Twenty-One

Small Universes Around Us
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Seoul University — — December 2020

Haeun always thought she’d remember more of her senior year. 

It was a big deal, the last year she’d be in school before being sent out into the real world full of jobs, responsibilities, and general adulthood. She was supposed to be enjoying and basking in every memory. 

Instead, it felt like everything was moving in a blur. 

Final exams were creeping up on her and she spent every free minute she could spare in the library or behind textbooks. Other than Mark, she barely saw any of her friends anymore. She didn’t stop by the frat as often and even skipped a few lectures in order to get some more time to study.

Sometimes she’d get passive-aggressive messages from Jaehyun who made it no secret how unhappy he was that she effectively vanished from his life. But there wasn’t much she could do about it. Life was being a . 

And once the holidays rolled around, she was bouncing from party to party, family gathering to family gathering. Visiting people she needed to see out of duty with no time to see the people she wanted to see out of pure want.

It was like one second she was studying for finals, she blinked and the second semester rolled around.

The feeling was new to her, one where time was moving too fast for her to grab onto any single moment to cherish. Instead, she just flowed through the motions with this inexplicable, intangible belief in the back of her head that if she could just survive the next few months it’d all be worth it. She didn’t know where this belief came from, but it drove her.

Like there was something wonderful waiting for her, to reward her for all her sacrifices. 

She just didn’t know what it was going to be yet. 

Seoul University — — February 2021

“How bad was this one?” Mark asked, his smile wide and a fist full of popcorn. 

Haeun frowned and tossed her earrings on the counter, “Stop looking so happy.”

“Sorry but I don’t know why you keep going to these ty dates with these guys.” Mark snorted, “I thought you didn’t want to date until after you graduated and got a job.”

She shrugged, “Yeah but that was for real serious relationships, I still want to go out and fun. It’s just that the guys I’ve been choosing have not been any fun.”

“Why don’t you let me set you up? At least you’ll know that whoever I set you up with has my stamp of approval.” He suggested. 

She shot him a look, “No offence, Minyoung’s boyfriend is nice and all but I’m not really interested in dating your other soccer bros.”

“What if I pick someone else?” He asked sitting up straighter. 

Haeun narrowed her eyes, “No. I will not let you set me up with an NCT.”

“Oh come on! The guys are nice, you’re best friends with half of them and their girlfriends.” He whined. 

She scrolled through her phone, “Yeah, exactly the reason why I don’t want to get involved with any of the single ones. I’m probably friends with them.”

“Didn’t stop you before.” He muttered under his breath. 

Her head jerked up, “What?”

“What?” He fired back. 

She made a face before walking to the fridge, “I’m sorta scared.”

“What do you mean?” Mark asked while sitting up. 

She stared at the fruit stocked up, “Dating is scary. Meeting all these random guys, talking to them, finding one who isn’t a complete who I also connect with. But imagine I find that guy and we click on all levels. Then I need to make sure that when we get older or have kids he doesn’t become condescending, violent, controlling, abusive, lying. It’s scary. That’s the person who might share my life one day.”

Mark sat on her words for a moment, “Yeah. It is scary. But you’ve always had a strong moral compass and you’re good at reading people. Plus you have so many friends. Friends who’d look out for you, who’d tell you to your face if you’re with a good guy or a dirtbag. Friends who’d protect you if the wrong one came into your life. When you’re ready, you’ll find an amazing guy. I don’t doubt it. Someone who would love you over and over again no matter what. Someone who’d pick you over and over again. You just need to…”

“Open up to the possibility?” She asked softly. 

He nodded with eyes that were pouring out such strong emotion that she was getting choked up just looking at him, “Exactly.”

“Thanks, Mark.” She murmured, “I really needed to hear that."

“No problem. Oh hey, did you hear back from any of your internships, yet?”

Haeun’s face broke out into a bright smile, “A few! I have some more final interviews.”

“Do you like any of these places?” He asked. 

She raised her brow, “A few.”

“Any out of the country?”

She laughed, “Why? Worried you won’t be able to live with me and mooch off of my amazing grocery shopping skills for the next 2 years?”

“Something like that.” He said softly. “So, a few of us are going to hang out at the frat house and chill. It’s our last semester and I want to see as many of the seniors before you all graduate.”

She tilted her head, “A few of us?”

“You know, Jaehyun, Nayoon, Doyoung, Johnny, Yuta, Haechan…Taeyong.” 

Her face didn’t change at the last name despite his dramatic pause, “I don’t know, I’d rather stay home, maybe get a head start on some work. That date took the life out of me. I’m way too tired.”

Mark’s face faltered, “Are you avoiding someone? Did something happen?”

She blinked at him, surprise, “No! Why would you think that?”

“You haven’t really been around them in a while, the guys miss you.” He said. 

Haeun pursed her lips before striding into her room, “Just busy. You know how I get when it comes to school stuff. I’ll grab coffee with them soon.”

“Just…don’t wait too long.”

Seoul University — — March 2021

He was just a few months from graduating, the home stretch but Taeyong found the urge to, despite how slammed he already was, find ways to keep himself busy. 

It was the oddest feeling, the way he had the need to be doing something, all the time.  Like the silence was too intimidating, so he’d find things that made his head feel loud. First he’d fill gaps of his time with organizing frat events, then he’d spend more time in the pool swimming laps until his body got too tired, or he’d offer to tutor freshmen, hell, he even took cooking classes on the weekends.

Even still, it was never enough. It felt like he still had more time that he needed to fill up like he was pulling minutes and hours out of thin air. Which was how he ended up wearing a plastic apron and rubber gloves while hosing down cages of the animal shelter he was volunteering at. 

“Why are you here?” He asked as he turned off the hose and replaced the clean one with another dirty one. 

Jaehyun sipped on a cup of coffee, stepping away to avoid the splash of the hose, “I’m worried about you.”

Taeyong raised his brows, but focused on rinsing out the cages, “Worried? About what?”

“About you overworking yourself. This is crazy. I barely see you anymore unless it’s at events or when you come home to go to sleep.” He pointed out. “And now you’re volunteering? Is everything okay?”

Taeyong switched the hose to the higher-powered spray function, “I don’t know. Lately, it’s been hard to sit still. Like, I get really uncomfortable.”

“That doesn’t sound healthy.” Jaehyun said, concern painted across his face, “Is something bothering you?”

Taeyong sighed and turned off the hose, “Not that I can think of.”

“You’ve been forgetful too.” Jaehyun inspected. 

Taeyong puffed out his cheeks and lifted the clean cages, carrying them back into the shelter while Jaehyun followed behind. It was true. Lately, the smallest things had been slipping his mid. Sometimes it was misplacing his keys, other times it was staring into the fridge not remembering what he was looking for. 

“It’s probably just the stress of finals and graduating.” Taeyong explained. 

Jaehyun rocked on the base of his heels, “I’m sure scheduling yourself down to the minute doesn’t help either.” 

Taeyong set the cages in their spot before turning to the animals who were whining for attention the minute they saw him. He stuck his fingers between the bars, brushing the little black button nose of a terrier, “I feel like something’s missing. And I’m just trying to figure out what it is.” 

Jaehyun’s face softened with a small smile, “I’m sure you’ll figure it out. It’s probably just growing pains.” 

“But do you ever feel like that? Like you’re trying to fit yourself into something but nothing ever clicks. It’s like this gnawing ache in your soul.”

“Yeah.” Jaehyun said gently, “I did have that feeling, for a long ing time. It nearly drove me insane. Then I met Nayoon.”

Taeyong turned to his friend, “Nayoon?”

“When we started going out, I felt that click. Like suddenly I belonged somewhere.”

Taeyong gave his friend an understanding look, “You never seemed that bummed before. I’m sorry I never noticed.”

“Don’t apologize, I never told you.” He smiled.

Taeyong smiled back lightly, “It’s a good thing that the universe put Nayoon in your life.” 

Jaehyun’s face fell as he looked at his feet, “It wasn’t just the universe. The universe puts obstacles in your path, it’s the people in your life who help you find your path.”

“Wow, you’re poetic today, don’t love it, have to say.” Taeyong teased.

Jaehyun rolled his eyes, “Whatever, all I’m saying is that Nayoon helped me feel like everything had a purpose.”

“So what? I need to go find my Nayoon? That’s the solution? Is that why you keep begging me to let you set me up on a date?” He snorted. 

Jaehyun shook his head like he couldn’t believe he was having this conversation, “Yeah, I have the perfect person in mind but you never give me the chance.”

“I just don’t think I’m the kinda guy who needs another person to feel complete.” Taeyong said while opening the cage to pull out a small black kitten. 

Jaehyun smiled at the feline as though it was a familiar friend, “Taeyong, I’ve known you since we were kids, all you ever wanted was family and friends. So don’t pretend.” 

“I just think that dating will make things more complicated than more sensible.” Taeyong said. 

Jaehyun reached out to pat the kitten on the top of its head, “Not with the right person.”

“Let it go, man. Not all of us can have what you and Nayoon have.” Taeyong joked. 

Jaehyun rolled his jaw before tipping his cup to his lips to hide his scowl. “I won’t give up, Taeyong. I’m going to make sure you find that person. Don’t care how much you don’t believe me. You just need to find the right girl.”

Seoul University — — April 2021

“Cheers to the end of the years and to the start of our lives!”

Haeun laughed as she raised her glass of beer to clink it with Minyoung, Sora, and Yenna’s glasses. “Exams are over. We are officially done with our degrees. It doesn’t feel real.”

“Correction. You all are done with your degrees. I still have one year left.” Sora said with a pout. 

Haeun grinned, “I bet you’re going to be so lonely with all of us gone.”

“It’s going to be a nightmare having to go to this school without any bad es. It’s just going to be a bunch of basic turds.” Sora muttered. 

Yenna made a face, “I hate the younger generation.”

“Younger by a year. Shut up.” Sora pouted. 

Haeun chuckled as she took another sip of her drink. The truth was, jokes aside she would miss these girls with her heart, not just her but everyone she befriended in her four years here. Of course, she’d stay in touch with them but it wouldn’t be the same. Everyone was going in different directions, life would throw them into different schedules. It’d be harder to meet up, harder to hang out regularly or in person. 

She already knew these were going to be the good ole’ days that she would reflect on with nostalgia years down the road. She wished she could hold onto to these moments now. Freeze time and soak them up before they just become fond memories. 

“So, what do you girls have in store?”

“Yuta and I are moving into an apartment in the city. We both got jobs in the area.” Minyoung said with a smile. 

“I got into grad school, so I’m probably going to prepare for that.” Yenna said.

Sora snorted, “Well, I’m traveling with some other friends, unlike you losers, I’m actually going to celebrate like a normal human. Maybe find a hot foreign summer fling.”

“Oh, I forgot that feeling.” Yenna said with a laugh, “The rush of a passionate love affair.”

Minyoung bit down on her lip, “I’m guessing your boyfriend is going to propose soon?”

“Who even knows? Now that I’m going to grad school, all our plans were pushed back.” She said forlornly. 

Sora turned to Haeun, “What about you? What are your plans?”

“I got a few offers for some internships. I’m taking my time to pick the best one, I guess my summer is going to be me preparing however I can. I might need to move or I might stay here and just enjoy my summer. So it’s kinda up in the air.”

Sora leaned forward, “And your love life?”

“Um, non-existent. Next question.”

“What about that guy you hooked up with? Isn’t he the only one that made it that far?” Yenna asked. 

Haeun paused, “Taeyong? Yeah. I mean, we hadn’t really talked much since that night. It wasn’t anything really serious.”

The girls shared looks but Herein could only

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