The Abyss: A Love Story by Nikki HoSang
The cherry blossom tree outside the bathroom window is in bloom — really and truly blooming — the first time Jiyoon notices the abyss in Jennie’s apartment. At first, she thinks it’s mold, or a trick of the sunlight slanting in through the window, but when she gets right up next to it, practically pressing her nose against the tile, she can see the all the possible beginnings and endings to their relationship swirling about like so many specks of edible glitter. Its shape seems to change every time she looks at it: first a fish, then an egg, now something entirely different.
Where will they end up? Jiyoon thinks, peering into it. It’s easier to look once you know what you want to see; it’s as if the abyss changes to suit you. A life in which neither of them knows of the other floats by, nearly kissing her eyelashes. No, Jiyoon thinks. That’s not what I want, not at all.
“You’re still in there?” Jennie’s voice, muffled, comes through the bathroom door. Jiyoon exhales (Has she inhaled some part of the abyss?) and turns the tap on, fiddling with it to adjust the temperature.
“I’m fine,” she calls. “Just waiting for the water to warm up.”
“OK,” Jennie says. Jiyoon can hear her walking away, shuffling her socked feet on the carpet. Is there a life out there where she doesn’t shuffle her feet? Impossible! Who would Jennie be if not She Who Shuffles?
In this life, they meet through a mutual friend, which, if Jiyoon thinks about it long enough, seems like a small miracle. It’s like finding a perfectly round piece of sea glass on the beach or rediscovering her favorite nail polish (the oh-so-90s Vamp, which is the color of dried blood) in the back of a drawer. It’s Thursday night, and their mutual friend reaches out via ChatMe and asks them to meet her at 88 Street, a new late-night eatery that serves only classic Chinese street foods. No one else will eat this kind of food with me, the mutual friend types into the group chat. Just you two.
You’ll love it, the mutual friend promises. Trust me.
The restaurant is a hole in the wall run by a bent old man and his wife, and the mutual friend never shows up – her cat vomits into one of her shoes just before she’s due to walk out the door. She will later say that it was a sign, that the cat knew before anybody else that Jennie and Jiyoon needed to be alone.
Don’t wait for me, the friend texts. Find each other and eat! Send me pics! I’m gonna need them later, when I take Sabi to see the vet…
OK, Jiyoon texts back. Jennie, I’m here already. I’m wearing a black sweater, black leggings and boots. She takes a selfie of her pale, solemn face, angling her phone slightly to show off the silver drop-chain earrings and pearl ear cuff she’s wearing.
Nice earrings, Jennie texts. I’m on my way.
Jiyoon is sitting near the back of the restaurant, next to the wall. Her purse, phone and a glass of water are carefully arranged on the table in front of her. There is an old Jackie Chan movie poster directly above her head.
“Hi,” Jennie says, sliding into the seat across from her. She points at the poster. “Did you ever see that one? Police Story? Sorry I’m late — parking was a mess.” She runs a hand through her hair, which is cut and styled into the sort of short cut that practically requires the wearer to tousle it for effect. It’s probably dyed that reddish tea-brown color, Jiyoon thinks, noticing the green highlights. They look like bits of spring grass growing quietly alongside the rest of Jennie’s hair.
Jiyoon nods. “That’s all right,” she says. “So…you’re Jennie, right? Jennie Yi?” She extends a hand across the table, slowly. It is very white and a little dry; for a second Jiyoon thinks that it looks like a spindly, night-blooming flower dragging itself across the table. She does not know if this is a good thing.
“Guilty as charged,” Jennie says, and grasps Jiyoon’s hand, banging it into the plastic stand containing the drinks menu. “Sorry. And you’re Jiyoon, Jiyoon Chang.” She manages to pull off a halfway-decent James Bond imitation. Jiyoon laughs, surprising herself.
They order a little of everything, making sure to send pictures to the mutual friend, who, Jennie reports, has finally managed to bribe her cat into its carrier and whisk it off to the vet. (“She’ll need all the food pictures she can get,” Jennie says. “That cat is pissed.”) They eat candied hawthorn berries on skewers, green onion pancakes, curry fishballs, tea eggs, siu mai, and are about to order one last dish when their waitress appears table-side, with two paper bags of roasted chestnuts and two milk teas.
“Are we ordering too much food?” Jiyoon asks. Empty plates litter the table; there’s a single piece of siu mai and one fishball left. She braces herself for the check and a polite We-love-your-enthusiasm-but-please-leave. It has never happened to her before, but she’s heard of restaurants booting diners who order vast quantities of food, eat it, order a few last dishes — “to go” — and bolt faster than the staff can cook. Not that she and Jennie are planning to bolt, but she can’t help thinking of how it all looks.
“No, no,” the waitress says. “The owner, Old Lew? You’ve ordered all his favorites, so he thought you’d like these. On the house.” She sets the roasted chestnuts and milk teas on the table.
“We’ll take ‘em,” Jennie says, biting into a chestnut. “This is probably what a real Hong Kong Christmas tastes like.”
“What?” Jiyoon says, laughing. “How do you know what Christmas is like in Hong Kong?”
“I don’t,” Jennie says. “But I do know that we should take these chestnuts and our milk teas and take a little walk around. Does that sound good to you?” She leans forward, tattooed arms on the table, and looks up at Jiyoon through her bangs. The fluorescent lighting isn’t ideal for this kind of move, but the tattooed sleeves are still vivid and beautiful, blooming with flowers, fish and an anatomically correct heart.
Jiyoon sucks in a breath and thinks of all the things she’d normally be doing right now: laundry, feeding the cats, applying toner and Korean snail goop to her skin, thinking of sixty different ways to write an advertisement for a line of springtime-themed Japanese onsen bath salts, installing and deleting and reinstalling the dating app du jour. And then of the beating heart being offered to her.
“Yes,” she says. “It does.”
And after that, Jiyoon isn’t just Jiyoon anymore. She’s part of a new entity called “Jiyoon and Jennie” or sometimes “Jennie and Jiyoon.” Her days are full, now. There is so much to learn! For instance, the exact angle at which Jennie likes to lean in for kisses, the way she always rushes to open doors, the fellow programmers and tech types she follows on social media, her opinions on video game design and conveyer belt sushi restaurants, the way she always makes sure to have a pitcher of Jiyoon’s favorite plum blossom green tea cooling in the fridge, an assortment of her favorite snacks in the pantry, and a spare laptop charger in case Jiyoon needs to work from the couch or kitchen.
There is a beginning swirling around the abyss in Jennie’s bathroom that Jiyoon can’t help but fantasize about: the social media meet-cute. How wonderful, she thinks. I might have run across her Instagram account, clicked on a photo of her messy desk, clicked the little heart. I could have gotten to know her before I got to know her. I could have … could have what? Researched her?
There’s not much to research, to be honest. Jennie is a simple creature — she programs, she plays and designs video games, she sleeps, she eats, she tries to teach her blue budgie to skateboard, and she loves Jiyoon. She loves Jiyoon. It’s a verb, truly, when she does it. Sometimes it scares Jiyoon, that this person wearing cartoon socks on her feet and spring grass in her hair loves her. It feels almost as if some divine creature has moved into her life, carefully extracted its beating, jelly-like heart from its chest, and offered it to her on a cracked ceramic plate. Here, the creature says. For you. Do anything you like with it. Eat it, back over it with your car, cover it in shellac and put it on your mantel. Take it as proof of my devotion, my absolute and unconditional devotion.
But I’m not suitable! Jiyoon thinks. In her daydreams, she almost always drops the jellied heart and watches it roll across the floor, picking up dust, cat hair, old bits of food. See, she says again, groping around underneath the coffee table. I’m not suited for this.
After all, who is she? She was named for a Korean pop singer even though she’s Chinese, not Korean. She writes advertising copy for KJS Beauty, a company that specializes in unique, affordable Asian beauty and bath products. She is, despite her elegant exterior, a complete plodder with a hefty fearful streak: slow to make decisions, quick to run — that’s her. She lives with two cats, and like both of them, she has spent most of her life in hiding.
There is an event in the abyss that seems to directly address this fact. Jiyoon will come across it on a Thursday evening at Jennie’s. She’ll see it as she’s soaking in the tub, using her own company’s Sakura Matcha Spring Onsen Bath Salts, the one that comes in the pale pink box. She’s using it because she needs to think, and what’s better for thinking than antioxidant-laden matcha green tea, mineral-rich sea salt? The Japanese cherry blossom petals are there for added ambience — it is spring, after all.
She’ll be thinking about the way Jennie balls up her socks (instead of pairing and folding them) and shoves them into the dark recesses of her dresser when the abyss will catch her eye. It’s grown, she’ll note. It’s no longer shaped like a fish or an egg but like a rose, and the event it’ll show her is one in which Jennie becomes the catalyst for her relationship with someone else.
It is their hundredth-day anniversary. That’s the new internet trend, and Jennie is adamant that they follow it at least once. They have been Jennie and Jiyoon, Jiyoon and Jennie for exactly one hundred days, which is amazing if you think, as Jiyoon does, of all the other people they could have been or been with. Jennie just likes the sound of “our hundredth-day anniversary” and busies herself with scouting out a restaurant for dinner.
There will be a woman sitting at the bar. A new server will come rushing around the corner with an armful of drinks and will spill red wine on Jiyoon’s off-white dress as she walks past. The server will apologize profusely, but it’ll be the woman at the bar who will order a club soda and lead Jiyoon into the bathroom. This woman is nothing like Jennie, but she does have great legs. They have that in common, Jennie and the woman at the bar.
Oh, Jesus, Buddha, Guanyin, anybody, Jiyoon prays, looking away from the abyss. She sinks underneath the water. Don’t let me make out with her in the handicapped stall, please God. Don’t let me take her number. Don’t let me cheat.
If she had dared to look, she might have seen that future fizzle out, looking something like a lone bluish, fuzzy sparkler.
“Why would you even think that?” Jennie howls, clasping herself around the neck. Maybe she’s doing that, Jiyoon thinks, so she won’t choke me.
“I don’t know,” Jiyoon lies. “I really, really don’t.”
They are fighting about Jennie’s birthday, which is also their three hundredth day together. She has something specific in mind, something she wants — badly — that only Jiyoon can give her. It’s an easy request to fulfill, and Jennie herself will do all the work, or so she’s said, but Jiyoon just can’t see how ordering herself a black babydoll and getting a sultry Brigitte Bardot haircut will save their shriveled sex life. Worse, she’s asked Jennie the stupid question to end all stupid questions: Does this mean you want to see someone else?
“I’ll do it,” Jiyoon says. “If that’s what you want.”
“I want you to enjoy it,” Jennie says, running her hands through her hair. She’s so frustrated she seems to glow. “I want you to enjoy us. I don’t care about the lingerie or the hair; I just thought it might…”
“Might what?” Jiyoon says, even though she’s afraid she knows the answer.
“Might help you loosen up some, maybe, if you could pretend to be someone else,” Jennie says, helplessly. “Forget it, it’s just some dumb thing I read online.” She reaches for Jiyoon with both hands and finds a knotted, rock-hard shoulder, a tense neck, a hank of hair gone a bit brittle at the ends. Jiyoon lets her massage her shoulders for a while, which surprises her. She hasn’t been able to touch her in weeks.
What Jennie doesn’t know is that the abyss in her bathroom (which she thinks is just an oddly-shaped defect in the tile) has shown Jiyoon exactly how it will end, and that this ending, unlike all the other beginnings, middles and endings it has shown her, is non-negotiable. They will be together until one of them dies, and this terrifies Jiyoon so much that she’s unconsciously begun to will herself into being the one to leave.
She’s seen it all: the months of preparation, the fittings, the tastings, the ceremony. The mutual friend will appoint herself their shared maid of honor and will offer up her niece as their flower girl. Jennie will insist on carrying her across the threshold. She’ll give up her apartment and bring her two cats and all their stuff over. She’ll bathe facing the abyss every night, and every night it will show her a little more of her — no, their — life. The abyss isn’t clear on whether they’ll acquire a small dog or a small child. The budgie will learn to skateboard and then choke on a seed. Jennie will keep him in a vacuum-sealed bag in the freezer and will eventually bury him in the planter, but she’ll never get around to asking their landlord to spackle over that defective bathroom tile. Jiyoon will try three times and will fail every time — the spackle will just become a fleet of fluffy, cotton candy clouds. The more she uses the more of the future it will show her: mild fights over small things, the successful launch of Jennie’s first video game, the orange flowers Jiyoon will take to keeping on the nightstand next to her side of the bed, a disastrous trip to a local sex store, couples counseling, a string of summer-like nights spent at the local street food night market.
The end will come many springs from now, when Jennie is even more handsome than she is now. She will look exactly the same to Jiyoon, just a little faded around the tattoos — she won’t maintain them after a certain point. She won’t have time, not with all the games she’ll be publishing. Jiyoon will still be in advertising, though not with KJS Beauty. Instead, she’ll be managing a fleet of writers for a well-known skincare company. The cats will be ancient and wary, really no different from how they are now.
There will be something amiss with Jiyoon’s heart — it will feel a little bit like a pair of shoes that just doesn’t fit right, or a sock that’s on wrong. (Hasn’t it always been like that, though?) Stress, she’ll guess. Deadlines. New copywriters. She’ll creep out of her office one night, eat dinner with Jennie, read the latest issue of Vogue (she’ll be the kind of person who does that), take a bath and crawl into bed early. Jennie will join her a few hours later, folding herself around Jiyoon as if she were a favorite pillow or stuffed animal, and fall asleep. She may or may not snore directly into Jiyoon’s ear, but it won’t matter: Jiyoon will be standing beside her old body when Jennie wakes up.
The cherry tree outside the bathroom window will be in bloom.
Nikki HoSang lives in California, where she works as a technical editor. Her writing can be found in Tin House and Electric Literature.