A Tight Thing

By Toyosi Begbaaji

When I wake up this morning, my voice is still missing.

The sunlight through my blinds had been what roused me from my sleep. I’d been dreaming, a pleasant dream, the kind where you feel affronted if woken up from, when the world in front of me had gone red, stinging even through my eyelids.

My eyes open slowly, blinking to let my eyelashes break up the offending sunlight, and I sit up carefully, back protesting mildly while I try out my voice, as has become habit.

My name…

My name is…

Silence again. I’m not as surprised I think I should be. As I’m testing my voice, I realize: It’s Tuesday, my early day, and it’s with sudden panic that I notice it’s an hour past when I was supposed to be at work.

The motions that follow are familiar—heave self: out of bed, make way: to bathroom, brush: teeth, regard: appearance, ultimately: return to room—if rushed. I don’t dress as slowly as I’d woken up, instead opting to pull on clothes hurriedly, tipping over at one point as I attempt to quickly slip into a pair of trousers. When I’m dressed, I stand in front of my mirror, staring at myself as everything around me eases down on the brake.

Morning Me always feels loose. She feels unsecured, like every part of her is barely hanging onto each other, clinging with the barest amount of strength. Like the aftermath of an explosion, caught in a jello stasis. As I stare at my reflection, Morning Me looks back. She has dark circles that seem to float somewhere between us, like I could reach out and pluck them from the air to hold in my palm. She has sagging shoulders, the width of them seeming to spread 2 farther and farther, even when I cup my hands around them, gritting my teeth as I push them back close together. Everything about her is wide, seeming to drift apart unless I actively tell it not to.

I should call in sick again.

She and I are both still far too loose for the day.

The subway is crammed full of people at this time: college students, technicolor tourists, the occasional child-toting mother. This late in the morning, later than my regular subway, I don’t see very many others like me—dressed in dark clothes, carrying a simple briefcase, wearing pinched high heels that always capture stray rocks just under the arch of the foot. Today I ride this unfamiliar subway near the center, sat poised in my seat with my briefcase on my lap, my phone clutched hard in my hand. After emailing my boss—Regret to inform you that I’ll be very late today. My bad—I scroll through every app, looking for nothing, eyes downcast. I’m hoping that if I don’t meet anyone’s eyes, that if I let myself melt and try to blend into the seat beneath me, no one will try to talk to me.

“This seat taken?”

I flinch, but keep my gaze down.

“Hi? Sorry, um, I—” The train surges forward suddenly, and the new voice swears under their breath. “Sorry, I just—I need to sit down. Is this seat taken?”

The new voice is soft, but insistent. Enough that I dare chance a glance up. The new voice belongs to a man—no, a boy, can’t be older than twenty. His body seems tense where he 3 stands, rocking back and forth with the subway’s lurching. My glance becomes a full turn of the head, which becomes a dropping of my phone into my lap, which becomes a small shake of my head.

The new voice’s face washes with relief as he plops down beside me. When he does, I try to stifle the way my body flinches again, leaning away and tightening in on itself. Closer now, I inspect him further.

Red hair. Black roots. Brown eyes. Freckled skin. Student at the nearby college, going by the hoodie he wears. Exhausted, going by the bags beneath his eyes.

“God, you’re a lifesaver, you have no idea,” the new voice says, sighing heavily. “Whole cart was packed when I came in the front set of doors.”

I’m still examining him. Distressed jeans. Scuffed sneakers. Heavy backpack that sits in his lap, his body curled around it as his cheek rests smushed on top in a way that’s distressingly endearing. One piercing—no, three in his left ear.

If I could speak, I’d ask him to turn his head so I can see the other.

Ah, fuck,” the new voice mutters. His cheek is off the backpack now, its pattern imprinted into his skin as he checks the time on his phone. “I’m gonna be late for lab.” He looks up then, and I’m caught.

My face flushes so suddenly that my eyes water as I look away. I pretend to be busied by looking out the window, watching the fast darkness pass us by. When I was young, I used to believe that the subways actually stood still. That when we needed to go, it was the city moving around us, spinning and twisting and running to get us to the next location. A sun, orbited by a concrete galaxy.

I want to tell the new voice this. I want to ask him to say it back to me. I wonder what it would sound like—a child’s imagination on such a lovely voice.

The new voice clears his throat. I don’t want to look.

“You’re really quiet.”

On the tip of my tongue—I’ve lost my voice.

“Did I say something wrong?” the new voice asks. He sounds nervous. Worried. “Oh, was it ‘cause I swore?” More worried. Almost panicked. I continue watching the darkness. “My bad, I didn’t mean to…offend you or anything.”

My warbling reflection copies the way I grit my teeth. She presses her lips into a tight line. She flicks her eyes over to see the new voice’s reflection just beside her face.

Worried. Nervous. Panicked.

He’s waiting for me to say something back.

It feels like I’m trying to breathe through the pinhole opening of a clenched fist.

“I totally get if you’re one of those, you know, old-fashioned types. Or whatever,” he mumbles. He scratches the back of his neck.

I finally look back. The new voice jumps, startled by my sudden movement. Brown eyes wide, freckled face pale.

I raise my hands between us and slowly pantomime.

Me. Talking. No.

The new voice seems to understand. He nods, color returning to his face, almost the color of his hair. The new voice moves to set his backpack down, on top of his feet. He raises his own hands then, and I watch, marveled, as he speaks.

I know ASL, if that helps?

I stare at him like he’s sprouted a second head.

You… I say back, hands trembling.

The new voice smiles, cheeks bunched up under his eyes. His hands move quickly—practiced ease, sureness. When he tells me his name, I desperately wish I could speak, if only to hear how it would sound on my tongue.

J. I. N. S. O. O.

Korean? I ask.

Jinsoo frowns, then says back, Unfortunately.

The feeling of a laugh bubbles up in my chest. Warms me all over.

Your name?

K. A. T. H. R. Y. N, I say, chucking noiselessly when Jinsoo’s eyebrows furrow at the spelling.

American? he asks.

Unfortunately.

Jinsoo laughs, a laugh like windchimes. Like tinkling bells. My chest constricts.

How do you know sign? I ask, remnants of the embarrassed flush from earlier still tickling my cheeks.

Jinsoo settles back in his seat. He’s comfortable now, hands moving deftly. Deaf sister. Mom wanted us all to learn, he says. Helpful for times like these. He nods towards me. You?

Learned in high school, I say. On a whim.

Jinsoo rolls his eyes. No one learns ASL on “a whim.”

If we were closer—if we weren’t utter strangers—I would playfully swat at his shoulder. Or push it, laughing as he falls over into the aisle beside him. As it is, I instead shrug, attempting to seem casually smug. I did.

Jinsoo snorts amusedly, hands prepped to speak again when the subway screeches to a sudden halt, pitching both of us forward into the back of the seats in front of us.

Yah,” Jinsoo hisses, pushing himself back. He mutters something in a different language—Korean, I eventually place—then sits back as the announcer warns of the closing doors.

I touch Jinsoo’s arm. You alright?

Jinsoo smiles again, and my chest feels tight, like something in it might snap. Or explode.

Been better. Don’t appreciate the sore chest. He rubs with one hand at the spot where the bar of the seat in front of him had hit, face twisted up in pain. Like he’s signing “sorry” to himself.

My eyes become fixated on the ring he wears. Silver band. Black vertical line bisecting the center. Hangul stamped into the metal.

I want to ask about the ring.

I want to ask what the words mean.

I want to ask him to say them out loud.

Jinsoo tilts his head, red hair cascading to one side, drawing my attention back up.

You know you don’t have to use sign, I say instead, suddenly panicked that he’d caught me staring again. I can hear just fine.

Yeah, but I like it, he says. The ring on his finger catches the lights above us as the subway starts back up. I wonder if that light is strong enough to reflect back into the darkness just through the window behind me. I haven’t been back to California in almost two years, so I rarely get to use it. Jinsoo shrugs. And besides, you’re mute, right? It’d be rude and weird if I was the only one speaking out loud.

I freeze. I’m not mute, I rush to say.

The expression on Jinsoo’s face drops, spackled over with alarm and regret. “Shit,” he says, hands raised. “Oh, shit. Wait, sorry—” He switches back to sign. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to assume—

I just have a sore throat, I say. Lie. I’m lying.

If we weren’t strangers, I’d tell him that I’ve been like this for days now. That I’d spent the last five days in bed and unable to get up, terrified of seeing Morning Me in the mirror, of having to face her and her slowly drifting frame. That five days ago, I’d gotten so wound up so quickly that I’d blown to pieces, shooting my shrapnel in every direction. That this is my first time heading into work in three days, and even now, I’m still not entirely sure how to explain to other people that even though I’d managed to put myself back together, I still haven’t been able to put back my voice.

But we’re strangers. So I lie, and sign back, I just have a sore throat.

Jinsoo’s face doesn’t change, but he does visibly relax. Cold season? he asks. Before I can respond, Jinsoo’s hauling his backpack into his lap, unzipping the centermost pocket. He fishes around inside, then makes a noise of delight as he slips out his arm, holding out his closed 8 fist. I have a couple Halls lozenges? His face has finally returned to something more normal, a lopsided smile with apologetic eyes.

The tight something in my chest tugs, gently.

I take the offered lozenges—a little warm from being cupped in his palm—and nod in thanks. I slowly unwrap one, fighting the waxy paper that’s a little stuck to it, then slip it into my mouth, humming at the sudden burst of cherry on my tongue.

Jinsoo coughs, startling me. He sets his bag back down on his feet, then smiles, albeit awkwardly. Hopefully those help. Your sore throat.

When he tilts his head this time, I finally catch sight of his other ear. No earrings, but there are piercings, long healed and stretched a little wide. I feel compelled to reach out and tug on the lobe of his ear.

You’re a student at the university? I ask instead, nodding towards his hoodie. Changing the subject is a preemptive measure. Or a protective one. Anything to keep the tight thing in my chest from pulling too hard and suffocating me where I sit.

Jinsoo beams. Third year.

So you’re twenty?

Twenty-one. Who’s a junior at twenty?

I snort. I was.

Jinsoo’s eyes bug out. You’re not in college? The slow movement of his hands combined with his stunned face is enough for me to imagine how incredulous he would sound out loud. His face is so expressive when he speaks that I allow myself to imagine his lovely voice carrying the words instead of his hands. You look nineteen!

I silently laugh again, covering my face with a hand as I pass the lozenge with my tongue to nestle in the pocket of my cheek. People say that a lot.

That explains the briefcase, Jinsoo says. He shakes his head, tsking exaggeratedly. You know they make stylish backpacks these days? You couldn’t get by with one of those?

I pout. Excuse you. I like my briefcase.

Jinsoo scoffs, but his eyes are bright with amusement, practically gleaming.

The tight thing in my chest pulls, tugging hard enough to skew my smile.

So you’re what, thirty then? Jinsoo asks. Forty? Then he narrows his eyes. Fifty?

I roll my eyes. Twenty-four, thank you very much.

Twenty-four, and already toting a briefcase. When Jinsoo smiles this time, I catch the brief flash of something in his eyes. Something vulnerable. Something sad.

Without the need for speaking over the loudness of the subway, it’s like we’re surrounded by a bubble, isolated from the rest of the noise on the train. The sounds of the other patrons are muffled, like cotton’s been shoved in my ears. When Jinsoo looks down, something in the air between us grows colder.

My smile dethreads.

My ears start ringing.

I feel compelled to ask about the sad thing that dimmed the light in his eyes.

I should change the subject again.

I wave my hand in front of Jinsoo’s face to catch his attention. You’re the first stranger I’ve ever had a pleasant conversation with while on the subway, I say. Then I smile. And we’re not even speaking out loud.

Jinsoo’s eyes widen. Then he sputters out a laugh.

Tinkling bells. Bunched up cheeks. Sparkling eyes.

The sad thing in him goes away.

The tight thing in me grows tauter still.

Well, you’re the nicest person I’ve talked to…ever, Jinsoo says, reaching out. His hand falters for a moment, and drops down to lightly tap the edge of my briefcase. His face flushes red, like his hair again, and it’s only then that I realize he’d been going to grab my hand.

The bubble around us grows warmer and I feel ten seconds away from catching on fire. We’re in the sun—we are the sun, the rest of the world spinning around us, moving around us while we remain still.

Does he feel it? I wonder to myself. I clench my hands in my lap. The tight thing is reeling itself so fast my entire body feels dizzy. Buzzing. Trembling. Ticking. Does he feel his own tight thing for me, too?

The subway screeches to another halt as the stop is announced.

Shit.” Jinsoo stands up from his seat, and just like that, the bubble of isolation around us bursts. Explodes. “Shit, this—this is my stop.”

The cotton in my ears is suddenly too much and I feel deaf. My head is spinning. My chest is crying, the tight thing having pulled too hard, too fast. My arms feel heavy and numb, too numb to even talk now. The cherry taste in my mouth is suddenly bitter.

Jinsoo’s standing up, he’s leaving

It’s greedy of me to grab his hand, but I do anyway. I tug him to a sudden stop, my briefcase tumbling out of my lap and crashing onto my toes. I don’t notice the pain, so I don’t 11 wince. I watch Jinsoo’s face, watch it cycle through a range of emotions before finally settling on something that looks worrying like the sad thing I’d seen earlier.

“Kathryn, I gotta go,” he says. He tugs once. I hold fast. “Kathryn.” Pleads. I don’t know what’s come over me.

Something must be wrong with me. I think I’m close to detonating again.

We hold eye contact. Agonizing eye contact. His face is still drenched with the sad thing.

I hang onto his arm for a beat, then let my grip slacken until I’m holding onto just his wrist. Then his hand. Then the tips of his fingers. As the bells for the announcing the closing doors start, I finally let go, scrambling back until my body hits the window with a thud. My mouth opens as if to speak—I’ll see you again, right?—and the lozenge drops out, falling into my lap, spit sticking it to the fabric of my shirt. I try to raise my arms to ask, but the tight thing has spread throughout my body, holding me still like a doll.

I watch Jinsoo leave, swept up in the rush of last-minute exiting people. I watch him briefly turn back, hand closed into a fist where it rubs a fast circle against his chest.

I’m sorry.

I feel his skin-warmed ring band where it rests in my palm.

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