by Linh Chau (@linhwriteswithcoffee)

Adult Romance
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Within a single day, Stephanie Tan can be found teaching digital literacy classes to senior citizens, chauffeuring her brothers around Philly, and trying to get her dad to stop smoking in front of customers at their family’s Cambodian restaurant – and that’s when she isn’t leading her team of data analysts at the local Megacorp. After a drunken run-in with the Philadelphia Marathon finish line, fueled by espresso martinis and mental burnout, Stephanie realizes she doesn’t do anything for herself and makes a new goal: run the Philadelphia Marathon. The only problem? Stephanie has never done anything physical in her life. Unfortunately, she knows someone that can help.

William Vong has returned from the Bay Area, where he co-founded a thriving health tech startup, to take a sabbatical. Their relationship, once defined by kitchen sink baths and split bowls of noodles, was shattered after he abandoned Stephanie during her mother’s death in high school. When Stephanie says she needs help running, William—unsure of his future—jumps at the chance to have direction again and hopes to earn the forgiveness of his childhood best friend.

As she stumbles through the miles, Stephanie regains the ambition she lost along with her mother. She also discovers a way to expand her senior digital literacy classes from the classroom and out to the masses. However, it involves working with and depending on William to co-build an app, which might lead to another heartbreak if he abandons her again. It’s a risk she’s willing to take for her community. Bonded by their love of creation and memories of Stephanie’s mother, Stephanie and William grow closer during early morning runs and late night coding sessions. However, Stephanie’s need to do everything and be anything for her community and family threatens the app’s progress and their budding romance.

STEPHANIE TAN RUNS A MARATHON is a single POV contemporary romance complete at 89,000 words. It will appeal to fans of meddling Asian aunties such as in Dating Dr. Dil and Lunar Love, while its tender emphasis on reconciling with the past will pull in lovers of Georgie, All Along.

Like Stephanie, I am a Cambodian-Chinese living in Philly who is training for another race. I am a software developer and former biologist by trade, a romance reader and writer by heart.

First Five Pages


When I was a kid, I relished checking items off my list.

Finish my two-dimensional array program for AP Comp Sci. Don’t get carried away adding extra features. Check.

Feed brothers. Remember Kirby hates dried shrimp in his num banh chok but Chris doesn’t. Check.

Deliver this order to table 10. Be nice or you’ll be roasted on Yelp again. Check.

Only when my mama died did I realize that once one item is checked off the list, two more sprout in its place. Each item comes with a small weight that builds and builds in both my mind and my body.

Years and years of responsibility weigh on my legs as I sprint across the street to the Community Center, arms loaded with hastily assembled, color coded handouts, my laptop, and hopefully, a charger somewhere in the pile. My lungs burn from the sudden burst of activity. It’s been a while since I’ve last run, possibly since high school gym class.

The vibrations of my phone in my pocket resonate throughout my body—it must be more messages from Auntie Vong. This morning, I had jolted awake with my cheek pressed against my ergonomic keyboard, greeted by a flurry of texts.

Why are you not early today? You always early.

Too much traffic? 10 more min till class.

Class started 2 min ago. You never late. Are you ok?

I’m late to my own class. A small voice in my head last night had told me, go to sleep. You have class with the seniors tomorrow. It’s the first one this year, so you have to make a good impression. But I ignored it. My urge to code, to work on my data observability MVP for work, kept me awake. It was those dashboards. Each datapoint, each new figure gave me a dopamine hit, urging me to stay up longer, to create another graph or metric to show my superiors that this project needs to be approved for company-wide use. Everything needs to be perfect when I submit the proposal on Monday.

By the time I reach the door of the classroom, my breathing is out of control. My chest is pounding, and so much blood is rushing into my head that my cheeks must be bright red. I then notice that I’m still wearing my house shoes—a faded pair of lavender Crocs I’d inherited from Kirby after he outgrew them. They are quite the contrast to my teaching/waitressing outfit, a plain white collared shirt and fitted black slacks, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.

A guy in a dark suit stands with his back to the door. He’s tall and exudes an air of sophistication that feels out of place in this community center in Northeast Philadelphia. I scrape a sweat-slicked strand off my forehead as I cross the threshold ready to send this guy to whatever boardroom he’s supposed to be in.

“Click the forward arrow to go to the next page,” the man says in a cool, confident tone.

Wait, I know that voice—William Vong.

Clean hair slicked back, his dark navy suit well fit across his broad shoulders. He stands straight and tall, no longer the awkward tangle of limbs and pointy elbows I remember sharing late-night bowls of hu tieu with. William’s pointing at a Facebook window projected onto the whiteboard with the insufferable swagger of a tech bro used to brokering million dollar deals. But instead of some fancy co-working space in the Bay Area, William’s in a cramped classroom filled with white folding furniture, harsh fluorescent lighting, and twenty or so Asian elders on a Saturday morning.

My breath, that was out of control just seconds ago, stops. A heavy pressure rises in my chest, stretching and straining against my ribs, and my hands slowly curl into fists.

“So you click on the hamburger menu and go down to the messenger link,” William says.

This is the first session. The seniors don’t know what a hamburger menu is. Some don’t even know what a hamburger is. I rush up to the front of the room, toss my materials on the podium, and pull William to the side by the sleeve.

“What the fuck are you doing?” I whisper.

William raises his hands, as if he’s innocent, which he’s not. “Well, the teacher didn’t show up on time. The seniors asked me how to use Facebook, so I showed them.”

I grab him by his unnecessarily muscular shoulders and focus his view towards a group of confused seniors. Some were actively scribbling in their notebooks, some were fumbling around their phones, and some were staring off into space.

“Does it look like you were effective?”

One uncle raises his hand. “Stephanie, I don’t see the burger.”

“Am I getting punished by the teacher?” William asks, a grin playing on his lips.

Serving him the most dirty glare I can muster, I point towards the back of the classroom. “Sit and don’t interrupt. I’ll deal with you later.”

He gets the message and saunters towards the back of the classroom. I take a deep breath, trying to shift my focus off of William Vong and back onto teaching.

“Hello everyone. Sorry I am late. I am Stephanie Tan and I’ve been teaching Tech for Seniors for the past three years. I am a data analyst at Comview and I’ve lived in Philadelphia all my life. For the next six weeks, we–”

Two older ladies fawn over William in the back of the classroom. One of the women, Mrs. Kwan, passes her phone to him. He gladly takes it and starts swiping on the touchscreen. Is he giving her his number? Mrs. Kwan’s husband is still very much alive.

“Stephanie, can I get a copy of the topic list?” another auntie asks.

I snap out of my trance and slap a copy of the syllabus onto the plastic table. “Sorry Mrs. Yu, here is your copy.”

Throughout class, my focus drifts back and forth between teaching seniors how to use device settings and William Vong. Each time I look back, he’s either on his phone, probably making patronizing posts about hustle culture on LinkedIn, or chatting with the seniors in the back. After a decade of radio silence, this man had the gall to come into my classroom so casually and take over my class. I can’t wait till Girl’s Night Out next week. The combined brain power of Gabi, Rhea, and me can surely figure out the meaning of this appearance.

Auntie Vong walks up to me after class. “Aiya, I’m sorry about Billy. He’s only been here for a few hours and he’s already causing trouble.” .

I refocus towards the back of the classroom. He’s no longer there. I bite the inside of my cheek to stop the scowl forming.

“Don’t worry, Auntie. I can handle William,” I mutter.

Mr. Lam strolls up, shuffling a deck of cards. “Stephanie, you going to stay for poker?”

I shake my head. “I have to go to the restaurant now, but one day I’ll play.”

A twinge of guilt turns my already weak smile hesitant. White lies don’t come naturally to me, but my need to keep the seniors happy wins out.

“Ahh, you’re too good of a kid. Come play sometime,” Mr. Lam says.

Auntie Vong takes my hand. Her bright green jade bracelet clangs against mine. “Remember to take care of yourself. You’re young. Go have fun. Go on a date with Daniel.”

Ever since I broke up with my last boyfriend two years ago, she’s been on my case about dating Daniel, one of William’s older brothers. I love her and am willing to do a lot for her, but dating someone who I considered to be a childhood role model just seems off.

I slip my hand away from Auntie Vong’s grips. “I am taking care of myself and no, I’m not going on a date with Daniel.”

“One day, you’ll go on a date with him,” she remarks, pointing her index finger. “Ah, now I need to find that troublemaker before they start poker.”

The seniors leave the classroom, my first quiet moment today. After performing mental gymnastics to avoid thinking about William all class, I can finally relax. Why is William back in Philly? He’s only here during holidays and when he’s forced to be. Did something bad happen? He has the tendency to take off when things get hard.

And why did he have to come today of all days? The one day I oversleep and my cowlick is out of control. I frantically brush my hair with my fingers as I walk out of the Community Center towards my SUV. As I get in, the passenger door opens.

“Goddamn, you almost gave me a heart attack,” I yell, my hand grasping at my chest. “You don’t get into a rando’s car!”

William slides onto the seat and puts on th seatbelt. He blinks a few times. “You’re not a rando. Also, language, young lady. I don’t remember hearing all these f-bombs a few years ago.”

“It wasn’t an f-bomb or just a few years.”

William had stopped talking to me on a daily basis after my mama’s diagnosis. I’ve lived a lifetime and a half since we’ve been teenagers. I’ve raised my brothers from diapers to young adulthood. I’ve managed my family restaurant for more than a decade. I’m now a middle manager at Philadelphia’s largest and most evil corporation. He does not know the person I’ve become. And despite how kind the years have been to William—if his strong forearms are any indication—I have no desire to get to know who he is now either.

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Photo by sporlab on Unsplash

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