Arin pours a cup of rice into the metal pot, listening to the grains sprinkle onto its smooth surface. Out of habit she reaches back into the bag for another, before realizing she’s only cooking for one today.
“Well, great,” she mutters, before the plastic cup falls from her hands and she squats on her kitchen floor. It’s really warm, this summer. Jiho had told her to keep the air conditioning room temperature high, to keep the electricity bill low. Apparently her first year living alone Jiho had racked up quite the expense list, and her first orders to Arin when she was leaving home were not to repeat her mistakes.
Arin can feel the sweat on her back, even with her hair tied up. “Would the water bill go up a lot if I took a shower...?” she questions. “Should I call Jiho and ask? Or would that make my phone bill go up?”
At last she flops on her bed and opens the window instead. Thankfully fresh air is free. Outside the cars rush along the streets, and the sky, a mix of purples, oranges and blues, makes her feel sleepy.
“Oh, I have unlimited calls,” she finally realizes.
The second thing that her senior classmate Jiho told her was to remember to check the mail. This kind of scared her, because it seemed like something easy to remember, and yet easy to forget. When Arin asked why she needed to ‘instill this routine into her brain’ (Jiho’s words), Binnie told her that Jiho was just a forgetful idiot. Jiho stopped unpacking boxes to glare at her.
Unsurprisingly this led to a long debate about ‘knowing what’s best for her’ versus ‘misleading her into thinking that adult life is complicated when you just happened to not use your brain a few times’. Arin wanted to tune it out but she felt like there was useful information being thrown around even if it was far too loud for an empty apartment, so she ended up straining her ears to listen.
Long story short, they settled on allowing Jiho to recount her errors in the hopes that it would warn her away from doing the same. “But,” Binnie added with exasperation, “you’ll be fine as long as you use common sense.”
“Oh, thank goodness,” Arin said, letting out a long sigh.
Notably the first thing that Binnie had told her was to make sure to get some exercise. However, in great contrast to Jiho’s advice, this isn’t something that Binnie had failed to do but rather something that she had already done and with great ease, so couch potato Arin found it a little intimidating and hard to follow. When she’s faced with the elevator though, and notices the circle light for 21 lit up, she turns around and heads for the stairs.
“It’s only four floors to the lobby,” she rationalizes. “And I’m getting mail, not the laundry.” With that she curls her hands into fists and sets off for the mailboxes.
When Arin was younger and lived in an apartment during elementary school, her parents were always busy and she would usually get sent to the place next door to be watched over. They were on the seventh floor, and the singular elevator moved really slowly. So that unnie would get her to play this game:
“One, take one step down. Two, jump two steps down. Three, leap three- EEEEEK!”
Arin stumbles over the last step in the sequence, sliding to her knees on the tile-covered landing.
The door to the second floor opens.
“Are you okay?” a voice asks, aghast and concerned. When Arin stops squeezing her eyes shut she looks up and sees that same kind face she remembers as if she was pulled back into her memories. It feels too strange to be a coincidence, and yet she knows that’s all that it is.
“Yeah... I think so.” Arin turns to her kneecaps, which are scratched white, skin peeling in thin layers, but not bleeding. The girl in front of her sways and crouches, getting closer, until her face is leaning in to see Arin’s. She stares blankly back.
Curiously Arin blinks and there it is again, aged slightly but familiar all the same.
“It’s really you... Hyojung unnie?”
Hyojung’s face lights up like fireworks, expressions animated as she clasps Arin’s hands in hers and grins. “It’s great to see you again,” she says, and warmth radiates, everywhere. Arin doesn’t know how to breathe anymore.
“Ineedtogetthemail,” she exclaims, without leaving space in between her words.
Hyojung never stops smiling. “Can’t you stop in to catch up?”
“Can’t I?” Arin asks herself minutes later, when her wrist is in Hyojung’s grip and the key to room 206 turns in its lock without a hitch.
Five minutes to apply a bandage turned into an hour and a half of chatting and advice, because even when Arin insisted, stammering, that she should go back and “stop troubling Hyojung and taking advantage of her hospitality,” Hyojung refused to let her leave.
It wasn’t as if she really wanted to, but the entire situation made her nervous. To top things off, it really felt like she was stuck in the past. “It’s like you’re a baby chick trying to fly the nest,” Hyojung declared. “I can’t let you leave until I know you’re ready.”
The truth is Arin really just wishes she would stop being babied, but Hyojung doesn’t really know her anymore, so it’s not her fault. Arin would be surprised if she admitted seeing her as anything but the elementary schooler she was when they saw each other for the last time, even though she’s practiced putting on ‘adult makeup’ with Dayoung all summer. It isn’t easy to be grown up after all.
So when Binnie calls about dropping off a half pan of brownies at her apartment, Arin screams ‘yes!’ into the microphone, startling the girl on the other end into dropping her phone on the floor.
“What was that about,” Binnie asks later, amused as Arin sits down on her sofa, out of breath. Her hands are still shaking, too, from when she opened the door, in a rush so she could have something to do with her nerves.
“I have a confession to make,” Arin says. She flops on the cushions, limbs outstretched. Binnie sets the saran wrapped pan on the wooden table and takes a seat, ready for a story.
“I forgot to check the mail.”
Binnie blinks a few times, mouth open. “...Should we go get it now? Do you not know how to use a key?”
“That’s not it,” Arin says, flapping her hands in the air. “I forgot.”
“Because,” Arin continues, “I was exercising like you asked me to... and then I got distracted...” She looks dazed and troubled.
“I guess you needed Jiho’s advice more after all,” Binnie says airily. Arin leans over and rests her head on Binnie’s shoulder.
“That’s not it,” she mumbles, hair in her face. “Well, maybe it is.” The resignation in her voice is almost pitiful.
Binnie places her hands on Arin’s shoulders and pushes her into a seated position. “Ok, shush. Jiho is very responsible,” Binnie whispers to Arin. “The truth is that she’s just more willing to admit to her faults than I am.”
“Binnie unnie,” Arin says, mouth open in shock. Binnie stuffs a brownie bite into that open gap.
“Don’t tell her I said that or I will end you. Well, she’s going to humiliate me in front of my friends first.” She shakes her head, eyes closed. “But there are good things about having her as a role model, I promise.”
There are stars in Arin’s eyes for a moment, before she remembers the bigger issue.
“Oh! Binnie unnie, you have to help me!”
The first thing that Hyojung points out on Saturday morning is the birds on her balcony railing.
“This is why I asked you to get up early,” she says, finger outstretched towards the sill, tiny feet perched on the edges of her flower pots. Hyojung has hanging baskets and ceramic pots and a dying plant of lavender, the blossoms already cut off. They lie drying on her kitchen wall, taped upside down and when Arin steps close enough, the scent fills the air she breathes.
“Are they always here?” Arin asks, eyes wide open in wonder at the mass of flapping wings.
“Yeah, it’s been years since I noticed them in the mornings.” Hyojung pats her flowers gently. “Then I started taking better care of my balcony. Before I couldn’t have a cup of tea out here because it was so cramped.”
Arin can’t imagine that at all, glancing around the tidy arrangement she has; metal chair, wobbly table, greenery everywhere. The sun is rising in the sky now, those red colors, and pinks, and blues.
“I haven’t put anything on my balcony,” Arin says, yawning after. “Too much to think about.” She laughs lightly.
“You have time,” Hyojung tells her, coffee mug warm in her hands.
The second thing she points out is the broken lights on the second elevator. (“Oh! I kept pressing the 4 button and wondering why it wouldn’t light up so I just backed out and waited for the other one.” / “Hehe, we all fell for that at first.”) The third thing is the cafe hidden around the block, entrance behind the car repair shop. Arin buys a fresh nutella pastry there and really squeals at the taste, much to her embarrassment. And before she realizes it Hyojung has paid for everything. The fourth is... the shopping center, which Arin has already been to with Jiho twice. But she doesn’t say anything and lets Hyojung retell the place through the lens of her own favorite places to go, for essentials, for clothes, and for relaxing. To Arin all of it looks different now.
The last thing:
“Arin-ah, that dress looks really pretty on you,” Hyojung says. She’s stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, a streetlight’s circular cast illuminating her feet. The grocery bags in her hands threaten to slip, but she masterfully twists her fingers to save the eggs inside.
Arin, trailing a few steps behind, stops too. “Um, thanks.”
Hyojung meets her eyes for a split second, a fleeting, accidental overlap. “I didn’t even notice it.”
“Well,” Arin answers lightly, “I’ve been wearing it all day.”
“Oh. I see.”
Hyojung turns back around, slowly, because of the milk jug suspended from her left hand. There’s a skip in her step now. “I’ll run ahead,” she yells after she’s started, and Arin sees no way to keep up, even though the groceries in her hands are less heavy.
“Wait for me!”
“Just try to catch up,” Hyojung teases, and it echoes again, the child’s voice in her mind. Hyojung, who she’s always looked up to, somehow, even when Arin had stopped thinking about her. “Let’s have fun,” she says, voice carried away by the wind.
So she musters up her courage and energy and gets ready to run.
“Okay,” Arin returns, decisively. “Let’s.”
(The third thing Jiho told Arin to do when she moved in was to take her chances.)