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Smoke and Mirrors

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He listened to Namjoon with one free ear and the other pressed against the cool hardwood. “I just find it remarkable—it is remarkable, objectively—that some people live so far away from each other and yet they’re destined to meet. But technology has infiltrated our lives in such a way that it’s possible to meet anyone. It’s fascinating, really.” Jimin just hummed in response. “Yet at the same time, we pass people all day long that we’ll never meet. People we see every day, but we’ll go our whole lives without meeting them.” Namjoon gave it some time, then, as if to allow his words to solidify in the air. As if Jimin were stupid and couldn’t understand what he was saying. “You get what I mean? How we take it for granted that someone right next door actually lives right next do—”

Yes, Joon, I get it.”

“Fascinating stuff.”

“Yeah.”

Jimin was bored. He wasn’t trying to be rude, but sometimes late at night Namjoon would get it in his head that the world was small and the universe was huge, and he had to talk about it. Jimin could keep up with the conversation, yes, but he could hardly contribute. He just sat there and agreed. So it was boring.

Even the room was boring. It reeked visually of Namjoon—all black and white and spread out. Jimin’s eyes drifted to the ceiling, but there was nothing to latch on to. A solid white plane, like a sheet of paper or an eggshell, just hovering above his head. Namjoon didn’t believe in paying the heating bill so everything was cold and uncomfortable.

He pushed himself off the floor in a breath and swiped up the nearest sweatshirt in another. “I’m gonna get some fresh air.” Jimin was a dancer; he wanted to spend his time in open spaces, places where he could move instead of sitting in a cheap post-modern apartment.

Namjoon laughed. “This is Seoul. What fresh air?”

Whatever air was waiting for him outside would surely feel cleaner on his skin than Namjoon’s rhetoric. So he left.

There was a hole in his left shoe. He forgot what caused it, but in that little spot a concentrated coolness hit his foot. It was a summer night, one so still it would have been silent in the winter but was instead filled with tiny cricket chirps. His calves were sore from dancing; he only walked a little ways and then deflated on the side of some road.

Jimin breathed in. The air in the city tasted ugly, but familiar. And, that night, it tasted of fresh smoke. A pinprick of red light flashed in the blackness, then disappeared. He knew someone else was out there in the dark and chose to ignore it. Maybe he’d listened to Namjoon a little too well. We pass people all day long that we’ll never meet. And so Jimin just sat there, thirty-five meters from his apartment, inhaling someone else’s smoke.

He went back inside twenty minutes later when his foot fell asleep. “Did you bump into someone?” Namjoon asked, “You were out there a while.”

“Nah, just me.”

 

---

 

Jimin appreciated Namjoon. Yes, he was sloppy and chaotic, but there was a level of understanding between them. He was always the first person Jimin went to for help.

He popped up behind Namjoon while the other man was browsing his laptop, and the way Namjoon flinched and switched tabs was a clear indication of who he was talking to. “So how’s your mistress?” Jimin teased.

“Good,” Namjoon adjusted his glasses, “Hardly a mistress, though.”

It was this girl, the one Namjoon lost sleep over and yet tried to keep under wraps. All Jimin knew was that her name was ‘Jin’, and she was a pretty girl with lots of confidence (At least, that’s what Namjoon said). Jimin would wake up at 3 A.M. to get a drink of water and find Namjoon talking on the phone, a dazed smile on his face that Jimin rarely saw.

He wondered how far away Jin lived. They were long-distance, and had met online, but Jimin knew she was from Korea. “It’s hard,” Namjoon told him once, “to be so far away from someone I care about, but it’s worth it. There are over six million people on this planet, Jimin, and I found my one. I’m positive. I’m not going to let it go because of a few hours’ distance.”

Jimin couldn’t help but feel there was something odd about the relationship. Whenever Jimin asked if he could meet Jin or at least talk to her, Namjoon refused. He never video-called her, never told his parents about her, never even reached out and invited her to stay with them for a few days. Jimin though he was being a supportive room-mate, always saying, “If your girlfriend has a free week or something, tell her to come over.” but it seemed to annoy Namjoon more than anything.

“Why?” Jimin had asked one day. “Why do you say you love her, but don’t do anything about it?”

There was a tiredness in Namjoon’s face. “It’s more complicated than that. A long-distance relationship, it’s not well-received. And if you knew Jin, you’d understand why we can’t just drop everything and be together.” But Jimin didn’t know Jin, because Namjoon just wouldn’t let him.

It was putting a strain on their friendship, honestly. Jimin couldn’t help it; he was someone who wanted to be involved in his friends’ lives. Namjoon had a few girlfriends in high school, and it never bothered him to share how his last date went or how nice her outfit was that day. This time around, however, he seemed so private about his relationship. Even though he’d sometimes let on that “Jin is so good to me,” or, “I’m really in it for the long haul with this one,” Jimin wondered how true his words were. Wondered if he was really so connected to someone he’d never met in real life. It was draining. More and more often, Jimin would say, “I’m gonna head out for a bit,” and just go outside. The second time was on a Thursday.

There weren’t many streetlights on that side of town, but Jimin didn’t mind. In a strange way, the dark was comforting. It made him feel alone, but not the scary kind of alone. Without even realizing it, Jimin’s eyes had focused themselves on a tiny fleck of red light in the distance. It danced around like a sparkler, but there was an even pattern to its motion that satisfied Jimin. Rise, move in, swing down, repeat. He was so concentrated on the movement of that red dot that he didn’t see the moth, fluttering much too close to his face.

Jimin jumped up and let out an embarrassing scream, swatting the bug with all the strength his wrist could offer. Perhaps what scared him more was the slightly delayed, “Jesus fuck!” from somewhere in the night.

It was a stranger, a man, and Jimin found as he got closer that the red dot of light had been the tip of the man’s cigarette. They apologized at the same time, Jimin’s sentiment of, “I’m sorry! There was a bug!” a bit more enthusiastic than the other man’s.

“’S fine,” the man said, “You just startled me, is all.” They were about five meters from each other. “Want a cigarette or something?”

Jimin shook his head and refused as politely as he knew how, “No, thank you, I don’t…I mean I’ve never—”

“Nah, you’re good. Early death isn’t for everyone, I guess.” He took another drag of his cigarette and Jimin watched the red spark as it raised and lowered. There was something in the way he said it that made Jimin want to see what the man looked like. In the dim light, or lack thereof, Jimin made out a young face with old eyes, pale skin, and hair that reminded Jimin of the smoke around them. The stranger asked, “You just out for a walk, then?”

“Well, I haven’t done much walking,” Jimin laughed a bit forcibly, “But yeah, something like that.”

The man nodded and coughed a little. Jimin wanted to tell him to stop smoking. “And you’re from Busan?”

“Yeah, how—”

“Your accent. I just assumed.” Namjoon’s voice popped into Jimin’s head then: ‘Never assume, Jimin. Assumption leads you to believe things that might not be true.’ But in this case, it was. The smoker didn’t sound like he was from Seoul, either, but Jimin didn’t ask.

That was when the reality of the situation hit him; he was standing in the middle of a road, at night, with a stranger, in one of the busiest cities in the world. He didn’t feel safe, suddenly. “Well, it’s late,” Jimin said, “I should get inside. Sorry again. For scaring you.”

The man just took another drag and waved him away with long fingers. And then Jimin was back in this apartment, a dead-weight on the couch trying to get the burn of smoke out of his throat.

He didn’t live an interesting life. It only took one glance to the left, to see Namjoon slumped over his laptop emitting loud snores, to remind him of that. Jimin had a routine, and thus believed that everything in the world had a routine as well. Namjoon said that was a downfall of Jimin’s. The only thing that he found joy in anymore was dancing. Hours upon hours were spent at the university dance studio, working his body until he lost control and it collapsed. Jimin thought, on that Thursday night, of how dancing himself into oblivion was quite like falling asleep. Slowly building up, until his mind wasn’t his mind anymore and there was a fuzziness in his head and his whole body.

That night he dreamed of darkness, which might not have seemed like a dream at first. But in rolled the smoke and its shape evolved into something more solid, something like a man. And Jimin, in his dreaming form, stared so hard at a red point far away, punctuating the dark. Rise, move in, swing down, repeat. It burned itself into Jimin’s eyelids and his brain, so when he awoke the next morning he swore there was a red mark on the ceiling.

There wasn’t. It was the same ceiling, all white-paper and eggshell-smooth, and in the morning glow he blinked a few times to try and get that redness in his eyes again.