Her hair settled comfortably around her face, pouring over her shoulders as she clutched her mug with both hands, resting on her knees pulled to her chest. She was translucent, the soft glow of the cloudy grey sky coming through the window and passing through her, and the yellow luminescence of his cheap lamp surrounding her.
She turned her face forward from the dreary city below, taking another sip of her coffee. She insisted on drinking only black. He breathed in the sense of silence, allowing her to speak when she chose, willing himself to remain patient. She was here and she was safe. Exhale.
He fiddled with the hem of his sweatshirt sleeves and tilted his head slightly to take in the image of her before him again. She was stunning and simple in her sweater and leggings, sipping her coffee. He scanned her image, taking time to remember the stillness. He was more attracted to her expression of comfort than her pristine characteristics. Her appearance was not why he loved her, but she was still breathtaking.
“I'm not fragile,” she said. Her voice was soft and sweet, but she spoke to instill confidence in herself, as well as to demand it from him.
He offered a weak, closed-mouth smile. “I know.” No he didn't. He continued his inner battle in trying to believe those words. In his mind, she walked a tightrope with no net. She stood up straight and walked without fear, but he worried a slight breeze would falter her step, and worried more that he wouldn't be fast enough to catch her when she fell.
This was their routine. He worried, and she told him not to. He pretended not to, but she knew he did. Attempts at convincing him were never successful and she knew it. He continued to say he believed her, when his entire being said otherwise. He worried constantly.
She knew what she was doing and she knew the risks. She had been prostituting herself for over two years. He had met her after she had already been in the trade, and it was revealed to him shortly after they began dating. It was something he preferred not to keep at the forefront of his mind, though he struggled against that constantly.
They had already had every conversation about it many times, and he didn't want to make her tell her story, her plan, again. She had grown up in a home with parents barely present or suitable as guardians, both struggling with their own addictions, unable to hold jobs. She grew up quickly to raise her younger brother, who chose to cut all ties with her and her parents once he was a legal adult himself, and didn't appear at their father’s funeral when he overdosed.
She had completed high school, but lacked the finances to further her education. Her family association prevented her from getting jobs, and she grew weary of her applications getting thrown out again and again.
So, she turned to the streets and began working in the night to save money for school. Her dream was simple: to own a coffee shop. She was brilliant. Si-young had never met someone as sharp and creative-minded as her. She could do anything she wanted. He more than believed that; he knew it.
He had offered to help her get into school so she could study business, but she refused. She had grown up independent of assistance, and she wasn't willing to take it now. She had found something--something she'd been told she's good at--to make money autonomously. She assured him that she was safe. She used protection with her clients and tested her health regularly. She was on birth control. She was devoted romantically to Si-young, and her clients were exactly that: clients.
That wasn't what worried him. He saw past her mask, her display of strength and seemingly unbreakable confidence and courage. He noticed when she remained silent for longer periods some mornings, knees curled before her as she sipped her coffee, a picture he had seen in increasing frequency lately. He noticed when her eyelids were slightly puffy from tears she hid from him; he noticed it under the makeup she was so skilled in using to cover any blemishes.
Si-young bit the inside of his cheek as he willed himself to remain silent. To allow her image to remain the way she had painted it. But the art she sold was being tarnished with each John, and he feared her colors were fading away. “Stay in with me tonight. We can watch a movie and I'll buy dinner, your choice.”
A flicker of life in her eyes. “I'd like that,” she nodded.
He took off his glasses to rub the sleep from his eyes and replaced them with a small smile. “Thank you.” He stood and walked to her, stooping to brush aside one of her long black hairs, frizzed after neglecting to care for it after her shower when she returned home in the middle of the night. He gently ran his thumb from her temple down to hold her chin, and grinned softly. She returned a smile and closed her eyes and he lifted her chin to kiss her delicate lips.
They settled into the couch, dishes in hand as he hit play. He watched her more than the film, wishing for the moment to last an eternity. He drank in the image of her at ease beside him and treasured the warmth of their pressed shoulders.
Two weeks passed and they regained some normalcy. She joked with Si-young with her quick wit; she read and studied to prepare for further schooling; and she sang and danced around their studio apartment. She still worked each night, but when she returned, she took her time to shower and comb her long hair. Si-young didn't always notice when she crawled into bed, wrapping an arm around him and kissing the back of his head, but he always turned in his sleep to hold her and woke inches from her face, both of them smiling in the beams of sunlight entering through the blinds. Her worries had been stored away.
But not tonight. Tonight Si-young heard the door slam shut and her rushed footsteps as she ran into the bedroom. He lazily rolled his body to face the door, but shot up when he saw tears streaming down her face. He had seen her puffed eyes some mornings, or watery eyes on extremely rare occasions, but never before had he seen her cry. He ran to her and wrapped her in an embrace, “Shhh, I got you, baby.” He stroked her hair and wished for the demons of the night to vanish, “I got you, baby.” He gently rocked her and allowed her tears to stream and wished for her to never feel this way again, “Shhh, I got you.” He would tear down the wolves that hunted her.