Few people dare now to say that two beings have fallen in love because they have looked at each other. Yet it is in this way that love begins, and in this way only.
— Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
Chaewon’s always looked at Minju.
Everyone has. When Minju walks by there is an air-shift, a gravity-tilt. Only inevitable, with a face as pretty as that. Effortless.
There’s a line of plum trees by the road leading to the school gate. Chaewon waits, like she always does, at the third one from the exit. Midwinter hurrying the sunset early, everything soaked in pale gold. She turns and shifts the weight in her legs, scuffing her shoe against the concrete, foot hitting the treebark.
“I know I took a while, unnie, but no need to take it out like that.”
Chaewon pivots. There’s Minju. They’ve been taking the 17:30 train together since middle school, when Chaewon moved neighbourhoods and asked her for help one afternoon. One became two, then four, then ten, then a five-year habit.
Minju tilts her head and smiles. “Are we going?”
Some plum blossom petals still sway from when Chaewon had kicked the tree. They fall behind Minju like snowflakes, maybe, or raindrops. The sun sets behind her, glows a faint outline around her. Twilight sky being painted above her. The light reflects golden in her irises.
Time slows—or quickens. Maybe stands still altogether. Loops. There is: the soft curl of Minju’s hair, the quiet upturn of her mouth. There is: the bone that juts out of her wrist, her pale hand against the dark of her uniform. There is: their shared gaze; how they take, if only for this brief, brief moment, to fill their vision with each other—and each other only. What a swift pierce through Chaewon’s chest, between her ribs.
Chaewon’s always looked at Minju, but now she sees her.
how your scent / invades my shadowed, busy heart
— Carol Ann Duffy, Bees
Minju is handing her a jacket. Chaewon looks back at her. At this time of year Minju usually wears two; she had taken one off and is offering it to Chaewon, neatly folded.
When Chaewon inhales to reply, she realises her teeth had been chattering. It’s morning, after all. Not exactly the warmest time of day. They’re walking from the train station to campus. “Aren’t you going to get cold?”
“Not as cold as you, unnie,” Minju says, wry. Pushes the jacket forward again. “Take it.”
“I was born in February.” Minju’s gaze turns insistent, but playful, still. “I’m a fish in water right now.”
Chaewon rolls her eyes.
“Besides,” Minju adds, “there’ll be heating when we get to school. I won’t need this then.”
Chaewon’s mouth crooks. Takes one last, long look at Minju before finally deciding, “Alright.”
She takes it. Puts it on, feels the quiet relief of added warmth. Turns to make sure Minju doesn’t look too cold.
Then Chaewon reaches to fix the bunch of hair trapped between the collar of the jacket and her back. But when her hands pass by her face, a small breeze blows, little skybreath.
It almost feels as if Minju had tucked herself there, at the threads at the edge of her sleeve. There is: the perfume she always spritzes on her wrist, the hot chocolate she had this morning. There is: her laundry soap, the smell of all her embraces. There is: snow and smoke, winter morning itself. Minju’s drumbeat of a pulse itself?
Chaewon feels hit with a burst of longing even when Minju is right beside her.
“Better?” Minju asks.
Chaewon’s throat stings. As if the scent had crawled all the way down. “I’d say so, yeah.”
Not words, not music or rhyme I want, not custom or / lecture, not even the best, / Only the lull I like, the hum of your valved voice.
— Walt Whitman, Song for Myself
Chaewon isn’t exactly quiet when she sets her things down at the study table. Her bag thuds, its buckles clack, and Chaewon lets out a loud, stretched sigh.
“I didn’t take you for one to spend your lunches here,” Minju remarks, completely unfazed. Head bowed taking notes from her textbook.
“Today’s an exception,” Chaewon says. “First time for everything.”
Minju gives a half-smile. “Would you like to get food once I’m finished?”
“Sure.” Chaewon shrugs, leans back in her chair. Unlocks her phone to keep her hands busy. “I’ll wait.”
Minju looks up. She’s in front of Chaewon but Chaewon feels the heat at the back of her neck. Noontime sun? Blood crawling up? Chaewon can’t tell which. Or doesn’t want to.
A pair of footsteps get louder then come to an abrupt stop, behind Chaewon. “Ah—Chaewon-ah, hello.”
Chaewon twists in her chair. Recognises the figure—her classmate in first year but never again. “Hello,” she greets in return, curt bow of her head, and turns back.
Minju’s smiling at her when she does.
“What?” Chaewon asks, feeling a grin of her own.
“Nothing.” Minju’s head tilts and a glint sparks in the corner of her eye. “Chaewon-ah,” she teases.
It echoes in the quiet. Or doesn’t—maybe only in Chaewon’s ears. Minju’s never spoken her name, never so lowly, never so softly. Chaewon-ah. It’s the same name she was just called but it might as well be a different one altogether, with how intimately it cradles in Minju’s mouth. There is: the whisper at the edge of it. There is: the filled sweetness of her voice timbre, like sugared milk, like swallowed sunlight. There is: the laugh that colours it, spreads over it, blankets it. There is: how the thrum of Chaewon’s heartbeat rushes, backdrop rhythm against it.
The heat at the back of Chaewon’s neck intensifies, concentrates, pinprick of an ache. “Go finish that,” she urges. Flounders. “I’m getting hungry.” Is she?
Minju returns to her work, and then it’s quiet again.
It is enough, this moment, not to speak. To touch your hand.
— Rosanna Warren, Eclogue
“I could push you onto the street, you know.”
Chaewon keeps her eyes closed as she answers, “You’d never.”
“Try me,” Minju drawls.
It’s early for a weekend—ten in the morning on a Saturday. She and Minju are at a bus stop. Stolen sliver of time just before their finals week starts. They face eastward, so—
“It’s too bright,” Chaewon offers in explanation. But the midmorning sun offers some solace: beams of light hit Chaewon’s skin, warmth seeping through. Spring is soon but not yet, and Chaewon will take all the heat she can get.
“Alright.” Minju says, like she always does: resignedly, smiling. Chaewon doesn’t need to look at her to know what it looks like. “Our bus is soon, though.”
Chaewon cracks one of her eyes open to peek at the LED panel. Beside their bus number reads Arriving in 1 minute.
“Got it, Minju-yah,” she says.
When she closes it again, she moves to put a hand in her pocket, but she’s stopped.
Minju had taken it: circle around her wrist, thumb at the inside of it. Somehow warmer than the sun but not cruel, not unforgiving like how summer beats it into muscle. There is: their skins; delicate, fragile as those swaying plum blossom petals. There is: Chaewon’s pulse-rush, seemingly wanting to burst. There is: how Minju seems to reach deep, deep down, into Chaewon’s marrow, even when her hand is feather-light. There is: how Chaewon’s world is still dark, amplifying every micromovement. There is: how Minju’s fingertips seem to be light itself.
The minute passes by not in seconds but in heartbeats. In breaths. The rumble of the bus’ engine as it arrives, the hiss of its door opening, Minju’s quiet “Come, unnie,” are what finally wake Chaewon, the two of them standing in its shadow.
Minju pulls her. She hasn’t let go. Chaewon doesn’t know when she will. If she will. The world yawning open before them somehow still the same yet completely changed.
For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it? And here again is a foreshadowing — the world will be made whole.
— Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping
“Do you always go here?”
Minju’s head is bowed when she shakes her head. Her hands are locked behind her. “No,” she answers. “Just today.”
They’re at the school rooftop. Minju had asked to come up instead of walking to the train station. The plums are making way for the cherries, spring knocking. Light around them fading.
“What brings you here, then?”
Chaewon doesn’t even try to stamp out the hope in her voice—it rises into air for Minju to hear. The possibilities few, countable on one hand. Chaewon grasps at them, wishes for something to catch.
Minju had been walking a step and a half in front of Chaewon, but stops just by the chain-link fence at the far edge. She turns around and says, “I figured I had to tell you this, at least before you graduate.”
Sunset again. Sunset like always, with the two of them. The light moves so it’s now in the space between Chaewon and Minju like a promise about to be made. Chaewon steps forward so she can try to collect some of it in her hand.
Minju—earnest, sweet Minju. Charm all wrapped up in how she always means well, how truth is never a weapon wielded but instead a gifted grace. And so she tells Chaewon, “I have a lot of feelings for you, Chaewon unnie.”
She says it with a smile. The hope distills in the sunlight on Chaewon’s palm. It’s real. It’s here. It’s in front of her. It’s for the taking. Chaewon takes another step closer as the sky colours deep. Her breaths picking up.
“And I know it’s not the nicest feeling in the world, knowing that I’ve liked you all this time,” Minju continues, honeyvoiced, “but I thought you deserved to know. So now I’m—”
Chaewon only stops walking once she’s close enough for Minju to touch. She reaches out to tuck Minju’s hair behind her ear, to rest her hand at the back of her head. “Minju-yah,” she whispers.
A small, quick intake of breath. “Unnie.”
Nothing is difficult with Minju. Everything comes easy. So does this kiss.
There is: the softness of Minju’s lower lip. There is: the sweetness of the inside of her mouth, bursting on Chaewon’s tongue like bitten fruit. There is: the slow languidness of their movements, syrupy. There is: the smooth coolness of Minju’s vanilla mint lip balm. There is: how Chaewon feels she’ll never get enough, drinking and drinking and drinking. There is: tenderness. Always tenderness.
They break apart, Chaewon hearing Minju’s soft gasp for air.
When Chaewon opens her eyes, the scene reintroduces itself like this: first Minju, and then the rest of the world filling in afterwards, like a developing photograph. Minju the vanishing, focal point. A sign of how Chaewon will live, from today: Minju, and then everything else. How she’ll think: things before Minju, and things after.
The memory is still in Chaewon’s mouth. Now that she knows of the taste she can’t imagine how she’d lived her days without it. How she will have to live with the lack for days to come. Perpetual ache and crave.
“I didn’t—” Minju puts her trembling hand to her lips. “I never would have thought—how long?”
“I really don’t know,” is Chaewon’s honest, split-open reply. “I don’t know. Maybe yesterday. Maybe a year. Maybe the day we met.”
Minju’s throat works as she nods. “Okay.” She exhales. “Okay.”
The sunlight drenches both of them in gold. As if it knows of how delicately precious this singularity of a moment is. The heat digs into their bodies, filling them with light. Everything is warm at the margins of their skin.
“I’m sorry I only waited until now, then,” Minju whispers. “If I’d known we could have had more time—”
Chaewon steps forward again. Her hand has never left from where it rests at Minju’s head. “You’re not—this isn’t too late,” Chaewon says, thankful this moment happened at all. “This isn’t too late.”
Her hand moves to touch at Minju’s wrist. They stand still to stretch the moment out. Precipice. This isn’t too late. Like the spring, like the evening, this is only something about to begin.