“So, what’s your problem now?” I ask Sooyoung who looks exasperated when she enters my office.
She plops down on the armchair with a drawn-out sigh. “It’s me. I’m just a little down.”
I squint my eyes at her. Sooyoung? Down? I hadn’t expected those two to be correlated. She was always operating on two emotions. Anger and optimism. One of the reasons why she was so level-headed in the ER.
“Why are you feeling that way?” I bait, trying to get her to spill more. I needed more context in order to grasp her behavior. It was a damn hard habit to break, but it was instinctual now, the urge to step into my therapist shoes.
She looks up at the ceiling, her eyes lost in a daze. “I don’t know. Do you ever feel like you want too much? But, at the same time, you’re guilty that you even do?”
I think about her words. Is that how Yixing felt? He’s always expressed to me that he’d rather I do this or that, but in the end, neither of us would win. We were always stuck in limbo, neither willing to compromise. And now, we were irrevocably separated.
“What is it that you want?”
She finally glances over at me. “A lot,” she says with a chuckle, “Jongin’s affection. More time. To be more involved in Lia’s life. It feels a lot like I’m putting her through what my parents put me through. I feel like a bad mom, and sometimes, it’s like I can feel Jongin say he wants to tap out.”
I observe her hunched shoulders and catch a glimpse of her inner child trying to reign herself back in. She’s a lot more guilty than she puts on. “Maybe…” I say, “don’t put all the pressure on yourself at once. These things, like you said, take time. You can’t suddenly be in Lia’s life constantly. She’d find you overbearing, and there are boundaries to think about. As for Jongin, communication is important. Have you thought to tell him about your insecurities? Maybe he shares some of them as well?
“You can’t take the entire burden on your shoulders, and not expect yourself to feel ty, right? And I promise you—your husband is not going anywhere. He’s smitten.”
She pushes her lips out into a pout. “Why are you always right?” But then she grins at me, jumping up on her feet. She makes bounds and leaps over to where I am, pulling me so tightly against her, that I almost lose my capability to breathe. “I love you, you know that? You’re everybody’s anchor. Doing so much to keep us all afloat, yet so little for yourself.”
“It’s not about me,” I tell her. I didn’t ever bring myself into a conversation with somebody else. Usually, when people talked to me, they expected advice and an unbiased perspective on their problems.
She shakes her head. “I’m not talking about your free therapy sessions. I’m talking about around us, your friends. You don’t need to—“
My door bursts wide open, slamming against the back wall. Sehun barrels inside, completely hysterical. He’s laughing so hard that I can hear his chest rattling.
Sooyoung’s eyes narrow at her younger brother, and she’s crossing her arms.
He gasps for air before acknowledging her, “oh, hi, noona.” Then, he turns to me, brushing tears from his lashes. “You will not believe what I just ing witnessed,” he howls.
At the sound of his contagious laughter, I join in, not sure what’s so funny, but because he’s cute, I can’t help the smile that graces my lips.
“Listen—” He heaves, “I’m looking for Jongin, so I ask the nurses where to find him. Turns out, Mark, the intern, is having a little crisis. I go to pull open the curtains in the clinic area to see Jongin on his knees with the most serious expression on his face. Mark’s pants are down to his ing ankles. It’s so ing obscene that I almost couldn’t believe my eyes, so we all stared at each other in silence for a minute straight. Jesus Christ. I ing lost it.
“Jongin starts swatting at me and telling me to shut my mouth. And it only makes me laugh harder. At this point, I’m in ing hysterics, and Mark is flushing down to his balls. But we calm down, eventually, and the two of them are asking me if I think Mark may have an STI. So as the two of us are casually observing his , you know, as coworkers do, another nurse walks in. She drops her clipboard, blushes like she caught us enacting a o.
“Holy , what a day, right?” He finishes and takes a deep breath to recuperate all the oxygen he lost, spent laughing his off.
Sooyoung and I are absolutely enjoying his storytelling, which is surprisingly good, by the way.
“You had to be there,” he says.
“Oh, yeah, I bet,” I tease, wiggling my index finger at him.
“Another fantasy met, huh?”
“I like my men not infantile, thank you very much.”
“Me? Infantile? I can be a gentleman. I just need an obscene amount of coreopsis. Some classical guitar. Maybe a candle-lit dinner.”
I roll my eyes. “Well, aren’t you confident?”
He grins boyishly, turning his body halfway, just stopping near the door. “Bye, don’t forget about Sunday. Anyway, I ran away from my attending. I gotta go before she rips me a new one.”
His chaotic burst of energy disappears right along with him when he exits. But I still feel it inside my chest. A warmth that can’t be denied.
Smiling to myself, I blink back to Sooyoung who’s still standing here. She stares at me, and there’s a weird expression on her face that I can’t put a finger on.
She an eyebrow in response. “No, you tell me, what was that?”
I have no idea what she’s talking about. “What was what?”
“First of all, that was friendly. Beyond friendly, if you ask me.”
“Because we are…friends, Soo.”
I forget that I’ve never told her about him, so when I catch her up to speed, her eyebrows have disappeared above her hairline.
“I can’t believe it. You’ve known each other for that long? Longer than you’ve known me?”
I shrug. “Yeah, I mean, we lost touch, but luckily, not much has changed between us.”
“Yeah, no . You guys are all buddy-buddy, flowers blooming, romance budding.”
“How poetic of you, Soo,” I snark.
She shakes her head, accusingly. “I can’t believe you. This is against bro code.”
“There’s nothing going on. We’re just friends.”
Sooyoung lets out a long exhale, her fingers going up to pinch her nose. “When I first met him, he was one depressed kid. He didn’t smile, didn’t talk, didn’t do anything that wasn’t required of him. But I was there to tough love it, you know? And, eventually, he opened up.
“To clarify, I’m not saying that he’s one hundred percent okay. Trauma like that never goes away, except he’s getting damn close. There’s been so, so much progress, and I’m proud of him. But Chan, the way he looks at you—” Her words are interrupted by a long sigh. “You have the ability to take away all of that in a blink of an eye. To undo the progress of an entire decade. You’re my friend, yes, but he’s my brother. So, naturally, I’m a little protective of him. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
I can’t help a fond smile. “I wish I had a big sister like you.”
She groans, “Jesus, I just can’t hate you, Chan. You’re so ing you.”
If you thought that this impromptu Saturday brunch was going to be bad, multiply that by ten and triple that by a thousand.
There was nothing that could’ve prepared me for this. When hits the fan.
I managed to pull myself out of bed after a long grueling shift on Friday that ended somewhere between two or three a.m. When I get to the brunch spot, it’s crowded, and it’s loud.
Under normal circumstances, I could control myself. Today, I couldn’t even muster a modicum of effort. I’d definitely woken up on the wrong side of the bed, and I thought things would get better by eleven. Or noon, when I get to eat, an eggs Benedict will make me feel better.
The keyword here is that I thought.
My father was already exasperated with my mother when we arrived at the restaurant. Apparently, she’d gotten our reservations mixed up. Instead of waiting like a normal person, she tried to bribe the hostess to let us cut the line.
So, I apologized to the hostess, dragging my stubborn mother away before she could scream at the poor girl working minimum wage.
My father is the more levelheaded parent, and his only flaw was being absent. But being absent doesn’t kill anyone. As long as the bills are paid, he has no other responsibilities.
He’s a simple man, wearing an expensive watch my mother had gotten him for their wedding anniversary. He dons clothes that my mother chooses. He does everything, not because he loves her, but rather, to avoid conflict.
My mother has always been pushy. I guess it’s easier to compare her to a shepherd. You might think that you’re free because you’re frolicking in a field of grass, but at the end of the day, when the shepherd gathers you, the sheep, among other sheep, you have no choice.
The degree on my wall isn’t decoration. It meant that I understood all of these things. All the subtle nuances that pass the human eye. It’s hard to resent someone when you know how the tiny cogs in their brain work. What they can’t do, and what they can do.
Eventually, I knew who my parents were as individual people, and to this day, I can’t resent them. I’d always been given boundaries, unspoken as they might be, the rules were meant to be followed.
I just hadn’t known when it got so mentally taxing to do what I’d done since childhood. To shut my mouth and allow my mother to have the world as she wanted. I guess, in that regard, it never gets easier.
When we’re seated at the tables, she’s already flagging down the nearest waitress, despite the fact that we’d only just been brought to our seats.
She orders the bottomless mimosa. My father, being the simple man, nurses a cup of hot coffee. I can see him silently eyeing her in distaste.
I’d known that they’d stopped loving one another around the time Min died. As for why they stayed together, I couldn’t say. We weren’t particularly religious by any means. Rather, in my mother’s world, every couple has their problems, and divorce is a cowardly move.
Our wait is long. It’s a weekend, and there are families. The hostess could only offer us outdoor seats to shorten our wait. Still, the service is slower, and my mother grows impatient.
Before someone reaches their breaking point, there are tells. The weather is sweltering, the sunlight battering right into our backs. The volume feels like it’s increasing exponentially.
Louder and louder. The chattering becomes an incessant buzz. I’m overheated, flushed. The food sits like a rock in my stomach, and I can’t digest it. My skin tingles, pulse thrumming.
And my mother doesn’t bite back her words.
Ultimately, I can handle all of that. I can work on breathing techniques. I can try to come up with an excuse to leave early.
But what I can’t do, what I can’t fathom is why she thought it appropriate to invite Yixing.
He arrives dutifully, and we stare at each other in silence, in subdued dread. It creeps under my skin, and before long, I’m so nauseous I can’t even think straight.
It’s not that Yixing and I aren’t on amicable terms. We are. That wasn’t the issue.
“You two can always work it out, take up marriage counseling. Things don’t have to end this way,” my mother urges. Her tone is strangely resolute for someone offering advice.
I don’t look at her. My tongue feels like it’ll rot right off.
Yixing’s used to this from his own mother. It’s not so hard for either of us to navigate or deflect the conversation.
But we’re cornered. We both know that, but there comes a time when you have to rip out the bandaid.
“It’s more complicated than that, Mother,” Yixing tries.
He stays until he receives a phone call. It’s a ritual. Two phone calls in rapid succession mean that he has to leave. On the second phone call, from his expression, I knew it was his secretary. I can hear her animated chattering, and I can see the lightness that blossoms on his face.
It’s an instant awakening. Not a slap to a face, but one that slowly sinks in the crevices.
He bids us goodbye, reminding me not to be late for our next appointment when our lawyers finally finish up the divorce settlements.
He’s blissfully ignorant, unknowingly setting off my mother.
Her eyes flash with urgency. I see irritation flush in her expression, in the pinch of her brows, in the twist of her lips. It’s barely noticeable, but I know my mother a little too well, unfortunately.
And she directs it at me once he’s out of sight. “What in God’s green earth is wrong with you?”
“Narae,” my father chides, his eyes fixed sternly on her.
Her tone has caught the attention of people around us, conversations naturally fading out at the rise of tension.
“I haven’t done anything I need to be reflective of,” I respond, schooling my expression.
She scoffs. “What? Do you think your career makes you a true woman? A respectable one in society? You couldn’t even do the bare minimum.”
She spats, “oh, for god’s sake, don’t make a mockery out of me. You, of all people—” She flicks her wrist, cold and dismissive. “Please. You couldn’t even keep your husband loyal to you.”
“Then you’ve confirmed what you needed to know,” I say. “You’re furious because you no longer have an excuse to your head into our divorce.”
“Don’t you dare patronize me.”
She barks out a laugh. “You couldn’t just give him a kid? You couldn’t do the one thing that would save your marriage?”
I know she isn’t listening. All she wants right now is to vent, and I’m conveniently standing in her line of fire.
“Children don’t save marriages.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about. You haven’t even experienced what it is to be a mother.”
“What makes you think that I have the right to bring an innocent child in the middle of this, one that will eventually form thoughts, opinions? What would they think when they see their parents in a loveless marriage? I’m not going to risk traumatizing my kid to fulfill some selfish compulsory heteroual standard.”
My mother is livid. She’s taking each and every one of my words personally, which is, frankly, the opposite of what I’d intended.
“You don’t get to maintain a moral high ground after you killed Min.”
She doesn’t mean it, not really. But even knowing that doesn’t lessen the blow. I’d always had a feeling that she blamed me, but suspecting isn’t the same thing as knowing. Not by a long shot.
“Narae,” my father hisses. This time, louder, more abrupt. He also believes she’s gone overboard.
I shake my head, surprised that I can still function. Half my body’s gone numb.
Still, I manage, “you can’t replace Min. No matter how big the hole he’s left in our hearts, nobody can take his place. Not Yixing. Not even a grandchild.”
My eyes fix on hers. She’s refusing to look at me.
I blindly toss down some bills, briskly tugging my bag to my shoulders. The world around me blurs into one shade. Everything’s indiscernible at the speed I’m going. And each step that I do take, it isn’t enough.