I met Sehun when he’d just moved into the neighborhood during the spring of 2010. He was a scrawny little thing then.
Sixteen-year-old Sehun was all long arms, constant bed hair with the occasional pimple. Still, I remembered him being the hottest new thing at our high school.
He moved late in the school year, and apparently, it was because his mother had finally gotten a divorce from her abusive husband. I’d known that when I’d accidentally stumbled into our mothers’ conversation.
After learning that, I could always see the signs of abuse in his body language. He always had that wild look in his eyes like a spring under extreme tension. He’d bolt in a second from signs of danger.
Just from someone raising their voice, I saw his micro-expressions. A tiny wince or his shoulders tensing here and there.
At school, he was pretty withdrawn, and he often hid in the library where I volunteered during lunches when I didn’t have club meetings.
His habit of withdrawing from kids, how he’d been unaware of his own attractiveness, made him a hot topic. My friends were always referencing him when they saw him in the hallway. They’d asked me if I knew anything about him. But even if I did know more than what I eavesdropped on, I wouldn’t have told them.
He reminded me of my little brother, and maybe I’d already made him my surrogate brother. The role I gave him made the death of my little brother less painful.
It was selfish. I knew that. But I wanted him to be okay. I was afraid he’d disappear one day like Min.
My mother still had the habit of packing Min’s lunches. It was her little way of keeping him alive. We all had our own coping mechanisms. My father couldn’t speak about him, and he’d walk away if Min were to ever come up in our conversations.
And my way included taking care of Sehun. I gave him the extra lunch because otherwise, it would just be thrown away. When you lose someone, you never lose them permanently. They’re still in your thoughts, in your actions—it’s why mother continues to make an extra portion. It was habitual.
Sehun and I had our own thing. I gave him lunches, and he’d leave me fruit snacks with only blue raspberry because, for whatever reason, he figured out that it was my favorite flavor.
I didn’t have to continue doing it. I knew that, but something about catching his secretive smiles made me happy. I’d catch him watching me every now and then in the corner of my peripherals. And for his sake, I kept his crush a secret, and we kept pretending. Nothing changed.
Until that summer after I graduated high school, unfortunate news arrived on our doorsteps, shattering something that was temporary anyway.
His mother was diagnosed with cancer, and she was unaware for the most part, putting off her lighter symptoms as menopause. It spread to her lungs, and by then, it was too late. She died by the time I returned during winter break from college.
My parents and I attended her funeral held in their backyard, and I escaped the reception to find him crouched beneath the staircase, hugging her cremains to his small frame.
It was then that I realized her death broke his spirit. I could see it in the shadows of his frame—the way his shirt hung loosely off of him. He’d dropped so much weight since I’d last seen him, and it worried me because his eyes lost their light. Permanently, this time.
I went to sit beside him and asked him a couple of questions. He was avoiding my eyes, and he deflected when I asked about his mother.
“Did you eat yet?” I asked.
He didn’t answer, didn’t look at me, and the lifelessness in his eyes reminded me yet again of Min. I was terrified of having another person I cared about leave me behind again. I’d known I wouldn’t be able to handle it, so I did something utterly selfish. So much more than giving him lunches.
For a week straight, I spent my entire winter break being the biggest pain in his . I barreled into his room, made him get up, and volunteered at the retirement home with me.
Surprisingly, he listened. And the elders loved him. I’d been volunteering there since my junior year of high school, and I’d never seen them so excited. They about his crush behind my back. He humored them for the most part, and that last day of winter break before I had to return to my own life, he and I were attached at the hip.
He gave me smiles I thought I’d never see again, and I’d never dreaded leaving like ever I did before. When I returned in the spring, he was long gone. My mother told me that he went to live with his aunt in another state, and just like that, I never saw him again.
“So,” the medical school interviewer spurred, “what made you decide you wanted to become a doctor?”
I looked past him, my nervous energy dissipating as my senior year came back to me in bursts of light. I thought about Sehun, thought about how helping him made me feel whole again, how I prevented him from becoming another Min.
And that’s what I told him. The next spring came around, and I received my acceptance letter in the mail.
“I’ve come with the goods, darling,” Sooyoung announces her welcome brightly, barging inside without as much as a knock. She drops a bag of takeout on my desk, standing in front of me with her hands on her hips.
I laugh in the palm of my hands. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”
Her pretty smile bunches up and goes askew. “Tell me seriously. What came over me when I chose ER as my specialty?”
“I’m guessing it’s being hectic?”
“Tell me about it! If it’s not a car accident, I’ve got people shoving weird things up their rectum. There’s only so many interns I can push it off to.”
“Be nice to your interns, Soo. They all come crying to me.”
She sprawls herself onto the couch. “Oh, please. Did our residents ever baby us?”
“Times have changed.”
“You’re always so freaking levelheaded. Jeez, Louise. Give me some of that. Our ER could always use more cool and calm.”
I put my desktop to sleep, turning to her. “So, how can I help you?”
“I need a little rant sesh.”
“Maybe you need sleep, Soo. When’s the last time you got any?”
“Certainly not in the last twenty hours, I can assure you. But this is more important! Jongin’s being a ing prick.”
I watch her cheeks puff up before she blows her breath out dramatically. “Our kid’s turning one in a week, and we’re planning on throwing Lia a birthday party in our yard.”
“Where’s my invite?”
“I’ll get you one if he can make up his ing mind about the date.”
“Oh. Your schedules aren’t aligned?”
Her annoyance grows in size. “Listen. I love my job, alright, but I don’t owe the hospital another second of my time when I’m off. It’s called having a balance. See—Jongin doesn’t have any of that. Somehow, he’s become even worse after he got his NP certification. He’s practically married to his job, and I’m his goddamn wife. Lia’s still calling her uncle ‘Da-da’ instead of her actual dad.”
Sooyoung and Jongin have the weirdest dynamic. They are possibly the most intense couple I’ve ever mediated for. When they’re in their ooey-gooey mood, it’s a barf fest, but when they’re fighting, neither won’t lay down their weapons.
I’ve been the third party since our residency, and they’re still going at it as always.
“Have you tried voicing that to him?”
“Well, yeah.” Her voice dips into suspicious aversion.
I raise my eyebrows. “Really? You didn’t start by yelling at him and calling him names, right?”
She suddenly averts her gaze.
“Soo,” I chide.
“I might’ve called him a selfish bastard.”
“And what did we talk about in your last fight?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have called him a bastard.”
“He’s not the only one with daddy issues!”
A sigh sputters out of me. “Come on, you know you can’t use personal attacks like that. You’re an adult, plus I know you don’t want Lia growing up like you or Jongin.”
She contemplates this, releasing an annoyed groan. “I hate you. Why the hell are you always right?”
“Make up with him, preferably not in one of the on-call rooms.”
She gives me a stink-eye. “You’ll never let it go, will you?”
“Nope,” I tease, popping the p.
Finally, she laughs, and her steps are light when she hops over to my desk. Her arms go around me. “Kisses. Now I’m gonna go find him. Thanks for the therapy sesh, C.”
“Don’t thank me. Please get an actual therapist.”
“Maybe you should become one. Psychiatry’s so clinical.”
I roll my eyes. “So you say.”
“Oh!” She skids to a stop at the door. “Tell me how brunch goes tomorrow, and give Yixing my regards!” And then her ball of chaotic energy disappears along with her presence.
After the reminder, unease sits in my stomach for the rest of the day.
“You’re already thirty, sweetheart,” my mother says, loud and clear for everybody to hear. I’m sure she’s hoping the rest of the table will chime in with her.
I find myself fixed on my mother’s face. I glaze over the familiar lines and wrinkles, features I’ve drowned up with. But there’s nothing in my chest, no spark that’s telling of a mother-daughter relationship.
My mother hides behind a material facade. Her pain is hidden behind her greed for things. New purses, new clothes, another closet or two. Beside her is my father who continues to stare off into the distance and never bothers to contribute to conversations.
After Min passed, my childhood was filled with silence. Long, empty stretches of silence that was sometimes grueling. Sometimes exhaustive.
We weren’t extraordinarily wealthy by any means, but we were comfortable enough for the majority of the middle class to envy. My mother grew up in an average family but she had more than an average outtake of life. She needed more riches, more heavy jewels to drown out anything that made her human.
Naturally, my mother wanted the same for me. She didn’t mind that I was a career woman, but like her, I was supposed to meet the love of my life in college, and marry him right before he went off the market, sidling with a life of luxuries and financial security. One or two vacation home was nice—three to be generous.
My mother played the waiting game because she knew it would be her turn one day, and now, she’s married to an accomplished man with his own private orthodontics practice. He was her beloved cash cow, and yet she never stops wanting.
It was my turn now.
I guess I should be happy in that sense. In the same sense that elusive brands made my mother feel. That every birthday, she was able to happily add to her Birkins collection.
But right now, there was no joy. Only pressure.
“His older brother and his wife are already on their way to a fourth. When will my dear youngest child have one of his own?” My mother-in-law asks, exasperated. She directs the disappointment to me, never to her son.
They fan themselves and sitting besides them are their husbands uninterested in the routine domestic conversations.
Next to me is my very own husband, except unlike their fathers, he likes the spotlight.
I begin to say, “actually—“
But he cuts me off. “We’re trying, but Chan’s shy about these things. You know how she is.”
I cringe in my seat, my fingers curling in on themselves. I wasn’t necessarily appreciative of his seemingly casual statement. The imagery of our parents knowing that we were having wasn’t something I wanted dancing on the surface of my brain.
He takes my hand in his, squeezing. I don’t feel comfort from it. I feel like a fish being petted.
I slide my fingers out from under his, and not surprisingly, there isn’t much resistance from him. He merely offers smiles to each member of the table.
But when they aren’t paying attention to us, I can tell he’s not as charmed as he seems.
Yixing flags over their waiter who hovers nearby, undecided whether he wanted to interrupt their conversation. “May I have the bill please?”
Like clockwork, the men ready out their wallets. My husband raises a single hand to stop them.
“I’ve got it,” he says.
Our mothers beam, and our fathers grunt.
“I’ll be in the restroom,” I tell them, a little too eagerly.
I met Yixing in college, except he wasn’t a fellow undergraduate student like I was. He was student teaching one of my lower-level classes, and in the beginning, there were sparks and excitement.
But now that excitement’s been diminished by our daily lives. Mine at the hospital, and his with his classes. He’s teaching at a university and writing a book. So, it isn’t a surprise that we rarely ever see each other anymore. Unlike Jongin and Sooyoung, there isn’t any fire burning in the hearth. There’s only coal.
He meets me outside the restroom, and we begin our walk back to the car.
“Why’d you stop me from telling them?”
“I didn’t think they needed to know. I mean…we are trying, right?”
I watch him carefully, and when he opens the door for me, I climb inside. When he joins me in the car, his hand finds mine.
“Chan…” He says.
“We’re lying to them, and you know it.” I force my eyes out the window. “I can’t have kids.”
“We can do surrogacy or IVF—“
“I’m not paying someone to have our kid, nor do I want to spend thousands on a possibility.”
Beneath the rumble of the engine, I hear him scoff. “You don’t want to have kids with me, do you?”
I look down at his hand, and this is how I know. Our dying relationship’s been evidence of that, and we’ve only been delaying the inevitable.
He’s not wearing his wedding band, and I don’t feel torn over it. If that’s not evident enough, then we’re both blind. We’ve been riding this marriage out the entire time, waiting for it to get better. It hasn’t, and it makes me wonder why I’ve been trying to make us work for a long time, rather than just giving in and making both of our lives easier.
We’re stopped at a red light, but he doesn’t attempt to look at me. He only says, “I’ll serve you the divorce papers. Please sign them before the end of the week. You can keep the house.”
We let go of each other, and I spend the rest of the car ride, staring out the window and watching the world blur around me.
[a/n] my recent hyperfixations are distracting me from writing. sorry guys. i've been playing fortnite and krusty cookoff. heh. we'll meet sehun next chapter! aren't ya curious how i'll characterize him? me too.
apologies for a boring first chapter. see u in the next one!