Rationally, Heejin understands that humans love to label everything. From naming philosophical ideas of existential ponderings (like “ennui”), to sequestering the most useless things into binaries (like “toothpaste for men”), people sure love to try and make sense of their own inevitable mortality in an absurd universe by desperate linguistic means. She understands that most labels are arbitrary, and thus should have no real jurisdiction over how she decides to live her life. She truly does understand this.
“You’re a dumbass,” is what her best friend says around a mouthful of pizza.
“No, Hyunjin, I’ve just had a life-changing epiphany,” Heejin responds indignantly, thumb flicking through her phone harder than Hyunjin can roll her eyes, “and I need your support right now, not your criticism.”
Hyunjin focuses on her next bite, too used to Heejin’s existential dramatics to take her too seriously. “As if I haven’t supported all of your dumbass ideas since the second grade.”
“This isn't just an ‘idea’, Hyun’. It’s a decision. A decision to change my life for the better. My self-sabotaging lifestyle can no longer uphold itself if I am to become my final, truest form,” Heejin dramatically says, and then pauses to squint painfully at her screen until Hyunjin plucks her glasses from their perch on Heejin’s head and slides them onto her nose for her.
“What are you even looking up?” Hyunjin asks, since it does rather amuse her to entertain her childhood best friend’s antics. If this amusement spawns from a place of deep, deep fondness; well, it’s not as if Heejin has ever made it difficult for her.
“Thanks,” Heejin absentmindedly mutters as she peers at her phone, deep in consideration. Her eyes suddenly widen: “Wait, no!”
Hyunjin stares as Heejin whips off her glasses and shucks them onto the coffee table as if they’ve burned her sharp nose-bridge.
“I can’t wear this foolish, impairing instrument anymore! Glasses are for… for… nerds!”
Ah, so that’s what this whole thing is about. “Heekie, everyone’s been humiliated by Yeojin at least once… it’s like a rite of passage. Some high schools have clique hazing; ours has a gremlin who doesn’t know how to talk below a hundred decibels.” Hyunjin snorts, but moves the pizza box further away from Heejin’s side of the couch just in case she decides to throw more suddenly deemed offensive objects.
Heejin drops her phone to glare at her, and Hyunjin is struck by the sight of Heejin’s pretty eyes unobscured by her typical, thick frames. It’s a rare image that only Hyunjin gets to see, during late-night study sessions at Heejin’s or even-later-night movie marathons at Hyunjin’s, when Heejin’s eyes get too tired to do anything but sleepily flutter shut into Hyunjin’s shoulder.
Still, Hyunjin likes Heejin in her glasses, because it’s the everyday-Heejin that she gets to observe, existing just as she is. And also because she glances at what Heejin has been so passionately scrolling through for the past half an hour.
“You seriously Googled ‘how to dress like a cool person’?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Heejin sighs and lifts her phone back up. “You’ve never been what I am. You’ve never experienced such shame. For seventeen years of my life, I’ve lived like this. It has to end.”
To be fair, it had been pretty embarrassing. Earlier that day, Heejin had decided in another of her incredibly contentious, spur-of-the-moment ideas, that she should finally confess her long-time crush on their high school’s golden child.
Hyunjin had tried to tell her. All of their friends had, in fact, some more blunt than others (“Maybe you should uh… wait until the weather gets nicer, you know? Make it a romantic confession!” Choerry had tried to postpone it; “Chuu is in love with Yves. The whole school knows. Get over it,” Olivia had deadpanned; “Ah,” Gowon had said with a pointed look at Hyunjin). And yet, Heejin, in all of her ratty mom jeans and color-coded notebooks glory, had marched over to where Chuu always sat for lunchtime amidst her crowd of likewise popular students, and fumbled through a confession.
In summation of what Heejin believes to be the most humiliating moment of her previously quiet existence as a simple nerd in the school’s social hierarchy, Yeojin had laughed so hard she accidentally spit out her milkshake onto the front of Heejin’s favourite Star Trek t-shirt, getting the whole cafeteria’s attention just in time for Chuu to awkwardly bring her lips into an imitation of her perfect smile and say, “Sorry… you seem nice but… you’re not really my type.”
Heejin went the rest of the day as the gossip of the student body, receiving whispers behind lockers and gags from those who got close enough to catch a whiff of the sour milk smell in her hair.
“You shouldn’t have to change yourself for other people,” Hyunjin says, slightly worried because Heejin seems absolutely serious about this. “Especially if it’s someone you like.”
“You don’t understand,” Heejin repeats, aghast. “No one will like me if I’m myself.”
Hyunjin, who has been in love with her nerdy best friend since about the fifth grade, can only take a large bite of the crust that Heejin always leaves for her, and chew in silence.
“And the first step to being cool… is to dress cool,” Heejin continues, unaware of the real reason behind Hyunjin’s painful swallow. She flips her phone to show a “how to be cool” WikiHow article, and harshly pinches the screen so it zooms in on a stock photo of an outfit Hyunjin cannot picture Heejin ever wearing, even on Halloween.
“So, your Naruto pyjamas are out?” Hyunjin quips.
Heejin looks down at her usual outfit, and then at the clock, and then at nothing as she yawns and buries her face in Hyunjin’s neck. “At sleepovers I don’t have to be cool. It’s just you.”
And maybe Heejin is a dumbass, but maybe Hyunjin, face burning red but mouth sewn shut, is just as big a dumbass as she is.
The next morning is Saturday, and there is no possible way that Hyunjin is a bigger dumbass than Heejin.
“You’re going to ask our classmates for a makeover?”
Heejin, already pulling on her bright orange Converse, grunts in affirmation. “I just need to borrow some clothes to get the feel of being ‘cool’, you know? Before I go out and make another fiscally irresponsible decision under duress.”
“...What have you already done?”
“I may have cut off an inch of my hair and sold all of my old clothes on Etsy in an impulsive depressive episode while listening to Lana del Rey,” Heejin says nonchalantly, and is out the door before she can see Hyunjin’s facepalm. She worries about that, sometimes, because of how often Hyunjin facepalms at her expense. Hyunjin’s hands are pretty big; she knows because she loves to take Hyunjin’s soft hand in hers to compare their sizes, and also one time in middle school Hyunjin had slapped a kid who had been bullying Heejin and he had never quite fully recovered.
Briefly, she smiles, distracted from her mission at the familiar memory of Hyunjin’s warm hands caressing her head every time she starts to doze off during their sleepovers.
“Heejin? What are you doing here?”
Heejin shakes herself back to reality to see a concerned Haseul hovering near her mailbox.
“If it’s something Yeojin did, I am so sorry; I’m just getting around to sending out the monthly apology letters to everyone in school -- ”
“Oh, not at all, but that’s funny!” Heejin laughs before spying the large stack of envelopes in Haseul’s hands. She awkwardly clears her throat. “Ah, I was actually wondering if you could help me with something?”
“Of course! Give me one second… what can I help you with?” Haseul flashes an easy, winning smile, and it’s not hard to see how she won student body president, as well as the hearts of half the student population. Yes, Heejin thinks as she watches Haseul struggle with all her might to shove the last letters into the mailbox, this is the kind of charisma she needs.
“I’m kind of… looking to try out a new style? I was wondering if maybe I could borrow some clothes?”
“Why, what’s wrong with your current… oh.” Haseul flips the little red flag up, and blows a strand of hair out of her face with clumsy elegance that Heejin nearly swoons at, the same sort of paradoxical mannerisms that Hyunjin always exhibits, like when she scores a three-pointer and then trips over her big feet while making finger guns at Heejin.
“Does this have to do with what Yeojin told me about yesterday’s lunch?” Haseul leads her inside her cozy house, and Heejin tries not to blush as she recalls the nightmare-ish event.
“No, no… I just figured it was time for a new look, you know?” She grimaces down at her neon-colored shoes as she slips them off.
“Well, my bedroom’s on the right, feel free to try things on! I have to call Yeri’s house and make sure Yeojin didn’t burn anything else during their sleepover last night…” Haseul sprints off somewhere, and Heejin shrugs and enters her room, ready for the type of orderly chaos that is to be expected from the stressed student body president.
What she doesn’t expect, however, is for someone else to already be in the room, already rummaging through Haseul’s closet for clothes.
“Oh, hello,” Vivi, Haseul’s girlfriend, says from her perch on Haseul’s double, one leg through a pair of boxer shorts Heejin recognizes as from the middle school she, Haseul, and Hyunjin had once attended. Vivi hadn’t found a shirt just yet, apparently.
“Hi,” Heejin croaks, shifting her glasses up her nose awkwardly, and books it. She nearly forgets her eyesore-shoes on her hasty way out.
She makes her way to Yves’ house next. This logically makes sense, because if the rumours that Heejin stubbornly insisted couldn’t be true were indeed true, Chuu’s type is Yves. And if that’s the kind of girl people like Chuu go for, the kind who look like they could squash people like Heejin with one intimidating hair-flip, well then.
She knocks timidly on Yves’ door after ten minutes of standing on her porch, reciting motivational Star Trek quotes to hype herself up.
“‘Things are only impossible until they’re not,’” Yves opens the door a crack and shoots the line as soon as Heejin’s fist makes contact with the paint. “It’s impossible for me to help you, unless you decide to finally knock.”
“Jean-Luc Picard,” Heejin squeaks. “How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough for my amusement to turn into annoyance. What do you want, nerd?” She looks Heejin up and down, bored.
“Can I borrow a shirt,” is all Heejin manages to get out. She avoids Yves’ intense stare for a solid minute of silence.
“Is that it?” Yves asks, perfectly sculpted eyebrow raised. Heejin nods shamefully. Yves snorts. “You’re cute. Good for Hyunjin that Chuu likes me and not you, huh?” She swings the door open all the way and drags Heejin in before she can even start to think about what that means.
Heejin gets to the closet, which is more progress than she has had so far, so she flings it open, determined to see her mission through.
And she stares.
“Take your pick, kid.” Yves leans against her bedroom’s doorframe, effortlessly suave as she studies her nails.
“...These are all crop-tops.”
“Yeah, color-coded into a rainbow. Cool, huh?”
“...Do you have… literally anything other than crop-tops?”
“Of course,” Yves says, offended. “I have two leather jackets, but I’m wearing one, and Chuu has the other.”
“...That’s your entire wardrobe?”
“Do I need anything else to look this stunning?” Yves flips her hair, and as predicted, it nearly knocks out Heejin with its coolness. She leaves empty-handed, and with a renewed desire to somehow attain abs without working out.
Next on the list of potential wardrobes to steal from is Jinsoul.
The blonde senior opens the door in fuzzy lemon print pyjama bottoms and a green Zootopia muscle tee.
Heejin leaves without a word.
Which leaves one last person to visit. Heejin tiredly knocks on Olivia’s door, kind of really wishing she had stayed for afternoon cuddles and brunch with Hyunjin.
“‘Sup? I’m in the middle of a raid, this had better be good.” Olivia opens the door and dashes back to her computer. Heejin follows, suddenly feeling quite foolish in front of her closer friend.
“I uh… need to um… borrow some clothes.”
“Couldn’t get the milkshake stains out of your Star Trek shirt?” Olivia questions, and Heejin knows that there is genuine sympathy under her monotone voice. She hopes.
“Nah, I just… I dunno… was thinking a lot -- ”
“Dangerous,” Olivia mutters. Heejin decides it’s a comment to her online teammates.
“ -- and I decided, well… don’t tell anyone, but I… want a new image. A new style.”
Olivia snorts into her headset. “Sorry, no, my friend just said something really funny.” She clicks away for a few seconds, and pulls her mic away from her face. “You need a new image, so you come to the ex-goth, based wolf phase original e-girl, no cap?”
Heejin blinks. “I never called you that.”
“Don’t have to. I’m self-aware, unlike some of us in this room.” Olivia waves dismissively from her gaming chair. “Go ahead, raid my closet. You were overdue for a punk phase anyway.” She lowers her mic, and Heejin knows the conversation is over, so she turns and starts rummaging through Olivia’s wardrobe.
She finds some good pieces, but nothing really jumps out at her as the “cool” of the WikiHow article, the “cool” that she must resemble for people to like her. She is halfway through shrugging out of the third black bomber jacket when she hears footsteps coming down the hallway. And then Gowon’s high-pitched voice, and then Choerry’s trademark giggles.
And because Heejin is a self-conscious dumbass, she does the first thing she can think to do, and that is to jump into Olivia’s closet to hide from her friends.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Olivia calls out.
“Please pretend I was never here,” Heejin whispers, “please Olivia, oh my god they’ll tease me forever -- ”
“I was going to do that already,” Olivia points out.
“Do what?” Their friends push open Olivia’s door together. Heejin watches through the slats of Olivia’s closet as Gowon flops down onto Olivia’s bed and Choerry drapes her arms over Olivia’s shoulders.
“Autofill,” Olivia smoothly covers, shrugging Choerry off her keyboard hand. “These scrubs are getting carried either way. But I’m done with this game if you’re ready to go now.”
“Okay, grab a jacket! It’s cold out,” Choerry says.
“I don’t have clothes,” Olivia smoothly covers again. Heejin closes her eyes in doom.
“Of course you do, silly!” Choerry skips over and throws open the doors to Heejin’s hiding spot. “You have black hoodies, black turtlenecks, black scarves, hi Heejin, black sweaters…”
Heejin opens her eyes to see Gowon sliding a scarily neutral gaze from her to Olivia, who is still pretending nothing is out of the ordinary. Choerry backtracks and blinks at the odd article of clothing out. It is time for Heejin to go.
She bolts out of Olivia’s room with a jacket half on, mumbling something about thanks for letting her sleepover in her closet which she realizes too late is probably not the best phrasing, but she still hears:
“Um, Gowon, wasn't that the jacket you always steal from Olivia?”
“Olivia, why was Heejin in your closet?”
“She came out. Heejin’s gay. Crazy, right? Wow, look, I got put into a new game, can’t hear you guys…”
Heejin begins to accept her fate as she trudges back into Hyunjin’s arms, collapsing exhausted with only a fast mutter of: “Trust fall, I’m falling.”
Of course, Hyunjin catches her. “You must either really trust me or really not care if your head smashes open on my kitchen floor.”
“Both,” Heejin says, eyes closed. “I trust you. So tell me honestly, am I just destined to lead a life of un-coolness?”
“You have a new jacket, though? Was it not a success?” Hyunjin gently lifts Heejin’s glasses off her face before she can crush them with how hard she has her face pressed into Hyunjin’s chest.
“It’s Olivia’s, and Gowon saw and now I think she’s plotting my death and Choerry will just go along with it because I think she’s honestly secretly more unhinged than I currently am and oh god no one will ever like me my life is so pathetic and I’m going to die sad and alone because I’m nothing but a nerd,” Heejin lets out in one muffled groan. She feels her words sink into Hyunjin’s steady heartbeat and shifts her head so she can press her ear up against the soothing sound.
“Hey, dumbass,” Hyunjin says softly. “I didn’t understand half of that, but you seem really upset about this, so why don’t you just take some of my clothes?”
Heejin’s brain pauses its wallowing in self-pity. “Me? Wear your clothes?” She considers it. Hyunjin’s wardrobe looks very comfy, maintaining a sort of stylish, casual skater boi look. She’s always liked how Hyunjin looks, all soft yet solid. Yes, it could fit the third example picture on Google Images of a “cool” person’s outfit.
So immersed is she in her musings that it doesn’t register, the way Hyunjin’s heart-rate has picked up beneath her ear.
“Uh, yeah, you don’t have to obviously, I was just suggesting because…”
“That’s such a good idea, Hyun’, why didn’t you come up with it earlier!” Heejin peels herself out of Hyunjin’s suddenly awkward arms, energy bursting back into her limbs as she sprints off to Hyunjin’s bed where she knows the most comfy clothes get strewn around. Quickly, she dons a flannel that is slightly too big for her, and tries on a grey beanie to match.
“How do I look?”
“Cute,” Hyunjin mutters under her breath, and then louder: “You know, outfits don’t really matter. You don’t have to change -- ”
Heejin, making sure the beanie is skewed exactly 7 degrees crooked for that carefully curated “I don’t care how I look” look, spins on her heel and pokes at Hyunjin’s face. “You’re so right! The outfit doesn’t matter, so much as the attitude… I have to really embody cool… what do cool people do differently from nerds?” She paces the room, thinking hard. Hyunjin facepalms, and without really thinking about it, Heejin grabs her hand and tangles their fingers together to prevent her from doing damage to her pretty face.
“Cool people…” Heejin’s eyes flit around Hyunjin’s room, because well, Hyunjin is probably the coolest person she’s ever met. “...cool people… ride skateboards!”
Her eyes alight on Hyunjin’s longboard, the one she used frequently in middle school and the beginning of high school to get to important places like school and Heejin’s house, before she got her driver’s license.
“Heekie, last time you insisted I teach you how to skate, you crashed into me and had to give me piggyback rides to school until my ankle healed.”
“That was ages ago, when I was a kid. A nerd,” Heejin dismisses. She plucks the board from where it leans against the wall and dashes outside; Hyunjin follows at the other end of their linked hands. “I’m older, now. More mature. Cool. Cool things come naturally to me.”
She gives Hyunjin a pointed look, before hopping on the longboard, and promptly crashing onto the sidewalk.
“I meant to do that.”
Now Hyunjin knows she has to speak up, before Heejin ends up hurting herself for real. “Heejin, listen. As someone who really cares about you, I just need you to know that you don’t have to change -- ”
“See you in school Monday, bro!” Heejin manages to pump awkwardly down the street, nearly losing her balance as she tries to throw up a rock-n-roll hand gesture. And then, because she is still Heejin, she shouts: “Don’t forget to study for the Biology test, it’s worth twenty percent of our grade and I calculated that you need a ninety to keep an A minus!”
Hyunjin watches her go, agitation turning into exasperated fondness as Heejin manages to peddle away, stopping only once to fix her stolen beanie a few more centimeters.
“Dumbass,” Hyunjin laughs. Her heart finally manages to slow down, and she knows she’s not talking just to Heejin.
Monday comes, and with it comes the introduction to Heejin’s new style. She longboards right through the front gates, glasses left behind at Hyunjin’s. Freshmen and faculty alike jump out of her way, probably because of how awesome she is. She can’t wait to hear the whispers of how cool that nerd got overnight, how Chuu must regret turning her down now.
“Sorry I’m late, was up, uh, street racing,” Heejin says as she bursts into class ten minutes late. The teacher pays her no mind, used to the baffling ways of children constantly on the cusp of figuring themselves out. To her chagrin, no one else pays her any mind either, aside from Gowon, who grabs her by Hyunjin’s flannel lapels as soon as she sits at her desk.
“Where is Olivia’s jacket.”
“Dude, chill, she has like three others in the exact same shade of black.”
Gowon lets her go, but narrows her eyes. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand…” Then to Heejin’s delight, she gives her new outfit a once-over. “...Or, maybe you finally do. Congrats.”
Heejin is over her shame that it has taken her so long to realize she needs a makeover, so she takes her friend’s words as a compliment. “Right? Can’t believe it took me so long.”
“Neither could the rest of the school. So who made the first move?”
The teacher calls on Gowon before she can elaborate, leaving Heejin slightly confused. First move? For what? She turns the question over and over in her head until class ends. In the hallways, she meets Hyunjin at their adjacent lockers before their next class, as per usual. She notices some of their peers walk by and cast them knowing looks, but what she doesn’t get is why they are directed at both her and Hyunjin. Her best friend is dressed as she normally is, in ripped black skinny jeans and a flannel and beanie that compliment Heejin’s own borrowed outfit.
“Listen, Heejin, I really think you should know that -- ”
“Who made the first move?” Heejin mulls out loud.
“W-what?” Hyunjin’s eyes widen. The bell rings. Heejin kicks away, brooding. And promptly gets the board confiscated by Haseul for illegally skating in the hallways.
She sits in her next class and sadly watches Yves flirt with Chuu from the desk behind her. Chuu’s giggles, for some reason, have lost their potency. Heejin slumps in her chair and buries her face in her flannel’s sleeves. She wonders where she went wrong. If only she could be naturally cool, like Hyunjin, so beautiful and suave without even trying, so supportive of even Heejin’s most dumbass ideas.
Hyunjin, whose clothes smell absurdly nice. Hyunjin, who always knows what Heejin needs. Hyunjin, who always has the right things to say.
Heejin doesn’t have her glasses on, but suddenly, she is struck with perfect clarity.
She sprints out as soon as the bell rings, blindly searching for her best friend. Of course, she bumps into Yeojin as soon as the cafeteria hits peak capacity.
“Whoa there, where are you… oh, you changed out of your Star Trek shirt for once in your life! And it’s not the Naruto sweater!” Yeojin gasps. Her megaphone of a voice attracts the titters of those around them.
Feeling the beginnings of residual panic from last Friday, when she had left with a rejection and a milkshake stain, Heejin tries to shove her way through the throng of ravenous students. “Yeojin, not now, I need to find -- ”
“Hyunjin?!” Yeojin all but shrieks. “It’s Hyunjin’s clothes?! Are you two finally together?!”
“Heekie!” Hyunjin appears from the masses and wraps her in a protective side hug. “You okay?”
Just as the cafeteria collectively hushes at the scene Yeojin has created yet again.
Heejin, for once, decides to not care about how the rest of the school perceives her. She spins to face Hyunjin fully and grabs her face in both hands.
“Heejin, let’s go, we can eat somewhere else -- ”
“Shut up and tell me what you’ve been trying to say for the past few days!”
Hyunjin blinks. “What?”
“You were telling me I don’t need to change! I’ve been trying so hard to be cool, to have this image of something I’m not, because I thought that’s what I needed to be liked, but, you...” Heejin’s voice lowers in volume, uncertain. “You… were saying something about that?”
Hyunjin blinks again, and then slowly reaches up to hold Heejin’s hands that refuse to remove themselves from her cheeks. “I’ve just been trying to get you to see that you don’t need to change yourself. You might think you’re the biggest, dorkiest nerd ever,” she grins, “and you’re right.”
Heejin’s expectant face falls. She tries to take her hands back, but Hyunjin’s soft ones keep them in place.
“You are the biggest, dorkiest nerd ever. And I think you’re the coolest person I’ve ever met. They’re not mutually exclusive, see? Who else can quote lines from every episode of Star Trek? Who else schedules out strictly timed cuddle breaks during study sessions? Who else can make Naruto running look cute?”
“Debatable,” Gowon mutters from their corner of the cafeteria, but Hyunjin is on a roll now.
“Who else would learn to longboard in one evening because she wanted to? Who else would study her ass off every year while somehow maintaining amazing friendships? And who else would stick with me all these years?”
“But you’re you!” Heejin cries, because Hyunjin has always been this way, always been the one person she can lean on and the one person she goes to sleep for just so she can see her faster the next morning.
“And you’re you, Heejin!” Hyunjin counters with a disbelieving laugh, moving one hand to unhook Heejin’s glasses from where they’ve been tucked into the neck of her shirt, waiting to be returned. “I like you for you, not for something you think you should be!”
And yeah, Heejin’s a dumbass, but when Hyunjin tenderly settles her glasses back onto the bridge of her nose and Heejin can clearly see the way her best friend is looking — has always looked — at her with such unbridled affection, she finally makes a smart decision.
She whips off her glasses with her one free hand and tugs Hyunjin’s face down with the other so she can kiss her long and hard.
Yeojin’s catcalls are drowned out by the roar of the rest of the student body, and hey, if Heejin ends up going down in high school history as the cool kid who ended up making the first move in front of the entire cafeteria, well.
At least she’s got Hyunjin by her side to drag her back to reality.
“Dumbass,” Hyunjin smiles against her lips, before pulling her back in for another kiss.
People sure do like to put labels to things that don’t require them, but while Heejin is still here living out her arbitrary human days, she’s fine with being called “nerd” or even “dumbass”.
Just so long as she can call Hyunjin hers.