MAKE SURE TO KISS YOUR KNUCKLES BEFORE YOU PUNCH ME IN THE FACE
(the front bottoms)
NEW YORK CITY, 2018.
The bar’s playing Fleetwood Mac - like a heartbeat drives you mad, in the stillness of remembering what you had - and Jaebum’s had two and a half bottles of organic beer on an empty stomach.
Mark’s there, too, and anyone looking at the two of them would think: those two, they have history. There’s something there and it’s a scratch below the surface, you could break it open like a bottom lip under the press of teeth.
But nobody’s looking at them, the bar is dark, a ten minute walk from from the NYU campus, and Jaebum would like to say this is the first time, and that it will be the last, but those would both be lies.
It doesn’t matter, anyway. Keeping track of these kinds of things never amounts to anything. There’s no handful of something to exchange for something else, there’s no scoreboard of points that means someone wins and someone loses.
So it doesn’t matter, so nobody's winning and nobody's losing. So Jaebum pulls Mark forward to kiss him with a hand around his neck and Mark fits into him like a skeleton key, bone shards and all.
The band breaks up. Everyone saw that coming.
There’s no catalyst and that’s uncharacteristic for them. They’ve always been a catalyst in and of itself. They’ve always been a volcano at eruption.
It doesn’t matter, in the end it’s the same: they all go their separate ways.
Jinyoung is scooped up almost immediately to play bass for this six piece trying to be the next Arcade Fire, fronted by an old mutual friend named Sungjin. Jaebum can’t be angry about that, and it would be unfair if he was. Jinyoung is a talented musician, it’s not his fault the four of them didn’t work, and he might as well try and be something bigger.
Jackson starts teaching guitar on the side to pay his way through a software engineering program. The kid’s really like him and Jackson likes them in return.
Jaebum moves to New York after he gets into NYU’s film program. That seems like the next logical step for the failed frontman of a forgotten band that nobody will mourn.
Jaebum lets Mark disappear without even asking about him once.
But that changes. You’ve probably already guessed that. Because this is before, so that means there’s an after.
Jaebum moves to New York and he gets a tattoo.
It’s a chest piece; flowing script nestled between two soft blue coloured roses on either clavicle. It says my tongue’s the only muscle in my body that works harder than my heart.
It takes four hours straight and it hurts like a bitch. Like being scratched up with bee stings. Jaebum’s chest goes from hot to cold to back to hot with seemingly his whole breastbone beating with his heart. He watches his artists throat as he works away at Jaebum’s chest, the butterfly with spread wings there looking back at him, a gradient of soft oranges and harsh greys.
When it’s done Jaebum looks at himself in the tattoo shop’s full length mirror, covered in plastic wrap on his chest, leaking ink as well as his own blood, and wonders how bad it would hurt if he just pressed his hand against it.
Here’s the absolute, honest truth: Jaebum doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing.
Okay, he’s going to film school. Okay, he’s forgotten that old dream of being a rockstar. Okay, he left his guitar in his bedroom at home. Okay, but what else?
Here’s another truth: Jaebum’s never really known what the fuck he’s doing. He’s a ship lost at sea with its compass gone overboard. He’s a man in a dark room without a flashlight, trying not to run into any walls.
“If it isn’t the only living boy in New York,” Jinyoung says to him over the phone one day. “How are you doing?”
Jaebum massages his temples. He never liked Simon & Garfunkel.
They don’t fight anymore. Not the way they used to. No more fists or kicks, elbows or knees or shins. No more someone else's blood sprayed across your shirt, no more of your own blood smeared across your knuckles.
They don’t fight unless you’re counting the way they fuck.
Mark looks real pretty, as pale as Jaebum’s bed sheets except the parts of him that aren’t. The parts of Mark that are red from Jaebum’s mouth, the parts of Mark that are purple from Jaebum’s fingers. He looks good like that, he likes it like that, Jaebum likes it like that too, so that’s how they do it.
Sometimes, with Mark on his hands and knees and Jaebum’s hand in his hair, tugging hard, or his fingers in Mark’s mouth, wet and warm, or his hand around Mark’s throat, pressing and pressing a little more, it’s like they’re still in the back of that shitty old van. It’s like nothing’s changed, they’re the same people they always were. Not good people, probably not happy people, but familiar people. People they knew how to be, inside and out. Jaebum used to think, back then, that things were so complicated. If only he could see himself now.
But it always ends. They always come with strangled shouts, blown out vocal chords, and Jaebum always pulls out of Mark and pushes his bangs out of his eyes. The veil always lifts anc just like that it’s painfully obvious all this is is Jaebum’s apartment, New York traffic bustling outside.
Jaebum’s not as angry as he used to be. Somewhere along the way he decided it wasn’t worth it. That it was wasted energy, that the ends never justified the means.
He’s not as angry as he used to be. He’s kind of picked up a drinking habit but that’s his own interpretation. No one else has said anything about it. Jaebum thinks he’s okay as long as he thinks he might have a problem. The second he thinks he doesn’t it means he does.
He hasn’t called his dad is eight months, either. That’s probably related somehow. Jaebum doesn’t want to think about it long enough to figure it out, though.
“You know what’s funny?”
“What?” Jaebum says. He’s naked from the waist up, fingernails against Mark’s equally bare chest. Jaebum decides he’s gonna come across is later, messy like a Jackson Pollock.
“We never really hated each other, did we?” Mark replies. And he actually laughs, like it’s the funniest joke he’s ever heard.
Jaebum cocks an eyebrow, “what’s so funny about that?”
“Because,” Mark smooths a thumb over Jaebum’s eyebrow and Jaebum’s face softens when he does. “We really had ourselves convinced we did.”
(“Fuck me like you hate me,” this is long time ago, two years ago, Mark saying this just after Jaebum had fucked him with a hand around his throat. This is a long time ago, Jaebum not being able to say I can’t, not being able to say I can’t because I don’t hate you, not knowing how. This is a long time ago, two years ago, Jaebum trying to prove to Mark that he hates him because romance is boring.
This is a long time ago, but still, everything is sort of the same.)
“Mark moved to New York, y’know?” It’s Jinyoung who tells him. Jaebum can hear the fucking smug curve to his lips through the phone. Jinyoung tells him Mark is in New York, no one else, and Jaebum’s not thinking about what thats means, he’s really not.
“I didn’t ask,” Jaebum replies. He’s fussing with his east facing window. It always gets stuck in the summertime, all bloated from the humidity. The one time of year Jaebum needs it open more than any other.
“Whatever,” Jinyoung sounds unconvinced by Jaebum’s faux-indifference to the mention of Mark. “Maybe you’ll see him around.”
“It’s a big city, Jinyoung,” Jaebum hands slips on his window crank. A splinter forces itself into his finger, sharp and fast. Jaebum flinches.
“Eighty-four million,” Jinyoung drolls, “and yet.”
Blood drips down the length of Jaebum’s finger. He watches it go, until it thins out to nothing and disappears down the shirt cuff around his wrist.
The first time they fuck (again, the first time they fuck again), Mark presses his palm flat against Jaebum’s chest. His hand covers the words tattooed there, only and harder and his thumb catches the inked black edge of one of the roses.
“What’s this?” He asks. His smile is all teeth. Teeth that Jaebum has counted over and over with his tongue.
“A quarter-life crisis,” Jaebum replies, kisses Mark. Maybe he means more than just the tattoo. Probably. Mark scoffs against Jaebum’s mouth, so he probably does.
“Old habits die hard, don’t they, Jaebum?”
“We’re not talking about this. Jinyoung, don’t ask me about it. How’s the band doing?”
Jaebum doesn’t know how they start hanging out so often again. Alright, yeah, they’re having sex pretty regularly, couple of days a week. Sometimes they share a bed after, even though they live two blocks from each other. But Jaebum doesn’t know when Mark started to be the first person he asked to get coffee with him after class, or took to see local bands, or invited out to bars with him.
Maybe just because it’s easy. Jaebum had barely cut the strings to his old life when there Mark was, a thread, and he had just decided to grab onto it and hold. Things get easier the more and more you do them. Mark is remnants of things Jaebum understands completely now.
There’s a lot of things Jaebum doesn’t want to think about. Mark makes it easy for Jaebum to not ask the questions to all the answers his own life wants to give him.
They go to a party on a rooftop in Brooklyn.
Jaebum was extended the invitation by one of his American Film Criticism classmates and Jaebum extended the invitation to Mark. They didn’t come together, it wasn’t like it, but they’ll probably leave together, and it’ll become like that.
For now Jaebum drinks a third can of beer and watches clouds glide over the moon. They’re playing that one TV On The Radio song, the one that everyone knows - when the moon is round and full, gotta bust that box, gotta gut that fish.
If Jaebum believed in small coincidences as a bigger part of a whole, in predestination or destiny, this would be something to consider. The way that suddenly Jaebum want to ask Mark, when did you get here, when did you move to New York, that would mean something. But Jaebum doesn’t believe in anything like that, he just asks the question.
“Oh?” Mark’s leaning against a railing, look small swathed in the fabric of a too-big black long-sleeved henley. He’s tapping the rhythm of the song out against his thigh, faltering when Jaebum speaks to him. “Like,” he counts out on his fingers, “six months ago?”
He’s been here longer then Jaebum expected. “Why did you move out here?”
Mark shrugs. A breeze tugs it’s way through a tuft of hair on top of Mark’s head. “Didn’t really have anything else to do,” he says. “Sorry, that’s a stupid answer.”
“No,” Jaebum shakes his head, “no, don’t say that. I get it. It’s okay.”
Maybe the complete, honest, total truth is this: none of them know what they fuck they’re doing.
Two years later and Mark still has a mouth like an open wound: wide, warm and deep red. Two years later and maybe Jaebum stills wants to hurt him, always pushing his fingers into that wound like he’s trying to dig something out of it. A bullet, shards of glass, pieces of his old self he left behind. A tooth he broke in Mark’s mouth with his fist.
They’re about to fuck at this party. They’re in the bathroom with the door locked, Mark’s voice quiet behind the muffle of Jaebum’s fingers. Mark’s canine digs into Jaebum’s index finger, scratching, scratching, scratching.
Jaebum fumbles with Mark’s button and fly. He has probably touched every part of Mark there is, but he’s touched some more than others, and the cradle of Mark’s hips is one of those places. If skin showed wear the way soles of shoes did, the point a of Mark’s right hip to the point b of Mark’s left hip would be worn away.
They don’t need alcohol to do this anymore. Jaebum might have a bit of an issue with drinking these days but he doesn’t need it to get Mark’s dicks out of his pants. He doesn’t need it but it always makes things more -
Mark bites the tip of Jaebum’s middle finger as he’s pulling them out of his mouth. Jaebum catches a nail against the fat swell of Mark’s bottom lip.
Like that. It always make things more like that.
Put Mark and Jaebum from two years ago next to Mark and Jaebum as they are now. Pretend it’s one of those spot the differences. Pretend there’s an arbitrary number of things that are different that need to be noticed. There’s some stuff that’s obvious: Mark dyed his hair a honey brown and Jaebum got new glasses. There are things that are less obvious: they look a little older, now, and they’re carrying it all in their jaws. The longer they’re looked at the more obvious it gets. That arbitrary number, maybe it’s a little generous, maybe it’s giving them too much credit. Maybe they think there are more things that have changed that really haven’t.
No one is ever going to have all the answers, unfortunately. There will always be somethings that certain people notice that other people never will.
“How’s Jackson?” Jaebum asks.
“He’s good,” Jinyoung replies. He can hear Jinyoung playing Bruce Springsteen in his apartment in the background, tramps like us, baby, we were born to run. “He promised to Skype while we’re on tour.”
“Shit, that’s right,” Jaebum blows steam off of a cup of coffee. “You leave for tour in a week. Fuck, congrats, man.”
“Thanks. Should be fun.” A car drives by Jaebum blaring it’s horn, as is typical, so Jinyoung pauses before he continues. “How’s Mark?”
Jaebum swallows a mouthful of coffee. “Ask him yourself,”
“No,” Jinyoung’s voice comes out with a bite. Not like teeth, more like a stinger, a bug bite. Prodding and annoying and immediately noticeable. “No, I’m asking you.”
“Do you ever miss it?” Mark asks. They’re in a record store, sifting through the shelves, quiet except for the sound of plastic sleeves shifting against other plastic sleeves. In the corner, some guy’s listening to Weezer's The Blue Album, giant headphones swallowing his whole skull.
“Miss what?” Jaebum asks, even though he’s pretty sure he knows what Mark’s talking about. He pulls out a Sorority Noise album, turns it over in his hand to read the back.
“You know,” Mark waves his hand, “playing live, making music, whatever.”
Neither of them brought their instruments to New York. Jaebum, maybe, because he didn’t want to look the acceptance of a loss of a dream in the eye and Mark because drums aren’t practical for tiny New York apartments.
“Sometimes,” Jaebum shrugs. He lets the record slide back into place among the row he took it from. “It was always more trouble than it was worth with us, though.”
Mark chuckles. They’re quiet for a while, shuffling through records again, before Mark says. “What happened?”
“We’re not twenty anymore,” Jaebum says. He’s not really answering the question Mark’s asking. Mark doesn’t say anything.
Instead, he says, “I used to love this album.”
Jaebum looks over. It’s a repressing of Nirvana’s Nevermind from 2015.
Jaebum wrinkles his nose, “of course you did.”
The last time they had sex, the last time Jaebum and Mark fucked before Jaebum moved away, it was brutal and rough and coming apart at the seams.
Mark didn’t know Jaebum was leaving. Or, Jaebum hadn't told Mark he was leaving.
It wasn’t in the van. By this point the band had broken up in all ways except officially. They didn’t need the van for gigs anymore, so Jackson had sold it to finally replace that amp that had been broken for years. They were in Jaebum’s beat up 2009 Honda Civic, crammed into the backseat and half drunk and definitely high.
“Fuck,” Mark had whined, from somewhere guttural in his chest. He had his arms above his head, gripping the door with both hands. Jaebum was fucking into him at a pace that he would never be able to keep up, but who cared, it didn’t matter. If it was over fast they would just fuck again.
“Who would have guessed a year ago that you’d be taking my dick this good right now?” Jaebum teases. He drops his head into Mark’s neck and bites hard enough to hear him hiss.
“Fuck you,” Mark manages to reply, voice shaky, every part of him unhinged, inside and out, filled up with Jaebum’s cock. “Who would have guessed you’d want to get your dick in me so bad all the time?”
When they’re finished, Mark is black and blue around his wrists and has a bite mark near the back of his neck, just underneath his ear, where Jaebum had bit hard enough to leave behind an imprint of his teeth.
It’s almost 2AM and they put on The Strokes “Evening Sun” - they love you or they hate you, but they will never let you be, they’ll thrill you or sedate you, but they will never let you see. Jaebum drives faster than the speed limit the whole way. Maybe he’s praying for a crash, for a head-on collision, for a loss of control that sends him over the edge of the road.
None of that happens. Jaebum pulls up in front of Mark’s house, Julian Casablancas' singing, go your separate way now, someday you’ll come back. If Jaebum believed in divine intervention, in coincidences, in predestination -
“I think we should cool it for a little while,” Jaebum says. He doesn’t look at Mark. He looks straight ahead, at the way his highlights light up the street before him, and then the parts it doesn’t, a black that seems more dark blue. “This, I mean, we shouldn’t do this for a little bit.”
“I get it,” Mark replies. He doesn’t sound upset. Maybe he looks upset, Jaebum doesn’t know. He’s not looking at him. “I’m not your girlfriend, Jaebum, you don’t have to break up with me.”
“That’s not what I meant,”
Mark chuckles, “yeah man, whatever. You know where I am if you ever miss me.”
Break you heart in two halves, keep one half and give one half to me, I like the summer, miss the summer.
There was girl, for a little bit, before Mark. She was nice. She had an apartment across town from Jaebum and parts of her always smelled like peaches. Like her hands, her hair, the back of her neck. She owned a lot of books and would take Jaebum on these long, long walks that would end them up at hipster bars.
“You drink a lot,” she says, eyes following the way Jaebum throws back a mouthful of beer.
“Yeah, well,” Jaebum wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, “I don’t think my dad ever really loved me, so?”
She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t even looked phased when Jaebum says it. And fuck, is he really that predictable? Is he really the poster child for daddy issues?
“I used to be in a band,” he tries to surprise her with something, anything about himself. She hums, unimpressed, into the lip of her wine glass. “I used to fuck one of my bandmates.”
That catches her attention, the way it catches the front of her eyebrows and cocks it, just slightly, up. “Oh?” she sing-songs, “was it kind of fucked up, the two of you?”
Jaebum frowns, “what makes you say that?”
“I can just tell,” she shrugs, “I can just tell - before me, whoever you were with, the two of you must have been a little fucked up. Now I’m wondering if it was your bandmate.”
“It wasn’t that fucked up,” Jaebum mumbles. It sounds, and it feels, more like confessing a truth then telling a lie.
Used to can loose it’s past tense so quickly. It took Jaebum a long time to learn that.
Here’s the thing about people: they are inherently transient. You can’t build homes out of people. People are more like airports, like gas stations at midnight on road trips, places you end up on the way to your final destination.
We pretend people aren’t temporary. We pretend they can plant roots deep enough to keep them in place. But here’s the thing: those roots will always be metaphorical, they will never go deep enough and they can always be uprooted.
That’s the thing about people. You can’t build homes out of people.
“You never told me you were leaving,” Mark says. It doesn’t sound like an accusation, but it still might be. They’re in Jaebum’s apartment, in that limbo between late evening and early night. Mark sits on Jaebum’s bed, legs crossed and clutching his tiny ankles.
“Do you want me to apologize?” Jaebum asks. Then he says, “take off your shirt,” and that’s not a question at all.
“Not what I meant,” Mark replies, “not what I meant at all and you know that. I was just wondering why.” Mark does as he’s told after that, pulling his t-shirt over his head and tossing it to the side. It lands somewhere neither of them see.
Jaebum shrugs. “Didn’t feel like I had to.” Jaebum watches Mark lean back on the bed, against his elbows, and crawls over him. That’s not the answer, not the honest, complete truth, but Jaebum doesn’t know what is.
“I had to hear it from Jinyoung,” Mark tells Jaebum. His fingers catch against the hem of the bottom of Jaebum’s shirt, tugging it along until Jaebum grabs it from the top and pulls it the rest of the way off. “We should have put some music on, for the mood,” Mark’s joking, his smile is all teasing. Jaebum kisses him to quiet him.
“When did Jinyoung tell you?” Jaebum asks against Mark’s mouth. His arms rest on either side of Mark’s head, caging it. Jaebum’s whole body kind of cage’s Mark’s whole body too.
“The week before you left,” Mark answers. And then he looks at Jaebum, like he’s waiting for something. Like he’s searching for something. Like he’s convinced something exists there, inside Jaebum, and he’s just waiting for proof it exists.
“What?” Jaebum leans up, Mark’s hips still caught under the press of his thighs, but his upper body free. On Mark’s lower stomach is a fading mark from Jaebum’s mouth. Jaebum doesn’t know how long it’s been there. He can’t remember when he left it. “You knew before I left and you didn’t - you didn’t say anything?”
Mark shrugs, “it’s not like it would have mattered.”
Jaebum kisses Mark again. Keeps himself from saying something that would disprove that.
“I’m in love with you,” Jaebum says. He hates the way his voice sounds when he says it.
“I am,” Jaebum insists, “I have been. For awhile. Maybe a really long time.”
“That’s a fucking lie,” Mark bites back. Sharper this time, more forceful. It feels like that time he punched Jaebum in the face. “That’s a lie, you barely knew me back then. You can’t be in love with someone you don’t know.”
“We were frien-” Jaebum starts. Mark cuts him off.
“We were barely friends,” Mark insists, “we fucked a lot. That didn’t make us friends. That didn’t mean you knew me. You convinced yourself you were in love with a me that you made up in your own head.”
“I didn’t -” Jaebum wants to say something, say anything, but Mark keeps cutting him off. Keeps throwing words like he used to throw fists. “Mark,” Jaebum says. His tongue and his throat and his vocal chords all feel useless, dipped in novacaine, turned against him. “Mark, I didn’t mean - I didn’t mean. I -” Of course. Of course as soon as Jaebum has a chance to talk he doesn’t know what to say.
Mark blinks up at him for a few moments. Then he says, “I’m going home,” and collects his strewn about clothes.
Jaebum doesn’t know how to stop him.
“The only living boy in New York,” Jinyoung says when Jaebum calls him, same as every time. It’s not teasing this time, it sounds sad. “How are you doing?”
Jaebum doesn’t want to talk about him. Not yet. Instead of answering he says, “how’s tour? Where are you guys right now?”
Jinyoung indulges him. He says they’re in Arizona, and he hates it, the dry desert heat doesn’t agree with him. But it’s okay, he’s on tour, so he shouldn’t complain. He loves performing. The crowds seem so big that they go on forever.
“We’re recording an album when we get back,” Jinyoung says, “I think we’re going to hit up this one studio in New York, maybe I’ll come and visit.”
“You can come and visit,” Jaebum tells him, “I want you to visit.”
He can hear Jinyoung laugh quietly, all the way on his side of the country. There is a silence between them for awhile - not awkward, not bad, but the kind of silence you can’t help but notice.
“Jinyoung,” Jaebum finally says, “I don’t think I know how to let go of the past.” I don’t know how to stop missing things that don’t exist anymore, I don’t know how to know what I made up to make everything seem better than it was and what was real, I know I can’t go back but I wish I could.
“Oh, Jaebum,” Jinyoung sounds older than he ever has. He has all these secrets, all these experiences, all these things figured out Jaebum hasn’t let himself try and do himself. He sounds like he knows what Bob Dylan was writing all those songs about, why all those musicians died at twenty-seven. “I don’t think anyone does.”
Jaebum remembers that bar, the one not far from his campus. How dark it was, the Fleetwood Mac song playing over the speakers, Mark’s mouth against his. In the stillness of remembering what you had - and what you lost.
“I love that song,” Jinyoung says. Jaebum realizes he had been humming it.
Jaebum doesn’t have to look far to find Mark. If he was the kind of person who believed in predestination -
They go to this same party on the Lower East Side. It’s October, New York’s starting to roll in with that chill that comes before a long, cold winter. Mark’s wearing a maroon beanie, his bangs peeking out the front of it.
“Hey,” he greets Jaebum first, sits down next to him on a couch. “How you been?”
“Been okay,” Jaebum replies. He takes a long, long sip of his beer. Mark waits until he’s done to speak again.
“I’m sorry I was an asshole,” Mark’s voice is quiet. The parties they go to in New York and never the kind of loud and rowdy parties they went to back home. Jaebum thinks they’re not really that punk rock anymore. Him from two years ago would have hate that he was somehow reformed.
“You weren’t an asshole,” Jaebum shakes his head, “I’m the asshole. I’ve always been the asshole.”
Mark laughs, short and breathless and not entirely happy. “You were,” he agrees, “you’re not an asshole anymore.”
There are a lot of things the world wants to teach Jaebum: it’s okay not to know what you’re doing, old habits die hard, somethings will always be the same things and other things will always change. You can’t build homes out of people. The past will always find a way to slip away. Eventually all you’ll be left with is your hands and the road in front of you.
“Do you remember why we hated each other,” Mark asks.
“No,” Jaebum replies, “it was probably fucking stupid.”
One of the last days before Jaebum leaves for New York, they get together. The four of them, the old band back together again, around a fire they made in Jackson’s backyard, drinking beer and getting high.
“You think things will be the same?” Mark asks, to the four of them, to not particularly, to the universe, ready to wait for affirmation in some kind of sign. “When we’re older - do you think things will be the same?”
“No,” Jaebum kicks a rock into the burning embers of the fire. “No, that’s the whole point. Things are meant to change when you get older.”
“Everything is supposed to be different.”