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All the Way From China

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They fall asleep one by one. First Ji Won in the chair, her legs sprawled out under the table, hair in her face and shifting gently with each breath. Then Ye Eun, leaning into Eun Jae’s shoulder. “Shhh,” Jin Myung says to Eun Jae, finger to her lips, and Eun Jae immediately gets a fit of giggles that Yi Na is sure will wake the entire household. But Ji Won and Ye Eun sleep on, and with one more beer in her, Eun Jae’s eyes fall shut, too.

Yi Na sips her beer. Jin Myung, sitting cross-legged on the floor, sips hers. Ye Eun snorts softly in her sleep, upsetting the drool that has been slowly dripping from her mouth for the last several minutes. It falls on Eun Jae’s shoulder.

It seemed an eternity that Jin Myung was away. Yi Na used up two sketchbooks (and burned them both afterwards—Ye Eun helped her start the fire in a bucket on the rooftop, and everyone gathered around to watch them burn). Ji Won went on two more dates. After she returned from the second one, soaked to the skin and smelling of chlorine, she gave a dramatic performance of it for the flat, and Yi Na laughed until her sides ached.

Yi Na almost messaged Jin Myung, once or twice. But the other girls were keeping her up to date with texts full of emojis and photos, and there was nothing for Yi Na to add.

They aren’t friends, especially. Jin Myung didn’t miss her.

Yi Na swallows down the last of her beer and sets the empty can on the floor, since they moved the table to the edge of the room for the occasion. They hung streamers from the ceiling, too. She shifts, getting ready to stand.

“I brought you something,” Jin Myung says.

Yi Na blinks at her, the beer slowing her thoughts down. “The keychain,” she says. She put hers down somewhere; it’s an enameled panda holding a Chinese lantern. Eun Jae’s panda has bamboo, and Ye Eun’s has a plate of rice. They’re all very cute.

“Not the keychain,” Jin Myung says. She pushes to her feet and walks away, and Yi Na turns to watch her. Jin Myung is so quiet, her clothes drab, her hair always pulled back in that ponytail even though half of it escapes in wisps around her face. There’s nothing about her to catch anyone’s attention.

Somehow, whenever she’s in the room, Yi Na always knows exactly where she is.

Jin Myung’s sock feet are silent on the hardwood floor as she returns. She kneels on the rug at Yi Na’s feet, sitting back on her heels, and she hands Yi Na a box.

Yi Na received a lot of gifts over the years, living her easy life. She could spot a jewelry box at fifty paces, even disguised: behind a man’s back, tucked in a bag on the seat of his car when she climbed in. She knew when they were coming, too, that soft look in a man’s eyes that meant he was going to spend money on her soon.

The box in her hands now has caught her completely by surprise. She stares at Jin Myung. Jin Myung looks back, guiless, intent. “Open it,” she says. Her voice is soft, probably to keep from waking the sleepers, but that’s not how it feels to Yi Na, now.

Yi Na fumbles the box open. Inside is a fine, golden chain with a pale green gemstone in the center. Jade, of course. It’s feminine, delicate, lovely—not the kind of thing Yi Na would have thought would appeal to Jin Myung at all.

“It looked like something you would wear,” Jin Myung says.

“You already gave me a present,” Yi Na says.

Jin Myung is quiet for a moment. Her face is very still. That was the first thing that caught Yi Na’s attention when she first moved in, a lifetime ago: Jin Myung’s excellent cheekbones, her soft brown eyes, and her stillness. Back then, Yi Na was mostly irritated by them.

“You gave me those shoes,” Jin Myung says.

Shame blooms in Yi Na’s chest, hot and bright. “Fuck, those shoes.”

“I wore them on my day out,” Jin Myung says. “I went—on a date, I suppose. I had drinks and a walk and ice cream. I got a raw spot near my heel.”

“Idiot,” Yi Na says, surprised into laughter.

Jin Myung smiles, unoffended. “I’d never had shoes like that before. I didn’t know. Anyway, that’s why I wanted to get you something.” She nods toward the box, still clutched in Yi Na’s hands.

“I—” —don’t wear green. Don’t wear this kind of stuff anymore. Am not this kind of girl anymore. “I don’t have anything like this,” Yi Na says.

Jin Myung’s smile this time is immediate, huge, and bright. Even if Yi Na truly wanted to refuse—and she doesn’t, not at all—she couldn’t in the face of such rare happiness. “You should try it on,” Jin Myung says.

Yi Na’s heard that suggestion a dozen times before—two or three or four dozen, if she expands the context beyond jewelry. It’s instinct, long-trained, that prompts her to say, “You should put it on me.”

Jin Myung looks into Yi Na’s eyes. For the first time she appears uncertain, and Yi Na searches for a way to take the words back, laugh them off. Before she can, Jin Myung lifts the box from Yi Na’s fingers. Gently she tugs the chain out of the wrapping: a bracelet, like Yi Na thought. Jin Myung slips open the clasp and wraps the chain around Yi Na’s wrist, her fingers just brushing Yi Na’s skin. Yi Na can’t breathe. Jin Myung’s entire focus is on the clasp as she tugs open the spring with her thumb and lets it snap it shut again.

Jin Myung bites her lip. She must have been thinking about this moment for a while—on the way back from China, at least—but she looks as out of her depth as Yi Na feels.

“Thank you,” Yi Na says.

Jin Myung nods, not meeting Yi Na’s eyes anymore. She sits up on her knees, reaching for the arm of the chair as she gets to her feet, but Yi Na catches her wrist. Jin Myung stares at her, startled.

Yi Na always thought it was stupid for people to want things. And she was right: she feels incredibly stupid right now. She tugs at Jin Myung until Jin Myung settles onto her knees, wide-eyed. Yi Na leans in. Jin Myung’s breath catches, and Yi Na pauses just long enough to let Jin Myung pull away if she chooses. But Jin Myung holds very, very still—it’s unnatural, truly, like a statue—and Yi Na catches her mouth in a kiss. It’s chaste, mouth closed, barely a brush of lips on lips.

For a single, endless moment, Yi Na feels as though she’s kissing that statue. Then Jin Myung kisses back, ever so cautiously. After a few moments, Yi Na grips Jin Myung’s shoulder, for support but also to ground herself: Jin Myung’s soft, careful kisses could be imaginary, but the worn flannel under Yi Na’s fingers is real.

When they part finally, Jin Myung stares at Yi Na in wonder. Yi Na feels as though she’ll never catch her breath. She used to wear nonchalance like a second skin, but she must be out of practice. She turns her gaze to the bracelet, to the delicate setting and the fine gold chain. A gift followed by kisses: nothing new in that. She’s acted out this scene fifty times before.

“You should kiss me again,” Yi Na says. “If you want.”

Jin Myung leans up to press her mouth to Yi Na’s, and it isn’t like any of those other kisses Yi Na has had. It isn’t like them at all.

[end]