ran into each other at the convenience store, she’d share a bowl of ramen with them and ask them how things were going.
It was all so wonderful that it blinded Seungwan to the darkness looming in the horizon. It was only once exams were over and she could take a relieved breath that she remembered. Joohyun’s time in high school had finished.
Before she knew what was happening, Joohyun had graduated and packed her things to go visit her parents in the few weeks of vacation she’d have before returning for university. There, she’d be living at one of the university dorms. Joohyun’s stay with the Kangs was over and Seungwan wasn’t sure of when, or even if, she’d see her again.
“It’s not that bad”, Seulgi repeated to a downcast Seungwan who, as usual, lounged so unnaturally on the sofa that it actually began to hurt her back a little. She only groaned, offended at the ridiculous suggestion that she could possibly be okay without Joohyun. “I mean it, she’ll definitely come over for dinner every once in a while, and I can let you know so you can join us”
Seungwan huffed and twisted her body slightly. “Yeah, like once a month. And if I miss it because of school or a family dinner or something, that’ll be another full month without seeing her”, she complained in a voice that definitely wasn’t whining because she’d grown up and didn’t whine anymore.
She turned to face Seulgi, shifting up a little so she could rest her arm on the back of the sofa. “That’s no way to live, Seulgi-yah”, she proclaimed dramatically, earning a patient sigh from her friend.
“Okay, I might have an idea”, Seulgi admitted hesitantly. She chewed on her bottom lip thoughtfully, but Seungwan had already risen to clutch her arm. “I don’t know if you should, though. We should be focusing on school and it’s one thing to hang out with Joohyun-unnie when she’s here, but it’s another to be going out of our way to –“
“What’s the idea?”, Seungwan cut off, patience exhausted at Seulgi’s unending expression of concern. Her friend took a deep breath, accepting that she couldn’t go back now.
“Your sister is still in college, right?” Seungwan’s brow furrowed at the question. What did that have to do with anything? She nodded anyway, to confirm that Seunghee was still attending, although she was already on her last year. “And she’s in the same college as Joohyun-unnie”, Seulgi continued, but she didn’t get to finish her thought because Seungwan had already jumped up from her seat and now stood aiming a decided finger at her friend.
“I’ll go visit my sister and try to bump into Joohyun-unnie!”, she declared passionately, completely ignoring the way Seulgi’s mouth opened as if to contest the idea. “It’ll be tough at first, but if I can figure out her dorm room or the building where she has her classes, then I can hang around there and it’ll be more likely for us to meet”
Seulgi looked at her dubiously. “I actually meant asking Seunghee-unnie to talk to Joohyun-unnie and ask her if she’d be free to hang out with us or something”, she elucidated in what she probably knew was a wasted effort. “You never actually told her you wanted to spend time with her after she went to college”
“Obviously not”, Seungwan huffed out in incredulity. “If I told her that, she’d…” She paused, finding it hard to explain why exactly she couldn’t tell Joohyun she didn’t want to stop seeing her.
“She’d know you want to spend time with her?”, Seulgi finished for her. Seungwan decided to ignore the clear sarcasm in her voice.
“Whatever, we’re doing it my way”, she said with finality. Seulgi didn’t question it. After all, it was Seungwan’s decision to make. Even if she herself knew it wasn’t the most rational.
When she knocked on her sister’s door, she was met with an unlikely sight. Seunghee, always so composed whenever she came over for dinner, was now barefaced, her hair sticking out in all directions like she’d been running her hands through it for hours, and she wore old baggy sweatpants and a college sweater.
“What?”, she called out a little harshly before she recognized Seungwan. “Oh, sorry, I thought you were one of my project partners coming to bother me about… Whatever, you wouldn’t know what I’m talking about anyway, lots of business jargon”
She walked back inside her room, waving for Seungwan to follow her. The dorm room was a lot neater than her sister’s unkempt figure had suggested, the only mess being found in her desk, which was covered with an unbelievable amount of loose sheets of paper, with a laptop peeking out from under the avalanche of white.
“So, what’s my little mouse doing here in college?”, Seunghee asked with a hint of humour, smirking at Seungwan’s instinctive groan. “Or did I hibernate for two years and miss your graduation?”
“Nope, still in high school”, she said, mostly because she was still trying to figure out how to sound casual about visiting her sister for the first time since they’d helped her move into her dorm as a freshman. In her defence, she still saw Seunghee often in their dinners, so it wasn’t like they were estranged sisters or anything.
“Anyway, no need to make up an excuse, I know why you’re here”, Seunghee remarked with her back to Seungwan, luckily missing the way her younger sister nearly choked on air as she instantly panicked. “You met some cute upperclassman last year and now he’s in college and you’re trying to bump into him casually. Or are you bold enough to ask your unnie for introductions?”
She finally turned back to Seungwan with dramatic flair, fixing her with a piercing stare. Seungwan fidgeted under her sister’s gaze, somehow managing to look embarrassed even as she rolled her eyes. “It’s not like that! I was just visiting you, but if you’re going to be all ungrateful –“
“Oh, speaking of cute upperclassmen!”, her sister exclaimed, cutting her off. Her words were ominous, but Seungwan let her finish her thought, happy to pursue any topic that got them far away from the current one. “I am definitely not introducing you to any freshmen and you can find your crush on your own if you’re that invested, but do you know who I did run into? Bae Joohyun-ssi!”
Seungwan froze halfway through her protest that she absolutely did not want introductions, jaw nearly dropping at her unbelievable luck. “You know, your favourite unnie. You used to talk about her all the time, it was all I heard after dinner. She went to the same high school as you, right?” Her sister rambled on, but Seungwan was only half-listening, her mind already running at full speed to figure out how to get the introductions that she did actually want very much indeed.
“Oh, yeah, I ran into her a couple of times last year. I didn’t know she’d come to study here”, she lied as smoothly as she could manage. It shouldn’t be too hard to fake, since Seunghee couldn’t have guessed how deeply she still held Joohyun in her heart. After that first year of hopeless infatuation, Seungwan had slowly grown more cautious of showing her interest in Joohyun to anyone, even her family. She kept her thoughts to herself, and sometimes shared them with Seulgi, but to everyone else her childish girl crush on Joohyun had slowly faded down to nothing except maybe admiration for her senior.
“And it was totally by accident, too. She came out of a lecture hall right as I was going in, we just said quick hellos, but it was definitely her. She’s so pretty, it’s hard to get her mixed up with anyone else”, Seunghee carried on obliviously. She suddenly paused, tapping her chin thoughtfully. “Do you want to go say hi to her? It’ll help me keep an eye on you a bit longer, make sure you don’t go off to meet that freshman of yours”, she added with a teasing grin that made Seungwan wish she had an eraser nearby to throw at it.
“Whatever, I guess we could drop by. But I can’t stay too long, I have homework”, she added cleverly, trying not to sound too eager. “How do you know where she is, anyway? I thought you only bumped into each other”
“Duh, I know where the freshman dorm rooms are”, Seunghee replied with an eyeroll of her own. “Seriously, little mouse, for someone with such good grades you’re kind of a dummy” She had already stepped closer to ruffle Seungwan’s hair or something equally embarrassing, but the latter quickly evaded the manoeuvre and jumped out of the dorm room, waiting for her sister to lock up behind herself and follow along.
They made their way across the large dormitory complex, going up several flights of stairs until they were in one of the top floors. All around them were doors, evidently leading to dorm rooms, most of them with pieces of paper identifying the residents. Some students stood by open doors chatting, others walked with purpose, probably headed to the cafeteria or out to attend late-afternoon lectures.
Seunghee dragged her through a few corridors, absently checking doors until she found the one with Joohyun’s name on it. She turned back to make sure Seungwan hadn’t wandered off, then knocked on the door.
They stood waiting for a few seconds, but the door remained closed, no sounds coming from inside the room. “Huh, I guess she’s not in”, Seunghee mused out loud.
“Oh, that’s fine”, Seungwan quickly cut in, suddenly relieved that her reencounter with Joohyun wouldn’t be mediated by her sister. She could show up some other time, casually stroll through the corridor or hang out by the dorm entrance, something that would look a little less like her family was trying to introduce her to the new neighbour’s kid who was about her age. “I guess I’ll just see her whenever”
Seunghee studied her suspiciously. “You’re going to come back, aren’t you?”, she asked with a raised eyebrow.
“To visit your ungrateful self!”, she defended herself with blatant lies.
“To find your freshman, more like”, Seunghee grumbled, already pulling her away from the door. “Come on, I’ll walk you out then” She didn’t let Seungwan out of her sight once, not until she had been ushered out of the campus entrance and straight to the nearest bus stop.
She was right, of course. Seungwan was going to come back, and she’d keep coming back until she finally saw Joohyun again.
It took her a couple of weeks to find another free afternoon, but as soon as she managed it, she was on the first bus to the university. She wandered around, slightly lost, until she finally caught sight of the familiar dormitory complex. Inside, she debated visiting her sister but quickly decided that she had to run into Joohyun first, or she’d be doing it with Seunghee in tow.
She walked aimlessly down a few corridors until she began to feel a little self-conscious around the older men and women who would have been able to tell she was too young to be here even if she hadn’t shown up in her high school uniform. With one last casual round of Joohyun’s floor, she finally gave up and went down the stairs all the way to the lounge. There, she got a coffee from the machine and sat on one of the empty armchairs, pulling a notebook from her backpack but paying more attention to the people entering the room than the homework in front of her.
She’d only been there for about half an hour when Joohyun walked into the lounge with a few friends. Seungwan’s heart stuttered at the sight and she immediately dropped her head back to her notebook, even though the whole point of coming here had been to have Joohyun notice her. Somehow, now that the older girl was here, after so long without seeing her, Seungwan felt dreadfully shy, only daring to follow the movement of her group from the corner of her eye.
Her pencil had been hovering over the same sentence since Joohyun had entered the room, all her focus gone as she tried to simultaneously take in as much of the older girl as she could while not calling any attention to herself. And still, despite being so concentrated on Joohyun, she was startled when she heard her voice.
“Seungwan-ah?”, Joohyun called out happily, her voice unusually loud as it cut through the din of the lounge. It rang out perfectly clear and just as melodious as Seungwan remembered, and of course the first thing she did was jump in her seat and almost send her notebook flying at the person next to her.
Joohyun walked closer, a small amused smile on her face. “I thought it was you”, she commented as her prediction was confirmed. Seungwan got up to greet her, not sure whether to nod or bow and settling for something somewhere in the middle. She avoided looking at Joohyun’s friends, who were sitting at a table having coffee and watching them in between their conversation. “You know, you stand out a little in your uniform”, Joohyun added playfully.
“And you’re… not wearing a uniform anymore”, Seungwan replied awkwardly, gesturing towards the older girl. The truth was that she’d been a bit taken aback at the sight of Joohyun in casual clothes, so used to seeing her in their high school’s uniform every day of the week.
To her relief, Joohyun grinned with appreciation. “I know, it’s wonderful”, she said with only a hint of exaggeration. “If it weren’t for weekends, I’d have forgotten all about the existence of jeans by now” Jeans were exactly what she was wearing, a very flattering pair that Seungwan stubbornly avoided looking at from the moment she began to have thoughts of how flattering they were.
“So, what are you doing here?”, Joohyun asked after a moment where they just silently stared at each other, Seungwan too preoccupied with keeping her eyes on Joohyun’s and not wandering anywhere else to come up with a topic for conversation.
“I was, uh, visiting my sister. I think she’s in class or something, so I’m just doing some schoolwork while I wait for her to text me back”, she repeated the practiced lie. At least she could still remember that much.
“Oh, right, Seunghee-ssi. I met her the other day. We have classes in the same lecture hall”, Joohyun said, confirming what Seunghee had already told Seungwan. She turned back to her friends, who were leaving after their coffee and waving their goodbyes, then returned her attention to Seungwan. “Hey, I have to get back to my room, but you can wait there for your sister if you’d like”, she offered casually, like it was the simplest thing.
Seungwan nodded, trying very hard not to seem too enthusiastic. After all, they were friends, right? Or had that friendship ended when all external factors forcing them together had fallen away? Now that they hadn’t said a word to each other in over two months, maybe they were back to acquaintances. The awful thought helped bring down her excessive enthusiasm, at least.
Joohyun’s room was shared, two beds resting against opposite walls, but her roommate wasn’t there when they arrived. Seungwan couldn’t help but take a curious glance around the space, eyes falling on every personal object. She’d never gone into Joohyun’s room in the Kang home and this was an unprecedented look into Joohyun’s life and interests.
The older girl gestured towards her own desk, inviting Seungwan to take it while she sat on her own bed with her laptop. For a few moments, they worked in near silence, the only sounds being Joohyun’s typing and Seungwan’s pencil scratching against the page. That didn’t last very long, though, as Joohyun began sighing with increasing frequency before she shut her laptop and let it rest by her side.
Seungwan continued working, pretending not to notice how the older girl fell backwards on the bed with one arm over her face, but her concentration completely crumbled away when Joohyun finally rose and came to stand by her side.
“What are you studying?”, she asked pleasantly, in a completely transparent attempt to distract herself from her own work. Still, Seungwan wasn’t exactly eager to call her out on it, happy with the attention the older girl had decided to bestow on her.
“Maths”, she said a little shyly. Joohyun leaned over her shoulder to examine her notebook, hair coming so close to Seungwan’s face that she could smell her shampoo. Her heart began to beat faster, its drumming filling her ears.
“Oh, I remember this. Polynomials, right?”, Joohyun guessed, accurately interpreting the symbols and equations that she’d been scribbling. Seungwan nodded, sure that her shaky voice would betray her nerves if she tried to speak. “Do you want any help with it? I wasn’t too bad at this stuff”
She nodded again, trying her best to hide her reddening face with her hair, and Joohyun finally backed away to go steal her roommate’s desk chair and sit by Seungwan’s side. For over an hour, she patiently explained each step of each solution, guiding Seungwan through the process and watching as she solved some problems on her own.
Eventually, Seungwan realized that if she stayed any longer, she wouldn’t have the time to visit her sister, so she hesitantly got up to say her goodbyes. To her surprise, Joohyun took the initiative to pull her into a hug.
She froze in the older girl’s arms, her instincts failing her as her own arms only hung uselessly by her sides. After a moment, Joohyun moved away, looking a bit embarrassed herself. “Sorry, was that too much? It’s just… it’s nice to see a familiar face here. Everything’s new and sometimes it’s a lot”, she explained in a strained voice. Her hands lingered on Seungwan’s arms a moment longer before she let them fall, their absence sharply felt.
Seungwan finally recovered herself enough to speak, and she hurriedly reassured Joohyun that it was fine. It seemed to relieve her a little, as the familiar small smile returned to her face. “Whenever you’re around, visiting your sister or for whatever reason, feel free to drop by, ok? I can help you with school stuff, if you want, or we can just hang out. Watch a movie or something”
She knew that Joohyun’s invitation was partly given out of politeness and partly out of the desire for familiarity, but at least some part of it must have been because she wanted to see Seungwan, right? That was more than enough for her, more than enough for the smile on her face to grow wider and brighter and almost painful.
She barely remembered a word she said to her sister that day. Riding the bus home, her head was filled with Joohyun. Joohyun, who wanted to hang out with her. Joohyun, who must like spending time with her, at least a little bit. Once again, she could barely believe her luck.
She couldn’t visit Joohyun every week, but she tried her hardest to come by as often as possible. Her sister would have been suspicious at the frequency with which she ended up at the university, so half the time she didn’t even let her know she was visiting, heading straight to Joohyun’s dorm room and leaving it only to go to the bus stop. Seulgi helped cover for her, telling their parents that Seungwan was at school, studying with her, when really Seungwan was far from it.
Really, Seungwan was skipping the late-afternoon sessions of self-study to go visit her crush, who would certainly help her with homework if she asked, except she rarely did. The thing was, when they weren’t studying, they were sitting side by side on Joohyun’s bed, watching movies or dumb Youtube clips on her laptop. Sometimes they went down to the lounge for a warm drink and snacks, or to the cafeteria if they were especially hungry. Regardless of particulars, what really mattered was that when they weren’t studying, they were enjoying their time together, and Seungwan couldn’t spare a second thought to her maths curriculum when she was making Joohyun laugh with another stupid joke.
Now she was definitely sure that they were friends. She saw how Joohyun smiled when she showed up in her high school uniform, how her eyes twinkled right before suggesting that they go for a stroll around the campus, now that the weather was warm and flowers were blooming everywhere.
She walked confidently up the stairs of the dormitory complex, headed straight for Joohyun’s room, where she knew the older girl would be, because she already knew her schedule by heart. Some of her shyness had melted away as Joohyun had slowly evolved from the unattainable crush of her younger years to someone real and tangible, someone just as beautiful and perfect as before, but now also someone who was her friend and didn’t just indulge her with a playful smile and a pat on the head.
It was strange when she knocked and nobody came to open the door. Even stranger when she was sure she’d heard noises from inside, not the kind of sounds that would have her turning away with flustered embarrassment, but just a weak shuffling, interrupted by sniffling and even, when she leaned a little closer to the door, shaky and watery inhales.
She knocked again, a little worried. “Joohyun-unnie, it’s me, Seungwan”, she called into the door, trying not to be too loud and call attention. Still receiving no answer, she had almost made up her mind to leave, chest contracting painfully at the thought of Joohyun crying alone, when the door finally opened.
Joohyun stood there, with puffy eyes and a red nose, trails of tears still visible on her cheek despite her hasty effort to wipe them off. Seungwan wanted nothing more than to lean closer and brush every tear away, infuse Joohyun with some of the gentleness she so sorely deserved, but she knew it wasn’t her place. “Do you want to talk?”, she asked instead, all that she could offer. Joohyun nodded weakly and let her inside.
They sat on the bed, cross-legged and facing each other. The distance between them was greater than when they sat side by side, but Seungwan didn’t dare to come closer and Joohyun seemed too distracted to care either way, tears still pouring out of her eyes as she tried in vain to stop them.
Seungwan waited for her to speak, but she never did, so they sat in heavy silence. “Joohyun-unnie?”, she finally asked, and suddenly she was hit with a memory of years ago, of sitting next to Joohyun on Seulgi’s sofa, on November 11th, and asking her if there was someone she liked, someone who’d hurt her.
“Did someone break your heart?”, she finally added in a whisper. The thought nearly closed off in anger at this unknown person who’d dared to bring Joohyun suffering, in empathetic sadness and helplessness, finding herself unable to heal whatever had caused the bitter tears running down the older girl’s face.
But there was something else, something new, something she didn’t like one bit. There was jealousy, clawing inside her chest and burning everything like an inextinguishable fire. Gone were the days when she’d watched Joohyun from afar, even helped boys woo her. Now the thought of her being with anyone else nearly made her suffocate in panic. She clenched the bedsheets a little tighter, hoping the bitterness inside her wouldn’t show. Joohyun needed a friend, not whatever this jealousy was making of Seungwan.
To her guilty relief, Joohyun let out a watery laugh at her words, reaching out for her hand without seeming to notice it. “No, it’s not that”, she replied simply, wiping her face again with her free hand. She sniffled, looking down at the bed instead of facing Seungwan. “I don’t know, I’m just… College is a lot more complicated than I thought and everything is so confusing”, she mumbled in a rough voice, sniffling again.
Seungwan eagerly squeezed the hand in hers, hoping to transmit some comfort that way. Joohyun smiled a little at the contact, tightening her own hold a little. “Is there anything I can do to help?”, she asked, her own voice a little unsteady. She swallowed, hoping to clear and fight back the tears that seemed to be growing at the corners of her eyes.
Joohyun tapped on her hand, once, twice, three times. Seungwan followed the motion soundlessly, patiently waiting for her response. “Can you…”, Joohyun began uncertainly. Her voice failed her and she lapsed back into silence before trying again. “Can you keep a secret?”, she whispered so low that Seungwan barely heard her.
She whispered back an equally low “Yes”, then watched as the older girl shifted in place, opened and closed , looked around the room again and again before finally letting her eyes fall on their linked hands. She saw the way Joohyun’s face fell slightly and knew at once that she wasn’t ready to share her secret after all, so she took Joohyun’s hand in her lap and began to play with her fingers, not sure how to tell her that it was fine not to say anything.
When Joohyun looked up again, she gave the older girl a reassuring smile. “Seungwan-ah”, Joohyun called out with her own attempt at a grin, her voice aiming for conspiratorial but still too shaky to quite manage it. “Have you ever had somebody you liked?”
The question startled Seungwan, and her first instinct was to deny it, but there was something about the way Joohyun hadn’t asked about boys, no room for her to argue that her “no” wouldn’t be a lie after all. Joohyun’s hand was still in her lap, Joohyun’s eyes still on hers, and she knew that this somehow had something to do with cheering her up, so she admitted the truth with a nod, like the idiot she knew she was.
“What is it like?”, Joohyun immediately asked, eyes sparkling with curiosity and excitement. She’d only ever told one person before and it felt strange to be back in this situation. When she’d been younger, the answer had been right on the tip of her tongue, butterflies in her stomach and the sun in Joohyun’s smile, but now that she was 16 that answer felt so childish.
“Well, you know”, she said reluctantly, poking at Joohyun’s knee with the tip of her foot, but the older girl only smiled with amusement, silently encouraging her. “It’s… I guess it’s like, just being around them makes me happy, even if we’re not doing anything big. I look forward to the smallest things, even walking by them and our eyes meeting makes me feel giddy and smiley. And no matter how sad I am, how sad my feelings could make me, I’m always happy at the same time”
She shut abruptly, each sentence making her more embarrassed until she couldn’t take it anymore. Joohyun watched her closely, seeming to take in every word greedily, until she caught herself and returned to a more neutral expression. If she really hadn’t had her heart broken, then why was this so important to her? There were surely better ways for her to experience romance than through Seungwan’s immature experience.
“And when you think about kissing them?” Seungwan nearly choked, jerkily pulling her hand away from Joohyun’s as she coughed indignantly. Joohyun couldn’t just ask something like that, not when she sat right there in front of her with bright eyes and, now that she’d mentioned kissing, lips that had grown infinitely more appealing. Seungwan definitely couldn’t be thinking these things.
Joohyun only laughed as she flipped over to hide her face against the older girl’s pillow. “Ah, so you have thought about it”, she called out triumphantly, laughing again as Seungwan yelped into the pillow. “I was worried you’d be too young and innocent about those things”, she added jokingly.
She turned around to study Joohyun darkly. “I don’t think about it. I don’t!”, she insisted as Joohyun arched an eyebrow. “I couldn’t possibly, I can’t even… I can’t even imagine it”, she admitted, voice a bit softer.
“Well, I mean… Don’t you want to?”, Joohyun asked, suddenly looking a bit lost. She tilted her head and furrowed her brow like she was trying to wrap her mind around some difficult concept. Seungwan didn’t really understand the question. Of course she wanted to kiss Joohyun, it was just so unlikely that she could barely conceive of it. Still, Joohyun’s gaze was confused and searching, so she sat up with a sigh.
“Okay, uh, did you ever see those videos in science class? Of what the planets would look like in the sky if they were as close to Earth as the moon?”, she began. Joohyun studied her dubiously, but nodded along after a moment. “First it showed Venus and Mars and they were a little bigger but still pretty much just dots in the sky. Then Neptune and Uranus, and it was impressive, much bigger than the moon. And then it was Jupiter and just… This huge swirling ball of gases came up and filled the whole sky. You could see the currents on the surface of the planet, the way it rotated around its axis, it was so big that you could just see everything”
She paused, swallowing to wet her dry throat. Joohyun looked curious, probably wondering where she was going with this, and she began to feel like she should have just been a bit more prosaic about it. But she really didn’t know how else to explain it, so it would have to do.
“So I started thinking, this was just what it looked like when it was as far away as the moon. What would it look like coming closer? What would it look like if it crashed into the Earth? So I tried to picture it, that enormous planet coming closer and closer and filling up all the sky and still moving forward. The little stripes of colour, the circles that I knew were storms, growing until they were miles long, until the sky was only big enough to show the slightest fraction of the planet” She tapped her fingers against Joohyun’s pillow, trying not to focus on the way Joohyun’s mouth hung slightly open, like she was completely carried away by her silly story.
“But I just couldn’t imagine it, you know? I knew the theory, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around something that big, so far beyond anything I’ve ever seen” She couldn’t help a small smile, then. She was embarrassed by her exaggerated description, but seeing the way Joohyun seemed to have completely forgotten her tears and waited for the big finish with excitement, it felt more than worth it.
“That’s how I feel when I think about kissing… the person I like. In theory, I know how happy I’d be. But I just can’t wrap my mind around it”, she concluded awkwardly. “I can’t even imagine it”
Joohyun’s smile grew wider, then she moved a little closer and reached for Seungwan’s hand again. “You’re a real romantic, aren’t you?”, she asked lightly, the slightest hint of wonder still sparkling in her eyes. Before Seungwan could protest, she had already continued speaking. “Thank you, really. Talking to you helped a lot. I already feel better”
Seungwan was floored by Joohyun’s words, all protests forgotten at once. How could she have possibly helped? All she’d done was talk about herself and make dumb metaphors. Joohyun squeezed her hand, amused by her surprise. “It’s so easy to talk to you. It’s like big things stop being so big and scary for a while”, she confessed warmly.
“I’m glad we still hang out”, Joohyun carried on, happy to take over the conversation while Seungwan froze in a vain attempt to process all the wonderful things the older girl kept saying about her. “I really like you, you’re like one of my little sisters”
The comparison brought her back to reality with a jerk so sudden it almost gave her whiplash. She forced a smile on her face and checked her watch, infinitely relieved to see how late it was. Joohyun seemed to interpret her failing cheer as a consequence of the late hour, and quickly ushered her out of the dorm with promises that she was feeling much better, so much like the responsible older sister that she seemed eager to embody.
On the ride home, listening to aggressively cheery pop music and gazing blindly out the window, she couldn’t help but feel like she might have lied to Joohyun. Maybe these feelings inside her didn’t always make her happy. Maybe, sometimes, they just made her sad.
Joohyun was done with her semester nearly a month before Seungwan, which for once was a blessing more than a curse, as it finally allowed Seungwan to focus on her studies and finish the semester with good enough grades that her parents weren’t too suspicious.
Seulgi was the only one who knew that she hadn’t been working as hard as she could, and that her lowered grades weren’t a result of struggling, but simply of slacking off. All her afternoons spent with Joohyun were hurting her academic performance, and even though Seulgi would never recriminate her, she was still understandably concerned.
Seungwan spent the entire summer studying, doing her best to get back on track with her classmates. She knew she was lucky that things were that easy for her, that she didn’t struggle with academic stuff like Seulgi, or she might not have gotten back on track at all.
They sat side by side in her friend’s room, each girl studying her own textbook and helping each other with any doubts that might arise. It was the end of the summer vacation and Seungwan had already caught up to Seulgi, so that they both studied the same topics and most of the study session consisted of her helping Seulgi with the material that she’d absorbed more easily on a first read.
“Wannie?”, Seulgi called out as they skimmed the pages of exercises in front of them. She’d called for Seungwan plenty of times during their studying, but there was something different in her voice. “Are you sure it’s not enough to see Joohyun when she comes over for dinner?”, she asked hesitantly, eyes still fixed on the page in front of her.
Seungwan froze halfway through her scribbling, pencil tightly gripped in her hand as she held her breath. She knew this conversation had been coming, but it didn’t make it any easier to have. “You know it isn’t”, she replied simply. Especially now that she knew how much Joohyun counted on her, she thought but didn’t add out loud.
Her friend swallowed nervously, eventually glancing away from her textbook to study Seungwan. “I just… You’re better than this, Wannie”, she said sadly. She didn’t sound judgmental or even pitying, it was more like she simply couldn’t stand to watch Seungwan go down this path. “You could be at the top of our class. You could get into a good college”
She shrugged, trying not to get too defensive. “I’m doing okay”, she pointed out, because she couldn’t just agree with Seulgi. If she agreed, she’d have to do something. She’d have to change things.
“And that’s enough?”, Seulgi asked almost impatiently, before she paused to take a deep breath and put down her pencil. She reached for Seungwan’s hand, but she avoided the touch, pretending to be reaching for something at the other end of the table.
“Wannie, I know you don’t want to hear this”, she began, and Seungwan sighed angrily, her grip on her pencil growing so tight that she had to drop it before she broke it in half.
“So don’t say it”, she muttered, but they both knew that what she was really doing was begging. Seulgi’s voice softened at the request, but she didn’t stop.
“There’ll be other people. Other chances to fall in love and date. You’ll have your whole life for that. But high school is just once. The college entrance exam is just once” Seulgi’s hand fell on Seungwan’s shoulder and her friend waited until she’d turned around to face her before continuing. “You can have college and then love, but you can’t have love and then college. Not like this”
The chair screeched against the floor as Seungwan abruptly got to her feet. “You know, I already have a mother to tell me that. I don’t need another one”, she spit out as she hastily gathered her books and shoved them into her bag. Seulgi didn’t say anything else as she left, only watched her retreating back with a pained expression.
They met the next day and both girls apologized. Seulgi promised not to mention the issue again, not unless Seungwan seemed in serious danger of falling behind. Seungwan agreed to these conditions and they promptly resumed their friendship.
By the time Joohyun returned from her summer in Daegu, the argument had almost been forgotten, and Seungwan took advantage of her very first free afternoon to go visit the older girl.
The rest of the year went by in a flash. Endless mornings and afternoons of classes, evenings and weekends of studying, all broken up by the briefest glimpses of joy every time she skipped a self-study session to go take the familiar bus to the university and spend the rest of her day with Joohyun. Sometimes she’d even lie to her parents, tell them that she’d had dinner with Seulgi at school when she’d actually eaten with Joohyun at the college cafeteria.
It felt like her whole life built up to those moments with Joohyun, everything else fading to a blur until the older girl’s beautiful face and bright smile emerged from the mists and brought colour back to the world, just like the first time she’d seen her.
Autumn came, and then Winter, and every time it caught Seungwan by surprise, the ruthless passage of time sweeping her along until she was dizzy with speed. And still, among falling leaves and trees, in the first snow of the season and numb with cold, she went to visit Joohyun, the evenings with the older girl lighting the way like signposts along the highway of her life.
She found herself in Joohyun’s room, like awakening from a dream. It was cold outside, the world frozen and white, and they sat side by side under a blanket, watching something on Joohyun’s laptop. The clock on Joohyun’s nightstand showed the time in blaring red, letting Seungwan know that it was past 10 pm. There was a warm pressure in her hand, which she eventually realized was Joohyun’s hand, their fingers intertwined between them.
Mind suddenly miles away and completely abstracted from the movie on the small screen, she began to sweep her gaze around the dorm room. Joohyun’s roommate wasn’t there, as usual. The girl always went home on the weekends and she never stepped foot in the room during the day, so Seungwan only caught quick glimpses of her when she was leaving and the girl was coming in for the night. Now that the school year had ended, she had gone home for good, her side of the room already cleared out of all belongings.
On Joohyun’s side, everything looked as it always did, the same books on the shelves, the same relatively neat piles of papers on the desks, the same bedsheets. She looked again, a little closer, paying a little more attention, until her eyes fell on a heart-shaped box tucked away between the bed and the nightstand.
“You got chocolates for Valentine’s Day?”, she asked with a snort, body mechanically guiding her voice to a friendly teasing tone, with just the right amount of disbelief, even though her mind was busy going over every possible scenario for the existence of that simple, innocent-looking box.
Joohyun looked around for a second, confusion clear on her face, before she found where Seungwan was looking and chuckled lightly. “Oh, I’d forgotten about that” She reached down to pluck it out of its hiding spot and offer Seungwan a piece of chocolate. The inside was untouched, like she really had forgotten all about it. “But yes, apparently men in college are very progressive and won’t be held back by convention”, she added with playful sarcasm.
“Will you be paying him back on White Day?”, Seungwan returned instantly, easily playing along. She let her hand hover over the box for a few seconds, but in the end, she felt all appetite leave her and she let it drop back by her side.
Joohyun picked a piece at random and popped it in . “Oh no, I’m far too traditional for that”, she quipped, and they both laughed.
The conversation continued, easy jokes being exchanged between them, but Seungwan barely registered them. Her thoughts drifted back to the previous week, when her closest classmates had been badgering her endlessly about Valentine’s Day.
There was a boy, one year older than her, and he and his group of friends often showed up at the convenience store near Seungwan’s high school. He was tall, with a sweet smile and ears that grew red whenever he was flustered.
The first few times they’d crossed paths, he’d snuck glances at her table the whole time he was there, his friends erupting into raucous laughter a few times, clearly at his expense if his bright red ears were anything to go by. Eventually, he’d built up the courage to come over to the group of schoolgirls, and Seungwan had nearly choked on her drink when she’d realized it was her he’d been staring at.
It had been so unexpected, and he’d been so shy and nervous, that she’d agreed to have some ramen with him before she’d even realized what she was saying. Talking to him had been surprisingly easy, her effortless smiles enough encouragement for him to keep making silly jokes.
Of course, all it took was one evening with Joohyun for the poor boy to be driven entirely out of her head, so that the companionship barely had time to grow into infatuation before it was nipped in the bud.
Ever since then, they’d continued to meet for ramen every once in a while, even though things had never progressed beyond that, but Seungwan’s classmates interpreted her reticence as shyness on both parts and insisted that she should make some big move. As Valentine’s Day approached, they all tried again and again to get her to buy him chocolates. In the end, she never did.
It was getting late, she thought as she glanced at the clock again. She should go home. She didn’t want to miss the bus.
“Hey, isn’t tomorrow your birthday?”, Joohyun asked, cutting through her confused thoughts. She realized with a start that she was right. How could she have forgotten when just a few hours before, she’d been thinking about it? “Don’t you usually sleep over with Seulgi-yah?”
“Yeah, but I guess I’m getting a little old for sleepovers”, she said with a lightness she didn’t feel. The truth was that this would be the first year she didn’t spend her birthday at Seulgi’s house. When Joohyun had invited her over, the whole tradition suddenly seemed so silly that she hadn’t given it a second thought.
Joohyun smiled like she knew some secret she didn’t. Like the weight of her years had clued her in to some vital information that one day Seungwan would know as well, when she was mature enough. “You can stay here, if you want”, she offered, derailing Seungwan’s bitter musings. “We can have a little celebration at midnight. The cafeteria is closed, but we can get something from the vending machines. Or we can just have these chocolates”, she offered with a laugh.
“Actually, um, I should get going. My parents will be expecting me before midnight, I don’t want them to get worried”, she excused herself weakly. She got up and reached for her bag, turning her face as far away from Joohyun as possible because she didn’t want her to see how her fake smile faltered and crumbled.
Right after talking to Joohyun about her feelings, on that day when she’d found her crying, she’d realized that there were situations when, rather than happy and sad balancing out inside her, all the happiness seeped out and only misery remained. They were silly moments, sudden realizations of something she’d always known, but somehow in those instants when it became crystal clear, the truth grew so much more powerful and undeniable, so irresistibly crushing.
In those moments, she’d realize that she truly couldn’t have Joohyun. That she’d never be hers. That she wasn’t hers now that she was alone and she would be hers even less when she finally found someone else. That her love was doomed to be unrequited and nothing could change that. Nothing could make Joohyun feel the same way she felt, no amount of dreaming or wishful thinking.
But those moments of clarity were easy enough to handle. She had all the practice of years of hopeless pining. She had those early years where she hadn’t even thought it possible to touch Joohyun, let alone be with her in any capacity.
This realization, the one that had just hit her as she sat and stared at that box of chocolates, this was the one that she couldn’t shake off. The one that clung to her bones and sat there with heart-rending pressure.
It wasn’t just that she’d never have Joohyun. The truth, jumping out in all it’s harrowing splendour, was that as long as she wanted Joohyun she’d never have anything else. She’d sit there in her dorm room and she’d beg for scraps while her life drifted by her.
She wouldn’t have a good college. She wouldn’t have sleepovers with Seulgi. She wouldn’t have a clean conscience. She wouldn’t have that shy boy with a sweet smile. One day, she’d wake up and she wouldn’t have anything.
She paused by Joohyun’s door, looking down as she spoke to her. “Hey, uh, so my sister’s graduation was a couple of days ago” She had no idea how Joohyun reacted to her words because she refused to look up into her face. “So I probably won’t be dropping by as often. And school’s getting pretty tough, so I should… yeah”, she finished weakly, then her heel and walked away before Joohyun could say anything, before she could convince her to stay.
She rode the nearly empty bus, eyes staring at nothing as she tried her best to keep from crying until she got home, just in case her parents were still up. If they knew she’d been crying they’d want to know why, and they’d know she hadn’t been with Seulgi, and they’d start asking all kinds of questions she didn’t even know how to answer.
She broke down a few stops away from home. Stepping out of the bus into the cold night air, she let the tears run in tracks down her face as she walked away from her house and down the street to an old playground she hadn’t visited in years, to pass the time until she’d stopped crying, or until she was sure that her parents had gone to sleep. She sat down on one of the swings and slowly moved back and forth, gloved hands first wrapped around the cold chains and eventually retreating to the warm comfort of her pockets.
She didn’t even know how long she spent on the swing, just gently rocking herself back and forth as the tears gradually slowed down until she was able to wipe the freezing tracks and none came to replace them. She looked down at her phone, mind feeling nearly as numb as her limbs. She’d promised her sister she’d come help her pack up her things, but now she didn’t think she could ever step foot in that school again.
She typed out a quick message with unresponsive fingers « Unnie I can’t help you with packing after all, I have a thing with Seulgi-yah » She hit send only a second before she realized how suspicious it was to send such a message at – she checked the time – at 1 am on her birthday. It was her birthday.
The phone sprang to life in her hand, the buzzing startling her so that she almost dropped it in the snow. The screen flashed, displaying Seunghee’s name, and she answered reluctantly, cursing her luck that her sister had been awake.
“Happy birthday, little mouse”, Seunghee’s voice sounded from across the line, the fondness and concern clear even through the phone’s speaker.
“I wish you’d stop calling me that”, she replied between sniffles, trying to conceal her crying but probably failing. “I’m not so little anymore”, she added with a humourless laugh.
“You’ll always be little to me, baby sister”, Seunghee pointed out, and Seungwan could almost imagine the teasing smirk on her face.
“I wish people would stop treating me like a kid”, she mumbled into the receiver. She pulled her coat a little tighter around her body, nearly shivering in the cold night air.
“Yah, he’d better have treated you like a kid!”, her sister immediately exploded, voice tense with indignation.
“Wha – Who?”, she asked with genuine confusion.
“That freshman of yours! I wasn’t born yesterday, Wan-ah, I know perfectly well you must have found him, to keep coming back that often” Before Seungwan could protest, Seunghee continued her speech. “And now you’re crying on your birthday because something happened with him, am I right?”
She sniffled again, the tears threatening to return, but she didn’t say anything, which was confirmation enough for Seunghee. “And he’d better have rejected you, because if he tried to make a move on my little sister I will get a name out of you and I will commit a crime”
This finally brought genuine laughter to Seungwan’s lips. “Unnie, nobody made a move on me. And nobody rejected me, either”, she said truthfully, and Seunghee must have heard the honesty on her voice because she didn’t even scoff. “I just…”
She took a deep breath and tried to organize her thoughts. She felt confused, torn between the simple feelings of the past and the uncertain mess that was her future. “What do you do?”, she finally asked in a weak voice. “When you want something that you know you can’t have, what do you do to stop wanting it?”
Seunghee sighed over the line and there was a beat of silence before she spoke. “The trick is… you have to act like you don’t want it. Live your life and make the choices you’d make if you didn’t want that impossible thing. And then, over time, it gets easier to pretend, until one day you’re not pretending anymore”
Seungwan remembered the time before her sister had gone to university, before Seunghee was even attending high school. She’d been young, probably 10 years old, and she remembered how her parents had argued with her sister over her choice of electives, how their arguments had become fewer as the years went on, how Seunghee had chosen her university course together with them, with no protests.
“Unnie, what you’re studying… It’s not what you wanted, is it?”, she asked, thinking back to her sister’s room, which had been decorated with her own drawings, beautiful landscapes and fantastical creatures that she produced in every second of her free time. She’d slowly dropped the hobby, and these days she barely even doodled anymore.
“It was the right choice”, Seunghee replied simply, voice so even that Seungwan was sure she’d debated it with herself many times before. “I don’t regret it”, she added firmly.
“And the impossible thing you wanted?”, she asked with an aching heart. “Did you stop wanting it?”
“Yeah”, her sister replied cheerfully, and it was so obviously a lie that Seungwan couldn’t help but laugh again.
“Are you just saying that because your baby sister is crying on the phone, at 1 am, on her birthday?”, she enumerated carefully, wondering if she’d forgotten any aggravating conditions. Maybe the fact that she was sitting alone in her childhood playground.
“Maybe”, Seunghee drawled out playfully. “Did it help?”
“Kind of, yeah”, she admitted. “I guess it kind of helps that I’m not only one, you know?”
There was a slight rustling sound, which she assumed was her sister nodding against the phone like an idiot. “Hey, I guess you won’t be coming to the university any time soon, but I’ll be moving out after graduation anyway, and in the meantime, I don’t know, if you want to talk or anything, we can go get a coffee somewhere, ok?”
Seungwan frowned at her sister’s words. “Won’t you be busy with starting work and everything?”
“Well, yes, but I’ll always be busy. I won’t always have a little mouse that needs me”
She smiled against the phone. Having an older sister was usually a pain, but sometimes it just felt so nice to have someone who would love her unconditionally and who wouldn’t judge her like her parents might. She wanted to say something to express her gratitude, but all she got out was a sneeze.
“That doesn’t sound good. Did you catch a cold going home?”, her sister asked with concern.
“Actually, I’m not home yet”, she admitted sheepishly, grimacing at the scandalized yell her sister let out at the information. “I’m, uh, at the playground down the street”
“Get home right now, you insane person! It’s the middle of the night, you’ll freeze!”
She agreed to go home right after their call was done, wincing at her sister’s high-pitched voice, then said her goodbyes and slid the phone back into her pocket.
She looked around at the light layer of snow that covered the playground, curiously observing the way the street lights cast irregular patterns on the carpet of white, their light cut off by branches, as well as leaves from the few evergreen trees in the park.
With firm hands, she stood up from the swing and patted down her coat. She took a deep breath that left her in a little white cloud, slowly fading away to nothing.
“Happy birthday, Seungwan-ah”, she whispered to the night sky, where not a single star was visible. “Time to grow up”