"I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other." - Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (film adaptation)
August 3rd, 1998
Lee Taehyun arrives two weeks before the start of the school year. Syd sits with his mother at the Denver International Airport, waiting for Taehyun’s flight to land. He should probably hate hosting an exchange student—being an only child, he never learned to share—but his mother sold him on the idea.
“I think it will be good for you,” she said one night over dinner. Syd rolled his eyes half-heartedly; he appreciated his mother’s attempts to properly socialize him, but it was still embarrassing, regardless of whether anyone was around to hear it. “You could use a friend, especially one your age.”
He was certain this exchange student idea was fostered by his mother watching him stay inside all summer. While the neighborhood kids took to the local arcades, movie theaters, and rec centers, Syd preferred staying home and watching TV or shooting demons in Doom on his PC. His mother seemed to see this hermitage as a sign of something troubling; even when he told her he was talking to people online, she balked. “Those people could be anyone! Perverts or killers looking for someone too trusting.”
“I think you’ve been watching too much Oprah,” Syd said, but the die was cast in Misty Reed’s mind. Still, even she knew forcing Syd into social situations was a lost cause. Forcing a sixteen-year-old to do anything is nigh impossible without a court order.
The plane appears, taxiing to the gate outside the enormous window facing the runway. Misty clutches Syd’s arm. “Ah! He’s here! I’m so nervous!”
Taehyun called about two hours ago during his layover in Dallas, just as the flight was boarding. She and Syd have been waiting here for around forty-five minutes. Syd doesn’t mind; he enjoys the sinister undertones of the murals strewn across the walls. And there’s something uniquely freeing about airports. You could walk up to a ticket counter, buy a ticket, and go anywhere. Start life over in a whole new place. That seems to be exactly what Taehyun did, and Syd already kind of envies him.
Eventually the passengers deplane, and amongst the throng of travelers and briefcase-carrying businessmen, Syd sees him. Taehyun looks just as he does in the photo Misty received from the exchange program: shaggy brown hair, a round face, wearing that stupid jean jacket with ironed-on patches of bands he probably doesn’t even know. He’s carrying a backpack slung over one shoulder. Misty spots him and waves him over. “Yoo-hoo! Taehyun! Over here!”
Syd sort of slumps in his seat. His mother has always been this way, loud and entirely oblivious to the world around her. Syd wonders what Taehyun’s parents are like, if he too is embarrassed by them.
Taehyun spots them—this skinny, boisterous woman and her tall, lanky son—and his face bursts into a smile. It’s a very gum-heavy smile, Syd notices, and his teeth are strangely perfect. Taehyun jogs over to Misty, where is he wrapped in one of her motherly hugs. “Oh, it’s so good to finally meet you!” she says, taking hold of his shoulders and getting a good look at him. She brushes his dark fringe out of his eyes. “I’m Misty, and this is Syd.”
“Hey,” Syd offers, unenthused.
Taehyun smiles at him. He bows, his left hand crossing his body while he extends his right. Must be a cultural thing. “Nice to meet you.” Syd accepts his proffered hand, because it’s what you do.
Misty corrals her boys, and they’re moving through the glistening airport, heading for the baggage claim. “Tell me about your flight. Were you able to sleep? I can never sleep on planes without a sleeping pill.”
“I slept okay,” Taehyun says. “It was a long flight from Seoul to Dallas. Twelve hours, I think. I fell asleep in the dark, and when I woke up it was morning. The second flight was much shorter.”
“Oh, good, I was hoping you could get some rest,” Misty says. “I thought we could go out for lunch if you’re not too jet-lagged.”
“That would be nice. There was food available on my first flight, but it was too expensive.”
“You haven’t eaten for over twelve hours?” Syd says in disbelief.
“I ate the free snacks on the plane.”
“You must be starving.” Syd can’t imagine going that long with only a few tiny bags of airplane pretzels as sustenance.
While they wait for Taehyun’s luggage to come tumbling down the baggage carousel, Syd asks, “So do you actually listen to any of those bands?” He points to the patch on Taehyun’s jacket, which is surrounded by badges for Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones.
“I do. There’s a record shop in Seoul that sells imports from the US. I discovered a lot of music that way.”
“Looks like you need to update your discography,” Syd says. At Taehyun’s confused expression, he clarifies, “Most of these bands are kind of old.”
“Music doesn’t have an expiration date,” Taehyun says before grabbing his bags, which have appeared on the stainless-steel rack.
Misty appears at his side to take the bags for herself. “We’ll get those for you,” she says, then hands one of the bags to Syd. It’s a green duffel bag that reminds him of his father’s old Air Force knapsack.
Syd and Taehyun sit side-by-side in the backseat of Misty’s Plymouth van. It’s a horrid, beige blight on wheels, but at least it doesn’t have wood paneling. Syd toys with the cord of the headphones hanging around his neck. He brought his Walkman along, opting to listen to one of his homemade mixtapes rather than the smooth jazz always playing in airports. He considers slipping his headphones on again, frustrated by his inability to create conversation, but Misty would probably scold him for being unsociable.
He hears the tinny sound of Filter’s “Hey Man Nice Shot” flowing through the earphones. He rewinds the tape, resetting the song back to the beginning, and offers the headphones to Taehyun. “Your introduction to modern rock starts now. Take a listen.”
Taehyun does, perhaps more out of politeness than genuine interest, but his head bobs along with the music. When the drop comes, he grins, as though discovering some kind of wonderful secret. “I like this,” he says with a hint of surprise. “Who is it?”
“Filter. They’ve got a lot of killer songs. This one’s pretty cool. It’s based on this politician dude who shot himself on TV during a press conference.”
Misty sighs from the driver’s seat. “Syd, don’t be morbid.”
“What is ‘morbid’?” Taehyun wonders.
“She thinks I’m ‘obsessed with death,’” Syd supplies, making air quotation marks with his fingers.
“A good death is honorable.”
“Yeah, well, it’s not the good ones I’m interested in.”
“Don’t show Taehyun any of that garbage,” Misty warns him. “You’ll warp his brain.”
Syd thinks that’s bullshit; he’s been watching Faces of Death and viewing gore websites for years, and he’s not a homicidal maniac. Sure, he has the occasional urge to kill everyone at school, but what teenager doesn’t?
Upon further consideration, he’ll concede that his mother might have a point.
They settle on pizza for lunch, upon Taehyun’s request. “I’ve never had pizza,” he says while they’re sitting in the restaurant’s booth. “I’m excited.”
“Never? That’s tragic.” Syd can’t believe a human being could live this long without tasting a proper pizza. “No wonder you wanted to come to America.”
Taehyun chuckles, as though that will transform the comment into something no longer at his expense. “There were many reasons.” He doesn’t elaborate, and Syd knows enough not to poke at that.
“Your English is wonderful,” Misty says. “Did you learn at school?”
“I took basic classes, but mostly I learned from American TV shows. I watched a lot of Friends, Seinfeld, and shows like that. My mother has a deep interest in Western media.”
“What do your parents do?”
“My father owns a restaurant in Seoul. My mother is a seamstress.”
“Any siblings?” Misty’s asking all the questions now, but they’re surface-level things in which Syd has no interest.
“I have an older brother, Chanyeol,” Taehyun says. “He wants to be a dancer like Michael Jackson. My parents wished he had focused on his education, so I guess that is why they let me come here, because I want to study hard and become a doctor.”
A native speaker might talk fast and stumble over their words, dropping ‘um’s and ‘uh’s in to fill space, but Taehyun speaks slowly, as if carefully selecting his words. Thank God he’s not one of those vapid morons at school who fills the gaps between their words with ‘like’s.
“You could go to med school in Korea,” Syd muses. “Why here?”
Taehyun sighs, as though about to reveal something he would rather keep secret. “Since last year, South Korea is in a bit of a financial crisis. The value of our won dropped. Lots of large companies collapsed, driving up interest rates, and that drove away international investors. The economy is a mess right now.”
“And since college is expensive, they sent you here in hopes of a scholarship?” Syd asks.
Taehyun sort of shrugs. “I guess you could say that.”
The pizza arrives, and everyone digs in. Taehyun makes a shameless groaning noise after biting into a slice.
“So what do you actually like?” Syd asks. “Besides music.”
Taehyun chews it over, only speaking when his mouth is no longer full. Table manners must be a big thing over there. “I like video games. Do you have Super Nintendo?”
“I have a PlayStation,” Syd brags.
Taehyun’s eyes go wide. “No kidding?”
“And I have a computer. With Doom.” Syd enjoys how easily impressed this kid is, enjoys that he himself is in any way impressive. He has always been no one special, floating his way through social circles as a ghost, offering nothing of substance to any kind of relationship. Doom, of course, runs on pretty much anything—Syd could probably program it into a TI-83—but for once he feels like a god, Taehyun’s ambassador into the daunting world of American culture.
“I’ve only used computers at school. I could have saved up for one, but I would rather buy music,” Taehyun says.
“I’ve got a whole binder full of CDs you need to listen to,” Syd tells him around a bite of pizza. “If you haven’t heard KMFDM or the Smashing Pumpkins, you aren’t living right.”
“Stop, he has good taste,” Misty says, tugging on the side of Taehyun’s jacket emblazoned with patches for ‘60s stoner rock bands. “I have a lot of records you could listen to,” she says to Taehyun. “Steely Dan, Phil Collins, the Smiths…”
“The Smiths are pretty good,” Syd admits, because he has to highlight the rare moments in which his mother is right about music.
“I have a lot to listen to,” Taehyun says, as though this is some great endeavor he has taken upon himself.
When they make it home, Misty shows Taehyun the guest room in which he’ll be staying. The room is overwhelmingly neutral, with thick, beige carpet and off-white walls. The twin-size bed sits low to the ground, decorated with white pillows and a blue duvet. There is a small nightstand on one side of the bed, covered with magazines, paperback novels, and a lamp. Above the headboard hangs a rather ugly abstract art print Misty bought at a flea market a few years ago. Syd has always wondered if this room was intended for the sister or brother he never had.
“You live here now, so if you want to hang up pictures or anything like that, you can,” Misty tells Taehyun. “I want you to feel at home here.”
Taehyun nods, beginning the task of unloading the contents of his luggage into the wooden dresser. “Thank you, Mrs. Reed.”
“Just call me Misty. Or Mom.” She laughs. “I’m just kidding. Unless you want to.”
Taehyun gives her a polite smile, and Syd thinks they’re going to get along just fine if the kid can tell when Mom’s being embarrassing.
Misty leaves them alone then, and Syd looks around at the bland room. “I think my mom always wanted another kid,” he says, leaning against the side of the dresser while Taehyun neatly places his socks and underwear into the top drawer.
“Where is your father?” Taehyun asks.
“In Kansas City.” Taehyun gives him a confused look. “He doesn’t live with us anymore,” Syd explains. “My parents got divorced when I was thirteen.”
Syd frowns. “Don’t look at me like that. Do people not get divorced in Korea?”
“Saving face is very important in our culture. Most couples are arranged, which makes divorce an insult to the matchmaker, who is usually the couple’s parents.”
“That sounds like it sucks. Were your parents arranged?”
“Yes, of course.”
“I didn’t know people still did that.”
“I think you misunderstand. The parents of both families just introduce two people to each other for a date. The couple can decide if they want to keep dating. It’s not a forced marriage like you’re thinking.”
“I guess that’s not so bad,” Syd muses. “But we don’t really do that here.”
Taehyun chuckles. “I know. I watch TV. I learned about a lot of your customs that way. Though some old habits are hard to shake.”
“I guess,” Syd says, unsure of how to proceed with this line of conversation. “You wanna see the basement? It’s where I keep the PlayStation.”
Taehyun abandons the task of settling in and follows Syd downstairs. Over the past few years, Syd has cultivated the basement as his hang-out, a room that has almost replaced his bedroom entirely. There’s a futon, a small coffee table where he often sets his meals and game controllers, a 13-inch combo TV and VCR unit, stacks of VHS tapes, and the PlayStation. Pictures cover the walls, mostly the fold-out mini-posters torn from the middle of gaming and music magazines.
“Wow,” Taehyun marvels, like he’s Alice stepping into Wonderland. “This is all your stuff?”
“Sort of. My mom keeps some junk down here in bins. And there’s the washer and dryer, and the cat’s litter box is over there,” Syd says, gesturing to the far corner where a covered litter pan sits.
“You have a cat?” Taehyun looks around as if searching for the four-legged critter. “What kind?”
“Just… white, I guess. My mom and I adopted her a couple years ago. Her name’s Arlene. I named her after a character in the Doom books, but don’t tell my mom. She thinks I’m just a really big Garfield fan.” Syd laughs to himself.
Taehyun’s brow furrows, like he’s trying to figure that one out.
“Garfield has a sort-of girlfriend cat named Arlene,” Syd clarifies. He forgets Taehyun doesn’t have an encyclopedic knowledge of Western pop culture.
“Oh.” Taehyun’s still looking for the cat. “I guess she’s hiding.”
“She’ll show up eventually.” Syd flops onto the futon.
Taehyun joins him, tentative, as if expecting an invitation to sit. “What does your mother do for a living?”
“She teaches kindergarten. I guess it’s less ‘teaching’ and more ‘supervising,’ but yeah.” Syd powers on the PlayStation. “I’ve got Mortal Kombat 3. Wanna play?”
He feared he’d have to teach Taehyun how to play, but the kid quickly picks up the mechanics, button-mashing his way into a few wins. “This is so cartoonish,” he says with a laugh at the game’s over-the-top gore.
“Wait ‘til you see the fatalities. You can actually kill the other guy if you press the right buttons.”
During the next round, Taehyun lets Syd win and uppercut his character into a pit of spinning blades, resulting in a bloody explosion of pixelated gore, skulls, and ribcages.
“Oh, gross!” Taehyun exclaims, laughing. His laugh is infectious, and Syd hears himself chuckling along with him.
They spend hours sampling Syd’s menu of games, playing Duke Nukem, NBA Jam, and Twisted Metal 2 until Misty’s voice sounds from the top of the stairs. “It’s getting late, you two. Anyone want dinner?”
Upstairs, they finish off the rest of the pizza from lunch. The dining room is a small section of the kitchen, featuring a round table that comfortably seats three. Above the table hangs a calming blue glass pendant light. Misty drinks a Cosmopolitan out of a wine glass; Syd opts for Mountain Dew, and Taehyun sips orange soda.
“Since you’re a Pink Floyd fan,” Misty says to Taehyun, “did you know I named Syd after Syd Barrett?”
“You always mention that like it’s charming,” Syd says. “He went nuts and became a recluse. It’s like you’re setting me up for failure.”
“Oh, stop. You always focus on the negative. He was a musical genius,” Misty says. “I don’t think the tragedy of his life should outweigh the positive.” She looks at Taehyun. “Sydney works for a girl or boy name, and he wants to split hairs.”
Taehyun seems to be thinking this over. “My name can also be used for a girl. It means great and virtuous.”
Taehyun’s parents have high hopes for him, apparently.
After dinner, Taehyun excuses himself for a shower. Syd lingers at the table with Misty, who’s polishing off another Cosmo. “So, what do you think of him?” she asks.
Syd shrugs. “I thought he would be a huge dork, but he’s okay.”
“Most people are, if you get to know them.”
Syd knows where she’s going with this and doesn’t want to have that conversation again, the one where he tries to remind his mother what high school is actually like, because she seems to have forgotten in the twenty years or so it’s been in her rear-view mirror. No one fucking likes the weird kids, he has told her time after time, and perhaps the only reason he seems to have a rapport with Taehyun is because the kid himself is a little weird. Be it weirdness born from his interests or his status as a foreign exchange student, he’ll still be branded as a loser within the walls of Tanner High School.
Syd supposes he will take on the role of Taehyun’s protector when school starts, and isn’t that a grim fucking thought, because Syd is in no shape to protect anyone; he’s too skinny and unathletic to go toe-to-toe with even the laziest jock, despite his height advantage.
“He’s nice, at least,” Syd offers in acquiescence.
“You could learn a thing or two from him,” Misty says, in that teasing way of hers. Syd rolls his eyes half-heartedly.
Arlene comes sniffing around, curious in the way cats are. She rubs against Misty’s legs, and Misty offers the cat headscratches.
“I wonder if Taehyun likes animals,” Misty says.
“He seems like more of a dog person.”
“We’ll have to see what happens when Arlene warms up to him.”
Later that night, when the house has fallen still and quiet, Syd sits at the computer in the living room, playing Doom on a private server with some online friends. He has no idea who these people are in real life—according to Misty, they could be child molesters—but he hasn’t received any creepy, intrusive messages yet, so Syd figures they’re all right. Of course, he has never mentioned he’s a sixteen-year-old high school student, so who knows?
The computer sits facing the living room, so online privacy is nonexistent, unless he can block the screen with his body long enough to switch to a less incriminating window. Although privacy is less of a concern when he’s playing computer games – it’s the shock and gore sites Misty takes issue with, and he wonders if she laments why he can’t be caught looking at porn like a normal teenager.
Arlene is curled in Syd’s lap, snoring in a deep sleep. Syd hears the bare slap of footsteps against kitchen tile and turns in his chair, expecting to see Misty coming to scold him for staying up so late, but it’s only Taehyun, dressed in striped pajama pants and a white T-shirt.
“What’s up?” Syd asks.
“I came out to get water. Are you playing a game?”
“No, I’m doing my taxes,” Syd jokes, cracking a grin when Taehyun appears to understand sarcasm. “C’mere, and I’ll show you.”
Taehyun fills a glass with water before joining Syd at the computer. There isn’t much room for a second person here, so Taehyun sits on the arm of the nearest couch. Arlene stirs, notices the presence of a stranger, and leaps off Syd’s lap. She goes scurrying into the darkness, and Taehyun says, “Aww, don’t run, kitty.”
“She’ll warm up to you eventually.” Syd scoots closer to the screen now that he has more room.
“What game is that?”
“Doom. You go through mazes and shoot demons. It’s awesome. You can make your own maps too, or play with someone else’s.” Syd blows up a demon with a few keyboard taps.
“Do you make your own?”
“Sometimes. I just started learning a couple weeks ago. It would be pretty cool to make games for a living, don’t you think?”
Taehyun watches Syd blast demons on-screen. “Is that what you want to do?”
“Either that or clean up crime scenes.”
“I think your mother was right when she said you are morbid,” Taehyun observes.
Syd shrugs. “Somebody’s gotta do it, right? And it’s kind of fucked up to let the family of a suicide victim clean up the mess.”
“Is that not a family’s responsibility to one another?”
“I don’t know, dude. If I blew my brains out, I’d rather have some stranger pick my teeth out of the drywall than have my mom do it, y’know?”
Taehyun seems to be thinking this over; his eyes are bright with reflections of the computer screen. “Sounds like you’ve thought about it.”
This strikes Syd as something his mother would say, condescending and well-meaning. “Doesn’t everyone?”
“Not me,” Taehyun says, shaking his head.
“You said your country was in the financial shitter. Your parents could lose their jobs.”
“We would still have each other. Human connections are much more valuable than money.”
As much as Syd wants to joke that the kid sounds like a fortune cookie, there is a startling amount of profundity in his statement. Without his mother, Syd would be well and truly alone; it’s taken Taehyun’s appearance in his life for Syd to realize how deeply loneliness scares him.
August 4th, 1998
In the morning, Misty has breakfast ready on the stovetop—a skillet full of hashbrowns, bacon, eggs, and cheese. While the three of them eat, Taehyun announces, “I want to go out today. Is there anything fun to do here?”
“There’s lots of fun things to do in Denver!” Misty says. “Syd, why don’t you take Taehyun into the city and show him around? I’ll give you some spending money.”
Syd almost protests at being volunteered against his will, but he can’t complain if he’s getting paid to be Taehyun’s ambassador. And it will give the two of them a parent-free chance to talk; Syd thinks Taehyun might come out of his shell a bit when there are no authority figures around. Since Korean culture puts respect for elders on a pedestal, it makes sense Taehyun would be more reserved when older folks are around.
“Okay, cool,” Syd agrees. “There’s this awesome comic, game and movie shop I go to. It’s like being in someone’s private collection of cool stuff, except you can buy things.”
An hour later, they’re walking through the LoDo district. The weather is perfect for a walk through the city—the mid-afternoon sun is high overhead, with puffy clouds decorating the sky like paint smears. They walk past loft apartments, municipal buildings, restaurants, a barbershop, a gym, and a florist. “It looks so nice and neat,” Taehyun observes. “In some of our cities, we have power lines criss-crossing everywhere.”
Syd never really noticed the absence of visible power lines here before. “Maybe they run them underground here.”
“Not all of Seoul is like that. Just some places.”
“Maybe it’s a money thing. Richer cities can afford to hide the wires underground.”
They pass by a luggage store, then the comic shop greets them at a street corner. The small storefront belies its size; on the inside, it is a multi-story wonder, cramming every bit of childhood and teenage ephemera into every shelf, wall, and crevice. James, the owner, looks up at them from an issue of X-Men. “Hey, Syd. You brought a friend!”
“This is Taehyun. He’s a Korean exchange student.”
James is in his late twenties and, in Syd’s eyes, is the epitome of cool. His glasses make him look like a nerd, but his arms fill the sleeves of his T-shirt, the tail of a tattoo peeking out. Syd has seen the entire tattoo before: it’s the iconic Friday the 13th Part Four hockey mask with a knife jutting out from one eyehole. Seriously awesome.
“Nice to meet you, Taehyun. You guys see anything you like, just give me a holler.”
Syd says they will and brings Taehyun upstairs where the movies are. With the recent introduction of the DVD format, VHS tapes are being phased out of most shops, offered at a discount in hopes of clearing the shelves for new technologies. While James has a fond nostalgia for the VHS format, he still discounts his tapes, albeit not as cheaply as places like Kmart. But the selection is where this shop really shines; James has VHS copies of movies not yet available on DVD, out-of-print features and hard-to-find films, even movies Blockbuster won’t carry.
“There must be every movie ever made in here,” Taehyun marvels.
“Probably enough to keep you busy for a while, at least.” Syd’s favorite section is the wall of horror and exploitation films. James, a staunch believer that age restrictions on media are bullshit, lets him buy the tapes and sell them back later for a few dollars. It’s a measure born of necessity, since Syd doesn’t want to risk letting the tapes sit too long in his collection, lest Misty have questions. She would never go the Tipper Gore route and try to ban every grotesque film, but she’s still a parent, and Syd knows better than to flaunt his strange proclivities in front of her.
“What kind of movies do you like?” Syd wonders.
“I suppose you mean American movies,” Taehyun says. “I liked Back to the Future. Ferris Bueller. The Terminator.”
“Fuck yeah, Terminator is the shit. Have you seen Terminator 2?”
“It was okay,” Taehyun says with a shrug. “I liked Aliens.”
“Aliens fucking rules. I knew you had good taste.”
“I like animated movies too. Disney and Don Bluth, that sort of thing,” Taehyun adds, as if in protest to Syd’s declaration of his good taste. “You probably think that’s for babies, though, huh?”
Syd feels caught off-guard by how direct Taehyun can be sometimes. “No, not really. I mean, I wouldn’t go around telling everyone I cried at Mufasa’s death in The Lion King.”
“I cried too,” Taehyun admits, as though this is some great shame. “But I think that means a movie is good, if it can move you like that.”
Syd admires the artistic, macabre VHS covers of shitty slasher movies. “I wish movie covers still looked like this.” He takes The Incredible Melting Man off the shelf to show Taehyun. The cover art boasts an artistic rendering of a man’s melting face, with one eyeball hanging out of its socket and the skull’s teeth exposed. “Now it’s just, like, the actors’ faces against a white or black background. Boring.”
“But less gruesome.”
“You’re really not into this shit, are you?” It never occurred to Syd that he would be unable to convince Taehyun to appreciate the things he himself holds dear. Is he a poor salesman for his passions, or will Taehyun simply not be swayed? Regardless, Syd feels a little lonelier.
Taehyun shrugs, makes a face Syd labels as his ‘not looking to offend’ face. “People don’t have to like the same things to be friends,” he says, and that’s as much of a blatant dismissal as Syd’s going to get from this guy.
“Alright, shit. How about we check out the music section?”
Downstairs are a few racks of tapes and CDs, mostly containing records by less radio-friendly bands. Syd has picked up numerous Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, and Rammstein albums here. Taehyun flips through the jewel cases; Syd catches him looking at White Zombie, Stone Temple Pilots, and Butthole Surfers. “Do you have any of these?” Taehyun asks.
“I have the White Zombie album. The others I don’t have anything by, except whatever songs of theirs I’ve taped off the radio. We can go through my CDs and tapes later, if you want. What do you want to do next? We could see a movie. I think the X-Files movie is still showing.” Syd’s rambling, and he makes himself stop. He knows he’s pushing too hard to find a connection, and according to his mother, desperation is a turn-off.
“Okay.” Taehyun is so goddamn agreeable; Syd wonders if he geniunely doesn’t care what they do, or if he’s just being polite and letting Syd drag him all over town.
Taehyun buys a Soundgarden compilation CD. Syd plays it in the car on the drive to the nearest movie theater. He’d almost forgotten how good Soundgarden is, having been distracted by more aggressive acts like Filter and Gravity Kills.
The movie theater is about a ten-minute drive away. Syd buys the tickets, and Taehyun buys the snacks. “It’s the least I can do. You’ve been really nice, taking me places,” he explains as they find their seats at the back of the theater.
“Don’t sweat it. It’s nice to have someone to hang out with.”
“Don’t you have friends?” It sounds judgmental, but Syd knows Taehyun enough to know no cruelty is intended.
“Not really. I usually see movies alone. Or I go with my mom when she wants to see some dumb chick flick.”
“Now you have someone else to go with,” Taehyun says, smiling as he reaches for the popcorn.
The movie itself is mediocre, a two-hour episode of the TV show. Syd’s seen the film before, when it hit theaters in early summer. Taehyun isn’t leaning over and asking ‘who is that?’ or ‘what’s going on?’ every few seconds, so Syd figures he’s familiar enough with the show.
This is good, right? They’re bonding, and Misty would be proud that Syd has finally made a friend. It might be inevitable that Taehyun will eventually drift into another social circle—be it other foreign exchange students, a group of studious try-hards, or some other subculture—but Syd hopes he can instill himself in Taehyun, enough so when the school year starts he won’t be easily lured away by other potential friends.
Is that selfish? Maybe, but who cares? Taehyun will probably return to South Korea within a year or two when the economy stabilizes, and he’ll go on to make friends in college and adult life in general. But this is all Syd has right now, so he’s going to milk it for all it’s worth.
After the movie, Syd takes them to a restaurant on the way home. “Something tells me you’ve never had Mexican food,” he says, pulling Taehyun inside the cozy cantina. It’s the beginning of the dinner crowd, and they’re seated in a booth near the back. Snug and intimate.
Like a date.
The thought startles Syd, and he tucks it away to ruminate on later.
“I don’t know what any of this is,” Taehyun says as he scans the menu. His brow is furrowed in dismay. The menu doesn’t have pictures, which only adds to his confusion.
“It’s all beans, rice, and cheese in a tortilla. I usually get the chimichangas. Or the grilled fish tacos.”
Taehyun opts for the fish tacos; Syd tries the combo plate. His cherry cola comes with actual cherries on top. He takes a sip. Ambrosia. “You’re going to like it here in the US of A,” he tells Taehyun. “At least the food is good.”
“This is fun,” Taehyun says. “I admit I was scared to leave my country. Imagine leaving everything you know and going somewhere entirely alien. I’m afraid I will make a fool of myself.”
“What, at school?” Syd gives a dismissive handwave. “Forget it. If they give you shit, I’ll kick their ass.” Not that Syd would actually succeed, but he’s more willing to get his own ass kicked on the behalf of someone else.
Taehyun’s eyes widen. “You would do that for me?”
“Yeah, of course.”
Taehyun observes him, like he doubts Syd’s physical capability to kick the ass of anyone over ten years old, but he smiles like he appreciates the offer regardless. “That’s very kind of you.”
“If you say so. I just hate bullies.” And it feels nobler to partake in violence on someone else’s behalf rather than his own.
Taehyun’s still looking at him. Syd squirms, suddenly uncomfortable. “What?”
“Your eyes are two different colors,” Taehyun points out.
“Oh. Yeah.” It’s something Syd was teased for back in elementary school, though he’s grown used to seeing one blue eye and one green eye in the mirror. “I got it from my dad’s side.” He used to combat the teasing by saying he absorbed a twin in the womb because he was the strongest; most people left him alone after hearing that.
“What does your dad do?” Taehyun asks, as if that has any bearing on his heterochromia. Whatever, Syd can dish.
“He used to be the head honcho of a factory that makes plane parts, but I don’t know if he still has that job anymore.”
“How often do you see him?”
“He usually visits every Thanksgiving and Christmas. So you’ll probably get to meet him if he comes this year.”
“Do you like him?”
This question throws Syd off-guard. He’s always assumed that of course he still likes his dad post-divorce, but now that he has to think about it, does he really? “I guess. He’s still my dad. He didn’t hurt me, but he hurt my mom, so you can imagine I’m at somewhat of an emotional crossroads.”
Their food arrives, but it’s too hot to dig in right now, so they continue their conversation while their plates emit steam. “You feel like you should be mad at him for your mother’s sake?” Taehyun asks.
“Yeah, kind of. Not to sound like a wuss or anything, but I love my mom. So I want to be on her side, y’know? But I think about my dad, and how we used to go fishing at Sloan’s Lake, and I just feel bad for him.”
“It must be difficult,” Taehyun says. Syd envies him; what must it be like to have an intact family unit? Granted, Taehyun seems to have traded financial security for parents who aren’t divorced, but that doesn’t stop Syd from wondering.
“I feel like I’m committing some sort of crime,” Syd continues, the words falling out of him. “If I still like my dad, I’m betraying my mom. But if I stand by my mom’s side, I’m hurting my dad.” He has never talked about this with anyone. His mother is too biased to really listen to him about the subject, and Syd has never put much stock in the effectiveness of school counselors. “If I try to play both sides, I feel like I’m lying, even though I’m just being neutral.”
“I think it’s very unfair to force you to choose a side.”
“No one’s really forcing me, it just feels that way.”
They eat dinner while the sunset knifes through the blinds and casts the restaurant in an ethereal glow. Taehyun’s hair catches the light, giving him a halo around his head. His hair is a rich chestnut brown. Syd never noticed that before. He also never noticed how the light illuminates Taehyun’s face, giving him the appearance of some holy figure in a Renaissance painting.
That’s not how guys look at other guys. Is it?
Syd feels a flush rising in his cheeks. He drops his gaze from Taehyun’s face, but now he’s looking at the swan-like curve of his neck, and things are happening down below. But it doesn’t mean anything. He’s a teenager; a stiff breeze could get him hard, although knowing that doesn’t calm his boner down any. He squirms, crossing his legs so it won’t be visible underneath the table. Taehyun munches on tacos, oblivious to Syd’s moment of sexual confusion.
The rest of the evening should be awkward but isn’t. After dinner, they go home and watch Event Horizon in the basement. Syd pays more attention to Taehyun than the movie. He is filled with the inexplicable urge to push his fingers through Taehyun’s hair. He wonders what it would be like to touch his arm or hold his hand. He must be going insane. These are ridiculous thoughts to have about another guy, let alone someone he’s going to be living with.
But that doesn’t stop Syd from stealing glimpses at Taehyun, admiring the round shape of his nose and the dimples that form at the corner of his cheeks when something amuses him. Taehyun’s features are innocent and sweet, definitely not what Syd thinks about while masturbating that night.
Syd’s Journal - August 4th, 1998
FUCK!!!!!! I think I have a crush. On A GUY!!! Like I wasn’t bully-meat already. UGH. Why can’t I just be fucking normal? I hate the preps and the jocks and all the fake fucking posers at school, but even I can see they’re happier than me. I used to think being yourself and being unique made you cool, because that’s what everyone tells you, right? But for all its faults, conformity seems to have its perks. No one gives you shit when you fit in, even if it’s at the expense of your own individuality. Maybe I should cut my hair and ditch the black clothes and look and act like everyone else.
But it would fucking kill me to fake a smile and pretend to give a shit about school sports or Britney Spears or Backstreet Boys or whatever the fuck those idiots are into. Just when I find someone who’s not an asshole, he has to go and turn me gay, or at least give me a shit-ton of sexual confusion.
Maybe I’m just confusing friend feelings for crush feelings. It’s been so long since I’ve had a friend, it makes sense I could confuse the two, right? Maybe this is what having a friend is like, and I’m just overreacting.
Except you don’t wonder what your friends look like naked.
Fuck. I should just kill myself now so I don’t have to think about it anymore.
Syd’s Journal - August 7th, 1998
I went bowling with Taehyun today. Bowling is pretty much the thing you do when you’ve run out of things to do, but he thought it would be fun, and it’s nice to look at him, nice to be with him. (Gaaaaaay)
Except for those fucking bitches. Jennie and Rachel. They were at the lanes too, and they had the nerve to flirt with Taehyun right in front of me!!!! They could have any guy in school, but, noooo, go after the only person my age I’ve ever given a shit about. I wanted to smash the bowling ball right into their faces, but of course you’re not supposed to hit girls. To which I say, why the fuck not? Equal rights and all, right?
The only good thing about the whole shit-show was I don’t think Taehyun likes them. He seemed uncomfortable when they asked him questions. Good. Maybe I’ll get lucky and he won’t be into girls at all. Or guys. I don’t wanna see him flirting with anyone, okay?
August 10th, 1998
Elitch Gardens is owned by Six Flags now, so the rides and decor are plastered with Looney Tunes characters in an attempt to rebrand. Hailed as Colorado’s must-see destination, the park boasts three edge-of-your-seat roller coasters and eighteen other rides. Taehyun saw the wild loops and colorful rails of the coasters while Syd drove them through the city, and he mentioned wanting to go. “I’ve never been to a theme park before,” he said, by way of coaxing, and Syd couldn’t say no.
There’s also a water park adjacent to the theme park, but the thought of running around in swim shorts—and, more importantly, seeing Taehyun in his own—terrifies Syd, so he discourages Taehyun by reminding him public pools are full of piss and bacteria. Taehyun, thankfully, does not argue.
Misty is more than happy to pay for their tickets and give them extra spending money. “I’m so glad you two are getting so close!” she says, and Syd feels his stomach flip as though he’s already shuttling through the loops of a roller coaster. Does she know about his flourishing crush? She can't—unless she snooped around the basement and read his journal while the two of them were out—but mothers are always boasting about their near-supernatural ability to ‘just know’ things about their kids.
“He’s never been on a roller coaster,” Syd explains, side-stepping the lurking issue of his crush.
“Are you going to brave your fear of heights?” Misty teases (in front of Taehyun, no less), which makes Syd flush.
“You’re afraid of heights?” Taehyun asks.
“He didn’t use to be,” Misty says. “When he was little, all he wanted to do was ride the biggest, scariest rides at Elitch.”
Syd just grumbles that she’s embarrassing him and asks for their money.
The park season is beginning to wind down, and the Gardens will open only on weekends once school starts, so now is the perfect time to go. A jumble of big and small rides hide within the lush green trees planted for ambience. Lunch-wagons and concession stands dot the walkways, the smells of popcorn, hot dogs, and french fries wafting through the air. Taehyun practically drags him to the waiting line for the biggest coaster, the Twister II. “Are you really scared of heights?” Taehyun asks while they wait in the queue.
“I’m more afraid of how dangerous these rides are. You have no idea if the thing is properly maintained, and all these parks hire idiot teenagers to operate the rides. I wouldn’t trust the morons at school with my life.”
“Aren’t you one of them?”
“Excuse you. I’m so fucking far above those conformist shitheads. At least I have a brain and can think for myself.”
“Are you taking advanced classes?”
Syd scoffs a laugh. “No way. I’m smart enough to see right through that. They load the smart kids up with all this extra work so they can’t see what’s going on around them.”
“Uh-huh,” Taehyun says, making a face like he knows Syd’s full of shit. When it’s their turn on the coaster, Syd’s stomach twists up like a DNA helix. He watches the attendant—probably some stoner dumbass from school—shut the doors and latch each safety bar.
Syd is acutely aware of Taehyun watching him. “What?”
“You’re really nervous. What do you think is going to happen?”
“I don’t know. Maybe the safety bar isn’t so safe, and I go flying out and hit the ground from a thousand feet. What a fucking mess.”
“I thought you wanted to die,” Taehyun says, and Syd feels exposed.
“Not that way. I want something quick and painless. Like shooting myself in the mouth.”
A woman sitting in front of him turns around and gives him a glare. “Don’t talk about things like that,” she scolds, and Syd flips her the double bird when she faces forward.
Taehyun’s face, while usually a thing of wonder, is a sight to behold when he’s trying not to laugh. His mouth screws up into a half-smile, showcasing his dimples. His eyes become engulfed in what Syd later learns is called aegyo-sal; Taehyun’s eyes do this when he grins broadly and when he laughs, and it’s one of Syd’s favorite things about his face. Just as Syd is thinking about kissing him, there is a jerk, then the coaster takes off.
The ride is a convoluted track of dips and peaks. At the ride’s tallest point, Syd looks out at the mountainous beauty of the Mile-High City. The sky is blue and bright, with fluffy, cotton-candy clouds floating by. In the far distance sit the mountain ranges, faded as if they are part of the sky itself. He can see the Broncos stadium looming across the highway like a settled alien spacecraft. From this high promontory, the world reminds him of a Lego set, small and compact.
Then the coaster is swooping down, and Syd closes his eyes again as the wind whips his face and sends his hair swooping behind him like a magician’s cape. Taehyun throws up his arms and joins the rest of the riders in delighted screams. Syd risks opening his eyes and observes Taehyun in a moment of pure bliss. Syd can’t remember the last time he saw such happiness on a person’s face. He thinks back to when he was a child and riding roller coasters was fun. Maybe that’s what Taehyun is feeling now.
Taehyun catches him looking, grins. “Let go!”
Syd’s hands are white-knuckled on the safety bar. “Another time.”
“The next ride?” Taehyun asks, and he looks so sweet and pleading that Syd hears himself agreeing.
When they come down and the coaster slows to a stop, the riders evacuate. Syd braces against the green railing of the walkway around the park, waiting for the world to feel stable under his feet again. Taehyun asks if he’s sick.
“I feel like I jumped out of a plane and survived,” Syd says.
“Maybe you should eat.”
“Not if we’re going on more of these fucking things.”
They ride the Sidewinder next, a horrifying loop-oriented coaster that manages to elicit an actual scream from Syd when he’s upside-down. “Are you having fun?” Taehyun shouts over the sounds of the coaster and the other riders’ screams.
“I’m having a panic attack,” Syd says. He’s half-joking, but after the ride is over, Syd curls over a trash bin and vomits up the Pop-Tarts he had for breakfast. Taehyun rubs his back and gives him a few pats like he’s trying to burp a baby.
“No more roller coasters,” Taehyun promises, looking solemn. “Sorry I made you ride with me.”
Syd, certain there will be no more puking, raises his head. He spits to clear his mouth a little. “Don’t give yourself so much credit. You didn’t make me do anything.”
There’s a small diner a short walk away, so they head there for lunch and sodas. Taehyun orders a cheeseburger that barely fits in his hands, and a side of onion rings. Syd opts for a plate of fries smothered in cheese and bacon. Taehyun steals a few fries off Syd’s plate, while Syd pretends not to notice.
He wishes they could cut through all the bullshit and just be boyfriends. He wishes they could hold hands on the rides and share cotton candy. Maybe Syd could win Taehyun one of those huge stuffed animals in the shooting gallery.
Syd knows it’s impossible, of course; even on the rare chance Taehyun is attracted to dudes, it’s hard to view someone as a romantic or sexual partner when you’ve seen them vomit into a trash can. And Syd has always hated his own looks, hated his weird eyes, his prominent nose, and the goofy fucking freckles spread across his cheeks like blood spatter. And his stupid ears, which stick out so much he grew his hair long enough to hide them.
It’ll never happen, Syd tells himself, digging a little deeper into the trench of self-loathing. He realizes now that Taehyun is his first love, that this is the one that will hurt like no other. The one that will leave a scar.
After lunch, they stumble upon the midway. Taehyun’s eyes light up with excitement, and he gleefully surveys the various game booths and the tantalizing prizes hanging above. There are the cheap character-shaped backpacks that barely hold a Discman, the medium-size stuffies, then the huge stuffed toys of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck that probably cost more to win than they would at a toy store.
“Ah!” Taehyun gasps and points to a giant stuffed prize. “I want that Keroppi!” It’s a huge stuffed frog character Syd has seen at the Sanrio store in the mall. He’s a little surprised to see non-Looney Tunes characters here, though he supposes it’s not that strange.
“Go for it, dude.”
“I don’t know if I can.” Taehyun looks at him. “Are you any good at shooting?”
Syd grins. This is his moment. “My dad used to take me shooting with his carbine rifle. And I know my way around a BB gun.”
“Will you shoot for me?” Taehyun asks, so sincere it breaks Syd’s heart a little.
I’d fucking die for you, Syd thinks, and tells him he will.
Syd steps up to the booth and pays the fee. “How many shots?” he asks.
The guy behind the counter says, “Ten a clip.”
“Give me two clips.” Syd slides an extra dollar across the counter. The guy looks at it, frowns, then pockets the money.
Syd socks the butt of the rifle against his shoulder, looking down the nonexistent sight. A proper firearm would have a sight, but he supposes the last thing the park owners want is too many kids winning prizes.
Syd intends to use his first clip to gauge the aim of the gun. Wear and tear can bend the rifle barrel. Chain-driven targets travel in opposite directions, each one varying in size. He squeezes off ten shots and manages to crack five of the large targets and a single smaller one.
“Assa!” Taehyun says in a near-whisper at his side. Syd has never heard Taehyun speak Korean before; he finds that he likes it. He soaks in the adoration and asks for the second clip.
“You sure?” the prize guy asks him. “You can have your pick of the level two prizes.”
“I’m feeling lucky,” Syd says.
The prize man reloads the rifle, hands it back to Syd. Syd socks it against his shoulder again and takes aim. He feels pure zen as he lines up and takes each shot. This is something he knows how to do, something he’s actually good at, and he performs like an expert marksman, cracking eight of the ten small targets.
“Daebak!” Taehyun cheers.
“You’re a heck of a marksman, kid!” the guy behind the counter raves. “Go ahead and take your pick, any prize level.”
Syd chooses the large Keroppi plush, which he promptly hands over to Taehyun. The doll is ridiculously large, looking even bigger against Taehyun’s slim, five-foot-something frame. “That was amazing!” Taehyun cries as they head further into the park. “You were like Robocop!”
Syd laughs. “I thought you didn’t like gory movies.”
“Robocop has a story beyond the violence,” Taehyun says, somewhat defensively. Syd can see his point. “Thank you for playing on my behalf.”
“No problem, dude. Always happy to show off my skills.”
They store the Keroppi plush in Syd’s car, then return to the park while the sun still shines. Taehyun chooses less adrenaline-pumping rides this time, and they go on the whitewater raft ride, the tilt-a-whirl, and the carousel. Syd feels like an idiot, his too-long legs bunched up on either side of the plastic horse, but Taehyun seems to enjoy himself. Syd wishes they could go on the Ferris wheel and kiss at the top.
On their way out, Taehyun nibbles on a pink cloud of cotton candy. The sun is beginning to set, and Misty requested they be home before dark. “Thank you for today, Syd-dongsaeng.”
Syd lifts an eyebrow. “You gonna tell me what that means?” There is a warmth in Taehyun’s voice when he speaks Korean, and Syd likes hearing it.
“It means you are younger than me.”
“On what planet?” Syd asks with a bold laugh. “We’re the same age.”
“In Korea, I am seventeen,” Taehyun says proudly.
“Oh yeah? How’s that?”
“I was born April 20th, 1982.”
Syd wants to make a weed joke but knows Taehyun won’t get it. “So much for Asians being good at math. You’re sixteen, dude.”
“When you are born, you are already one year old.”
“Nice try, kid,” Syd says, grinning. “But that’s not how it works here.” He slings an arm around Taehyun’s shoulders as they make it to the parking lot, just as an excuse to be nearer to him. “Face it, you’re sixteen. Just like me.”
“How odd. I don’t feel any younger.”
“You look younger already,” Syd jokes.
They slow as they reach Syd’s car, an old gray Honda Prelude Misty bought for him when he got his license. “I’m glad to have a friend like you,” Taehyun says, his words coming a little slower than usual, as if he’s really thinking them over. “In Seoul, I had friends, but none of them were like you. I feel very close with you.”
Taehyun gazes at him with what Syd hopes is love but is probably closer to respect. For the briefest moment, he thinks about moving in and kissing him. But if he’s wrong, everything would be awkward and ruined, and it would be Syd’s stupid goddamn fault.
If he were suave, he might crack a joke about it—”What, you wanna kiss me?”—just to gauge Taehyun’s response, but Syd isn’t confident enough to deliver a line like that without his voice shaking. So he just smirks and says, “Yeah, me too.”
Syd’s Journal - August 10th, 1998
Fucking goddamn it!!!!!! So it’s official: I’m totally gay, I guess, ‘cause I can’t stop thinking about Taehyun. I could have kissed him tonight, but I pussed out. Though if I did kiss him and he wasn’t interested, that would have been fucking BAD. On the way home from Elitch, he asked if we could go back sometime, but to the water park. I wanted to say FUCK YESSSS because when will I get the chance to see him almost naked? But imagining him in swim shorts and nothing else gives me an instant hard-on. I probably can’t handle the real thing. And what if he wears a Speedo or something? FUCK.
Ugh, I just want to pick him up, take him to my room, and suck his cock and fuck him hard. Maybe he could fuck me too? (GOD) I need to get laid. Maybe that’ll change some shit around.
Syd’s Journal - August 18th, 1998
First day of school, junior year. Classes are easy. I have three with Taehyun: Math, Creative Writing, and Psychology. It’s cool how we have two electives in common, and it seems like he’s good at math too. I have to look out for him though, make sure none of those dumb motherfuckers mess with him. If any fucking jock shitheads push him around, I’ll tear them apart like a fucking wolf. Break their arms in half and twist them around. That’ll teach ‘em not to fuck with the weird kids. High school is like prison; you have to prove yourself as the craziest motherfucker in there so people leave you alone. This is the year I stop taking shit from anyone.