She’s in love with who I am
Back in high school—
Donghyuck snorts at the shouts that rise from the mass of compressed bodies. Without his glasses, the room spins around Donghyuck in fuzzy edges, murky light flashing at corners. The boba cup in his hand is empty, only globs of tapioca stuck at the bottom, and Donghyuck shakes it sadly. Earlier, he’d spied Chenle sneaking off to the kitchen with a pink bottle in his arm, so he flashes a smile and excuse himself. If he was going to be subjected to any more of Yangyang’s questionable DJ skills, he’d rather not be sober for it, Target-shelf alcohol or Windex solution negotiable.
The occasion is Jaemin Na’s Epic 18th Birthday Bash, skillfully scheduled on the weekend following the end of most college decisions. Donghyuck supposes that for a bunch of kids who’ve spent the past four years of their life studying for some glimmer of success, there’s no better remedy for being rejected by the entirety of the Ivy Leagues than to party until you throw up your guts.
At least, that’s what he tells himself when he’s hovering over the toilet bowl, acid in his throat and cotton in his mouth.
The cool water from the sink slaps away some of the heat under his skin. As he watches the water drain out, he wonders too, where exactly his life started to feel like it was swirling down the drain.
There’s confetti. Donghyuck opens the link, and there’s confetti, flitting through the screen. The colored pixels don’t stop, and his heart is a drum in his chest, the blood in his ears almost deafening with each word he reads.
Congratulations! It is with great pleasure that I offer you admissions to the—
Dizzying. That’s what it feels like, to get into a school you thought you could only attend in your dreams. Donghyuck’s head swims, brain mass inverting as the knuckles of his hand turn white.
Donghyuck’s mother is the first to find out. She stands over his shoulder upon his call, and the ladle in her hand clatters to the floor. There’s broth across the floor, seeping through the tiles, and Donghyuck waits for her to tell him to fetch a mop. Instead, there’s just her vice grip on his shoulders and then a crushing hug, even as he stands a head above her.
Renjun’s the next to know. For someone who turned up his nose at the entirety of the college admissions process with distaste, Renjun’s scream is piercing, “Fuck yeah, Donghyuck you fucking genius!”
Apprehension hangs onto the edges of Donghyuck’s mind, even as his voice pitches with excitement. “You don’t think this is a mistake, right?”
On the line, Renjun is silent. Then, Donghyuck can practically hear him roll his eyes, “Of course not, dumbass.”
He hangs up after Renjun assures him he’s putting on pants to drive over and take Donghyuck for celebratory milk tea. His mother’s vacated the kitchen, probably upstairs phoning his dad and subsequently, the entirety of the Lee family. Hands shaking, Donghyuck picks up the ladle from the floor and sets it on the table. He settles back onto the chair, pulling his knees up to his chest, and lets the tears come.
15 unread messages
WTF HELL YEAH
Yang Yang Liu has sent you a gif
Just heard the news, congrats dude!
DONGHYUCK LEE U GOD
Jaemin has sent you a sticker
u better show up to my party stanford boi or imma kick ur ass :3
He’s late. There are people milling on Jaemin’s obnoxiously spacious driveway when he arrives and he keep his hood up, walking near the bushes to avoid any attention. Despite his best efforts, the hawks swoop down on him, “Congrats!” ringing through the night and it’s not until Jeno comes by to yank him away that he can finally sigh in relief.
“God, why does everyone know,” Donghyuck mutters.
Jeno slurps on his Gongcha and shrugs. “You know how news spreads at this school.” He waves at someone over Donghyuck’s shoulder, beckoning them closer, and it’s a testament to just how far gone he is down the rabbit hole when he can tell, without turning, exactly who it is.
“Ah, the Stanford boy has finally decided to grace us with his presence,” and Donghyuck can practically hear the pout. He turns, a scowl on his lips that he has to press down to prevent a smile.
“Nice party you have here, NYU Stern Class of 2023.”
Under the stupid disco light from the centerpiece of the room, Jaemin’s face is a mosaic of tinted shadows, shifting and turning with every bass beat that bangs against the walls. His eyes flicker, blue, purple, pink, and it’s like Donghyuck is five again, staring at the blobs of color from a lava lamp Jaehyun had brought home. Pulling his eyes away feels like ripping off a band-aid.
Jaemin puts him out of his misery by looking away first. His lips stretch upwards, into that all too familiar smile that hide mischief in its edges, and before Donghyuck knows it, he’s pressed to Jaemin’s chest, inhaling a noseful of laundry detergent and musky cologne.
Gross, but Donghyuck takes another discreet whiff.
“I’m so proud of you,” Jaemin whispers in his ear. “Baby genius.”
“Asshole,” Donghyuck pushes him away. He can’t hide the grin that grows on his face as Jaemin stumbles back in dramatics, clutching onto Jeno’s shoulder for faux support. Jeno rolls his eyes and it’s just easy like that, to laugh like nothing’s changed, like his world hasn’t shifted on its axis and he’s not falling into the vast, unknown space.
Jaemin’s admission comes as a surprise to no one. Especially not Donghyuck, who’s shared at least one class a year with him since freshman year and has to hear him wax poetry about NYU’s urban setting on a daily basis. Jaemin is sick of suburbia, sick of the Bay, wants the concrete jungles and the pounding pavements, not million dollar houses that all look the same under the glare of the Northern California sun.
So when Jaemin applies early and is accepted in December, Donghyuck figures, that’s that. Jaemin changes his Instagram bio, slotting nyu stern ’23 below his name. In January, he makes his official announcement, strategically long after the news has settled in the dust and his sweatshirt had come in the mail.
that’s my baby !!!! watch out wall street >:D , Donghyuck comments. When he presses down on the heart, his stomach flips, inside out.
A strange queasiness. Nausea, maybe. The same feeling that nags at him on New Year’s Eve, as he’s smothered under a pile of blankets, drinking from a bottle of apple cider and staring at the crayon stain on the wall, by the foot of his bed. The same feeling that pushes him to grab his laptop and open up the Common App website. He stares at his list of submitted applications, then adds NYU to his list of schools.
Why not? he figures, as he pulls up a blank word document. He leaves it untitled.
….we want to understand —Why NYU?
“I don’t give a fuck if you’re going to Stanford, Donghyuck Lee, get out of the bathroom before I piss myself and make you clean it up!”
Every slam of Renjun’s hand against the door sends another throbbing beat against Donghyuck’s skull. Swallowing down bile, he gather himself up from the floor and cracks the door ajar.
“Thank fucking god, my bladder is gonna fuckin’ explode.” Renjun shoves past him and Donghyuck steps out, letting him slam the door close. He could vacate, but for some reason, he stays slumped against the wall, determined to not make eye contact with anyone that passes through the halls. The toilet flushes, then Renjun steps out.
His eyebrows furrow. “What’s wrong?”
When he looks at Renjun’s face, etched in concern, the words dry in his throat. “Nothing,” Donghyuck rasps out. He feels stupid, waiting here for attention and clamming up when he gets it. Make up your fucking mind!
He’s about to stalk away, run down the halls and maybe even the street, but Renjun blocks the path. He steps closer, until he can swing an arm around Donghyuck’s shoulder and tug him against his side. “I know you think you can act because you got an A in Drama,” Renjun murmurs. “But you’re so bad at lying.”
Something splinters in Donghyuck then, cracks in half and then some parts. All the tears he’d sniffled down wells up. He buries his face in the soft cotton of Renjun’s sweater, letting himself be tugged back into the bathroom and onto the cold tile floors, his head full of nothing but boy, boy, boy .
Threes by twos, the party dwindles down, until it’s 1 A.M. and Donghyuck is the only left. He sits on porch, staring at the fairy lights strung across the backyard until they blur against the night sky.
Jaemin’s footsteps approach.
“You need a ride back?” Jaemin asks, settling down next to Donghyuck. The smell of cheap vodka clings to his jacket, mixing with the musk and laundry, and it’s so weird , the way Donghyuck wants bury his head against Jaemin’s shoulder and blow breathes against his neck. It’s plain stupid, this ongoing, one-player game that he subjects himself to. He got into Stanford , for fuck’s sake!
In a single breath, he says: “This is so fucking random, but I got into NYU.”
Jaemin blinks, owlish. “You applied? I thought you only applied to schools in California.”
Donghyuck did, because that’s always been the plan from the day one. He loves it here, loves the weather, loves the people, loves the sleepy suburbia and stretches of hills, and the thought of enduring snow when fifty degrees already makes him shiver is laughable. He sucks in some of the night air, lets it seep into his lungs and quell some of the fire that sits near his chest. “Yeah. NYU was the only one outside of California.”
Jaemin raises his eyebrows, wiggling them. “So, you’re gonna turn down the pine trees to room with me?” There’s a quiet edge to his voice that undercuts the joke. It almost sounds like hope, a thing of feathers that Donghyuck is afraid to pluck from the sky.
He bites down on his lips. “For a second, I really thought about it.” He looks up, into Jaemin’s waiting eyes, and it’s then that he notices the dark smudges under them. War scars from charcoal nights spent toiling away, chasing a finish line that moves with each step. Now, the finish line is just out of sight.
“Wanna guess why I applied?”
“I applied because you did.” He hesitates, casting his eyes downward to trace blades of grass. “I don’t know why, but I just wanted to follow you, even if it meant applying somewhere I’d never otherwise go. That’s the thing about liking you, I guess. It makes my head spin and cost me $80 in application fees.”
He braces himself, waiting. For the dismay, the confusion, the kindly-worded rejection or even a get the fuck out of my face and never come back. Instead, all he hears is a laugh, choked up like someone had squeezed it up from the bottom of Jaemin’s guts.
“We just keep running circles around each other, huh.”
No amount of lip balm Jaemin religiously slathers on will ever solve his perpetually chapped lips. But that’s okay, because when Jaemin leans a little closer, hand hovering over Donghyuck’s shoulder, and his eyes mirror moonlight, Donghyuck finds enough hurt burning in his chest to close the distance. There’s no fireworks, no happily ever banner stringing across the sky. Just two boys on a porch, clinging to each other’s chest, sighing eulogies for lost time. Donghyuck’s head spins, his stomach swoops, and when he closes his eyes, it loops again, again. Out like a light, like a light.
When they finally pull away, Jaemin’s arm find their way around Donghyuck’s waist and they sit in silence, nestled against each other. There are questions Donghyuck wants to ask, like what is this, what are we, what happens next, but none of them feels right. So he locks them in chest, content to stare at the starless night until Jaemin whispers, “C’mon, I’ll take you home.”
They hold hands on the drive back. Donghyuck leans his head against the window, watching the trees, traffic, streetlights blur into a murky stream. Jaemin’s hand anchors him down.
There’s no point in working out the definitives, Donghyuck decides, when they round the block and he can see the light from his room that he must have forgotten to turn off. He’s spent too long worrying about the future, head hunched down on numbers and paragraphs instead of looking around, at what’s really right there.
And what’s really right here, right now, is Jaemin.
He says, “Happy birthday, baby,” and leans in for another kiss.