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in my dreams, you love me back

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one - the library

Seulgi watches her smile. In the light of the early spring sunshine, J’s lips look plump and reddened. She is sitting on the table, on the side of the library that’s supposed to be less strict and more of a spot to hang out and discuss group work and presentations. Maybe that’s why nobody calls her out for sitting like that, because it’s not supposed to be that deep. Or maybe it’s because of the friends she hangs out with, her own status, all of that. It turns out that cliques don’t ever fade away, not even in the last semester of university.

Seulgi would like to think she herself is above that kind of thing, but her lack of close friends rather points to the contrary: that aside from one or two people, most students in the Humanities department have written her off as a wallflower. Not Taeyong and not Yeri, sure, but they can hardly be called a clique. Yeri is in second year still, even though she shares some Latin classes with Seulgi, and Taeyong studies Art History so they rarely coincide around campus. She doesn’t take it personally, and neither do they—between trying to actually pass her Classics degree and the part-time job at the bakery, Seulgi doesn’t have a lot of free time. It would be hypocritical to call her friends out.

So it usually goes like this: Seulgi, studying on her own at the library’s quiet section, typing away until she realises she needs a book to reference for her dissertation, and off she goes. On the way back from whatever shelf she’s found the book in (usually the ones full of red-and-green Loeb Classical Library editions), she spots her. And then it’s a slower walk to her desk, a daydream look in her eyes, and the disruption of the rest of her afternoon work.

It’s because J is eye-catching, Seulgi tells herself. She always dresses so prettily, in plaid skirts and soft vests and knee-highs that show off her long legs. She should look prissy by all standards, but she does not. She’s never bitchy, but she always calls out the bullies; like a less-stuck-up version of Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club. And Seulgi only knows that everybody calls her J, not her real name. Seulgi has no clue whether it’s a nickname, an initial, or what, but truth be told, it makes her look even cooler.

Seulgi would love to be like her, she thinks, resting her chin on her arms, flat on the wooden desk. Her personal sense of fashion is not remotely similar to J’s. She wears flannels and linen dresses, unpretentious practical stuff that lets her move freely when the bakery is busy, worn second-hand jeans to make the bike ride home comfier. But in her daydream, Seulgi would love to be the kind of girl who wears loafers and these velvet headbands, and maybe she’d like to wear her nails all pretty with a french manicure, like J’s, and not have them bitten all the time.

She’d like to know what it’s like to have such beautiful lips, she thinks. She doesn’t notice her mind map for Imperial Greek Literature crumpling under her arms as she gets more comfortable resting her head. J’s lips are so beautiful, so soft. Seulgi can’t hear what she’s saying, but the friend next to her starts laughing joyfully when she finishes, and so does she. Are people this lovely when they giggle, Seulgi asks herself. Could I be like that? Could I light up the room with a couple of sentences? Maybe she could. Maybe enough longing would do it. Manifesting and shit. Does J do that kind of stuff, Seulgi asks herself. Does she know that her lips look this soft? Seulgi can even feel them, deep in her rêverie, can feel them part under her bitten thumb and they’re as soft as she knew they’d be, but this is not definitive evidence, not quite, she needs more conclusive findings, so she leans in—

Unnie, Yeri whispers, behind her. The daydream breaks into pieces. Seulgi jolts up and nearly yelps in the middle of the library stacks.

Fuck, Yeri, she says, breathing heavy, don’t scare me like that next time, will you?

I didn’t know how to do it! Yeri says hushedly. You were so spaced out, man, I would have scared you regardless.

Seulgi feels her cheeks heat up a little. …Maybe, she says. And Yeri smiles, settling down on the desk next to hers.

Why are you here? Seulgi asks, pushing away any previous thoughts.

Yeri has already spread her four notebooks plus planner on the desk. My classes ended, silly. I may not have a dissertation to write, but if I don’t finish this Greek Linguistics essay, Kyungsoo-ssi is going to murder me. Now it’s my turn to ask: why were you looking at J like she’d hung the stars for you?

I was not.

You were too. I’ve known you since high school, Kang Seulgi.

Seulgi hides her face in her hands. Yeri’s grown up to be way too perceptive. Flushed, she mumbles, I just wish I could be like her.

And Yeri doesn’t press her for more, so Seulgi knows that the explanation does not convince her in the slightest.

It does not convince her either, to be honest.

 

 

two - the attic

In her dreams, J loves her back. In her dreams they’re best friends, sharing a camping trip to go see fireflies in summer. They trek their way to the camping grounds, and even though it leaves Seulgi exhausted and sweaty, the tough walk only enhances J’s magical glow, making her cheeks shimmer. After they put up their tent, they swim in the cold lake in their underwear. There’s an unspoken rule among girls that it’s no problem cohabiting in underwear, or changing clothes around other girls. It’s never a sexualised thing, among girls. Seulgi is glad, because neither of them feel self-conscious in the slightest when they splash each other and their bra becomes a little see-through. There’s no self-consciousness when they get out of the water, shivering and hugging like penguins.

Still, in her dreams, Seulgi does freeze for a moment, feeling lucky and honoured that J wants to be friends with her. She feels an unexplainable pang of affection as J puts on her flannel pyjamas, putting the kettle on (it had to sit a little bit wonky on the grass, because they have limited plugs in the camping) and adding it to the instant oats they eat for dinner. Seulgi washes raspberries and sits by while J pours the oats into two bowls. She adds a bit of syrup first, and that is when J takes the chance to steal a raspberry from the punnet, sticking it on her pinky like Amélie in the movie.

Wanna try?, she asks, holding the finger to Seulgi’s lips.

What do you…

Take it, J smiles. For you!

Without really being conscious of what her body is doing, Seulgi opens her mouth. J’s finger slips in. Seulgi tastes the raspberry first, acidic sweet burst of juice on her tongue, and then her cool skin, J’s trimmed nail and slender knuckle, and she swears that J lets it linger in her mouth just an instant too long. Seulgi swallows. J presses the pad of her finger onto her tongue, and her eyes have a brand-new type of glint when she looks at Seulgi. She pulls her finger out deliberately slowly—Seulgi is sure of this one. The night smells like oats, freshwater and berries, and suddenly J is way too close, Seulgi can feel her breath—

She’s pulled out of the dream.

Of course she is, because it’s only in her dreams that J loves her back, and it’s only on waking up, right now, that Seulgi realises what exactly that means. The realisation of what her dream self conjured hits her –the implication of thinking that J loved her back– but she’s not in the camping grounds by the lake, she’s in her little attic above the bakery. It’s Saturday, her alarm is ringing and that means she must get ready for work.

Seulgi opens the round window and airs the bedsheets. She drinks the glass of water that she always leaves by her bed –even though it’s more like a mattress on the floor than a real bed– and takes a multivitamin with it. The scent of coffee and fresh brioche already makes her feel more alive. She gets dressed, ties her hair up and dodges a few piles of secondhand books on her way to the door, trying to keep a dream girl out of her thoughts.

 

 

three - the bakery

This endeavour will prove to be an impossible one. Seulgi knows it immediately after walking downstairs to start her morning shift—because there she is, lovely and radiant, sitting at the corner table of their little café area.

When Boa and her brother Max agreed to rent their attic to Seulgi, offering her a really cheap rent as long as she helped out with the bakery, they should have told her the job might one day involve having to deal with extremely beautiful girls who have the ability to appear in dreams. Perhaps Seulgi would have thought twice, had she known.

But some part of her is flattered that J chose this place for her weekend brunch, Seulgi can’t really lie to herself. Her heart starts racing. She reminds herself that J does not know her, that she’s just the girl who watches J from the other side of the library. That if J ever knew what Seulgi’s dreams are like, she’d probably run to get a restraining order. This, J doesn’t need to know, Seulgi thinks.

She keeps her cool as the bakery gets busy and Boa keeps her on café duty exclusively, while she and Max run the bakery. It’s barely a corner with coffee tables plus a couple of chairs outside by way of a terrace, but it does the trick. J orders a cappuccino in a tall glass, lots of cream and some ice in it, and also a raspberry tartelette. Seulgi tries not to shiver as she takes it to her table, anticipating the awkwardness of having someone recognise her from school. J’s clique will arrive and place stupidly specific orders, and then they will pretend to be interested in Seulgi’s retail job without actually recognising how hard it would actually be for them to try it. Learning experience my ass, Seulgi tells herself.

But nobody comes. It’s just J, Seulgi, and the other customers. Nobody but her stays there for long, and it becomes really hard for Seulgi not to stare. The only thing keeping her from breaking her professionalism is the stare she can feel from Max as he runs back and forth from the oven to restock croissants. Still, she accidentally makes four Americanos that nobody has ordered just from being distracted, and then ends up drinking three of them. By midday, she’s buzzing, and J’s presence isn’t helping, as per. She’s been scribbling furiously in a journal covered in sparkly stickers, with a fluffy pink pen that makes Seulgi think of Legally Blonde, a sweet Elle Woods in her first class at Harvard. Like Elle, somehow J manages to look extremely distinguished too, in spite of it all.

Seulgi notices J’s pretty pink nails holding the coffee she’s made for her, marbled and elegant and perfect as always. She notices lipstick stains on her cup, and similar ones on the journal, probably from her fingertips that sometimes get too close to her lips. She notices that J is actually concentrating, doesn’t just get the coffee and the tartelette for the Instagram photo op, and she wonders what it must be like to have such a busy life—one, that is, that isn’t busy just because of part-time work and the struggle to get a degree at the same time. Standing by the espresso machine, Seulgi imagines parties written down in J’s journal pages, where her scent of hyacinth and honeysuckle that now reaches all the way to Seulgi must blend with sharp gin and vodka. Seulgi isn’t sure if that’s what J does in her free time, but it doesn’t stop her from letting her imagination run wild. She pictures the kinds of outfits J must wear at those parties, the silk blouses and gauzy dresses; she pictures the way she must look with the straps of her dress sliding off her shoulder; she pictures her against the wall, pictures herself in her place, getting kissed. Maybe by her.

It takes Max snapping his fingers in front of Seulgi’s face for her to actually do her job that day.

J comes back every weekend and eventually, when the café isn’t hectic, she starts talking to Seulgi. She also recognises her eventually, and Seulgi takes that moment and saves it like a little precious gem inbetween the pages of her favourite book. It turns out J’s name is Sooyoung, but nobody calls her that.

They call you J, don’t they? Seulgi asks the second or third time they talk. She feels her cheeks burn at the admission that she’s known of J for a while. I’ve just—, she stutters, I’ve just heard it thrown around.

Yeah, it’s my nickname. (Her smile is blinding.) But you can call me Joy, if you want. That’s what the J stands for.

Oh?

Joy’s smile goes wider and she says, Yes, it’s because I’m your joy!

Seulgi stumbles on a table leg and drops the cleaning cloth she’s carrying. Her knee hurts. Jesus.

I know, Joy continues, it’s a little silly. I just had that as my Instagram username and it sorta… stuck.

It’s not, it’s not silly. It’s actually so sweet.

Joy’s face lights up again. Is it?, she says. Thank you!

That day, after exchanging phone numbers to keep in touch, Joy is the first to send a text. I was enchanted to meet you!, she types, and Seulgi’s mind goes blank. Why does she use so many exclamation marks, both in person and over the internet? Is she seriously referencing Taylor Swift?

Seulgi plays the song too many times over the following weekend nonetheless. In her own journal, a battered Moleskine that Taeyong gave her last February for her twentieth birthday, she scribbles the lyrics to the songover and over again. She doesn’t know why, but deep down she does.

Please don’t be in love with someone else, please don’t have somebody waiting on you.

With time, they get to know each other, and it’s refreshing to make friends outside of the university bubble. Still, they discover they actually share a class on contemporary reception of Latin Epic, because Joy studies World Literatures. She adores the Aeneid, while Seulgi can’t stand it (how do you not like the Odyssey best?, she protests one day as they argue after her shift is over. Odysseus is an awful main character, Joy says, and that’s that on that). They bond nonetheless. Still, Seulgi never dares suggest they meet anywhere that isn’t the café. She isn’t ready to have her dream shatter by being called out by Joy’s friends at university.

It never does.

 

 

four - the museum

Seulgi doesn’t remember falling in love with Joy. It doesn’t happen on one particular moment—it’s useless to try and find exactly when it happens, as useless as it is to say it happens the first time she sees Joy. All Seulgi remembers is their first date, that blurry moment when Joy invites her to a cast museum in a nearby town. All Seulgi remembers is that it takes a few weeks of playfulness, of Joy wadding up brown paper napkins and tossing them at Seulgi while she makes cappuccinos, of her threatening to spill the coffee on Joy, of laughing together. All she remembers is Joy handing her a leaflet she’d found in the university library and asking whether she’d wanna go. Seulgi didn’t have a car (We could cycle, she said, if it’s not too far?) but Joy did, so there was no excuse. All Seulgi remembers is watching the ceiling of her small attic at night, the stress of not knowing whether it’d be a group outing or just the two of them keeping her awake.

She does remember holding Joy’s hand as she helps her get into the Range Rover, realising how much it will hurt when she has to let it go. That, she remembers. But there is no time to wonder, because it is just the two of them after all, the road is speeding past them, full steam ahead, and the electric guitars of a familiar songl make Seulgi’s heartstrings tremble. It’s May, a beautiful near-summer day, and the voice of Kim Gordon in Sonic Youth’s “Shadow of a Doubt” echoes the nervousness thrumming through Seulgi’s body. It’s the song, saying, kiss me in the shadow of a doubt / It's just a dream, it's just a dream I had / I swear it wasn't meant to be, I swear I didn't mean it. She doesn’t mean it, but it’s too late—Seulgi is falling so hard, she almost feels like she’s cheating, even though she’s only getting to know Joy.

The gallery, a small museum by the river, has copies of a lot of prominent ancient sculpture, mostly Greek but there is a dedicated room only for Roman sculpture. There’s skylights and all the white reflects the early evening glow. They don’t talk much, and Seulgi is aware it probably is because she’s too awestruck to say much. Joy watches her watch the statues. Seulgi takes notes, sketches one or two of the casts so she can show Taeyong later, and marvels at the softness of solid thighs and plaster bellies. She feels suspended out of time, in a magic place that might not quite exist outside of her mind. And she’s there with a

It’s nice enough to drink iced tea outside, in the nice porch of the museum café. As the sun sets, they avoid each other’s gazes even when they’ve spent all day together. Joy seems shyer than usual, shy like Seulgi has never seen her. The worn veranda frames their view of the riverside, and the sun’s remains glitter on the surface of the water. Joy looks like golden hour come to life. The start of the summer stokes the flames of the fire that becomes large enough to collapse any doubts that Seulgi might have been harbouring. It burns the structure that hid her feelings and leaves the remains, which are these: Seulgi wants to kiss Joy. She does, so bad. She wonders what those lips could whisper in her ear, whether they could make every fantasy come true. Whether Joy has harboured any desires of her own.

It doesn’t look likely, because she has a scared expression in her face. Maybe she hasn’t enjoyed herself, Seulgi thinks. Just because Seulgi now knows what she wants, it doesn’t mean her feelings are reciprocated. The realisation that she might like girls too will have to suffice. She tries to convince herself that it is enough.

Joy’s voice is shaky when she speaks. So, Seulgi, she says, with a weak smile. How come I’ve never seen you with any partners?

What do you mean?

I don’t know, I guess I could have asked earlier, I wasn’t sure if it’d be too intrusive since we were still getting to know each other. Are you dating anybody, is what I meant.

Ah, Seulgi says. No, no, I haven’t been with anybody in so long.

Oh.

That’s all Joy says. Seulgi knows. “Shadow of a Doubt” makes perfect sense now. So do the page flags in Seulgi’s secondhand copy of Sappho, which she has been annotating obsessively for the past few months. Seulgi hadn’t realised her own relationship status had remained this hazy for this long, but it’s true, she hasn’t said anything to Joy. She’s felt out of her league for so long, but the songs Joy was playing in the car—did they mean otherwise? Was her first text to Seulgi a confession already? I was enchanted to meet you. Kiss me in the shadow of a doubt, the song in the car was saying. Even when it ended and faded into some old song, Brigitte Bardot murmuring about the sun on her skin, deep down it might have been about them both. Le soleil, que c'est bon / quand il vient me brûler la peau. It’s what Sappho says, I would rather see her lovely step / and the motion of light on her face / than chariots of Lydians or ranks / of footsoldiers in arms. Seulgi isn’t reaching. She can’t be. She wants to slap herself. All these beautiful marble casts that Joy took her to see, and she should have been looking at her instead. There’s time, still. Time to kiss Joy’s doubt away.

Seulgi thinks about the Sonic Youth song: Must have been a dream from a thousand years ago.

And Sappho answers: Stand to face me beloved / and open out the grace of your eyes.

 

 

five - the library, again

Keep reciting, Joy commands. Seulgi breathes out, breathes hard, racks her mind. Her tongue is distracting.

But I am not someone who likes to wound, rather I have a quiet mind— J, this is too– too much.

Shhhh. They’ll hear you upstairs.

Down in the old library, it smells like dust and books that haven’t been opened in ages. Joy nibbles on Seulgi’s neck, and she bites her own palm to keep herself from whimpering.

Sometimes at sunset, she pushes out, the rosyfingered moon surpasses all the stars. Ah—Andand her light stretches over salt sea equally and flowerdeep fields.

Joy suckles with intent, draws a helpless whine out of Seulgi. This is not a dream, and the possibility of having her knees buckle under is more real than ever. She wants a kiss, she needs a kiss, but Joy said she wanted to hear some Sappho before, and Seulgi is nothing but a people pleaser—a good girl. She’d do anything.

So when Joy dragged her down here and began an interrogation (So you were watching me every day here in the library, am I right? What did you think of me? I bet you thought I was a shallow bitch. And sometimes I am, so forgive me for that), Seulgi obeyed. With every answer, with every satisfying response, Joy kissed her somewhere, everywhere but her lips. At first she felt so scared that she’d fend Joy away forever. Right now, though, Seulgi can’t bring herself to feel ashamed anymore, not even when Joy asks her to explain the camping dream. She catches herself enjoying the way her cheeks burn and her body trembles at the humiliation of the admission. She earns a soft peck on her right nipple for that one, over her t-shirt but killing nonetheless. Joy holds her up as she takes her apart without even taking Seulgi’s leather jacket off. And apparently, she wants to hear Sappho.

Carry on, finish the fragment, she says. You know I love that you memorised your favourite bits.

Seulgi obeys. And the beautiful dew is poured out and roses bloom and frail chervil and flowering sweetclover—.

That’s lovely, Joy says. You did so well. You can read me the rest at home. Come here.

Her lips taste like raspberries and cappuccino. This is real. This is real. She’s holding Seulgi against the Victorian Literature shelves, the ones with the old editions that nobody uses anymore, in the corner of the library where the danger is most alluring. She’s kissing Seulgi, cradling her in longing that speaks of months of love in silence. Their tongues meet, Seulgi bites Joy’s lower lip, tender and reverent, knowing this is the first girl she kisses and hoping it is the last. She does not want to part.

Her mind goes hazy, Joy’s hands go to her hair, her naked thigh goes to press between Seulgi’s legs. Her pleated skirt gives perfect access to her soft skin.

Can I—

Yes, of course.

Seulgi feels her milky thigh, climbs higher, touches until she’s crossed the hem of the skirt. The rest is for later. Her lips are for now.

You’re— she starts, out of breath. No, I don’t know what I was saying. Kiss me again, Joy.

And she does.

———

Eros the melter of limbs (now again) stirs me—sweetbitter unmanageable creature who steals in. Somewhere, Sappho is playing her lyre softly.