Length: 11,145 w
Warnings: mentions of self harm
Facing another graveyard shift was always a bitter pill to swallow. Soojung sighed as she slid on her uniform top; the smell of greasy gas station food, heated all night in glass cases, seemed to be permanently affixed to the cheap fabric, and she wrinkled her nose in distaste as she adjusted her crooked nametag. KRYSTAL, it declared in well-worn all-caps, because her stupid fucking manager had butchered Soojung badly enough in the interview, she didn't even want to hear a customer try to address her by her birth name.
It was rare that she wore make-up to work, aside from a bit of concealer and mascara, and she opted to pull her chocolate brown hair into a low ponytail rather than straightening it. Soojung had been born with jet black hair, just like her sister, and her mother often remarked that she looked so much better with her natural hair color. Soojung was getting out of the habit of visiting her mother, slowly but surely. "Breakfast" was a banana, hastily peeled in the falling dusk of her drab gray kitchen. She made lukewarm tea and sipped it in silence, watching the minutes tick by on the microwave clock. At 8:45, at last, she slipped on her shoes and grabbed her keys, heading for the door.
The gas station on the highway leaving downtown was Soojung's own personal hell, if only for the fact that she spent seven hours there five days a week. From 9 PM to 4 AM, all by herself behind that stuffy desk, looking out at the racks of candy and chips - she could have made conversation with whoever was sharing the shift with her, but it always seemed more trouble than it was worth. The manager told her she was free to do homework when business was slow, but she wasn't a student, so she occupied herself with leafing through magazines, doodling on scraps of paper, and fantasizing that she was anywhere but there.
At 1:30 AM, when Soojung was nearly dozing out of boredom on the countertop, the doors opened with a little creak. A guy stepped in, skinny, short, with a mop of bleach blond hair crammed into a snapback-- no, Soojung realized with a light blush, that was a girl, because she was flat-chested but she could definitely see something outlined under her wifebeater. She approached the counter straight away, looking Soojung straight in the eye as she spoke: "Marlboro Reds, please."
She was pretty, Soojung thought, just on the masculine side of androgynous. Her voice was just as deep as her appearance would imply, and it gave her goosebumps. "Uh, ID?"
The girl fumbled in the pocket of her pants, pulling out a leather wallet and producing a worn driver's license. The picture was an obvious match. "LIU, AMBER JOSEPHINE", born September 18th, 1992. She scanned the card and handed it back before selecting the pack of cigarettes from the shelf behind her. When will people learn with these stupid things? What a stupid habit. She only pursed her lips in quiet disapproval as she scanned the barcode and cued Amber to swipe her credit card. "Have a nice night," she offered almost begrudgingly as she handed off the receipt. Amber regarded her with a nod of her head and a weak smile, crumpling the slip and shoving it in her pocket as she made her way towards the door.
Soojung found her eyes on Amber by chance, she told herself as she stared almost lethargically out the glass doors. The girl's pale skin stood out like stark porcelain under the streetlights, and the cherry of her cigarette glowed. She was talking on the phone as she paced the empty sidewalk, and Soojung couldn't be sure, but she looked upset. After she hung up, she stood idle, smoking her cigarette and staring ahead in silence. At last, discarding her cigarette butt in the trashcan, she made her leave, and Soojung could see her standing at the crosswalk for awhile before she was finally out of sight.
After that, no one came in the doors for another hour and a half. Boredom was a special kind of agony, because Soojung couldn't ignore it. 4 AM couldn't have come fast enough; she would have skipped out the doors if she'd had the energy. Despite spending the better part of her shift sitting on her butt in front of the cash register, she felt an ache that seemed to sink down into her bones, and all she wanted to do was sleep. Auditions in the morning, she reminded herself as she crawled into bed, and she reminded herself to set an alarm for 8 before she allowed herself to assume unconsciousness.
Sooyeon had only gone to college long enough to marry a promising law student, Soojung reminded herself from time to time. Sooyeon quit three years into her business degree and didn't have a thing to show for all the money she'd spent, so it was almost like she didn't go to school at all.
It kept her hopes high enough when she was by herself, but any time she saw Sooyeon, living comfortably as a housewife and excitedly planning for the birth of her first baby with her husband, it sort of made Soojung want to tear her own hair out.
Do you really think acting is a good idea, Soojung? Mom's worried that you're going to go to LA and get into drugs or porn or some shit.
Soojung wished she could tell them-- that there was no future for her but in front of the cameras, nothing but warm Cali days and Sunyoung's fingers twined with her's as they walked along the beach. But none of you guys give a shit about what I want. It's all about how bad I'm making the family look. Bullshit. All of you are the corrupted ones.
Soojung wanted to say it, but she couldn't. She couldn't say anything.
Soojung woke up cold, wearing a nightgown that had once been Sunyoung's. The clock said 7:00, and she blinked exhaustion from her eyes. Back to the hellhole.
She checked her phone. No calls. No callbacks.
Breakfast alone in the cramped kitchen. Bitter green tea that was steeped too hot. Soojung considered skipping work. The calendar’s reminder of rent due right after payday stopped that plan before it could come to fruition. She braided her hair, just for something different, but ended up hating it and just wearing her hair down and messy.
Amber came in later that night, at ten minutes to three; she wore no hat this time, and her short blond hair framed her face as a disheveled bedhead. She yanked her wallet from the pocket of her leather jacket, and her eyes didn’t meet Soojung’s as she spoke the same request: “Marlboro Reds?”
“ID?” Soojung requested boredly.
Their transaction contained minimal dialogue. Soojung withheld her judgment as she scanned the cancer sticks. Amber set a Bic lighter on the counter as well before she swiped her card. It was as she grabbed the cigarettes to pocket them that she finally focused her eyes on Soojung’s chest-- no, on my nametag. “Krystal,” she read aloud, finally looking into Soojung’s eyes. “I see you in here almost every night, it seems. Must be a lonely shift.”
Soojung was surprised that Amber was speaking to her so conversationally. Her first instinct was to agree completely, but she ended up just shrugging lamely. “It’s not too bad,” she replied. “It’s...quiet.”
“Yeah? That’s ‘cause no one’s up at 3 AM.”
Soojung handed Amber her receipt, giving her a tight-lipped smile. “You’re up at 3 AM,” she pointed out.
“I’m only up because I’m an insomniac,” Amber replied. “Couldn’t be asleep now if I wanted to, really. But night’s not bad. Just lonely.”
There was that word again. It made Soojung almost uneasy, and she watched Amber pick at the plastic wrapper around the cigarette package with her short nails. The store was painfully silent, and she was reminded once more why she hated graveyard shifts so goddamn much.
“Want to come out for a cigarette with me, at least?” Amber asked at last, glancing back up into Soojung’s eyes. “I mean, can you? I guess what I mean to say is more like...I’m getting sick of talking to myself.”
Soojung thought of the last time she’d seen Amber, of the minutes the blond had spent pacing outside of the gas station, phone attached to her ear. She’d looked like she wanted to cry. “I…” Soojung glanced around, not catching sight of her coworker, and she answered, “Just let me ask. I’ll be right out.”
She found him in the back room, grabbing a box to stock one of the front shelves - a lanky, pimply-faced twenty-something with a name tag that read “GAVIN, ASSISTANT MANAGER”. She worked with him at least three nights a week, had for the past eight months or so (she guessed, based on the fact that Sunyoung had left six months ago), but she still hadn’t had more than a polite and obligatory conversation with him. “Hey,” she said awkwardly, leaning a bit on the door frame. “Do you mind if I step out really fast for a cigarette break?”
He gave her a look like she was crazy. “You don’t smoke.”
“Everyone starts sometime,” she replied, folding her arms and shrugging. “I’ll only be five minutes. We won’t have another customer before it’s time for me to go, anyway.”
She took his silence, and the way he turned his back, to indicate a yes, and she quickly headed for the front before he could change his mind or ask any questions. Amber was already waiting out front, pack in hand. The late October air was brisk, and the air was thick with the promise of rain, but Soojung found it refreshing compared to the stuffy air she’d been breathing for the past six hours. Amber extended the pack to her, and she took a cigarette delicately, though she admitted, “I don’t smoke.”
“Oh? Then don’t start,” Amber instructed as she lit up her own and didn’t offer the lighter to Soojung. “It’s a gross habit. Just hang onto it in case your boss looks out to check up on us.”
Soojung nodded, glancing back through the glass and seeing Gavin’s eyes focused on his newspaper. He probably wouldn’t bug her. “So...you just can’t sleep?” she asked awkwardly, meeting Amber’s eyes. She was rusty when it came to one on one interactions. She only ever seemed to see people at auditions, where the entire atmosphere was fake, nothing but smiling and selling yourself. By force of habit, she stood up a bit straighter; she was shorter than Amber, but not by much.
Amber nodded. “Chronic insomnia. But I’m self-employed, so I can work around my fucked up sleep schedule.” She took a long drag from her cigarette before pointing across the street, towards the tall apartment building looming above them. “I live over there. I just moved in. I think you’re the first person I’ve talked to.”
“Hmm,” Soojung nodded in acknowledgment as she followed Amber’s gaze. “How is it? I hear those places are pretty crappy.”
“They’re...cozy. And not good for people who can’t deal with squeaky floorboards or insects.” She laughed weakly, and to Soojung, she seemed quite tired. “I have it set up nicely, though. It feels like home.” A little smirk curled at the corners of her mouth. “Some night when you’re not too tired after your shift, you should stop by and see.”
It took Soojung a few seconds before she really grasped the fact that Amber was (perhaps playfully?) hitting on her. She laughed nervously, feeling somewhere between flattered and awkward. “That would be cool,” she said after a moment, stealing a moment to glance at Amber’s face while the girl struggled to keep her cigarette from burning unevenly. She had a really nice face, even if it wasn’t conventional. Soojung liked it. “So what do you do if you’re self-employed?”
“Well, I guess I should rephrase that. Self-employed implies I make some sort of regular salary,” she murmured with a little chuckle, a cloud of smoke escaping her lips. “I’m a singer-songwriter. I’m pretty good, though. I usually play early evening shows at some of the coffee shops downtown. After shows, I sometimes get restless, that’s all.”
Soojung smiled a little to herself, and when she saw that Amber had nearly smoked her cigarette through, she slipped the one she held back into the pack. “Stop by when you can’t sleep, and maybe I’ll come up after work sometime,” she suggested with a little smile, testing the waters. I don’t even know if I’m ready to see what life after Sunyoung is like, though…
Amber dropped the cigarette butt into the disposal by the door. “Cool. Oh, my name’s Amber, by the way.”
It hadn’t really occurred to Soojung that Amber hadn’t ever formally introduced herself, and yet she still knew her name. She decided not to let that fact slip, instead responding, “I’m Soojung. I-I mean...you can call me Krystal or Soojung, I don’t really care either way.”
“Soojung,” Amber repeated with a little nod, giving her that dazzling smile. “Thanks for keeping me company. Oh, and try to smile a little. It makes the night go faster.”
It occurred to Soojung, as she went inside, that Amber had only talked to her because she felt sorry for her. Normally, it would have bugged her, but she still had Amber’s smile on her mind as she arrived home and slipped back into the much-needed comfort of her bedsheets.
Soojung woke up tired, and her mood was dampened by the possibility of thunderstorms in the night. Twilight gave her bedroom a dreary gray hue, and she sighed as she pulled her hair up into a messy bun. The girl in the mirror no longer looked pretty to Soojung, but she no longer cared.
Gavin didn’t say anything in acknowledgement as she clocked in. It was a Thursday night, and there was the usual string of partiers picking up cases of beer and college kids buying snack food. At midnight, the storm began and business came to a screeching halt. Soojung thought she’d wither and die there on the countertop, waiting for the obnoxiously loud wall clock to tick it’s way to 4 AM.
The rain was still pelting the streets when Soojung left the convenience store, and she let out a weary sigh. She had no auditions to prepare for the next day. No auditions all week, in fact. Nothing at home to do but sleep. Might as well just wait here for the rain to stop. It was only a few minutes later that she happened to gaze across the street and remember Amber’s invitation. I wonder if she meant it. I wonder if she’s awake? She took a deep breath as she stepped out into the cold rain, but surprisingly, she found herself smiling as she sprinted across the street through the downpour.
She didn’t know which apartment was Amber’s, but it wasn’t hard to find her name on the front mailboxes. Amber Liu, 2A. She took the stairs up and tentatively knocked on the door, not wanting to wake her if she was sleeping.
Amber answered the door wearing pajamas, messy hair jammed into a hat and not a stitch of make-up on her face. Soojung’s first instinct was that she’d woken her despite her best efforts not to, and she was about to apologize, but Amber’s grin stopped her before she could. “Oh, hey! You actually came! Come on in, I was just chilling out and working on some music.”
Amber had a simple studio apartment, little more than a large bedroom with a built in kitchenette. As she said, it was small and cramped, but it was hard to tell any more than that - the lights were all off, and the room was illuminated by nothing but the white fairy lights that Amber had strung everywhere, framing the windows and wrapping around the bedposts. Everything seemed to glow with an almost ethereal light, and maybe it was just because it was inhumanly late, but Soojung found herself in awe.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Amber asked politely, opening the fridge. “I have milk, juice boxes, and champagne. Or we could make a pot of tea.”
Soojung smiled. “Tea sounds nice,” she replied. “Your apartment is really cool, by the way.”
“Oh, thanks! It’s still a work in progress,” Amber answered with a little shrug as she put some water on the stove to boil. She scooped loose leaf tea into a mesh infuser, and Soojung noted the warm smell of cinnamon. As Amber cracked the bedroom window and lit a cigarette, Soojung was suddenly weirdly regretful that she hadn’t spent any time on her hair or make-up before work. It’s the middle of the night, though. Why should I care?
“You actually picked a good night to come,” Amber remarked as she exhaled the smoke. Soojung typically didn’t like the smell, but it didn’t seem so bad there, lingering with the faint odors of incense, tea, and rain. “I really wanted to work on lyrics, but I’m just not feeling inspired. So I’ve just been dicking around most of the night,” she explained with a short laugh. “Do you ever sing?”
Soojung shrugged, trying to hide her smile. “Not really. Just in the car by myself.”
“All right, well, you’re going to sing for me tonight,” Amber decided at last, setting the cigarette in the ashtray beside her bed. “I need a muse.” She pulled her acoustic guitar back into her lap, strumming a few chords to get warmed up. “Cool, ready?”
“Already?” Soojung felt her face going red. “Wait, what am I singing?”
Amber smirked. “Let’s see. Do you know...this one?” A few more strums to warm up, and at last, she began the familiar chords of a song Soojung would have known anywhere. She didn’t need to think about the lyrics or the melody - it simply came:
“What would I do without your smart mouth?
Drawing me in, and you kicking me out
You've got my head spinning, no kidding, I can't pin you down…”
Soojung had never really thought herself a singer. Acting was her passion, and she was quite fond of modeling, no matter what she thought of the modeling industry itself. Music, on the other hand, didn’t come naturally to her at all.Her voice sounded clumsy and slightly off pitch to her as she began, but Amber continued on playing and sang the harmonies along in her low, beautifully strong voice, and suddenly Soojung was strangely okay with the song that they were creating. Her singing voice shook a bit from her nerves, but she hoped her friend didn’t notice.
The air felt pleasantly still as Amber let the final chords of the song fade from the air - and then the split second of perfect silence was enough to give Soojung goosebumps all the way up her arms. Then Amber spoke, with an unmistakable smile: “What the hell did you mean before? You sounded great. Your voice is pretty. Honestly, I think anyone can be a good singer with the proper training.”
Soojung gave a bittersweet smile, before finally admitting what she’d been thinking since those initial chords had first reached her ears: “My ex really loved that song. I remember her singing it to me.”
Amber nodded, breaking out into a little smile. “I love it ,too,” she agreed softly, silent as she adjusted a single guitar string. At last, she spoke again: “What was she like?” she asked. “I mean, if you’re okay talking about it. I’m just kind of trying to figure out who someone like you would date…”
Soojung laughed. “Oh, is that so?” she teased softly. Truthfully, she was hesitant, because she hadn’t talked about it before - not with her nearly nonexistent friends, not with Sooyeon, not even with her mother. Amber was a near stranger, she told herself; then again, she was a near stranger that Soojung was hanging out with in the middle of the night, so she supposed that would count for something. “Her name is Sunyoung,” she whispered. “She and I met online back when I was going to high school in Seattle. She...she just had a really bright personality. She was really sweet, and hopeful…” She paused, taking in the look of concern on Amber’s face before clarifying, “We broke up about half a year ago. I’m over it. Actually, I still see her from time to time.”
Yeah, I still see her, her and her new boyfriend. She looks awful. She can’t possibly be happy--
“Still sucks, though. It doesn’t matter how things ended, endings are hard.”
Soojung nodded, watching as Amber stood up to pour the tea. Really, aside from their incredible singing voices, Amber and Sunyoung didn’t seem to have anything else in common, but Soojung couldn’t shake the feeling that her ex would have liked her new friend.
“So are you seeing anyone now?”
Soojung was lost in her thoughts - of Sunyoung’s smile, Sunyoung’s sweet, strawberry lipgloss kisses, of Sunyoung’s eyes, as dead as Soojung had ever seen them on the night she left. Amber’s question, however, snapped her out of her stupor, and when she realized what the other had asked, her cheeks went red. “Not...not yet,” she stammered with a weak smile. “I’ve been focusing on other things. I actually came to LA right after high school to become an actress.” She hesitated a moment, before admitting, “I’ve been here over a year and I haven’t gotten a single callback. I think I’ll end up working at a gas station forever.”
“Yeah? And I’ve been playing the guitar and writing songs since I was fifteen, and I still haven’t been signed. Sucks dick, doesn’t it?” Amber laughed softly, leaning back against the counter as she sipped her cup. “Don’t give up, though. I think this part of the process must be important. Character building or some shit.”
Soojung nodded, smiling a little as she stood up to take her mug, wrapping her cold fingers around the hot ceramic. “I won’t give up,” she said softly, and even though she wasn’t certain she could keep that vow, it felt good to say it. She leaned on the counter, enjoying the ambience and warmth; despite the slightly somber mood that still hung in the room, Soojung liked the way that the conversation had left her feeling. “So are you seeing anyone?” she questioned, feeling uncharacteristically bold.
Amber sighed, rubbing the back of her neck. “Kind of? Not...officially,” she admitted with a little shrug. “See, it’s like this. My sister Jackie and her husband own this dance studio downtown. It’s a pretty successful place, but they don’t hire much staff, so sometimes she asks me to come down and help with renovations and repairs. You know, being the token lesbian of the family?” She laughed quietly. “Anyway, a few months ago my sister had me changing all the lightbulbs in the dance studios, and I met their lead instructor. Her name’s Victoria. She’s one of those girls where you can’t really tell if she’s gay or not, but twenty minutes later we were sucking face in the back of my car.”
Soojung raised her eyebrows. She had never had that much luck with picking up women, and she couldn’t help but be a little jealous. Well, Amber’s really smooth, so I guess it’s to be expected. “And?” she prompted.
“And, as fate would have it, she’s married,” Amber concluded with a little sigh, setting her mug down before returning to the bed, having a seat and flopping back into the pillows. “I’m a homewrecker! I always swore to God, one thing I’d never do is to destroy another person’s relationship.”
Soojung winced. Man, as badly as she would have liked to get laid, she didn’t envy Amber’s situation. “How did you handle it?” she questioned softly, tentatively taking the spot beside Amber in the bed again.
“Oh, and that’s the best part...I haven’t yet,” Amber sighed as she finally took off her hat and tossed it aside, running her fingers through her blond, unruly hair. “If I was smart, I would have. Unfortunately, I just saw her today. We went to a movie, we had ice cream...and then we came back here.” She grabbed a pillow and hugged it to her chest for comfort, adn suddenly Soojung didn’t see Amber as quite so confident and untouchable anymore. But it was her next statement that really got her: “I’m falling in love with her, and it’s not fair. She’s always telling me how much I mean to her, and how she has all these problems with her husband, and how alone she feels living in America when her entire family is back in China…” She sighed. “She’s fucking me up bad. Why do girls have to be cute?”
Soojung laughed weakly, nervously, and her voice sounded strange and foreign as it reached her own ears. That’s how Sunyoung always made me feel. Like I needed her to go on. And life hurts so much without her.
“The rain doesn’t look like it’s going to let up,” Amber continued on. “Wanna stay the night? You’re welcome to just pass out on my bed if you want.” She closed her eyes, letting out a weary sigh. “It’s like 5 AM, isn’t it? Fuck. I should go to sleep.”
Soojung’s eyelids felt heavy, and Amber’s bed was comfortable. The fairy lights danced in front of her eyes, and she would have liked nothing more than to sleep right away, intoxicated on the scent of cinnamon tea and the sounds of another’s breathing beside her again. Still, she had the lingering sense that she just shouldn’t, and she reluctantly stood to grab her bag. “I have auditions tomorrow morning, or I totally would,” she lied. “I’ll stop by some other night, I promise. How long until you need to buy more cigarettes?”
“Three days. Two, if I end up stressed,” she mumbled, finally sitting up with some effort to see her guest off.
“Stop smoking,” Soojung suggested as she slipped her still wet shoes on. “It’s bad for you and expensive.” Still, she supposed that she never would have met Amber if not for her habit, so she was actually kind of thankful that her friend smoked in the first place.
“Yeah, easier said than done,” Amber retorted with a little smirk. “I’ll still see you in a few days when I come buy a pack. I can’t quit that fast.” She grabbed Soojung’s coat and helped her to slip it on.
“Thanks for everything,” Soojung added softly, giving Amber a little smile. It felt like there was something else that she should have said, something meaningful, but all that came forward was, “Goodnight. Sleep well.”