453 Chestnut Avenue was the typical suburban house, really.
Two floors not including the finished basement, tiled floors, marker scrawl over the cream colored walls by an exploratory four-year-old Leo, a backyard with a swing set and sandbox, the pride and joy of my mother from the day she bought it to the day she died.
It was the house I had learned to walk in and the house I had learned to talk in and I had engraved every single square inch of my soul into the corners of the house which maybe was the reason I never wanted to go back again.
453 Chestnut Avenue, where my second grade self laid in bed and stared up at the ceiling and wished for a mother again.
453 Chestnut Avenue, where my twelfth grade self laid in bed and stared up at the ceiling and wondered how he was so pathetic that he lost his best friend.
453 Chestnut Avenue, home.
And, so it went.
“Are you sure?” Jun asks me for maybe the tenth time as we stand in front of the door. Granted, we’ve been outside the red chipped paint door for a solid five minutes and I still haven't unlocked it yet.
“Yeah, let me just—” I start, and open the envelope with the key inside it. The metal is cold on my palm like the air around us and I guess it's true that tragedies only happen in the winter.
I wonder when it had started feeling like a tragedy.
“Want me to do it?” Jun asks. He's being so nice that it feels almost unnatural but still makes my heart ache in my chest. I shake my head now and slide the key into the lock.
“Nah, I got it,” I say and turn the key, unlocking the door. Jun takes it out of the lock, fingers brushing over mine, and I close my hand over the doorknob, turning it to the right and pushing the door open.
I don't know what I expected. Maybe I wanted to see white walls and asbestos and smell the smell of antiseptic that the dead leave behind, but it's the same as always, tiled floor and marker scrawl.
“Home sweet home,” Jun says quietly. I nod and step through the threshold. Home.
It's all the same, really, the 453 Chestnut Avenue of today is the same as the one from ten years ago, down to the coffee stain on the center table and the colored magnets on the fridge. There's a to-do list from six months ago still scribbled on the dry erase board in the kitchen.
The couch is still as worn as it used to be and I run a hand over the armrest.
“This is weird,” is the first thing I tell Jun since entering the house. He laughs quietly from behind me. We’d already wandered around the first floor and were idling in front of the staircase that led upstairs.
“After you,” he says, motioning up the stairs, so I go up first.
My bedroom door is directly right from the top of the staircase and I pause on the last step for a second, before Jun nudges me from behind.
“Want me to do it?” he offers again and I shake my head, walking up to the door and pulling it open in one motion.
Just weeks before she died, my mom had put up a bulletin board in my room and pinned it with pictures of us. I’d thought about it nights later, because maybe she’d put it up because she knew she was going to die.
It's the first thing I see in the room.
For a second, I'm struck with a painful loneliness, pressing down on my chest with cold hands until I feel like I can't breathe, looking at the pictures on the bulletin board but Jun’s hand brushes against my lower back as he walks by, grounding me.
“Oh, look,” Jun says and unpins a picture from the board. I walk closer to peer over his shoulder at it; it's from the zoo trip and my mother is kneeling to match our heights and Jun and I are smiling so wide that our eyes are curved into crescents. “Remember this?”
“Couldn't forget if I tried,” I reply, and the words come out choked. Everything seems a little blurred around the edges, so I sit at the end of the bed, the same one that I had spent so many lonely nights in, still covered in the same blue and white checked sheets.
“You okay?” Jun asks and drags the wooden chair from my desk to sit across from me, so close that our knees bump.
“Yeah,” I nod. “I'm just a little—” I cut myself off and wave my hand in the air as an explanation, staring pointedly at the floor.
“You're clearly not,” Jun points out and, for a second, I want to ask him why he suddenly cares so much about me and of course I'm not okay, I have no more family left.
Oh. That's what it is. My aunt’s dead, my mom’s dead, I never knew my father, and anyone else that shares my blood probably doesn't know that I exist.
And, there it is, a tear falls from my jaw to the denim of my jeans. When was the last time I cried? I can't remember.
Jun’s hand reaches over to grab mine. “Leo.”
“I feel so alone,” I whisper. When was the last time I talked about my feelings without a drink in my hand? The thought of alcohol makes me crave it. “I need a drink.”
“You don't,” Jun tells me. I wonder when Jun had decided that it was his job to get me sober.
“I do,” I insist. “I'm fucking broken and I'm fucking alone and I hate thinking about it.”
Jun’s thumb runs over my knuckles and his skin is soft and his voice is kind and I’m still crying. His hand leaves mine to tip my chin up to look at him and he brushes away the tears on my face with the corner of his sleeve.
“I miss my mom,” I say miserably. “It's been almost twenty years and I still miss her.”
“I know. But you're not alone. You have me,” Jun replies, and it's so cliché that I almost laugh.
“That's cheesy as fuck,” I tell him.
He shrugs, bringing his hands back to his lap. “It's true.”
It's always hurt to love Jun, but, for a second, for a minute, I feel like he might love me too.
He puts the photo in my palm before standing up, and then he bends slightly to push the hair from my forehead and brush his lips against my skin. “There,” he says. “All better?”
“You're so—” I splutter and he laughs, running his hand through my hair before pulling me to my feet.
“Come on. I'll buy lunch,” he says and I smile as he drags me out of the room and down the stairs to the door.
“You're being nice and it's weird,” I comment, fishing the keys out of my pocket with my free hand.
“I'm always this kind,” he replies and pulls me out the door, closing it behind him so I can lock it.
“Alright, then,” I say, deadpan, and he nudges me in retaliation, squeezing my hand tight.
His touch seems so natural (so caring) that I almost forget that we’re just friends. Almost.
Jun’s house had been a tiny little apartment, cozy and bright and the pride and joy of his grandparents, but, even from a young age, I knew that Jun hated it.
Jun hated the fact that he lived in five hundred square feet and he hated the fact that his parents’ income flowed in from halfway across the world.
He hated the fact that his shoes had holes in them and he hated the fact that his grandparents barely spoke English and that they never came to back-to-school night.
That's probably why he loved my mother so much. He spent more time at my house than he ever did at his own tiny little apartment, even when my mother wasn't around anymore.
Jun hated how he lived. So, he got out. That's something that I never had the guts to do.
And, so it went.
The middle of December is chillier than normal this year, and it only serves to crush my mood further down into my stomach.
I get the call a week after my mother’s death anniversary, so I'm still in a slump when the phone rings.
“Hello? Is this Leo?” the voice says and the notable accent strikes a chord of recognition in my head.
“Yes? Who is this?” I ask warily and the girl on the other end giggles.
“Estelle, Jun’s friend. I met you at the exposition, if you recall.”
I remember. She had terrified me. “Yeah, of course,” I reply. “It's nice to hear from you. Why’d you call?”
“Oh, yes!” she says like she’d forgotten the reason until that moment. “I showed some of the pictures I had of your artwork to a friend of mine and she wants to commission a piece from you.”
If I’ve been in a slump for the past week, no one can tell now because it leaves in an instant. “Really? She does?”
“Her name is Valerie. I'm sure she's met Jun before as well, so you can ask him about her if you’d like,” Estelle confirms. “She’d like to meet with you next week, if you're up it.”
“Yes, of course,” I agree immediately. It’s almost perfect timing; I'm in more of a pinch than I usually am, considering funds from a painting I’d rented to a company last week are running out. Plus, commissions are always more challenging—and more fun.
“Excellent,” she replies and gives me a time and a place before saying her goodbyes. As soon as she hangs up, I text Amara several exclamation points and call Jun.
He picks up after two rings and the “hello” doesn't sound too exhausted, so I launch into a tirade immediately. It takes a few minutes for me to explain everything, and Jun sighs a little when I finally finish.
“Well, considering you've been AWOL for the past week, I'm glad that you're excited about this,” he tells me and I grin, despite myself.
“I’m glad, too,” I reply, unnecessarily.
Jun hums an agreement. “Valerie, huh? Yeah, I know her. She's a bit of a nut, but honestly, most people in the art industry are. She can be a little bit…moody, I guess, so watch out for that,” Jun advises.
“I think you'll do fine,” he continues. “Plus, now you get an opportunity to wear that suit I got you.”
I laugh. “Thanks for that, by the way,” I say, as my phone buzzes with an incoming text. “I gotta go, Jun, see you later,” I finish and he bids me farewell before hanging up.
Amara’s text message reply is an assortment of excited emojis that I can barely decipher, so I text her the same thing as I told Jun. Her reply, again, is emojis and exclamation points—she must be either too busy or too tired to respond properly—so I leave her on read.
I get up off from the couch (resist the urge to move to the wine cooler) and head to my bedroom. The suit is in the closet, still neatly pressed and hung up.
I only put it on for the first time, though, a week later, when the hour for the appointment gets nearer and anxiety is curling in my chest. I suppose that, if my self esteem weren't so low, it might actually look good on me.
My car makes its usual dying noise—a cross between asthmatic breathing and a lion’s roar—when I get into it and turn the engine on. Still, it manages to putter its way through the streets and across the bridge and into the city. The address is a small art studio on the corner of a street, so I swindle my way out of paying for parking before I walk over to the door. Estelle had told me later that she would be there later in the night, so I could talk to Valerie alone for a while.
I twist the knob and open the door. The inside is a lot warmer than the chilly air outside, so I hurry in and shut the door as quickly as possible.
“You’re early,” a voice says, and I spin around. The woman who must be Valerie is tall and skinny pretty, if I were into that.
My heart sinks very very low into my chest. I, inconveniently, only remember the important things after it’s too late to back out.
I, inconveniently, only remember this after it was too late to back out, but there had been a school year that Jun had left, flew overseas to stay with his parents for that one school year, and in that year, there had been a girl.
I had never been the type to stand up for myself, so I was an easy easy target for bullies, and in this case, a girl who was two years older than me with vicious sharp nails and an attitude to match.
She didn't hate me, not really. It was more like she liked me enough to the point that it was cruel.
Maybe I should have been honored by the nearly psychopathic way she cornered me almost every day after school. Maybe I should have given in. She was skinny pretty, if I was into that.
It was sixth grade, I think, and maybe the reason that I've never had an actual relationship is because of the memories of the girl who dug her nails into my arm and told me I was useless if I didn't kiss her.
It was sixth grade, which gave me plenty of time to forget, and when Jun came back the next year, taller, prettier, more confident, the girl disappeared. Jun was like my shield, taller, prettier, more confident than I would ever be, so the girl disappeared.
I, inconveniently, only remember the important things (nails in skin, words like daggers, manipulation) after it was too late to back out, but if I’d dug through all the years of repression before I agreed to meeting her, I’d probably have found that the girl’s name was Valerie.
And, so it went.
She looks different from how she did then, with darker and curlier hair and a braces-less mouth, but her nails are still sharp enough to make up for it.
“It's nice to see you,” she says, sugary sweet. I swallow the lump in my throat and clench my fist, shoving down the urge to run. It's too late now.
I walk forward and stick out my hand, which she shakes tightly. “It's been a while,” I reply.
In response, she purses her lips and cocks her head to the left. “What do you mean?” she asks and I pause, confused, until realization hits.
Maybe, just maybe, she doesn't remember. Relief floods my veins before I can stop it, and the forced smile on my face comes easier.
“Never mind,” I say, almost too quickly. “I'm glad we could meet.”
She smiles, and it reminds me of back then, but I shove the thought away as it comes. She doesn't remember.
“Of course,” she replies, and steps back to turn to the wall, where artwork is plastered on the bulletin boards. “I wouldn't pass up on natural talent like hours.”
“Thanks,” I say. I almost can't believe my own ears. She really doesn't remember. “I really appreciate that.”
She hums to acknowledge my words, and then comes back, moving closer again. Despite the fact that I'm safe, every muscle in my body is still screaming to run to the door. But I can make it.
“So, what were you looking for in a painting?” I ask her, and try to choke down the sickly dread that is suddenly spreading through me.
Then our eyes meet.
“Oh, honey, you know I wasn’t looking for a painting,” she coos and even though she’s still far away from touching me, I freeze in place.
Something ugly bubbles up in me, feeling much like what sixth grade Leo felt almost everyday after school. “You’re a fucking psychopath,” I state, trying to keep my voice even, but even I feel it crack on the last syllable.
Valerie laughs and strides over. “Sure,” she says. “But I always get what I want.” She grabs my wrist and I jerk my hand back weakly.
“I thought—” I start, but my words fail me. All of the relief I’d felt earlier disappears, leaving behind only acid and the taste of betrayal.
“Well,” Valerie starts. “As much fun as that was, I’d like to get down to business.” She punctuates her statement by tugging me harshly. “What were you looking for in a painting?” she mocks in a whisper, and the malice behind it slams into my chest, knocking the air out of me.
“Please,” I beg. “Just leave me alone. What did I ever do to you?” Her grip is so tight that it turns my skin pale.
“It’s what you didn’t do that’s the problem,” she replies, following it with a laugh. Like it's funny. Like it's all just a joke, a game, to her. It feels like a cold hook is digging into my chest.
“I don’t like girls and I definitely don’t like you,” I reply instinctively and then suddenly wish I’d kept my mouth shut. I can feel the bruises forming around my wrist already.
She snorts. “Well, that's not a surprise. You were always hanging around Jun like a lost puppy.”
“Jun doesn't know you're fucking crazy,” I say. I wish this impulsive confidence would bury itself into my heart. “Jun doesn't know what you did to me.”
“And he doesn't need to, if you just shut up and take it,” Valerie replies viciously, shaking my arm for effect. She's stepping forward, backing me up into the wall adjacent to the door. I wish I could find the courage to run. “He doesn't need to know that his precious little play toy doesn't belong to him anymore.”
“I'm not his play toy. And I'm not yours either,” I reply. My throat goes painfully dry as my back hits the wall and she leans closer, smirking.
“You're so obviously in love with him,” she says and, even though I've known, the truth of it hits me like a sledgehammer. I am in love with Jun. I love him.
“And what's your fucking problem with it?” I spit back. “Why does it matter to you?”
“Oh, sweetheart,” she whispers and I never want to hear her say that again. “The two of us may have history but Jun and I are actually friends. He throws away people as soon as they're of no use anymore.”
It doesn't feel like that. I feel loved when I'm curled up against Jun, when he smiles at me, when I'm with him.
“He loves the feeling of manipulation. He didn't miss you, he missed the thrill.”
It isn't like that.
But it's the creature in my head, the one that whispers at midnight hours, that convinces me. If Jun really cared, he would stay the night. If he really cared, he would tell me he loves me. If he really cared, he wouldn't pretend that our high school kiss never existed.
The truth of it hits me like a sledgehammer. He doesn't love me back. “That's not true,” I reply, but it's lacking the conviction.
“Believe what you want to believe,” she says casually, and shrugs. “You won't get anywhere with him. But not me. I won't break your heart.”
At this, though, I almost scoff. Jun may not love me, but I'll never give anything to her.
“It's been over ten years, Valerie,” I say, desperation edging in my voice. “Why do you still bother?”
“It's been over ten years, Leo,” she mocks in a sing song tone. “Why are you still so scared of me?”
Then she steps forward, pressing in, bringing her other hand to grip forcefully around my chin and tilt my head up to kiss me. It's painful, her teeth against my lips, and I twist away, but her nails digging into my wrist hold me in place.
Enough. Jun may not love me back, but I'll never give anything to her. I shove back, knocking my body into hers so that she's forced to step back, and rip my head and wrist away from her hands.
“Just leave me alone,” I beg, and her face is only shifting from shocked to angry when I stumble out of the door and around the corner.
My legs are jelly but I somehow get to my car, throwing myself into the driver’s seat and locking the door. My hand is trembling, I realize, and I take a shaky breath. I lean my head against the top of the steering wheel.
It's a bad decision, to pick up my phone and call the first person that I think to call, but my life is made up of bad decisions, anyway.
“Leo? What's up?” Jun’s voice sounds light and I hate how it calms me down in a second.
“Hey,” I start, knowing that Jun can probably tell something is wrong from my voice, which sounds strangled even to my own ears. “Can I come over?”
“What's wrong?” he asks and I shake my head, even though he can't see it. When I don't respond, he clears his throat. “I'll text you my address.”
“Great,” I say, voice clipped, and end the call mid Jun’s protests. Seconds later, my phone chimes with a message and I plug the address into the map, starting my car. It isn't far, taking me out of the shady part of the city and into the downtown. I find myself in front of a fancy looking apartment building and pull into the tiny parking lot.
I don't remember when I turned the radio on, but turning the music off makes me float back to reality. I want to crawl out of my own skin. I hate the sickly feeling spreading through me, I need numbness, I need a drug, I need a drink.
I get out and slam the door as hard as I can.
The apartment building has a front desk—I curse Jun for being well off—and, for once, I'm glad I'm not drunk so my senses come to me when I walk up to the man at the counter.
“Hi, I'm here to see Jun.” The man eyes me with the suspicious look that seems to preside on every doorman’s face. “My name is Leo. He knows me. You can ask.”
“Okay,” he says warily. There's a black corded telephone on the desk that he picks up and punches in a few numbers. “There's someone here for you. A Leo?”
“It's urgent,” I add quickly.
“He says it's urgent,” the doorman repeats and after a few seconds, he mutters a yes and puts the phone down with a click. “Alright, you can go up. The room’s on the sixth floor, the number is thirty-six.”
I nod and nearly stumble to the elevator. The ride up is agonizing; I shut my eyes to keep myself from looking at my reflection in the mirrors. When it finally dings at the top, I find door number thirty six (one of only a few on the floor) and knock quickly on the door.
It flies open immediately. Jun looks a little flustered but beautiful, beautiful as ever, and then I curse myself for thinking it. “Leo?”
“Jun,” I reply and shove through the door. “Where do you keep your alcohol?” Fuck Jun’s perfect face, all I really need is a goddamn drink. His apartment is nice and spacious with large curtain covered windows and I have absolutely no clue where he keeps his alcohol.
“Wait, what the fuck? What's wrong?” Jun asks and steps back to block my path. All of a sudden, I feel like laughing. Maybe I really am going crazy.
“Nothing, everything,” I reply as casually as possible. “I just want a drink.”
“No, you don't, sit down,” he says and grabs my forearm right above the wrist before dragging me to a couch.
“Don't touch me,” I hiss, ripping my arm away, but he's already seen the ringlet of bruises around my wrist.
“What's that?” he asks, concern coloring his voice, and I tuck my hand into the pocket of my dress pants. I suddenly realize how dressed down Jun is compared to me, his toned arms showing through his t-shirt and his legs swimming in too large sweatpants. It makes me feel awkward, so I sit down on the couch and curl into myself.
Jun sighs and turns to disappear through a doorway into what looks like the kitchen. After a minute, he comes back, a beer bottle in his hand, which he thumps onto the table in front of me. “Here. Talk.”
“I'm sorry,” I say. Apologizing is still my greatest skill. I undo the cap of the beer and take a sip. It's weirdly unappetizing now, so I put it back down.
“It doesn't matter,” Jun says. “Just, please tell me what happened.”
I take a deep breath. “The year you were gone from school, there was this girl who harassed me.” I've never talked about this with anyone before. “She came back.”
Jun’s eyebrows scrunch together. “Val?” he asks and I have that same weird urge to laugh.
“She's not just moody,” I tell him. “She's insane.”
“Wait, are those bruises?” Jun asks and sits next to me, taking my arm before I can protest. The marks are clearly visible and I wish I didn't bruise so easily. “What happened?” I'm not sure why Jun is panicking. “Oh, god, did she—”
“Not really,” I say and shrug. “But, I didn't really stop it either, did I?”
“No, that's not—” Jun starts, and then shakes his head. “Leo, I’m so sorry. I didn't know.”
“It's not your fault,” I whisper. “I'm susceptible.” I feel the numbness settle over me; it's easy to talk now, because I can't feel anything.
“Don't say that,” Jun says. He looks in pain and kind of like he's going to throw up.
I shrug again. “I'm fucked up and the only people who care about me are people like Valerie, who are coincidentally just as fucked up.” A part of me knows that I'm only saying it to hurt Jun, and it works. Jun’s face crumples and he pulls his hand away from my wrist.
“That's not true,” he protests, a little weakly. “I care about you.”
“Do you?” I ask. Suddenly, I want Jun to feel bad, for leaving me, for all of the pain he’s put me through, yet I'm not sure when this became less about Valerie and more about him.
Maybe it never really was about Valerie in the first place.
Still, the hopeless look on Jun’s face doesn't give me any satisfaction. “I swear,” he says. “I'll prove it, however you want me to.”
“However I want you to?” I repeat, a little mockingly, and Jun flinches, but holds his ground.
“However you want me to.”
I frown. “That's just it, Jun. I only want what you want to give me,” I say. Jun still looks miserable. “And if you don't want to give me anything, I don't want it at all.”
“I do, you just need to tell me what.”
“If you can't figure it out, you’re less observant than I thought,” I shoot back, and I know I'm being insufferable, but a part of me thinks he deserves it.
Jun almost splutters. “How am I supposed to answer that?”
I let out a huff. “This conversation is going absolutely fucking nowhere.”
Jun scrunches his eyebrows together and crosses his arms, looking me dead in the eyes. “Fine, then. Here’s what I want to know if you’re going to be a dick about it. Why don’t you think I care about you?”
“I can’t believe you’re the one getting mad,” I retort.
“Answer the goddamn question,” he demands.
“I don’t know, Jun,” I snap. “You ditch me halfway through high school, disappear for years, come back like nothing ever happened, and you expect me to just accept it?”
“I—” Jun tries to protest, but I'm already on a roll.
“Oh, and not to mention, the reason you stopped being friends with me was because of a kiss and now we’re hooking up on the regular and we still haven’t even talked about it,” I spit out.
“It’s not too late,” Jun says and I shrug. I'm tired, I realize, so tired of this.
“Maybe it is,” I reply.
Jun takes my fingers again, runs his thumb over my knuckles. “I thought not talking about it would make things normal again,” he whispers, and I hate it when he looks vulnerable. He looks calmer now, for some reason, and my confusion is only mounting. “I want to make things right.”
“Do you?” I ask, desperation rising. “What if you’re just here to fuck around with me and when you get too tired, you’ll leave? What if you don’t care about me? I’m not you, Jun. I can’t just pick up and move on and forget.”
“I would never get tired of you,” Jun replies, still quieter than he's been all night. It makes me angry; I feel like the months I've spent holding this back are spilling out into the air.
“You’re so fucking confusing,” I tell him. “You’ve dropped it all before, who’s to say you won’t do it again?”
“I’m not a kid anymore, Leo,” he seems to plead. It's almost uncomfortable to see Jun (tall, pretty, confident Jun) with those sorrowful eyes, but it's been too long for me to hold back.
“Jun, do you like me?” I ask. It's more blunt that I've ever been, but I need to know. It's been too long. “I swear, if you don't, I'll leave right now, but sometimes you say things and I can't help but wonder.” Jun can probably hear my heart beating in my chest.
Jun pauses. Opens his mouth. Closes it. Grips my fingers even tighter (I’d forgotten that my hand was in his). When he finally speaks, it's in that same calm tone. “I'm considering it.”
I freeze. “What?”
“I mean, I’m not sure. I’ve never really been good at this love thing,” Jun says. He's looking at our hands now, not meeting my eyes. I feel like I'm about to die. “I’m sorry,” he finishes.
“What the hell are you sorry for?” I choke out. Jun likes me, Jun likes me, Jun likes me too. My brain isn't doing much to help me calm my nerves. Jun shrugs as a response to my question, still not looking at me.
“I like you too,” I say, and it's so easy now. The words lift off my shoulders like butterflies.
“Why?” is Jun’s first question and, this time, I actually do laugh.
“God, I don't know either,” I answer, truthfully. Jun looks up at me and I take my other hand and fold it on top of our connected ones. “Stop looking miserable,” I tell him. He scowls and I smile.
“Since when?” he asks. “How long have you liked me?”
Forever. “A while.” I say. He gets the idea, and he looks even more guilty about it. “What about you?”
“Um,” he begins, and his nervousness is kind of endearing, especially when I feel like my world has finally tilted onto the right axis. “When I kissed you in the amusement park?”
“Oh,” is all I can say. It's late, but it makes no difference. Jun likes me.
“I'm sorry,” Jun repeats.
“It's okay,” I reply. “We’re here now, right?”
The sun was setting slow in the sky that night, just like every other night, but the cool air was jubilant. High school graduation was like that. Four years of hell coming to fruition with a gown and a hat.
Jun graduated valedictorian. I was too busy staring at him to pay attention to his speech.
My aunt didn't skip out on this, though I'm sure it was mostly out of respect for my mother. I suppose the day would have been be happier with her there, but that's not something that I could wish for, so I smiled and hugged my aunt as she congratulated me. I suppose it's one of the only times in my life that I've ever loved her.
I milled around for a bit, finding Amara but letting her say goodbye to her other friends, before disappearing behind the bleachers for a break. It was surprising to find Jun there, next to the brick wall. I swallowed my panic into my stomach and leaned against the wall next to him, staring straight ahead.
“Congrats, Jun,” I started. He wasn't looking at me either.
“Thanks,” he said. “You too.”
I snorted. “You're the valedictorian.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Jun shrug.
“You graduated high school. That's achievement enough,” he pointed out. I smiled.
“I guess so,” I replied. There was a minute of silence before he stood up, dusting off his gown and moving to walk away.
He paused in front of me, turning to look at me. “Good luck with everything,” he said.
I swallowed my panic and looked back. “Yeah. Same to you.”
“Now,” he announced with a bit of flourish. “I have a plane to catch.”
It made me laugh. “You do that.”
Jun smiled and, even though it hurt a little bit, it sent my heart racing. “I'll see you soon, yeah?” he said. It didn't make sense. We were never gonna meet again.
“Yeah,” I replied. The air in front of me was charged and he reached out to squeeze one of my shoulders, but before I had a chance to react, he was gone.
He was gone.
And, so it went.
The night after my confession, Jun shows up at my house with precisely four things: a huge bag of salted caramel popcorn, a box of chocolate chip cookies, a bouquet of flowers, and a joint.
“Smoke at your own house,” I tell him after I open the door. He smiles weirdly in return, scrunching his eyes shut. I try to not find it cute.
I’d slept over at his house, but woken up to an empty bed and a post-it note saying that Jun had to leave for work and that there was breakfast in the fridge. He’d left me a voicemail too, ending it with a “I’ll see you tonight”, which is why I hadn't been able to relax since then.
“The flowers are for you,” Jun says. The bouquet is adorned with purple hyacinths and another flower I probably would have known the name of eight years ago, but I’m now too lazy to care.
“Thanks,” I reply, relieving him of the burden and letting him into my apartment. “What for?” I ask him as he dumps the rest of the goods on my dining table while I search for a vase.
“It's a thank you,” he explains. “And an apology.”
“For what?” I respond from the kitchen, finding a chipped ceramic vase under one of the cabinets and filling it with water.
I can tell Jun’s rolling his eyes. “You know what,” he replies and I hear the telltale click of a lighter. I set the flowers in the vase and keep them on the counter. I open the window behind my kitchen sink.
“The cookies are for you, too,” he continues, as I walk back to the couch. He's lying on it with the joint between his fingers and there's a memory. “I baked them myself, so they might be terrible, but at least I tried.”
“You don't have anything to be sorry for,” I say. He just shrugs awkwardly.
“There's a movie I want to watch on Channel 34, so I brought popcorn.” He's avoiding it and I know it and I don't want to let him but he sits up and hands me the joint so he can open the bag of popcorn in his lap.
“Don't guilt date me,” I say, and take a hit. Jun makes a weird noise under his breath.
“I'm not,” he replies, but doesn't elaborate. I sink onto the couch next to him as he grabs the remote to flip channels. When it lands on 34, Jun tucks his knees into his chest and stares intently at the screen. We finish off the joint together, and start on the popcorn, as someone is killed on screen.
“Why’d you come here if you don't want to talk to me?” I ask through a mouthful, inching closer to Jun. Neither of us are as high as we’d thought we’d be. He sighs.
“I'm not guilt dating you,” he says. At least he's being honest now. “I really like you, it's just...I’m not always the best person. I don't want you to be the victim of that.”
I shrug. “Everyone has flaws. I'm not really a great guy, either. Doesn't mean that we can't make it work.”
Jun shakes his head. “That's not what I mean,” he says and then lifts his head to look at me. “I've been in a lot of fucked up relationships and I don't want to mess this one up too.”
“I haven't had a drink all day,” I respond. Jun looks at me in confusion. “And I'm not going to have one tomorrow either. Or the day after. Or ever.”
“You probably shouldn't stop all at once,” Jun drawls. “You'll get withdrawal.”
I roll my eyes. “You know what I mean. I'll get rid of my bad habit, be a better person.” It's surprisingly easy to say, even though I know how hard it will be, considering that the insides of my skin are already itching for alcohol. “We’ll do it together.”
Jun smiles a tiny bit, and that's all I was really hoping for. “I guess we can.”
Someone else gets killed on screen. I click the TV off and rise to my knees on the couch to lean over Jun. “I guess we can,” I repeat and kiss him.
“Let's go on a date,” he says, when I pull away. “You, me, that Italian place two blocks down from my apartment.”
“Okay,” I reply.
“Okay,” he repeats, and tilts his head up to kiss me. Under my lips, he laughs, clear, warm, and bright.
I'm not sure how, but from the second my phone lights up with a call from Amara one afternoon, I know I'm not going to like what I hear.
“So,” Amara starts, voice a bit muffled over the phone. “I’ve been talking to Jun.”
There it is. “How do you even have his number?” I ask, even though I know the answer I’ll get.
Amara laughs. “I’m a journalist, Leo. I have ways.” There it is.
I sigh, exasperated. “Why did you call?”
Suddenly, her voice goes serious over the phone. It's a little sad, too, and for some reason, I'm only just realizing how well I can read her. “You know,” she says. “I’m not really angry that you lied to me. I just wish you’d trust me more.”
My throat goes dry. “What?”
“Jun told me about how you were gonna try to sober up, except I didn't even know that you hadn't in the first place.”
Oh shit. Amara had always been blunt about things. “I'm sorry,” I say, instinctively, but even I know it's not enough.
“We could have gotten you help sooner,” Amara replies, and I can hear hurt filtering through her words, but the statement irks me.
“I don't need help, I'm not an invalid,” I try not to snap.
There's a deep sigh from the other line. “You're an alcoholic, Leo.”
“I said I was going to get better!” I protest.
“You know it's not that easy,” Amara shoots back, and she's right, but I fucking hate the implication that I'm not strong enough.
“Thanks for everything, Amara,” I start, “but I can do this on my own.”
I’m expecting disappointment. I'm expecting her to sigh and say something about how I never listen to her and I'm only hurting myself and then hang up.
I'm not expecting her to snap.
“I can't believe it's been ten fucking years and I still haven't been able to work your self destructive tendencies out of you,” she hisses, words sounding bitter in my ears. “It's not a bad thing to ask for help, and I don't fucking care what you think, I'm not going to let you go through this alone.”
“I might not always be available but I'm still your best friend,” she says, almost pleading, “so let me at least try to act like one.”
I open my mouth to respond, but nothing comes out. Amara’s sharp, but she's always had a knack for saying the right things at the right time. Maybe that's why I took the job at the ice cream shop all those years ago.
A minute of silence passes before she speaks again. “You still there?”
“Yeah,” I respond.
She takes a shaky breath. “I have a contact for a therapist in the area. And I know the church on Birch Drive holds AA meetings every Saturday night. I think it might help.”
“Okay,” I reply.
“Jun really loves you, you know. I can tell, ” she says, voice going soft and quiet. I nod, although she can't see it. “And I know you love him. So try for him, alright?”
Something in my chest feels lighter. “Thanks, Amara.”
“No problem,” she replies. “What are best friends for?”
I wake up to blinding light pouring in through the windows. I distinctly remember asking Jun to close them before he got into bed, so I curse under my breath and curl into the body next to me, hiding my face from the light.
“You absolute dick,” I tell the body.
“Morning, sunshine,” Jun replies, because of course he’s already wide awake, and he moves to press an awkwardly angled kiss to my cheek.
“Morning,” I greet, unfurling from him to pull the blankets closer to me. “Can you go back to living in your own house?”
“It’s nicer with you,” Jun says, scooping up one of my hands, and really, how can I argue with that?
He graciously lets me huddle in the sheets for twenty more minutes, all the while drawing patterns onto the palm of my hand, until he suddenly lets go and rolls off the bed. “It’s time to go, Leo.”
“It’s seven in the morning,” I complain, just for the sake of it, because I'm already dragging myself out of the covers.
“The festival’s three hours away and I want to find a good picnic spot,” Jun explains, petulance in his voice, before retreating to the bathroom and leaving me to make breakfast. Idly, I wonder if Jun even left some of his own clothes in my closet. I wouldn't put it past him.
Since a few weeks ago, Jun’s had this fixation on going to see the cherry blossoms for our three month anniversary ever since he'd found out peak bloom fell on the same day. Jun’s best camera is already packed up in the boot of my car so I'm not exactly sure if it's for the anniversary or for his job, but either way, I'm down for a road trip.
Still, I'm tired, so breakfast is cereal. Jun just has to deal with it.
While Jun’s taking his own sweet time in the shower, I make lunch. I've been cooking more since Jun pseudo-moved in, so it doesn't take long to finish and pack the food into a picnic basket. I'm not exactly sure why Jun is so adamant on the picnic part, considering that there's plenty to eat in the area, but I do have to agree that it adds to the romanticism of it all. Maybe that's Jun’s goal after all.
“Don't forget a blanket. Preferably checkered red and white,” Jun suggests, walking into the kitchen with soaking wet hair, water running in rivulets down his neck.
Making a face, I grab a towel from one of the drawers, before flinging it at him. “I don't think anyone has a red and white checkered blanket.”
“Eh, it's only ideal.” Jun brushes it off, drying his hair. “Any blanket will do.”
“There's probably one on the couch or something,” I say and pour cereal into a bowl for him, setting a carton of milk next to it. “I'll go get ready.”
“Aren't you going to eat?” Jun asks, already shoveling cereal into his mouth.
“Not hungry,” I reply, and Jun scrunches his eyebrows together. “Really, I’ll be fine,” I assure him, but even still, after I'm finished showering and we've packed the blanket and shoved everything into the boot of the car, Jun’s balancing a second bowl of cereal with a free hand.
“I'll drive,” he says when I move to get behind the wheel. “You eat. You're too skinny,” he chides, and I roll my eyes before complying.
“You're annoying,” I shoot back, but sit in the passengers set and spoon cereal into my mouth as Jun drives out of town and onto the freeway.
Jun turns the radio to the classical station that he likes and hums quietly along to the violins. The drive is quiet, but comfortable, and the ever present weight in my chest feels remarkably light.
The streets of the city are crowded and it takes us a while to find a parking spot, but we manage to find one along the side of the road, near a grassy open area where other people are milling around.
“They’re pretty,” I say as I pull the picnic basket out of the boot and Jun grabs his camera. Pale pink flowers dot the skyline and the day isn’t as chilly as I expected, cold sunshine rather than wind.
“Not as pretty as you,” he drawls and then winks, before spinning around to find a spot on the grass.
“You're so gross,” I call after him, following close behind
“I just want to show you how much I like you,” he replies and sets his camera case on the grass to use his free hands to wrap around my waist. I drop the picnic basket.
“You don't have to make up for anything, you know,” I say. Our noses are inches apart and we probably shouldn't kiss so openly in public.
He pouts. “I know,” he replies, and kisses me anyway.
Later, when we’re lying on the blanket after eating lunch, he tells me he loves me. It’s so easy to say it back.
“I hate you,” is the first thing that comes out of my mouth when I open the front door of my apartment that night. “I'm gonna kick you out of my house.”
Jun is lying across my couch, playing a dumb game on his phone. “You wouldn't,” he drawls. “How was the meeting?”
I shrug. Estelle, after apologizing profusely for what had happened, had offered me another commission, and, needless to say, it had gone eons better.
“It was fine,” I reply, and grab the plate of dinner Jun had left for me on the table, bringing it to the couch and putting it on the center table.
I can tell that Jun wants me to say more, but he doesn't voice it. “Sit down,” he says, sitting up himself to give me space. “I need to talk to you about something.”
I raise an eyebrow. “What is it?”
He steals a spoon of rice off of my plate before answering. “I got an offer to fly to the Serengeti for a few months to take wildlife photos.”
“Oh,” I reply. “That sounds fun.” Then, I realize my words sound dry so I shake my head and try again, with more enthusiasm. “You should do it. It's a good opportunity.”
Jun shakes his head. “Even if I wanted to, I can't.”
“Don't give this up for me,” I tell him, trying to suppress the relief that spreads through me at the statement.
“It's not that,” Jun says. “Actually, I got into grad school in the city.”
Now, that's news. “What? Jun, congrats, why didn't you tell me earlier?” I ask.
Jun shrugs, and looks down at his hands. “I’m starting in the fall. I’m only going to be taking a few classes and commuting from home but….the problem is my apartment.”
“Right,” I reply, deadpan. “The manor.”
Jun rolls his eyes. “Rent’s expensive as hell and I can't manage college and that at the same time. I'm planning to sell it.”
I snort. “You barely even live there anymore.”
“Exactly,” he says and then: “Let's move in together.”
It’s not totally surprising to hear him say. I've been thinking about it myself. “I want to,” I reply, “but I can barely fit my own stuff in here, much less yours.”
“Don't you have your old house?” Jun suggests, quickly, making it obvious that it's been on his mind for a while. “I didn't wanna bring it up, because I know it hasn't even been a year since we started dating, and, of course, if you're not comfortable with it, I won't push it but—”
“That's not it,” I deny, cutting off his rambling. “I'm just apprehensive. About the permanence.”
Jun finally looks up from his lap and takes one of my hands. “I get that. But, listen, Leo. I may not know a lot about love but I know that I want to be with you for a long time. Whether we move in together or not, I'm never letting you go.”
I bite my lip to hold back my smile. “That house has a lot of memories for me,” I say.
“I know,” he replies.
I squeeze Jun’s hand in my own. “I’d be willing to make more.”
And, so it goes.
It’s a lonely night, Jun staying late at the studio doing touch ups while I drink tea on the coffee table and sketch in a notepad, when I realize that I am happy.
It floods in all at once. I'm happy. I don't need a drink to get through the day. I'm good at my job and I have a boyfriend who loves me and I am happy. It's an odd feeling, happiness, probably because I've been wallowing in misery for so long that I forgot what being content feels like.
I reach for my phone on the other side of the table and hit my speed dial; nowadays, I can always trust Jun to pick up within seconds.
“Leo? You alright?” he asks and I smile. I don't usually call him when he's at work, but this, this is special.
“Jun, I had a revelation,” I announce and he hums in acknowledgment.
“Do tell,” he replies, and I'm glad to.
“I'm really happy right now,” I tell him triumphantly and he laughs.
“How? I'm not with you,” he jokes and I smile.
“You're here in my heart,” I reply. Somewhere, I realize the conversation is disgustingly cheesy, but, somehow, I really don't care.
“That's the only place I want to be,” he says sweetly and, suddenly, I ache with want. It's familiar, so familiar, but different.
“Hey, Jun,” I start.
“Yeah?” he asks.
I hadn't realized how much I miss him. “When can you be home?”
There's a noise from the other line, like Jun had dropped something, and then a rustle of movement.
“I'm on my way,” he replies, voice strong and sure, and with that, everything seems to fall into place.