There are a lot of socially acceptable tendencies that Jinyoung would’ve figured out much earlier if he hadn’t been homeschooled.
For example, the concept that you actually rehearse your own self-made script before you ask someone on a date—he doesn’t figure that one out three-fourths of a quarter through his second year of college; and even then, he stands and waves awkwardly as she back-pedals away, laughing at his blatant nerves and calling them endearing.
But, then again, if he hadn’t been homeschooled, he would never have meet Dongwoo—which, it itself, is a tendency; or, proves one toward a certain type of person, the type of person you meet while you’re sitting on your front steps in the morning as he trudges home from the bus stop, realizing that the district’s public schools are closed that day.
It’s known among them as the Snowpocalypse, because their small suburb doesn’t get a heavy snow like that one very often—and it was the kind of snow that you really had to trudge through, too, because it was all packed together, one dense layer falling on top of the last and pressing all the wetness into the ground. The snowplows couldn’t even get through the streets, but Dongwoo waited out there faithfully, backpack straps pulled tight around each shoulder—Jinyoung remembers them digging into Dongwoo’s dark blue ski jacket that he would continue to wear until the arms got absurdly short. He would’ve offered it to Jinyoung at the time, if Jinyoung weren’t some ten centimeters taller than Dongwoo; there was a point when Jinyoung was considered tall for his age, but he wouldn’t have known, because he was homeschooled.
His parents were the conservatively quirky type—which didn’t mean much of anything until Jinyoung realized that there were actual events for homeschooled children that his parents never bothered taking him to until he was around sixteen. His mother, walking by the window just then, told him to invite Dongwoo in for some coffee. So Jinyoung shouted, “Hey!” in a too-loud voice that echoed off the outside walls of the cookie-cut suburban houses.
Dongwoo flinched, mumbling, “You’re going to cause an avalanche, stupid,” as he peeked out from under his gloves.
“Coffee,” Jinyoung replied, quirking his head toward the house. In retrospect, the motion looked kind of ridiculous for a seven-year-old, but that was how they did things in their household, his parents, his sister, and him.
Dongwoo made a face. “Coffee is for grown-ups.”
And that was when Jinyoung realized that there was something odd about never really setting foot outside his house.
His parents were the conservatively quirky type, which meant that they did things their own way, but in a calm, collected manner; they took care of their kids, bought groceries, kept to themselves, and never caused anyone else any harm. “Which school do you go to?” Dongwoo asked mid-morning, staring at the mug in front of him like it was about to leap off the table.
“School?” Jinyoung said.
“Tell him your name,” his mother murmured.
“I’m Jung Jinyoung,” Jinyoung said, staring at Dongwoo’s cup, too.
And in the silence, they both turned to look out the back window, out at the deck, snow piling up with mountains framing the view. Dongwoo didn’t mention Jinyoung’s school again, and Jinyoung would grow up to ask Dongwoo later why he let that go. “In all honesty, I guess it didn’t really matter much to me,” Dongwoo would answer, and that was when Jinyoung would realize that Dongwoo was a keeper. “You know, you only ask those things when you’re a kid because you don’t know any better, you don’t know how else to make conversation.”
And there really wasn’t much other conversation that day; they dug their way through the snowdrifts and poked their arms through the snow that had collected on the railing. They sat on the benches until their butts got cold, using the piled-up snow as armrests and developing a sort of silent agreement to trust in make-believe. It looked like a fairy tale outside that day, and that would grow to define the rest of their lives—by the time they went back inside, there were trenches through the snow, dents in the drifts, and holes in the pretty little piles, but if you looked at it from far away, the white just seemed to mask it all, blending everything into one nice, clean winter day. You could move snow around, take it away, and it would still all look the same in the end. It isn’t until you add something when everything changes.
“I have a date with Ara this weekend,” Jinyoung says, poking his head into Dongwoo’s room. “She called me endearing.”
Dongwoo snorts then, his back facing the door. They live in singles across the hall from each other, and everyone was a little surprised at first when they didn’t opt to be roommates, but Jinyoung had earlier explained to Dongwoo in private, “Sorry, I like you, but I like my privacy more.”
Dongwoo understood. Dongwoo always understood. “I like your privacy more, too,” he even added, tugging the earbud out of Jinyoung’s ear, and Jinyoung grinned, ducking his head.
“You’re about as endearing as a milk carton,” Dongwoo says, and Jinyoung opens the door wider, standing in the doorway.
“Hey, milk cartons are cuter than milk bottles,” he says, and Dongwoo turns, beckoning Jinyoung over with his hand.
“Would I be the milk bottle, then?”
Jinyoung shrugs, walking forward. “I don’t know, you’re pretty tall and rectangular.”
“If that’s how it is, then I think that would make you the straw.”
It gets dark outside too early now, too early for November—which is, in Jinyoung’s mind, still closer to fall than it is to winter. “Do people even drink milk out of straws?” Jinyoung says. Dongwoo laughs, and Jinyoung leans over his shoulder. “Paper?”
“Paper proposal,” Dongwoo replies. He hasn’t turned on the lights yet for that evening; when Dongwoo gets into something, he really gets into it, and he and Jinyoung are similar in that respect. Cut a horizontal cross-section of their rooms, and you’d see Jinyoung and Dongwoo both sitting against the foot of their own beds, typing away on their laptops, lights turned off in the late afternoon. The laptop casts a cool glow over Dongwoo’s face, and it reminds Jinyoung of winter.
“What are you writing about?”
“People’s upbringings,” Dongwoo replies. Dongwoo never gives detailed answers, and Jinyoung, the more annoying of the two of them, usually has to squeeze them out of him like orange juice.
“Sounds interesting,” Jinyoung mumbles, and Dongwoo’s fingers pause for a moment.
“Don’t kid yourself, it’s a drag,” Dongwoo says, and Jinyoung lets out the laughter he’d been holding in. These days, Jinyoung has been holding in a lot lately—which confuses him, because he never used to be cautious around Dongwoo. “I hate writing paper proposals,” Dongwoo continues, and Jinyoung looks up then, because it’s unlike Dongwoo to offer extraneous information. His voice is even a little different; it’s the higher, more proper voice he uses when he talks to outsiders, to not-Jinyoung, the voice he uses when he’s forcing himself to make conversation. It’s an uncomfortable voice. “I’d rather just hand the paper in, you know? Because the idea always sounds bad when you outline it, but the whole thing might actually turn out good.”
Jinyoung looks over Dongwoo’s shoulder at his proposal, and he reads the words but doesn’t comprehend them. “You know,” Jinyoung says after a while, and Dongwoo shifts. “It’s like first impressions. They’re always bad, but the whole person might actually turn out good.”
“Yeah,” Dongwoo says, “like Ara’s first impression of you.”
Jinyoung punches Dongwoo’s shoulder. “Hey, she called me endearing. I think that’s pretty good, right?”
Jinyoung doesn’t know if it’s because they’re older now, but he’s grown to hate talking about serious things with Dongwoo—because there’s always this invisible wall between them, because they both take too much time to think about their responses before actually speaking. And Jinyoung hates that. It isn’t like they never talked about serious things as kids, but they tended to spit out whatever came to mind, unlike now, where they talk as if they’re afraid of offending each other.
“Was I talking too loud?” Jinyoung had said one wet day in early spring when they were both in high school—or, Dongwoo was in high school, and Jinyoung was studying for his college entrance exams. But Jinyoung likes to refer to them together; and he was the equivalent of a high school student, anyway, unopened textbooks piled up around his desk and laptop turned on with a word processor running in one window and Adobe Audition running in another. He kept his headphones stuffed behind his stacks of notebooks and binders; his parents wouldn’t have minded, really, his penchant for music composition, but there was something about doing it in secret, composing into the wee hours of the night with a blanket stuffed under his door, that made it so much better. There’s something about being rebellious that makes it so much better—and Jinyoung, in the back of his mind, is afraid that he’ll lose interest for it once it’s no longer forbidden. “You know, that one time I called you in for coffee.”
Dongwoo, who’d been flipping through notes from his chemistry class, paused for a moment. “I said something about an avalanche, didn’t I?”
“You still remember?”
Dongwoo smiled slightly, and his glasses slipped down the bridge of his nose. Jinyoung tends to remember the details. “Why did you ask if you thought I didn’t remember?”
Jinyoung shrugged. “I don’t make sense sometimes.”
Dongwoo’s smile grew, and he continued going through the papers one by one. He seemed to flip through them so quickly that he couldn’t possibly have had time to read them, but whenever he saw that he’d flipped two sheets instead of one, he would go back and purposely glance at the skipped sheet. Jinyoung was about to let it go, too, until Dongwoo said, after a while, “Of course I remember. That was the worst first impression anyone has ever made on me.”
“You called me stupid,” Jinyoung retorted. “That wasn’t so charming, either.”
Dongwoo laughed. “You know what they say about first impressions.”
It was pretty wet that day. Early spring, when the ground is thawing but still mostly hard; then, you step in one of those rare soft wet spots, and you can’t get out. Dongwoo was like that wet spot that you half-knew was there but stepped in anyway—whether you just couldn’t be bothered to avoid it, or maybe you wanted to take the risk. Either way, after that, everywhere you went—there would be lingering traces of it everywhere, lingering traces of him. Dongwoo was like that wet spot, unmoving and waiting for people to come to him, to come and go like the seasons; but he always left a part of him with them, whether they wanted it or not. That annoyed the shit out of Jinyoung in the best way possible.
(“You know, you’re never going to get a girlfriend if you just wait. Girls don’t like guys who wait,” Jinyoung would always say when they were both in that awkward phase between childhood and teenhood. And he didn’t know what made him do it, pester Dongwoo like that with a lazy grin on his face—the lazy grin Jinyoung uses whenever he’s trying to convey that he doesn’t really mean much by what he says. [But he means it, he always means it.] The trouble with the lazy grin is that it’s just too easy, too easy to put on even when part of you actually wants to leave yourself vulnerable for once.
“I have no problem waiting,” Dongwoo would reply, voice steady.
Thinking back on it, Jinyoung realizes that Dongwoo’s reply didn’t make much sense: I don’t really care about getting a girlfriend would have been the most direct answer. But Dongwoo set it up, put it out like a maze. Thinking back on it, Jinyoung realizes that Dongwoo put a lot more thought into his words than Jinyoung ever gave him credit for.)
“You know what they say about first impressions,” Dongwoo was saying. “The worst ones always stay with you the longest.”
Jinyoung was quiet for a while after that. He sat swinging his feet at the breakfast table, staring out into the backyard, the view that never changed much because no one ever came out into those parts to change it. The only things that ever came and went were the seasons.
Dongwoo lived next door.
It was a funny kind of next door, too—the houses were all close enough together that Jinyoung could see Dongwoo’s window from his room, but far enough apart that whenever Dongwoo was over, he never really seemed to want to leave. Jinyoung’s house sat on a corner, and there was a row of trees on the other side of Dongwoo’s house, so it was almost like they were destined to meet.
“You believe in that kind of stuff?” Dongwoo said when Jinyoung brought it up moments later.
Jinyoung sputtered a little—he was always the least composed around Dongwoo; he could handle his parents, his sister better than he could handle Dongwoo. “Too many romance movies, I guess,” Jinyoung said, and Dongwoo paused, then laughed, sounding a little hollow.
“How do I look?” Jinyoung asks, poking his head into Dongwoo’s room on Saturday afternoon, and Dongwoo is hunched over his laptop again, sitting peculiarly in the middle of the floor.
Dongwoo doesn’t look up, but says, “I can’t see you if you don’t come all the way in.”
And that’s when Jinyoung realizes that they know each other so well—the movements, the mechanisms, the little quirks, like Jinyoung never fully walking into the room when he visits until Dongwoo off-handedly invites him in. And that’s when Jinyoung realizes—wonders how long it’ll take him to become that acquainted with anyone else.
Dongwoo glances up when Jinyoung steps in, and mumbles, “Dashing.”
Jinyoung sighs and leans against the door. “Tell me what to say to her,” he says in a half-bored, half-commanding tone.
“How am I supposed to know?”
“You went to high school,” Jinyoung says. He isn’t sensitive about it, his schooling, and rather enjoys making cracks at it every once in a while with Dongwoo under dim lighting in the partly set sun.
“What kind of a difference does that make?”
Jinyoung pushes himself off the wall, arms still folded across his chest. “You dated around, right? Or if not, at least watched people?”
And Dongwoo looks up then, eyes wider than usual. Dongwoo has this subtle way with showing emotion—it shows in his eyes, which are relatively small and often dark, but with this warmth to them. Jinyoung almost wonders if Dongwoo has learned to keep them purposely dark so as to avoid being read—but there’s something about when Dongwoo looks straight at him, Jinyoung thinks, that’s at the same time both revealing and unnerving. Dongwoo looks almost offended then, offended and slightly hurt, and he even says, “I only watched—” then stops. He looks away, and Jinyoung finds himself chasing that gaze, even moving his head a little bit to follow it across the room and out the window and into the sky. “Just be yourself,” Dongwoo says instead after a moment. “You’re the one who was obsessed with all those romantic comedies.”
“Nothing ever happens like in movies,” Jinyoung replies. “Even you should know that.”
“You’re pushy when you’re eager,” Dongwoo says, eying Jinyoung, and Jinyoung pauses to think about whether or not he’s really eager. “I’ve never seen you get this worked up over anything except composing.” And Jinyoung pauses to think about what he’s actually worked up about.
That’s when he first notices himself shutting down.
It happens with a quick snap of the intuition. And Jinyoung suddenly can’t think of anything biting to say back—three years ago, he would’ve had a quip in a heartbeat; three months ago, he would’ve had a quip in half a heartbeat. It’s as if his mind is blocking traces of anything that might rile Dongwoo up even more, navigating him away from anything Dongwoo-related in order to maintain the delicate relationship that they’ve been holding onto, something between hesitation and a desperate need to reconnect. It’s as if his mind is slipping away from Dongwoo in order to stay with Dongwoo, a paradox that has Jinyoung pulling back completely, lifting himself away from the conversation, from the setting—
—And then he’s thinking about how many parts of the mind there are, and whether or not he should write a song about that. Things with Dongwoo happen slowly in real life, but quickly in Jinyoung’s mind, intensity building before Jinyoung has a chance to put a cap on it. Winter is the only season that has the ability to freeze. Jinyoung almost breathes out in relief, hanging on to the past as if it were the edge of a rocky cliff.
The first full song he ever wrote happened after he came back from a homeschool volunteer event about two weeks before Christmas. He’d all but begged his mother to take him, because Dongwoo brought a flyer from the grocery store and slipped it through the crack between the back door and the doorframe that only the two of them knew about, because they spent so long sitting at that table and staring out into the backyard and feeling the awkward draft blow in through what they thought was solid glass.
Jinyoung would be lying if he said it wasn’t overwhelming at first, all the teenagers his age who already half-knew each other, who greeted each other with hesitant handshakes and the kinds of smiles that could go either way—if the person knew you, then you could pry it into a bright, familiar smile, and if they didn’t know you, then the smile looked distant enough to come off as merely polite. Jinyoung hated that kind of two-faced mockery, similar to the kind that his parents always performed whenever some of the neighbors came to visit and brought them desserts or spare chives. So he didn’t bother smiling, and in retrospect he must’ve looked quite unapproachable.
That was when he met Lee Junghwan, the person who may or may not have planted the seed in his mind that would haunt him (or bless him) for the rest of his life.
Lee Junghwan was a marshmallow jacket kind of guy. He was the kind of guy who whispered with his friends as they watched Jinyoung with wide eyes from a distance, the kind of guy who got thrown by his friends outside the circle and pushed toward Jinyoung “accidentally,” the kind of guy who blinked twice or thrice before thrusting out his hand with a wide smile. He was the kind of guy who said, “I was planning that. Smooth, huh?” and Jinyoung wanted to give him the iciest dismissal he had in the arsenal, but Junghwan was so damn endearing that Jinyoung’s smile just came out awkward and dimply. “Lee Junghwan,” Junghwan said, and he was wearing one of those mitten-glove things, the kind that had the mitten flap that folded back to reveal fingerless gloves. The kind of gloves that Jinyoung had when he was about nine, then abandoned when he realized how ridiculous they were.
“Jung Jinyoung,” he replied, and Junghwan waited, surprisingly still and patient, for Jinyoung to take his hand.
The mentors assigned groups for the event then, and Jinyoung and Junghwan were put together to sit at a table and wrap books and nudge the tip jar forward every now and then. Junghwan was a little too eager on the nudging, and Jinyoung would often have to pull back the jar before it fell off the table.
Throughout the afternoon, Junghwan kept giving Jinyoung these pensive looks that came off rather awkward between Junghwan’s otherwise overly-excited rants about wrapping paper malfunctions and children’s pop-up books that were a hassle to wrap. Jinyoung finally caved at about three thirty, turning to Junghwan and mumbling, “What the hell is wrong with you?”
Junghwan laughed then, a laugh that started out as a snicker and then burst into a full-out bellow that had people turning to stare. “Forward, aren’t we?” Junghwan said.
“I don’t interact with people that much,” Jinyoung said, and Junghwan laughed again, though quieter that time.
“You should get out more. You seem like you need friends,” Junghwan said.
“I have—a friend,” Jinyoung replied. “You’re homeschooled, too—how did you meet people, anyway?”
“Oh,” Junghwan says, tilting his head toward one of the other tables. “Them? Those are my—boyfriend’s friends.”
Jinyoung paused for a moment. The area in front of the table was empty, and the two of them were alone, talking quiet in the background bustle of mid-December, and Junghwan said it like it was nothing, only a slight pause and a slight lowering of the voice, which he would’ve done if he’d said girlfriend anyway. “Oh,” Jinyoung said after a moment. The bustle covered up everything like snow. He stared forward, wringing his fingers with his mouth pressed into a stiff line.
After a moment, Jinyoung could hear Junghwan turning away by the sound of his jacket shifting, and Junghwan had this aura about him, this power to change the mood of not only himself but the area around him, too. Jinyoung could feel the atmosphere at their table declining like a piston pressing down—because it takes an effort to bring down someone like Junghwan. A couple more people came up to the table, and Junghwan wrapped books mechanically after that, and the paper tore off the roll in perfect sheets, and Jinyoung should’ve been happy, because Junghwan was much more efficient like that. But Jinyoung couldn’t help but look at him and feel a little slow himself, a little guilty. The books slid off of Junghwan’s deft fingers like rainwater, but no one left a tip in those five minutes of silence.
“Okay, forget I ever said that,” Junghwan said after the area was empty again, his voice quiet.
“No, I mean, why did you tell me?” Jinyoung could feel the rise in his own voice, the effort to gain back trust.
Junghwan frowned, and Jinyoung could see a trace of the spunk in him again. “I don’t know, I just thought you would be understanding about something like that.”
“I am,” Jinyoung protested, and Junghwan gave him a challenging stare.
“You didn’t sound it,” he said.
“That’s because I’ve never met someone—like you before.”
Junghwan shrugged, still wary, but a little bit back to normal again. “Me neither, except for Sunwoo.”
Another couple of moments passed, another three or four patrons passed, but this time, it was a thoughtful couple of moments, where Jinyoung and Junghwan moved as if in a dream, and the customers watched, almost intrigued.
“Are you happy?” Jinyoung murmured.
“Yeah, well,” Junghwan replied. “The homeschooling situation is because I got teased so much at school.”
And somehow, Jinyoung realized that Junghwan was made of a lot more layers than he’d originally thought. Junghwan was a marshmallow jacket kind of guy, with a bunch of cardigans and t-shirts and vests piled on underneath. Somehow, Jinyoung realized that Junghwan had been a lot more than teased, but Junghwan made no sign of going further than that, and Jinyoung thought better than to ask. “Is he happy?” Jinyoung said instead.
“You’re awfully curious,” Junghwan replied, glancing back at Jinyoung with another one of those disarmingly pensive looks.
“J—just showing my understanding,” Jinyoung said, and Junghwan stared a while longer, then shifted into a slow nod.
“Yeah, I mean,” he said. “He’s kind of private about those kinds of things, he’s still going to public school, which is where all those friends came from. I mean, we’re still normal in public, it’s not like we’re different than anyone else or anything.”
“I never said that you were different.”
“Right,” Junghwan said, laughing a little sheepishly. “I’m just used to everything being so—accusing. Sorry for jumping to conclusions. It’s hard, when you’re like—like this,” he continued, motioning to himself awkwardly as if putting on a new coat for the first time and not knowing which hole was the armhole and which was the hood. “But it’s worth it, if you’re happier in the end,” he said. “Cheesy, huh?”
Jinyoung wasn’t one to overanalyze things, at least not until he was forced to. He preferred instead to push them away, push them, as little seeds, into the back of his mind—but the seeds were tough and grew in any condition, and before long, he’d be dealing with ivy and daffodils and whole maple trees. And with the daffodils, he could pull them out and keep them relatively under control, but trees, trees were the worst—they grew slowly and you never noticed until one day you took a step back and looked at the whole thing and stopped to think about the tiny fruit that the thing had germinated from. It was a bad idea from the start; something inside him realized then, right from the beginning, that Junghwan had planted a bad seed, a big maple tree that would grow to wind around everything.
The first song he ever wrote happened after that, a song about trees and flowers and love, and it was terribly cheesy and only had four repeating chords, but it was a start.
“Jinyoung?” Dongwoo says, and Jinyoung looks up, through the carefully styled bangs and the darkened room and the little bit of makeup over his eyelids and wonders who he’s really trying to impress.
“Thinking about music,” he says, and Dongwoo, whose shoulders had been tightened and unusually tense, loosens up. Jinyoung doesn’t know whether Dongwoo’s unraveling in front of him, becoming more and more transparent, or if with age, Jinyoung has just gotten better at reading these things.
Dongwoo laughs. “Typical,” he says.
“Don’t compare her to music,” Jinyoung replies.
Dongwoo looks back down at his laptop and taps the keys meaninglessly. “Because she’s the most important thing to you, right?” he says, his voice an unfamiliar drawl.
Jinyoung frowns, stepping back. “No,” he says, and Dongwoo looks up. Music is, Jinyoung wants to say, but the words refuse to come out. Maybe because that’s the mask—the easy, automatic answer. And Jinyoung backs out of Dongwoo’s door before he gets vulnerable, but a part of him wants to leave himself vulnerable for once. He throws his scarf onto his own bed and battles the cold walk to the restaurant bare-necked, and he somehow feels emasculated by that.
The date goes generally well.
She shows up slightly late, rushing in all flustered and such, and Jinyoung is waiting at a table near the front of the restaurant. He doesn’t shut down at all through the entire thing, and because of this it passes by in a blur and everything (the menu the waitress the food) rushes by quickly because he doesn’t stop to think. He replies with an automatic charm that he didn’t know he had, and she’s insufferable in the best of ways by not taking offense to anything Jinyoung says and giving all the most appropriate answers. And because of this it passes by in a blur and everything rushes by quickly and smoothly and unmemorably.
(At times, Jinyoung can’t help but think about Dongwoo—Dongwoo, and how slowly he moves through everything, and how much unnecessary caution he seems to always take.)
“Are you saying that I could do to be more like her?” Dongwoo says, picking at the carpet and grinning.
“No,” Jinyoung replies, and he finds that he doesn’t have much to add.
“You’re quiet lately,” Dongwoo says.
The ground is covered in snow that won’t last. Jinyoung is wearing his scarf and propped up against Dongwoo’s wall, and it’s the first time that they’ve really talked, Dongwoo’s attention all on him. There’s something both likeable and unexpected about it: Jinyoung is used to the Dongwoo who’s working on chemistry homework, solitaire, paper proposals while talking to him (yet, it’s still so easy to tell that Dongwoo’s paying attention). But, on the other hand, it’s something Jinyoung could get used to every once in a while, Dongwoo trying his hardest to keep eye contact with Jinyoung. Jinyoung doesn’t know what prompts Dongwoo to do it, but he stills his hand on the carpet and looks at Jinyoung through his glasses, earnest and forward.
“You’re talkative lately,” Jinyoung replies.
Dongwoo grins and puts his head on his hand. “Do you like it?”
And Jinyoung pulls back again, shuts down again, not knowing whether to say yes or no, because neither would fully capture what he wants to express. Jinyoung was never good with words—words are short, words are only listened to once and then dropped and later reassembled into summaries that twist based on the speaker’s intentions—but the speaker originally had been the listener, and nothing comes out exactly as intended, anyway. Jinyoung prefers songs, because songs are meant to be unraveled, slowly, carefully, and understood. He feels some sort of explanation bubbling up, but when he opens his mouth to speak, the words seem to disintegrate into ashes somewhere between his brain and his mouth.
“It’s like when the words get caught in your throat,” Junghwan had said.
Jinyoung met Junghwan a couple times after the volunteer event, mainly because Junghwan seemed to have taken a liking to Jinyoung and was persistent at arranging meet-ups; but Jinyoung, though he didn’t admit it at the time, liked Junghwan, too. He felt the same comfort around Junghwan that he was sure everyone else did, because Junghwan just had that effect on people—and Junghwan was aware of this, too. “You should be grateful,” Junghwan said when they were sitting in their town’s bookstore café that day, “that I chose you. Sunwoo said that I can be quite likeable sometimes.”
Jinyoung let out a snort, and Junghwan laughed, too. “When do I get to meet him?” Jinyoung said, and Junghwan shrugged.
“When he’s not so busy with school.”
And it was true; Dongwoo’s high school finals, too, were coming up in about a week, and he had holed himself up in his house for the past few days; Jinyoung woke up to Dongwoo’s lights still on at around three in the morning. Jinyoung then thought about introducing Dongwoo to Junghwan—and then he wondered why he thought that at all, wondered why, when Junghwan talked about Sunwoo, Jinyoung seemed to think about Dongwoo.
And then the topic of love came up, and Jinyoung was always one for sappy romance stories, even though he never let on to it. “You’re deeper than I thought,” Dongwoo had said when they were huddled under a blanket one night some years before even that, knees pulled up to their chests, a bowl of popcorn sitting between them, watching some recent romantic comedy that Jinyoung’s parents had rented from the library. “In a shallow kind of way.” Now, there was an explanation for it—it inspired Jinyoung’s creative side that Dongwoo only shook his head at, but he indulged Jinyoung anyway by not saying anything more on the topic.
“I met him a couple years ago, I think in eighth grade?” Junghwan said. “He was practicing soccer out on the elementary school field—in November or something, or early December, in shorts! I think I was visiting an old teacher or something.” It was early December then, too, and Jinyoung was beginning to think that everything important happened in the winter. “I stopped to watch, and he stopped, too. Asked if I was Lee Junghwan—because when you live in a small suburb like that, word gets around.” Junghwan grinned then, and Jinyoung assumed that it was Junghwan’s version of a loving expression. “He asked so nicely, then, too, that I didn’t know how to react and just kind of nodded. Then he asked me out. Simple as that.” Junghwan laughed. “I guess being infamous makes things convenient sometimes.”
It wasn’t until the second or third date when Junghwan really fell in love with Sunwoo, he told Jinyoung. “What was it like?” Jinyoung said; for music, he convinced himself.
“It’s like when the words get caught in your throat,” Junghwan replied, tightening his grip on his little plastic fork. “You know, when you talk to normal people, you don’t care what they think about you. You can say anything, and it’s so easy. But with him, I guess it was like—sometimes, when he would ask me advice about school or friends, I didn’t know what to tell him. Self-consciousness. Then, things get really awkward for a little while. But it’s worth it.”
The next song Jinyoung wrote happened a day later, and it was about love and sappy things, and he called it Bling Girl. He promised himself that he’d show it to Dongwoo after Dongwoo’s finals were over, but one week passed, then another week, then another, and Jinyoung could never quite find the right time to bring his laptop down to the kitchen table and play the song. The snow began to melt, and everything looked dreary and it only frustrated Jinyoung more.
“You look like you have something to say,” Dongwoo said, and Jinyoung laughed through gritted teeth and shook his head.
And then, spring came, and by that time, it was too late to bring up the topic of composing. Dongwoo was always quiet when it came to that, listening intently to everything Jinyoung had to say about his various programs and microphones and filters, but never offering any advice or asking any questions. “You know a lot more about it than I do,” Dongwoo said when Jinyoung brought it up. “I don’t want to say something stupid.”
“I don’t know anything about it, either,” Jinyoung replied. “I just—wing it.”
Dongwoo paused for a moment again, tapping the end of his pencil against his chin. He opened his mouth to speak, but then closed it again, and Jinyoung pursed his lips, staring at Dongwoo all the while.
“You look like you have something to say,” he said, and Dongwoo tilted his head toward Jinyoung, his eyes giving him away again for just a moment—but back then, Jinyoung hadn’t been so sure of himself at reading Dongwoo, so he didn’t know exactly what that expression meant. It might’ve been confusion, or just a flicker of strange mirth before Dongwoo actually started laughing.
“Touché,” he said. He laughed through gritted teeth and shook his head.
Dongwoo never ended up hearing Bling Girl, or any of Jinyoung’s other songs.
And Ara, after a couple more dates, tells Jinyoung that she’s not ready to be in a committed relationship.
“You had a good run,” Dongwoo says. Jinyoung can’t be bothered to remember which restaurants he had taken her out to and for how many of those dates he’d paid; can’t remember a single thing they talked about, either.
“It happened so fast,” Jinyoung says, closing his eyes and blowing a piece of hair out of his face.
“That’s because she broke up with you after two weeks,” Dongwoo replies.
“Two weeks doesn’t seem fast when I’m with you,” Jinyoung says, and Dongwoo raises his eyebrows at that.
“Maybe if you talked more, it would go faster.” Dongwoo crosses and uncrosses his legs this time, but he manages to still his hands, folding them in his lap. “You’re so sulky lately—even when you were dating Ara, you were sulky.”
But Jinyoung isn’t listening by that time, because he’s thinking about how he doesn’t want it to go faster.
The only time Dongwoo didn’t walk straight to Jinyoung’s house after school was the day they both knew that their college acceptance letters were coming in. Dongwoo had warned Jinyoung in advance, too, that he was going to his own mailbox after school that day to find the letter before his parents did.
Dongwoo was never a talkative person, but that afternoon was quieter than usual, a dull sort of self-pity pressing against Jinyoung’s chest; it didn’t hurt enough to seem like a real issue, but it was insistent and irritating. And Jinyoung still felt a little miserable when he sat at his front window, hiding behind the curtain like a child, watching Dongwoo trek through the snow to his own mailbox. Jinyoung still felt a little miserable when he watched Dongwoo open the mailbox and take out the same big red envelope that Jinyoung had received that no doubt meant acceptance. Jinyoung still felt a little miserable when Dongwoo didn’t look nearly as excited as Jinyoung expected him to be. Jinyoung still felt a little miserable when Dongwoo carried that, and the rest of his mail, back to his own house instead of to Jinyoung’s, head bowed against the wind.
And when Jinyoung felt miserable was when he decided to make impulsive decisions.
He wrote music when he was confused—not miserable, per se, but simply troubled, and the music helped him sort out his problems in a way that never provided him any answers, but it was more of a tool in accepting the confusion and realizing that the answer would come in due time.
But when Jinyoung was miserable, he made rash decisions—like the decision to call Dongwoo that night while tapping his foot impatiently against his carpet as the phone rang.
“Hello?” Dongwoo said, and it only frustrated Jinyoung more, because Dongwoo knew it was him.
“What, you don’t want to go to college with me?” Jinyoung snapped.
Dongwoo coughed, but it sounded like a fake cough, breathy and dry, and he sighed. “I knew it would be about this.”
“Then why did you even answer if you don’t want to talk to me?” Jinyoung could feel the regret sting him after every word, but each pinch made him feel all the more miserable, which simply fueled his fire.
“Look,” Dongwoo said. “It’s college. It’s the rest of your life. We’d be—we’d be friends even if we didn’t go to the same school. We don’t need this.”
“You don’t even want it,” Jinyoung said.
“You applied to that music school, didn’t you?” Dongwoo shot back.
Jinyoung frowned. “Yeah, but—”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” Dongwoo said. “I saw your face when you got rejected. I had to witness it up close—why were you even watching me this afternoon, anyway?”
“So we’re both settling for our second choice,” Jinyoung said, his tone forcedly level.
“Yeah, so I don’t see why there’s a problem,” Dongwoo replied.
And Jinyoung hung up then.
Because there was no problem, really—small things inflated, actions taken at face value; there were times, in retrospect, when over-analysis would’ve done him some good. There was no problem, really—they were on equal ground, on the same playing field, settling—settling for each other. That didn’t make Jinyoung feel any better.
Dongwoo pats Jinyoung’s back awkwardly. “Maybe you two were moving too fast,” he says.
“Everything is fast with her,” Jinyoung says. “I don’t know how to read it. I don’t get it. I don’t know how to deal with it.”
Dongwoo laughs then, his hand lingering on Jinyoung’s shoulder. “Maybe because the only person you’ve really dealt with is slow old me.”
The wind is howling by that time, and Jinyoung is grateful for it, too, because he doesn’t want to speak. He turns to watch it outside instead, blowing the snow around into drifts and carrying it up from its comfortable spot stuck to rooftops or settled between blades of grass. And he’s suddenly thrown back into their childhood, when they would sit at that table together. This time, he isn’t even shutting down, doesn’t even want to go, but it’s as if that past has something to say (through gritted teeth).
It was never windy in their hometown—the mountains always blocked the wind, and the snow in turn sat and sat on their porch just the way it fell until it melted away, unless they went out to play in it. Even now, outside the dorm, the blowing snow doesn’t really change how things look—it blends in with the white sky and just makes everything look at little more foggy. It’s still winter. You could move snow around, take it away, and it would still all look the same in the end. You could move around, press forward, pull back, bring yourself to a low rumble, or even a level of self-consciousness that renders you struggling for something to say, completely silent, and it wouldn’t change a thing. It isn’t until you add something when everything changes, anyway.
Dongwoo still has his hand on Jinyoung’s shoulder, and Jinyoung swears that Dongwoo shifts closer (moves around, presses forward, pulls back).
It isn’t until Dongwoo murmurs, “I wouldn’t mind if you gave slow old me one more chance,” when Jinyoung turns to look at him.
“Look,” Dongwoo says, and Jinyoung can see the effort it takes him to keep the shared gaze. “Look, I miss you.”
“Dongwoo, I’m right here—”
“No, that’s not what I mean, and you know it.” And somehow, Jinyoung revels in the role-reversal of it all, the way Dongwoo insists on cutting Jinyoung off instead of simply shaking his head and nodding quietly, the way Dongwoo stares and reaches forward to be heard, the way Dongwoo adds instead of just shifting things around or taking things away. And Jinyoung realizes that, for how forward Jinyoung himself had been, for how annoying—the more annoying of the two of them—he’d been, he never really added anything, either. It’s like when the words get caught in your throat. Jinyoung’s throat was filled with unspoken words, all caught on one cranny or another, waiting to be added, to bring change.
They roomed together in their first year of college. It was a demoralizing experience, because Jinyoung came to realize that their relationship—having Dongwoo come over after school every day and stay until dinner—was like playing with someone else’s pet every once in a while. You got to have fun and see all the times when the pet was well behaved, but you were never really accountable for it; not that Dongwoo was a pet by any stretch of the imagination, but Jinyoung realized how little they actually knew each other until they moved in together.
It wasn’t anything about Dongwoo that bothered Jinyoung—it was more the adjustment in going from having a house almost entirely to yourself to having one cramped room and sharing it with someone who wouldn’t hesitate to move your stuff around, to give it a cleaning if he felt like it needed it. It was the adjustment in going from having your privacy, your own time to think and maybe talk to yourself, to sharing that privacy with the one person whom you’d started feeling uncomfortable around for one reason or another, be it the way you did a double-take every time he passed by, or the way your stomach lurched when he walked in with just a towel around his waist, or the way the words got caught in your throat when he spoke to you after all the lights were off and tried to talk to you about serious things. Jinyoung didn’t know if it was because they were older now, but he was growing to hate talking about serious things with Dongwoo.
“Do you ever feel like something’s not right?” Dongwoo would say, and his low voice carried all the way across the room and then some, seeping into the headboard of Jinyoung’s bed and finding its way into the sheets.
“What are you talking about?” Jinyoung replied, faking a yawn.
“Anything,” Dongwoo said. “Life. The way you live. The way other people treat you. Your own identity. Do you ever feel like you’re just kidding yourself?”
By that time, Junghwan’s seed had grown into this large Japanese maple tree that wasn’t very tall, but was wide instead, its branches reaching all around Jinyoung’s brain and intruding on every aspect of his life. He looked at boys differently, tried not to think about long-term relationships with women that would ultimately lead to marriage and sex, even admitted to himself at one point that it terrified him (and then Dongwoo walked into the room, and Jinyoung stopped talking to himself). The leaves kept changing colors and catching his attention and falling into these huge, unmovable piles that carpeted the brain matter underneath and rendered it untouchable until he somehow dealt with those piles. So when Jinyoung turned on his bed and said nothing, Dongwoo probably wasn’t surprised.
He brought it up again a couple days later when Jinyoung had almost successfully forgotten about it, too—the conversation, not the tree. “Don’t you feel like we’re lucky?” Dongwoo said then.
“Of course we are,” Jinyoung replied warily. “Go to sleep.”
But Jinyoung heard shuffling then, and felt a hand on his shoulder. They were never particularly touchy-feely with each other, keeping a sizeable distance and not acting much like Junghwan and Sunwoo (whom Jinyoung ended up meeting near the end of his last year of schooling when they threw a small graduation party for him, the two of them and Dongwoo) who always found a way to lean against each other or touch hands behind their backs. So when Dongwoo touched Jinyoung’s shoulder then and curled his fingers around it, Jinyoung tensed up.
It was late autumn by then, cold, and Dongwoo, clad in a white t-shirt and boxers, managed to keep himself pretty still as he crawled into Jinyoung’s bed and wrapped his arms around Jinyoung, holding him from the back. Jinyoung didn’t move, didn’t move closer or farther, but after a couple minutes, he laid his hand over Dongwoo’s, and they settled there, the two of them, falling into comfortable sleep for that night.
That was the beginning of a losing battle.
It started out nice, because neither of them had the courage to acknowledge what they were—Jinyoung avoided being too near Dongwoo when they were in public, and when they were in their room alone together, Jinyoung couldn’t get Dongwoo to say, “I love you,” even if he prompted him all night.
“You’re too sappy,” Dongwoo said and sighed, taking off his glasses and pushing his hair back. “All those rom-coms.”
And Jinyoung, in turn, always complained that Dongwoo needed too much external validation.
“But isn’t saying I love you the same kind of external validation?” Dongwoo would say, half-teasing and half-serious, and neither of them denied that there was some sort of gap in the relationship—but they didn’t affirm it, either, and more just had a mutual agreement to avoid talking about it, because when things become ugly, you just cover them in snow.
Their lives didn’t change much, either, except that they isolated themselves from the rest of the dorm, and both of them jumped whenever they were leaning on each other and someone happened to walk by their room. “Can we just—the door is locked,” Jinyoung said, flustered, but he was more talking to himself than to Dongwoo.
And it was in the winter, once again, after a long vacation during which Dongwoo left to visit his grandparents in a different part of South Korea, when they’d had enough of it—all the flinching and caution, especially when Dongwoo returned to the dorm room after three weeks to find Jinyoung lying on Dongwoo’s bed, covers thrown off and thermostat turned up, legs crossed and wearing nothing but one of Dongwoo’s oversized t-shirts. What occurred then was some quick movement by Dongwoo’s standards, and then they were on the bed together, legs tangled and clutching at each other too desperately.
Jinyoung gasped when Dongwoo fit a knee between his legs and rubbed at his crotch area with pent-up force. At the time, he hadn’t known if he liked the feeling or not—whether he liked being controlled, even for the shortest of moments—so he did the fight-or-flight thing, the knee-jerk reaction and took Dongwoo’s shoulders and rolled on top of him, straddling Dongwoo’s hips with his thighs. Jinyoung sat up for a moment, breathing hard, and he intently curled his mouth up into a small smile, and Dongwoo smiled back—Dongwoo would do anything, give anything, and it was up to Jinyoung to figure out what, exactly, he wanted for himself. That was part—or, most of the losing battle.
And, call it absurd, but Jinyoung should have written a song then. Jinyoung should have stopped what he was doing and written a song about sex, about love, about identity, and come to terms with the fact that it would take him another six, nine, ten months to know what, exactly, he wanted. Jinyoung wrote songs when he was troubled, and they never gave him answers, really, but they helped him accept that the answers to his troubles would arrive whenever they were supposed to arrive. But when it came to Dongwoo, absence, and overwhelming emotion, due time wasn’t something that Jinyoung was ready to face.
So instead, he rolled his hips downward and watched as Dongwoo panted under him, groaning and meeting Jinyoung halfway. Jinyoung leaned down and leaned as much of his weight as he dared to onto Dongwoo, while keeping himself half-propped up with one arm, and he kissed Dongwoo, taking Dongwoo’s upper lip into his mouth and sucking, biting, nipping as Dongwoo breathed into him, moving his hands shakily down Jinyoung’s sides.
And Jinyoung told himself that he liked it, watching Dongwoo like this, holding himself over Dongwoo and watching Dongwoo come undone underneath him as Jinyoung unzipped Dongwoo’s jeans with trembling fingers. Dongwoo only had them kicked halfway down before Jinyoung was reaching his hand into Dongwoo’s boxers, prying the elastic up with his wrist, and stroking Dongwoo’s cock with quick, pressured movements.
Dongwoo was all but swept away as Jinyoung watched him, his eyes squeezed shut and his hips bucking upward. He half-moaned half-breathed Jinyoung’s name repeatedly, hands scrabbling for purchase somewhere, anywhere—and finding it around Jinyoung’s shoulders as he pulled Jinyoung down for another kiss. His tongue was sloppy against Jinyoung’s, and their mouths fit together for only seconds before they were breathing into each other’s necks again, panting as Jinyoung moved his hand faster. He was grinding down against Dongwoo’s legs too, and Dongwoo tried desperately to move against Jinyoung with his thighs still trapped between Jinyoung’s knees.
And it was mostly a blur of impatient, hormone-driven movements, nothing at all like the slow, calm relationship that Jinyoung had grown to love. There was something wrong about it, even as Dongwoo, hair mussed and half across his face, came with a choked cry and shuddered against Jinyoung, even as Jinyoung pressed closer to feel Dongwoo’s breath against his neck, the way his chest heaved as he panted, coming down from his high, even as they slid down into the blankets, damp with sweat, and fell into another one of those comfortable sleeps. There was something wrong about it—and Jinyoung woke up several times the next morning and curled into Dongwoo, trying to place his finger on it but coming up with nothing. He wrapped his arm around Dongwoo’s shoulders and kissed him lightly, and Dongwoo was asleep and the picture of serenity, and all the pieces, all the items on the checklist were ticked, all the signs were there, but Jinyoung couldn’t help feeling like he wanted to run away.
All important things happen in the winter.
They got each other off a couple more times over the course of the semester, and Jinyoung seemed quite able to convince himself that he liked telling Dongwoo what to do, even when Dongwoo was the one stroking and fingering Jinyoung.
Their relationship wasn’t the kind that fell off quickly or violently—it was a losing battle, anyway, not a lost battle, not the kind of battles where you’re winning the whole time, but one knock-out punch from your opponent turns the battle around in an instant. No, it was a fight that was heading downhill from the beginning, but neither of them had the conviction to recognize that: Dongwoo, because he wasn’t particularly convicted to anything, and Jinyoung, because he was already too convicted to keeping the relationship, but making all the wrong decisions in the process.
Over the summer, Dongwoo said he was going to visit his grandparents again, because they were both quite sick and he didn’t know which time would be the last time. He made the plans in mid-April, and the housing lottery for next year’s dorm arrangement happened in mid-May, and they came to a mutual understanding about the roommate thing.
“Sorry, I like you, but I like my privacy more,” Jinyoung said, earbud in one ear and treating it like it was a joke, because it was easier to run away, easier to go with the lazy smile, the knee-jerk reaction, than to face his problems head-on.
Dongwoo understood. Dongwoo always understood. “I like your privacy more, too,” he even added, tugging the earbud out of Jinyoung’s ear, and Jinyoung grinned, ducking his head.
This was the worst thing Dongwoo could do, though—leave Jinyoung with a good impression before the three long summer months—because Jinyoung would end up missing him, missing him terribly and going through cycles of wavering blame. June would be the fault of himself, July would be on Dongwoo, August would be on Junghwan and the seed, and September would be back to Dongwoo. September was also conveniently the time when they went back to school—and it must’ve been fate there just to spite them, because they entered the dormitory at the same time, Jinyoung and Dongwoo, after not having seen each other for months, and they bumped into each other repeatedly, each trying to move his own belongings into his own room, and Jinyoung ended up finding a couple pairs of Dongwoo’s boxers and socks in his own laundry.
Yoo Ara was a first-year who lived down the hall and approached the unapproachable Jinyoung, and that was technically when Jinyoung had started running away.
(And, of course, Dongwoo chased after him.
But chasing after Jinyoung is like chasing a waterfall that runs into the ocean, all the parts splitting up and never convening again until one day, several years later, after they’ve wrapped around the world twice and chanced to meet somewhere hundreds of miles from where they had started.
Trust Shin Dongwoo to be waiting for him there, waiting right at that spot.)
“Let’s try again,” Dongwoo says, and Jinyoung sits up more but makes no move to leave. “Look, we’re both just killing ourselves by doing this.”
“How do you know?” Jinyoung mumbles, and Dongwoo sighs. The secure arm around Jinyoung’s shoulder feels surprisingly good, though. “How do you know it won’t just turn out like last time?”
All important things happen in the winter.
Dongwoo plans to head home for winter break, back to their hometown where the snow piles up high and there’s no wind to blow it. Jinyoung thinks he’ll do the same.
“Because, even if it does—I was happier last time than I was for this entire school year so far,” Dongwoo says, and Jinyoung snorts.
“You need to stop being so selfish,” he says despite the irony of it all, because knowing Dongwoo, he’d just find it funny.
“Then you need to get your shit together,” Dongwoo says.
“I do have my shit together,” Jinyoung replies. He turns to Dongwoo, who’s already staring at him, leaning over to shift between Jinyoung’s legs, and then they’re kissing. They’re kissing, Dongwoo guiding Jinyoung with his lips and tongue, and at the same time pressing insistently into Jinyoung as if he were going to disappear tomorrow. He places his palms on either side of Jinyoung’s head, trapping Jinyoung against the side of the bed, and Jinyoung leans back, leaving Dongwoo to move forward toward him. They’re close—they’re so close, and Dongwoo only seems to want to bring them closer, his hands sliding down Jinyoung’s sides once again, solid and sure of himself, slowly, lifting Jinyoung up onto the bed and crawling on top of him, letting his hair fall around him in straight strands that brush against Jinyoung’s face. Jinyoung smiles up at Dongwoo, his breaths coming out slow but heavy, and it’s perfect, just the two of them there, waiting the winter out—the winter, and the rest of their lives.
And they’ll subtly touch hands at the train station, maybe even hold hands on the train—Dongwoo will still be the one to nag, to point out that Jinyoung only has a couple hours to pack, to ask Jinyoung whether they’ve missed their stop, to remind Jinyoung to eat lunch; and Jinyoung will still be the one to lead them there, step by sure step. But it’s about balance—with Dongwoo sleeping at Jinyoung’s house the first night, tangling arms and legs with Jinyoung at first on the queen-sized bed; and then they settle into a pattern, and Jinyoung sleeps with his head buried in the crook of Dongwoo’s neck, with Dongwoo’s arm wrapped protectively around him, with Dongwoo wrapped protectively around him.
There are a lot of socially acceptable tendencies that Jinyoung would’ve figured out much earlier if he hadn’t been homeschooled.
But the best lessons are the kind that you teach yourself, that what you need isn’t always what you want, what you want isn’t always what you need, and that sometimes, you just need to go play in the snow, because you’re adding then, you’re adding yourself, and that’s when the things you aren’t satisfied with start to change.