Authors: David Yoon
What would Brit do?
She says it again. “I love you, Frank Li.”
Our movie is shot day-for-night in monochrome. The song ends. We let the earbuds fall away, leaving no soundtrack but the ocean and air.
Do I love Brit? I do. I think I do. But there’s a gap that keeps my love from seating properly. It wiggles. It is imperfect. Is it something I can fix? I don’t know. If not, is it something I can get used to? Is it something I can live with?
I realize this gap is my problem. Brit does not have this gap. It is easier for her to love—simpler, less complicated.
My love is slightly misshapen. My love is nonstandard. It requires workarounds.
Is it the same love, then? Does it matter? I have no idea. I’ve never been in love.
My ignorance leaves me with two ways to go: either say fuck it, I don’t know anything about love, so I’m going to wait and conduct more research—or fuck it, I don’t know anything about love, so I’m the perfect lab rat, and dive on in.
The fact is I
to love Brit. That has to count for something. Sure: there is a gap, it wiggles, it’s imperfect. So I’ll press gum into the gap and hope it stays. It’s a workaround.
I say it: “I love you too.”
Brit’s face breaks with joy. She didn’t need to be concerned after all. We are here, on this cold shore, safe and warm in our jackets like an old couple gazing at the horizon of time. Brit is an old soul. I can feel that. She has this strange patience that belies her age. For most kids this would be the moment where we tear each other’s clothes off and do it right on the beach. But Brit’s not most kids.
We both sense it’s time to kiss, so we kiss again. She smells like set sun and musk and ice cream. I zip open my jacket; she zips open hers. The zippers are mirrored, so we connect the two jackets together into one single cocoon of warmth. She pulls her hands into the cocoon and wraps them around my body to feel my torso with her thawing fingertips, rib by rib.
“I love you,” she murmurs, like she’s falling asleep. “It feels so good just to be able to say it finally. I love you.”
I feel a buzz. Return to Base.
“I love you too,” I say. Saying it makes it feel more true. I get the feeling that the more I say it, the truer it will feel over time. And eventually this truth I’ve created will weave itself into every fiber of my reality, until it moves naturally with my every gesture like a favorite shirt I can’t help but wear always.
We drive back. I gaze out at the illuminated triangle formed by the lines of the road stretching ahead of us in the dark, mirroring our own forms as we lean against each other to meet in the center of the car as I hold the wheel steady.
Something official has happened to me and Brit. We said three words few ever say to each other. It’s hard for me to pin down exactly what the precious words signify. They are a pact, a declaration. Also a kind of relinquishing. Saying
I love you
is the cry of the helpless. All you can do is confess it and hope it shows you mercy.
“Get closer,” I say, so she snuggles in harder. It’s not safe driving this way—I can’t see my mirrors, I’ve got only one hand on the wheel—but I don’t care because all I have to do is keep the car straight, and that seems easy enough.
When we get to Brit’s house, she whispers in through the open car window:
“I love you. I love saying
I love you
. It’s like I learned a new word today.”
I lean over. She leans in, cantilevering her body on the sill, and gives me a single kiss like a drinking bird toy. I watch her climb her staircase. When she gets to her red door, my phone buzzes again. Stupid calendar alerts. I pull it out to Snooze—until I notice the screen.
“Everything okay?” calls Brit from above. She can see my face glowing in the car.
“Just spam,” I say.
Brit blows me a kiss and vanishes into her house. I check my screen again.
Hey, I’m still here in the warehouse district . . . Need a lift if you’re around
Too much fucking drama
It’s Joy. Why is Joy still at the warehouse district? Where’s Wu? Why does she need a ride?
On my way,
I slam the car into Drive and whip it around.
When I get there, Joy’s sitting on an ice-cream sandwich bench, smoking a cigarette. Like a real-life, burning-tobacco, smoke-in-the-lungs cigarette. I march up to her and flick it out of her mouth and into a puddle.
“What the fuck are you doing smoking?”
“Now I have to go bum another one,” she says.
Behind us is a floodlit alley crawling with hipsters packing away giant ice-cream cones and waffles the size of mattresses. At least Joy wasn’t sitting totally alone in the dark.
“Come on,” I say. “It’s super late. We gotta go home before people start to worry.”
Joy just grabs my hand, forcing me to sit next to her, and digs for her phone. She raises it for a couple selfie.
“What are you doing?” I say.
“Just act happy and shit.”
The best I can manage is a dour smile, which Joy makes up for with an expert head tilt, peace sign, and duckling pout. Then she texts it away—to her mom.
“Mom will see it, then your mom will see it, they’ll squeal like piggies, and now we have a few more hours to burn,” says Joy, flinging her phone back into her purse with weary disgust.
I’m still stunned from her little pose for the camera just now. She just went from misery to ecstasy and back in seconds.
“You have serious mental problems,” I say.
“No, you do,” says Joy.
Joy smacks her lips with distaste. “Do you have any mints? My mouth tastes terrible.”
“Smoking is like sucking on Satan’s big toe after his morning jog around the ninth circle,” I say.
“No such thing as Satan.”
“Are we just gonna sit here and do—
Joy thinks, comes up with nothing. She suddenly looks so sad. Just so, so sad.
I lean over. “Hey. What happened?”
Joy blinks and blinks and blinks until two perfect clear droplets escape from her eyes, and when she blinks again the droplets break into glossy streaks down her cheeks. The tears are making her mad. Or maybe she’s mad at herself for letting me see them? Whatever the reason, she grips my shoulders and buries her face in my chest.
“I think Wu’s gonna dump me,” she mumbles. Big sniff, then another. “I think I deserve it.”
I can feel her hot face. I have a good view of her scalp; I can see bits of green in her hair. She smells exhausted. There’s an empty piercing in the top part of her left ear—three of them, in fact. Tiny holes, evidence of a fashion lark.
“He’s not gonna dump you,” I say. “You guys have been together forever.”
She presses her face into my chest harder. “He hates me. I made him hate me. I suck, Frank.”
I push her off me and look at her. “What the hell happened?”
“You know what he said?”
I watch her as she does this nervous thing with her fingertips, like she’s knitting invisible thread.
“We’re eating our stupid shitty food at that stupid shitty restaurant,” says Joy. “And he’s all,
Frankenbrit’s only been together for like a couple weeks, and they’re already borderline married-slash-OTP.
” She says it in California Boyfriend Informal.
“He’s just exaggerating,” I say as gently as I can.
Brit’s already met Frank’s parents at a family barbecue and everything, and I know Frank’s met Brit’s parents.
How come we’re not like Frankenbrit? We’ve been together forever, dur dur dur, how come we’re not like Frankenbrit?
She’s blinking again, and this time she presses her face to my chest in time to hide the tears.
“And the thing is, he’s right,” cries Joy. “Because I’m a bad person.”
I shake her. “Stop it. You’re not a bad person.”
Joy’s eyes are poofy and pink now, as if she were tired of it all.
She pounds her palm with a fist. “I just felt like, we shouldn’t have to sneak around and fake-date and whatever. We should be able to just fucking get everything out in the open and be honest with each other.”
I bobblehead. “Stop, whoa, whoa.”
She pounds her palm again. “All this time, Wu’s had no idea my parents were racist against him. So—”
“Joy, what did you do?”
“So I straight-up told him.”
Now I freeze. Even the hipsters behind us have gone quiet. A floodlight switches off. Joy shrinks a centimeter.
“You did not.”
“We’ve been together for almost two years, and this whole time I figured I wouldn’t tell him to protect him, right? Because who wants to hear that shit, right?”
“Waitwaitwait,” I say, stunned. “What exactly did you say?”
“He was all,
You lied to me
Are you ashamed of me
and I said no. No way. But that reeks bad, because what kind of girlfriend hides her boyfriend from her parents for
almost two years
?” She punches out that last part into her palm, too.
Then she boxes her own temples. “I am the worst.”
“Joy,” I say carefully. “Did you tell Wu about our arrangement?”
Joy shoots me a look. “Hell no, dummy.”
“Oh dear sweet baby jesus,” I say.
“I just told him I’ve been hiding him from my parents for almost two years,” she says with resignation. “Lying, basically.”
We both stare at an object in the dark road before us. It’s a blueberry the size of a kickball.
“You and me both,” I say. “So I guess we can be the worst together?”
“That frankly doesn’t make me feel any better, Frank Li.”
“Just saying you’re not alone.” I grip the edge of the ice-cream sandwich bench and bounce my legs.
“That makes us alone together,” says Joy. “There is no possible world in which we can just be ourselves on our own terms. This is it.”
“Come on,” I say. But she might be right. But then again, why stop being optimistic? But then again-again, would only a fool be optimistic, knowing what I know? That no matter how old I get, or how far I travel, I will never simply get to love who I want?
Will I have to wait for Mom-n-Dad to die first?
Getting dark in here, Frank.
“So Wu just bailed on you,” I say.
“No, I left him,” says Joy, wincing at the memory. “I really am the worst.”
“I told him it wasn’t easy living with racist-ass parents, that he needed to be a little more sympathetic to my situation, and then
got up and left
at the table.”
I’m impressed by her colossal stupidity. “Wow.”
“The worst. It me.”
“It really is.”
I search my memory. “Yeah, I can’t think of anyone worse than you.”
“Shut up,” she sings with a smile. But in the next instant she grows sheepish with sorrow again. “He’s not texting me back. I made the boy I care about feel like shit. It’s not funny.”
“Of course it’s not funny,” I say. “Hey. You’re not the worst.”
I pull her in for a side-hug. Her head fits nicely in the crook of my neck, like it belongs there. I feel the compact sinew of her shoulder—not as soft as Brit—and wonder if Joy’s secretly athletic: running and jumping and capering on strong arched feet.
It’s easy to rest my cheek atop her head and simply inhale the scent of her scalp. She smells like an afternoon nap in the sun. I press my mouth and nose closer.
Just the slightest pucker and this could be a kind of kiss.
I mumble into her hair. “Maybe it’s for the better? That you guys had a fight?”
“You mean to cut him loose gradually.”
“This is getting super heavy,” I say. “Never mind. You love Wu. Wu loves you.”
And I do give her hair a little imperceptible kiss. Because I don’t want her to be sad. Surely one tiny kiss can stem such a tide.
Joy sings quietly. “I love Wu, Wu loves me, we’re a happy family.” She ducks out from under my arm to face me. “Do I love Wu?”
My phone buzzes. It’s Mom. I auto-text her back:
Be home soon.
“I’m assuming you’ve said the words
I love you
to each other?” I say.
“Lots of times,” says Joy with a single nod.
“And you felt it? Each time?”
“I think so. I don’t know. I don’t know anything.”
“Wait, what are you telling me right now? That maybe you don’t love Wu after all?”
“No,” cries Joy. She makes a quick desperate search for words and finds none. “It’s just that, tonight, I realized how I’ve been keeping him like this”—she stiff-arms me—“for our whole relationship, and I’m wondering: can you truly, truly say you love someone who’s always been held at arm’s length?”
I hold her arm with both hands, mostly to admire its fine lithe structure. She hooks her fingertips to my hand and lets
them cling there. Her question is rhetorical, and I realize that the answer—if we’re already being brutally honest here—is no.
My phone buzzes again, and again it’s Mom calling.
Leaving right now, be home really soon, I promise,
I’m still stuck on
I love you
. “When you say
I love you
, what exactly do you mean by those words?”
Joy lets her arm fall. “I don’t know, Frank. I’m beginning to think it was just a thing to say. Like a ritual or a habit that couples are supposed to engage in to signify
Hey, we are a real couple-couple over here.
This rings true. The gum holding my love for Brit is still there, but I don’t know for how long. “Shit,” I say.
“Why, did something happen with Brit tonight?” says Joy.
“No. Yes. Maybe.” I offer a brittle smile.
Joy sits up, as if she’s eager to stop being sad. “Tell me.”
I see me and Brit on the beach, with the moon, and the sand, and everything. My heart does a lazy flop. I am thrilling inside—or is it quaking? Am I in love? Or am I in fear? Are they two sides of the same coin?
“So,” I begin. “We’re at the beach tonight, just us, alone.”
Joy leans in. “Uh-huh.”
“And we walk out to the sand.”
“Did you do it?” she says, like a little devil.
“No, we did not do it.”
“I’m rooting for you guys. Even if Wu and I break up, I’ll sit in a cafe or something and wait out the night while you guys are together.”
“We don’t know if it’ll come to that yet.”
“You guys are perfect for each other.” Joy does a funny thing: she holds my earlobe between her thumb and forefinger and rubs it three times, like a lucky charm.
Joy retracts her hand and blinks with attention. “So what happened next?”
I work hard to articulate this next part. “We’re just standing there. I know what she’s about to say. I can feel it. It’s like the chorus to a song you kind of already know how to sing even though it’s the first time you’re hearing it.”
Joy keeps her eyes locked on mine. “I don’t get you music people, but I trust you.”
“It’s like she had the whole thing planned. So when she says it, I’m just floored, but I also expected it in a weird way?”
“Goddammit, man, what did she say?”
“She said the words
I love you
I love you,
” says Joy, impressed.
I nod. “
I love you.
My phone buzzes again. Mom. “Jesus,” I sigh. I auto-text:
Be home soon.
As soon as it sends, it buzzes again. And again, and again.
“Gee-zuss.” I answer the phone.
“Frankie-ya,” says Mom. “Frankie-ya, where are you? You coming, right now.”
“Mom, I’m in the car right now as we speak.”
“You coming right now, please,” says Mom. Something’s wrong. Her voice feels dented. And she never says
“Hey,” I say. “Is everything okay?”
“Daddy,” says Mom. “We in hospital right now. They shooting.”
Joy’s hand is upon mine all of a sudden. She’s looking at me. She knows something’s wrong, too.
“One man with gun,” cries Mom. “He shooting Daddy. He shooting Daddy!”