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Wakarimasen.

It’s something Doyoung said mostly when he and Yuta met for the first time.

It’s not notable, the phrase, as Doyoung had said this to a lot of people when he was just starting to learn Japanese. It means ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I don’t know,’ a state Doyoung usually was in in his early days in Tokyo.

But meeting Yuta in a dimly lit karaoke room, a month in, in one of the university streets in Ueno had always been something so vivid in Doyoung’s mind—he’d replay it at times of melancholy, repeat their dialogue in his head, and count the number of seconds he held his breath during the encounter. It differed from time to time, with his memory being bleak and unreliable during that night because of the alcohol, but Doyoung would always have the same rush of butterflies, the same fluttering feeling of newness and discovery, when he looked back.

That first meeting is still treasured, still wrapped in a handmade furoshiki for protection, memory safely stored in a strong, wooden shelf in Doyoung’s mind.

He had said a lot of the one-word sentence, wakarimasen, that wasn’t a declaration of his situation at that time. It wasn’t a call for an explanation either from the other boy. It was more of a—an expression of irritable frustration on himself because he couldn’t understand what the man beside him was saying to him.  

He couldn’t comprehend any of his words. Not when Doyoung’s lungs have been knocked out three seconds after Yuta coming in the room, with his shoulder-length hair, black as crow, flowing softly and teasing the man’s collarbones with its uneven ends.

Not when the fleeting colors randomly flashed by the cheap electronic disco light hanging from the low ceiling made him look surreal and materializing straight out of a dream.

Not when the man who has been talking to him has been nothing but breathtaking. Perfect with long, curled lashes and dark, serious eyes that only made him feel singled out in a room packed with other language exchange students; not when the sleeveless shirt hugging his torso accentuated the slender slide of his sides to his hips. Flawless arms thin—but not scrawny—almost brushing to his, slowly lighting up a fire in his guts and confusing his brain into feeling something so, so alien to him.

And of course, not when Doyoung’s language level was almost zero.

Doyoung, of course, wanted to blame the alcohol that night. He didn’t drink much though, sake was too expensive for a student on a scholarship, and beer only hurt his stomach if he drinks more than two cans. His mind was more affected by drinking in the sight of the stranger he so badly wanted to talk with, if only he could.

Instead, he was stuck with staring at him as he talked. Still not having the courage to say his first ‘I do not understand.’

He did gather enough though, after a while, when Yuta finally paused in realization that Doyoung hasn’t uttered a single word since he sat beside him a couple of minutes ago.

“Wakarimasen.”

“Hai.”

The environment they were in worsened Doyoung’s possible comprehension (not that he had enough Japanese to begin with) because everything else around him was pushing Doyoung to have a migraine: the continuous movement of lights, the loud, out-of-tone singing, and the panic budding in his chest.

The guy continued to talk to him at a speed Doyoung could barely follow. Syllables were left jumbled in his mind, unable to conjure any probable familiarity that should have come up from the past week’s lessons or from watching a few Japanese animation films when he was in high school. But his brain remains blank.

Doyoung thought about his new friends in Tokyo: Taeyong and Jeonghan, and the possibility of them understanding a few bits and pieces of the litany he’s been bombarded with. The two of them were more advanced, enrolling to level 2 and 3 respectively while Doyoung, the only other Korean in the batch, is stuck in level 1. They’re not even close—having met only a week ago during the orientation. So, the thought of him asking them if Yuta, the person beside him is flirting with him would be a potentially embarrassing topic to talk about.

In what level do you even learn to flirt in Japanese?

Doyoung started to feel uncomfortable. Not because of the situation or of his new friend, but more due to the fact that he couldn’t communicate anything no matter how much he wanted to respond. How could he, when all he could think about is how much he wanted this man to like him back, even only for the duration of his stay in Japan?

Yuta smiled at him, cheeks youthful and high, forcing his eyes to crescent blissful curves. He pointed at himself, and uttered a slow “I am Yuta” in Japanese, friendly enough as if he was talking to a child. Doyoung did not feel ridiculed but still, the sudden change of pace made him feel a bit panicky, because then, he would need to express any form of response.

Yuta let out a chuckle so graceful Doyoung stopped breathing for two seconds.

At that point, everything in his body betrayed him—his mind did not and could not work properly, and a can of alcohol did not really improve his courage, like there was a spill of grease that only worsened the mechanics of his brain work rather than smoothen the run of the gears out; his forehead sweated like he was put under the heat of a yellow spotlight, scared to say anything that could be monumental in their first meeting; and his voice failed to come out, like there’s some feathers stuck in his throat disabling him from spewing possible nonsense.

And though his hands tried to gesture some things, he remained frozen.

His own eyes, however, did it for him.

Doyoung’s honest, brown eyes gazed back at Yuta’s interrogating ones as if to let him know that he understood what he said. That Oh, Yuta is your name. Yuta, Yuta, Yuuuuta. Two simple syllables, a Yu and a Ta, and it’s your given name. Yuta’s your name.

Yuta’s eyes were still on him even after stopping his lively monologue from moments ago. The man’s interest in him made Doyoung feel a bit insecure of his basic language skills, of his looks and his dry lips, of his wet palms, and of Yuta’s possible disappointment once he started speaking.

Doyoung knew the stare was not meant to ask for an urgent response despite him feeling anxious about one. He knew his initial silence have already given much for Yuta to figure out that he plainly couldn’t talk back.

And maybe he didn’t need his friends to decode whatever Yuta was saying because the glint in his eyes tells it all—he’s flirting.

It caught him off guard, of course. It wasn’t to his knowledge that any attraction he’d feel could be reciprocated, especially with how he had already put Yuta on an unreachable pedestal only to be admired far away.

At least, that was what he thought when he entered the room, when the only available seat was right next to the door, that was right next to him.

It’s a wonderful feeling to think that there was something that Yuta found in him, in them, whatever it is that they seemed to have shared in the small space of the karaoke room even only for a few minutes; within the complexity of the inopportune difference of their own native languages.

And so, in the prime of that night, Doyoung confidently said, despite all the unsure apologies enveloped in small wakarimasens, “I am Doyoung.”

***

Memorizing the streets of Japan has never been the goal for Doyoung but knowing how each discovery made him feel became something he was glad to have treasured.

It's the discovery, to be honest, and the slow transition of embedding those places into a part of the map inside Doyoung's brain. He has developed folders that have lists such as "places to go to when I'm sad," "places to visit again when my allowance comes," "places with strange vandalism," or "places that are ordinary but are made special because it was Yuta who brought me there."

Making a wrong turn somewhere and catching a hidden view deck for the sunset or a small, beautiful plant makes his heart bloom. It also makes him complacent, that whatever he does—though it may seem like a mistake—could lead to something surprising and worth remembering. Like suddenly accepting the offer for a language program despite both Japan and Korea struggling with a financial crisis that seemed to be unsolvable.

It was where he met Yuta after all.

The feeling had always borne a new hope in him, that whatever he learned in his stay in Japan could be something that would not be left unappreciated, even after he has aged.

The bliss of living somewhere unfamiliar took much of Doyoung’s time, more than actually studying his Japanese. The smell is distinct, in a way that he immediately knew he’s deep in Tokyo once he woke up.

There is a small park in front of the apartment he was renting and it’s always a delight to hear kids giggling as they enjoyed the swing or the slide. Sometimes he’d look at them, coffee in hand, and think if he wants one in the future. It’s always a different answer every time: most of the time it’s an instant ‘no’, followed by a list of bills he would have to pay for kindergarten, music lessons, and college; and at other times it’s a mixture of ‘maybe yes’ and ‘maybe no’, figuring out the balance between the happiness and the stress a child would bring into his (and his parents’) life.

And one time, with Yuta in his mind, it was just a plain yes.

At the same pace he knew of Japan’s left and right, he has gotten to know Yuta too. In the places he never knew he’d visit, in the food he never thought he’d like, and in the bathroom stalls he’d never thought to have intimate moments with.

It’s young love, his Japanese teacher would say. And though he doesn’t want to know what that entailed, he still finds himself musing from time to time.

***

Yuta had guided him with so much patience. He held his hands on their strolls despite Doyoung’s anxiety that eyes will be on them. Of course, this was rarely true because most locals would tend to look inward rather than stick their noses on other people’s businesses. Being gay at that time, did not struck anyone's interest. 1997 had more problems than sexuality.

Yuta had taught Doyoung how to ride a bike too, in one of the bigger parks in Ueno. Looking back at it, it's probably the first time that Doyoung uttered the words "I know now," with confidence, a contrast to his frequent apologies of not being able to understand Yuta. It was after a gruesome two hours of him softly falling and strongly standing up, and trying to ride again; and though Doyoung's verbal words weigh a lot in their relationship at that time, it lightened the heft in Doyoung's chest. He's still in the process of getting through the frustration of being shy of speaking the language he's learning, so this was a step worth noting.

Doyoung would remember this moment as the same time he first admitted he was in love.

Yuta's kind smile to him that day was so memorable—a combination of you're welcome and pride for Doyoung's improvement in Japanese.

The warmth in his heart overtook the fall chill, and though he wouldn't ever admit it to Yuta, sometimes, he still caught himself smiling at the memory of Yuta putting his jacket on him on their way home.

They reach farther places since then, even if Doyoung's still trying to perfect the art of keeping the bike in balance even if they slow the pedaling down.

Once, they reached a place high enough to overlook the stunning cityscape of Tokyo.

Doyoung had lost every descriptive verb he had learned just the last month, and finally settling with “Subarashii.”

Yuta, hands still supporting to balance his bike, stared back at the man he loved and marveled back, “Glorious.”

They laid down a square cloth on top of a flat opening, tree above them offering the crispy sound of leaves crashing at each other in symphony. Yuta pulled out two cans of soda from his bag, and they drink in honor of the city below them, as their quiet sighs wondered how such magnificence could hold millions of people’s hopes and dreams, fears and disappointments in life.

Doyoung pondered on how one Kim Doyoung could feel so at home in a place he barely knew, with a language he couldn’t quite master.

He looked to his right and rested his chin on his shoulder, gazing at Yuta’s face whose features were highlighted by the city’s twinkling lights. Right then and there—Doyoung knew the answer to his own solicitation.

It was Yuta.

***

Months went by fast, along with the coming and going of the snow, of the cherry blossoms, and the long chill of the evenings.

It wasn’t easy to learn Japanese despite staying in the language’s homeland and despite constantly being with and talking to Yuta. Because as much as they used Japanese to practice, they’ve used the language of love more.

Doyoung once asked him, on the small bed they tried to fit onto in Doyoung’s quaint apartment, if it had ever frustrated Yuta that they couldn’t talk more than they would have if they could. Yuta cleared to him as a promise, that the extent of patience he has has always been borne out of love, rather than a sense of duty, no matter how much unbelievable their connection would be for other people. They might have fallen for each other hard and so quickly, but that could only mean good things when you're the one experiencing it, right?

Yuta eliminated any doubts left in Doyoung’s head that night by making love to him. Sketching complex constellations on Doyoung’s skin with the rough tips of his fingers, igniting it up with trails of licks and kisses that seared into Doyoung’s mind the understanding that yes, it is indeed love that connected them.  

There were days when the question was thrown back at him, too. Days when Yuta exerted effort in telling him words that were only effortlessly put together because the person that were to receive them was none other than his Doyoung.

No matter how great Yuta’s poems were, nor how lyrical his song sounded, it was difficult for Doyoung to understand the depth of it all.

Yuta’s you bring out only the best in me, was shrunken in Doyoung's understanding as you’re the best.

Once in the park before the color of springs has gone, Yuta has whispered to him something while his hand was resting on the lower part of Doyoung’s back, pushing him slightly to an embrace. Doyoung tiptoed to listen, cheeks closely brushing, these flowers couldn’t compare to the beauty you exude, the fragrance you bleed, and the joy you surge within me, Doyoung. Doyoung blushed at Yuta’s hushed confession, even if he only understood you, flowers, beauty, fragrant, and joy; clueless about the rest.

Doyoung’s words in Japanese were basic and uncreative—so that was how he had perceived Yuta and his love, too.

They were stuck in the confines of the breadth of Doyoung’s vocabulary, sometimes to a gain, but most of the times to a vile fault that would cost them both their loves. Multiple times.

Doyoung, in his soliloquy, realized that despite him advancing in his second language, he still couldn’t understand Yuta at all.   

***

Doyoung had gone back to Korea after the scholarship, leaving a great love he never expected to have found in the intricate outlines of Tokyo, in the silence of the classroom adjacent to his homeroom that was only filled with sounds of their clandestine kisses in their secret meetings, and in the karaoke room where they first met.

He’d continue to study Japanese, in Seoul this time, as a side as he completes his bachelor's degree in linguistics in Yonsei University.

In the language academy, he met another man who introduced himself as Johnny.

Unlike him, the other man was studying Korean because his first language was English. He had told him, in a round of soju and meat, that he had gone back to his parents’ country, despite being born and raised in America, to study medicine in the same university as his. He had long hair just like Yuta, almost on the same length, but Johnny’s was colored blonde from the scalp to the tips. Doyoung wondered if it would be a premonition about something, a lighter go at love this time, maybe?

Johnny’s eyes crinkled whenever he smiled, whenever he talked with Doyoung. There were smile marks on his face that were visible even when he doesn’t laugh, and it impressed Doyoung how it made him look like a happy person even if he was just staring back at him. It was always a very refreshing sight to behold.

It was difficult for Doyoung to go back to Seoul after more than a year in Japan, yet Johnny made the transition almost seamless. Their attraction to one another was undeniable, especially since Johnny was a very attractive man. Doyoung admitted, one time when they were getting drinks together that he’d love for himself to be held by Johnny’s toned arms in a way he’s never been held before, to which Johnny only responded with an uncharacteristic but cute giggle.

His language proficiency was already in a higher level that the initial conversations they had was comfortable enough. Easy, even. That it led them straight to Johnny’s one-bedroom studio after a few nights of going out, hands busily exploring each other’s complicated history, in rugged Korean and sometimes English.

Doyoung had less pressure to learn Johnny’s language because they could communicate well already. Johnny may not speak in poems or in songs, but he compensated in thoughtfulness and small gestures. He’d leave notes of ‘Have a nice day’ written twice in different languages whenever he had to leave early for university. He’d bring home a slice of cake during Fridays, when Doyoung’s university workload was the toughest. He’d text Doyoung on their still-heavy phones with reminders to eat, or drink enough water, and Doyoung would grin stupidly at his phone, feeling all special and loved.

Johnny has taught him a different love from what he had first known. It was a love with less room for misunderstanding, yet it was less invigorating at the same time. It was so different that even though Doyoung was content, a part of his heart remained hollow.

It wasn’t hard to understand whatever it is Johnny tried to convey. It wasn’t at all difficult to get his message across to him, too. Their relationship was ten times easier than what he ever had with Yuta.

Yet he’d always, always long for what they had.

Doyoung would miss the way Yuta would lean on his bony shoulder before bed, no matter how warm it would be when it’s summer, or cold and freezing when it’s winter. He’d miss the way that no matter how strong Yuta appeared to be in front of other people, Yuta bared himself whenever he was alone with him. He was never afraid to face anyone, as long as he was holding Doyoung’s hand. And though it was only his intuition that told him that, Doyoung knew he was right.

He’s yearned for those times they sneak in movie theaters, too broke to get tickets. Doyoung would ask a lot of questions after the film, because Doyoung would always not understand. Patiently, Yuta would answer them in carefully selected words, taking time in translating dialogues into snippets Doyoung would be able to appreciate.

They’d hold hands in the middle of the dark cinema house, side by side and warm in each other’s embrace that would make the main actors of the film jealous if they could see them. An hour or so of fiction tend to always not be enough whenever they get into building a whole world only the two of them own. A world full of knowing gazes and meaningful smiles.

He would look back at the times they would miss each other at supposed dates unable to contact each other, when Doyoung would mistake in front of the church rather than at the back of it; second floor rather than second building. They never really had pagers, it was too expensive for them at that time. And they never really understood its importance until they’ve already lost those times.

Doyoung would sometimes question himself, if he aches for the person he had left, the place he was in, or the feelings he’d felt. Sometimes he would even question if he would consider it love at all.

Breaking up with Johnny was one of the hardest things he had ever done, and despite being native in Korean, he had lost all the words that would make it hurt less for the both of them.

He focused his time on studying more after the heartbreak. Johnny and him remained good friends, and would meet whenever they can. He was also there when Doyoung received his bachelor’s degree despite being a few years late than his other high school friends. Johnny understood the struggle, and he was good enough of a friend to be there for him at such a crucial moment.

***

A few weeks after, Doyoung had also received his certificate for professional translation from Korean to Japanese, and vice versa. Not only did it open up new doors for him, it also served as a ticket for him to go back to Tokyo and see if he’d have another chance with the first man he ever fell in love with.

Four months in, he still did not have the courage to actively look for him. But while he was working on translating a short novel from his second language to his first in a café he only discovered then, the cherry blossoms started to fall. Doyoung looked out of the window and watched as the wind blew gently, plucking out the pink petals off from its dark branches, and sending it to the world in its individual elegance.

Doyoung’s mouth gaped open when Yuta coolly sat on the seat beside him, reciting a familiar phrase Doyoung remembered hearing from way, way back.

These flowers couldn’t compare to the beauty you exude,
the fragrance you bleed,
and the joy you surge within me, Doyoung

They looked at each other, glazed eyes with shy smiles on the lips. There was still disbelief in Doyoung’s gaze, the dreamlike feeling from the karaoke room that one night back flowing in his veins. Their surroundings seemed to blur uncontrollably, and the world slowly halted to give way to the second acquaintance of two hearts who had learned more than to speak one language.

“Do you understand now?” Yuta tries reluctantly in Korean.

Wakarimasu.” (I do.)