She is beautiful. Jiyeon is so beautiful that it’s almost annoying.
Cheolyong looks like he loves her when he looks into her eyes, and I instantly feel jealous. Jinah has been sending me messages in hope to brighten up my mood, but nothing that she could ever send would make me feel happy about myself at that moment—the moment where Cheolyong and Jiyeon walked in, hand in hand, flustered face turned to flustered face, smile to gorgeous smile.
The whole dinner is awkward, but I see the insecurities that Cheolyong spoke about. She turns around often in her seat, checks her makeup bag and her mirror, and keeps her eyes on her plate unless she’s brought into the conversation. I’m the third wheel—I shouldn’t talk that much. The conversation is therefore awkward, filled with small jokes about the people around us, and our matches. If Insu is ever brought up, Jiyeon seems to be much more interested.
I feel defensive when talking about Insu, so I try to answer the vaguest of answers as possible with the shortest answers. I’m not trying to be rude, I scream at Cheolyong with my eyes when Cheolyong glares at me during the yes-and-no questionnaire, but seeing as Insu had only airmailed me twice since our last meeting, I was still very on the fence about everything. And with no one to talk to it about, I felt like any moment we talked about it, I would eventually spill the truth: that Insu may be a girl.
I had wanted to tell either Jinah or Cheolyong about this for so long, but had never been able to find time to really come clean. Of course I wanted to say the truth! If I could, I would have earlier, but I couldn’t. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that Insu wouldn’t want me blabbing my mouth about something that was obviously so private that it had taken so long for him to admit it to me.
Great job back there, reads the text that Cheolyong sends a few minutes after, when I’m on my way home from the restaurant. I bite down in my tongue and stuff my phone into my pocket, keeping up my pace to make sure that I don’t text something bad or call him up and start screaming at him. I pump my fists, walking as fast as I possibly can until I’m running, sprinting down to my house.
I sprint up the stairs and hide in my room. I pull out my phone, hide my head in my knees, and dial up Insu’s number before I realize what I’m doing. It’s probably five-thirty o’clock over there, I calculate in my head. I count the number of rings before I finally hear his voice.
“Yujin-ah?” Insu answers.
I sob, as much as I possibly can, until I’m positive that my eyes will never return to their natural colour. I just need to cry so much, I need to talk as honestly as possible.
“My best friend, h-he brought… he b-brought his match and asked me to eat with them tonight! S-She’s so be…beautiful and I feel so u-ugly whenever I’m around her. It’s those types of girls that I really hate. And she’s so compatible with Cheolyong! It’s just the way that they look into each other’s eyes that make me feel so stupid…” I don’t notice how much I’m rambling until laughing cuts me off.
“Why do you care about your best friend’s match, Yujin-ah?” Insu asks, and my knees slide down, my calves hitting the wooden floor. “You’re not matched with him, so why should it matter, who he’s paired up with? You know what, Yujin-ah? This match may be pretty, but she isn’t as pretty as you are. Yujin, I love you.”
“But you’re a girl,” I mumble, “But matches are supposed to be with a boy and a girl…”
Insu laughs, “The Capitale obviously wanted us to be matched. Think of it like that.”
“My name is Son Ga-in. Please call me that instead,” Ga-in corrects and I nod, like a scolded child. She sighs when I don’t reply. “Yujin-ah, if it really annoys you so much, I can pass as a boy, for the rest of eternity, and be Son Insu for you. But I had thought that you were different, especially when we went to the park together that one day, together. I hadn’t thought I was going to ever tell you; state myself as sterile. But I trusted you, and I still trust you. I’m sorry if I perceived it wrong.”
I shake my head. “N-no! Please, I would never want you to not trust me.” I can see the smile on her face through the receiver, the way that her lips would turn, the way she would look at me. I feel suddenly relieved by that.
“You’re still coming over in a week, yes?” She asks, and I hum yes. She laughs. “That’s great. I apologize, but I have to go.”
“Bye, Ga-in,” I mumble, and there’s a pause.
“Bye, Yujin-ah. I love you.”
Sunday is work, and I am slowly starting to despise work. Nothing keeps me entertained, working my fingers through the keyboard, through the mouse clicks, but I try my best to stay concentrated, to get better marks. The day my job will be elected is dawning on my quickly, and I bite my tongue and shake my head each time my employer or Jooyeon reminds me of it. It feels awkward, knowing that soon, you’ll be moving up.
“You’d be a great matcher,” my employer tells me, “Do you want me to put in a good word for you?”
I shake my head, smiling. “That isn’t necessary,” I reply as politely as I possibly can. He shakes his head and walks off.
Ga-in and I were a mistake. I would hate to be the one making the mistake.
It’s more than ten degrees colder from my home to Ga-in, and I sit, shivering in my seat. The Officials had had to send me with some warmer clothing when they had learned that I would be spending the week in the sixth province with Insu, to get closer to each other. It was one of the last few weeks of school, so if I studied for test week when I was with Insu every night, I would be fine, they advised.
I tucked away my mathematics text book, tucking into my hand bag. My suitcases sat above me in a cubby, locked up safely by a password that I played over and over in my head. When I had reached my stop, which just happened to be the last stop, all I had to do was punch in the numbers and then slide out my articles, and step off of the train.
It was very quiet, with barely any people left. When I had first walked onto the train, the whole carriage was filled with people, and so finding a spot was difficult. But slowly, people started getting off, walking off at certain provinces, and I had now passes the third, second and seventh, headed straight for the sixth province. And with me sat only a handful. Maybe the sixth province wasn’t that popular.
A shiver ran up my spine as I peered outside, watching the trees, evergreens reaching up and touching the gray sky. Ga-in had told me on the phone last night that there was still a lot of rain, which was normal in the late spring and early summer in the sixth province, because the winter had a very long death compared to the early spring and hot, humid summer I was used to back home.
Thankfully, it seemed like no rain would be falling down today, and I was grateful. I was now wearing something appropriate, though, a large parka that I thought was a bit of an over exaggeration for forty-six degrees, but I had stepped onto the train at sixty-nine, and by the way that the trees seemed to rustle outside, it looked rather windy. I had forgotten to pull my gloves out of my suitcase, and I fretted, hoping that I wouldn’t catch hypothermia or something similar because of the lack of them.
I smiled. I was probably just over exaggerating, I told myself, it couldn’t be that cold. If I really had that much trouble with the cold, I could just ask Ga-in for some gloves or something. She probably had an extra pair, just in case.
The train slowly rolled into the station, and the signal for all passengers to get off, as this was the final stop, went out. I unlocked the lock for my valuables, lifted my bag out of the compartment, and after waiting for everyone else to go past me in the aisles, walked off of the train.
As my feet the concrete near the tracks, I was hit by the fresh air. It smelled like pine. It was easy to see why—trees surrounded the train station, and I knew suddenly why the sixth province was praised for their forest industry. The sixth province were known for having a belt of rocks that meant minerals and a small amount of diamonds, but when the west had hit a block with their forestry production, they called upon the rest of the provinces to help them out, they had been able to grow more and more trees to support the need for paper production.
“What’s up?” I turn around to see Ga-in, smiling at me. I notice that she’s shorter than me, and that she’s wearing girl clothes, and I’m hit with shock, almost falling over my stuff. Ga-in laughs, grabbing onto my luggage and wheeling it behind her.
“You’ve changed,” I whisper into her ear, looking around at everyone on the train platform. Ga-in turns and plays with my hair, ruffling the edges. She seems pleased, and so, I’m pleased, but I hadn’t seen her like this before, only like Insu… Only ever Insu.
The hair was the same, the same black, short hair style. But a purple hairclip stood out and kept some of her bangs from getting into her eyes. She wore black eyeliner that made her brown eyes stand out, and when I looked down at her hands, she seemed to be wearing pink nail polish. Someone that I had thought previously was as flat as board now showed off just a bit of cleavage underneath her jacket. In other words, she had changed dramatically since I had first seen her.
“And you look cold. Where are you gloves?” Ga-in asks, reaching out to touch my hands. I shy away instinctively, rubbing my hands together in a vain attempt to warm them up. Ga-in laughs, reaching into one of her pockets and retrieving a pair of gloves, in which she hands them to me. “Hadn’t you known you were going to the province with nine months of winter?”
I look up, bewildered. “Really? Nine months? I hadn’t thought that we were so close to the borders…If I had, I would have packed better…” I’m stopped again by Ga-in laughter, which echoes throughout the trees.
“It’s a joke, Yujin-ah. Back when the country was fifty states, they called most of the sixth province the state with nine months of winter. I’ve only seen maybe six, tops. And you won’t be seeing that much snow, anyways; right now it’s our summer.” I blush, stuffing my hands into the gloves and sighing at the sudden relief that the heat brings me.
“Do you know anything more about that?” I ask sheepishly, kicking a pebble and watching it fly down a flight of stairs and almost hit a pole. We jog down the stairs, heading our way towards a bus stop, where Ga-in hands me a bus pass, one that she must have purchased for me when she had heard of my arrival.
Ga-in sits down on a bench and I follow suite. “I learnt that this used to be called ‘Michigan’, one of the few states that bordered a country called ‘Canada’, which is now Winternorth. There were roughly fifty-one or fifty-two states in total, all belonging to this wonderful country that used to be called the USOA or something similar. But roughly around 2100, the leaders were unable to govern their country, and that is when the Capitale came in and fixed everything up. Not only that, but they took down Canada, too, and cut off every single tie we had with them.
“Then the fifty-two states were divided into eleven provinces. The first was on the east coast, which was called ‘New England’, and this was supposed to be part of the province, but instead, it was grouped as the sixth province. The second province included Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Virginia, and Kentucky. The third is your province, yes? North Carolina, where you were in South Carolina, and Tennessee. The fourth province was the biggest—containing Florida, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. The fifth is right underneath us, with Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. Then it’s Michigan and Wisconsin for the sixth province. The others I never learned, unfortunately, but supposedly the eleventh province had Alaska and Hawaii or something like that.”
“You’re so smart,” I whisper before I realize what has left my mouth and Ga-in smiles whole-heartedly. I look down at my shoes. “Just when you were saying all that, you looked so proud. You must really like history, don’t you?”
Ga-in nodded. “But historians aren’t as needed when you have the Capitale, right? They keep track of everything for you, don’t they? But when I was young, my dream of joining the Capitale and working on the log books like I still dream of doing was hit down. And so I gave up on it, just like a bunch of people do in the sixth province. You see, the only exciting thing here anymore is the matching ceremony, because people pray that they’ll be able to leave.”
The bus arrived, and our conversation suddenly fell silent. As we filed up to get onto the bus, Ga-in whispered into my ear, “I’ll tell you more when we get home.”
Her house was surrounded by forest, and the walkway was covered in dirt, and I suddenly wished for my lovely driveway back home instead of the slush that now accumulated around my feet. I smiled when Ga-in turned around, just to make sure I was still ok, and we had to hold hands the rest of the way. I didn’t mind.
“Why do you dress like a boy?” I ask, my feet warming up in front of the fireplace, a hot cup of tea in my hands, and Ga-in sitting beside me. The screen can easily be turned on, but I doubt there’s anything good on at one o’clock in the afternoon, and there are still a thousand questions that circle my head. I don’t want to watch some lifeless television; I want to know more about my match.
Ga-in sighs, setting down her tea on the coffee table in front of us. “I don’t really know what it is like in the third province, but here, it is hard. And unfortunately, even if our ancestors worked so hard to create equality, the sixth province was so backwards. The Winternorth people threaten to come into our houses every night and kids are taken from their families, and everyone just prays to disappear, because disappearing will be much better than the living hell their lives are right now.
“And for a woman, things were especially different. You see, my mother died when she was young, right after having me, actually. The match hadn’t worked as smoothly as the Capitale had thought it would and so she died, and I had barely any chance to really meet her. And so in that split moment, my father decided that I would be a man, instead of a woman. The doctor is a friend of my father’s, and so he made the documents read that I was a guy—that I was Son Insu. Because not that many officials stay in the sixth province, I was able to be a girl unless it was a special meeting, or a ceremony. Everyone here has really lost hope, and so no one cared about me pretending to be a boy. My father wanted me to have more opportunity than what I would get as a girl. And so, he made a decision that would help me in the long run.”
She sighed, tucking a loose strand behind her ear. I watched her profile, watching as she breathed through her nostrils, and out through her open mouth, and noticed that she had lip balm on. But her eyes, even if they did sparkle, were cold. Cold as the province she lived in.
“What are you going to do?” I asked, and she turned to me, confused.
“What?” she asked, puzzled, cocking her head to the side. This was the first time I had ever seen her look like this, and suddenly, a burst of confidence flowed throughout my veins. I swallowed.
“What are you going to do, Ga-in? You say that this province has no hope, that everyone here is a lost cause. You obviously don’t like it, so what are you going to do? How are you going to stop this from being such a hellhole? Ga-in, because you are pretending to be a man, you are a step up higher than everyone else. You’ve got the Capitale fooled—just look at your match. But it’s your match that is asking what are you going to do with this advantage? So answer me.”
Her gaze was stone cold, and I was breathing as hard as I could, wondering by what force was keeping our eyes locked so intensely.
“I’ll need someone to stay with me,” Ga-in says, and I smile brightly at the determination in her voice. Great! I set down my tea cup, so that the handle almost touches Ga-in’s, and twist myself on the sofa, my eyes stuck to her’s, watching as they morph as she thinks, the way her bottom lip pulls in between her lower and bottom lip.
“I’ll go with you,” I promise. I grab onto her hand but she pulls away, looking down at the tea cups, her face red from the heat that now circulates around.
“I don’t want you doing this simply because I want to. I may be your match, but you shouldn’t be forced into doing something as dangerous as this simply because you want me to do it. I don’t want you to get hurt,” Ga-in admits.
She doesn’t trust me. My mouth opens in shock and I watch as she starts getting up, getting ready to leave. “You should stay the week, anyways,” she advises, “Think of it as a vacation.” She is about to walk away when my hand grabs onto her wrist.
“I love you,” flies out of my lips. She looks down at me in shock, and her wide eyes make me cry, and soon I’m sobbing, sobbing so much more than I did back when I had seen Jiyeon for the first time, much more than I had when my grandfather had passed, so much more than anything else in my life.
She’s right beside me, patting my back and pushing my hair out of my face. I wipe my face with the back of my hand, chuckling to myself. “I’m sorry, I probably look really stupid.”
“You’re beautiful,” Ga-in admits, “You’re so damn beautiful.”
I gape, before chuckling again, tucking a strand behind my hair. “T-thanks.”
Ga-in smiles, “I want you to come with me, to fight with me. You’re strong.”
She cups my face and leans in, stealing a kiss from my lips. It’s different from the first time we kissed, I realize. This time it feels like a thousand things have been lifted off of my chest as I press myself closer and closer to Ga-in, in hopes to find out more about her. There are no secrets anymore. I feel happy. Safe.
“A week will be enough to plan things, yes?” I ask, and she nods.
“I reckon it will be,” she replies, kissing me on the nose and pulling me up from near the fireplace to start working. I smile to myself.
This might work.
“They’ll never listen.”
“Of course they will.”
“What if this leads to a rebellion of some sort? What if the Capitale goes against me?”
I sigh, patting Ga-in’s shoulder and kissing her cheek. She’s dressed up as Insu today, with a suit and a tie and she looks completely masculine. I wear her purple hairclip in my hair. Insu turns to me, kisses me chastely on the lips, and smiles, walking up the steps to the Capitale.
I don’t wait; I walk home. In the sixth province. Where Ga-in will come home.