9

Truth is stranger than fiction.

ANNOUNCEMENTS

1/28: Hello to my FA readers! I just wanted to say that.. no, I haven’t dropped that story and yes, it is very emotionally exhausting to live in the heads of 9 girls but the sooner I can make up my mind about who ends up with who, then the sooner we can get to an ending.

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Fallen Arches Index

Part I
001 002 003 004 005 006 007
008 009 010 011 012 013 014
015 016 017 018 019 020 021
022 023 024 025 026 027 028
029 030 031 032 033 034 035
Part  II
036 037 038 039 040 041 042
043 044 045 046 047 048 049
 050 051 052 053 054 055 056
057 058 059 060 061 062 063
064 065 066 067 068 069 070
Part  III
071 072 073 074 075 076 077
078 079 080 081 082 083 084
085 086 087 088 089 090

down the rabbit hole

tiffany has half a minute but she rises from her knees, her sight down the lines of taeyeon’s figure. she memorizes it, taeyeon sitting with her legs crossed, hair windblown, a hand smoothening the creases on her skirt. the palm in her own is cold and the sighs she hears soon after are soft. she wants to tie herself down to those sounds. tiffany kneels again, rustling the sheets. the grass around them is yellow and the earth remains dry. she looks at taeyeon’s eyes and the tip of her nose and back again; the sun is too much. the engine of a motorcycle continues to run in the background and when it finally stops, tiffany’s time is up—she is just another warm body to notice. tiffany wants to forget the drop in her stomach and the hammering in her chest so she closes her eyes. she thinks she is nowhere near falling now. it is dark but she can still feel taeyeon’s skin, she can still hear taeyeon breathing in short, jagged stops. taeyeon stands up. tiffany stands up. taeyeon is too close tiffany can see the lines on her lips again. taeyeon takes a step and tiffany stretches a minute to button the top of taeyeon’s blouse. tiffany steps. her fingers, they decide to rest under the flaps of taeyeon’s collar and taeyeon looks at her. tiffany undoes the button she just closed. she kneels again, playing a smile, letting her eyes find words to explain. taeyeon looks away but tiffany’s body remembers anyway. she remembers the tremble in her thighs and the taste of her tongue. overhead the sun is shining and the trees are silent but tiffany’s heart, tiffany’s heart is not.

first kiss

tiffany hwang was surprised by the quiet face, “what’s your name?” she could only ask, trying to meet her eyes; she was answered with a curt, “taeyeon.” and that was that for the requisite introduction. tiffany responded by extending her name, then a hand, but immediately withdrew it when she realized they were clammy, unusually but not unexpectedly clammy, and cold, and nervous, for having signed herself up in this silly little experiment or exhibit or whatever it was art wanted to prove; “you’re going to kiss someone,” the project head had said earlier, “a stranger.” tiffany hwang, plucked out from the crowd, was skeptical, intrigued but skeptical and now faced with this strange stranger, taeyeon, her skepticism intrigued her too. “so,” tiffany drawled, not knowing where to place her hands or her eyes, “this is awkward.” this face, she wouldn’t mind kissing, what with the slightly pouting mouth and downcast eyes as if to show disappointment for being paired up with tiffany. tiffany wanted to know if taeyeon was hiding an incomplete set of teeth or a chipped tooth behind that composure. “are you filming?” taeyeon suddenly turned to ask the cameraman; tiffany looked in the same direction, any direction, really, that would save her from facing forwards. “you can start anytime,” the cameraman said and tiffany couldn’t help but erupt in a fit of giggles, this is so silly, this is so, so silly. hwang, what were you thinking? but taeyeon stepped closer into her personal space and prodded her hand with a finger, tiffany caught it and soon she was feeling taeyeon’s palm under her thumb; taeyeon was looking at her; her eyes, they didn’t quite match the quiet face; tiffany was breathing hard through her nose and taeyeon was coming closer and closer and her lips were drawing nearer and nearer and her eyes were becoming clearer and clearer until—tiffany passed out loljk

to be continued

3 stephanie

 ♪

tiffany wakes in the late afternoon with a sudden jolt, the alarm on her bed stand appearing to have rang for nearly half an hour now to no avail, the sound doesn’t seem loud or near enough from its place. in fact, the abruptness of it dazes her more, when tiffany wakes with an urgency, remembering first thing that she had made dinner plans with taeyeon later.

she changes her shirt, ties up her hair and puts on her shoes in a mechanical hurry. outside the cold air paints her cheeks ruddy. the city seems to have slowed down to a crawl. tiffany can’t find a cab in sight.

she stands on the corner of the busy street intersection, her arms crossed. she is running an hour late.

the stop light finally turns green and tiffany is about to cross when someone behind calls her. “tiffany?” the voice is female.

tiffany turns around and sees a curious looking girl with long blonde hair and thin lips. she looks at tiffany as if she has been looking for her this whole time.

“tiffany!” the girl sings. “how are you?” she steps into tiffany’s space and gives her a kiss on the lips.

tiffany is startled, both by the stranger and her gesture.

the girl leaves her hand on tiffany, holding her by the elbow, as her expression remains cheery. “i was just thinking about you the other day,” she says. “i suppose seohyun didn’t tell you.”

seohyun? tiffany shakes her head. “um, no, i’m afraid not.”

“i didn’t know how to tell you,” the girl murmurs. “you’re not mad at me, right?”

“um–”

“why are you looking at me like that?” the girl asks. “anything wrong? did seohyun say something?”

seohyun? tiffany can only muster a guess as she tries to put some distance between them. could this be jessica? “no, she didn’t.”

“then why the look?”

“i’m kind of in a hurry right now,” tiffany excuses. the longer she looks, the more she finds herself feeling weak in the presence of this stranger. “i’ve got to go. sorry, jess.”

“but we haven’t seen each other in so long,” jessica smiles up at her. “i’ve missed you,” she says, stroking tiffany’s hair.

the hand moves to her cheek, her thumb hovering above tiffany’s lips. jessica presses them, pulling downwards until she touched tiffany’s teeth. “i’ve missed you,” she repeats.

in hindsight and with a clear head, tiffany would have swatted jessica’s hand away–she has every reason to and something inside warns her of danger, only it’s the kind wrapped in a flurry of excitement and a rush of risk that the questions jessica posed has taken her hostage.

jessica kisses her full on the mouth.

now the danger is too palpable to be ignored.

***

tiffany doesn’t know where they could be going. she’s too preoccupied in the cab with jessica to ask that.

more than once she tries reaching for the door when the car stops but jessica looks into her eyes and the way she holds them tells her not to.

is there something she’s missing here about jessica? i don’t remember a thing about jessica–

with each kiss tiffany tells herself that maybe she’s closer to an answer, everyone else seems to know something she doesn’t. she would bet that her body could remember more than what her mind could not.

against jessica, tiffany’s body moves as if she’s been here before.

jessica breathes in her ear, tangling her fingers in her hair and for a second she thinks jessica called her stephanie.

stephanie hwang.

a loud shriek enters tiffany’s ears. the cab driver strikes down the center of the wheel repeatedly, letting out a beep in short, erratic intervals. tiffany looks ahead, putting her arms in front of her face when a body appears. the car screeches to a grinding halt not before hitting the person crossing with a dull thud. tiffany looks around her, at an unconsious jessica and a bleeding man hunched over in the driver’s seat. she unbuckles his seat belt, pushing him away from the steering wheel. tiffany climbs out, dropping to her knees. she crawls on her hands inching towards the body on the ground and turns them over.

she screams when she sees herself.

***

a crowd starts to gather and tiffany is too frozen staring at her face to do anything. she stands up and runs away as fast as she could.

it’s a trick–her mind is playing that name trick again but she’s too smart, much too smart to fall for anything like that.

still, the face settles in, sinking dread into the very frame of her body and being and she snaps, with fever-like madness in a bid to breathe and think over what she saw.

she runs past crowds and cars, only stopping when she has reached sooyoung’s door. thank god she lives near.

bang. bang. bang. a series of spanks on wood from someone in a life or death situation.

“who is it?” tiffany hears sooyoung approaching.

bang. bang. bang.

“one min–,” tiffany pushes it open, unable to start speaking.

“tiff?” sooyoung steps aside to let tiffany in. “what happened to you? you look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

tiffany tries to catch her breath, in between looking up from the ground and back again.

“tiff?”

the name becomes an itch.

“tiff, what happened?”

tiffany steals a glance at her reflection in the mirror behind sooyoung’s couch. she doesn’t recognize what she sees, only the same unfortunate face from earlier, at the foot of the car, broken.

“you’re lying,” tiffany starts, “i’m not tiffany! you’re lying, sooyoung. i’m stephanie. i’m stephanie hwang–!”

sooyoung approaches her, hands raised. “tiff, calm down, just calm–”

“you’re lying!” tiffany backs away. “no, no, no, no, no! i’m not tiffany. i’m stephanie hwang, stephanie, s-t-e-p-h-a-n-i-e hwang!”

“tiff–”

“you’re lying!” tiffany grabs for the back of the couch, unable to support herself. “who is she? who’s tiffany?”

sooyoung doesn’t answer.

“don’t come any nearer!” tiffany screams. “i swear to god if you take just one step i will kill myself!”

she looks at sooyoung who seems to be weighing the threat.

“stephanie,” sooyoung says, “is dead.”

***

tiffany doesn’t know how sooyoung did it but seohyun suddenly arrives a few minutes later.

“tiffany?” she too has her hands raised like sooyoung. “what happened?”

“what are you doing here?” tiffany barks. “oh, oh! i get it now!” she laughs. “you’re in this together, huh? all of you! i bet yuri and yoona are on their way here right this minute and they’re going to–”

“tiff,” sooyoung steps to her side, “calm down, calm down, we can talk about this–”

“i am calm!” tiffany’s knees are trembling. “liars! all of you! liars!”

“tiff–”

“stop calling me that!” tiffany turns to seohyun. they have her surrounded, on either side of the couch, a wall behind her. “you! step to your right! now! step to your right!”

seohyun takes a small one.

“move to your right!” tiffany demands. “move now!”

seohyun moves and sooyoung puts an arm around her, her eyes looking loaded towards seohyun’s way. “what are you telling her?” tiffany points a finger at sooyoung. “don’t get any ideas, both of you. i’m on to you. i know what’s happening!”

“what is?” sooyoung asks. “what’s happening? tell us.”

tiffany throws her a steely glance. “why did you lie to me? i’m not tiffany. i’m stephanie hwang. why did you tell me i’m tiffany? why did you lie? why?”

“we didn’t lie to you,” seohyun answers. “we saved you.”

“saved me?” tiffany repeats with mockery, “from what?”

“from yourself.”

tiffany can feel the ground beneath her about to give way any minute.

“ti-,” seohyun stops herself, “steph–please–calm down first.” her hands are open in front of her. “sit down, breathe, we’re not going to harm you.”

tiffany howls. “so you are going to harm me! i never said anything about harming. you think i’m stupid to believe you’re not going to harm me? you’re crazy!”

sooyoung pulls seohyun with her to sit down on the couch across tiffany’s. she drops her gaze, silent.

tiffany hears her heartbeat in the sudden stillness. tears begin to fall without her realizing. “i’m stephanie, aren’t i?”

for a while they all remain motionless, in place where they are.

“i’m stephanie,” tiffany repeats to herself. “i’m stephanie hwang.”

“yes, yes, you were,” seohyun says. “a long time ago.”

tiffany could taste blood on the inside of her cheek–the confirmation brings more horror than comfort.

“you were in an accident,” seohyun adds, “i’m sure you remember, because you asked me once about the hospital.”

“but that was just like a week ago, right?” tiffany stammers. “like a month ago?”

seohyun shakes her head. “it’s been over a year, steph.”

“w-what?”

“you were in a hit and run,” sooyoung answers. “a taxi hit you when you were about to cross the street. you were on your way to meet taeyeon that night. you were rushed to the hospital and immediately you underwent surgery because your brain was swelling.”

“and tiffany–?” tiffany is afraid to ask. “why tiffany?”

“before the accident, you were pretty self-destructive–stephanie was self-destructive,” sooyoung answers. “don’t you remember?”

tiffany doesn’t remember anything now, not a face, not a name, not even a single objective scene of reality.

“also,” seohyun says, “on the night of the accident–you were with someone. you were cheating on taeyeon.”

now the fragments in her mind become shards of glass, jagged and serrated in their own reflection.

taeyeon.

“do you remember?” seohyun asks.

i’ve missed you.

“you were on a lot of medications,” sooyoung says. “you were in a lot of pain. you cried every day. you wouldn’t eat. you wouldn’t see anyone. you had grown so weak you fell into a coma.”

“ultimately,” seohyun continues, “it was best you forget about everything, about what happened.”

“what?” is all tiffany can let out. “and taeyeon? what happened to her? did she come visit me? did she find about what happened? is she angry, still?”

“you didn’t forget about her,” sooyoung answers. “you didn’t forget anything actually–you just remember it all, all of us, in a different way.”

i’ve missed you.

tiffany begins to choke on her tears. “you’re lying!” is all she can say. “you’re lying! liars!”

“stephanie’s dead,” sooyoung tells her. “on the day she was discharged from the hospital, she ran in front of a speeding car and killed herself.”

“i’m not dead!” tiffany says it to herself. “i’m not dead! i’m right here! stephanie’s alive!”

“so which accident exactly do you remember?” seohyun asks with a glinting grin. “the first or the second?”

tiffany screams and runs for the door.

she wants out.

***

“taeyeon!” stephanie bangs on the door, wrestling its knob. “taeyeon, are you there?”

she bangs on it again, resting her forehead afterwards against it. there isn’t even time to breathe.

“tiffany?” taeyeon appears behind the door.

“taeyeon, look at me.” stephanie grabs taeyeon by the shoulders. “don’t you remember me?”

taeyeon’s eyebrows furrow. “what?”

“look at me, taeyeon,” stephanie demands. “tell me who you see.”

“tiffany, what–”

“no, no,” stephanie shakes her head, “who do you see?”

“what do i see?”

who do i look like?”

“what?”

“i look like someone you could fall in love with, right?” stephanie shakes taeyeon. “like someone you knew, right?”

“tiff–”

“who is it, taeyeon? who?” stephanie doesn’t look away. “it’s stephanie, right?”

taeyeon doesn’t answer nor does she react upon stephanie’s accusations.

“don’t lie to me, taeyeon,” stephanie cries, “don’t lie to me–please don’t lie to me–”

“tiffany, what’s happening? what happened?”

“no, no, no!” stephanie shakes her head. “it’s me, steph! don’t you remember steph? stephanie hwang?”

stephanie swears taeyeon looks like she knows something. “it’s me, steph!”

“i don’t know what you’re talking about,” taeyeon tells her. “you’re tiffany, you’re tiffany hwang.”

“no, taeyeon, i’m steph! i’m telling you i’m steph!”

“no, you’re tiffany,” taeyeon answers. “you’re tiffany hwang.”

stephanie takes a step back, the hair on her arms raising. “why are you insisting i’m tiffany?”

“what?”

“i’m telling you i’m steph!” stephanie screams. “why are you lying to me? what are you hiding, taeyeon? don’t you remember steph? i’m alive, see? stephanie is alive!” she swears she saw a moment’s sneer spread across taeyeon’s face.

“i don’t know what you’re talking about,” taeyeon finally answers. “i don’t know how you found about stephanie but stephanie is dead.”

“taeyeon, it’s me!”

“you’re not stephanie.” taeyeon says with so much scorn it scorches stephanie. “stephanie is dead.”

“no,” stephanie backs away, “no, no, i’m not dead, i know i’m not dead!” she turns around for the stairwell. “i’m not dead–”

she starts running.

***

there’s nowhere to go, in the city, out in the streets–stephanie is still with her mind, everything spinning, everything freefalling.

she runs faster than she thought she could, the hospital shouldn’t be very far from here. stephanie goes around the block thrice, freezing with surrender and sweat before she finally realizes she’s the one there and it’s the hospital that isn’t. where is the goddamn hospital?

she faces an empty lot fenced by rotting wood boards and galvanized iron.

where is the goddamn hospital?

she looks across the street, at the buildings in the area that at once seem vacant and abandoned to her eyes, derelict in their stature. she looks closer and sees the broken windows, the blocked doors and littered sidewalk, even the mammoth trees has reached the sun.

where is the goddamn hospital?

stephanie runs again, back to where she came from. she runs with a weight on her that becomes heavier with each step.

where is the goddamn hospital?

she doesn’t stop even when she sees her shoelaces has come undone. don’t stop. there is no reason to stop. why stop?

by the time she turns the street corner of sooyoung’s apartment, the sun has completely crossed the ground. the city’s skin has turned dark. stephanie paces towards the apartment building but like the hospital, where is the goddamn building? where is the goddamn building, sooyoung?

where are you and seohyun?

stephanie neither knows what to make of her senses–her eyes can’t see what she’s looking for, only silence registers in her hearing, the words that come out of her are strange, the taste of blood from inside her cheek remains and the smell–there is a decay in the air that has been tailing her since.

where is the goddamn building?

where the goddamn am i?

she runs back to taeyeon, to the scent of the accident and where it must have all began. as she draws nearer and nearer towards the scene, just a street away now, she sees her–taeyeon, taeyeon in her matured youth, taeyeon with short hair and a little baby in her arms.

“taeyeon!” stephanie cries, reaching.

taeyeon looks her way and stephanie sees a light coming at her from the side as she crosses.

the light takes her eyes, sweeping away her sight entirely. of the last things that fade are noises, sounds around her, of people murmuring and of people shouting, footsteps that come and go and the honking of a nearby car that never wavers.

even in lighted darkness and with closed eyes, stephanie can still smell blood.

***

stephanie has always wondered how she wakes, in spite of herself and the days she wakes up to.

this time she opens her eyes when she finds she is unable to move her fingers. the glare greets her vision rudely, leaving white spaces and bright spots in its wake. when her sight adjusts, she sees figures around her, standing close by her head.

“steph?” says a female voice, almost hushed in its tone.

another one says, “hey steph, you’re awake!”

stephanie sees taeyeon first, when the lines and colors in front of her has cleared. with taeyeon are sooyoung, seohyun, yuri and yoona, all huddled in a narrow space.

“hey.” taeyeon grins, approaching. “how are you feeling?”

stephanie tries to answer but only air passes through her throat. “terrible,” she whispers. “my head hurts.” she sees an expanse of white over her. she tries reaching for the blankets but moving hurt, something, somewhere in her hurt.

“don’t move too much,” taeyeon says, kissing her on the temples. “take it easy. we’ve got a long way to go.”

“to where?” stephanie looks up at her.

“sshhh,” taeyeon kisses her again, “get some rest. we’ll be here when you wake up.”

stephanie obeys her lids.

again, it comes–the darkness and its pull, stephanie has always wondered how she can wake, despite herself and the nights she drifts to.

she gives in, again, in the same manner and order of her daily farewell.

the lights go, then the sounds.

“get some rest, tiffany. we’ll be here when you wake up.”

2 stephanie

for stephanie it almost feels like a dance she’s having, only with herself. the twirling and the gliding, the moving around to the facts seohyun sings, trying to stay in tune and every once in a while she misses. stephanie plays too fast the count in her head, jumping out of beat with one foot outside the lines but seohyun corrects her and puts her back into place. the music it never stops. it goes on and on as she continues to skip and step, prancing with the words of the melody, to the voice of who she is–but who is tiffany?

“hey, i’ve got another question.” she turns towards seohyun. “why don’t i eat my fries with ketchup?”

seohyun purses her lips. “are you playing some kind of game on me? you’re asking all these weird questions today.”

stephanie gives a grin. “i’m just curious.”

“of?”

“well, you can think of it as me being curious about myself objectively, like looking at myself from the outside in. aren’t you curious of how other people know you?”

“i guess.”

stephanie adds, “yet knowing and remembering are two different things too.”

seohyun nods, looking as if she were thinking about it.

“–and in a strange sense, all we are is how we are remembered, right?”

seohyun bursts into a laugh. “what’s with you today? you’re all weird and deep and curious.”

a sigh. “just answer my questions, will you?”

“okay.”

“so what’s the deal with ketchup? do you know?”

“well,” seohyun makes a face, “you said once it made your fries soggy.”

stephanie looks at the pack of ketchup on her tray thinking about how seohyun stopped her from opening it earlier.

“well, soggy fries are okay,” she says. “i actually really like them soggy.”

seohyun continues to look at her as if she just spoke alien. “you’re really acting weird today.”

stephanie rolls her eyes. “how many times have you said so, i’ve lost count. anyway, what are you doing next week? are you excited for your birthday?”

“why so enthusiastic?”

“it’s your birthday.”

“yeah, but i thought you thought it’s not a big deal.”

“birthdays?”

“yeah, ordinary days are happier than birthdays.”

“really?” stephanie is surprised again.

“yeah–?” seohyun repeats. “i think i’ll just order in and have drinks after i guess.”

“can i come?”

“with my officemates?”

stephanie catches the inflection. ”yeah?”

“but i thought you hated them–?”

stephanie inwardly groans–tiffany. “okay then i don’t hate them anymore.”

“okay, but why? she’s going to be there.”

“who?”

“you know–she who-must-not-be-named.”

“what?” stephanie feels like she’s at the limit of her questions. “who’s she who-must-not-be-named?”

“you know–!”

stephanie hoped for a bell. “no, i don’t. why would i be asking if i did?”

“i don’t know with you. you’re the one acting weird.”

“i know who it is,” stephanie lies. “but it’s just at the tip of my tongue. refresh my memory?”

“jessica.”

still no bell.

“right, jessica,” stephanie says. “there we go.”

“wow. are you so mad that you act as if you don’t remember her name anymore?”

“that’s it.” stephanie claps her hands. ”that’s exactly it. gosh darn it you’re smart!”

“she’s probably not going to be there. i heard she was resigning.”

“i see.” although she really doesn’t see; she doesn’t see anything.

“i thought you had work?”

“i do.”

“well, thanks for coming out tonight to celebrate with me. i appreciate it.”

“of course.” stephanie smiles at her. “it’s your birthday!”

“yeah, that’s something, coming from you.”

“yeah–,” stephanie trails off, thinking of the many me’s she has come and yet to know. it’s all just so confusing–and she hasn’t even talked to taeyeon. “hey, i think we better go. it’s late and i’m tired.”

“okay.”

stephanie hails a cab home, her memories with taeyeon there is home.

***

it should have given everything away–the name, the change, the foreboding forming the past few days–but stephanie refuses to believe any of it as she clings to her memories.

“can i help you?” taeyeon asks through the narrow opening of the doorway. even the dragging wait when she knocked on it should have told her.

taeyeon doesn’t seem to recognize her. at all.

stephanie’s heart falls. “hi,” she greets, thinking on her feet. “i’m uhh conducting a survey on the building’s living conditions. i’m an interior designer.”

she only sees half of taeyeon’s face but she looks straight into the watching eye. “i’m considering the location. it’s nice. the view, i mean, it must be nice,” she adds, remembering how much taeyeon loved the picture beyond her balcony. at night the twinkling lights are within reach, taeyeon always used to say.

taeyeon opens the door wider and when stephanie sees the apartment she’s surprised by how everything looks the same.

the sofabed that’s more bed than sofa, the mirror wall she installed days after taeyeon had said she felt cramped in her apartment, the wine colored drapes of the balcony, the glass-top floating shelves that look more like an art piece than they are functional, even the old tv at the corner she had been bugging her to get a cabinet for is still there. stephanie walks to the empty gaping center of the apartment. she has always thought it doesn’t look quite right without an area carpet.

“will this take long?” taeyeon has her hands in her pockets. she’s still as awkward looking as ever. “i’m expecting some guests over so if it’s okay to finish quickly–”

guests?

stephanie remembers.

right, taeyeon gives singing lessons in the morning.

“uhh no, i just wanted to look around and ask a few things.” stephanie pretends to be taken in by the room and the unfamiliarity of it. taeyeon is standing from a considerable distance and stephanie is careful not to come too close. all she wants to do is throw her arms around her. “is it quiet at night?”

she scans the mounted picture frames on the side wall, near the kitchen with a tiny window. she wonders where are her pictures?

“yeah, it’s pretty quiet here,” taeyeon answers. “it’s a safe neighborhood.”

stephanie listens. doesn’t she recognize her at all?

“what about utilities? has there ever been a problem? are they well maintained?”

“yeah, i’d say so.” taeyeon shrugs. “i haven’t been here long enough to say but yeah, i think the building’s well maintained.”

stephanie thinks of more to ask. she doesn’t know how to say it–taeyeon, it’s me, steph.

“i’m considering the area,” she manages after a pause. “it’s for a business. well, not really for a business but yeah, also for my personal use.”

“ah.” the response is dead and flat.

“i want to put up a recording studio.” stephanie hopes this would bridge her to taeyeon, knowing who she is and what she’s all about, and it seems it does.

taeyeon’s eyes light up. “really? are you in the music industry?”

“i love music.” stephanie smiles.

“cool,” taeyeon answers, nodding. “me too. i love music. it’s my life. i’m a vocal coach.”

i know, stephanie breathes.

“what’s your name?” taeyeon asks. “i’m taeyeon.”

i know, stephanie stares.

“it’s st–tiffany.” stephanie changes. “my friends call me tiffany.”

taeyeon extends a hand and stephanie takes it. the hold makes the fall faster.

“i hope you consider it,” taeyeon says. “it’d be really neat to have a recording studio here.”

i know, stephanie agrees, it’s your dream.

“but yeah, personally, i think the location’s okay.” taeyeon’s hands are back in her pockets. “it’s not too crazy or too far away.”

stephanie tries to control her smiling. she’s just a stranger to taeyeon right now after all. “are you in a band, taeyeon?”

taeyeon shakes her head. “nah, my band days ended after school. those were the good ol’ days.”

“i bet you guys were good.”

“nah, it was mostly just birthday gigs and wedding receptions of friends and friends of friends, that sort of thing. nothing serious.” taeyeon looks down, appearing shy.

“but it’s music.” stephanie lets the smile out. “music is serious.”

“yeah.” taeyeon nods. “it is.”

stephanie doesn’t know what to feel. she would have liked to talk longer but the sudden knock she hears reminds her taeyeon’s students are waiting.

“oh, that’s for me,” taeyeon says. “i have a class this morning. that must be the kids.”

stephanie hovers by the door, afraid when she leaves taeyeon will forget her. “thanks for letting me look around,” is all she can muster.

taeyeon smiles and stephanie safely carries the smile home with her.

inside her heart is silently weeping.

***

stephanie has never been a good actress but strangely becoming tiffany proves to be an easy and almost natural fit as long as taeyeon knows her.

“tiffany?” taeyeon greets. tiffany walks up to the cafe counter to order. she doesn’t think she’s cheating fate by acting on what she already knows she does.

“hey!” tiffany feigns surprise. “i didn’t know you work here.”

of course not.

“yeah, part time,” taeyeon answers, smiling. “it pays the bills.”

of course.

“what a coincidence,” tiffany remarks. “well, i’m craving something sweet, nothing caffeinated.” she looks up at the menu, avoiding taeyeon’s eyes. “what would you recommend?”

“strawberry iced tea?” taeyeon turns back towards the board. “it’s a house special, made fresh everyday.”

“okay. i’ll have that.”

“anything else?”

yes–don’t you recognize me at all?

“no, i’m good,” tiffany answers, handing taeyeon her payment. “thanks.” she bites the inside of her cheek, unsure of what to do–that small window of apparent coincidence she opened is closing without her.

“here you go.” taeyeon hands her a straw and some napkins. “enjoy!”

“thanks again.” tiffany returns taeyeon’s smile. “i’ll see you around,” is the last proper response she can think of saying.

when she finally walks away, tiffany reminds herself not to look back as she does.

***

they fell for each other once, like a synchronized fairytale bound to a happy ever after so who’s to say it can’t or it won’t happen again?

tiffany shows up at the cafe a second time for the week. she swears she’ll keep showing until her or taeyeon’s memories show, whichever comes first.

“hey,” taeyeon greets. “you’re here again.”

“do you always have the night shift?” tiffany asks.

“no, i’m only here three times a week.”

of course.

“funny you happen to be here whenever i visit,” tiffany bemuses.

she manages to draw a smile from taeyeon. “so what can i get you? another round of iced tea?”

“okay, sure.”

“one strawberry iced tea for ms. tiffany, one moment please.”

tiffany drums her fingers, thinking of what to say. she was going to ask taeyeon to sit with her–because she knows taeyeon would–but what if taeyeon isn’t interested in her this time around?

it is possible, perhaps even likely.

taeyeon returns from the work corner. “here’s your change, and enjoy your drink!”

yet improbable somehow.

“thanks.” tiffany steps back but forces it out mid-way. “hey, taeyeon?” she calls.

the self-sabotage is familiar.

“yeah?”

“how about you join me for a moment?”

your shift is about to end anyway.

taeyeon looks around the crowd of customers. “sure,” she answers. “i’ll just make myself a drink.”

tiffany tells herself this isn’t hard but it isn’t easy too–and how could it be when the people in her life only know so much?

“thanks for joining me,” she says when taeyeon joins her.

“sure.”

“so–taeyeon, how long have you been working here?”

seven months.

“seven months.”

“i see.”

“what about you? what do you do?”

“i’m an interior designer.”

“oh, right,” taeyeon answers. “you mentioned that before. sorry, i forgot.”

“yeah,” tiffany looks down–she slipped from taeyeon’s mind. “taeyeon, can i ask you something?”

“yeah?”

“i don’t know how to say this but–,” tiffany starts, “i feel like i know you.”

taeyeon is looking at her.

“don’t i look familiar somehow?” tiffany asks. “you look familiar to me.”

taeyeon seems to give it some thought after a chuckle. “i’m sorry, i don’t remember you from anywhere. what do you mean i look familiar? have we met before?”

“no,” tiffany retreats. “you just remind me of someone, that’s all.”

“ah–,” taeyeon nods.

“someone special.”

taeyeon doesn’t speak and it worries tiffany–it worries her how she has come to a blank slate but what’s more is taeyeon reacting in ways she expects, in ways that haunt her of their intimacy and understanding, the nodding, the tight lipped smile after a polite answer, even the glazed faraway look tacked to taeyeon’s eyes translate the same, distinctive words she has always known–i’m just not good at small talk.

tiffany carries on. “hey, taeyeon.” she leans forward.

“yeah?”

“what are you doing tomorrow?”

“why?”

“if i asked you out on a date, would you say yes?”

say yes.

taeyeon scratches her head. “are you being serious or are you pulling my leg?”

“you’ve never had someone hit on you before?”

of course not.

“well, you would be the first–”

was first, wasn’t i?

“oh?” tiffany beams. “that’s odd. you look like someone who gets tipped often.” she notices taeyeon has grown red in the ears. “i happen to be generous with tips. so how about it? tomorrow? you and me?”

“i can’t believe you’re asking me out,” taeyeon sputters, almost laughing. “but okay, sure. yes–why not–i’ll go out with you.”

“great! i’ll pick you up tomorrow.” tiffany stands up and smiles before turning around to leave without another word.

if history serves her right–and she’s almost sure it would–she has to continue leaving in order for taeyeon to go on looking.

***

when it comes down to it there is nothing manipulative in the context of what tiffany decides to do, pulling out all the stops she knows to get taeyeon to fall for her again because taeyeon’s still the same person isn’t she? the same person who screams for ice cream after a long work day standing and smiling for customers she’ll only see once or maybe twice in her life, the same person who laughs with a great disturbing snort and makes funny voices whenever she gets the chance to or when it’s least expected, the same person who watches cartoons on weekends and cries when the evening news can get too violent or cruel, the same person who makes lyrics out of alphabet cereal and hums melodies all day depending on what she hears first thing in the radio, they’re all the same things, things both small and big enough to know when it comes to loving someone and forgetting someone–forgetting because you would want to know what you’ve forgotten when you do remember but tiffany remembers rather well, she remembers so vividly and in detail and it gets to her how she knows these things through her mind and body, through the mere fact she was there discovering these things and making memories with taeyeon herself but where is she now and what of the proof of her attendance? “you look like someone i can fall in love with,” taeyeon whispers the night tiffany kisses her after meeting her again and in this time. the words weigh heavy on tiffany as she tries to ignore what they could possibly mean–i am reliving life forwards. “glad to know i can be that someone,” tiffany whispers back, burying herself under taeyeon and her covers. now there is nothing more real than the taste of taeyeon’s skin.

***

“ah, lemme guess, i know this one.” tiffany gives taeyeon a cheeky grin. “it’s blue,” she answers with a cool, deliberate drawl of someone assured.

“how did you know?” taeyeon asks, looking stumped.

“you’re too obvious,” tiffany shrugs it off, playing. she admits to having the upperhand with her memories but it’s still not the same–yet how can she fall just the same? taeyeon is beautiful. “your phone case is blue, your sneakers are blue, the pen in your bag is blue, hell you’ve worn at least three different shades of blue–”

“okay,” taeyeon laughs, “so i might have a bit of an obsession with blue.”

“and your jeans?” tiffany enjoys her laughter. “yep, also blue.” she holds taeyeon as the latter tries to control her apparent amusement with tiffany’s perfect and on point guesses. that laugh is all hers.

“what else have you noticed?” taeyeon fixes herself straight. “you’re really good at this.”

“at what?”

“observing people. i don’t notice things like you. this is the first time someone told me i look pisces.”

“well,” tiffany swings their hands, “you also look independent. you sing so you’re probably creative plus you have a bit of that tortured artist thing going on.”

“i do?”

“you’re the middle kid, huh?” tiffany looks down on the pavement as she asks.

taeyeon seems to have smiled throughout the night and conversation. “what does the middle kid have to do with all that?” she stops in her tracks. “yeah, i’m the middle of three.”

“really?” tiffany affords a smirk. “no wonder.”

“no wonder what?”

“nothing!” tiffany tugs taeyeon’s arm, smug. “let’s go. it’s cold out here.”

“aw, but i want to know how you guessed that.” taeyeon doesn’t budge. “aren’t the eldest the independent ones? i know they usually are.”

“it’s just something i’ve noticed with my friends,” tiffany answers, hauling taeyeon’s arm to start walking again. ”it’s just an observation.”

“so you think i’m independent?”

“you look it,” tiffany offers. “are you?”

“nah, i don’t think so.”

“lemme guess–it was something borne out of necessity. you learned to be independent, to stand on your own two feet.”

“i guess you could put it that way.”

tiffany doesn’t need to guess.

“something happened, huh?” she nudges her, pushing topics. “hey, how about you try guessing something about me this time?”

“okay.” taeyeon looks at her. “i’m awful at this though.”

“it’s fun–guessing.”

“it’s only fun when you guess right.”

“hmm–so what’s your favorite city in the world?”

“can we start with the basics first?” taeyeon asks, chortling. “don’t tell me you can guess as far as that.”

“what? your favorite city?”

“yeah.”

tiffany allows a pause for a rehearsed fluke. “i dunno–seoul?” she isn’t sure but taeyeon has lived here for the most part.

“nah, seoul’s wonderful though.”

“so what’s the answer?”

“i haven’t thought about it to be honest. i haven’t traveled much.”

tiffany can only nod; she and taeyeon always used to say they would together. “what do you think is my favorite color? i’ll give you a hint–”

“hey, no!” taeyeon covers her ears. “no fair, no hints. i want to guess.”

“and your guess is?”

taeyeon rubs her neck. “pink? yeah, i’ll go with pink.”

tiffany’s heart slams her into listening–pink? “why pink?” she asks through a wide smile. maybe taeyeon remembers.

“wild guess?”

“i thought you were bad at this.”

taeyeon returns to a laughing fit sounding exceedingly gleeful. “really? it’s pink? no way! wow. lucky guess.”

“really now,” tiffany insists, “why pink?”

taeyeon shrugs. “well, it is the default favorite color of young school girls.”

“did you just call me a young school girl?” tiffany smacks taeyeon on the shoulder. “what’s that supposed to mean?”

“nothing, it’s just based on observation.” taeyeon sticks her tongue out.

tiffany doesn’t think she’s coasting along anymore, not since hearing taeyeon’s answer.

“no, really, why pink?”

taeyeon looks at her for a long time. “you look like someone who’d love pink.” she shrugs.

“i guess i do.” tiffany gives it the benefit of the doubt.

“okay, how about this one next–what kind of music do i like?”

tiffany almost laughs. this one’s too easy.

“indie,” she answers immediately. “anything acoustic about love and loss.”

taeyeon looks at her and tiffany wonders why.

“that’s oddly specific,” taeyeon finally says, “but yeah, i do listen to indie and,” she smiles, “about love and loss. you’re really good at this.”

tiffany keeps her hands in her pockets like taeyeon often does. “it’s just a guess.”

“okay, i’m just throwing it out there, whatever comes to mind, but you look like you listen to classical music.”

“what?”

“so no?”

tiffany kicks a pebble as she lifts her foot off the ground. now this game makes her feel that she and taeyeon are in two different places at once. “yeah, i like classical music,” she offers. “good guess.”

“aw yeah!” taeyeon grins. she looks like a fool.

“hey hold the celebration, it isn’t as specific as mine,” tiffany says.

“that’s okay,” taeyeon answers. “i’ll just have to get to know you better then.” she flashes that foolish-looking grin again.

tiffany agrees–it seems to be the only thing she can do.

***

she cries at night, when she has retired from her day and a dry gasping sob comes for her following the times she meets taeyeon. often she feels stranded, listless, like perhaps she’s up against a wall with no doors or windows to let her know where she’s headed or what she might be doing wrong. her friends leave her the same overarching feeling too, well after they have parted ways, like it doesn’t matter how close she is to the truth–what truth? now the hospital feels like a very vivid midafternoon dream, patched and strewn together by words and flashes of lights and sounds, but the tide of emotions drift and it leaves her short of feeling this great, disturbing pain. who would want to feel pain, even in strokes? sometimes the surge swallows her and sometimes it’s tiffany herself who chooses to dip her feet in the water and paddle her way out to the murky distance, to hell with the wall. it was never a matter of sink or swim to begin with, only suspension. still, regardless of all this and tiffany’s place in it, there is a certainty to be had knowing everyone around her is where they think they should be–after all, tiffany is the only one fighting being lost although she doesn’t tell herself that.

***

“tiffany?”

tiffany doesn’t mean it, at least not on purpose, having her mind wander around things, inadvertently tuning out the moments that hurt her.

after all, how could she know taeyeon betterdeepermore if taeyeon is reduced to her predictability and she becomes only as interesting as the familiarity brought by someone already deeply entrenched in tiffany’s mind?

tiffany finds herself hearing the silence more often than questions–taeyeon included.

“hey, are you okay?” taeyeon asks, holding her hand. they had finished dinner and were walking down the road leading to taeyeon’s apartment, just like they have the past week.

tiffany looks at her. “yeah, of course, why?”

“it just looks like there’s something on your mind.”

“i’m okay.” tiffany smiles at her.

“you know you can talk to me about it,” taeyeon mumbles and lets go of tiffany’s hand, “if you want.”

the gesture only leaves tiffany more distant, numb and stretched over her own mind and body. how, taeyeon? how can i tell you?

“it’s nothing, really,” tiffany answers. “i think i ate too much. it’s making me want to collapse and just space out.” she laughs a little.

“i was thinking we could grab dessert,” taeyeon scratches her ear, “but you’re already full, so maybe next time.”

“no,” tiffany reaches for taeyeon’s hand and holds it, feeling guilty, “let’s go get dessert.”

“but you’re full.”

“no, let’s go, i want to eat dessert.”

“are you sure?”

tiffany sighs. knowing taeyeon, of course she wouldn’t want to trouble someone on her account. “yes, i’m sure.”

“we don’t have to–”

“taeyeon, let’s go!” tiffany gives a shout and a pull of her hand. she leads the way into a nearby convenience store to buy ice cream cones and it’s only after they have consumed their treats did she notice the sullen, unprepared for silence that encompassed them.

“hey,” tiffany nudges her. “why are you the quiet one now?”

but knowing taeyeon and the span and depth of her emotions, she knows all too well what’s running through the girl’s mind.

this is obviously tiffany’s fault.

“i just thought maybe you’d like some ice cream,” taeyeon says.

tiffany sighs. it’s precisely why she opted for ice cream cones–taeyeon loves ice cream.

“i did want some ice cream,” she smiles and kisses taeyeon on the cheek. “thank you for dinner. i had fun.”

“really?”

sometimes tiffany wishes taeyeon would stop second guessing herself. as much as she finds it endearing, it also gets on her nerves, much more so now that taeyeon just might actually second guess whatever tiffany confides in her–taeyeon, we used to be lovers for years, don’t you remember anything at all?

tiffany looks up at the sky, wondering its changes.

she tucks a strand of taeyeon’s hair behind her ear. she palms her cheek, stepping forward so that their bodies touched and tiffany could run one hand up taeyeon’s shirt when she kisses her.

the best way to comfort taeyeon has always been through kisses and tiffany is glad that, at least when they’re kissing and breathing as one, the past, present and future ceases to exist.

“now i taste just like ice cream, right?” tiffany teases. “just the way you like it.”

1 stephanie

the taxi takes a sharp turn, in a convenient albeit impulsive attempt to beat the traffic of the early evening rush; stephanie had half a second to decide whether she was going to cross the street, to the flower shop where she could buy taeyeon’s favorite flowers and make a run for it. she was already late, having stopped by the convenience store near her office earlier to buy herself a pack of cigarettes and a tub of ice cream for taeyeon and her bouquet. she didn’t think about it, grabbing for whatever flavor they had on hand at the moment, because there didn’t seem to be any more time. the second passes and the taxi hits her before her feet could even land on the ground and now lying there, in the pool of her own blood and melting ice cream, the only thing on stephanie’s mind really when she faces the sky is why she hadn’t put more thought to it, to what taeyeon’s favorite flavor is again.

***

stephanie wakes but wishes almost immediately she didn’t when she sees she is strapped to a machine making all sorts of lights and worrying noises. it is dark in her room, probably evening, but she can tell her head is cracked because it feels like it and she wonders if it is going to cave in on itself any minute now at the rate she is holding it off. she can barely lift her fingers, her legs asleep and heavy under the thick blanket. there is a knock on the door and the doctor comes in, a clipboard in his hand and a smile on his face.

“you’re awake,” he says.

“where am i?”

“you’re lucky to be alive.”

stephanie remembers the taxi, the flowers and the ice cream. “did i break anything?”

the doctor’s smile never leaves. “it’s a miracle you only suffered a concussion. we’re going to run a few more tests but not to worry, you’ll be out in no time.”

“what happened?”

“you don’t remember?”

“there was a taxi–i was about to cross the street.” stephanie wonders why the doctor can’t stop smiling.

“yes, yes, it’s good the taxi wasn’t speeding, ‘else you might have been killed! now get some rest. if you need anything just push that button right there to your left and a nurse will come.”

“my head hurts.”

“be thankful it’s the only thing that does,” the doctor answers and hangs a bag of liquid overhead.

when he leaves, stephanie looks up, watching the drops in the bag fall. she feels warm, lightheaded, the pain moving farther and farther with the drip. finally, sleep comes and she feels nothing at all.

***

the doctor is right; it’s a miracle she’s alive and even fit enough to leave the hospital just after several days but several days seem long enough especially since she’s alone save for the nurse assigned to her. the nurse gives her new clothes. her old ones are still too dirty and the smell of metal remains even after a repeat wash. stephanie bows her head, thanking the nurse.

“don’t you have anyone to come fetch you?” the nurse asks.

stephanie checks her phone again though she already knows the battery has run out. it’s been several days. “it’s okay. i have a friend who lives nearby. i’ll just take a taxi.”

“be careful now.” the nurse tilts her head, looking concerned. “remember a taxi almost killed you.”

“i won’t forget.” stephanie gives a smile and goes on her way, flagging down a cab. she would much rather ride one than to walk in her condition, she doesn’t have a choice.

the taxi she’s in eventually stops and stephanie tells the driver to wait because she’s just going to get some money upstairs.

knock. knock. knock.

stephanie hopes her friend, sooyoung, is home.

“who is it?” someone asks behind the door.

“it’s me, steph!”

the door opens and sooyoung appears looking pissed. “steph?” an eyebrow is raised. “anyway, where were you? i’ve been waiting for hours. i can’t reach your cell. did you purposely turn it off again? tiff, you know you can’t just–”

“wait,” stephanie interrupts when the taxi honks. “can i borrow some money? i took a cab. i’ll pay you later.”

sooyoung goes inside and comes out with a few bills. “where were you?” she asks again when they’re inside.

“dude, didn’t the hospital call you or something? i was in an accident. i was nearly killed!”

“huh?” sooyoung crosses her arms. “that’s a bad joke, tiff. you can’t joke about things like that and if you’re going to lie, at least try.” she chuckles. “anyway, there’s this new place i want to try. you’ll love it! their organic–”

“tiff?” stephanie cuts her again. “sooyoung, i was gone for almost a week and i nearly died and all you can think about is food?”

sooyoung snorts. “what week? we were just on the phone this morning. drop it, tiff, you aren’t getting out of this one, okay? but this is the last time i’m letting your tardiness slide. next time you’re late you’re buying me dinner and dessert.”

“tiff? why do you keep calling me tiff? who’s tiff?”

that eyebrow again.

“okay, stop it,” sooyoung says, looking impatient. “it isn’t funny and i’m not falling for one of your dumb tricks again plus i’m starving. i already made reservations so if you’re ready to go we can leave.”

“what tricks?” stephanie doesn’t understand. “stop calling me tiff. since when did you start calling me tiff? that doesn’t even remotely sound anything like stephanie. i’m steph, stephanie hwang. sooyoung?”

sooyoung has turned and walked away. stephanie follows her into one of the rooms. “hey, since when did you clean this place up? did you meet someone? i haven’t seen your apartment this clean since you and kyungho got together.”

sooyoung faces her from the reflection on her dresser mirror. “what are you talking about? you know i’m deeply allergic to disorganization and dust. who the heck is kyungho? is that the last guy you slept with?”

“what?”

“oh by the way, i think i left my lipstick in your purse. i can’t seem to find it and i’ve been looking forever. i’m pretty sure it’s with you. i distinctly recall asking you to keep it for me when we went to–”

“sooyoung,” stephanie steps closer, unable to follow anymore. “what do you mean the last guy i slept with? kyungho? that’s impossible and i would never do that to taeyeon and–”

“who’s taeyeon?” sooyoung grabs stephanie’s hand. “look, if we don’t leave now they’re going to give our reservation to someone else so can we please just drop this and–”

“sooyoung, this isn’t funny. you’re scaring me.”

“you’re the one acting all weird, and how dare you make fun of my singlehood, you know that’s off limits. what is up with you today? did you hit your head or something?”

stephanie is unable to say anything further when sooyoung pulls her outside and into a cab.

on the ride there all she can think about are the things sooyoung has said.

***

it’s odd how sooyoung takes her to a vegetarian cafe complete with the artificial meat offerings and home grown produce. the only thing stephanie finds appetizing really on the menu is a sandwich made from free range chicken for non-vegetarians like her and a chocolate milkshake that comes with a generous dollop of whipped cream and ice cream. she orders two for them but sooyoung chastises her selection, ordering a salad for herself instead.

“you’re so mean,” she says.

“what?” stephanie is just as puzzled as ever. “i thought you liked chicken?”

“since when? 1999? or have you forgotten i’m on my fifth straight year already as a veg-head? meanie.”

stephanie is shocked.

“sooyoung?”

“yeah?”

“are you angry at me?”

sooyoung laughs. “why the sudden question?”

“have i done anything to upset you? in the past? maybe right now?”

“well, you were late again–only god knows why but that’s hardly offensive,” sooyoung answers. “why do you ask?”

“i’d appreciate it really, if the prank ends here. i really am scared.”

“what prank?” sooyoung repeats. “you’re the one acting all weird and clueless ever since you arrived. look, tiff, i really am not in the mood to mess around with you. i had a long day and it’s the weekend, i want to spend it right so if your idea of destressing me is to actually stress me with your acting then stop.” sooyoung hits her on the shoulder.

stephanie doesn’t answer, resolving to wait instead for sooyoung to slip or give up on what’s happening. this little charade has gone too far and she would really like it if life welcomed her back again, ever since the accident.

“hey, tiff.” sooyoung nudges her. “when do you think you can lend me your car? it’s only for a few days, i promise! there’s this trip i’m planning next month and i think it’s perfect for–tiff? hello?” sooyoung snaps her fingers.

stephanie looks at her, coming out of it. she feels tired ever since leaving the hospital and talking around in circles with sooyoung. “yeah? sorry i was–i didn’t know you were talking to me–you were saying?”

“man, what is up with you today.” sooyoung shakes her head. “you could have just cancelled you know.”

“no, i’m fine. i’m just a little disoriented, that’s all.”

“okay.”

“but sooyoung–didn’t you hear about the accident? the hospital didn’t call you?”

“what accident? you keep talking about this accident i have no idea about.”

“wasn’t i gone for a week?”

sooyoung’s eyebrows look just as serious. “and where could you have possibly gone in that week you keep talking about?”

“i don’t know.”

“baby,” sooyoung pats her cheek. “you’re out of it. lay off a little on the alcohol, okay? you’re so pretty so be nice to your liver every once in awhile.”

“okay,” she agrees.

but stephanie knows it’s not and if anything, sooyoung’s just being a complete pain in the head right now especially since she has missed a week of her life and when all she wants really is to go home and sleep on her bed.

the sandwich arrives and stephanie eats wordlessly, listening instead to sooyoung chatter about this tiffany and how far removed she seems to be from stephanie. there are bits and pieces she recognizes, names and places that register every now and then but it’s all vague and grainy like a dimly lit room with flakes and specks swirling around in the little light.

she nods in response whenever sooyoung calls her–tiff or tiffany.

somehow, in the deep well of her own recollection, she begins to believe it isn’t that too far off a nickname from stephanie–tiffany.

***

there is nothing different when she enters her apartment. her lock code hasn’t changed, the dirty dishes in the sink–an accumulation of the past week’s chores before her stay in the hospital–remain and all her precious things, clothes, money, her mom’s old jewelry, are all where she thinks they would be–and they are. she goes around opening drawers and cupboards knowing their contents before she can see them. exactly twenty seven steps, she expects, placing her feet carefully one after the other knowing they would span her apartment from end to end, one hundred and eight floor tiles with glossy varnish, five pairs of dining utensils with an extra fork that has one of its ends chipped, a creaking floor board by the bathroom and a corner peeling on the wall behind the refrigerator; stephanie knows these facts, useless as they are except to serve as memories and proof of ownership she lives here. she came to learn all these things with taeyeon, whenever they spent time in her apartment, staying up all night talking, singing, making love, playing video games and eating microwave no cook dinners. these are important things, telling things, of how she has come to be and how she has always been. stephanie knows stephanie exists and with these things around her she knows that can’t be taken away–that she exists, yet somehow she wants to sleep with the lights on, enabling her to see for herself that what is there has always been and not just in her mind. she holds it off, her sleep, to the very last second until she can no more. it’s there, when she closes her eyes, in the dark, awake behind her heavy lids, that she can’t help but remember how it feels just like when she had drifted off not too long ago back in the hospital. it’s strange but there isn’t really anything strange as she has always slipped and surrendered in the same way, to the same beguiling lull of her unconsciousness. she sleeps still feeling nothing at all.

***

her phone rings and it steals her from her dreams. “hello?” she croaks. she opens one eye checking for the time.

“yo tiff!” the voice answers. “where are you?”

“home.” stephanie sits up–that name again. “who is this?”

“yuri.”

“yuri–,” stephanie repeats. “right. what’s up? why’d you call?”

“why’d i call?” yuri sounds incredulous. “girl we have plans to look at apartments today!”

stephanie closes her eyes. yuri. apartments. right. “that was today? sorry, it must have slipped my mind–”

“tiff, yoona here,” a different voice says. “if you’re still in bed we can pick you up. i just have to drop something off first but we’re going to be in the area. are you still at home?”

“yeah–”

“okay, great! did you just wake up? you sound like you just woke up.”

“yeah, i just woke up–”

“get your butt outta bed! we’ll be there in an hour tops–”

“tiff, it’s yuri–,” stephanie frowns whenever she hears that. “we’re sorry to bug you around like this but you’re really the only designer we trust.”

“right,” stephanie answers, although she isn’t sure of when she promised her twin friends to help look at houses. “okay, i’m up, i’m up. i’ll go shower and get ready but buy me breakfast–the usual.”

“okay, three pancakes, scrambled eggs, and an extra helping of maple syrup. got it.”

“yuri–”

“what?”

“i like my eggs sunny side up.”

a laugh. “since when?”

“since i was four.”

“okay so you want something different today, got it. no problemo.”

“yuri–”

“yeah? anything else?”

“did i always eat that much?”

“huh?”

“never mind–,” stephanie brushes it off. it is much too early to be thinking about breakfast especially since she hasn’t had any yet. “i’ll get ready.”

“thank you!” yuri chirps. “thank you, thank you, thank you, tiffany hwang! you’re the best!”

“what did you just call me?”

“you’re the best–? what? okay, you’re the best and you’re prettier than the two of us combined. there, that better?”

“no, why did you call me tiffany?”

“because that’s your name–?” stephanie hears a laugh. “wake up, sweetie. we got a long day ahead of us. we’ll call you again when we’re near. god forbid you shut off your phone again. place it right beside you!”

“okay.” stephanie lies back down.

“bye, tiff, thanks again!”

stephanie breathes goodbye back with the dial tone ringing in her ear.

she wonders when the name tiffany will ring in her mind.

***

as the day progresses she learns a few things. tiffany’s favorite color is purple–an admittedly acceptable replacement to her love for all shades of pink–and aside from a hearty appetite that consists of three pancakes, scrambled eggs and extra syrup, tiffany also seems to be really into that whole environment-friendly agenda using only sustainable materials like bamboo and hyacinth, a stark contrast to her history and outspoken weakness for industrial grade steel and marble. even tiffany’s aesthetic standpoint is different, opting for a lavish kaleidoscope of texture and color with little to no cohesion because apparently that’s what she is known for. “but tiff, this isn’t you,” yoona said, each time she had suggested something different to the hot mess the twins wanted. stephanie took this as an open explanation as to why her suggestions for a monochromatic minimalist motif were repeatedly shut down–it isn’t her.

“are you having a bad day? is something the matter?” yoona asks when they get in the car after the last apartment. they’ve resigned for the day, having hopped to different neighborhoods the entire afternoon surveying their options.

stephanie nods.

“we don’t mean to push you especially since we only asked you to do us a favor, but tiff, c’mon, what’s happening?”

“what’s happening?” stephanie repeats.

“you know what we want,” yuri answers. “that’s why we trust you.”

“what do you want?”

“we already discussed this.”

“look, guys,” stephanie waves a hand, “i’m really not myself right now–i can’t think properly, much less to even try drawing out from you the kind of artistic statement you want done with your house but this is me, you know? this is my professional opinion and if you’re not happy with what i have to say then we can just forget about this whole thing.”

“no! no!” yuri turns to her from the passenger seat. “we are happy. we are. right, yoona? we are.” stephanie sees yoona nodding violently. “but we just don’t understand the change–? i mean, when we discussed this i thought we were on the same page of bachelor-girl-sorority-fun-house–? not this whole utilitarian-old-maid-palace.”

stephanie rolls her eyes. “it’s not utilitarian-old-maid-palace. it’s luxurious-cave-young-professional. and really, aren’t we too old for this whole bachelor-girl-fun-house theme?”

“tiff,” yoona sings.

“stop calling me that!”

most of the car ride is spent in silence.

stephanie looks out her window. “didn’t you hear anything about me? last week?” she finally asks.

“what about?” yoona meets her eyes from the rear view mirror.

“did anyone call? a hospital maybe?”

“no,” yuri answers. “no one called us about you. why? were we supposed to expect a call–?”

stephanie shakes her head.

“why the hospital?” yoona asks.

“nothing.”

“say, why don’t we grab dinner before we drop you off? it was a long day,” yuri calls out. “our treat!”

“is this your way of apologizing?”

“tiff,” yuri pouts, “you’re the only one we know who can do this. you know we trust you. we’re just surprised–that’s all, really. it was like you took a 180 without us.”

“i know you still want it,” stephanie mocks. “your lil’ party-sorority-fun-house. really, yuri, really, it’s so juvenile–i can’t. it’s not me.”

“not you?” yuri furrows her eyebrows. “it is you! you’ve been doing these houses for celebrities for years. what are you talking about?”

stephanie releases a sigh, unable to argue or converse anymore. all she knows the design her twin friends want is ugly and mediocre and unacceptable and stephanie has never tolerated such adjectives in any form.

“where are we eating?”

“at our favorite steak house of course,” yoona answers.

“i have a favorite steak house?”

“really, tiff, what is up with you today?” yuri looks at her again. “we always eat there. don’t tell us you’ve grown tired of it.”

“maybe,” stephanie lies.

“aw c’mon! everyone knows the steak could be better but nothing beats their open house karaoke night on wednesday’s and friday’s!”

“i’m glad it’s saturday.”

“says the mike-hogger.” the twins laugh.

“right. i think i’ll pass for tonight,” stephanie says. “you can just drop me off there. i can take a cab back.”

“what? no!” the twins cry in unison.

“i’m tired.”

“you sure?” yoona slows the car down. “we can drop you off. it’s not out of the way.”

“okay,” stephanie gives in, glad she’s miles closer to home. “thanks. i just want to change into my pajamas and rest.”

“no problem,” yoona answers and stephanie closes her eyes, sinking deeper and deeper into the soft corners of her seat. “no problem.”

***

stephanie steps out of her clothes and into the hot, searing water in her tub coming up almost to her knees. she lies down and the heat unnerves her, displacing the cold she feels at the soles of her feet up to the crevices of her bones–she needed this; she deserves this, for her skin to thaw and rise together with the heavy steam, her mind coming undone from the stream of questions and dearth of answers. she stops thinking, realizing when she’s lying there, looking up this time at the light that maybe she had really hit her head bad and a few things fell out. she’s glad though that her friends didn’t, and taeyeon–stephanie sits up. she turns on the water and finishes. maybe taeyeon has called. she hasn’t since.

buzz.

stephanie wraps herself in a towel, wondering who that might be. taeyeon?

when she opens the door she’s tackled with a hug. it’s seohyun, her cousin.

“hey.” stephanie extracts herself from the hold. “i didn’t know you were coming over–”

“oh, were you in the shower?” seohyun walks inside. “sorry i’m early.”

“early?”

“yeah.” seohyun looks at her. “it’s my birthday next week, remember? we agreed to celebrate in advance.”

“oh.”

they stare at each other.

“um, okay,” stephanie says. “i’ll just get dressed.” she walks to her closet. “sorry i forgot.”

“it’s okay.”

“seohyun.” stephanie sits down on the bed, combing her hair. ”why are we celebrating it early again?”

“because we can’t next week.”

“why not?”

“it’s a weekday.”

“and?”

“you have work.”

“right,” stephanie answers. “i have work.”

“you work too much.”

“i do?”

seohyun has placed herself beside her on the bed, a hand on her forehead. “are you alright? what’s with the weird questions?”

“nothing,” stephanie answers. “like you said i work too much. there’s just a lot on my mind, that’s all.”

“did something happen?”

“i think so.”

“why? what’s wrong?”

stephanie pauses.

“do you remember that time when we were seven, we were riding our bikes down that steep hill at the back of my house and you kept telling me to slow down but i wouldn’t listen so i fell?”

“yeah, why?”

“we were twelve when we first had a bottle of beer, right? from my brother’s hidden stash under his bed.”

seohyun nods. “during your birthday.”

“i dressed up as a fairy all the time when we used to go trick or treating in your neighborhood.”

“tiff, where are you going with this?”

“that’s the thing.” stephanie sighs. “i think i’ve forgotten a few things.”

“what things?” seohyun looks troubled. “what do you mean you’ve forgotten?”

“i don’t know. didn’t anyone call you last week?”

“about?”

“about me.” stephanie stands up. somehow sitting still makes her feel time isn’t moving. “i got hit by a car last week. it was an accident–i was crossing the street. seohyun, i was nearly killed!”

stephanie waits for a reaction, a comment, or an explanation, anything really. “i was confined in the hospital for a week. the doctor said i was lucky to be alive.”

“you sound so serious,” seohyun answers. “but i have no idea about what you’re saying. you were in an accident last week? when exactly? we talk every few days. you look alright to me.” she shrugs.

“okay. what’s my favorite color?”

pink.

“purple.”

“how many boyfriends have i had?”

two.

“you mean official ones?” seohyun asks. “i don’t know with you. you sleep around too much.”

“what did i name my puppy when i was eighteen?”

prince.

“princess.”

“my favorite food?”

eel.

“shrimp.”

“drink?”

coffee.

“water.”

stephanie chews on her lip. it seems she has a lot to catch up on, or change, depending on how she wants to look at it. did she change or did she not notice she changed?

“you’re acting weird today,” seohyun says. “very weird.”

“sorry,” stephanie mumbles. “just–never mind. forget what i said.”

“okay, well, are you ready to go? if we finish early we can still catch a movie if you’re up for it.”

stephanie reaches for her purse behind the door and slips on her shoes.

she is careful not to think about it further.

“ready.”

while she was sleeping

while she was sleeping
i bade the moon good eve
and bargained with the stars
not to take her away
while she was sleeping
there, a most peaceful look
was on her face as she
slipped away into the night
while she was sleeping
curled up, beautiful in her dreaming
catching fireflies and slaying dragons
we were six once more
while she was sleeping
i wondered what land she had gone to
what earth did she run from
that she would look like this
while she was sleeping.

9irls6eneration

maybe it’s selfish, maybe it’s too much to ask, especially since they know only so much about each other, as much as it could permit, but it’s asked anyway, “can we go on for a long time?” without pause, “you’re beautiful, in ways i wish i could tell you but i can’t, because i don’t know how.” it’s beautiful, right? when beauty is finally known and realized, when it’s the heart that sees it this time–the obvious love for pink, peas and ice cream, sleeping with her mouth hanging open, the dates and the years life changed, habits, dreams, what she looks for in a lover and why, the fears (so as to look out for them), her preferences, the last book she read, her order in the coffee shop last saturday and the funny foreign phrases that stick but really, really, do they know? beauty? “there will never be another like you,” swoons and sighs from blessed children. “we know, fool, we know.”