On the list of things that terrifies Hyunjin the most, talking is on the top three along with cats and eggplants. It’s something about the heavy expectation of words that hardly grasp the images on his mind, thoughts too wide to fit into these small figures on a notebook or in the sounds rolling off his tongue.
Words are overrated, anyway. Still he needs them, and still they fail him.
“Excuse me, can I clear your table?”
Half of his art supplies nearly fall off the table in the hurry to shut off his sketchbook. He also nearly spills his half finished latte all over himself, which would have been ever greater a shame than his lack of coherent words when seeing a certain barista approach him.
Hyunjin has an unexpected penchant for romcoms despite his disclaimer as a romantic guy. He’s maybe watched To all the boys I’ve loved before more times than it is acceptable for a senior Art School student with assignments piling up on his study table.
The things is, Hyunjin often daydreams about starring on his own romcom, where he plays the quirky, dorky, slightly personality-vague main character that somehow charms the unattainable romantic lead. In this case, Lee Felix, said romantic lead and barista.
“Um,” Hyunjin clutches the sketchbook against his chest in hopes to suffocate both his heartbeat and his unasked for fantasies. “Yeah, I mean. I'm almost done.”
Felix gives him the kind of smile he couldn't ever replicate in a drawing. And Hyunjin has tried, oh he's tried.
“Please stay as long as you wish.”
Hyunjin gives a quick nod, then sighs when Felix turns away with his tray. His phone buzzes on the table, displaying Jisung's contact.
han squirrel at 10:15 am
where the fuck u at!!!!!!!!! need u asap!!!!!!!!! COME HERE RIGHT NOW OR I'LL DIE
He rolls his eyes so hard they hurt. Someday he'll have Jisung pay his medical bills as a compensation for his friendship. He stashes his belongings inside his bag and gets up to leave.
“Yo, what took you so long?”
“I have a life outside this friendship, Jisung.”
Jisung pouts, puffs his cheeks for an extra cute effect, making Hyunjin inadvertently swoon a little.
Once upon a time when Hyunjin was a clueless freshman, he had a crush on his roommate and self-proclaimed best friend, the one and only Han Jisung. Hyunjin has mostly forgotten about it by now, but sometimes it comes back to him how he still finds Jisung attractive. Maybe a little too much.
“Come on, tell me what you think,” Jisung wipes his sweaty forehead with his forearm, smearing a little bit of red paint on it. “I've been working on this as a birthday gift for the guys.”
“This” happens to be a huge graffiti panel with bold and messy sprayings of colors in indistinguishable lines except for a 3RACHA logo in the center. It looks like some sort of street art statement —which in some ways is—, though probably no casual passerby would know about Jisung's underground hip hop group.
“I think it’s great.”
“Do you really or are you just being nice because you like me?”
“I take that back,” Hyunjin shoves his shoulder against Jisung's. “It's ugly as fuck, they'll hate it.”
“You're not helping my creative block,” Jisung paces around the panel. “I kinda like it but it just feels like something is off.”
“Maybe invite Changbin hyung and Chan hyung to work on it too? Like, it's a birthday gift for the group but the birthday is also yours, right?”
Jisung snaps his fingers.
“You're a genius, Hyunjin.”
“You're welcome,” he sighs, accepting the bear hug Jisung gives him.
Hyunjin is a natural touchy-feely, prone to clinging at every given opportunity, and maybe that’s why Jisung insists he still likes him.
“By the way, when are you gonna do something about it?”
“Something about what?”
“Huh, hello? Your crush on that barista?”
“Unfortunately I've been traumatized since you rejected me so I'm afraid of commitment now,” Hyunjin jokes, but the way Jisung holds him by the shoulders and stares into his eyes is a little intimidating. Also a little sexy, and he hates himself for that thought.
“You gotta get over me, bro.”
“I am over you! You're the one who keeps bringing it back.”
“Seriously though, you should really do something about it. If I have to watch To all the boys I've loved before one more time while you cry about wanting to live that shit with that barista I'll personally send him all of your sketchbooks.”
“You wouldn't dare!”
Jisung snatches his bag from where Hyunjin was hiding it behind his back and runs for his life inside the art studio. He has his hands inside the bag when Hyunjin corners him into a wall, but they come out empty when Hyunjin reclaims it.
“What is it?”
“Where is your sketchbook?”
“What do you mean where is my sketchbook?” Hyunjin shoves his hand inside his bag. “It's right here, right...here...”
But rummaging his bag brings him nothing but Jisung’s shiteating grin. Realisation downs on Hyunjin like sugar rush, only the sugar rush is panic and he’s desperately dumping the contents of his bag on the floor. Paint brushes and watercolor palettes fall down, but no sketchbook.
“Lara Jeeaann~” Jisung coos, rubbing his hands maniacally. “It's for you~”
Hyunjin has never sprinted so fast in his life.
Hyunjin is a dramatic person, granted, but some things about his life just made him into who he is. For instance, there was a time in kindergarten he ate his favorite non toxic crayon and somehow he still got sent to the hospital for intoxication. Dramatic and traumatic, just like accidentally leaking his portraits of Felix.
Here are his options: one is feigning ignorance and just never reclaiming his sketchbook ever again, the other is making up a story about how he got it switched with a friend, of course those fifteen drawings of Felix aren't his, oh no.
In fact, those drawings aren't Felix at all. It's just a coincidence both have this beautiful shade of orange hair, freckles dusted over his nose bridge like little stars and a smile so bright it could light up an entire city.
God, he's so stupid.
Hyunjin seriously considers just turning back and never showing up at this Café ever again, but he does need to retrieve his sketchbook if he hopes to turn in his latest assignment.
After a mild breakdown in front of the shop, Hyunjin takes a deep breath and gathers enough courage to push the door open. Lee Minho, the other local barista, promptly approaches him with that charming smile of his that just screams he has X ray vision and can see Hyunjin’s underwear.
“Ah, if it isn't one of our regulars!” Minho taps his shoulder, and Hyunjin not so subtly flinches. “Need anything?”
“I, um,” Hyunjin eyes around the shop and finds the table he was sitting just an hour ago. Clear and empty. Fuck. “I may have left something behind.”
“Oh, I'm sorry to hear that. It was Felix who was waiting on your table, right? I'll go inside and ask if he knows anything.”
Hyunjin tries not to scream right at Minho's face, instead he gives him a smile so tense the muscles of his face twitch. He tries to stay positive. Best case scenario Felix dumped his sketchbook on the trashcan and Hyunjin will have to pass strange food stains as modern art for the remainder of the semester.
Worst case scenario Felix has actually opened and flipped through every drawing and worst WORST case scenario: he recognizes himself in all of the drawings and is already calling the police on Hyunjin's stalking. Fuck, Hyunjin is jobless, he'll need Jisung to bail him out of jail.
“By the way.”
Hyunjin barely registers Minho’s secretive wink just before he leaves.
“The drawings were really cute. They do resemble Felix.”
Hyunjin screams. Just a bit. It may have sounded like a dead whale for the half second he let his lizard brain take over. He considers ducking his whole 1,80m under the nearest table in hopes the concrete swallows him but unfortunately magical realism isn't available for this romcom.
He kinda just stays there, petrified, until Felix appears from a door behind the counter, holding nothing less than Hyunjin’s sketchbook.
“I'm really, really sorry,” a wave of pinkness spreads up Felix’s cheeks as he bows, making his freckles stand out. “I swear I didn't mean to snoop on it, but Minho hyung insisted so much we kinda-”
“Ididn'tmeananyofitpleasedon'tthinkanythingweird,” Hyunjin blurts out godspeed, hoping Felix catches his half assed apology. Judging by his adorably confused expression, he doesn't, he just keeps on apologizing himself.
“So I'm super sorry I know this is like, private property. Please don't sue us, we can make you our VIP customer and give free drinks if you'd like.”
“It's ok,” Hyunjin manages, throat dry as a desert. “I just- I just want it back.”
“Oh, I'm sorry, here!” Felix holds out the sketchbook and Hyunjin goes a little short circuiting when their hands touch. “So, um, sorry again. I don't know if I have the right to say this but, your drawings are really pretty.”
“Thankful. I mean, thank you,” Hyunjin shoves the sketchbook inside his bag without taking a look at it, slowly stepping back before he says or does anything stupid. Again. “You know, I'm kinda late for my class so, like, Ifyou'dletmeIneedtogorightnowand-”
“Oh, um, before you go! Actually, Minho hyung said those drawings look like me so...so I was wondering.”
This is it. Hyunjin is never coming back to this Café again. He’ll pack his things today and buy the first one way flight ticket out of Seoul, find a job harvesting oranges in a fruit farm in Jeju. No, even better. He’ll leave South Korea altogether and move into a tree house in a remote location and spend the rest of his days writing a book of his experiences as an ermit.
“Minho hyung said I should just go for it, so- um, wo-would you go out with me?”
Hyunjin blinks once, twice, thrice.
“Did you just ask me out?”
Some part of Hyunjin’s brain says, in Jisung's annoying whooping voice, that finally his life is becoming the romcom he's spent so many days daydreaming about, he just needs to follow the script and become happily ever after with his prince charming.
So he says the smartest thing he can think of, which is:
“You gotta be shitting me.”
“So you're telling me the cute barista asked you out and your only coherent response was to ask if he was shitting you?”
Jisung laughs so hard he topples over the couch and brings down three days worth of dirty laundry and half of his One Piece collection. Hyunjin wants to maybe suffocate him with dirty underwear and hope the cops believe Jisung accidentally asphyxiated his own self.
“Stop laughing and help me figure out what to say!” Hyunjin throws a mismatched pair of socks at Jisung, missing his face by inches. “Oh my god, I wanna fucking die.”
“You can't! I really wanna see you humiliate yourself through the first date.”
So maybe Hyunjin does try to suffocate Jisung with underwear, but alas the fabric is too thin and Hyunjin's hands are shaking too much to keep a steady hold.
Dating isn't something new in his life, really. If the stars have failed his personality, at least his genes got Hyunjin a particularly handsome face. It has its advantages, like getting an extra tornado potato skewer from the kind ahjumma down the street, or free tutor sessions from classmates trying to score a chance in his pants.
Sadly most people lose interest once they realise his face doesn't match whatever they've thought of his personality, rendering Hyunjin a single (a very single ) mess. It's a wonder Felix still gave him his number after that catastrophic exchange.
“Come on, Jisung, help me think of something to say before I end up bringing up some random Art History fact as a conversation starter.”
“What's so bad about doing that? That's how you tried to woo me too.”
Hyunjin gives him the stinky eye. Jisung raises both hands palms up.
“This isn't hard, you know the deal: text him a bit, take him on a date, maybe bring him here when I'm not around and then woo-hoo.”
“Stop using The Sims terminology to describe my sex life! Also, I can barely speak to him, how the fuck would I woo-hoo him?!”
Jisung makes an obscene gesture using a dirty sock as a prop and Hyunjin just gives up on reasoning. He’ll have to be the man in charge of his own life for once. He unlocks his phone and starts typing.
No, that's too short.
No, that’s too whiny.
God, does that smile look like a psychopath.
“Are you really going to take half an hour to text him a simple hi?”
“Shut up, you're not helping.”
Hyunjin goes for the last option, fuck if he looks like a fucking psycho with that passive-aggressive smiley face.
Felix replies almost immediately.
lee felix at 5:48 pm
hey hyunjin :D
“Oh look, he uses the same awkward emojis as you.”
Hyunjin pushes Jisung's face from over his shoulder, but Jisung holds onto his side and stays glued to his back. They both watch as three dots appear under Felix's last message.
lee felix at 5:49 pm
i know this may be too soon but are you free right now?
my shift will be over in ten
Hyunjin drops his phone face down on the floor, kicks it away when Jisung ducks to snatch it. They wrestle on the floor, shoving and hitting each other with dirty shirts and One Piece volumes until Hyunjin stabs Jisung right in his middle with an old paint brush he keeps in his back pocket.
“I’m calling the cops on you!” Jisung cries as he squirms away. “This is attempted murder!”
“I should have murdered you ages ago! Now shut up, I need to text Felix.”
Hyunjin retrieves his phone from under their couch, batting away strands of cobwebs from the screen. Oh man, he had not expected this. Crushing from the comfort zone of his daydreams is one thing Hyunjin is a pro at, while real life dating is not.
He’s dated plenty, yes, but plenty doesn’t equal long nor successfully. He’s bound to ruin it, he knows it. He’ll say something stupid and ruin every small chance the universe grants him in the romantic field.
“I can almost hear your mind working and let me tell you: you’re a coward, Hwang Hyunjin. How the fuck did you get the guts to kiss me two years ago?”
“Stop bringing that up! I don’t know either, maybe the booze? You know I don’t handle my soju shots well.”
“Well I hope you don’t plan to get that wasted on your first date with Felix. Because you’re having one, and don’t fucking look at me like that, you’re not backing away.”
Hyunjin starts sweating under his collar. He peers around the room, eyes landing on his study table.
“But I really can’t today. There’s this paper I have to finish and I’d rather not spend our whole date thinking about western art movements.”
“Then tell him exactly that and that you want to keep in touch and go on a date another time.”
Hyunjin does not. College projects catch him from every corner, forcing him to feast on junk food and Lotte energy drinks to bear his third all nighter in a week. He can’t think straight, he’s restless and bitchy and the more he thinks about sending Felix a message, the more frustrated he becomes.
“You look like a sad baby llama.”
Hyunjin groans, kicks Jisung from under the lunch table when he tries to steal a tofu piece from Hyunjin’s soup.
“Eat your own food, I want to eat every single won I spent on this. And stop comparing me to a llama.”
“I’m just admiring your height though?”
Hyunjin moves the vegetables of the soup with his chopsticks, distressed.
“Ya,” Jisung nudges his knee. “Tell me what’s on your mind.”
“That I’m a mess.”
“That’s always on your mind.”
“Maybe because it’s true.”
“It’s not, you just enjoy complicating things. Don’t be so harsh on yourself, you’re just a plant. Only your emotions are a little more complex.”
“Are you calling me brainless?”
“Something like that.”
Jisung shows the same serious expression he wore two years ago, when Hyunjin refused to work their friendship out after romantic rejection. Deleting numbers, forgetting names and turning his face away in corridors was easy when it came to half strangers. It wasn’t so easy when the subject in case was his friend and roommate.
Had Jisung not stepped up and made him talk, where would they be today? Hyunjin knows for a fact he’d still playing dumb. That’s how emotionally illiterate he is.
“I can guess exactly what you’re thinking.”
“Stop reading my mind,” Hyunjin swats around his head, as if dispelling some supernatural connection between them. “It’s annoying.”
“ You’re annoying when you’re being a bitchy crybaby. Just fucking text him, what’s so hard about it?”
“I’m bad at this!”
“You’re never becoming better if you don’t try it!”
Hyunjin sulks, pushing his lunch tray away and avoiding eye contact. Jisung gives a heavy sigh before getting up, both their bills in hand.
“Just so you know, the guys and I are going to have a gig next weekend. Invite Felix or this friendship is over.”
Jisung walks away to pay for their lunch before Hyunjin has the chance to say anything.
The psychedelic lights from the karaoke room make him dizzy. Or perhaps that’s the aftermath of seven cans of beer, maybe eight, Hyunjin is unsure. All he knows is that Seungmin is singing his third Day6 song in a row and he’s surprisingly stable with his high notes, which beats Hyunjin’s shower singing skills to the ground.
Seungmin gets a score of 98 but he’s anything but satisfied when he shoots Hyunjin a look, eyebrows raised.
“Did you really invite me to a karaoke to sulk the whole night long?”
Hyunjin jiggles his tambourine. Seungmin is unimpressed.
“Jisung won’t talk to me. He’s mad at me because I’m dumb.”
“And why exactly are you dumb?”
Seungmin hands him a mic and reluctantly Hyunjin stands, browsing the song menu with a remote control. He chooses the sappiest OST that comes to his inebriated mind, channeling all of Cheon Songyi’s drama when My Destiny melody starts.
“You are my destiny!” he screams into the mic, then drops to the floor and starts sobbing the rest of the song.
“What the- Hyunjin, are you okay?!”
“I’m dumb!” he repeats over the words on the screen, babbling the lyrics amidst sobs. “You are the one, my love! Felix!”
The name makes him cry harder but Hyunjin ignores Seungmin’s attempts at calming him down to keep singing passionately for another four minutes. He washes his tears with beer, but the aftertaste is sickening, which makes him cry harder. Seungmin makes him take a seat on a couch.
“So, Felix. Your current crush?”
“My current crush,” Hyunjin sniffs into the cuff of his sweater. “The one I’ve been ignoring the past week because I’m a coward. A dumb coward.”
“You’re not a dumb coward.”
“I am. I’m never dating again. I’m gonna get a ticket to Jeju and become an orange farmer.”
“First of all: no you won’t, you don’t have enough money on your bank account for that. Second of all: you can always text him now. Well, not now, since you’re drunk, but you know what I mean. It’s never too late.”
Seungmin’s sympathetic smile makes Hyunjin feel all sorts of dumber but he agrees with a nod. He fishes his phone from his pocket and hands it to Seungmin.
“I said not now.”
Hyunjin throws his face into his hands. He’s pathetic. There’s not another way to put it how bad he feels at his reluctance to send Felix a single fucking text. Jisung and Seungmin mean to help him, he knows it, but it doesn’t erase the certainty that no matter what he does, he’ll eventually screw it.
He wonders if Felix already regrets talking to him.
“I bet he doesn’t,” Seungmin strokes his hand, and it occurs to Hyunjin that he might have said his thoughts out loud. “He might be just as scared that he did something wrong to make you upset.”
“Well he’s wrong if he thinks that. He did nothing wrong. Felix is an angel. He’s my destiny.”
Seungmin sputters, then coughs to clear his throat.
“Anyways. Text him tomorrow when you’re sober. I bet he’ll understand whatever you are going through.”
All of Hyunjin’s past insecurities feel like meaningless, baseless exaggerations of an overcomplicating mind when Felix agrees to meet him after his shift. Of all things Hyunjin less expects to see though is him waiting, patient and sweet, with a single sunflower wrapped in crepe paper in his hands.
“Sorry,” is all Hyunjin manages to say when his heartbeat tries to strangle his breath. His grip is so tight he might be strangulating the flower as well when Felix hands it to him.
“It’s ok. You had your college things, right?” Felix messes with his own hair, the peach color now faded to an almost rosy shade. “Though I admit I kinda started panicking when you didn’t show up at the Café again. I thought I had overstepped some line and creeped you out.”
“It’s not that. I’m just, uh. A mess. An awkward mess. My friend often compares me to a plant.”
Well not the most clever thing to say, but somehow it gets Felix giggling. Hyunjin giggles back, holding the sunflower close to his heart.
“So, do you have anywhere in mind to go?”
“Oh. Um. Actually I don’t, I just kinda…”
“Wanted to see me?”
Felix smirks and winks at him, which ends up being just an adorable eye smile blink. Hyunjin sputters, but he’s blushing.
“Well, do you have anywhere in mind?”
“I do, actually. Follow me?”
Hyunjin’s love life is made up of plenty a first date, some second dates and a rare third or fourth if the person manages to keep it interesting enough. First dates, like first impressions, lay out a lot of what it is to be expected from that potential relationship.
So when Felix takes him to Gallery Hyundai, Hyunjin expects it cliché. Past dates have taken him through many exhibitions with their empty conversations, prompting the aloofness Hyunjin has been known for.
It does surprise him though that the first half hour of their date is spent in almost complete silence, except for the background noise of other visitors. Hyunjin tries to shun his surroundings away like he’s done many times, but he finds his attention going back to Felix.
“Sorry,” Felix says at some point, sensing Hyunjin’s unease. “Was this a bad idea? I thought you’d like it since, you know, Art student and all.”
“It’s not. A bad idea, I mean. I like art galleries. It’s just. I’m not used to this.”
“You,” he says, then slaps his mouth because that’s no way to properly explain what he means. “I mean, you haven’t said anything since we came here.”
From the wide eyes Felix gives him, he probably hadn’t noticed it himself. Felix shies away, turning to the side to get rid of a cough.
“Sorry, I’m a little nervous. You kinda make me nervous.”
Hyunjin’s brain goes a little overdrive with that.
“Me?” he laughs, and it sounds an octave higher than his normal voice. “What about me?”
“Have you seen yourself?” Felix grumbles, gesturing vaguely at Hyunjin. “You’re like, all cool and shit. I. I get a little carried away.”
Holy fucking shit. Hyunjin may need to dial 119 and ask for an ambulance. Or a judge to sign his testament. Kkami may stay with his parents, his art supplies can go to Jisung, his organs will be donated to the local hospital.
“And then about your sketchbook, I- whether that was me or wasn’t I just. It just made me even more curious about you? Because those drawings have so much feeling in them I just. Yeah. I’m rambling, I’m sorry.”
Felix blushes in an adorable shade of red behind the hands covering his face. Hyunjin wonders how would he reproduce that color on paper.
“Come on, say something,” Felix’s voice trembles when he giggles. “You haven’t said anything since we came here either.”
Jisung often reminds him that hiding behind his ineptitude with words won’t get him anywhere but back inside his shell. Dates won’t last and become steady if Hyunjin doesn’t invest on them. So Hyunjin puts all of his heart in his next words.
“Actually,” he says a little too sudden, a little too loud, but he’s doing it. “Actually, uh. I was just thinking that. You look so cute when you blush that I- I kinda want to keep drawing you. If you’d let me.”
It takes a moment for Felix to fully comprehend the words, and when he does, he laughs. It’s a laughter edged with awkwardness and relief, full of bright colors and warm feelings like everything related to him. It’s exhilarating and contagious, making Hyunjin’s lips tremble with a smile.
“Like one of your french girls?”
“You don’t look very french to me.”
“I know how to count from one to ten in french.”
“Good, take me to a french restaurant in our next date.”
“Will there be a next date?”
Felix smiles like he knows there will be, so he reaches out his hand to take Hyunjin there.
“Have you sucked his dick?”
Hyunjin looks back at Jisung, blinking slowly.
“Have you sucked his dick?”
Jisung cries out when Hyunjin stabs him with the old paint brush again.
“What the fuck was that for?!”
“What the fuck was that question for?!”
Hyunjin ignores Jisung’s complaints in favor of inspecting his work. He’s finally managed to make a decent cherry blossom flower out of paper clay, so he slides a floral wire through its center and sticks it to a sponge to dry.
They’ve been locked in the art studio for a good two hours now, rolling buds of paper clay into flowers and loose petals to help Seungmin with his upcoming installation. It’s something grandiose, his best work yet, and he needs as many hands as he can get to help him make hundreds of flowers. Nothing screams friendship more than agreeing to slave themselves out for him.
Hyunjin sneezes when Jisung starts scrapping soft pastels.
“Jesus, you’re contaminating the work!”
“Not my fault! You know I hate pastels. Or crayons. Or anything that can potentially kill me.”
“Like love confessions, right?”
Hyunjin flips him before grabbing an already dry batch of flowers. He dusts two different shades of pink inside the cherry blossom, aiming for a natural looking coloring. The pigment sticks to the clay like freckles, like the ones Hyunjin so often paints when portraying Felix.
The thought makes him blush a darker pink than the flowers. Maybe this is why Seungmin invited him to help.
“You’re having naughty thoughts, aren’t you?”
“I’m not the same kind of pervert you are.”
“Then what kind are you?”
Hyunjin stares down at Jisung but ends up snorting. They’ve spent another half an hour painting the dry flowers, messaging Seungmin back and forth to check the quality of their work and yelling at him for food compensation when Hyunjin gets a message from Felix.
lee felix @ 5:13 pm
wanna grab that french food today? ;)
“Oh, so I guess I’ll be eating Seungmin’s kimbap alone.”
“You are, nosy bitch,” Hyunjin locks his phone before Jisung can see his answer. “Try not to have too much fun without me.”
“Never do,” Jisung winks and Hyunjin rolls his eyes. He rubs a streak of pink pastel dust on Jisung’s cheeks before running for his life.
Felix, in a display of humor, takes Hyujin to eat french fries. They go to an old school style burger joint, a cozy little place in Itaewon that seems to have come straight out of Hyunjin’s 50’s dreams. It’s such a millennial thing this out of place nostalgia for past mid century vibes but it gives him a fizzy kind of excitement when the waiter brings them real glass bottles of Coke.
Hyunjin’s hands leave a pinkprint on the outside of the bottle when he takes a sip.
“So, art student,” Felix giggles at Hyunjin whipping his hands clean all over his jeans.
“Yep. Fortunately or unfortunately.”
“What made you choose that path?”
Hyunjin taps his feet to the ambient song, some american rock’n’roll he doesn’t know the lyrics of. It’s interesting how Felix chose to phrase it, like college is a choice rather than familial and social pressure. In his head Hyunjin sees himself in that heinous mustard yellow uniform from SOPA, facing the path ahead of him.
“Would it sound uncool if I said I had no idea what else to do with my life?”
Felix snorts, coughs a bit when the pepper of the french fries hits his throat.
“It wouldn’t. May I?” Felix makes it to grab a plain fry from Hyunjin’s plate, to which Hyunjin nods. “At least your choice wasn’t a reckless one.”
Now it’s Hyunjin’s turn to snort.
Convincing his parents to enroll him in SOPA had been a challenge by itself, the constant subject of family dinners and other forms of scolding. As an only child Hyunjin bore alone the duty of bringing honor to his parents and the arts field seemed like anything but, they had said.
At some point they gave up on arguing, by acceptance or defeat, Hyunjin doesn’t know. They didn’t comment on his choice of college, and his future has been the elephant in the room ever since.
Hyunjin downs half of his Coke bottle before speaking again.
“Kinda,” Felix bends over the table, looking Hyunjin dead in the eyes as he speaks. “Would you laugh if I said I want to become an idol?”
Hyunjin turns his head from side to side. He lifts a hand to cover the side of his face, leaning in to whisper rather loudly at Felix.
“Are you a trainee? Are we being watched? Do you have sasaengs running after you? Oh god they’re going to kill me, don’t you have like, a dating ban?”
Felix’s laughter rises like bubbles from Coke, and Hyunjin drinks in the sound. He orders another bottle.
“Unfortunately no, I haven’t passed any auditions yet. The reckless part isn’t exactly that. It’s that I came from Australia two years ago just for that.”
“You’re from Australia?!”
“Yeah. I am a proud aussie, mate. ”
Felix tells a story that starts with dancing to Kpop songs playing in Sidney radio stations, international auditions he didn’t pass but kept on pursuing until they led him to his parents’ home country, with nothing but his dreams in a small suitcase.
“You’re a brave person,” Hyunjin says at some point, when both their stomachs are full and heavy with food and conversation. “I don’t think I could ever leave my home country like that.”
“But you said you left your parents’ house to live at a dorm, right? How is that not brave?”
“I don’t think that means I’m brave, just that I like avoiding inconveniences.”
“Well, there’s still braveness in running away. You have to choose your battles. One day at a time, right?”
Hyunjin smiles. Felix smiles back and offers his hand, which Hyunjin holds in grateful silence.
The dorms are always quiet on friday nights. Sometimes the silence is heavy with the smell of books and notes, much like a library a week or so before exams. Sometimes it’s just the silence of vacancy, a ghost building whose residents have gone partying past the curfew and will only be back in the morning.
Hyunjin, not so much of a party-goer, makes himself comfortable in the common room to do what he likes most about these nights: binge watching dramas without a single living soul there to judge him. Even Jisung has been missing since noon, so Hyunjin orders a large pizza for himself and opens his Netflix recommendations page.
An instagram notification from Seungmin arrives. It’s a picture of him peacefully sleeping in a IKEA bathtub with an enigmatic caption that says #SOON but the O’s are replaced with cherry blossom emojis. Hyunjin likes the photo before posting a comment. “Why do I have a bad feeling about this? kkkkkk”
A push notification interrupts his giggling.
han squirrel @ 9:29 pm
where are you
hwang llama @ 9:30 pm
i ordered pizza want some?
han squirrel @ 9:31 pm
why are you at dorm
hwang llama @ 9:32 pm
where else would i be?
Jisung sends him a picture. Chan grins at the camera, inexplicably wearing sunglasses at night, presenting a huge bottle of soju while Changbin holds a slice of pizza that has an uncanny resemblance to him next to his face. In the background, an unknown guy hugs three buckets of chicken drums.
hwang llama @ 9:35 pm
whats the occasion for
han squirrel @ 9:36 pm
i literally said the other day we would have a gig we’re warming up right now
where’s felix btw
you’re bringing him right
Hyunjin drops his phone. If he texts back without giving Jisung a proper answer he wonders if he’ll forget about the matter, just like Hyunjin had forgotten about the gig.
han squirrel @ 9:37 pm
hwang hyunjin i swear to gOD
hwang llama @ 9:40 pm
new phone who dis
han squirrel @ 9:41 pm
i m going to kill you get your fucking ass in this house
and bring that pizza as an apology gift
It always comes as a surprise to take the subway to Gangnam. The very air Hyunjin breathes smells different, like crisp won bills and cold airport hallways. Even the people have something about them, walking around as if constantly under spotlights, hands busy with phone calls and shopping bags. They make Hyunjin feel inappropriate in his simple black jeans and white t-shirt, carrying a pizza box and a pack of beer much like a delivery man.
The digital pad makes a clicking noise once Hyunjin inserts the password, and the apartment door of the Seo Family opens to loud, mostly incoherent and weirdly echoing voices singing trot songs.
“The food is here!” Hyunjin announces, but his voice is drowned by a particular high note from a voice he doesn’t recognize, so he puts his shoes away at the entrance rack then heads to the kitchen.
From the high ceiling chandeliers to the marbled floor, every furniture looks more expensive than his entire college tuition. It had been intimidating at first to be invited to such a place, so otherworldly Hyunjin used to walk on the tips of his toes, afraid to even breathe a little deeper in fears of disturbing the balance of time and space.
When Jisung first introduced them, Hyunjin hadn’t imagined Changbin to be this rich. He dressed fine, if a little preppy in the details, and was far more shy than Hyunjin expected rich people to be.
“Oh, if it isn’t our favorite regular!”
Hyunjin stops in his track. There, in the black marbled kitchen of the Seo Family, Lee Minho crouches in front of an open fridge, wearing a black hoodie with a custom 3RACHA print on the front, and heart shaped pink glasses. He smiles at Hyunjin, taking the beer pack off his hands.
“Just what I was looking for!” Minho places the cans inside the fridge, and as an afterthought takes one back to drink. “You’re more into beer than soju too?”
“You,” Hyunjin starts, then stops when Changbin appears from the living room threshold, wearing reflexive chrome glasses and a wifebeater.
“Minho hyung, I forgot to buy beer, we can- oh, Hyunjin, you’re here.”
Minho opens his arms as if expecting a hug, but Changbin walks right past him to fetch the pizza from Hyunjin’s hands. Minho tickles Changbin’s ribs, engaging him into the kind of banter that sounds way too intimate for this to be their first interaction.
“You,” Hyunjin points back and forth between Minho and Changbin. “You know each other?!”
“If we know each other?” Minho beams, sliding his arm around Changbin’s shoulders, crushing a flustered Changbin to his side. “I’m his boyfriend!”
Hyunjin sinks back into the soft cushion of a leather couch, eyeing the mess in the living room through rainbow colored lenses. Apparently it had been Minho’s suggestion to pump them up by using random props from his theatre classes, as if booze alone didn’t drive young adults like them insane.
For the past five minutes Hyunjin’s been laughing at Jisung and Chan’s sorry attempt at dancing Hard Carry from GOT7 —somehow in the middle of it having produced an inflatable dolphin they take turns using as a dance partner—, while Changbin and this new guy called Jeongin try to both cover all the vocals and sound effects in the song.
When the beat drops all of them are mad moving to the explosive chorus, and Hyunjin almost knocks his new can of beer over Chan’s chest when he starts jumping around to continuous yells of “hard carry hey”.
There’s no pizza nor chicken drums left on the table, so Hyunjin leaves the group to their antics to search for food. His tipsy feet can’t find leverage in the smooth floor so he braces himself and crawls sideways on the wall to get to the kitchen.
“Funny thing you’ve got there, lizard boy.”
Minho is brewing coffee on the kitchen counter, suspiciously sober despite Hyunjin’s memories of him being the first to propose new drinking rounds. Hyunjin detaches from the wall and ungraciously trips over his own feet.
“Wow, hang in there,” Minho helps him get up, pushes a styrofoam cup of black coffee in Hyunjin’s hands. “Don’t go falling for me too.”
“You’re so funny, hyung,” Hyunjin means it as sarcasm but he ends up giggling anyway.
If Hyunjin had to compare Minho to something palpable, he would be that accidental splash of paint that falls over a canvas when you’re distracted. You might realize after some working around it that it fits in somehow, gives the painting an interesting direction you might have not considered initially. But at first there’s only the unease of the unexpected: where to start to decipher it?
“I’ve been meaning to say sorry.”
With his eyes and hands busy grabbing spoons, heating milk on a stove, really doing a casual version of his job as a barista, Hyunjin thinks he’s imagined Minho’s voice.
“It wasn’t exactly my place to look into your sketchbook.”
Hyunjin scratches his nape, winces when a nail catches on a stray pimple. It’s a weird place to be, in the kitchen of a friend of a friend, speaking to a friend/coworker of your crush about the circumstances that enabled you two to date. Which ultimately has to do with other people meddling in their love lives because apparently they can’t work on their own.
Felix did say Minho had encouraged him to speak to Hyunjin, much like Jisung has been doing to him for a while. Maybe it’s the booze speaking but he feels the urge to thank Minho rather than accept his apology.
“But in the end I guess you should thank me, right?” Minho smirks, raises a cup of coffee as if doing a toast. “Cheers for these two little birds that have finally mated.”
Hyunjin takes that back, but still raises his cup.
It’s the middle of winter, but seating squashed between Jeongin and Minho on a tiny booth at the back of the venue is making Hyunjin sweat. He fans himself with a hand, but it has little to no effect in such a packed place.
It’s not exactly a venue per se, though it is considerably bigger than a bar and has a proper stage, much different from the previous underground places 3RACHA has held gigs before. It’s an upgrade and Hyunjin is happy, if a little sticky under his arms.
Jeongin excuses himself for a cigarette, and while it frees space for Hyunjin’s unnecessarily long legs, it still doesn’t improve his situation. His knees graze the underside of the table and it’s only a matter of time before he knocks them and wakes up tomorrow to a few bruises.
“So, exactly why isn’t Felix here?”
Which happens precisely at Minho’s uninvited question. Hyunjin sees stars when his knee hits a nerve against the table, and it takes several moments for his vision to clear and his entire leg to stop jittering.
Minho awaits, sipping his drink with a plastic straw.
“I’ve seen him today,” Hyunjin rubs his kneecaps. “We went out today.”
“I know that, I mean: why isn’t him here at this moment? Did you not tell him about the gig?”
Hyunjin shifts his weight on the seat.
“Part of it is that I forgot to tell him,” he admits, eyes wandering through the venue. “The other part is that I really didn’t feel like stretching our date because, uh, I don’t wanna smother him with my company?”
It’s a first time saying it out loud, and rather weird to do it with Minho of all people. Jisung might become jealous if he finds out what it gets Hyunjin talking is being cornered. Which actually sounds dangerous if Jisung teams with Minho to gang on him. Damn it.
Minho grows quiet when 3RACHA steps into the stage, so Hyunjin relaxes.
Watching Jisung rap makes Hyunjin know for a fact that art exists as passion. Talent is a myth, while passion is energy. It can be trained and tamed for whichever purposes, but its power can’t be created from simple theory.
Seeing his friends pouring their souls on the microphone makes Hyunjin’s fingers tingle. It’s a feeling similar to when he’s engrossed in a painting, letting brush stroke after brush stroke translate into a canvas the rawness of something that wants to come alive.
“It’s beautiful,” Minho says.
Changbin raps, mellow and husky, and Chan completes the picture with his thoughtful lines, heavy with mood behind the english words Hyunjin doesn’t fully understand.
He can’t help the craving jealousy he feels, the yearning for the way with words his friends have and he doesn’t. The way they play with words like they’re their master, and every single one of them follow their command.
The audience applauds, and he does too, a little bittersweet.
Hyunjin wakes up with the sun on his face and a splitting headache on the back of his eyes. Like a dry leaf, his nerves are brittle at the edges, his tongue heavy and sour with the aftertaste of alcohol. It’s a surprise they got back home safely since everything after the third bar is a blur.
The harsh light from his phone needs to be turned all the way down before Hyunjin can see anything. It’s past 1 pm and their Kakaotalk group chat is loaded with pictures he isn’t sure he’s emotionally ready to see, so he snoozes them all for later.
“Jisung,” he slurs, reaches his feet to nudge the ball of covers over Jisung’s body. “Jisung, wake up, it’s 1 pm.”
Hyunjin tries to kick him but his every move is slowed down, so his toes only graze the air.
“I won’t bring you hangover soup, you can die alone.”
Jisung groans whatever, so Hyunjin drags his body to the bathroom. After a cold shower and the dead silence of Jisung’s passed out body, he grabs the first somewhat coherent set of clothes from the wardrobe and leaves the dorm after a convenience store.
The air conditioner of the local 7-eleven hits him like a punch. Hyunjin hopes to survive the trip back to his dorm before he hurls his upset stomach all over the floor.
He wanders through the aisles like a zombie, dropping on his shopping basket anything that remotely hints at relief from a hangover. At this point it doesn’t even matter if they’re effective or not, Hyunjin just wants to smash his face into a bucket of Gyeondyo-bar and hope the ice cream freezes his brain dead.
Hyunjin looks away from the bottles of herbal tea and sees Felix. Felix with this cotton candy soft orange hair and a sweater that absolutely swallows his slim frame. Hyunjin’s brain must be swimming in booze still if the first thought he gathers is how much he wants to cuddle him.
“Are you ok?” There’s a crease between Felix’s eyebrows and the hint of a pout on his lips. “You don’t look ok.”
This up close Felix’s freckles remind Hyunjin of the french toast he once had for brunch in an american style diner. It was spicy and sweet, greasy like all things american, and absolutely delicious. He needs to bring Felix there one day and take a picture of him beside the toast. The resemblance is uncanny.
“Don’t make your bright face grim,” Hyunjin presses his thumb firm against the wrinkled skin between Felix’s eyes. “It doesn’t suit you.”
“What are you saying?” Felix giggles. Hyunjin’s insides become all gooey and fluttery when Felix holds his hand, fingers locked.
Against his better judgement, Hyunjin actually goes for a hug. It’s on instinct, his body following his most primitive need to cling like a child to anything remotely comforting when in distress.
Felix’s shoulders jerk in surprise, but when he returns his embrace and slots his head into the curve of his neck, Hyunjin swears he could die at that moment.
“Come on, Jinnie. What’s wrong?”
Wow, honestly? Having Felix’s deep voice whispering all soft and caring in his ear jumps straight up to Hyunjin’s top 5 favorite things in life. He doesn’t even mind the headache if Felix talks him to death like that.
Except his stomach chooses that very moment to rebel against him. Hyunjin nearly pushes Felix to the ground on his mad run for a toilet.
Nothing comes up his throat, but Hyunjin comes to his senses after the overwhelming smell of cleaning products sticks to his nose. This is definitely his worst appearance in front of a crush, and he’s been through a lot regarding that.
His phone vibrates in his back pocket and for the love of sweet baby Jesus Hyunjin hopes it’s Jisung getting his coffin ready.
lee felix @ 1:49 pm
are you ok?
i didn’t want to get inside the stall to give you some privacy but i’m worried :(
hwang hyunjin @ 1:50 pm
i just feel awful right now
lee felix @ 1:51 pm
sorry to hear that
want to come to my place? is close here and i can make you a soup
This is absolutely not the way Hyunjin imagined visiting Felix’s place for the first time. In his current state he might as well be the worst company to have.
lee felix @ 1:54 pm
don’t think too much just come
Once more against his better judgement, Hyunjin just goes for it.
Felix’s place is a cubicle of a studio in an old building that still has manual locker doors. It’s mostly empty of furniture, but Hyunjin feels at home by the way Felix moves on the small kitchen, gathering herbs and vegetables for the boiling beef broth on the stove.
The smell of homemade food after months living off discount restaurant for students and convenience store ramyeons makes Hyunjin happy in ways he can’t explain.
He sits up when Felix hands him a tall glass of water along with a hearty bowl of soup.
“Don’t die of dehydration.”
“Thank you. Sorry to burden you like this.”
“You’re not a burden.”
Felix goes back to the kitchen to sort his grocery, so Hyunjin takes the chance to have a real look around on his own. There’s really nothing to see except for a few clothes hanging from a chair and a single framed photo beside a laptop on his study table. From his place on the bed, all Hyunjin can make is the forms of two adults and three kids.
“My family,” Felix explains. “It’s an old picture, really. I must have been fifteen.”
Fifteen doesn’t sound like too long ago, but Hyunjin is reminded they’re almost twenty three and Felix probably hasn’t been home for the past two years. Fifteen feels like continents and time zones apart.
Hyunjin places the half finished soup on the table, spoon in one hand, the frame in the other.
Three teenagers with identical rows of white teeth against suntan skin smile at him, all with the same skinny build and tendency for freckles. They pose on a beach with hair fresh with salty water, while their parents stand more contained in the background.
“My hair looks so bad in there,” Felix takes the frame from Hyunjin’s hands. The smile he wears is fond, if somewhat sad. “It’s kinda the last good family picture we have. My older sister left town the next summer for college.”
“Oh, so the moving away thing runs in the family.”
“You could say. But she had my parents’ blessing, law school and all that. I came here on my own.”
Felix takes one last look at the picture before he places the frame back on the table. He leaves for the kitchen with Hyunjin’s empty bowl of soup, but something sticks in the air like mist.
“Do you miss them?”
“I do. But you gotta make choices, right? I’m just facing the consequences of mine.”
Hyunjin wonders if he could face the consequences of his. It’s a struggle to think his life as a continuity, a smooth flow rather than a succession of regrets.
A particular strong throb makes him lie down, another regret coated in alcoholic decisions. The bed dips when Felix takes a seat. He reaches his open palm to Hyunjin’s forehead.
“I don’t have a fever.”
“I’m just making sure. How do you feel?”
“Better, but still on the verge of death.”
“Then let me hear your famous last words.”
Felix lies next to him, orange hair crowning his head like sun rays. Hyunjin wonders if he’ll get burned if he stays too close.
“I think you’d like to know: Minho hyung sent me some pictures today.”
“W-what kinda pictures?”
“Pictures of you passionately singing some girl group song? You even did a little dance in the video. It was cute.”
So that’s something Hyujin doesn’t remember from last night and may have chosen to ignore in the group chat. Fuck. He is unsure what embarrasses him most: the drunken evidence of his mess or the fact Felix knows they’ve been out without him.
“Sorry,” he starts. “I really wanted to call you but, uh, Ithoughtyou’dbetiredofmyfacealreadysoIjust-”
“Wow, calm down, calm down, you’re rapping faster than Changbin hyung.”
Hyunjin groans, hides his face behind a sweaty hand and like, throws a mini tantrum out of shame. Felix laughs full of good intentions, but Hyunjin can’t stop the urge to flee. He grabs a pillow lying around and shoves his face into it.
“I will admit I was a little hurt though. You could have called me, I wouldn’t have minded.”
“Sorry,” Hyunjin’s voice is muffled by the pillow. “I’m a mess.”
“You’re not. You’re just a plant with overly complicated feelings, isn’t that what you said? Try talking them out.”
Hyunjin peeks at Felix from behind the pillow.
“I just. I thought you’d like, be tired of my company? I don’t know, I just didn’t want to bother you.”
Hyunjin’s head tips back when Felix pushes a thumb between his eyebrows.
“You live too much in here,” then he slides his finger off, holds his hand palm down over Hyunjin’s. “While I’m right here.”
Hyunjin blushes. He’s doing it again, getting inside his head and giving the same half-assed excuses he’s sworn to let go of. His ears grow hot with shame.
“Hey,” Felix presses a thumb between his eyebrows again. “Don’t make your bright face grim. It doesn’t suit you.”
Hyunjin laughs at the quote, out of embarrassment and other warm feelings, and at the realization of how much Felix pays attention to him.
Hyunjin wakes up with the sun casting an orange glow in the room around him. It’s not a room he recognizes with his barely aware mind, but it doesn’t bother him. The air has the faint note of herbs and beef broth, a comforting smell that makes Hyunjin close his eyes once again.
Someone shifts under him, an arm draped over his waist, a small hand pressed onto his back. Felix is sound asleep against his chest, snoring just a bit, orange hair sticking around like sun rays. Hyunjin has the impression that thought has crossed his mind before. He dips his nose in the orange strands. It smells like sunlight.
His phone vibrates somewhere above him and Hyunjin slaps the bed after it. Jisung’s stupid selfie shows up on the caller info.
“You’re alive! I’ve been calling you for an hour now!”
“I’m alive,” Hyunjin confirms, ignoring Jisung’s nonsense rambling to curl into Felix’s small frame. “What do you want?”
“Where are you?”
“Oh. OH. Sorry for interrupting.”
“I was sleeping, you pervert.”
“Right. Anyway, I’m heading to Myeongdong with the guys. You coming?”
Hyunjin hums, distracted. Felix stirs under him, holding him tighter.
He’s not. He’s playing with Felix’s hair, trying to form a heart shape on his forehead. So far he’s failing.
“Anyway, we’re going for snacks. Hit me up when you decide.”
Hyunjin throws his phone mindlessly away, closing his eyes again. In the dark, he pretends he isn’t fully aware of the way Felix’s feet tangles with his, tiny toes like his tiny hands, their knees touching like twins. Physical contact has never meant emotional attachment to him, but cuddling with Felix feels oddly romantic.
A nose bumps into his neck, nuzzles under his chin, and Hyunjin hopes the dark masks his red cheeks when Felix stares up, glassy eyed.
Hyunjin’s heart skips a painful beat when Felix moves forward and touches their foreheads. In the small space between their lips, he wonders if Felix would taste like sunshine if they kissed.
“You’re feeling better?”
“Y-yeah. The soup helped. Thank you.”
Hyunjin can’t decide if it’s relief or disappointed what he feels when Felix untangles from their embrace, stretching on his feet like a cat.
“I’m hungry, wanna eat something?”
“Oh. Hum. Actually, my friend just called. Do you want to go to Myeongdong or...something…?”
Felix’s smirk is bright enough to blind and Hyunjin thinks, what a heavenly way to die.
“Are you asking me on a date?”
The streets bustle with nightlife. Billboards overhead flash a variety of advertisements, from skin care to the newest energy drink. The heavy aroma of spices overlaps the constant chat from passersby, creating a rather overwhelming experience to Hyunjin’s barely recovered senses.
Felix, on the other hand, seems to charge off the energy in the air, bouncing on his feet as he brings Hyunjin a styrofoam bowl of tteokbokki. It’s like watching a child present the wonders of its world, amazed by the smallest of things.
“Look what I found! Wow, I haven’t had these in a while.”
“Don’t you have these in Australia?”
“There are some korean restaurants but this is the real thing.”
Hyunjin cackles when Felix pants and cries over the spicy sauce. He offers him his bottle of water, but Felix’s pride speaks louder. He eats bite after bite of tteokbokki with a runny nose Hyunjin promptly wipes with a handkerchief.
Hyunjin chokes, nearly coughs both his lungs out to Minho’s giggles. Changbin apologizes in his behalf as he drags Minho away from them.
They wander down the streets, chatting, drinking and eating from plastic bowls and skewers. They make for an interesting assemble: Minho and Changbin banter back and forth in a way that Hyunjin can hardly believe they’re a couple; while Felix and Chan immerse in nostalgic exchanges about Australia, full accented smiles and bright eyes, like long lost brothers who have finally reunited.
Then there’s him and Jisung.
“You’re obsessed,” Jisung sidles up to his side. “I can’t believe you chose a guy who was born literally a day after me!”
“I didn’t know that?”
“Whatever, you have my blessings.”
Jisung uses a blood sausage skewer as a magic wand, granting Hyunjin words of encouragement and stray droplets of grease on his hair. Hyunjin shows his appreciation by stealing a bite of his food, to Jisung’s dismay.
“Ya, you’re jinxing it!”
“I’m eating the offerings to bring good luck.”
Hyunjin smiles, but the freezing night breeze makes his cracked lips burn and sting. He makes them stop by a cosmetic store to look for a lip balm.
The simpler, more budget friendly ones are what he usually settles for, but he’s attracted by a multipurpose lip balm advertisement. Among sayings about plumpiness and a full nutritious treatment in a single product, there’s a bold statement about getting the most kissable lips for those interested in putting them to good use.
It’s such an embarrassing thing to market about but it has Hyunjin fumbling a peach shaped case with interest. It inevitably makes him think of Felix. Felix and his orange hair, the warmth of his breath against his lips.
“You getting that?”
His whole body shivers at the feel of a small hand holding him by the waist.
“Yeah, um. I kinda need a new lip balm. My lips are gross.”
The dryness of Hyunjin’s lips hurts harder the more Felix stares at them, eyes narrowed the slightest bit. Hyunjin licks his lips after some relief. Felix follows his tongue with his eyes.
“You should buy it,” Felix smirks at last. “The color matches my hair.”
Hyunjin pretends he wasn’t having the exact same thought moments before. He also pretends his heart doesn’t shake when Felix moves to whisper in his ear.
“Also, your lips aren’t gross.”
And just like that he leaves, while Hyunjin stays dumbfounded with an overpriced lip balm on his hands. He buys two, just in case.
“How does this look?”
Seungmin presents a model of his installation, which looks ridiculously good for its small size. It’s a white tiled bathroom, void of any other furniture except for a bathtub filled with red ink to the brim. Miniature cherry blossoms snake up the walls, with some stray petals over the floor around the bathtub.
Hyunjin looks from the paper clay flower in his hand to the ones in the model.
“It looks like a gore scene.”
“I didn’t know you were into weird shit like that.”
Seungmin ignores his comment to turn the model on his hands, looking at it from every angle.
As for Hyunjin, painting cherry blossoms has become almost therapeutic after having painted hundreds of them. He’s even bought himself his own set of pastels despite his promise to never mess with anything crayon-looking again.
“I think there’s something missing from the scene.”
“Like a dead body?” Hyunjin suggests with a giggle, but the way Seungmin’s eye light up is almost frightening. “Please don’t make me help you kill someone.”
“I don’t need to kill someone to have a body.”
“Listen, I just had this idea. I’ll call this the birth of spring. You know? Like the birth of Aphrodite. So the bathtub can’t just stay empty, I gotta find someone to be my Aphrodite.”
Hyunjin finishes painting a couple more flowers before he notices Seungmin staring at him. He holds his paintbrush with the butt pointed at Seungmin.
“I have a knife and I won’t hesitate to stab you.”
“Come on, you’re the perfect model. Weren’t you born during spring? Everything clicks. Help me out, Hyunjin.”
“What do I get out of this agreement?”
“You can wear white clothes so when you get out of the tub Felix will see your body in all of its glory.”
Seungmin shrieks when Hyunjin stabs him.
This is how it usually starts: with a weird feeling at the base of his neck, an itch he can’t scratch. Like bare wires, his nerves are prickly, snapping at the littlest of things. It’s a distant feeling of irritation, disconnected frustration that causes him to dive deep into himself.
The sensation is heightened when he is alone in the art studio. The wall clock says he’s been there for two hours, facing the oppressive shade of cream from a blank canvas. The paint on the tip of his brush has already dried and hardened. Hyunjin’s heart is heavy like a stone.
It reminds him too much of his creative blocks in the first semesters of college, right when grades were assigned by frowning professors that had little to no comments about his works. They weren’t bad, they said. And that was it. They weren’t remarkably bad. They weren’t remarkable. They weren’t.
What they truly did was voice the one insecurity that has been accompanying him since he first enrolled in the Fine Arts major. The one thing he sees in the emptiness of his hands, of his canvas: that he has no talent. That he is no artist.
A sick noise rises in his throat, a sob, a whole ocean of them.
He barely notices his phone ringing.
Hyunjin clings to his phone like a lifeboat when he hears Felix’s voice. Something inside of him breaks. The pieces fall off his eyes in a violent torrent.
“Hyunjin? What’s wrong?”
“Can we meet?”
Snowflakes float down from the sky, quiet, to lay on his hair. He doesn’t shake them off. The cold reminds him not to cry, lest the tears freeze his eyelashes stuck. His resolve matters little though, when Felix shows up by the college entrance with a giant bear plushie sitting in the basket of his bicycle.
Hyunjin laughs so much the tears just come out again, half fondness, half sadness, over this boy, this impossible, marvelous boy with a teddy bear twice his size in his arms. The name tag around the bear says “To Hyunjin, with love - F.”
The way to the dorm is paved with interested looks from students passing by, whisper-wondering who that orange haired boy is, and how long will it be before Hyunjin breaks his heart. He ignores them, but Felix does not. They hold hands until their knuckles turn white.
They lay on his bed, over the bear’s soft belly. When Hyunjin opens his arms, Felix fills them.
“Tell me what’s happened.”
“College sucks, that’s about it.”
“Like the worst decision I’ve made in the last three years.”
The tears come again, quieter this time, like snow. The bits of his past battles pile up in his heart, but they don’t make a victory. If he could retrace his steps, would he be able to spot where his mistakes begun? Would he be wiser and choose the other path there was, if there was any?
Felix squeezes his hands.
“If it makes you feel any better, I have the same kind of thoughts. About coming to South Korea, I mean.”
“And how do you cope with them?”
Felix opens the photo gallery of his phone and shows him a folder titled “my latte art”. The very first picture is a sorry glob of white in a milky coffee backdrop. Felix scrunches his nose in embarrassment, but Hyunjin keeps scrolling down.
The same failed attempts repeat, until slowly they change. A few successful hearts and feathers start popping out the further down he goes. The most recent row of pictures date back to earlier today. The last picture is a chubby milk froth cat bathing in the coffee.
“It is, isn’t it? It’s just a hobby but, whenever I question myself I just look at these pictures. I like to see the steps that have brought me here.”
Hyunjin aches when he thinks of his progress, torn and disposed of in trash cans for the last three semesters or so. He couldn’t bear to see them after consecutive questioning from his professors. He wasn’t an artist, they had said. So he believed them.
Felix fishes a sketchbook from under a pillow. It’s the one Hyunjin forgot in the Café a few weeks ago. Felix leafs through it until he finds what he was looking for. It’s an early drawing of his hands holding a cup of coffee, gray pencil on cream paper, no colors. A simple doodle Hyunjin doesn’t even remember drawing.
“When I saw this too. It was on accident, but I was really touched by it. It made me glad I chose to come here after all.”
Hyunjin’s eyes cloud with tears.
“I wish I could say that someday. That I’m glad for the choices I make.”
Felix brushes his tears away, presses his thumb over the beauty mark under his right eye. Hyunjin giggles, cries, he doesn’t know anymore. The emotions overflow him.
“You will. Just give yourself time.”
The holiday season arrives in a thick sheet of snow and the year round cleaning of the art studio. In between wiping cabinets and furtively passing around bottles of soju, students recollect party nights gone wrong and crappy assignments made in inebriation. Sculptures are boxed, installation are undone, and Hyunjin feels a familiar ache as he watches the room empty itself for the next semester.
The end of his third year in college tastes like crunching ice on his molasses, brittle and watery with a numbing aftertaste. Closing cycles always make him sentimental. Objectively nothing really changes in these three months, but realization settles on his shoulders as he opens his locker for one last time at age twenty two.
Inside it he finds the last of his belongings, forgotten palettes and frayed paint brushes he disposes in a trash can. And stashed in the back of the locker there’s a painting, a hand sized canvas he forgot to reclaim somewhere in the last two years.
Despite all of the past works he’s disposed off, this one remains persistent. Like divine intervention, waiting for closure. It finally sheds some light on him.
Hyunjin grabs his phone.
“Let’s do the bathtub thing.”
Hyunjin is used to bottling up his feelings, setting them free in the sea of his memory, forever to be lost. Like the words he’s never mastered, his feelings hardly reach surface, only peek through a thin, distorted layer of reflection, never breaking through water. But sometimes they’re brought to the shore by accident.
It must not be a coincidence that the way Hyunjin found to express his feeling for Jisung included an electric shade of blue, not unlike the one Jisung has chosen to dye his hair as a last minute whim before his trip to Malaysia. It’s a powerful color, high voltage and bustling, like him.
Two years ago Hyunjin had locked himself in the art studio to bleed a stormy sky from his hands, pouring down onto a lighthouse crumbling under violent waves. It had been unplanned, like his feelings for Jisung were; a wild discharge of energy. A promise to move on, having one way or another faced the fact that his feelings were unrequited and should go down, deep into the sea.
“Are you going to laze around all day long?”
Jisung squats before a huge suitcase, folding tank tops and shorts for the malaysian summer. Hyunjin shivers inside two layers of coat just from looking at them.
“You want my help?”
“I mean, aren’t you going to see your parents? Everybody’s leaving campus.”
It’s been sitting on Hyunjin’s mind that he should, for one reason or another, be brave and address the elephant in the room himself. He just needs time first.
“I’ll do it,” Hyunjin says. Jisung looks up at him. “When I’m ready for it. I’ll visit them.”
“When you’re ready, heh?”
Jisung smiles to himself, which naturally makes Hyunjin smile too.
No traces are left behind as Jisung fits his entire wardrobe in the suitcase, except for candy wrappers and empty coffee cans on his table. It’s bittersweet to watch him go, nevermind the routine they’ve been used to for two years now.
Hyunjing reaches out and sinks his fingers in Jisung’s hair, messes them until he is protesting.
“You’re going to ruin my hair.”
“Can’t I mess with you anymore?”
Jisung zips up the suitcase. Their room already feels too big, the vacant spaces Jisung leaves behind too loud. Something must show on his face, because Jisung jumps on his bed. Hyunjin immediately cuddles him.
“Can you believe college is coming to an end?”
“Please, don’t. I’m not ready to be a functional adult in society.”
“I don’t think you’ll ever be a functional adult though?”
Hyunjin kicks his shin but Jisung just laughs, kicks him back. They kick, tickle and tease until they’re out of breath, intoxicated in friendship and the few accomplishments of shared adulthood. Hyunjin wishes he could stretch this winter forever, before they have to grow older.
Jisung rests his head into his chest, blue hair opening up like a jellyfish. It tickles Hyunjin’s nose.
“I think I’ll stay in South Korea after all.”
“When college is over. My parents wanted me to go back to Malaysia for real but I have other plans for myself.”
Hyunjin smiles. He inhales the soft blueberry perfume of Jisung’s hair, taking some of his courage for himself.
Snowflakes gather on his eyelashes as he looks up to watch an airplane cross the night sky. A message sits on his phone, the last of Jisung before a six hour flight back home, a promise of news when he lands. Something inside Hyunjin feels suspended in the air, expectant, destination unknown. He bids the airplane farewell before buckling up for the trip up the stairs to Felix’s apartment.
Coming unannounced is something unusual for Hyunjin, who’s always leaning on the safety of texting first. Today though, he allows himself to be bold, to wear his heart on his sleeve and see if Felix will let him in.
But it’s not Felix who answers the door.
“Uh, Changbin hyung?”
Changbin stands there, uncharacteristically and inexplicably wearing a leopard print sweater, sweater paws included. Hyunjin sputters, out of nervousness. Changbin looks just as surprised to see him.
“Well, shit. I knew this would happen.”
“Changbinnie! Who is it?”
Minho shows up from inside the apartment in a matching leopard print sweater, only his is of a hot pink color. It goes weirdly well with the lemon yellow rubber gloves he wears, still wet with suds. Changbin and him make for the most eccentric couple Hyunjin has ever seen and he doesn’t even know where to begin.
Minho smiles, wide and wicked, when he realizes it’s Hyunjin at the door.
“Hyunjin-ah, just who everybody wanted to see!”
“Make yourself at home, make yourself at home! Felix, look who’s here!”
Felix rests on his stomach on the bed, head propped on his arms, disheveled hair and glassy eyes from a nap. He blinks, disoriented, until he spots Hyunjin and immediately hides his face, the tips of his ears glowing red.
“What are you being so shy for?” Minho asks, sickeningly sweet, and Hyunjin knows something is going on when all Felix does is squirm. “Come on, say hi to your boyfriend.”
Hyunjin inhales. Though they’ve been dating for a while now —and Hyunjin is mostly sure in exclusive terms—, no such label has been put on their relationship. Not by him, at least, too afraid to assume anything in fears of being wrong. Are they boyfriends? He hopes so. He wishes so.
Felix peeks from the corner of his eye. Hyunjin pokes his cheek.
“Why are you hiding from me?”
And to prove it, Felix uncovers his face. Hyunjin traces his freckles, wanders over the flushed skin of his cheeks with his fingertips. He presses between Felix’s pinched eyebrows until they’re smooth. Felix exhales, scoots over to make space for him.
“You usually tell me when you’re coming,” Felix starts, messing with his own hair. Hyunjin draws his hand away to lock their fingers.
“I know. But today I just felt like seeing you.”
“Out of nowhere?”
Felix compares their hand sizes. It’s a nice contrast, how Hyunjin’s fingers stand a good 2 centimeters taller than his, and when he folds them he’s able to fit Felix’s entire hand into his own. The same hands Hyunjin has seen covered in coffee burns and band aids, persistent and hopeful. It’s a little ridiculous to be this fond of hands but Hyunjin thinks, in a spark of a thought, that he has been in love ever since seeing them.
In love. The realization makes him blush hard.
“I always want to see you.”
Felix gives him this look that sets Hyunjin’s insides aflame. His first instinct is to check his lips, lick them and taste the moist of peaches from his lip balm. Felix’s eyes follow his tongue before looking away, shy.
“Damn, it makes me feel bad about not calling you.”
“I just hurt my back, that’s all.”
“You did what ?!”
Felix has the nerve to laugh, bubbly and joyous, when Hyunjin’s voice gets high pitched from worry.
“That’s why I didn’t call you. I thought you’d worry a lot.”
“Well, it’s my job to worry about you, isn’t it?!”
“Is it? Why?”
Hyunjin snorts, mumbles something incoherent if only not to see the way Felix looks at him. It’s something Hyunjin has noticed, the way Felix’s gaze follows him like a compass, trying to find the north. It’s magnet play, push and pull, because Hyunjin is so much afraid of what would happen if they ever touched.
Felix squeezes his hand and reminds him that they’ve already done it. He becomes unbearably aware of the contact when Felix brings his hand close to his lips, kisses each one of his knuckles. Their eyes meet and Hyunjin feels stuck, treading through honey.
“Actually, uh, I wanted to show you something.”
Hyunjin untagles from their touch, and he wishes he had imagined the frustrated, aching way Felix sighs at the loss.
He gets his latest work from inside his bag and thinks, not for the first time, that his feelings hardly fit into a frame. It’s not perfect but it’s close enough, so he shows it to Felix.
He watches Felix’s fingers tracing down the bones of a ribcage, where the branches of a cherry blossom tree make themselves at home. A dozen crowns of petals are on the left side, a makeshift of Hyunjin’s own heart in full bloom, dusted with baby pink freckles.
“That’s me,” he explains. “And that’s how you make me feel.”
“Like flowers in your ribcage?”
“Like a whole spring of them.”
He shudders when Felix reaches out and hold his cheek, keeps their eyes locked. Hyunjin could melt into that gaze much like he melts under that touch, skin heated up and prickling.
Felix tastes like medicine when they kiss, like bitter children syrup and herbal tea. There are no fireworks on cue, no love songs playing in synch, but it’s real and it makes Hyunjin flutter from head to toe.
They kiss until they’re out of breath, until Hyunjin’s lip balm is printed into Felix’s mouth and they’re giggling, bright and sweet and Hyunjin swears he falls a little more in love with Felix at that moment.
The doorbell rings and Minho chooses that exact moment to emerge from the kitchen in his heinous pink leopard print sweater. He smiles like he’s been watching them.
“I hope you guys don’t mind I ordered some pizza.”
“Why did you do that, hyung?!”
“My grandma used to say there’s nothing better for the body than some good food, so obviously pizza will help with your back.”
Hyunjin giggles at the weirded out look Felix gives him. They kiss once more before getting up, hand in hand, to join Minho and Changbin.
When Hyunjin was a child he used to sleep with his parents. It didn’t matter that they moved into a new house with a bedroom of his own, that boys and girls his age all boasted about being grown up enough to sleep alone.
He would crawl up his parents’ bed night after night, seeking the protection of their embrace to keep the monsters away. He had always been a clingy, affectionate child, so his parents were more than happy to provide their only son with all of their love.
Maybe that was why, when Hyunjin had first voiced his wish to follow a different path from the one they wanted for him, they were disappointed. The proximity suddenly became too intense to bear. Hyunjin decided to leave their house for college.
In truth there had been no real need to. His parents lived close, too close really, that a dorm was an unnecessary expense. Still Hyunjin argued about convenience reasons, and still his parents had agreed, if only to avoid confronting each other.
In hindsight, Hyunjin laughs because they’re too similar, him and his parents.
He presses the button and gets off the bus, holding the straps of his backpack with a tight grip before taking the elevator up.
Kkami immediately runs to him, scratches at his ankles so Hyunjin holds him. Then comes his mother to coddle them against her chest, commenting on how skinny he looks. Hyunjin doesn’t bring up college, and neither does she, so they exchange harmless news about relatives and friends.
His mother feeds him all of his favorite food, freshly made and perfuming their house. She has already left his old bed ready for his afternoon nap too. Sometimes it hurts Hyunjin how well she knows him.
It’s only at night, when his father is back from work and they sit together for dinner that Hyunjin really feels the discomfort in the air. They’ve never been a quiet family, specially not at meals, so the stiff silence makes him more clumsy than usual.
The second time he drops his chopsticks on the floor he openly whines in frustration. His parents both snort, hiding their laughter behind identical bowls of rice.
“You used to act just like this when you were a little kid,” his father shakes his head. “When you argued with friends from school and tried not to let it bother you, you’d do just like this.”
“You’d pretend it was nothing,” his mother nods. “But then you’d cry and say you hated them and never wanted to go back to school.”
Hyunjin makes a face, offended.
“I did not!”
“You did though? Remember that time you dropped your chopsticks at dinner, just like now, and said your best friend bought a matching hero bracelet with someone that wasn’t you?”
“He betrayed me! I’ll never forgive Daehwi! He knew I was Superman and he was Batman, how could he give a Superman bracelet to someone else?”
His parents exchange a knowing smile. It used to annoy him as a kid to be this blatantly excluded from their secrets, to be left out when the adults did these grown up things. Hyunjin had wished to grow up fast, to be admitted into this mysterious world contained in a smile.
Sitting here now as a young adult rather than a child, the memories of his innocent childhood taste just like his mother’s rice. Warm and comforting. Safe, but also bland.
He lowers his bowl and chopsticks, clears his throat.
“A good son should visit his parents more often. I did not, so for that I apologize.”
His mother offers a sympathetic smile, his father stays neutral but expectant. Hyunjin could bow and leave it at that, let them play peaceful family once again. But he’s come way too far to stop now, so he takes a deep breath and speaks his heart out.
“I know you don’t approve of my choices but I’m becoming an adult now. I may go through wrong paths until I find my own way, but this is how I want to live. To learn from my mistakes but also to honor my decisions. I beg you to trust me on this.”
The words had been rehearsed for three days in a row, prepared for every possible reaction, calculated to respond to all the bad endings and verbal fights they could have.
But his parents remain quiet, heads down in consideration. They exchange a new look, one Hyunjin has never seen.
“We have been talking about this matter too, your mother and I,” his father starts, and for the first time Hyunjin notices how old he sounds. Old and tired at age fifty-five, deep sulks in his cheeks and a receding hairline on his temples.
It breaks Hyunjin’s heart to be in this place, to pay back their hard work by turning away from them. But he knows he would never be proud of himself if he forever lived in his parents’ shadow. A book once said that a bird is safe on its nest, but that’s not what its wings are made for.
Hyunjin spreads his wings and takes a leap of faith.
“The truth is that I still can’t understand why you chose this. Art school and everything,” his father stops, makes a vague gesture with his hands. He nods to himself once, twice. “But I agree with you. You’re an adult now. I’m proud I’ve raised a son that honors his decisions.”
His father holds his right hand, his mother his left. Hyunjin’s vision blurs with tears.
“So go, darling,” his mother caresses his hair, coos when it makes Hyunjin cry harder. “Live, Hyunjin. We will be always supporting you.”
hwang llama @ 7:49 pm
i talked to my parents
han squirrel @ 7:51 pm
IM SO PROUD OF YOU
what did they say
hwang llama @ 7:53 pm
thay they still dont get why i chose art but that theyll support me no matter what
han squirrel @ 7:54 pm
im so happy for you, bro
like so happy
ill eat an entire cake in your honor
hwang llama @ 7:55 pm
please dont, remember what happened last time you did that?
just come back from malaysia ALIVE
han squirrel @ 7:56 pm
no worries will do
i love you dude wow im so proud
hwang llama @ 7:57 pm
The Namsan Tower lights cast a soft neon glow on everything, cold peppermint and warm gingerbread. Hyunjin sits under a gazebo, tucked inside three layers of thick coats and a checkered red and green scarf, watching people pass by.
It’s a clean, cold evening, the perfect weather for couples to stroll arm in arm, whisper sweet nothings into each other’s ears and share twin cups of the local Café’s Christmas edition coffee. Hyunjin’s stomach has been upset since the cable car trip up there, but the lonely cup of coffee in his hand just worsens it.
Christmas dates have always been a thing in his life, though they would usually involve copious amounts of alcohol and bad decisions alike. Now, sober and hyper aware of the romantic mood surrounding him, he’s just nervous.
He jumps to his feet at the sound of Felix’s voice, opens his arms without thinking and is instantly flooded by the warmth of Felix’s body pressed against his. The smell of cinnamon and sunshine hits his nose and Hyunjin sinks his face into the crown of Felix’s hair.
He is shaking, just a bit, and Felix may notice it, because he grips Hyunjin’s forearms to steady himself and stand on the tips of his toes to kiss him.
His mind goes blank with surprise when Felix pulls away, the sound of his giggling still pressed over Hyunjin’s lips.
“You’re shameless,” Hyunjin grumbles, bites his lips to stop himself from giggling back. “Everybody is looking at us.”
“Let them look.”
“I like to show you off.”
Hyunjin sputters, but looks away so Felix doesn’t catch him blushing.
They follow the influx of people lounging around the base of the tower. The railings are, as usual, crowded with lovers exchanging promises of eternal love, writing down their vows on padlocks and throwing away the keys into the sky of Seoul. It’s a recurrent trend on dramas and Hyunjin’s daydreaming, and it thrills him the idea of finally having his own lock.
“I have been here before,” Felix says as they approach huge tree locks covered in Christmas lights. “When I first came to Seoul.”
“With someone else?” Hyunjin asks, eyebrows raised. Felix snorts, strokes his hand.
“By myself. I heard this place is not only for couples. There’s plenty of messages about family too.”
Felix guides him to a corner, fumbling over and down the overflowing railings after something. He pulls on a scrap of worn soft paper with the printed letters faded by now, but Hyunjin definitely recognizes it: it’s a airplane ticket. On the back there are english words he doesn’t fully understand, but he knows what they represent by the way Felix holds them.
It’s the first time Hyunjin has seen his hands shake.
“I didn’t know a word of korean, had no money nor friends, but I wanted to leave something behind. I wanted people to know I was here, so I wrote this: I came here to make my dreams come true.”
Felix smiles, but the hills of his cheeks don’t reach up to his eyes. Hyunjin places a hand on his back. Felix doesn’t flinch, but his breath hitches.
“How is your back?”
“But not fast enough.”
It isn’t a question, so Felix doesn’t bother answering.
“I have been thinking,” Felix says, after a moment of silence. “I have been thinking that maybe...maybe I wasn’t made for this after all. Dancing, and stuff.”
His lips quiver, an earthquake. The words disarrange something in him, something Felix looks away, desperately trying to cover. Hyunjin reaches out and wipes a tear threatening to fall.
“Sorry, I made the mood a little weird.”
“It’s ok, I always make the mood weird. We can be the weird mood couple.”
Felix laughs, but his laughter is muffled into Hyunjin’s shoulder when Hyunjin hugs him. It almost sounds like crying, underwater.
“When I look at this lock now I feel bad,” Felix says, voice wet and cloudy. “Like I failed myself. I want to rip that paper and throw it away.”
“Don’t,” Hyunjin squeezes his waist. “You didn’t do anything to be ashamed of. You didn’t fail.”
“I didn’t pass any audition.”
Hyunjin has been there before, is what he wants to say. He’s been low, on the ground, skin scraped thin and raw and mind going a hundred places, a hundred decisions he didn’t make. He wants to say it will get better some day, eventually, without a doubt.
But he isn’t sure of that. He can’t offer anything but his feelings.
“I’m proud of who you are today,” Hyunjin says. He closes his eyes and in the dark he sees Felix, gentle like a candle, passionate like fire, in every tiny detail. “I know I’m like, no one. I can’t get you in an agency, hell, I can’t even help pay your bills with my coffee addiction. But I’m thankful for who you are, so. Hum. Thank you, for existing. Here, with me.”
Hyunjin’s heart threatens to jump out of his ribcage and throw itself into Seoul’s night sky. Fleeing into oblivion sounds like a good idea, but Felix holds onto him like he needs Hyunjin to keep him grounded, so he does. Hyunjin stays, cheek pressed into Felix’s temple, lips hovering his earshell.
When Felix pulls away his eyes are puffy and red, but dry; curved into the crescent moons Hyunjin loves.
“You have a way with words.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“I’m serious! They helped me a lot. I appreciate it.”
Hyunjin blushes in the low Christmas lights when Felix leans forward and touches their foreheads.
“Do you wanna be my boyfriend?”
Hyunjin sputters. Felix pouts, confused.
“You’re asking me that only now?”
“Hey! I thought it would be romantic since, you know. Christmas, love padlock, all that stuff.”
“Wow, you’re working really hard.”
“I try my best.”
Hyunjin giggles, so impossibly light and in love Felix can’t keep the pout when they kiss again.
When Seungmin had first explained the concept of his installation, Hyunjin had thought it spooky. The picture could have come straight out of a crime scene, where Hyunjin would play the victim drowned into a bathtub of red ink (his own blood, his imaginative mind supplies).
But as he lays down in the actual bathtub (minus the red ink) of a real size model bathroom, he feels weirdly at peace. Cherry blossoms hang down the white tiled walls, reaching down to him as if waiting for Hyunjin to rise and bring them spring. He tugs on a lower branch and almost expects the petals to fall when he touches them.
“So,” Seungmin emerges from behind the removable wall of the model. “Doesn’t it look cool?”
“Honestly? This is three dimensional poetry.”
Seungmin’s smile is contained, but Hyunjin sees the pride in the folds on the corners of his lips.
Seungmin’s main workplace is a large one room studio in one of his parents’ buildings. It’s a chaotic assortment of the various art pieces he’s accumulated through college years, from paintings to photos, to sculptures and now this one block installation. It’s hard to believe high school color coded notes, organization freak Seungmin turned into this wild artist.
“Seungmin-ah,” Hyunjin sits up. Seungmin turns to him, cleaning cloth halfway up to an old greek bust replica. “What is your favorite art piece you’ve made?”
Seungmin hums for a moment, then paces around the room. He pulls a framed drawing of a maze from a shelf and hands it to Hyunjin.
“Did you know two professors had to grade me on this?” Seungmin smirks. “They said it was too bold for their liking.”
Hyunjin traces the border of the maze, an elaborate circle with hundreds of corners and turns. With his index finger, he goes left and right, right and left, until he reaches the core. Something hits him then.
“There’s no dead ending.”
“Exactly,” Seungmin takes the drawing from his hands to admire his own work. “There’s no wrong way to go, you can choose whatever path suits you best. Apparently that’s too bold of a statement for old university professors.”
Hyunjin closes his eyes, imagines wandering through a maze with no dead ending, and it fills him with unease. Physical walls blocking the path at least hint where not to go, but to follow himself alone proves to be a bigger challenge.
“What if you don’t find a way out?” he asks. “What if even with no dead ending you can’t find your way?”
“There’s no ‘out’, Hyunjin, that’s the gist of it,” Seungmin snorts. “Just have fun tracing your own path.”
Hyunjin pouts but Seungmin shrugs him off.
“That’s too vague.”
“Life’s vague. It’s up to you what to make of it.”
The words are meant to be encouraging, but all they do is bring heaviness to Hyunjin’s shoulders. He watches Seungmin comfortably tread over the steps he’s left behind, stopping every now and then to look at drawings, to brush his hands over sculptures, as if he’s connecting dots to form a greater picture.
“How do you do it?”
“How do I do what?”
“How do you change your mind so easily?”
Seungmin grimaces. He slides a box full of paint supplies off a shelf and starts to sort them out.
“I don’t think I do it easily,” he scrapes the caked paint over the label of a tube. After some considering, he drops it back inside the box. “I just don’t wanna regret things I couldn’t do because I was holding back.”
He disposes of dried out tubes and palettes, then places the box containing the remaining supplies in front of Hyunjin.
“Here, take these. I don’t think I’ll be using them.”
“All of these? What am I even supposed to do with body paint?”
“Figure it out yourself,” Seungmin smiles. “That’s your maze for today.”
Hyunjin’s favorite canvas had always been his own body. The soft skin of his forearm had been the first place he’d written his name, in big bold lines that covered up to his wrist. He showed it to every kindergarten teacher, with the proud fascination that came with the realization that he existed beyond the limits of his childish mind.
The teachers had joked Hyunjin was a silly boy, god forbid he forgets his own name. For Hyunjin, it wasn’t a silly matter. It was a proof that his body belonged to him, that he wasn’t just any boy.
It’s a habit he lost to civilized white paper and the baby wipes his mother used to scrub his skin with. It hadn’t taken him long to realize that his body wasn’t as his as he had initially thought. It belonged to social norms first, then to his parents, then to school. Then last, to him.
So when he dips a wet brush into paint and raises it to his wrist, he is unsure of what to do. He writes his name in elegant swirls and smooth lines, but the calligraphy is empty of meaning. He doesn’t know who this Hyunjin is, this Hyunjin who has grown out of marveling his own existence.
He draws a seed at the base of his wrist with dark brown paint, and imagines the blue veins under his skin are the future, the many branches this little seed will spread when it grows. It’s vague, but it’s a start.
His phone vibrates.
lee felix @ 11:00 am
wanna grab lunch?
im just about done with an audition
Hyunjin drops the paintbrush and curses at the stain left on his jeans.
hwang hyunjin @ 11:03 am
where do we meet?
lee felix @ 11:04 am
how about han river?
Han River is the place of Hyunjin’s fondest memories. It had been witness to many summer evenings biking with his friends after school, eating popsicles to beat the heat as they watched the sunset of their youths. It had also been the place of his very first kiss with a short haired girl whose lips tasted of strawberry and snowflakes. It’s where he seeks solace in cheap cans of beer by the riverbank, watching the seasons come and go again.
Perhaps it’s why he feels something in the air when he catches sight of Felix sitting alone, waiting for him under the shadow of a naked tree. The usual bright hue of Felix’s orange hair has mellowed to peach. He could have just run out of hair dye again, but the waning smile Felix shows when Hyunjin takes a seat beside him hints of something else.
His hands are cold when Hyunjin holds them.
“Have you been waiting long?”
“Not really, no.”
“Are you cold?”
Felix snorts like he knows Hyunjin doesn’t mean just the weather. They kiss in a soft press of lips, long and unhurried, with Felix’s eyelids fluttering and his breath fanning Hyunjin’s lips as if waiting for Hyunjin to melt the cold. He kisses Felix’s forehead, where black roots grow under the orange.
“I got accepted into Minho hyung’s dance crew.”
Hyunjin gasps, congratulations rolling off his tongue, but Felix isn’t looking at him.
“You’re not happy?”
Felix shrugs. He lies down on the grass, and his hair falls around him like the autumn leaves Hyunjin would crush under his feet, hoping the crisp sound would bring winter and then spring faster. He twirls a strand of Felix’s hair around his finger. It’s dry and brittle, like an old leaf.
“It’s not that I’m not happy,” Felix says, blinking distantly at the clouds. “It’s just...that’s a change of plans.”
“You don’t wanna be an idol anymore?”
“No use in trying when I’m clearly not fit for it.”
Hyunjin unfurls the hair strand.
“That’s what I think about my art sometimes.”
“You shouldn’t, you’re a great painter.”
“And you’re a great dancer.”
Felix offers his hand, and Hyunjin lies into his chest with an ear pressed right under the steady beat of Felix’s heart. He smells like fabric softener and dew, the first sunlight after a snowstorm. Hyunjin closes his eyes when a hand caresses his hair.
“Do you regret it? Choosing Art School?”
“I don’t regret it as much as I regret doubting myself.”
“I don’t regret being here either. But I’m sad. I’m just sad.”
Hyunjin tucks Felix into his arms and feels soft hiccups vibrating down his throat. He kisses the tears running down Felix’s cheeks, counting the freckles one by one and hoping they grow when spring comes.
“Let’s come back here when the cherry blossoms bloom,” Hyunjin finds himself saying. “I want to see them with you.”
The new semester arrives with a chill breeze of air and the subtle smell of flowers. It’s still early spring, too soon for flowers to bloom under the shy sunlight of partially cloudy days, but promising buds decorate Hyunjin’s path to college.
The campus is packed with freshmen and their loud and curious laughter, as if they were stepping onto a new land. They hold roses, as per their entrance ceremony tradition. Hyunjin had held a similar one too, when he was still green with hope and dreams.
The headmaster had explained the meaning of giving out these flowers to the new students. He had called it auspicious to welcome them as they did with flowers on spring, to cultivate their potential and believe in their growth.
“We are the old barren seeds now, I see.”
Hyunjin giggles so hard some coffee spills from his mouth. Jisung is unimpressed, slurping on an identical spring edition Starbucks coffee as he watches the freshmen lining up in front of the auditorium.
“That’s so morbid.”
“It’s exactly how the principal sees us. Go around dropping flowers on the freshmen’s feet but us? We get nothing.”
“You really wanna get a bouquet from principal Choi and have that garlic breath right before your face?”
Jisung makes a disgusted noise.
“I take that back.”
“Exactly,” Hyunjin smiles, biting on the straw of his coffee. “How can flowers even bloom in such a toxic environment?”
They watch as the last of the freshmen enter the auditorium, taking their flowers out of sight. Hyunjin feels a familiar longing for simpler times when his future was still enshrouded by innocence, when the dark circles under Jisung’s eyes weren’t of such a deep blue. But he is also reminded of the seed painted on his wrist, washed away with water to lie somewhere under his skin, growing.
When he opens his arms Jisung instantly meets him back, and Hyunjin feels thankful for the many seasons they’ve been through together.
“We’ve been able to grow despite everything, haven’t we?”
“Speak for yourself, I haven’t grown a single centimeter since getting into college.”
Hyunjin laughs. They’re growing.
lee felix @ 4:48 pm
hwang hyunjin @ 4:49 pm
never busy for you
lee felix @ 4:50 pm
so tonight im having my
for our dance crew
come see me?
hwang hyunjin @ 4:51 pm
im bringing a cake!!!!!
Balancing a cake through Hongdae at evening proves not to be Hyunjin’s wisest idea. It gets increasingly stressful each time someone bumps into him and the cake shifts on his hands, but somehow both make it out alive to the place Felix appointed him.
Hyunjin swears half the neighbourhood is squished behind the security tape surrounding the improvised stage for Glow Crew. Some people even have huge professional cameras pointed at the closed curtains hiding the separated backstage. It’s all a little intimidating and not safe for cake. Maybe this was a bad idea.
“Hyunjin, hey! Over here!”
Changbin waves at him from where he struggles to see past the shoulders of two tall girls. Hyunjin’s height works on his favor for once as he shoulders his way to Changbin until they have a clear view of the stage.
Changbin cackles when he sees the box on Hyunjin’s hands.
“Did you bring cake to a busking?”
“Felix said it was his debut! I wanted to do something nice to congratulate him.”
“I hope the cake survives the night. And you too.”
Hyunjin frowns. Whatever he asks next goes missing in the collective screaming at the neon green haired girl that appears from behind the curtains. Her smiley piercing shows up when she speaks into a microphone.
“ Wassup! ” she greets and the crowd goes absolutely insane, pushing Hyunjin from all sides. “So as you may have heard we have a new rookie in our group. Some of you may already know him from past buskings he did but he’s not alone anymore! He’s flown all the way from Australia to Hongdae, say hi to Felix!”
Felix’s face hangs low and contained when the curtains are finally pulled away. He takes a deep breath, then all of a sudden shoots his head up with the brightest smile Hyunjin has ever seen as Twice’s Dance the night away drops from the speakers.
Hyunjin can barely hold onto the cake from how much he’s laughing and cheering at Felix’s dancing. Someone screams he could pass as Twice’s tenth member and Hyunjin agrees, whistling when Felix passes by him. His energy infects the crowd, and soon they’re all mimicking the swimming hands in synch.
“So cute, ain’t he?” the green haired girl speaks again, egging on the audience’s enthusiasm. “But that’s not all he can do. Come on boys, show ‘em.”
Minho and another boy join Felix and they stand in a triangle formation, their backs to each other, their hands on the opposite shoulders. The first section of the medley is a dark and emotional hymn that transitions to a second, almost lazy, sensual beat. But it’s the last part that really has Hyunjin’s attention.
Felix dances like fire. It’s not just the passion, it’s how he spreads like fire and every inch of the stage becomes flammable under his feet. The sharp moves of his arms and legs are intense, incandescent energy that sets Hyunjin’s heart alight.
Heat flows from Hyunjin’s head to toes when their eyes meet, burning away the oxygen on his lungs: all he can take in is Felix, Felix, Felix. His knees shake when Felix smirks at him.
“Alright show offs, looks like you got everybody’s heart already,” the green haired girl shoos them offstage. “Let your sunbaes do the show now.”
Minho and the other boy leave, but Felix lingers for a moment, holding onto Hyunjin’s gaze. The sweat rolling down his jaw makes Hyunjin lose the track of his thoughts.
“Looks like you’ll be doing more than just dancing the night away,” Changbin chuckles.
Hyunjin drops the cake.
The night breeze is intoxicatingly sweet. Or maybe that’s a trick of his mind, numbed down to a buzz by countless rounds of soju and the early hours of morning. The dance crew scatters after the fourth bar, each to their own, Hyunjin and Felix to each other under the neon lights from a 24 hour convenience store.
Warmth pools at his cheeks when he recalls the night. He can’t remember much of what was said or done beyond the shots that burned down his throat and Felix pressed to his side thigh on thigh, hand over his knee, his laughter all over the air Hyunjin was trying to breathe.
Felix’s eyes pop out under the red neon sign, glowing like a cat’s, fixed somewhere around Hyunjin’s lips. The lights make Hyunjin think of soaking in red, inside that bathtub surrounded by cherry blossoms. Instead it’s Felix body heat he soaks in, knees faltering just a bit.
“You okay?” comes Felix’s voice, too close, as if he’s speaking directly into Hyunjin’s brain. “Want me to put you on a cab home?”
“Don’t wanna,” Hyunjin wraps his arms around his neck. “Let’s go somewhere else.”
They stumble upon on art gallery still open at three in the morning. The sign indicates it’s a one floor installation, whose entrance is a pitch dark tunnel. Hands linked, they enter.
The darkness is interrupted by small, purple stones of light in an irregular trail on the floor, on the walls, on the ceiling. It’s beautiful and disorienting, like Felix, so Hyunjin treads carefully. They reach a room, still dark, but bright glowing strings cascade from the ceiling to create rivers of light on the floor.
“What is this place?”
Felix touches the strings, pulls them apart and plays with them, dips his fingers where they open for him. Hyunjin feels the ghost of that touch down his spine.
Something presses on his chest. Felix curls his fingers like soft claws over Hyunjin’s heart.
“Am I inside you?”
Hyunjin tastes the breath stuck on his throat.
Every inch of his body glows like molten glass when Felix kisses him. Hyunjin melts under the hands grabbing his waist, drips in the spaces between Felix’s fingers as if he’s coming undone with only the hot pressure of lips against lips. His nerves sizzle and he’s left crystalline thin when Felix draws back.
Hyunjin feels as if he could break at any moment.
“Thank you for today,” Felix whispers into the heated skin of his cheek. “I was really happy. I am really happy.”
“I didn’t do anything,” Hyunjin shrugs, but the smile he feels against his jaw makes him fall a little more in love. “I’m glad you’re happy. I’m happy when you’re happy.”
The dark makes it hard to distinguish shapes, and so Hyunjin gets caught in the idea that they now share one body. He shakes in reflex at the slightest moves, breathes in the air Felix breathes out, sees the stars of Felix’s freckles in the sweet pain of a bite-kiss over his Adam’s apple.
“I really like you,” is his only coherent thought, so he repeats it, over and over again. “I really, really like you.”
“I really like you too,” Felix echoes, feverish and urgent, like he’s trying to imprint the words into Hyunjin’s lips. “You have no idea.”
Hyunjin almost does.
Twice’s What Is Love blasts on his phone for a solid 10 minutes before Hyunjin bothers to turn it off with an angry slap. Jisung, who would usually serve as the morning alarm to save Hyunjin’s last minutes of sleep, is nowhere to be seen in the mess left on his bed.
Dehydration makes his head throb, hunger makes his stomach hurt, so Hyunjin entertains the thought of napping for another minute or two to avoid it all. But when a leg slots between his and a pair of lips hover over his collarbone, all sleep leaves him.
Felix dreams without a care in the world, one hand tucked under Hyunjin’s shirt, a freckled shoulder exposed under the low collar of his shirt. There’s a noticeable trail of small, pink-red marks down the column of his neck, courtesy of Hyunjin’s lips.
A strange sound bubbles up his throat so Hyunjin muffles it against a pillow. They had done nothing but kiss, from that dark room to his bed, until they were too high on sleep deprivation and each other’s taste. But two and half hours of sleep haven’t faded the delicious sting on all the places Felix bit him.
Hyunjin tries not to think where that would have led them had they not been too exhausted to continue.
Felix voice is soft and low, lower than Hyunjin has ever heard him, and it makes the weirdest things on the pit of his stomach.
“Morning,” Felix’s lips stretch in a dazed smile. “What time is it?”
“Uh,” Hyunjin fumbles for his phone. “A little past 10?”
Hyunjin shrieks when Felix jumps up, falls over him in his attempt at getting up. In between gathering his clothes and shoes, a hundred curse words are thrown at his ancestors for letting him be this late to work.
“Shit, I can’t show up to work looking like this. Can you lend me a shirt or something?”
Hyunjin blushes for several reasons. First is their obvious size difference; even the smallest of his shirts would still look huge in Felix’s body. Then there’s the thought of Felix’s perfume sticking to his clothes, which Hyunjin shoves away from his mind. Most importantly though, Hyunjin thinks of the hickeys.
He fetches a long neck pink sweater from his wardrobe.
“For your, uh,” Hyunjin gestures at the general direction of Felix’s face. “Neck.”
“I...left some. Marks.”
Hyunjin watches Felix palm down his neck and brush his fingers over the marks he can’t see, but feels in the light pain it sends straight to his throat, a groan. It’s sexy in all the inappropriate ways for a Tuesday morning. Hyunjin looks away.
“You’re probably late for college too, right?” Felix pulls down the long neck of the sweater over his head. It messes up his hair in the most adorable of ways. “I wish we could grab breakfast together.”
Hyunjin pouts because heck, for all of the dirty things crossing his mind Felix seems unaware, romantic in the ways Hyunjin forgets to be.
“I’ll text you later,” he says, already missing him. “Let’s grab lunch. Or dinner. Or both.”
Felix presses a long kiss like a promise over Hyunjin’s swollen lips, and it hurts in the best of ways.
For a long time Hyunjin believed romance was something that belonged to dramas alone. The kinds that left you on the edge of your seat, rooting for the main characters to overcome heart-wrenching probations to fulfill their love. Intense, passionate romance that occupied many of his thoughts after meaningless one-night stands.
Real life romance, however, is nothing that cinematic. It is, in fact, fleeting; easily missed in the mundane routine of intimacy, and the exact reason why Hyunjin treasures it so much.
For him, romance can be a plastic bowl of japchae on a Tuesday night sitting on the sidewalk beside Felix, passing back and forth a bottle of sparkling soju. Romance is counting Felix’s freckles in the streetlamp lights and hoping he doesn’t catch Hyunjin staring.
Felix does, anyway.
“Do you think they'll bloom soon?”
At Hyunjin’s clueless face, Felix nods to the cherry trees lining the sidewalk across from them. If this was a drama, the white shy buds would choose this very moment to bloom and fill the air around them with their sweet perfume. Instead, the only thing Hyunjin smells is the greasy oil from the japchae cart.
“Who knows,” he shrugs, smiling into the next mouthful of noodles he picks with his chopsticks. “We can wait for them. Give them their time.”
Time, Hyunjin has come to understand, is a precious thing. Not the exact numbers of a stopwatch when he crosses the finish line before everybody else, this rushed, fast results, barely lived time the world asks of him. Rather, the time he allows himself to grow at his own pace, like tender cherry blossoms waiting for spring.
“Ah, there’s a petal in your hair.”
Felix takes a single pink petal from Hyunjin’s hair and blows it away, but it falls over his noodles. Hyunjin giggles.
“I’m happy,” he says, out loud, even if the words are out place. “I’m really happy.”
“Yeah?” Felix smiles, cherry blossom petal pinched between his fingers. “Why is that?”
“I just am.”
“Is it because of me?”
Felix means it as a joke, but Hyunjin’s heart aches to say yes, so he does. It doesn’t matter that he tastes like cheap meat and vegetables, that his bangs are much too long and they tickle against his face when he leans in for a kiss. Felix giggles against his lips, and it’s absolutely better than the dramas.
It starts raining, and like in the dramas, Hyunjin has no umbrella. They have to make do with each other’s coats, mad running on wet sidewalks and almost flying head first into cars on red lights. They’re honked and cursed at, but the thrill of bad decisions and fresh spring rain keeps them laughing all the way to Felix’s place.
It only starts bothering him when they step into the apartment and Hyunjin is soaking on the floor, wet clothes weighing down on his bones. Felix insists he goes first, so Hyunjin is stuck in the bathroom with a change of clothes probably two sizes smaller than him and Felix’s entire skin care routine on display on the sink.
Between lotions and creams, he spots the familiar shape of the peach lip balm he bought a couple of weeks ago. He wonders if Felix bought it thinking of kissing him too. Hyunjin’s ears grow hot.
He hopes Felix can’t hear his heart beating a thousand miles an hour when he slips in his shirt. It’s a tight fit but it smells just like Felix, like sunlight and coffee and all of Hyunjin’s favorite things. He dabs some balm on his lips, just in case.
Felix has already changed when Hyunjin emerges from the bathroom. The low collar of his shirt leaves Hyunjin’s throat dry. Felix smiles like he knows it.
“What are you thinking of?”
“The way you talk it sounds like you’re always thinking of me.”
He doesn’t resist when Felix pushes him into the bed, propped with each leg beside his hips. The weight of Felix’s body pressing down into his makes Hyunjin’s thoughts go wild. He makes a sound, embarrassingly loud, when Felix nips on his jaw.
“Me too,” Felix says, head cocked like a cat, neck exposed with the flower petals Hyunjin has painted with his tongue and teeth. “I’m always thinking about you.”
Hyunjin feels warmth spread over his chest, down his belly, inside his thighs. Felix pulls him in like gravity and Hyunjin collapses, like a dying star.
On Hyunjin’s 8th birthday he got his first gouache paint. It was a set of six basic colors in small tablettes, the kind of cheap art supplies for leisure painting in elementary school. It didn’t matter that his first stroke of paint was a streaky, watery disaster, nothing like the masterpieces he saw on the books. It was magic all the same. He begged for a better quality set for his next birthday.
His first serious painting had been a portrait of his father drinking from his morning spicy soup before work. Hyunjin didn’t know then what hangover soup meant, or why his father looked so funny scrunching his nose at the taste.
The face his father made when he saw it ready is one Hyunjin will never forget. It was full of emotions a 9-year-old Hyunjin didn’t know, but he understood something in the way his father patted his head. It filled his childish eyes with water. He swore to keep painting, if only to understand those feelings in the future.
Hyunjin has grown to understand it in the many paintings he’s done ever since; in the ones he’s torn apart, in the ones he’s kept a secret, and specially in the ones he loves so much he wishes he could paint them onto himself.
He can’t though, so he settles for the second best.
“Don’t move, babe,” he scolds, trapping Felix’s dorso between his knees. Felix groans but he stays, nearly not breathing, lest he sneezes when Hyunjin slides a wet brush over his cheek. “Just a little bit more.”
“It’s cold,” Felix whines. Hyunjin resists the urge to kiss his pout away by turning Felix’s head to the side so he can work on his neck. “And it tickles like hell.”
“I’m almost done.”
And when he is, it’s breathtaking.
It’s on the roll of the cheesiest things Hyunjin has ever done, but it’s the only way he’s found to express his feelings. He leads Felix to the bathroom mirror and feels his eyes water when Felix sees his reflection.
It starts with a seed on his wrist, from where it sprouts a thin, young green stalk; it turns into a brown bark on his elbow, then runs in a single line all the way to his shoulder, where it branches out. Cherry blossom branches hug the slope of his right shoulder, the side of his neck and his cheek, with tiny pink flowers blooming where they meet Felix’s freckles, the pollen blown by the wind.
“This is...beautiful. I don’t even know what to say.”
“You don’t need to say anything,” Hyunjin walks closer, places a kiss on a cherry blossom he used to cover a hickey. Felix shivers. “I’m not good with words either.”
“You don’t need to be.”
Hyunjin giggles, happy as he’s never felt, and when they kiss, he swears Felix tastes like spring.
Seungmin’s installation is a success, more or less. The daily visitors have a mixed array of reactions, but mostly they wonder or abhor whatever went through for spring to be so gruesome once the water is drained out and all that’s left is the red stain on the bottom of the tub and Hyunjin’s footsteps on the wooden floor.
It’s become a personal pastime of his to just sit there and watch what others have to say, giggling at their expressions, realizing how odd it is to be behind the process people only see the result of. Seungmin once sent a screenshot of a rude netizen calling it a tasteless joke, to what Seungmin promptly replied saying his art taste was a joke. Hyunjin has never cracked so hard.
But Felix seems to be the one who truly grasps what this means to him. It’s in his starry eyes when they meet in the gallery long after visiting hours, with Seungmin’s special permission clearing their entrance. It’s in his hands and smile when they stand there together, and exactly at midnight, he says:
“Happy birthday, Hyunjin.”