“I can’t believe that one of us is finally getting married,” Seungcheol whines, lips flushed in a pout. He hasn’t changed at all, right down to the seven-soju-a-night standard.
“But Beomju-hyung got married years ago,” Wonwoo corrects, smiling into his pint.
“Ahh,” Mingyu slumps down, hitting his head on the table with a concerningly loud clunk. He scatters cutlery and bumps his elbow into Minghao, “This is it. We’re adults now. There’s no going back.”
“He can’t believe that one of us is getting married,” Chan quips. He motions at the table, “Look at us, charging into middle age, conquering the milestones, I still remember when I first met —“ Chan thrusts his beer into the air and stood up. He takes a big breath.
Junhui grins into Minghao’s shoulder, “here he goes.”
Minghao takes another sip of wine. He has to check if his hands were shaking. They weren’t because his knuckles were white on the stem with self-control. His heart is shuddering and he tunnels his vision forwards so that his mind will not tumble into the dark.
It’s amazing, how marriage always seem to be the answer to getting close with someone.
Minghao was 6, Seungcheol was 9, and Minghao liked him before he knew what crushes were.
Choi Seungcheol was the darling of their local primary school — soccer captain, handball champion, record holder of the 200m sprint, high jump, javelin, 50m freestyle, 100m backstroke and placed in the top 1% of the Junior National Geographic Competition of 2004. He was also the king of the playground. Every lunch he would sprint towards the basketball court to bag playing rights for his friends. Within a minute of the bell, Seungcheol would be there and Minghao would spend the second half of lunch watching Seungcheol play the court.
It wasn’t until university that he learnt to be subtle.
When Minghao was in Year 4, Seungcheol became school captain and Friday afternoons became a treat where Minghao could stare adoringly as Seungcheol stepped up to the stage and address the whole school in his weekly report, all windswept hair and earnest eyes.
When Seungcheol graduated, Minghao spent the summer with the yearbook, looking at his picture again and again until Junhui spilled juice on it.
Jeon Wonwoo was an arts/law student and peripherally in most of Minghao’s classes for his bachelor’s. Whenever he walked into the first class for the semester, Minghao’s heart will do a little jiggle from the anticipation of watching that profile for thirteen weeks.
Wonwoo was one of those perfect students, sat up straight, took notes by hand and never went on his phone. He wasn’t fashionable, but he dressed clean in his uniform of button-ups and cardigans, a visual oasis in the desert of hoodies. Throughout the entire lecture, he would be inhumanely focused, nodding along when he understood and tilting his head when processing. Minghao could watch him and learn through osmosis. The sheer power of his immaculate presence empowered his grades.
(Minghao started wearing glasses around this time too, even though he never needed any).
When Minghao walked into a new class and saw Wonwoo, giddiness and competitiveness would sweep over him. His worked harder if Wonwoo was there. Friday afternoon postcolonial literature whittled into a three-way-conversation between them and the lecturer while the other 23 students dozed off. Minghao would flick through the readings to keep up with his questions, ctrl-f Bhabha and Spivak to check his citations as his mind formed counter-arguments. Trying to keep a poker face as Wonwoo turned around to watch him as he spoke.
Once they were in small groups comparing Wilson and Lattimore translations of the Odyssey, Minghao frantically skimming the lines when Wonwoo had leaned over from behind and pointed at the page. But he long to see even just the smoke that rises from homeland, and he wants to die. And he wants to die. Wonwoo's stomach pressed into his shoulder, a second of heat but Minghao clasped onto that moment and replayed in his head until he got home and shoved a hand down his pants, touching himself to that memory, imagining Wonwoo behind him, pressing him down.
They barely spoke outside of class. At the end of every term they would shuffle out and part ways without a word. But towards the end Minghao wanted to say thank you and goodbye. To say something, anything. A platonic coffee to get his details to keep Wonwoo in his life, somehow. To acknowledge his existence.
And at the last of the compulsory courses, Minghao watched him go and thought — we may never see each other ever again.
Minghao in university knew what he liked, knew who he was and what he wanted to be. He knew how to look at men from a distance and gauge their preferences. He knew when to push and chase, or pull and reel in. The people who met him after high school were faced with a Xu Minghao who wore his clothes like armour and curated his face to be a sword.
By university, Minghao did not believe in love. But his heart betrayed him and leapt again and again, falling into different hands until countless souls had imprinted their mark, left their brand in his blood.
All throughout Junior school, Minghao's mum enrolled him in half a dozen extra curricular activities, a form of elitist childcare to occupy time while she worked. It was partly for his own benefit, but also out of pride so he had something to display to their relatives when they went home for Chinese New Year. He tried violin, chess, ink calligraphy. Some of it overlapped with Junhui whose mother was inflicted with the same dream of showing off their children on communist television. Saturdays was a flurry of Chinese school in the morning, maths tutoring in the afternoon, and martial arts until dinnertime. On weekdays he had english tutoring, art, and ballet.
It’s difficult to imagine any traditional mum wanting their son to do ballet, but his grandma's neighbour’s daughter sent her son to ballet and apparently it improved his posture, helped him grow taller, and taught him to respect women.
"Enrol him now. If he does too much martial arts and sports he's going to get into fights and become stupid," the voice came from the speaker phone as his mum peeled garlic into an empty yoghurt container, " Don't follow what white people do. Look at how disrespectful their sons are. Sending their parents to nursing homes. A little femininity is good for a man. Don’t want him to turn into his father."
So Mrs Xu enrolled her son into ballet school. She made him watch a VCR and learn the moves so she could bargain him into a higher class and save money. It worked, he got sorted into Grade 3 with older girls, the shortest of whom was one head taller and the worst part of all was that he was the only boy.
They peered at his leggings and his hair and whispered and cooed and Minghao cowered into a corner as they advanced. He really didn’t like girls.
And he really didn’t like ballet, until he met Kwon Soonyoung.
Minghao had forgotten his shoes. His mum yelled at him in the car, they drove back and Minghao had slunk into the hall only to find the next class had already started. Grade 4, ten girls, one boy who danced better than any of them.
They were at the barre.
His first position was a perfect 180 degrees and turned out from the hip. His demi-plié a wide diamond, left arm a graceful arc. He moved without hesitation, leg straight up behind him for an arabesque that did not quiver. Assemblé soutenu, adage, grand battements. Tendu to second. Repeat.
Minghao didn’t even know someone could arrange their body like that. With the others, and even the older student who demonstrated for them, it just felt like a correct way to move the limbs. But this one boy danced in a way that made you want to watch. There was beauty in the angle between his neck and his shoulder, the bending of his waist, the curl of his foot as it rose from the ground. Even just standing still, Minghao could not look away.
And then it was water break and Minghao took the opportunity to slide through the door, and scurry to get his ballet shoes. He ducked a quick bow to the teacher, muttered an apology, and when he looked up, the boy (oh he was cute too) was looking at him curiously. Actually everyone in the room was looking at him then and Minghao’s ears flamed. He ran out, promising to never forget anything ever again.
"What took you so long," his mum grumbled when he got back into the car.
I was watching a boy dance.
Ah, but Xu Minghao at 10 already knew how to play the game.
"I didn’t want to disturb the class," he said.
She tutted, "You could’ve done it quietly and no one would have noticed.” But he could tell she was pleased.
The next week, he took a little longer to undo his laces and tie up his canvas shoes. Took his time finding his drink bottle and his coat and his socks. Long enough to see the grade 4 students stride in with all the confidence of a year’s seniority. Long enough to see that boy lean down and touch his toes.
Minghao gulped, realised he was the only one left from his class, and ran out.
And then again the week after. The boy placed his foot on the barre and descended, nose to knee, arms crossed at the wrist. The week after he made the whole class laugh with a joke and oh, oh.
Minghao told his mum to pick him up later because he wanted to watch the older class. She gladly agreed.
Minghao told Madam Liu his mum had work until late. She agreed.
And so on Wednesday nights Minghao had ballet for two hours. The first hour he danced, the second hour he watched, and in his mind he danced.
Even Junhui picked up how he was always jittery on Wednesdays, always glancing at the clock after lunch, counting down the minutes until class ended and he could run out, school bag full of homework and a sports bag of his ballet gear.
At school there was a genius student called Samuel Kim who was 6 years old but did fourth grade maths. Most importantly he skipped a grade. Went from kindergarten to year 2. Boom.
If Minghao skipped a grade of ballet —
Once Xu Minghao put his mind to something, mountains became plains and horizons became milestones. If he wanted something, he will put in his entire effort to get it.
(A pity this tenacity did not extend to love)
He watched the grade 4 exercises while pretending to do his homework. When he got home, he practised immediately to transfer the memory to his muscles. During library readings he sat on the floor with his feet together and knees apart, just so he could stretch while listening.
Junhui picked up on his habit and then it became a competition to see whose knees could touch the floor first. The boys at school gave them stink eyes until Junhui lead them behind the gym to high kick them into the grass.
And Minghao daydreamed about doing a side split in front of the Ballet Boy.
Come the Royal Academy exams, Minghao got 95/100 and Madam Liu recommended him to skip and Mrs Xu was overjoyed that her son was a virtuoso.
No, Minghao thought years later, your son was gay.
Despite the height difference, they were placed together, Minghao in the row behind so that he could follow the moves and oh those three years of ballet class with the Ballet Boy was the most amount of happiness his little heart could handle.
Minghao had worried so much before that first lesson of 5th Grade but Soonyoung had plopped down next to Minghao while he was stretching and introduced himself with,
"Hi my name is Soonyoung but you can call me soon!"
And Minghao was already petrified with the nerves of a new class and the appearance of Soonyoung, the face of Soonyoung before him, Soonyoung talking to him, that it emptied his mind of all processing capacity. Only with the finely honed instinct of an only child to a single parent, did Minghao know that Soonyoung tried to say something funny and it that was socially appropriate to laugh here, so, Minghao laughed. It wasn’t a very convincing laugh but after a second, Soonyoung laughed back and Minghao was relieved that he passed the test but then he was confused at how Soonyoung’s laugh was a weird ‘huehuehue’ and then Minghao’s brain was in overdrive trying to recalibrate social cues for this interaction.
It was strange because outside of dancing Minghao didn’t like Soonyoung, didn’t like his jokes, his puffy cheeks. Didn’t like the way he talked loudly and inserted himself into every conversation. When Soonyoung opened his mouth, Minghao braced his facial muscles to stay neutral.
But when Soonyoung danced, he became a different person. Every trace of humour fell away, his face hardened and he did not spare even a glance in Minghao’s direction, head always turned at the perfect, prescribed angle.
And that set something alight inside Minghao, like a hurricane that swept aside all other thoughts except for better, better, better. It made him sauté higher, his arabesque higher, his battements higher. Good enough that Madam Liu picked him out for praise. And Minghao lived for that, for his name to spoken in front of the whole class, to be heard by Kwon Soonyoung.
For grade six ballet, they had lessons twice a week, and then a third for showcase where they will dance a variation of Don Quixote, just him and Soonyoung.
Minghao didn’t recognise it then, the way he would find himself watching the way Soonyoung carried his momentum through a tours en l'air, jump, spin, drop to the knee. When Soonyoung reviewed Minghao’s routine, he watched with the eyes of a tiger and Minghao had never felt so seen. When they warmed up in the side room while the girls were practising, he didn’t realise that the fierce pounding of his heart was not just adrenaline
It wasn’t until Soonyoung helped him stretch, their feet touching in a side split, their hands together, then Soonyoung pulling him in until they were chest to chest and their —
Vernon was the son of his art teacher. He didn’t paint and Minghao spited him for that because he himself had to ride a bus for half an hour just to get to the studio.
He was the quietest person Minghao ever met. Not just quiet quiet, but the kind of calm-lake, dark-night, winter-morning quiet that you can gaze into for an hour and hear the sound of your own mind.
He sat in the corner, always with a book, always looking out the window. Minghao drew him in the corners of his sketchbook and he was the perfect model because he never seemed to move.
Vernon was also the second person Minghao ever told that he was gay.
The experience with Soonyoung was so mortifying Minghao had purged it from his mind but it still clawed itself to the surface, like Soonyoung’s laugh over Madam Liu’s speeches. He remembered it when he was about to fall asleep in a hotel in Guangzhou, in the middle of his last Chemistry exam, before he was about to kiss Jeonghan.
(But that was later, later, and later)
He was still at the age where a gust of wind could spark a boner, so when Soonyoung pulled him in, chest to chest, calf to calf, and thigh to thigh, Minghao got hard immediately and the worst part of it all was that Soonyoung was hard too.
Minghao stared wide eyed at Soonyoung and Soonyoung stared back.
“I’m not gay,” Soonyoung blurted out.
“I don’t know,” Minghao said. And then his eyes widened even further. He should have said —
“This is a fear boner.” Soonyoung added. An unnecessary detail but necessary to fill the silence as their dicks awkwardly greeted each other. Like inexperienced squires jousting for the first time oh my god and that was Junhui’s voice in his head, reading out loud on the quiet bus home. No thanks, no thanks.
And then the piano music from the main hall stopped and Madam Liu clapped twice and then the chattering started and oh my god the girls were done and they had to go out any moment and Minghao got even harder.
“Fear boner,” Minghao gasped, and then as if just processing their predicament, he pushed Soonyoung away.
Soonyoung curled upon himself, “Unsexy thoughts, unsexy thoughts.”
Fear boners were real and they were so fucked because he couldn’t just tuck his dick into his waistband because they were wearing skin-tight booty shorts and a white t-shirt that was already see-through with their sweat.
“Soonyoung! Minghao!” Mrs Liu yelled, “Your turn!”
Minghao pressed his face against the floor and pretended to stretch. Unsexy thoughts, unsexy thoughts. A room full of girls. 3D trigonometry. Junhui with braces spluttering saliva. Junhui’s poetry recital at Chinese School. Junhui crying because —
Vernon taught him to be gentle. To not panic, to access the situation and recognise the limits of your ability. To accept that there will be choices beyond your reach, and that’s okay.
Minghao remembers Soonyoung for the way he danced, and he will remember Chan for the way he laughed, but for Vernon it was the way he talked. His voice was so calming to listen to, and when he listened to Minghao, it was as if he was collecting each thought to cradle in his palm and examine with care.
He was surprisingly confident too. Junhui was confident, as was Seungcheol and Joshua, but Vernon’s confidence seemed to be sourced from a different fountain. It was a subtle and soothing thing, something that didn’t make you self-conscious. It was like he saw every part of you and knew that you were trying your best.
At sixteen, Minghao knew he liked boys in the way most boys liked girls. It was just a conceptual thing, an unformed shape that was still an idea and not yet an identity.
But in that basement art studio with the sunlight seeping into Vernon’s hair, Minghao measured the contours of his face with his pencil and wondered what it would be like, to like Vernon. To hold hands and have Vernon look back at him like the way Minghao was looking at him right now.
He thought of the Taiwanese dramas his mother watched. I think I like you. Let’s go out on a date. I want you to be mine. He mouthed the words at Vernon’s profile, an exercise in confession.
Ah, but those phrases did not reflect what he felt. Minghao frowned and thought harder. What does he feel towards Vernon? He did not want to kiss him like the way adults did in movies. Nor did he want to hold his hand, because that would be too visible and Vernon’s mum was right there. Nor did he want to own Vernon, is that what the phrase meant?
He just wants to get know him. Is that enough?
So when Minghao’s done for the day, he walks up and says, “I’m Minghao. Can we be friends?”
And Vernon finally turns away from the window and when he looks at Minghao, he stares for an agonisingly long moment before bursting into wide gummy smile. Minghao’s heart soars and he thinks, is this love?
They get melon ice cream from the Korean mart next door and sit on the stairs. Minghao doesn’t know what to say, but Vernon talks enough for the both of them until Minghao gradually eases into comfort. And they keep talking.
They get ice cream every week after that, going through all the flavours from the cheapest (lemonade) to the most expensive (matcha green tea).
One evening Minghao says, “I like you.”
“Oh,” Vernon smiles, “Thanks.”
“I’m gay,” said Minghao.
Vernon’s smile doesn’t falter, “Do you like me then, that way?”
He spends a second to consider. “I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out.”
“Cool. That’s okay.”
“Do you mind if I ask,” Minghao fidgets, “What about you?”
“Me? I’ve thought about it, but I don’t know. I think if I like someone then I like someone.” So simple. Minghao likes him even more for that.
It wasn’t much of a real confession than just Minghao testing the waters, dipping his toes into a lake and seeing how it ripples. Seeing how the words spill out of his mouth and watching the way it falls.
He is very, very grateful that his first confession was to Vernon, because Vernon always treated honesty with tenderness.
Later in life, a few people will call him brave for the seemingly effortless way he confessed. But Minghao would disagree. He was lucky Vernon was so kind.
He never confessed to Soonyoung.
No, he was younger then, and the idea of a a reciprocated, acknowledged love was beyond the imagination, something he didn’t realise he could want until he was older. At fifteen, what he felt for Soonyoung was something purer. It was enough to watch him dance, to spend the hours and weeks and years in the studio, stretching their tendons to breaking point, leaping until their calves cramped.
He never did a perfect side split in front of Soonyoung because he stopped a year later when grade seven classes were two hours twice a week, and clashed with the accelerated maths tutoring.
It was well enough, because Madam Liu wanted to do Nutcracker for the next showcase and Minghao knew he had to touch a girl eventually.
His sixteenth summer passed in a schedule of evening shifts and breakdance battles that lasted until dawn. Lying to his parents and evading Junhui’s questions. Sleeping in period one mathematics and rolling up the sleeves of his uniform.
Minghao at sixteen was Zhang Yixing.
He was a street dancer that practiced in the reflection of glass walls. When Minghao thinks of Yixing, he thinks of convenience store neon, concrete on his back, kisses in the dark. Yixing taught him how to do windmills, then back spins and scissor kicks, locks and isolations. He took Minghao to hangouts underneath highway bridges, showed him how to crack open a beer on the curb. He taught him so much more.
Minghao was so young and eager to please. Yixing was different to Seungcheol, to Vernon. It had felt so different, the way he called ge, could look up and see Yixing’s eyes on him, watching him move. He treasured the small flurry of happiness whenever Yixing looked his way, nodded his approval. It reminded him of the way Soonyoung watched him when he danced.
He loved listening to Yixing talk because it was nothing like the schoolyard banter Minghao was familiar with. He talked about university assignments and pub crawl happy hours and sex with exes.
Yixing was like a fast-track ticket to the world of adulthood. He had an answer to every single one of Minghao’s questions. Everything Yixing did, Minghao filed it away in his brain, to be repeated to Junhui later, a minor boast, a hey I’m growing up.
Yixing dressed in t-shirts that said something philosophical. He could walk up to people and talk to them, handshake, shoulder bump, back rub. He smoked Camel Blues and passed the habit to Minghao. When Minghao coughed and choked on the smoke, Yixing stole the cigarette from his fingertips and stole a kiss from his lips.
His first time was in a car, biting his knuckles and watching the windows fog up. His arm cramped up, his foot kept slipping off the seat and he couldn’t come until Yixing’s hands were on him and his mouth on his ear.
It had felt good though, in a strange kind of way because the pain was unbearable but the feeling of being wanted, that was good. To be held and be told you’re doing well, so good Minghao.
Minghao went to school the next day, wondering if anyone could tell, could smell the change in him. That he had ticked off another check box on the bucket list of life. No one mentioned anything, not even Junhui as he crammed into Minghao’s space to copy his homework.
He was shattered when Yixing told him they wouldn’t work out, that golden afternoon next to the park in his car. That the age difference was a little strange. That Minghao should focus on his studies and sleep more. But they could still be friends and lets hop into the backseat to talk—
Minghao looked out the window and tried not to cry.
Even now, when a Mini Cooper drives past, Minghao thinks of that summer. In a crowd, he could recognise Yixing’s cologne, get taken back to the smell of concrete and the roar of a motorway.
If Minghao was a super-villain he would have Yixing’s name on a dartboard. Not the face because he never wants to see him ever again.
At seventeen, Minghao and Junhui had a cumulative total of 5 days dating experience which to them was all the wisdom of the world and enough to tackle the sparkling problem of Lee Seokmin.
Chapel singer in the grade below. Lead worship on Mondays and the national anthem on Fridays. For the 2012 inter-house competition he performed a skit with Boo Seungkwan that left half the school in stitches and the other half in love. That latter group included Xu Minghao and Wen Junhui who joined the school production the following year.
Seokmin had a bright smile and an even brighter laugh. He had thighs of steel and apparently lungs of iron too. He could belt notes without a microphone and Minghao could hear him from the tech booth at the back of the hall, melodies echoing in his head well after the last sound petered out.
All throughout the production, Minghao drifted towards him. He would stay behind after the crew had left just to watch Seokmin practice, himself pretending to take inventory of props and costumes. When he painted the sets in the art department, he would gladly accept any errand that would take him to the stage. It was like Soonyoung all over again, except this time the feelings in his heart gathered and swarmed until it felt like his lungs were full of it.
Junhui always knew when Minghao liked someone, not because he was perceptive, but because Minghao was that obvious. It was like a game of battleships, Junhui bringing up the matter every few months just to check what explodes.
“Minghao has a cruushhh~” Junhui would tease.
And if Minghao didn’t, he would roll his eyes and push Junhui away. If he did, his ears would go red as he spluttered and denied with poorly-concealed embarrassment.
And Minghao always seemed to have a crush for some reason. The boy at the library who wore an expensive private school uniform, gold piping on the blazer and awards embroidered down the chest. The barista at the train station who smiled at him. Joshua Hong their maths tutor who wore skinny jeans and made Minghao choke every time he turned around to write on the board. Junhui had a glorious time in that era, waggling his eyebrows at Minghao while he ate fried chicken behind his notes.
At twenty-two, Minghao did not believe in love, not in the way it always seemed to find other people. When he was younger, he thought he fell in love too easily, but now he thinks he can not fall in love at all. Crushes sure. Infatuation? Definitely. But love?
Love, where you open your heart and go on your knees and expect to be treated with kindness. Love, where you choose someone’s happiness over your own. Where you’re supposed to fit with imperfect people and accept their flaws and all their demons and dark sides while exposing your own. The kind of love that supposedly cumulates in marriage.
No, Minghao didn’t think love was for him.
But each time his heart outran him.
With Seokmin, Minghao learnt that confessions were something he had to do for himself.
Minghao thought he could wait it out like he did with Seungcheol or Soonyoung. But his feelings were a simmering pot about to overflow. He couldn’t concentrate in class and every waking moment was engulfed with the thought of Seokmin, smiling, dancing, singing. He would input their names into facebook compatibility apps and when he stalked down Seokmin’s birthday, Minghao checked their western and chinese zodiacs.
When he got home he would lie in bed and imagine himself holding Seokmin’s hand and giggle into the pillow. And then he would punch the pillow in horror as if punishing it for witnessing this moment of weakness.
He held on until he was about to burst and then one winter afternoon, he confessed to Lee Seokmin and braced himself.
“Oh,” Seokmin said, eyes widening. And then he started tearing up.
“No, no,” Minghao panicked, “I’m sorry for troubling you. Please forget it. I just, I don’t know —“
“It’s okay, it’s,” sniffed Seokmin, “I’m sorry. I cry easily. Don’t, think too much, ah —” His lips wobbled and Minghao wondered if this were how confessions were meant to go.
“I’m sorry,” Minghao tried again, not sure if this was something he should be sorry about.
“It’s just,” Seokmin took a shuddering breath, “I’m sorry. You’re so nice and cool but I haven’t, I can’t — I don’t like you that way. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Minghao said, “Thank you for listening to me.”
“Do you mind if I ask… what did you like about me?”
“Your smile,” Minghao blurts, “I like the way you sing and perform. And how you’re always trying your best and making the work easier for everything. It makes me happy to look at you.” The words come so easily.
“Ah,” Seokmin’s eyes welled up again, “Thank you so much. I needed to hear that. You are so kind.”
No you are. Minghao thinks. He had expected to be stabbed with the same feeling as that last afternoon with Yixing. But no, now his heart feels lighter, like a cage had been unlocked and the words which had been kept in there were now free in the world.
At the next practice Minghao sees Seokmin and Seokmin smiles back and all Minghao can think of is sunshine.
They met when Minghao moved into the student accomodation, first year university ready for three. His neighbour was smoking in the open hallway, dressed in the varsity hoodie, a beanie, a wool scarf, and only boxers down below. He had a mug of tea in one hand and a cigarette in the other. This image of him on their open hallway, against sunset and thunderstorms, winter and summer. Deloitte mug, Malboro slims. Faithful, consistent.
Minghao will always remember him like this.
“Hello neighbour,” the beautiful man said.
Minghao’s immediate thought was, is this love at first sight.
Yoon Jeonghan. Econometrics masters. Man killer.
Jeonghan was beautiful and cool and well-liked by everyone. He was who Minghao wanted to be. To be able to read people with a glance and know their insecurities within an evening. To turn heads on campus yet respected in class. To always have something meaningful to say and to love without limits.
Jeonghan cleared his ashtray when he had tinder date and Minghao could read his mood by counting the number of butts day by day. During exams he smoked 7 daily. The week after exams, it was always clean.
But he was older and wiser in the unaccessible way Yixing never was. Minghao drifted towards Yixing and Yixing let him get drawn in, returned look for look, touch for touch. But Jeonghan had a life that was filled with exciting friends and exciting errands, modelling for amateur photographers, going to friends’ gigs, judging consulting competitions, organising parties for the Exchange Student Society.
Minghao was fresh out of high school and his only friend was Junhui.
One day Minghao was making carbonara, pasta almost done, bacon sizzling when he opened his fridge and reached for the spot where his eggs should’ve been if he had any. He didn’t have any eggs. Just a dozen empty holes in the door of his fridge. The pot bubbled. The shop was downstairs. The pasta would be overcooked but — Minghao thought quickly. He turned the stove off. Wallet, keys. Shoes. Door.
Jeonghan was smoking outside, raising an elegant eyebrow as he looked at Minghao in his socks and sandals.
“I, need, go buy,” Minghao jammed his key into the lock, missed, tried again. “Eggs.”
“Well I’ve got some,” Jeonghan said, “Just take one.”
Minghao blinked. “If you don’t mind?”
“Of course, we’re neighbours,” Jeonghan cocked his head, “Next time just knock.”
And that was the beginning of their friendship.
At the end of first year Junhui drops out of Commerce to enrol in Speech Therapy. The only university that offers it is in the next state up and three months earlier, Junhui had mentioned it as they waited for their malatang orders.
“Go for it,” Minghao says, “it’s what you want to do right?”
“Yeah,” Junhui fiddles with his chopsticks, breaks it unevenly, then reaches for Minghao’s.
Minghao hands his chopsticks over, “Okay.”
Junhui is quiet. He looks up at Minghao quickly and Minghao wonders if there was something else he should’ve said but then Junhui’s number is being called and he bolts out of his seat. Minghao stares at the empty chair as Junhui talks to the lady (everything, extra chilli oil, thanks). When he comes back it’s Minghao’s turn and then Junhui’s complaining that the soup was not spicy enough and the conversation has been left behind them.
Exams come and go. Minghao helps Junhui pack and drives him to the airport. They make small talk as they wait in line for check-in, chat about Junhui’s apartment as they have a coffee, and then Minghao is waving as Junhui walks to departures and into security, the point of no return.
The doors close and Minghao is left standing there, a smile that had outstayed its usefulness and a creeping emptiness that rose from his toes. It gets up to somewhere around his stomach before he pushed it back down.
That summer passes in a blur. Minghao gets a job in retail and another one at a dance studio running summer classes for middle schoolers. His mum wants to renovate the house. His grandma wants him to help friends of friends migrate.
2016 to Minghao is Troye Sivan, Twenty-One Pilots, Drake. Junhui has a Taiwan phase and sends him videos of SodaGreen, Mayday, G.E.M.
The thing about close friendships turn long-distance is this.
He still gets memes and songs and the odd ‘this frog reminds me of you’ picture. But he doesn’t get 10pm texts to go for a McDonalds run, or restaurant recommendations or, the single ’friday?’ that speaks sentences.
Junhui’s snapchat shows with bubble tea from unfamiliar brands. Sunsets against new horizons. Kebab nights with faces Minghao doesn’t recognise.
Minghao’s instagram only has antique furniture and his reflection in shop mirrors.
Class starts and the roaring loneliness shudders itself awake. There was no one to make eye-contact with every time the lecturer shot someone down. Library sessions were longer because there was no one by his side, suffering the same deadlines. No one is waiting outside his class with coffee because the only person who would do that is 732 kilometers away.
Jeonghan tells Minghao he has an open invite to all of his parties, Minghao asks him how should he know when they were and Jeonghan just smirks.
The walls were thin and Minghao could hear everything.
He hears Jeonghan singing as he cooks, hears Jeonghan arguing with someone for 2 hours, and he hears Jeonghan getting fucked.
At first he hates the auditory intrusion. But then Minghao learns to live with it, just buys a pair of earplugs and a bottle of scotch. When he hears the noise build, he takes a shot and by the time he’s done with his evening routine, he’s falling into bed and into sleep within minutes. This way, he doesn’t think too much about anything.
It takes him a year before he gathers the courage to go. Each time he tells himself he’s too tired, loud enough to quash the little nagging feeling that he should be meeting people outside of class. And then he tells himself that one Junhui was equivalent to five people. But then he remembers that Junhui’s gone and he doesn’t have any other friends.
The first time he goes, they get out the shower rod to play limbo, and then someone gets the broom and a guy called Bambam is teaching them all a thai skipping game that Minghao knows but he pretends not to just to slay the room and make everyone drink. A bunch of people tell him he’s amazing and Jeonghan ruffles his hair and Minghao lets himself savour the attention.
He meets Jihoon at one of Jeonghan’s parties, or rather, outside it. Minghao wanted to drink his own wine rather than the communal vodka so he hopped out of the noise and almost tripped over the small person crouched by the door.
“Hey,” Minghao greeted, “Too loud in there huh?”
“You too?” The guy looked up, fringe over his eyes and swathed in a massive hoodie. It was winter then, but he was in sandals, well, Jihoon was always wearing sandals.
No, Minghao thought. But at nineteen he had enough emotional intelligence to say, “Yeah. Mind if I have a smoke?”
“Go ahead,” he replied, “I’m Jihoon.”
“Minghao, nice to meet you.” He fumbled across his six pockets to find the packet and then he’s patting himself down again for a lighter when Jihoon stuck one in his face, his own cigarette already lit.
“So, do you actually smoke or do you use it as an excuse to get out of parties?”
Jihoon laughed and Minghao wanted to make him laugh again.
“Both. But I’m definitely guilty of the latter.”
“So, how did you know Jeonghan?” Minghao asked.
“Second year. We had one class together and he disagreed with my answer and I disagreed with his and the lecturer had to step in,” Jihoon took another drag, “He looked my name up in the roll when it got passed around. Wanted to keep debating.”
Minghao giggled, “It sounds like him.”
“Actually I —”
At that moment the door opens and someone stumbled out just to yell FUCK I miss my dad, before vomiting over the railing. Laughter trailed from the room behind him. Minghao and Jihoon shared a wince.
“Soonyoung, are you okay?” Jihoon asked. He cocked his head but makes no motion to get up.
Minghao peered closer. It’s dark and the guy’s face is hidden by his arms. He turned to Jihoon, “Kwon Soonyoung?”
“That’s him. How'd you know him?”
“We had ballet together.”
“Wow, I didn’t even know he did ballet.”
“It was a long time ago,” Minghao muttered.
The two of them turned their attention to Soonyoung bent over the balcony. Minghao took the moment to consider himself, compartmentalising his thoughts, bringing them up like pebbles to be examined. There was strange feeling, of seeing Soonyoung like this when the last memory was so different, a world away. And there was something even more inexplicable, to have known a side of Soonyoung that Jihoon does not. And beyond that, was the idea that Jihoon knows another side of Soonyoung, the Soonyoung after Minghao. That there was a Soonyoung after Minghao.
I liked you. Minghao lets himself think. The concept floats up, occupies his mind briefly, then passes away, like a sign on the side of the road, houses by a speeding train, a scene on a film reel. Maybe two years ago Minghao would have buckled, but now Soonyoung’s appearance barely makes an impression.
He wondered what Jun would be like when they meet again.
Soonyoung moaned and Jeonghan came out with a glass of water, “Aw Soonie.” Jeonghan coos and goes through a disgustingly sweet ritual of sweeping his hair, wiping his mouth, and dragging him back inside.
When the door closed, Minghao turned back to Jihoon, “I’m Jeonghan’s neighbour.” He waved at his door.
Jihoon squinted, “You could’ve gone home this whole time.”
Minghao felt brave. “Do you want to come in?”
Jihoon hesitates. Minghao panics.
Jihoon walks inside.
That night they talked for hours. About everything. About the impact of social media on creativity, what makes good music, the songs that have changed them. They talked about growing up and the tension between art and utility. Minghao confesses that he prefers photography to copywriting. Jihoon understands, he majors in accounting but produces music on the side. Has a gig schedule and a Soundcloud and hey do you want to listen?.
With Jeonghan it was easy to spill your heart out because he was a good listener, but with Jihoon, the things he talked about inspired you to keep talking, throwing topics just to see how it bounced and what new information it unlocked. Jihoon knew so much about about what he loved and he loved his job with the passion of a hurricane and Minghao could feel the thunder.
“I’m not surprised you two get along,” Jeonghan said, several evenings later, “You’re very similar.”
Minghao frowned, “How so.”
“Intimating face, kitten heart, — hey don’t give me that look, ow ow ow.”
Jihoon lived like life was chasing him down and as Minghao listened, he thought —
I want us to be soulmates, I want you in my life forever.
The temptation is close enough to taste. His bed is right there, within sight. Surely the possibility would have passed through Jihoon's brain.
So Minghao took a long sip of his drink, leaned over into Jihoon’s space and kissed him, the press of lips against a sentence half-spoken.
Jihoon jumped, pushing him away. Minghao scurried back. He fucked up.
“Sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t have —“
“I’m sorry I don’t —“ Jihoon spoke at the same time.
“— have done that.”
“— like people that way.”
“Please forget that it — hm?” Minghao blinked.
“It’s complicated,” Jihoon sighed and ran a hand through his hair, “I’m sorry if I gave the impression I was interested.”
“No, no, I should have asked. Please don’t think I invited you because…” Minghao looked at his feet. It was so distasteful to say out loud. “I, really like talking to you. That’s all. Please forget that happened.” I don’t know why I did that he was about to say, but Minghao always hated excuses, hated words whose only purpose was to fill silences, to dilute his own guilt. “I still want us to be friends.”
He much preferred the silence itself, to feel the weight of it. Because to speak is to place your mind in a frame and have light shone upon its imperfections. Because Minghao knew why he kissed Jihoon then. Because marriages were the only relationship that promised forever. Romances stain the heart, friendships fade. To be in love with someone is to have a piece of them, exclusive from the world.
“I’m sorry,” Minghao tried again.
Jihoon’s face was inscrutable but his shoulders relaxed. He let out a small laugh, “It’s okay. We’re all friends with Yoon Jeonghan.”
Minghao furrows his eyebrows.
“Gravity is a constant, Jeonghan kisses his friends,” Jihoon shrugged, “Laws of the universe.”
Junhui starts dating Yanan in second year. He mumbles it to Minghao on the phone, embarrassment leaking into his voice. Minghao laughs, prods him for details, and doesn’t mention that he’s hurt Junhui didn’t tell him earlier. It’s easy to tell when there are less selfies and more candids, when there’s two meal portions in the photo, the same hand in the corner.
He’s okay with it. They’re in different states and don’t need to catch up as often. Junhui has a life without him, and he has a life without Junhui.
When Junhui hangs up, a vague feeling lingers. A mix of the one he felt at the airport, and the one when he saw Soonyoung again. It’s a shadow in his subconscious, a form that is gradually taking shape the more he stares at it. Before it could step into the light, Minghao looks away.
He swipes right on Chan because of his jawline. It’s a match, Chan’s online, and they start chatting immediately. Minghao welcomes the distraction. Chan’s both hot and cute, his chest and arms are toned but his eye-smile is adorable.
They both dance. Chan sends him a video and Minghao grins into his pillow and goes through his phone to send one back. He gets complimented, he compliments back. Chan types, like the way you move your body. He flirts back, nice hip thrusts and its tacky for him but Chan is typing back and Minghao basks in the familiar wave of giddy warmth.
They go out to KBBQ and Minghao learns that Chan has the most infectious laughter. Chan take him home. Afterwards, Minghao remembers his essay is due and groans, takes his leave.
“I’ll text you later?” Chan peers at him, face still half smothered into the pillow.
“Yeah,” Minghao looks for his socks under the bed, “I finish Monday.”
“Okay, make it home safe.”
“Yeah,” Minghao swallows, “Thanks for the night.”
The essay gets written and Monday comes and goes. Like an appointment, Chan texts him Tuesday but Minghao is so tired he just reads the message in his notifications. He doesn’t click on it to give the illusion that he hasn’t read it yet. He should reply, but the thought of starting a conversation exhausts him and he only slept five hours over two days. He puts his phone down and goes back to sleep.
The message is still there when he wakes up to an alarm telling him he has class in an hour. Minghao shoves his laptop in a bag, bread in his mouth, and is out the door within 10. He doesn’t think about the message when he checks an email and he thinks, later. After class, he’ll talk to Chan and make another date.
During class they get assigned group work and after class he gets pulled to a cafe and after that he meets Jeonghan for dinner because half-price Thai Tuesdays. Then he sleeps and wakes up again and all of a sudden it’s Saturday and too late to pretend he hasn’t had time to read and reply. Minghao swipes left and deletes the notification. He doesn’t feel like sex now anyway.
Midsems accelerate into exams and Chan messages him again [Hey just checking up, are we still go…] and Minghao promises himself to reply after his modernism exam.
Then exams fade into winter and Chan just sends him a sad face that Minghao swipes left without clicking open. It’s too late now, he reasons.
But then he reads a tweet slamming millennial ghosting culture and the guilt stabs him deep enough that he opens the conversation again.
I’m sorry when I said I had an essay due I really did. It wasn’t an excuse to —
You were really nice to me but I don’t think I’m ready for—
It’s not you it’s —
I wanted to check if I could still be loved —
Minghao stares at his phone until his eyes water, then he puts it down.
In third year Minghao only dated international students. It was safer that way: less mutual friends and the near guarantee that there will be a departure. Chinese New Year, a family emergency, the inevitable visa expiry.
There was the added bonus that they were good at taking photos.
Like this, Minghao cycles through Mingming, Chenle, Zhennan. He swipes on a Xiaojun but cancels the match immediately when he recongises the character for Jun.
It was the same, a honeymoon period where they can’t stop seeing, texting, touching each other, the lull when the grind of life makes itself known. A small matter that gets blown up because they don’t talk about it. They talk about it, they fight, they break up. He complains to Jeonghan.
Jeonghan tells him dating is not a social life.
Good morning, Jeonghan texts him. Come over for breakfast.
Strange, Jeonghan never cooks.
Minghao trudges out of bed and doesn’t bother with getting dressed, they’ve seen each other at their worst anyway, Jeonghan with swollen cheeks after his wisdom teeth surgery, Minghao with a weeks worth of sparse facial hair when thesis was due.
He sends an emoji and walks over after brushing his teeth. Jeonghan's door was already unlocked so Minghao charges in and is faced with a massively tall hunk of shirtless handsomeness at the stove. Handsome looks at Minghao, jaw open and body frozen. Minghao looks back with equal amounts of mortification. He keeps his eye on his face and not the red scratches on his shoulder or the bulge in what must be Jeonghan's boxers because they were absolutely tiny on his body and its doing torture to the mental gymnastics Minghao is doing just to keep his eyes up and not think what the fuck Jeonghan.
“Minghao!” Jeonghan's voice rings from inside. He's at the kettle, “Tea?”
“Please,” Minghao says, then very obviously swivels his shoulder to indicate the other person in the room.
'This is Mingyu, we met last night," Jeonghan waves, "He can make a one pan English breakfast. I don’t believe him.“
Jeonghan doesn’t introduce Minghao and Minghao wonders if Jeonghan planned on seeing Mingyu again. Well a pity, but then again Minghao wished Jeonghan was like Junhui and Minghao could turn to him in Chinese and go, Are you making your one-night-stand make breakfast for me?
Jeonghan ignores the very pointed look in his direction, “Mingyu’s a photographer, and he also likes modelling.” He gives Minghao a side-eye and Minghao feels like he’s at one of those family gatherings where his mother is viciously communicating instructions through her smile.
“Ah,” Minghao tries to sound surprised. The inflection manages to tilt up but his tone is deadpan. It’s too early for this. “What a coincidence. I also like to photograph.”
Mingyu scrabbles for the bait. “Oh nice, good. Are you into urban exploring? Are you free this weekend? I found an abandoned brewery two hours south and wanted to go with someone but none of my —”
Minghao throws a side-eye back at Jeonghan who is now beaming like a cat who has stolen the cream.
Mingyu fills the hole left by Junhui in Minghao’s life. Or rather, the Junhui-shaped hole is still there, but sometimes a Mingyu-shaped mass covers bits and pieces. And the Mingyu-shaped mass is very, very big.
There’s a lot to like about Mingyu, tall and handsome for one, and ridiculously built in a way that made Minghao self-conscious of how he looked standing next to him. Mingyu had mountain of attributes which convinced Minghao that there was a God, and that God played favourites. He dressed like new money but managed his spending. He’s clumsy, but he cleans up after himself. He’s always on instagram hunting for an aesthetic brunch, but he also takes Minghao fishing, renting a boat they have to paddle themselves and sitting in the sun until their skin peeled. Affection comes easy to Mingyu, and within a month he’s dropping his face into Minghao’s shoulder or fixing Minghao’s collar as they waited at the traffic light, hand brushing the small hairs on the back of Minghao’s neck.
But Minghao has learnt from the fuck up with Jihoon and the conversation with Jeonghan. It’s easy to let his heart speak for him, but he needs to learn to make friends without carving out a bit of himself, without falling in love.
It was always so easy for Junhui to make friends. At the library, at the wushu dojo, at the cram school. Underclassman would come up and ask him for help, and Junhui would take them under his wing. Even genius Samuel learnt to be unafraid around Jun, always asking to be picked up. In university Jun made new friends every week, in class, in the line for coffee, in the billiards shop with the next table over.
But for Minghao, making friends was so difficult when small talk felt like grinding stones with his teeth, like a performative farce for the sake of pleasantries. It was one thing to enjoy a moment together, and another to integrate them into his life only for life to move them in separate directions. He could not fake interest, but the only interest he knew was romantic.
Junhui was selfless and Minghao took that selflessness for granted.
Sometimes Mingyu looks at him in a way that Minghao knows he can read into, a thousand connotations that could build into something more. Earnest eyes and an expression that was so disarmingly open, Minghao could feel the floodgates straining under the weight of a heart that was used to being free.
No. He tells himself. Let’s himself be hugged but does not hug back. Mingyu is not here to replace Junhui.
The first time he sleeps with Jeonghan was in spring. In high school, this was tournament season and Junhui’s mum will drive them across the city every weekend to every stadium and sports centre.
He imagines Junhui in bed with someone else and his chest burned with an emotion he didn’t want to name.
He wishes he could say he slept with Jeonghan because he liked him. Because there was a connection or even just because Jeonghan was pretty or understanding or friendly.
But the reason was uglier. He slept with Jeonghan because he wanted to sleep with someone and Jeonghan was always sleeping with someone. Minghao thought, it would be easy.
And it was easy. He invites Jeonghan to dinner, made sure to grab a bottle of wine to help things along and then they were making out in Minghao's bed and Minghao wondered if the next neighbour over could hear Jeonghan for once.
There was a writer who mentioned about how you could know if you were having the wrong type of sex.
It would leave you hollow.
Sleeping with Jeonghan was fine. Sex is a performance and Minghao has a lifetime of experience. He knows how to block out stray thoughts and focus on the moment. But after the orgasm, the emptiness fills him again. Waves and waves of it crashing against bones of his ribcage. He’s floating, treading water, and then it surges up again, over his head and he’s drowning in it, ocean up to his neck.
Minghao leaned down, pressed his face into the pillow, and starts starts to cry.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m thinking of —”
Jeonghan's arms came around him immediately, one on his back, another one cradling his neck.
“Shh, it’s okay,” Jeonghan whispered, “I understand. Me too.”
Strange, how you only love something when it’s gone.
When Junhui was here, Minghao could barely stand him, his loudness that intruded into every private thought, the way he lived without regard for others, too sudden to make sense, too awkward to be funny. Minghao’s entire high school career is defined through firsthand stress and secondhand embarrassment. He’d spent final year pushing Jun away from his homework, his food, his love life.
But god, he misses being annoyed by Junhui. University is so exhausting when every relationship had to be thought from the foundation. With Junhui, existence was an easy routine, built on 13 years of every permutation of emotion and conversation. 13 years of meals eaten side-by-side, morning walks from the station to school, the afternoon shuffle from school to tutoring, tutoring to dinner, dinner to the station. Sharing yawns on Saturday morning sport, sneaking coffee into the library, then looking innocent when the librarian comes sniffing. Junhui was always the better actor.
“Tell me about it?” Jeonghan asked.
Minghao doesn’t look at him, squeezes his eyes shut and feels the lump in his throat, feels the fear of the finality of warping feeling into words.
“You go first,” he pushed out. He wanted to take it back, he sounds so petulant.
But of course, because Jeonghan is Jeonghan, he does.
“He was my first love,” Jeonghan said, “We went to the same swim club and did squad for 12 years. We were rivals? Sort of, because even though I was lazy, he was competitive and I hate losing.”
Jeonghan’s hand moved to stroke the back of Minghao’s neck, absently fiddling each strand.
“I liked him because he was hot.”
Minghao snorted wetly.
“Still valid!” Jeonghan poked him, “Sue me. He was charming, kind, handsome. You name it. Like straight out of a fairytale. It was 6am twice a week but he made it fun.”
“Do you miss him?”
Jeonghan hummed, “He is the most affectionate person I’ve ever met. I think I figured out I was gay early on because he kept touching me and I kept having a crisis. When we finished our laps we played around trying to drown each other and I guess that really helped us to bond. Anyway! Who bites people’s shoulders for fun? He was always trying to hold my hand or grab my neck, I think that’s why I have a choking kink —”
Shifting a little to free his hand, Jeonghan slithered and grabbed Minghao’s dick as if to say what. Minghao kneed his stomach, Jeonghan licked his nostril. Minghao wrenched himself away and Jeonghan pulled all the blankets to his side, exposing Minghao to the chilly air. They wrestled in the dark like two seagulls over a hot chip and Minghao laughed until his tears were dry.
“I’m sorry, okay, okay. Let me back in.”
“Please Jeonghan the Benevolent.”
“Please Sir Yoon Jeonghan the Benevolent and the fairest maiden in all the lands.”
“You may enter, plebeian.”
Minghao snuggled back in. They adjusted themselves back to comfortable positions. After a moment, Jeonghan traced Minghao’s ear, softly, reverently.
“I miss what we had,” Jeonghan said, “Nothing compares when the time with him was so, golden.”
Minghao raised his hand to find Jeonghan’s, threading their fingers together.
“Did you ever tell him?”
“God no, you can’t be gay in swim. He couldn’t have ever known.”
“Have you, ever thought about telling him?”
“Always,” Jeonghan breathed, “Always.”
The tears are coming back again and Minghao burrowed his face under Jeonghan’s chin.
“Does it get better?”
Jeonghan sighs. “A little, with distance. With time.”
To be honest, Minghao doesn’t think they would’ve been friends if they met anywhere else. Their lifestyles were too different, their values, their interests. Jeonghan was too mischievous and Minghao prefers to avoid trouble. But there was something precious about the small happiness when he could go home and Jeonghan would be outside his door, cigarette, mug, a warm hello. Yoon Jeonghan with his wide heart and infinite generosity, taking Minghao into his arms again and again, always understanding.
Minghao never liked Jeonghan romantically, but he made him feel something strongly, stronger than any crush and stronger than what Minghao felt towards the boys he dated.
At the end of his lease, Minghao wrote a letter and he couldn’t stop crying over the page. Maybe it was because Jeonghan always supported emotional vulnerability and Minghao was baring his soul. But when the letter was finished and sealed, he wondered — will love feel anything like this.
Minghao applies for a masters in Guangzhou.
"I want to improve my Chinese," he tells his mum.
"Tsinghua and Peking is better, we have relatives in Tianjin," she frowns over her tea, "I know a professor at Jiaotong who can help you get in there. Have you considered Taida?"
"Zhongda is strong in business," Minghao says, and when she opens her mouth he quickly adds, "And I know how you feel about Hong Kong."
She purses her lips, "Its a big city, but nothing much comes out Guangzhou."
"Donnie Yen," Minghao snipes back. He has a sleeve full of reasons, ready to be deployed. "Kris Wu. Yum Cha.”
“I prefer Luhan.”
"It's cheaper," Minghao continues, "And two hours closer if you want to come visit."
"You know you don't have to worry about stuff like that," she sighs. But Minghao has been learning her cues for years and he knows she has acceded to the idea.
"And I could learn Cantonese," he adds, the closest to the truth he allows himself to go.
Guangzhou is bigger than any city he has been to. Eight lane roads and highways on top of them. Roundabouts that encircle parks and parks that encircle lakes. Seven-story shopping malls with a department store, a metro station, an ice rink, an aquarium, a museum, and even a goddamn river with gondoliers. Underground streets stretch on for kilometers across suburbs. There's a bookstore the size of his apartment block back home. Even in restaurants, the menu comes as a magazine.
There is so much to learn and the thrill of it is a welcome distraction. The currency for one, to recognise each coin and note while the entire bus stalls for him. And then getting a phone number to get a bank account to get Alipay because the ticket machine does not accept cash. Then downloading Baidu and WeChat and Bilibili to fill the shoes of Google and Facebook and Youtube.
For coffee he learns to lean on Luckin and Pacific and Family Mart. He avoids Starbucks on principle. For groceries theres Vanguard and the wet market two blocks away. He learns the systems, the right speed to walk when interchanging at peak hour, the right volume when yelling for the waiter, how to cross roads without fear and timidity. Mingyu gets WeChat just for him, and Minghao checks in daily just to confirm he hasn’t been run over or trafficked, the smallest thread that ties him to home.
He gets a VPN one week in because he cannot bear living without instagram. He goes on messenger just for a peek, sees the red circle and the preview of
Haohao~ Add me o…
Minghao does not click on it, pretends to be safely ignorant behind the great firewall of China.
It takes a month before the curiosity overtakes him and Minghao takes the 8:04am from Guangzhou East to Shenzhen.
He doesn't know why he's doing this to himself. Maybe because this is the most of Junhui he allows himself to have.
Guangzhou is large, but Shenzhen is tall. Minghao knows from the guidebook that this city has the most skyscrapers in the world after Hong Kong, but it’s a different beast entirely to walk through Dongmen and bend his waist backwards just to glimpse the sky.
He went to China to leave Junhui behind. But he carried Junhui with him, and here in Shenzhen, everything echoes with a childhood he lived secondhand.
Junhui was born here, Junhui walked these streets, went to school there, had breakfast here, said goodbye to his grandma at this train station. Junhui recommends this sesame dessert, took a picture of that statue, wants him to go to that restaurant.
He's zoning out on the metro, half listening to the safety video when he hears a familiar voice, Junhui’s voice. And then he whips up to a screen so dated he can see the pixels. Junhui before puberty, head shaven, teeth still crooked. Minghao chokes, the waves are crashing against his heart and on instant, he takes a picture, opens messenger only to realise everything is blocked in China and then he freezes that thought, that honed instinct from years of having Junhui by his side.
It still hurts.
In May, he goes back for his graduation ceremony. It’s the holidays and Junhui is galavanting through a European summer with Yanan, preceded by a slew of apologies for his absence.
“Hey, Minghao,” someone yells.
Minghao spins around and squints at through the crowded walkway. A boy in polo shirt and a navy cap waves at him, weaving through students shuffling to their next class. Minghao tentatively waves back, mind whirring.
“Hey it’s me, Seungkwan, remember me?”
Minghao stares at him in shock. He doesn’t actually remember much of Seungkwan except for the one year Minghao joined the school musical. He thinks of the chubby kid prancing on stage and looks at the styled fringe and trendy sneakers.
Seungkwan’s face falters and Minghao scrabbles, “Hey, hey, I remember you. I couldn’t—,” swallows, tries again, “You grew up a lot. Woah.” For measure, Minghao makes a show of looking at him up and down again. “You look really good.”
“It’s been a while,” Seungkwan’s smile returns and Minghao breathes out, “Same to you. What a glow up.”
Someone pushes into Minghao and Seungkwan touches his elbow. “Do you have class now?”
“I’ve graduated, I’m just here to get my transcript.”
“Could we get coffee?”
It’s nostalgic, to go to the cafe where he used to camp out with Junhui and not join the army of students squinting at their laptops. Minghao almost feels guilty for having a chat on sacred ground.
He thought it would be awkward, but Seungkwan carries the conversation easily and Minghao lets himself be lead, unravelling the years since high school, aligning his memories into a narrative. Seungkwan is funny, recounts his life with the dramatics he was known for and Minghao finds himself giggling into his americano. Surprisingly, they have a lot in common. Like being irrationally health conscious compared to their peers.
There’s a lull in the conversation and Seungkwan looks down, fiddles with his straw.
“Actually Minghao, there’s something I’ve wanted to say to you for a while.”
Minghao flushes, he had forgotten about Seokmin entirely. A humiliating portion of his youth second to the boner incident with Soonyoung. Locked deep, deep, deep in his subconscious. Seungkwan is watching for his reaction, so he nods quickly and tries not to let his embarrassment show.
“I was best friends with Seokmin, and he told me what you did,” Seungkwan takes a deep breath. “I’m gay, but I wasn’t out then, and I thought, I thought you were, so so brave.”
Minghao is speechless. I wasn’t trying to be brave —
“I want you to know how much it meant to me,” Seungkwan smiles, wistful, “There was someone I liked back then, but I was too much of a coward to tell him so I let it torture me for years. Hearing about you, hearing about how happy it made Seokmin, that empowered me to confess.”
Seungkwan laughs, “I got rejected though. But it felt so good, to let it out, to have my feelings heard. I’m glad I did it because then I could let go and move on. And it’s thanks to you.”
“You’re welcome,” Minghao says softly. He twists the ring on his finger. He wishes he was still that brave. Confessions were easier in high school when there was less to lose. But Seungkwan’s words make him think.
They talk until Seungkwan needs to go to class and Minghao blinks at how much time has passed.
“Can I add you? I want us to be friends, and,” Seungkwan scratches the back of his head, “Get to know you?”
Ah. “I would love to be friends,” Minghao gets out his phone. He’s not just being polite. He’s honest about that, and he really really likes talking to Seungkwan. In other circumstances perhaps they could’ve been more. “But I’m actually living in China now. I’m flying back Friday.”
“Oh,” Seungkwan’s face falls briefly but the smile is back up in an instant, “I wish you all the best.”
“Thank you.” Minghao means it.
In the 9 hour flight back to Guangzhou, Minghao closes his eyes and makes a promise to himself.
Next time he sees Junhui, he will tell him.
The next semester comes easier. The adrenaline has ebbed, but Minghao has forged himself a space in this city. At the corner store he's choosing cigarettes when he sees Camel Blues and Malboro Slims. Minghao thinks of Troye Sivan and buys Lucky Strikes.
Mingyu’s going to visit in September, ordered Minghao to clear his schedule and plan culinary tour of the best China has to offer. Minghao has been curating the list for months. Roasted Mongolian lamb pulled off the bone. Pigeon baked in rock salt. Creme brûlée milk tea. When he visited Shamian, he imagined the photos of Mingyu he could take here, amongst tree-lined streets and colonial buildings.
The day before Mingyu’s arrival, Minghao ordered groceries on Tmall to be delivered that afternoon. He takes a nap and wakes up to insistent knocking. Shaking himself awake and brushing his hair, he opened the door expecting a fruit basket but gets Wen Junhui in the flesh.
Junhui grinned, “Nei Hou”
“Junhui!” A smile overtakes Minghao and before he knows it, he had opened his arms and Junhui charged right into him. They fell over in a heap and Minghao giggled, warm and high pitched in a way he hasn’t sounded in months. “What are you doing here?”
“Are you surprised?” Junhui ruffled his hair.
Minghao punched him instead, “Did you make Mingyu lie?”
Junhui bats his eyelashes. “Do you have dinner plans?”
“I’m going to treat you. You’re on my land now.”
“Nuh-uh. I’m the Guangdong local. Your Cantonese will raise the prices.”
“Who bargains for food anyway?”
“I’m older,” Junhui sat up, “And I know the best places.”
“Didn’t you just get here?” Minghao craned his neck. Jun didn’t have any luggage with him.
“Last week. I’m helping my grandparents move up. The healthcare is better here.”
“Where are you staying?”
“They have a place around Donghu, but I’m staying in a hotel,” Junhui winked, greasy as fried chicken and five years younger, “You cleared your week right?”
Minghao barely had time to dress before Junhui dragged him out the door. He leaves a garbled voice message to Mingyu who only replies with a :D
They catch up over milk pudding in small china bowls, soeng pei nai Junhui teaches him, and have you tried the daan taat?
Of course. Minghao rolled his eyes. “I’ve lived here for a year.”
Minghao frowned. Junhui gasped dramatically and then they’re out the door and down the nearest metro station. With the passion of a Jehovah’s Witness evangelising to a sinner, Jun explains the difference between Portuguese egg tarts from Macau, the sweeter Hong Kong-style egg tarts, and the new liuxin melting center types thats now popular on the internet. Each one was so delicious Minghao wanted to cry, the perfect balance between yolk and custard and a crust so crisp it flaked on their lips.
In the evening Junhui takes them to a roadside restaurant and they share a platter of prawns, each one the size of Minghao’s hand. The owner lay down newspaper on the table and they peel the shells onto Xi Jing Ping’s face. They talk about their teachers from high school and the latest Detective Conan movie. They argued over the price of a pork roll at the Vietnamese bakery down the road from tutoring. $3.90, Junhui said. Bullshit, it was $4.50 and Minghao remembers because the change accumulated in his wallet until he could pay for dinner with only 50c coins.
The next day Junhui took him to yum cha and wielded the menu like a veteran academic, ticking off items then waving down a waiter. She’s at least 50 but Junhui calls her leng nui, pretty lady, as she brings them tea. Minghao blinked and then the table is full of bamboo steamers, rice noodles wrapped around fried dough stuffed with prawn mince, spare ribs with black bean sauce, radish cakes and char siu bao. Then there’s mango pancakes and congee so smooth there was nothing to chew. Minghao eats until his stomach is about to burst but Junhui is still going, talking around mouthfuls of food. It’s disgusting but Minghao is too fond to tell him to stop. That was Junhui as well, eating in class then forgetting to swallow when called to answer. Then answering for his crimes as Minghao sneakily videoed from under the table.
Sometimes there’s a moment of silence that gives Minghao space to reflect. When Junhui’s squinting at the map, Minghao is astonished that he’s only been here for a week, but already moves around like a local. But Junhui has always been like that, fitting into cities and people like he belongs there. With Junhui, Minghao never has to think about what to do, or worry about what to say.
Just a bit longer, Minghao thinks. He wants to savour this. Junhui coming to visit has been the most brilliant gift and every moment has filled his heart with familiar joy. With Junhui next to him, he feels his veins thrum with giddy energy, happy with the knowledge that every next minute will give him a reason to smile, and he has been smiling so much his cheeks hurt.
I’ll tell you later.
They’re strolling up Baiyun Mountain when Junhui gets asked to take a photo for two girls. They nudge each other and Junhui makes his smile a little cockier, adds a flirtatious tone when he counts down. He winks when he hands the phone back.
“What will Yanan think,” Minghao joked.
“Ah,” Junhui’s smile froze, “We broke up two weeks ago.”
“Shit, after …”
“Three years,” Junhui started walking, going on ahead, “But I think it was coming.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’ll get over it,” Junhui pointed up, “Hey Minghao, guess what’s at the mountain peak.”
“An ancient temple?”
“McDonalds.” That smile was back, honest and earnest and so Junhui it hurt Minghao to look at him. He wants to keep it in his pocket, bring it out every rainy afternoon.
Jun's parents divorced in 8th grade, which was a matter that didn’t affect Minghao much except Jun spent much of his time after school with Minghao instead of going home.
Because whatever was going on at home, Jun didn’t show it. He smiled and he joked and he participated in class. But sometimes he came to school with his eyelids swollen and raw and Minghao was too young then to ask him what was wrong, but old enough to brush Jun's fringe over his eyes and grab the seats on the side of the classroom.
On the stone steps of Baiyun, Minghao considered pushing, but this was Junhui too, to be generous with others and deflective with himself. He never talked about what he was feeling, preferring to keep locked inside his head until whatever was hurting passed through his system, no one the wiser. Junhui had a mental resilience Minghao could only wish to have.
It’s Thursday and they decide to go clubbing to escape the weekend crowds. They go to 7-Eleven and buy baijiu strong enough to sanitise a butcher shop. They chase it with pineapple beer and tea eggs and then they’re off to Binjiang Road, hopping until they find a club with free entry before eleven. Well, not technically, but Junhui puts on an American accent and tells the bouncer they’re international. Minghao just tries to walk straight.
The evening was too young, sullen locals in their smart casuals with their reserved tables and Hennessy towers. People still milling around the bar, tipsy enough to be loud but too sober to dance. The alcohol is settling and Minghao can feel his stomach burn with it. Heavy bass and baijiu mix together to make his heart pound. But Junhui’s hand is on his waist as they push through crowd and Minghao feels nothing else.
It’s just the two of them on the dance floor, so empty Minghao feels the air cool down. Junhui tries to do a body roll but his arms move like worms and Minghao has to squat down and hold his laughter.
Junhui goes down with him in a hoe-drop, knees spread against the floor. He was still obscenely flexible from the years of martial arts and debilitatingly gorgeous under the red lights.
“What are you doing,” Minghao wheezes.
Junhui starts bouncing to the beat like Hyuna in her 4Minute days, all hip and no shame. “No one knows me here.”
Minghao wants to look away but he can’t, so he places his face in his hands and glares through his fingers. “I know you, and you’re embarrassing me.”
“I bet you can’t do the splits anymore.”
“Oh it’s on.” And Minghao goes on to prove him otherwise and Junhui throws his head back and laughs and the feeling is there again. A whole room of people is staring at them but Minghao doesn’t find it in himself to care when Junhui is in front of him. More people join them in hesitant bops, but Junhui is spinning him around and daring him to deploy his worst moves. The crowd pushes them together, they bite at each other’s ears to talk, Junhui keeps a hand around Minghao’s wrist. And Minghao thinks, heaven let me have this.
But between songs, Junhui zones out, moments when the smile falters on Junhui’s face, so brief it could just be a flick of light, but Minghao knows Junhui like a copy of his own mind, knows his coping mechanisms and the curvature of his grief. Minghao catches glimpses of a quiet he’s not sure he should penetrate.
So he keeps an eye on Junhui. Louder than the beating his of his heart was concern. So Minghao chooses to talk twice as loud and twice as usual to keep Junhui here with him. If he wants to escape, then Minghao will bundle him in an astronaut suit and send him to the stars.
“Shots!” Minghao does the motion to his mouth. Junhui grins and nods and then they swimming through the humid wall of bodies to the bar.
They pass a table playing dice. There’s a girl frowning at the shot in her hand as a man counts down. In a smooth motion, Junhui whisks it away, throws it back, and returns it to her fingers. She’s surprised but a smile tugs at the corner of her mouth. Duo xie, she mouths. Jun salutes with two fingers.
Minghao wants him so much it hurts.
“What was it?” He asks.
“Vodka.” Junhui makes a face, and then the leer is back, “Want a taste?”
Minghao had imagined this. Had spent enough time with Jeonghan and Yixing to know what he should do. His mind flashes 5 seconds into the future, him leaning forward, hand on Junhui’s neck, tongue forward to graze, then entering.
Junhui was right there.
This is like Seokmin all over again, where the emotions expanded his chest and Minghao needs to let it out before he implodes. Except with Junhui this has been simmering for years and the whole week Minghao felt like he was about to boil over and burn everything around him. And now Junhui is looking at him like he expects it.
What if what if what if —
The song ends and in the two second quiet of a transition, Minghao leans back and rolls his eyes, “Vodka is disgusting.”
Junhui hits him on the shoulder. Then his hand is on Minghao’s neck as he guides them to the bar.
Tonight is not about him, it’s about Junhui who came all the way to Guangzhou and chose to spend time with Minghao even though he’s hurting. Regardless of what happens in Minghao’s heart, Junhui is first and foremost his friend.
Later. He promises himself. When Junhui is ready.
He doesn’t cry when he has to leave Guangzhou, his entire life in two suitcases under 23kg. He has a job, a childhood home across the ocean, and friends he haven’t seen. It’s one thing to keep them in your life through catch ups and instagram stories, and another to live life with them.
But Mingyu picks him up at the airport and Minghao tears up once the car door closes, the finality of the sound pushing him over. He puts the seatbelt on and bends his face over his knees, relishing in the pressure across his chest, like a tug backwards.
“I miss it when it’s gone,” Minghao says. And he means Guangzhou, but not just Guangzhou, who will always be there, a flight away. He also means his Guangzhou, the two years of habits and systems he had built for himself, the particular type of friendship forged between students and not adults, the liminal space of a foreign city where the world is braver and confessions are on the tip of your tongue.
Mingyu squeezes his thigh, turns on the engine, and drives them home.
The strange thing about coming back to the city you grew up in, is that half-friends and acquaintances are everywhere. The barista at his local cafe is a student he tutored. The email from HR is signed off by a name he recognises from junior school ballet. He sees Vernon’s mum slapping watermelon at the supermarket.
He runs into his first love, Choi Seungcheol in bus line and Minghao’s heart hammers while his brain fizzled out in a confused whisper of hngn he got hot.
Minghao spends less time with Junhui because their schedules conflict, working after school hours and most weekends. Their social circles now encompass more co-workers than old friends.
“If you miss him just ask him to catch up,” Mingyu says, simple and straight-forward.
“What if he’s busy?”
“Then he’s busy. But if you keep asking he’ll say yes eventually.” And this was Mingyu who was only ever rewarded for his persistence. Minghao should learn from his tenacity.
He does, in his own, subvert way. He sends Junhui articles of new restaurants and instagram pictures of food until one day Junhui replies !!!!! to a Hong Kong-style bistro that does cheese-baked rice inside a cob loaf. They choose a date two weeks away and Minghao tries not to think about how much easier it was in university when time was free.
“Oooh,” Mingyu looks over his shoulder, “I’ve always wanted to try it ever since a friend recommended it. He said their milk tea is really good.”
“Come along, Junhui owes you anyway.” Minghao shrugs, and he’s already pulling up the menu so he spends less time ordering and more on catching up.
Junhui: Can I bring my boyfriend?
“Oh,” Minghao says, once Junhui steps through the door, hand in hand with a well-dressed man.
Small fucking world.
“Ah,” Mingyu says at the same time.
“You,” Jeon Wonwoo, three years older, still dressed in grandpa sweaters and dress shoes, squints through his glasses.
Junhui whips his head between all of them.
“He’s —“ Mingyu and Wonwoo speak at the same time. Wonwoo stops, Mingyu charges on, “— We’ve been friends since high school.”
“University,” Minghao offers, “We shared a class.”
“Several classes,” Wonwoo smiles, “Close your mouth and take a seat Junhui. Introduce me to your friends.”
“But you know them already,” Junhui whines, “Where is the surprise.”
“I’m surprised you got a boyfriend alright,” Minghao states. Junhui kicks him under the table. He misses. Mingyu yelps. Wonwoo looks at Minghao with a raised eyebrow as if to say, we have to deal with this?
Oh no, Minghao likes him already. Well he already liked him to be technically correct but this is, something unexpected. He had half wanted Junhui’s new boyfriend to be unfashionable and ugly. Pimply and pathetic. Something he could be petty over. The personage of Jeon Wonwoo offered none of those opportunities.
With the calm of a still ocean, Wonwoo turns to Junhui and says, “Even though I know them, I want to know how you know them.”
Ah. All of a sudden Minghao understands the kind of person Wonwoo is.
“I met Mingyu through Minghao,” Junhui explains. He had already grabbed a chopstick and is carefully trying to split it straight down the middle, “We became best friends when my first best friend abandoned me for the motherland.”
Junhui pointed at Minghao with his chopsticks and Minghao could not help the little bubble of fondness that bubbled up in his chest. “Which is this one. I had to put up with him for 18 years.”
Mingyu whistles, “Wow I knew you knew each other for ages, but that’s ages.”
Wonwoo turns to him, ever so polite. “And you two?”
Mingyu and Minghao share a panicked glance.
“We met…. through a mutual friend,” Minghao settles. He doesn’t need those memories to come back. As if on cue, his mind supplies an irrelevant apparition of Kwon Soonyoung.
“Yoon Jeonghan,” Mingyu supplies, probably thinking he’s helpful, always needing to talk more than he needs to.
Wonwoo’s smile freezes, Junhui slams his hand onto the table as he chortles with painful laughter. Minghao looks at Mingyu again. Mingyu looks equally confused.
It takes a hot minute for Junhui to regain his breath. “He,—” Junhui wheezes, chokes, drinks some water and continues, “They made out at a house party. That’s how Wonwoo discovered he was gay.” Junhui starts laughing again. “Oh it’s a small world.”
Minghao wonders if he should say I’m not surprised or would it be slanderous to Jeonghan’s memory. He decides against it in case Junhui follows that thread of conversation. Wonwoo seems perceptive and would probably make an assumption that will prove to be correct.
But Minghao should have said something because there’s a brief lull on the table which gives Mingyu the chance to put his foot in his mouth.
“And now we live together.”
Understanding flashes in Wonwoo’s eyes and Minghao thinks, no, no, no, not like that. Wonwoo doesn’t say anything so Minghao can’t correct whatever scenario is spinning in his head. Something decidedly more sinister flashes through Junhui’s.
A dramatic shitmuffin, Junhui drops his head onto Wonwoo’s shoulder, “Doesn’t this feel like a double date?”
Mingyu stiffens beside him and Minghao can already see the slippery slope down to awkward hell. Fuck you Wen Junhui he thinks before slinging a leg onto Mingyu’s lap.
“Absolutely,” Minghao smiles, tight and threatening.
“Ha, ha, ha,” Mingyu laughs weakly, just because he needs to make noise. Wonwoo tilts his head, exactly like the way he used to in class when he was processing new information.
Minghao calls for the waiter.
Wonwoo is a good listener, he thinks before he speaks, he’s careful of his actions, and unbelievably considerate of other people’s feelings. He brings out a kind of collected serenity in Junhui that Minghao never could. With Minghao, Junhui is always on high alert. For what, Minghao could never figure out.
But Wonwoo has an aura that makes you want to lower your guard and depend on him. Minghao watched Wonwoo talk and that feeling from university was back, that happy, controlled excitement to listen, understand, respond. Talking to him was somewhere between Jihoon and Vernon, or even both of them at the same time. Inspiring humility, relaxed banter.
Perhaps Junhui has been seeking this his whole life, but Minghao was just too absorbed in his own thoughts to realise what he needed.
Their dinner ends with cheerful goodbyes and a promise of a next time. The noise of the main road falls behind them as they walk to the car and Minghao picks up his thoughts one by one.
When he was young, love overwhelmed him, a towering wildfire that swept through his entire body until his existence was filled with the heat of it. Even in university it was an all-consuming force that crippled him at the knees. All or nothing. He could not keep friends because of it. He was either a lone wolf or an infatuated fool.
When he was twenty-two, he stopped believing in love.
Or he stopped believing that love was good for him, in the way it was good to others. It had arrived in his life so many times only to depart like an actor who have played their part. It had made him stronger, but also convinced that love was a fickle, fleeting creature. How could he have known what a normal relationship is supposed to look like? His parents divorced before he was born, and Junhui’s mum rang every day for months crying about a husband who won’t come home.
At twenty-five, he understood love a bit more. With Jeonghan and Seungkwan and Chan, Minghao gradually grasped the precarious balance between desire and giving voice to that desire. The pain of co-existence is forgiving the space between people just like the space between cities.
But even now he was still in love with Wen Junhui.
It was a love that won’t sit still, won’t do what it’s told. Growing for eighteen years until it could no longer fit the leash.
Junhui was his first friend, back when his Buddhist mother chose a Catholic school for the anglicised manners and prim uniform. Ten thousand classes shared and ten thousand meals eaten side by side. Junhui grew up with him, known him before Minghao known who he was or who he wanted to be.
Junhui was the first person Minghao ever told he was gay, one afternoon under the rain when they were ten.
Junhui seen him without kindness and without armour.
Minghao was in love with Wen Junhui.
He repeated the thought, turned it over in his mind like a stone from the river, watching how it caught the light.
The idea did not hurt as much as it used to. It did not choke him like it had before, that whirlwind of a week in Guangzhou. It was something he could put back down deep in his soul, a wishful coin at the bottom of a well. It still weighs on him, but it’s a weight Minghao can carry. And Minghao will always carry Junhui with him because Junhui will always hold the biggest part of Minghao.
One day those unspoken words will rise to the surface again. Perhaps then Minghao will go to the ocean and yell it into the sea.
Towards Wonwoo he felt… gratitude. Grateful that he could see Junhui like this, at once both old and new. That Wonwoo was friends with Mingyu and the thread of connection tied him and Junhui closer. His mind thrummed with the anticipation of seeing Junhui again. Not like the way they were in high school. Perhaps they would come over for dinner and spend the evening on video or board games. Minghao could see himself reading a book next to Wonwoo while Junhui and Mingyu annoyed each other in the kitchen.
Perhaps he could like Junhui a little like the way he liked Seungcheol, in that it was enough to watch his happiness, to share a portion in his life.
As the evening lights speeds past them, Minghao thinks of Jeonghan’s face pressed into the pillow.
Uncharacteristically, Mingyu does not talk for the drive home. Even after he parks the car, he stays seated, quiet. It takes Minghao a minute to come out of his own thoughts and notice the silence. He tilts his head.
Mingyu has his eyebrows furrowed and lips pursed. His hands are in his lap and he is staring at them.
“Are you okay?” Minghao asks carefully.
Mingyu takes a deep, shuddering breath. He opens his hand, scrabbling over and Minghao instinctually reaches for it, threading their fingers together and squeezing.
“I was thinking, when at dinner…” Mingyu fiddled with Minghao’s fingers, “Junhui said it was like a double date. I wanted it to be.”
Minghao almost breaks his neck whipping up to look at Mingyu’s face.
“I like you,” Mingyu says and, then, louder, “I like you a lot.”
What do I do with this. Minghao searches Mingyu’s face in the dark. Honesty transparent, eyes clear, face open. He was always like this.
Minghao opens his mouth. Me too. He wants to say. But it was not that easy, too close to a promise he cannot deliver. The stone has already sunk to the bottom and Minghao was not ready to dig it up and deliver it to the sky. Are there words to describe half a heart without showing the heart itself?
He was not as literate as Wonwoo, but he could try. Flounder for sentences until the right one comes.
“I’m not… ready for a relationship,” Minghao attempts, “I’m not great at love.” I don’t deserve this.
To his surprise, Mingyu looks at him and smiles.
Why are you smiling?
“Are you rejecting me?”
Minghao hesitates, Mingyu’s smile grows wider, canines showing.
“You don’t think I’m a terrible person.”
“No?” Minghao is confused, “What makes you think that?”
Mingyu lets out a happy sigh that almost sounds like thank god and his hands are gripping Minghao’s.
“We don’t have to, I know you —, We could —, there’s this,” Mingyu stutters, leaning into Minghao’s space. He laughs then his eyes are on Minghao again.
“You don’t have to date me,” Mingyu says, blindingly joyous for the meaning of those words, “Let me take you out on dates.”
Mingyu leans back, knits his eyebrows together. “What?”
“I know you’re not ready. You don’t have to feel like you owe me any part of yourself. Or be vulnerable. Or tell me your secrets. Just enjoy it.”
None of Minghao’s confessions went like this. It’s dizzyingly.
“If you’re okay with it, all I want is to show you how much I like you. That’s enough for me. Nothing else needs to change. We can just do what we usually do.”
“Just what we usually do?”
“Brunch. Museums. Laundry on Saturdays. But with a little bit of this.” Mingyu raises his palm, taking Minghao’s arm with it. Reverently, gently, he kisses the back of Minghao’s hand. Like he was a princess. Minghao wants to scoff. Minghao wants to cry.
It’s strange. Minghao does not see Mingyu like the way he sees Jun, or the way he saw Wonwoo or Jihoon. But his heart is pounding all the same. The knowledge that someone likes him this much empowers him, like he could climb Everest or break a world record.
The people he confessed to had always treated him with respect. Vernon, Seokmin.
He can do the same.
“Okay,” Minghao finally says.
Mingyu whoops. His smile gets impossibly wider and his eyes crinkle with childish delight.
Minghao finds himself smiling back. He’s happy that Mingyu’s happy.
He can work with that.
“So what happens when we break up?”
“I thought about that. I get the bed. And all the kitchenware. If we get a dog I keep that too.”
5 years later
Seungcheol screams when he sees the ring. He points and the whole table swivels their head.
“Oh my god!”
“I can’t believe you’re engaged,” Chan slaps them on the back, “Who asked who?”
“Would you believe that it was me?”
“No,” Minghao rolls his eyes, “You have no backbone. And Wonwoo-hyung manages the money.”
Junhui hooks his chin onto Minghao’s shoulder. He obnoxiously waves his hand in front of Minghao’s salad, engagement ring glinting. “Haoooo~ Where are your congratulations.”
Minghao looks at Wonwoo over Jun’s head, “Am I correct?”
“Absolutely,” Wonwoo replies.
“This shop doesn’t take refunds,” Minghao pokes Jun’s cheeks. Jun pokes his stomach, “But you have a life guarantee of entertainment.”
Wonwoo smiles into his beer, ears red, “I don’t mind.”
“But what about the two of you?” Jun looks up.
“Huh?” Minghao almost drops his food.
Jun jerks his head at Mingyu, smirks and waggles his eyebrows. Minghao gets his chopsticks and makes a stabbing motion towards Jun’s eyeballs.
“Don’t redirect the conversation,” Minghao says, and then softer, in Chinese. “Ge.”
A few years ago he would’ve said, You know how I feel towards marriage.
But tonight he looks at the brightness of Mingyu’s face under the lights. He whines when Seungcheol pours him another shot, swats at Wonwoo’s empty glass, puffs his chest when Chan challenges him to another ridiculous game.
As if sensing eyes on him, Mingyu turns to Minghao. He grins, boyish, tender, brilliant all at once.
Tonight Minghao buries his face in Jun’s hair and says, “I wouldn’t mind.”
“I want you to give the speech.”
“Huh?” Minghao looks up. They’ve just went to the final suit fitting and are now gorging themselves on what they promised to be the last session of hot pot before they start their diets.
The rice cake slips and drops back into the soup with a plop, red droplets splattering across the table. “I need to write a speech?”
“You’re the best man, it’s in the job description.”
“Mingyu doesn’t need to write a speech.”
“That’s because Bohyuk’s giving the speech.”
“But Mingyu is Wonwoo’s best man?”
“Wonwoo doesn’t trust Mingyu with his mouth open.”
Minghao successfully fishes out the rice cake. “Okay, fair. Then make your dad do it.”
“Minghaoooo,” Junhui piles rice cakes into his bowl, “I like your face, your nose, your lips. You’re handsome, you’re charismatic, you’re —”
“I’ll talk about the time you got chased down the road because you forgot to pay for milk tea. And the baijiu incident in Guangzhou. Also I have recordings of you eating fried chicken in class.”
“I~ Don’t~ Mind~” Junhui chimes, then he lowers his voice, “Just not the baijiu incident. Please.”
They banter like this for another hour and Junhui actually summons the bravado to order them baijiu, just for old time’s sake. As the night descends Minghao is filled with a reassuring warmth, a comforting familiarity. Both of them have grown up, but some things have not changed. And probably will not change.
Junhui insists on walking him home because he’s older. Minghao grumbles but lets him. They hang onto each other like they were twenty again, stumbling in the dark. Junhui dragging Minghao into a streetlamp, Minghao stepping on Junhui’s toes.
“You’re my best man,” Junhui starts, “Because you’re my best friend. Haha, get it.”
“Junhui, you’re drunk.”
“We’re both drunk,” Junhui hiccups, “Hi pot, I’m kettle.”
Minghao lugs Junhui across the road to his apartment block. “You should sleep over. Wonwoo would have my head if you died before the wedding.”
Junhui looks up at the moon mournfully, “I don’t think I’ve ever told you this. But I’m so grateful you are my best friend.”
Minghao stops. For appearances, he looks side to side as if to say, right here? Right now? But Junhui’s voice strums a major chord and his heart fills with affection.
“I’m the older one, but you were always looking after me Hao. You did my homework for me, made me practice my stretches, bought me lunch when I forgot my wallet.” Junhui laughs, “And you grew up so quickly too, like you were ready for university. I thought you already had all your outfits planned.”
Minghao’s mouth goes dry. What are you talking about, I was only confident when you were by my side.
“And you were always ahead of me. You always do what you wanted. You’re someone who works hard, day after day to go after the things you want to achieve. When you started ballet, you made sure to improve and catch up, skip a grade for your mum. You had a job when I was just playing games. You did your masters in China to learn Chinese.”
“But you know what I admire most of all?” They were at Minghao’s apartment, right outside the door. Junhui stops, looks at Minghao in the eye. “When it comes to love, you loved fearlessly —”
I’m a coward. Minghao thinks.
“You were brave enough to figure out that you were gay, and you were brave enough to tell me when you didn’t even know what I thought about it. Remember Seokmin? I liked him too, remember? But I was too scared to confess. But you did. I didn’t dare to date boys until I was twenty-one and living in a city that didn’t know me. I’ve always thought you were an amazing person.”
“Junhui, I —”
Junhui presses a finger against Minghao’s lips, “Save it for your best man’s speech. And one more thing.”
He exhales, heavy and deep like he was dredging air from the bottom of his lungs, “Since I was thinking about it, so I’ll just say it.”
“You sound depressed,” Minghao jokes.
“Hah, maybe I’m only saying this because I’m drunk,” Jun scratches the back of his neck, “You’re free to ignore me…”
“What is it?”
Jun is looking past him, at the floor. The silence hangs between them like a curtain being drawn back.
“I was in love with you a long time ago.”
Later, later, later —
What if, what if, what if —
Minghao punches his shoulder.
“Ow!” Jun yells, “Wha — Why did you hit me?”
“That’s rude to Wonwoo-hyung! Are you stupid?” shouts Minghao. His heart is surging against his ribcage. There’s water in his lungs and a hurricane in his head. He’s thinking, when, how, and if in Guangzhou I —
“Don’t say stuff like that when you’re getting married” Minghao pushes Junhui off him, “Understand?”
Junhui looks at him, eyes wide. He’s so beautiful even now, face flushed under the streetlights. Broad shoulders and long legs. Minghao half turns away, palm on the door handle.
“Call me when you get home.”
“I want you to do the speech Minghao, that’s all I wanted to say.”
“Goodnight Junhui.” Minghao whispers.
Minghao stands in front of his door as he watches Junhui walk away. When he’s out of sight, Minghao fumbles for his keys to unlock the door. The second it’s closed, world locked out, Minghao slumps against the door. His knees crumple and then he’s sinking to the floor, head spinning, chest heaving.
“Welcome back!” Mingyu walks in, “What were you two doing? Shouting like — Minghao?”
“Mingyu,” Minghao’s cheek is wet. He blinks and realises he’s crying, “I used to be in love with Junhui.”
It feels so good, to be able to finally say it. But bittersweet. Guilt surges up like a wave. And regret, and loneliness, and nostalgia, for a future that never was, a life he never lived.
How did we end up changing?
Did we ever… at the same time? Could we have tried?
“I liked him so much, I thought I would die.” Minghao draws his feet up, hides his face between his knees, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” He is saying this to Mingyu, who have only ever offered unconditional love like a sacrifice, his bleeding heart on a silver platter. The tears fall, and keep falling, and falling.
Why am I crying? I can’t go back and undo anything, so why do I feel so hopeless?
“You’re an idiot,” Mingyu kneels down, places his hand on Minghao’s neck, his forehead against Minghao’s scalp.
“I’ve known that for 10 years.”
“You’re saying you were in love with Junhui?”
“I’m telling you I knew about it, are you dumb? Jeonghan introduced us because he knew I liked you. When we became friends, I wanted to tell you immediately but you never fell for any of my tricks —”
Minghao scoffed, Mingyu pinched his nose.
“— And even when we were together, you always seemed to look past me, to someone else. And when I met Junhui, I knew it was him. You were so obvious. And I almost gave up, I thought. How could I compare to the childhood best friend? But my heart couldn’t stop liking you.”
“I was so happy, when you finally acknowledged my feelings,” Mingyu kissed the tears on the corner of Minghao’s eyes, “Even then, I knew you still loved Junhui. But you chose me. You let me love you. Year after year you chose to stay, again and again and again. ”
“I don’t love him anymore,” Minghao says to ceiling.
“I know, you fool,” Mingyu laughs, breath warm against Minghao’s skin, “You’re still here. We share the mortgage. We have a dog. And according to the pre-nup I keep the dog if you leave. And you won’t leave the dog.”
“That piece of scrap paper is not a valid contract,” Minghao sniffs, but it comes out as a breathy giggle. He pulls Mingyu all the way down, buries his face in his shoulder, wraps his arms around and hugs him with all the strength he could gather. “I love you so much.”
“I love you too.”
Junhui and Wonwoo get married in the spring.
In his pocket, Minghao has a ring and his speech, printed and folded. It starts with Good evening ladies and gentlemen, I made a powerpoint and ends with —
Wen Junhui. My best friend, my brother.
I wish you a lifetime of happiness.
I love you.