Yina is seven years old when she kisses a girl for the first time. Park Minji is eight and wearing her mother's waxy pink lipstick that they'd pilfered from the dresser, drawn sloppily over the shape of her mouth like watercolor paint bleeding over the lines.
They also pulled clothes from her parents' closet. Minji with her mother's jacket—shoulder seams dropping halfway down her arms, sleeves covering her hands—and Yina in a men's sweater vest tugged on over her t-shirt.
"I'll play the mom," Minji says, spraying another cloud of hairspray over her updo. "You play the dad."
"How do I play the dad?" Yina asks. She doesn't see her own dad much these days. He works a lot, often late, and when he gets home her mom yells at him while Yina slides a pillow over her head to muffle the sound. She doesn't think that's what Minji means about dads.
Minji shrugs. "I cook dinner and you come home and give me gifts."
So they end up in the kitchen. Minji's sister Minah is supposed to be watching them, theoretically, but she doesn't even look up from her spot on the couch where she's watching a drama and talking on the phone. Minji pulls out a bunch of pots and pans, and turns to Yina. "I don't know how to cook anything, I'll just pretend."
Then she sends Yina away to wait for her cue. Yina stands in the doorway, looks out over the framed photos of Minji with her grandmother, Minji and her family at Everland. Finally, Minji calls out, "Honey? Is that you?"
Yina tries to walk like the boys in her class, with her strides wide and her shoulders pushed back. "Honey, I'm home," she says, dropping her imaginary briefcase on the kitchen counter. "It smells delicious," she adds.
"Aren't you going to give your precious wife a kiss?" Minji asks, fluttering her eyelashes, and Yina leans in, drops a peck against her lips.
Her own mouth tastes like lipstick when she pulls back. It's innocent, child's play, and Yina doesn't think anything about it. They're just playing what moms and dads do. "What did you make for dinner?"
When Minji's parents get home, they both get a lecture about messing with other people's things, but when Minji starts to cry, her mom wraps her arms around her. Yina doesn't think her own mom would do the same.
They don't stay friends the next year, when they end up in different homerooms. Yina winds up forgetting all about the kiss in Minji's kitchen. When anyone asks, she says her first kiss was Ma Joonho on an eighth grade class field trip to one of the hanok villages. She says he kissed with sweaty palms on Yina's face and too much saliva.
Until she's 18, Park Minji is the first and last girl Yina kisses.
During Yina's senior year, the school offers a field trip to Jeju to study plants, a chance to catalog some of the island's native species that they've studied in science class.
Yina signs up immediately. She'll take anything to get away from her home right now. After her dad left last year, her mom has alternated between yelling at Yina and moping around the house, neither of which make Yina really eager to deal with her. Four days away sounds like a blessing, even with some of the dumb boys in her class.
Unfortunately, none of Yina's other friends seem all that interested.
"I go to Jeju every year," Hyejin says, shrugging at Yina from across the lunch table.
Yina turns to Byunghwa, but he just gives her an apologetic nod.
"Come on, please," Yina says, drawing out all the syllables in the word. "Don't make me look at plants with smelly Kibum and his friends."
When no one speaks up, Yina slides her arm around Gayoung's shoulder, tugging her in close. "Gayoung will come with me because she loves me the most, right?" Yina asks, planting a noisy kiss in the center of Gayoung's cheek to emphasize her point.
Gayoung squeals and the rest of the table laughs at Yina's theatrics. "Kang Yina, you know I love you, but I do not care about plants. Sorry, I'm out."
"Everyone here is the worst," Yina says, playfully shoving Gayoung away from her. "You'll be jealous when you see how much fun I'm having in Jeju."
Everything changes after the accident. Yina doesn't remember the explosion that destroyed the ship, only being plunged into cold water and fighting to reach the surface. The blaze lit up the night, flames engulfing the top deck and casting an orange glow over the water. It was by this light that Yina was able to find a suitcase floating and she reached for it, holding on for her life. She remembers the bodies floating around her. One older boy, face up, body bobbing along in the waves as if he was just another piece of debris.
Then, the suitcase being pulled, ocean water burning her throat as she tried to stay above the water, but she couldn't, not with the extra weight dragging her down. Yina remembers this part clearly—the girl was young, and scared, and struggling to grab the suitcase. They fought for it, their combined weight too heavy to keep the suitcase afloat. Yina was dizzy from the lack of oxygen and panic seized her body. She hadn't meant to push, or maybe she had, anything to make it back to the surface, but Yina shoved the girl until she let go.
When Yina emerged, gasping for air, she was clutching a child's bracelet in her hand. It was fluorescent and glowed blue, brighter than even the fire from the ship. Yina hadn't let go of the bracelet for two days, clenched in her fist until her fingers ached.
It's hard to go back to school after the accident. It's not their fault, but Yina can't help but resent her friends who didn't sign up for the trip. She doesn't like to be around them, but the feeling is mutual. No one knows how to act around her. Yina's mother gives her space, too much space, leaving Yina to feel like she's been dropped into some lawless territory with no rules, no curfews, and no checking in. They've never been good at the feelings thing and Yina doesn't want sympathy anyway. She hasn't earned it.
She discovers that it's not all that difficult to get into clubs when she's got the looks and enough makeup to obscure any of the baby fat still lingering in her cheeks. The only times that Yina can fall asleep without seeing the girl's lifeless eyes staring up at her from the abyss is when she's drunk, so she keeps drinking, and that's easy too when there's a line of older men waiting to buy her a drink.
The first time she goes out onto the dancefloor, the pulse of the crowd around her overwhelms Yina, taking her back to the violent waves rocking her as she held onto the suitcase. She stumbles out of the masses and makes it to the bathroom before dry heaving into a trashcan. The other girls washing their hands, touching up their mascara, look on at her indifferently. Here, she's just another girl who's had too much to drink. No one looks at her and thinks victim (thinks killer.)
She learns to tolerate the throng of bodies. She dances with anyone who asks, at first, older and younger men alike. It's just the kind of attention she's craving. These men are captivated by her beauty but none of them want to know a single thing about her and there's power in that. She's effectively anonymous—she can be anyone they want, anyone she wants.
And the other girls, they know how the game is played too. Dancing with a girl earns you all the free drinks you could want.
Yina has the height advantage. It's easy for her to take the lead, to tug the girl with the club sticker stuck proudly to her cleavage away from her dance partner and into Yina's arms. She's not forceful like some of the guys who will inevitably end up with drinks in their faces. She doesn't grope, just lets her hands rest low on the girl's hips. They grind against each other, swaying along to the music as it gets faster, swelling to a climax.
The beat drops, and the girl leans up to kiss Yina on the mouth. For a moment, everything stops. Yina is only aware of the girl's lips against hers, softer than any man she's ever kissed. Her heart beats wildly in her chest and Yina is sure that it's louder than the music, louder than anything else in the club. She kisses back.
Around them, the men in the crowd around them begin to holler, clapping like they're putting on a show and that's what it is, Yina thinks, stumbling backward. It's a show for them.
The girl smiles at Yina. Her lipstick is smeared, a smudge of red on her chin. Then, Yina watches as one of the men pulls the girl against him and kisses her, sloppy, with too much tongue .
Yina doesn't know why she suddenly feels sick to her stomach. She pushes through the crowd, shoving without any mercy until she reaches the club's entrance and emerges onto the Hongdae street.
When she licks her lips, she thinks she can taste the girl's lipstick.
Yina is nineteen the first time she sleeps with a man for money.
She's finished high school, but she still lives at home, is still more interested in clubbing than in college. Once upon a time, she'd wanted to be a fashion designer, but the accident stamped out any dreams and now the only Yina way wants to live is fast and reckless.
It's still an early night at the club, this one more upscale than the Hongdae clubs she typically frequents. She orders a drink at the bar, but before she can pull out her wallet to pay the bartender, the man next to her has already handed over his card.
"You didn't have to do that," Yina says, flashing a smile.
The man isn't exactly Won Bin, but he's not ugly either, and Yina will happily indulge him if it means her drinks are getting taken care of.
"You're a beautiful girl," he tells her, brushing a strand of her hair away from her neck. The gesture leaves goosebumps on Yina's skin. "Do you come here often?"
They talk at the bar. His name is Kwak Sungmin and he works at KT Corporation, doing something that Yina tunes out. She laughs at his jokes, touches his arm, pretends to be interested in what he has to say. After a while, he leans in close.
"How much for a night?"
Yina nearly chokes on her wine. "Excuse me?"
"300,000 won?" he asks, already reaching for his wallet. When she hesitates, I don't getting stuck on her tongue, he looks up at her. "I can't do any more than 350,000."
Looking back, Yina will imagine a final spark of innocence dying like a candle being blown out. A flame that cannot be rekindled, something she can't come back from. The money her mother gives her each month doesn't last long and this man, this man who looks like any average businessman (who, more importantly, doesn't look like he could hurt her), is offering three times that for one night of her life.
She schools her expression into something seductive. "350,000," she echoes. "You lead the way."
After a year and a half, Yina has perfected her craft. She has seat practically reserved for her at one of the nicest bars in Gangnam, where she's not the only girl after rich dates and a consistent income. There's always some risk that accompanies her line of work, but juggling two or three boyfriends is a lot safer than getting her money from anywhere she can.
She's never ashamed of what she does—an easy life, who wouldn't want an easy life?—until the night all of her lies come crashing down.
The guy's words hit her like a slap to the face, but it isn't until Yina looks up to see Jinmyung watching the scene that she feels the acrid taste of shame in the back of her throat and she's stunned into silence. There's no fight left in her, only the unbearable, inexplicable weight of having disappointed Jinmyung.
Things get tense around Belle Epoque. Yeeun is her closest friend in the house, but she will hardly look at Yina these days, and Yina doesn't miss the way she moves Yina's laundry like she's touching something rotten. Yina spills it all to the ahjussi at the bar, but it doesn't make her feel any better. Jiwon and Eunjae still look at her with pity while Yeeun avoids her like she's got the plague, or something worse.
She puts up with it for a few days, but when she hears Yeeun mumbling in disgust, furiously rinsing her mug in the sink, the rubber band holding all of Yina's frustration together snaps. She's not dirty, no matter what any of them think.
"Who knows what you've been doing with those lips?" Yeeun says, not even looking up at Yina. "You must've kissed a lot of things with those lips."
Yina's anger propels her forward. "Oh really?" she asks, then jerks Yeeun's head back, planting a kiss right on her mouth.
She's shocked by herself, didn't think any further than this move, but when Yeeun squeaks and tries to pull away, Yina just holds on tighter. She kisses as hard as she can. It's not quite the sucker punch Yina's wanted to lay on Yeeun, but there's some satisfaction in Yeeun's hysterics when Yina releases her face.
"Watch and see if your lips rot," Yina says over her shoulder, as Yeeun screams out curses.
It turns out that torturing Yeeun doesn't make her feel any better either, and the satisfaction is short-lived, already giving way to guilt by the time Yina slams the door behind her.
She doesn't want to be the household enemy. She just wants her friends back.
"I think I like girls," Yina tells Dongjoo one afternoon over coffee. Dongjoo promptly chokes on his Americano.
"I prefer women," Yina says, sliding her glass of water across the table as Dongjoo continues to sputter. It comes out less emphatic than it did when she'd practiced in the mirror, but her voice doesn't shake, so Yina is proud.
"We met because of our line of work," Dongjoo says, "How-?"
"What you do for money is not always the same as what you do because you want to."
Dongjoo sits back in his chair, letting out a low whistle. "Kang Yina, you're a constant surprise."
"I prefer women," Yina tells Jonggyu later that evening over barbecue.
His reaction is the same near indifference that Yina has come to expect from him. He takes a bite of his pork, watching her thoughtfully as he chews, and when he swallows, asks, "Why are you telling me this?"
"You told me to live and to not feel guilty," Yina says. "When I was in high school, there was a girl I liked, but after the accident, I cared more about attention than romance. I didn't think that I deserved good things. And now? I want to be honest with myself and be honest about what I want."
He lifts his chopsticks, gesturing at her. "And is that why you cut your hair?"
"I'm so proud of you for telling us," Jiwon says, throwing her ams around Yina's shoulders. And then, in typical Jiwon fashion, "With Kang Yina out of the way, surely it will be easier for me to get a boyfriend! I've always wanted to go to a gay bar!"
"But what about," Yeeun starts to say before she stops herself, shaking her head. The smile she gives Yina is hesitant, but not insincere. "Thank you for telling us."
"Are you going to tell Jinmyung?" Eunjae asks.
Yina had tried. Arguably, Jinmyung would be the friend least likely to hate her for it, the friend who never got worked up about anyone else's private life, but something about telling her felt monumentally terrifying. Yina had typed and erased the same message at least four times, but she could never quite work up the courage to send it. They'd started messaging each other fairly often when Jinmyung left for China. After seeing what happened to Yeeun, Yina decided that she'd been a shitty friend, and she never wanted to miss a sign that someone needed her help again. Jinmyung texts like she talks, short and to the point, but she's more forthcoming, letting a few complaints slip, and telling Yina about the things she misses about Belle Epoque.
"I'll tell her when she gets back," Yina tells Eunjae. Jinmyung had extended her contract, another two months added to her original stay, which gives Yina plenty of time to get over whatever is making her nervous.
Truthfully, Yina is in no rush to date, still more into the finding herself experience than romance, but when Jiwon begs her try a blind date with a girl she knows, Yina finds herself begrudgingly agreeing.
"She's a photographer for the newspaper and she's very pretty. Confident, too." Jiwon tugs on her arm blinking up at her with puppy dog eyes. "You like confident, right?"
Yina sighs. "Fine, I'll go on a date, as long as she's nothing like you."
"Nothing like me at all!" Jiwon says airily, until Yina's words catch up with her. "Hey! Are you saying you wouldn't date me?"
Yang Jihyun is, as promised, nothing like Jiwon. She arrives at their dinner date in a simple black dress, her long hair styled in curls. She's pretty. Really pretty, actually.
When Yina stands to greet her, Jihyun's eyes get wider. "Wow," she says, "you're a lot taller than I imagined you to be."
Yina doesn't miss the way Jihyun looks her up and down, not out of the girlish jealousy that Yina used to inspire when she walked through a room, but out of interest. Yina can feel her pulse in her throat, and when they sit, she quickly takes a sip of her wine to swallow down her nerves.
Jihyun is not just pretty, but normal too. She's majoring in film and prefers documentary to narrative movie making. She got to meet Kim Kiduk during her first year and it changed her life, she says. She likes cooking and wine. "My ex-girlfriend was really into-" Jihyun stops herself, laughing behind her hand. "Sorry, it's not cool to talk about your exes on a first date, is it?"
"I don't really have any exes," Yina says, which is not technically a lie. "You're my first date with a woman."
"I'm glad I could have the honor," Jihyun says with a smile.
Yina's phone buzzes and she glances down to see a message from Jiwon, something encouraging with about a half-dozen thumbs up emojis that Yina quickly swipes away, but not before Jihyun notices her phone's lock screen.
"Is that you?' Jihyun asks, gesturing to the picture. It's one of the photos they took the day that Jiwon dressed up as Wonder Woman, one of the best afternoons Yina can remember having. "Your hair used to be so long."
Yina's hands instinctively reach up, curling around the ends of her hair. "Yeah, I got it cut a few months ago."
"Any particular reason?"
"Just felt like I needed a fresh start," Yina says.
"And these are your housemates? I see Jiwon."
Yina pulls the picture up on her phone, zooming in on them one at a time. "That's Yeeun. She's one of those girls who wastes her time on crappy guys. Doesn't know what she's worth, you know?"
Jihyun laughs. "Trust me, I know."
"You know Jiwon. This one is Eunjae. She's the youngest and the newest girl to move in. We share a room and you wouldn't think someone so small and cute would snore like she does, but I'm mostly used to it by now."
Yina's finger hesitates over Jinmyung. They have a few pictures of their little group together, but none where Jinmyung is smiling like this, carefree and content. Yina wishes she could see Jinmyung like this more often.
"And this one?" Jihyun prompts.
"That's Jinmyung. She works too hard, three jobs at a time. I don't know when she sleeps, or if she sleeps at all. I can't imagine. And she never whines about it either, while I sit there complaining about having to draw my fourth basket of fruit for the week. She's a really courageous girl."
"Is she your closest friend?"
Yina frowns, shaking her head. "She's just a really good senior," she says. That's all.
Their food arrives soon after and the conversation shifts away to Jihyun's summer internship at a distribution company.
Everything goes smoothly. It's one of the nicer dates that Yina's been on. The backs of their hands brush when she walks Jihyun to the subway station, and compared to the stuff she used to do on dates, intertwining their fingers is hardly bold, but it feels important to Yina all the same.
"This is my stop," Jihyun says, their hands swinging between them when they come to a rest. "I had a really nice time, Yina."
"I did too," Yina says. There's a fall chill in the air, blowing Jihyun's curls away from her face as she looks up at Yina, expectant. It's Yina's move to make.
So she makes it. She leans down and kisses Jihyun, soft and hesitant. There's no chorus of angels or fireworks behind her eyes, but it feels right, in a way that none from Yina's entire catalog of kisses have felt before. When she pulls away, Jihyun smiles.
"Call me," she says.
They go on three dates, all perfectly pleasant. Yina's not expecting it when, at the end of the third date, Jihyun pulls away from her kiss. "I don't think that I'm the one you're looking for," Jihyun tells her apologetically. "But I hope you find her soon."
The day that Jinmyung is due home, the four of them show up at Incheon with balloons and a banner that takes two people to hold that reads Welcome home Yoon Sunbae!
She is clearly not expecting this when she emerges from the baggage terminal and the look on her face is totally worth it, a shocked fondness that Jinmyung tries her best to hide. "What's all this?" she asks.
"Did you think we would just let you come home without any fanfare?" Jiwon says, the first to yank Jinmyung into a hug.
Jinmyung looks exactly the same as she did when she left, except maybe in need of a trim to her bangs. It's only been three months, Yina's not quite sure what she was expecting, but so much has happened in her own life that it felt longer.
As has become tradition in the Belle Epoque house, they welcome her back with beer and chicken. Jinmyung tells them all about the company she worked for and her coworkers, some from China, some from Korea, and even a few Americans. "Do you think you'll go back?" Eunjae asks.
"I missed Korea a lot more than I thought," Jinmyung says, smiling down into her beer. "I don't think I want to leave again for a while."
Eunjae bows out first, citing an early test the next day, followed by Yeeun. Eventually Jiwon falls asleep with her face resting on the table, but Yina's not ready to go to sleep yet. She looks at Jinmyung, pointing to the ceiling. "The roof?"
It's not exactly the best rooftop weather. The air is still damp with the day's rain and the wind blows right through the thin coat that Yina wore up here, so she sits close to Jinmyung, trying to soak up her warmth.
"Are you going to see that boy from work?" The chef?" Yina asks.
"No," Jinmyung says, flicking the pull tab of her beer can. "He moved on, started dating another waitress."
"Jeez, so soon? Men have the shortest attention spans."
"I'm over it," Jinmyung says, and unlike Yeeun, Yina mostly believes her. "But what about you? Are you seeing anyone?"
"I was," Yina says. "Her name was Jihyun."
Yina watches out of the corner of her eye, waiting for Jinmyung's reaction, but all she gets is a twitch at the corner of Jinmyung's mouth. "And it didn't work out?" Jinmyung asks.
"She was nice," Yina says, steeling herself as she looks up to the night sky. "But she said that I liked someone else."
"I've been trying to be a lot more honest with myself lately, so I thought about what she said, and it made sense. I used to think it was admiration, but I think it was more than that. It was wanting to take the pain away and make someone happy. I was just too selfish."
Yina takes a breath, meeting Jinmyung's eyes. "I missed you a lot when you were gone," she says, "and it made me realize-"
From the next street over, a car honks and the both of them flinch at the sudden noise. Their faces are a lot closer than Yina realized and she finds her hand reaching up of its own volition, cupping around Jinmyung's cheek. She leans in. Jinmyung doesn't pull away. Their mouths are centimeters apart, but it feels like the end of a thousand kilometer journey, a finish line she didn't know she was working toward.
"I like you," Yina whispers, and she kisses Jinmyung.