Love in the Land of Speech Bubbles

Ah-reum Han

My boyfriend Brain and I go to School together, and we sit by each other every day in class, like Mrs. Pinkerton’s Arts & Crafts and Mr. Hall’s History, and Ms. Barker’s Study Hall, even though that’s not really a class-class.

Brain is actually just average-smart, and he was adopted. I heard that his now-parents found him on their doorstep when he was just like Baby-K, small enough to fit into a shoebox. Can you imagine? They think his birth-momma spelt his name wrong, but he likes it the way it is and when I ask him if he would ever change it he says no ma’am no ma’am in 12 pt. Times New Roman, just like we’re taught at School. That’s one of my things I like the best about him, when he calls me ma’am twice in a row.

Kids at School say it’s only a matter of time before we start growing together. When they talk about us nowadays, even behind our backs, they say we are a Thing with a capital T. Here are the reasons why:

A) Me and Brain have been together for three months and six days, which is like donkey-years longer than any of the other bf/gfs in School. We hold hands every chance we get, waiting for that first sign that we’re in the Love. It happens that way, you know? Hold hands enough, they say, and your palms get sticky. Your skin starts meeting up at the life-lines and the love-lines, starts fusing together right there. Before you know it, you’re joined at the hip, the elbow, the knee, and the patches of skin that you didn’t even know needed to be touched. I’ve seen grown-ups joined at the fingertips.

B) How it started was: origami. Brain asks me out the first week of September during History. I’m daydreaming while Mr. Hall’s lecture is making the classroom cloudy with words when a paper plane lands on my desk. It’s a folded speech bubble, whisper-blue like Brain’s, and all it says inside is: “ur prtty plz b my gf?” By lunchtime, the cafeteria ceiling is frothing with multicolored bubbles hot off the press: Jane + Brain = Thing.

C) Brain did say The Words, too, which was a Big Deal. It was during Mrs. Pinkerton’s class just last week. The little letters escaped from the corners of his mouth, marble-sized bubbles holding a tiny character each: i, <3, u. He caught them before they floated away, double-knotting them on my bracelet where I keep the words I’m not allowed to forget—my name, Jane, and what my parents said the first time they met me.

D) I don’t know if it counts, but my Uncle M says I’m mature for my age. I take words he says serious because I love my Uncle M more than anybody in this world, except maybe my momma and daddy (and Baby-K). Plus, it’s not everybody that can speak like him—in fonts of the most beautiful braided silver.

Mrs. Pinkerton’s speaking in clementine-orange today. We hear the scrape of her words as they materialize overhead: “Please make sure you keep your aprons on at all times.” She italicizes the last two words, pacing up and down between our desks. When she leans over to check on our progress, her bubble lands on the desk with a hollow thunk, demanding attention. We’re doing papier-mâché this week. I dunk ribbons of newspaper in glue, and Brain strokes them down flat onto the chicken wire. He’s been quiet all week.

“Looking good you two,” she says to us and winks, adding “lovebirds” in tiny font.

Ever since Brain said The Words, he’s been looking at me with those puppy dog eyes, waiting for me to say It back. Instead I tell him, “I need to help momma with Baby-K.” I tell him, “I need to go visit Uncle M.” I tell him, “I have homework tonight.” When he half puts up a fight, I offer him a “Honey,” a “Baby,” a “Handsome,” even a “my Hero.” He keeps them in a plastic pouch on his belt.

I scratch my wrist. The bubbles on my bracelet collide, sounding like sleigh bells. More bubbles are on my necklace, my earrings, my ankles. They orbit loosely, like planets. After Brain said The Words, he kept saying them over and over, so I had to find new places to keep them. Keeping track of important words was a thing that grown-ups did, and there was nothing more grown than this love-business. Take for example, my momma and daddy made a point of decorating our house with their important words.

On their wedding day, my parents trapped their vows behind a glass case to put up on the mantelpiece. Even though the words have sagged and sunk to the bottom over the years, they still hold their original shine. Sometimes, I tap the glass with the tip of my finger to see them jiggle.

Halfway through class, Mrs. Pinkerton introduces the new girl.

“Say hello to our new friend Lyza.”

Lyza stares at the class, and we all stare back. The classroom mists with whisper-speech, and after a minute, I realize why: she has no speech bubble. Even Baby-K was born with a speech bubble. I scratch my wrist again. Without one, Lyza looks stunted, like she’s missing a limb.

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Photo credit Laurie Pink from