Bae Yoobin lies bleeding out on the floor mattress. “I hate physicality,” she says. “And existing in this form.” The air is sticky from the heat, and yesterday Jiho broke the fan by kicking it violently across the room. It was an accident, she said.
“I brought takeout,” Kim Jiho says, peeling off her socks, and Yoobin immediately sits up. Her car keys drop into a bowl on her dresser.
“What else,” she says, and the smell of soy and garlic floats into the room.
“I love having a body,” Yoobin says, taking a piece of chicken in her hand, feeling the crunch under her teeth.
“Here’s your birthday present,” Yoobin says, and hands Jiho a paper bag with the Starbucks logo printed on the front. “Only three months late this time.”
Jiho pulls out the tissue paper, which in its half-folded state hadn’t been doing its job of hiding the contents of the bag anyway. Inside is a ceramic mug and a 20,000 won gift card with a snowman on it, adhesive on the back attached to nothing.
“I bought the mug myself,” Yoobin says in response to her raised eyebrow. “I got the idea from the gift card.”
“I have to stop letting you convince me to buy coffee every day,” Jiho says. Jiho is not easily convinced to do anything, but enabling her is simple.
“We all have bad habits,” Yoobin says, grinning.
Jiho rolls her eyes. “Your idea of a bad habit is charging your phone on your bed where it might fall onto the floor, even though you have a case on it.”
“The case can crack,” she says, reaching into her pocket to make sure it’s still there, surface as smooth as the day she bought it. “I spent money on this.”
“Money isn’t everything, there’s love too,” Jiho quips, and Yoobin laughs, because when IU’s Twenty-three came out it was all Jiho would listen for weeks. And now she’s twenty-three too.
“Jiho,” she starts, just so she can tell someone at all. “I never want to date.”
Kim Jiho lowers the brim of her baseball cap, shielding the hot sun from her eyes. “You seem like the type to fall in love, though.”
“What does that mean?”
“I think,” Jiho says, “you find it hard to devote yourself to someone, and maybe you haven’t been able to, but you’ll always be living your life waiting for someone you can love with your whole heart, and you won’t be happy until you do.”
Yoobin wipes the sweat from her forehead, a growing pit in her stomach. One of her overall straps has slipped off her shoulder. Both of them wade through a sea of flowers, knee-high and colored warmly, like that sun.
“Help me build the new bookshelf I bought last week,” Jiho says over the phone. “It was on sale.”
Yoobin accepts this request for unpaid labor because she knows if she doesn’t the boxes will sit in Jiho’s entryway for the next month. Jiho is too prideful to ask twice, so she pencils it in for the day and pulls on some sweats.
“I haven’t seen anyone in a week,” Jiho tells her.
“Since you bought the shelf last week,” Yoobin echoes, sitting cross-legged. In truth Jiho is so skilled with a box cutter that Yoobin is only useful for heavy lifting and the final turn of an Allen wrench.
“I haven’t left the house. I don’t have work until tomorrow.”
“You haven’t seen...?”
“We broke up,” Jiho says, voice flat. She rips open the plastic and spills screws all over the white carpet, their designated workspace.
“Oh,” Yoobin says. “What are you going to put on the shelf?”
“Paint, probably,” she answers, and that’s the end of that conversation.
Yoobin stares at the bowl of cherries on the bench next to her and knows they’ve grown warm from the golden glow illuminating them, the proximity to the bonfire. She takes a bite of one anyway.
“And,” Jiho continues, “I am sure you’re someone who believes it’s better to have loved someone even if it was always meant to end. I wish I believed that, because it would probably make me feel better right now.”
“Even if it was never supposed to start?”
The marshmallow at the end of Jiho’s skewer catches fire, and she lets the ashy lump fall into the flames below. Bugs swarm the shadows under their lawn chairs, and Yoobin tries swatting away at them before giving up and letting them suck her blood. One of them forgot to bring the repellent, but neither of them remembers who was supposed to.
“Even if it never had a chance,” Jiho confirms.
Yoobin looks down. “Hearing that from you makes it so much worse.”
Jiho always led by example and thought hard enough about philosophical topics for the both of them. “The head and heart work together, at the same time,” she had told Yoobin when they were teenagers, still figuring out the rules of love. “You can’t fall for someone without thinking about the consequences, and you can’t plan who you’re going to like and then make it happen. It has to go together.”
Yoobin was content to follow, so soon after Jiho found her first boyfriend she found herself attached to a boy who would end up moving away before she had the courage to start a real conversation with him.
“I made a mistake,” Yoobin said. Her phone sat on the stone next to her, the vibrant red and blue sky behind them, and its reflection in the water before them.
“It hurts the most when you’re left behind, you know,” and Jiho never had to romanticize everything like this but it was what Yoobin would have done, if she had the capacity to think at all right then. “You’ll be okay,” she said after a moment.
Yoobin stared out at the lake blankly. “I made a bad decision to feel, listening to you.”
Jiho took a long sip from her water bottle and then jumped off the rocks.
“The sun has set already,” Jiho said, taking her hand. “Everyone is leaving. Let’s go home.”
The week Yoobin graduated from high school she told Jiho she envied everything about Yoo Shiah. Jiho in her infinite perceptiveness asked Yoobin if she meant she wanted to be her or be with her, and that was the end of that conversation. Jiho really knows how to make a girl speechless.
Yoobin has hung onto that ambiguity for the past three years. Lucky for her, Kim Jiho, in her infinite confidence, has never questioned herself once.
Jiho gets home from a shift at the restaurant when she finds the door to her room already ajar. Of course Yoobin knows the passcode to her house. When Jiho sees her crying on the floor there’s nothing left to do except vapidly ask why.
“It’s okay,” Yoobin says, blowing her nose with a tissue that she adds to a growing pile on the floor. Yoobin knows how much Jiho cares about staying clean, so she’s already lined the bottom with gaudy mail advertisements. “I’ll get over it soon.”
“Can I help with anything?”
“I don’t think so.” Yoobin wishes she knew how to lie.
“Pretend I’m the person you’re crying over. Or thing, I don’t know.”
“Should I?” Yoobin exhales slowly, staring at the ceiling, in those overalls again.
“If it helps,” Jiho says. Yoobin thinks about it.
“I want you more than anything else,” she says. “But you can’t save me.”
“Do you, though?”
“I thought you weren’t supposed to respond. It breaks the illusion.”
“It’s part of the process,” Jiho says, but Yoobin is already thinking about how Jiho was right to question her.
“Got it all out of your system?” Jiho asks after five minutes of silence.
“Yeah,” Yoobin says. She picks up the empty juice box she was drinking from and chucks it into the trash bin.
“Take care and drive safe,” Jiho tells her as she leaves, and the only sensation in her throat is burning, so she can’t reply. The ground is on fire, too, so she has to get out of here.
Then she opens the front door and walks out to her car, listening to those late-summer crickets she’s come to hate chirping in the darkness.