We all wish
to become something
You to me and I to you
wish to become an unforgettable gaze.
from “The Flower” by Kim Chun-su
trans. Kim Jong-gil
There are worse things than having your brain and body vibrated to numbness by the rumble of tires on a highway for 13 hours, but Namjoon can’t bring any of them to mind at the start of hour six when his ass is asleep and a painful knot has taken up residence at the base of his neck. The bus is packed with students headed home for winter break, stuffy with artificially dry air pumping out of the heating vents and smelling of cracked vinyl, dirty laundry and exhaustion.
It’s getting towards four a.m. and his phone is below 30% battery. The guy sleeping against the window in the seat next to him is using both of the outlets in their row. Even if he wasn’t, Namjoon can’t think of where he put his charger when he was haphazardly throwing stuff into his bag after his last exam. He switches to power save mode, tries again to settle his head into a reasonably comfortable position, and restarts his playlist.
His seatmate sleeps through the final rest stop even though Namjoon takes no pains to be careful when he maneuvers himself out from under the guy’s guitar case to stretch his legs outside. He steps off the asphalt parking lot into dew-damp grass, breathing in deeply the crisp predawn air and imagining it cleansing his lungs of the strangling tightness that has settled like a band around his chest since he got the call from his dad sixteen days ago. He shakes his head to dislodge the memory and breathes out long and steady, exhaling pain, inhaling healing. That’s how it’s supposed to work.
The bus engine revs out of its low idle and the driver steps to the doorway to summon the stragglers. Namjoon climbs back aboard just before the doors shut with a pneumatic hiss, and wades through the stale student miasma to his seat where sleeping guy’s guitar case has tilted even further into his legroom. Flying again wasn’t an option. Even with the bereavement discount, the flight two weeks earlier had depleted Namjoon’s bank account. A bus ticket was all he could afford until financial aid came through for the new semester. And Christmas presents would be out of the question, not that anyone will expect a gift under the circumstances.
It would have been better if he could have stayed at home with his dad through the end of winter recess, but his notoriously hardass Theory of Poetry professor wouldn’t excuse him from the final, so he’d used his return flight to get back to campus for two hectic days of exams and goodbyes.
Jin had been great, as always. He’d waved away Namjoon’s apologies about the state of his room as well as his promise to catch up on rent as soon as his money came through. “That’s the last thing you should be thinking about,” he said, hugging him tight. “Take care of yourself. Take care of your dad. Nothing else matters right now.” Jin made a fortune as a consultant, so money was never a big deal to him, but that wasn’t the point—he didn’t have to be so unfailingly generous, but that was Jin. Namjoon had hugged him back and managed to swallow down his tears enough to mumble semi-coherent thanks. “It’s nothing, bro,” Jin said, thumping his shoulder like that could make it nothing.
His goodbye with Krystal had been slightly awkward. They were still new at the relationship-with-a-capital-R thing even though they’d been friends for years, and figuring out how to be with each other in moments like this hadn’t come easily to Namjoon. Face it, lots of relationships never had to navigate moments like this at all. But even the simpler, more mundane moments had been a struggle for Namjoon since they’d agreed to shift from friendship to dating. He was abruptly conscious of his physical proximity to her in a way he’d never noticed before. And worse, he could feel her awareness of him like a tangible thing. It reminded him of when he’d broken his arm—the heaviness of the cast, the way it rubbed at the webbing between his thumb and index finger. There was no escape from its uncomfortable and immobilizing presence.
It had to be some kind of mental block on his part. Krystal was the same as always: kind and considerate, smart, affectionate. Easy to be around. That’s what he’d always liked about her, why they’d been such fast friends. And then the dating thing started and Namjoon got weird about it. He cringed a little when he thought about the look on her face when he’d kissed her cheek instead of her lips when they said goodbye. He had to get it together. Not just because Krystal was a really good person, a worthy person, but because Krystal’s older sister was good friends with Jin, and if Namjoon fucked this up with Krystal, it was going to make things difficult for Jin too.
His phone dies as the sun is cresting the treetops along an empty stretch of highway more than two hours from home. Namjoon tucks his earbuds in his pocket and pulls the hood of his sweatshirt up to block the rays slanting into his eyes.
In one of his last conversations with his mom, he’d told her about Krystal. And even though his burning embarrassment at her delighted response made him instantly regret having said anything, he was glad now that he’d told her. She wouldn’t have pestered him about it—she wasn’t like that. But she’d always worried that he kept too much to himself; he was glad to have relieved her of that worry, at least. He tries to remember what else they talked about in those last few phone calls, but he can’t recall anything specific. It seems unfair that everything was so ordinary that he has nothing to save in his memory as the last. Did he even say I love you when they hung up, or was it one of those “somebody’s at the door; talk to you soon” endings? He doesn’t know.
Traffic slows as they near the city, orange barrels funneling cars out of two closed lanes into a sea of brake lights stretching over the next rise. The city is overpopulated and always under construction; Namjoon hasn’t missed the crush of people, always on edge by virtue of their sheer numbers. It doesn’t feel like home anymore. Just being here makes him tense, aside from what awaits him: sleeping on the couch in his parents’ one-bedroom apartment, sorting through his mom’s things, dealing with condolence phone calls. Dealing with his dad. The silence between them didn’t used to be that noticeable with his mom there to plaster over the cracks in their relationship, but now…it would be a long four weeks.
His dad is waiting in the car when the bus pulls into the station ten minutes late. Maybe it’s a good sign that he remembered even though Namjoon forgot to text him a reminder before his phone died. They hug across the center console and Namjoon shoves his bag down at his feet.
“Why don’t you put that in the back instead of stuffing it down there where there’s no room?”
“It’s fine, Dad.”
“Give it to me. I’ll put it in the trunk,” he says, putting the car back in park.
Namjoon takes a mindful breath and opens his door. “I’ll do it,” he says. It isn’t worth the argument. His dad should be able to see that nothing is worth the argument when you know that every conversation might be your last.
He settles back into the passenger seat.
“Ride okay?” his dad asks.
“No problems,” he says.
And that’s it. His father doesn’t ask about his exams; no surprise there. Namjoon leans his temple against the cold window and they drive the rest of the way in silence.
The apartment is dark, shades drawn over all the windows. His sheets are still folded on the end table where he left them on Tuesday. There’s a pile of clean laundry on the couch, folded awkwardly by hands unused to the task. He transfers the laundry to the coffee table and sits down, scrubbing his palms over his face.
“Are you hungry?” his dad asks.
“I’ll have some cereal in a while. I’m going to close my eyes for a few minutes if it’s okay.”
His father hums a response and goes into the bedroom, closing the door behind him. The TV comes on low. Namjoon scrunches down, tucking his legs a little to fit himself on the couch, and nestles his sore neck into the pillows. They smell like his mom’s perfume. He drifts.
When he wakes up, the apartment is silent and a deeper twilight has settled over the room. Namjoon stretches the stiffness out of his limbs and pours himself a bowl of cereal, far less appealing in late afternoon than it had seemed this morning, but a glance inside the fridge didn’t turn up anything better. He and his dad had eaten their way through the food friends and neighbors had dropped off in those first days after, and now all that was left was a large ceramic casserole in the freezer with a note taped to it ominously instructing warm at 350 for 25 minutes, NO LONGER!!!
Namjoon idly sorts through a stack of mail while he eats. Sympathy cards mostly, one after another with pictures of flowers, candles, angels, stars. Bad verse and platitudes. He starts a pile intending to throw them away and then realizes his dad might want them as some kind of morbid keepsake. At the bottom of the pile are some bills. Namjoon doesn’t mean to snoop, but a screaming red FINAL NOTICE catches his eye and he looks more closely.
His dad comes in then, loaded down with grocery bags, glances at Namjoon with the bill in his hand, sets his keys on the counter and starts unpacking his groceries. And Namjoon knows he shouldn’t say anything, knows it’s only going to provoke his father, but this looks too serious to ignore.
“Dad, this water bill—”
His father waves him off. “I’m taking care of it.”
“It says they’re going to turn off your water if you don’t pay by next Wednesday.”
“Namjoon, it will be taken care of.” He uses his end-of-conversation voice, but then he seems to change his mind and slaps the flat of his hand on the counter. Namjoon braces himself. “If you’re so concerned about practical matters like utility bills, why don’t you study something that gives you a chance of being able to pay yours some day? Or better yet, why don’t you quit this perpetual student nonsense and get a job?”
There it was. They had gotten through two weeks without having this fight, both of them numb and adrift from shock, but Namjoon should have known the fragile peace wouldn’t last. He was tired of this same script every time he was home. It was why he avoided coming here, spending as little time as possible during school breaks, making excuses to go somewhere else whenever he could. It had gotten easier to avoid visiting after his parents downsized, selling the house he’d grown up in and moving into this tiny apartment.
“It’s what I want to do. It makes me happy.”
“Not everything is about being happy, Namjoon. In life sometimes you have to take responsibility, even if it doesn’t make you happy.” He spits the word like it’s a slur.
It wasn’t as if he was asking his parents to help him financially. He was an adult; he had scholarships and student loans; he was paying his own way. “I am taking responsibility.”
“By getting a masters degree in poetry?” He scoffs and turns back to the groceries. “I tried to teach you self-discipline. Give you a strong work ethic. But you indulge your hobby for how many years? At what cost?” He shakes his head.
Namjoon’s eyes are stinging and he grits his teeth against the threatening tears, fighting to keep his voice steady. “I am disciplined. I do work hard. Just not at what you want me to do. It’s my life, Dad.” The tears clog his voice now and he stops, wiping roughly at his eyes.
“It’s your life. I don’t know when you’re going to start doing something with it.”
It feels like a physical blow, and Namjoon staggers back from it. His father keeps his back turned, balling up the plastic grocery bags, wiping down the counter.
Namjoon retrieves his bag and jacket from the floor next to the couch. “I’m going to go,” he says. “Out. For a while.”
“Whatever makes you happy.”
His father doesn’t look up when Namjoon steps into his shoes and lets himself out.
It wasn’t a conscious decision when he walked out of the apartment, but once he’s outside on the pavement, he realizes he can’t stay there for even one more night. The place is oppressive: simultaneously unnaturally empty without his mom’s warm presence and claustrophobically full of his dad’s disapproval. What he hasn’t thought through is where he’s going to go.
He has his bag. He could go directly to the bus station and buy a return ticket. He rolls his shoulders, reminded of the stiffness that still lingers from his cramped ride. The thought of getting back on a bus for a second redeye in as many nights is as unappealing as returning to his parents’ apartment. But it’s more than the physical discomfort that prevents him from leaving immediately. It’s the thought of his mom.
Namjoon considers himself an atheist. He has no reason to believe there’s anything like heaven or hell or any sort of afterlife at all, though he’s always found the Hindu version of reincarnation appealing on an intellectual level—the idea that you get to try again. And again and again until you find your true self and are freed from the cycle. It’s appealing enough that he hopes he’s wrong about there being nothing after. If he is wrong, then he’s somewhere in that process right now. He wonders how close he is to moksha. Not close at all, he decides. He has no idea who he is or what he’s supposed to become.
But even though he doesn’t truly believe his mom is still around somewhere, he feels a duty to try to honor what was important to her. Nothing was more important to her than family, even if they weren’t together very often. She would be working right now to negotiate a truce between Namjoon and his father, and she would make sure they were on at least cordial speaking terms before he went back to school.
He settles his bag on his shoulder and starts to walk, thinking he’ll find a cafe to sit in out of the cold and figure out a plan. Maybe call Krystal and get her advice. That’s something he would have done easily before, but thinking of calling her now when he’s already upset and so weary brings a knot of stress to life somewhere in his chest. She’d appreciate him calling, though, especially since he hurt her feelings yesterday. He sucks in a breath so deep it makes him burst into a coughing fit.
A block before the main road lined with the bistros, coffee shops, and boutiques that have gradually replaced the pawn shops and convenience stores that used to dominate the neighborhood is the quiet side street of converted single-family homes where his parents have their business. Impulsively, Namjoon detours. It isn’t a great location for a business, out of sight of the majority of the traffic in the neighborhood and a couple blocks down a street that dead ends into a public park. The neighboring houses hold a dentist’s office, a hair salon, a fortune teller—all slightly decrepit and in want of fresh paint and some landscaping.
Namjoon’s parents have owned the gym since he was a kid. His dad taught taekwondo to the neighborhood kids until the last year or so when his arthritis got too bad and he’d had to hire a new master to take over most of the classes. Even now, he coaches a few older teens with competitive potential. Namjoon’s mom had taken care of the business side of things. He didn’t know who would take the job on now.
He stops outside and looks up at the facade: vinyl siding and a faded sign for Master Kim’s Martial Arts above the porch. So many of Namjoon’s childhood memories were set inside this building, an ordinary house that his parents had gutted and transformed into a dojang. Although he hadn’t been inside for years, he could still picture it vividly, complete with the sounds of breaking boards, thuds of feet hitting punching bags, the smell of sweat, feet, and damp canvas. He climbs up onto the porch and cups his hands to the front window. Everything is exactly as he remembers from so many afternoons here, taking classes from his dad, huddled in a quiet corner doing homework.
What used to be the living and dining rooms are combined into a large open space with mirrors on one wall and red and blue padding on the floors. The wall between two bedrooms had been knocked down to create a second, slightly smaller, open space that his parents had envisioned using as a second teaching space when the gym became popular, but though the business had been stable over the years, it never flourished in the way his parents had dreamed, and eventually, the room had become equipment storage.
There is a small kitchen, original to the house, that his parents had left untouched, and a bathroom. No locker room or anything fancy; there was no room for it even if the profits had allowed for such an upgrade. Behind a door next to the kitchen is a narrow staircase to a semi-finished attic with some office furniture and a futon, where his mom had spent most of her time keeping the books, answering phone calls, and entertaining bored parents waiting for their kids’ lessons to finish.
It isn’t likely that the door code is the same after all these years, but—Namjoon punches in the familiar six digits and hears the bolt slide open with a solid click. He pulls the door open. The smell is exactly as he remembered: bodies with an undertone of industrial cleaning solution. He flicks the wall switch and the banks of fluorescent lights flicker to life with a soft buzz. He steps out of his shoes in the tiled entryway and steps onto the floor mat of the main room, walking quietly as if his presence in the empty space will be noticed and he’ll be asked to leave.
The door to the second floor is unlocked, but the lightbulb high overhead in the stairwell has blown out and he ascends in darkness to the attic with its exposed rafters and bare drywall. Enough city light filters in through the east-facing dormer for him to make out the shape of his mother’s desk.
He shuffles over and flicks on her desk lamp. The wooden desktop is covered in untidy stacks of papers, so unlike the orderly way he remembers her keeping it. The old futon is still against the west wall, a light blue cover on the mattress instead of the old navy one he remembers. There is a new armchair in front of the desk. New in a manner of speaking—it looks as if it was salvaged from the roadside after a week or two out in the elements, but it’s new to Namjoon since his last visit here however many years ago. And a flat screen TV mounted to the wall, an old clunky one, but a TV nonetheless, which is more than the office had back in the days when Namjoon spent countless dreary hours of summer vacation up here.
He drops his bag beside the futon and sits down. He’ll spend the night here and figure out tomorrow what to do for the rest of his break. He should ask his dad’s permission first, but he isn’t going to. He stretches out and closes his eyes, but napping all day has left him wakeful and restless, not ready for sleep again so soon. He wanders downstairs to the kitchen. The fridge is empty except for dozens of water bottles and a tub of protein powder—does that need to be refrigerated? The cupboards are packed with cup ramen. He eats two of them for dinner and then sits at his mother’s desk and pulls out his phone to call Krystal.
There’s an hours-old text from when he was sleeping: Hope you got home okay. Lmk how you are. She’s worried about him. Probably wants to talk about the kiss thing. Just the thought of it exhausts him. Home, everything good, he texts back. And then adds, talk to you soon. He digs through his bag for his charger and plugs his phone in next to the futon, making a mental note not to step on it in the morning.
He sits down at his mother’s desk. The stacks of papers covering the surface seem to be sorted into some rough order: one pile is bills, another looks like information sheets for clients of the gym. A third is a mixture of financial documents: bank statements, tax records, real estate paperwork. Namjoon flips through the bills. All overdue notices, just like the one he saw at the apartment, but these are all for the gym. Electricity, water, telephone—all showing months of late charges and threats to send the account to collections failing immediate payment in full.
This mess isn’t the result of a couple weeks of distraction; it took months of neglect. His mother had always been so conscientious. It’s hard to imagine her letting things get so out of hand. He puts the bills aside and pulls the next stack of documents under the light.
Namjoon turns over the last document and checks the legal pad that he’s filled with pages of notes against the spreadsheet he’s started on his laptop. The mess of papers is organized now, and he thinks he’s made sense of it. It isn’t good. The gym has been losing money every month for at least a year and a half. Besides the overdue utility bills, his parents owe back taxes. There are clients behind on payments, but even if all the money they’re owed was collected tomorrow, it wouldn’t come close to covering the debts.
The bank statements show sizable deposits to the gym account every couple months until the middle of last summer. Those were keeping the business solvent, but he doesn’t know where they were coming from since there are only transaction numbers and no names on the paperwork. Once those payments stopped, the bills stopped being paid. The most recent bank statement shows a balance so low it rivals his own.
A bang from downstairs startles him to his feet. It’s still pitch dark outside, but his laptop says it’s 6:23. Somehow he let the whole night go by, and now that he realizes it, his body feels twice its usual weight. He moves to the head of the stairs and listens. Everything is silent except for the normal creaks and groans of an old building. And then there’s another bang, softer than the last one, and distant singing.
He starts down the stairs, sliding his stocking feet cautiously along the steps in the dark so he won’t trip and break his neck. He opens the door at the foot of the stairs and is walked into by a brick wall of a person who screams “Fuck!” in his face and then drops to a crouch and covers his head with his hands, still cursing under his breath.
“Sorry?” Namjoon says, even though this is his family’s building and he has no idea who this person is or whether he has any business being here at an ungodly hour on a Sunday morning.
The guy stands up, still breathing heavy. “You scared the fuck out of me. Jesus.” He bounces on his toes a couple times and shakes his hands out like he just threw a punch. “Want some coffee?”
Namjoon watches him turn back to the kitchen, pull two mugs out of the cupboard and pour from the still-brewing coffee maker, stray drops splashing down onto the hotplate and sizzling away to steam.
“What do you take in it? We don’t have milk. There’s this powder stuff. I don’t recommend it. There’s some Splenda, maybe?” He rummages in a drawer. “Maybe not. Black okay?”
“That’s fine,” Namjoon says, taking the mug. “So—” Namjoon doesn’t know how to broach the necessary who-the-hell-are-you conversation, especially not after a second all-nighter and financial worries banging around in his mind like sneakers in a clothes dryer.
The guy seems unconcerned with making conversation, though. He slurps his coffee noisily with a sigh of satisfaction after every gulp, and then gets a box of Raisin Bran out of the cupboard and starts eating it out of the box. Mouth full and crunching away, he offers the box to Namjoon.
“Thanks,” he says, and takes a handful.
The guy hops up on the counter, humming through his breakfast and swinging his legs against the cabinets.
Namjoon leans against the doorway and drinks most of his coffee, hoping the caffeine will jumpstart his brain into forming a plan of action. “I’m Namjoon,” he eventually decides is a good enough opener.
The guy looks at him, eyes wide. “I know.”
“There’s a picture of you on the desk upstairs.” He pours himself a refill and offers the carafe to Namjoon. “Also, we met. At the—” He jerks his head to the side.
For a minute, Namjoon can’t figure out what that means, and then he realizes. At the funeral, is what he doesn’t want to say.
“You probably don’t remember. It was kind of…yeah.”
“Sorry. I really don’t remember. There were so many people.”
“I’m Jungkook,” he says, and wipes his cereal hand on his sweatpants before offering it to Namjoon. “I work here.”