In, Out

In, Out

Grace Huang | Art by Christy Yu

She never knew what to say when it came to him.

Yes, they had been family friends as children. Yes, they had gone to the same schools all their lives—from preschool all the way to high school. Yes, they had met every summer at Marianne’s house for their parents to spend all night dealing cards. Yes, they had known each other for a long, long time.

But what could she, of all people, say about him?

* * *

The conversation in seventh grade had started with her mom asking, “I haven’t heard from Clarion in a while. What’s he been up to?”

Marianne, in turn, had responded, “I don’t know. I don’t talk to him.”

“What? You don’t? I thought you guys were friends. I was talking to his mom the other day. She said Clarion told her you guys see each other at school all the time.”

“I mean, we do. We just… don’t really talk.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing. We’re not really… friends.”

“Who said you guys aren’t friends?”

“Both of us.”

And then that conversation had ended, and Marianne had been left staring at her hands with a piercing pain in her stomach that was deeply uncomfortable.

* * *

Her hands twitched. She buried them deeper into her jacket pockets. They itched for something to hold, for something to do.

In, out. Back, forth. Push, pull.

She closed her eyes and let her fingers move to the rhythm of the imaginary needle in her head.

Someone tugged at the top of Marianne’s beanie. Marianne flinched away violently, eyes wide, and Aria started. “Whoa. Sorry.”

“…It’s fine,” Marianne muttered, reaching a hand upwards and patting around where she felt Aria’s fingers had latched on. “What were you trying to do?”

“There’s a stray thread of yarn on top of your beanie. Didn’t you say you just bought this?”

Marianne had finished knitting the beanie early this morning, had fallen asleep to the sound of an audience clapping and singing along while she cradled the beanie to her chest—her creation.

“Yeah… it came yesterday.”

“It seems kind of low-quality, don’t you think?”

Aria didn’t know. Aria didn’t know what she did. Aria didn’t know what she made. Aria didn’t know just how successful her work was.

Aria didn’t know anything. There was a reason why Aria didn’t know anything; there was a reason Marianne hadn’t told her anything.

Marianne shrugged; when she opened her mouth to respond, she couldn’t find her voice. In the end, she just shoved her hands behind her back and wove her fingers together.

(Lest they begin to push and pull again—piercing in and out.)

* * *

She knew where he liked to hang out, and who he liked to socialize with. Those yearly dinner parties with his parents reminded her more and more of it all—he was the one who humbly denied the extent of his accomplishments. He was the one who spoke words to inspire others. He was the one who enveloped others in hugs.

There was a reason they avoided each other any other time of the year. They were not two people who knew each other like the backs of their hands; they were not two people as perfect together as the sun and the moon.

She was just lucky she hadn’t had to speak to him all this time.

* * *

From the beginning, though, luck had never been on her side. Clarion ran into her three months before graduation—literally.

“Watch where you’re going, will you, Mari?” She saw the way his eyes widened when he realized what he’d just called her, and her own heart beat harder in response.

“I’m sorry.” Her gaze flickered to the tennis ball in his hands before it returned to his face. When had he grown so tall? Had he really grown that much in six months? Or had she just not noticed during those dinner parties, spent weaving in and out of her room for fabrics rather than food?

Clarion sighed. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound so rude.”

“…Don’t worry about it,” she murmured. She clutched her phone closer to her heart and walked around him. Even when she rounded the corner of the building, she could still feel his gaze on her—piercing her very soul.

He always had understood her the best.

* * *

“You know,” Aria began one day in a tone that Marianne couldn’t identify but knew she didn’t like, “we haven’t had a card game night in a while.”

“I’m free on Friday night,” Marianne offered after a moment of musing—of wondering if she really wanted to. Even speaking to her like this made Marianne weary. She never could pinpoint what it was. Just being with Aria was so… so—

“Ooh, maybe we should invite someone else. I know Harmony’s free. Should we invite her? Or maybe… hm…”

Marianne tried not to flinch or wince. The already-frayed seams holding their friendship together seemed to tear apart even more.

* * *

Her fingers threaded through the loose strands of her hair to no avail. She stared at herself in the mirror and heaved out a sigh.

The door to the lounge opened. She glanced over her shoulder, and found herself meeting Clarion’s inquisitive gaze. She turned her eyes away instinctively. There was something about his gaze that made her feel like she both belonged and didn’t at the same time.

Like the loose thread at the end of a knot.

“…Can I help you?” Clarion asked in a soft voice. Marianne let her hands drop from her head and nodded wordlessly; she tried her best not to flinch when his fingers threaded through her hair. Despite her best efforts, she did. Clarion withdrew his hands, glancing down at her worriedly. “Sorry. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay… it’s not your fault. You can keep going.”

She watched on in silence; her gaze remained glued to the way Clarion’s fingers wove through her hair effortlessly in a way she knew under a completely different context.

Over, under. Pull through. Over, under. Pull through.

“…Thanks,” she murmured when he had finished, running a hand along the plait. She could still feel his deft fingers, pulling her hair together in a way she knew she never could. “I’m… bad at braiding my own hair.”

“I know.” He smiled. “You’ve always been.” She stared at his hands, hovering over her shoulders, and didn’t so much as flinch when he rested them there.

“…Maybe,” she whispered under her breath, and found that she missed the warmth of his hands when he left.

* * *

Her door creaked open. She started up from where she was sitting on the floor, surrounded by fabric and ribbons, and scrambled to clean it all up.

“It’s just me,” Clarion murmured, and she felt her hands still instinctively. Her heart still pricked with uncertainty. Still, she made no move to stop him as he navigated around her room before finally ending up beside her bed. “Can I…?”

“…Mhm.” She continued to watch him, letting her hands fall into her lap. He laid back on her covers, staring up at the ceiling. “…Too much for you to handle?”

“They’ve been playing cards since we finished dinner. You know how my mom gets.”

She did. Even here, tucked away in the furthest crevice of the house, she could still hear the howling laughter of their parents and the distant chattering of Clarion’s siblings—especially his mother’s hysterical screams and her father’s boisterous laughs.

“I didn’t mean to distract you. You can go back to… doing whatever you were doing.”

“…It’s fine,” she murmured. “I wasn’t doing much anyways.” It wasn’t a lie.

“You sure?” He turned to look at her. “I could—”

“No. It’s fine.”

Clarion kept his gaze on her for a moment before flopping back onto her bed. She watched him, an uncertain feeling bubbling in the bottom of her stomach. Finally, she found the strength to move her hands. She turned away and took up a random piece of fabric; pulling a piece of thread through a new needle, she began to sew.

Up and down, under and over.

Clarion sighed and rolled onto his side. Swallowing, she pushed the needle into the fabric—stopping it in its aimless track—and met his gaze.

“Stay in touch, okay?”

“…Okay,” she murmured.

In, out. Back, forth. Push, pull.