The bell rang announcing his entrance.
As he examined the interior of the store he felt in need of checking if he was in the right place again. The carved wood sign in the outside pointed ‘Art Supplies’ but it definitely didn’t look like one of those big stores back in Seoul where paints tubes were organized by type and color in a pleasing to the eye and practical way he could find everything by himself in less than five minutes.
No, this was something else.
Of course he wasn’t expecting a commercial store like the ones from the city. He knew that in the exact minute he arrived to the town which didn’t have more than three thousand habitants and when he was told he had to walk four kilometers to arrive to the nearest art store.
He didn’t ask for the art store during the first week. Instead he used that time to rest, doing nothing more than enjoying himself and the little things of the domestic village. Wandering through all the little secrets of that place, from the local market where fresh fruit and fish were sold to the small hills behind the guesthouse he was staying.
That was another thing. He couldn’t believe guesthouses still exist but the old lady of the reception assured him there was no better place to stay than that. And he agreed. The same woman prepared the meals for all the guests and began working when the sun rose from the back of the same hills he had visited days after. She also was a wonderful gossip and always had something to tell, an old story of her youthful days or a newly rumor brought by the wind, or that’s what she said.
Jeongguk always made sure of leaving extra tips for the lady, he already felt bad enough paying such a low rent for staying in such peculiar place.
The tranquility of the village brought him a peace he hadn’t felt in years. The fresh air and the lack of sound pollution allowed him to finally have a pause from his agitated city life. To breathe.
But there was a thing he couldn’t or wanted to get rid of. As the days went by, he felt the itch on his hands again, like a million of electric shocks under his skin. It was his wishing of paint, invent, shape something with his own hands. It was relieving to know he still had the need on his heart of creating art.
All those beautiful sceneries and even daily moments of that picturesque town he wanted to portrait, no, that he needed to record somehow. He hadn’t brought much from home, just a little sketchbook and a pencil and he found himself fulling that notebook too soon and that a simple black pencil didn’t satisfy his artistic needs anymore.
He needed colors.
“Art supplies?” Mrs. Im asked while making accounts on a notebook without a calculator.
If someone knew everything in that town was her. She would tell him if he needed to take a bus to the next town or small city or…
“You’re lucky, there’s a store not so far from here, the one and only store in the area.” She looked down at his foot. “Although… you might want to change your shoes.”
Obviously, Mrs. Im and Jeongguk’s perception of ‘not so far from here’ was different because he had to walk for what look like hours before arriving to that unlikely store.
“Just pass the bridge and you’ll be there in a few minutes.” She had said, encouraging him. “There’s no need to go by car or bus.”
And he believed it.
When he couldn’t find the bridge he started getting worried. Perhaps he had gotten lost in the halfway of the road and now he’d had to walk back his own steps to find the town again. But then he saw it, the famous bridge. Wood and iron covered by a dense layer of climbing plants, under it, a soft almost quiet creek passing by.
As he crossed it he could spot some disperse houses and the dark wooden two floored store, exactly as the old lady had mentioned. Walking four kilometers on an irregular ground wasn’t something she told him. He felt like Elizabeth Bennet after walking to Netherfield with his wet hair sticking to his face and dirty boots and cuffs. Oh, if only men wore petticoats in this century it had been perfect.
‘Art Supplies’. That’s what was written on the signboard. He tilted his head with distrust before going in.
As he passed the doorframe he had the feeling of being inside of one of those still life paintings due the dark wooden disposal overall the store, and besides the way the things were arranged… ‘arranged’. Minuscule drawers opened full of brushes and paint knobs, dry flowers hanging upside down next to the windows, a heavy iron chandelier hanging from the ceiling –and that antiquity wasn’t definitely from this century- radiated a faint yellow light.
The more he looked the more fascinating it became. There was a counter in the center and about seven different cupboards behind it, several empty jewel boxes which interiors were refilled with things like sharpeners, rubbers and colorful pencils. Papers and canvas stacked in different piles all over the counter and what it looked like a calligraphy set with an inkwell dangerously on the edge of the surface. Although, for an art store, there wasn’t any paintings hanging on any of the walls.
He felt like he had broken into an alchemist or a witch’s dwelling. Maybe he would find a cauldron if he kept looking around.
“I’ll be there in a minute.”
A strange voice came from upstairs and minutes later, an individual almost tripped while stepping on the last rung. He quickly stood up and approached to the counter without really focusing on Jeongguk, instead he kept looking for something.
Jeongguk stared. He was more handsome than other art supplies sellers he had run into. Taller, slender body, silk-like brownish hair and a glowing skin tone that looked like a perfect combination between honey and oil painting, one of those palettes it’s almost impossible to get on the first try.
His face was one of the most symmetrical faces he had ever seen, not even his models back in college had such a perfect bone structure like his. What dragged his attention the most were his elongated eyes, brown like coffee beans but more intense than the strongest liquor and his ravishing lips, thin but slightly plumped and rosy.
“Uh… excuse me I-” Jeongguk started but was cut right away when the guy put an entire cinnamon roll on his mouth.
He looked like a squirrel while hardly chewing. Jeongguk bit his tongue to hold the laugher. It was cute how his eyes grew bigger when he ate.
“Wait… a second.” He managed to say with half cinnamon roll still on fulling his cheeks.
So he waited and waited while the guy kept searching for something.
“Do you need help?” It was kind of ironic that he was the one asking that question, the client.
The seller shook his head energetically like a dog.
Jeongguk kept standing up and passed five minutes he started to lose his patience.
“What are you looking for?” He asked but got no answer right away.
“This is a disaster… I’m sorry I don’t think I can help you… what a mess.”
It didn’t have any sense. He walked from one side of the store to the other, disordering the shelves more than they were, revising every little drawer and door unsuccessfully.
Then he turned around to check a cupboard and Jeongguk understood.
He sighed deeply before stretching his hand to reach the lost item.
“Is this what you were looking for?” He offered a pair of spectacles that were on the back of his head.
The seller showed a wide rectangular smile as he realized his glasses weren’t missing after all but on the back of his head all that time. He felt a bit embarrassed, especially when he put them back on and could focus on the client who was standing in the middle of the store. Not that he had a lot of clients but for sure he had never had an attractive guy like him stepping on the floor and breathing the same air than him.
“Sorry about that… I swore this time I had lost them.” He still had a sprinkle of cinnamon on the corner of his mouth. “What can I do for you…?”
“Jeongguk, my name is Jeongguk. I… uh… I’m staying on Mrs. Im’s guesthouse and she suggested me this place to buy some supplies.” The place where he was staying wasn’t relevant information at that moment but he had the urge of mention it. “The guesthouse… the one passing the market and…”
“Yeah, yeah. I know, there’s not much to see here, after a few years or even months you get used to. Not that is boring but… I’ll shut up. Were you looking for something in particular?”
“Y-yes…” Jeongguk scratched the back of his scalp. He had forgotten half of the stuff he was going to buy in the first place. “Uh… do you have watercolors?”
Jeongguk was an oil paint enthusiast, he didn’t use watercolors but the nervousness made him babble and ask for the first thing that came into his mind.
“Of course. I’m Taehyung, by the way.” He said while looking for a ladder and climbing to find a big box on top of one of the many shelves. “I have these sets that are artist-grade and are a little bit pricey but… Let me see…” He went down and opened a drawer that was almost at the same level as the floor. “These ones are really good too, I’ve sold many and never had a complaint about it. What are you planning to paint?”
“I paint sceneries, kind of boring, isn’t it?” Jeongguk moved all the weight of his body from left to right.
“What?” Taehyung adjusted his glasses. “No, not at all. Interesting place to paint sceneries, the best view is in the other side of the hills.” He opened all the boxes and started showing the different palettes.
“If you’re a beginner in watercolors you should go for something like this…”
Jeongguk chuckled at the idea of being a beginner.
“It’s okay, show me that ‘artist-grade’ set you were talking about…”
Jeongguk didn’t buy half of the things he needed, even after remembering them all.
Otherwise he wouldn’t have an excuse to come back the next day.
“You’re up already.” Mrs. Im asked while placing a smoky plate in front of him.
“Yes… I decided I should carpe diem… walk more…wander a little, you know? Make good use of sunlight…” Even him wasn’t convinced of his own words.
Hopefully his innkeeper wasn’t particularly curious that day or she really believed Jeongguk’s lame story.
“If that helps you.” She said while leaving.
Jeongguk let a sigh of relief escape. He was sweating.
The bell rang as he put a step inside.
“Good morning.” He mumbled.
“Good morning!” He heard the melodious voice of the owner of the shop.
Jeongguk was out of breath again. Walking four kilometer twice a day that would make eight, weekly it would be like fifty six kilometers… maybe he should’ve considered getting a bicycle or a horse.
“Oh it’s you again… Jeongguk.” He said as he didn’t remember his name.
“Yes… hi. I… forgot a few stuff yesterday.”
“I realized you weren’t going too far without a watercolor paper.”
The younger blushed.
Luckily for you… I have these pads somewhere…” Taehyung revised a shelf where several canvases were displayed. “No, it wasn’t here…” he mumbled as he reached for a pile of paper sheets. “Oh, that’s right. I moved them last month.”
The elder showed a perfectly blinding square shaped smile of his and walk right to the other side of the store. “These are not for watercolors…” He snapped his fingers and went back to the counter.
Taehyung could’ve saved about five minutes, he knew exactly where the watercolor pads were. But he didn’t feel like Jeongguk had to go right away…
“Spiraled or to tear up?”
“Uh?” Jeongguk was half absent minded half distracted by the general confusion of that place. “I prefer the ones you can tear up.”
“Like everyone.” Taehyung murmured.
“What?” The younger opened his eyes widely.
“Nothing.” He hid a grin. Jeongguk saw the elder putting his hands on his pockets as he shrugged. “How long are you staying?”
“I’m not sure yet… maybe a few more weeks.” The younger approached to the counter while pulling his wallet off.
“Oh… you know if you're interested in more objects of the store or maybe need something, in particular, I don’t have right now you could leave a phone number and I’d send you a message when I make a new order.”
Jeongguk didn’t know if that sentence was as full of double intentions as he was hoping to but there was a problem.
“I don’t have a phone.”
Taehyung remained expressionless for a second. “You know you just can tell me you don’t want me to text you or…”
Jeongguk nervously denied with his hands. “It’s not that I left it back where I lived… didn’t bring it with me.”
“Are you in some witness protection program because…”
Jeongguk burst into laughter. “No, no… I swear I’m not.”
“Are you a spy… or a cop? Because I swear the Jungs only sow vegetables.”
The younger laughed louder. “Oh my God. No, I’m not a cop or a spy. I just came here for rest. Which I assume is not as interesting as the other options. But call me to the guesthouse, you can ask to speak with me or leave a message with Mrs. Im.”
“Sure.” Taehyung smiled. “I’ll call you.”
He didn’t call. And Jeongguk told himself he should’ve waited for the old landline phone to ring for once but the wait was just unbearable.
It had been just eighteen hours.
“Mrs. Im I’m going out.” He announced before undertaking his four kilometers walk.
“Good mor-” He started saying but got interrupted by the supplies seller.
“Ah, Jeongguk. Welcome back. I found something interesting for you after you left.”
The elder pushed him all his way to the counter and then started looking around for something.
Jeongguk was balancing on his feet again when the smell of good coffee reached him.
It wasn’t that Mrs. Im didn’t make a good coffee but… it wasn’t precisely… tasty.
“Do you happen to know where to buy coffee?” He asked while Taehyung brought a small case full of brushes.
“Coffee? Well, if you mean instant coffee or like Nespresso I think you can get some in the supermarket in the next town. But if you’re interested in a cup right now, I grind my own coffee.”
“Really? That sounds amazing… yes. Thank you. What did you say you found?”
“Oh! These… Grumbacher Goldenedge brushes for watercolors. This is a zero, triple zero and… three I think. I thought you could use them along with the pair of Winsor & Newton you bought the other day.”
“Yes… I was actually looking for more brushes.” Lies. His pad was still blank but full of shame.
“Let me pour you a cup of coffee while you check them.”
“Yeah… check them…” Jeongguk kept staring at his eyes, hypnotized.
Taehyung blushed. “The brushes, check the brushes.”
Jeongguk cleared his throat. “That’s what I meant.”
Taehyung –who told Jeongguk was two years older- disappeared behind a curtain and then came back with an aluminum coffee maker and a big mug that looked more like a soup bowl than a cup. As he poured the dark liquid, Jeongguk admired his tanned hands and long fingers instead of picking the brushes as the elder suggested.
“Would you like some cream with that?”
Jeongguk nodded and held the cup which felt warm around his hands, he wondered if Taehyung’s hands felt the same way.
“Did you find something that you like?” He would be lying if he said that he chose those words unintentionally.
Jeongguk gulped. “I’ll take these three. I’m not an expert in watercolors but you seemed to know a lot about it. Do you paint too?”
“Me? No, not at all.” He shook his head and in a reflex act, he covered his hands with the cuffs of his sweater. “I’m not a very artistic person myself. But I appreciate good art and I’m better remembering the exact location of some things… except my glasses. I never seem to be able to find these.” He smiled shyly.
“Fair enough.” Jeongguk took a sip of the warm liquid. Instantly he felt the comfort warmness until the tip of his feet. “Oh God… thank you.”
“Any time.” Taehyung refilled his own cup. “Life in the small time feels too tight for a city man?”
Jeongguk snorted almost blowing his coffee. “City man? No, no. I mean I got used to the city but I’m not a ‘city man’… I just… the acquired tastes.”
“I understand, I would die without coffee. Trust me, this and the internet are the only two things that keep me away from jumping off the bridge. And the water is not even that deep there.”
“Wait, do you have internet here?”
“Oh my God.” Taehyung burst into laughter. “I do… how could I watch Netflix without it?”
Jeongguk felt a little embarrassed. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… it’s just… the guesthouse barely has cable so…”
“Well, Mrs. Im is almost seventy six… is understandable. She only watches dramas where Lee Minho is in.”
Both of them started giggling.
And when they stopped Jeongguk realized his cup was empty and it was time to go.
“I have to… go… uh… I guess. Bye?” The younger awkwardly raised his hand to wave but he wished he had raised it to slap himself.
Great job. Jeongguk was never nervous when he had to introduce one of his paintings but he kept stammering in front of him.
“Jeongguk, your brushes.” Taehyung handed him a paper bag.
“Right… here. Keep the change.” Jeongguk grabbed the bag and gave the money before heading outside as fast as he can.
After walking five steps out he took a deep breath and walked in.
The bell rang once again and Taehyung turned around, gladly surprised.
“You came back-”
The younger interrupted him before his rush of adrenaline given by the caffeine ran out.
“So… since I don’t have two vital items as coffee and internet and I don’t want to drown myself in a puddle under a bridge, do you think I can comeback daily or is that too…?”
Taehyung beamed while glowing. He wet his lips before speaking again. “Sure… I wouldn’t like that to happen. I see you tomorrow then?”
“Tomorrow. Yeah, that would be great…”
“Or I can comeback in the afternoon.”
“Don’t you want to stay…now?”
“That would be great too.”
Two weeks had passed and Jeongguk kept walking four kilometers daily to go to the art store. Spring days were warm but still bearable to cross that distance, he was doing better than when he went to the gym.
Jeongguk liked to do little sketches of the furniture and stick them on Taehyung’s fridge. Sometimes he would try doing still life from different movements, Baroque, Renaissance, etc. That kind of inanimate objects weren’t his favorite thing to draw but it was a way to keep himself entertained while the elder cleaned or help some occasional clients.
Taehyung always walked all the way up and down the store looking for different items. Most of the days he walked with a roll of toilet paper on his hand, always bothered with dust or pollen allergy, still he kept the cutting fresh flowers, every time bigger and more colorful.
But what he learnt was that Taehyung’s favorite activity was showing him all the nooks and crannies of his little store. He talked passionately about all the different clients that visited the place once in a while craving for a bit of art on their lives and all the things he had gotten all over the years.
“And here, this is where I keep the round brushes, over there flat ones and filberts…” He noticed the elder had the habit of pointing and showing the different things but he quickly rushed to hide his hands on his pockets.
“How do you remember everything? I’m already dizzy and we aren’t even halfway through the store.”
“What can I say? It’s a gift.” Jeongguk gave him a glance full of disbelief. “Not, for real, when you have to clean everything once in a while you start remembering things otherwise is just piles and piles of supplies.”
“What are you doing here anyways? Organizing piles and piles of supplies.”
“This place belonged to my great-grandfather, I think he was expecting someone in the family to born with the artistic genes and make millions of it but we stayed as supplies sellers. I’m the one who take care of the business, my parents run the strawberry field in Daegu along with my grandma; my brothers moved out to Seoul a few years ago. I’m here by myself.”
“I offered.” He sat on one of the counters and invited Jeongguk to take a seat next to him.
“Isn’t it boring sometimes?”
“You’re the one who came here for the holidays, you tell me.”
The elder started playing with his little hoops earrings. By that time Jeongguk got accustomed to the tickles and the boy’s fascination with them.
“Yeah, I know but… I needed some time off and I can go whenever I want, you’re…”
“Stuck in here.”
“That’s not what I meant.” Jeongguk shook his head afraid of had said something that could be misunderstood.
“I like in here. Yes, it’s not the big city of lights but… life is good, people are nice…” The elder shrugged.
“It is a nice place to live.” He agreed. “I hope I can stay longer…”
Jeongguk lifted his gaze to see how Taehyung’s lips curled into a smile.
“What about you? You mentioned you needed a break.”
“Mainly from work… and the city itself. I live of my work, if I’m not in a good place with myself I can’t work properly and I love what I do, which is painting.”
Jeongguk looked around.
“When I first came I thought I was having an artist block but I started sketching right away and shortly after that painting…”
“So you’re taking a break of painting by painting?”
“If you put it in that way, yes.”
“Interesting. How’s that? Living off your art?”
“It’s tough but definitely worth it. I mean, people struggle really hard in the artistic fields so I just think I was lucky.”
“There’s no such thing as 'luck'. Either you have it or you don’t. Or you build it from zero until you reach the top.”
There was something on the elder’s voice as he spoke about it that made Jeongguk shivered.
“Dear, Taehyung from the art supply store is calling, he’s asking for you!” Mrs. Im announced, for him and everyone else on the guesthouse that had the capacity of hearing. Including dogs and termites.
Jeongguk had never run downstairs so fast.
“He says if you can’t speak he can call you later.” He was next to her why she kept screaming?
“I can… thanks.” He grabbed the phone and put it closer to his ear. “Hi, it’s me.” Mrs. Im stood glued to the ground, staring at him behind those bottle bottom glasses.
The younger tried to move a little but the phone was placed in the hall on an iron coffee table and the cable wouldn’t give him a lot of mobility either.
“Hi Jeongguk! I don’t want to bother you but I have the obligation of telling every new visitor of the town about the pottery workshop for children. And you might be wondering why in the world you’d like to know about an infantile workshop…” He could heard the elder clicking his tongue. “The answer to that question is that while it takes place the back of the store is really crowded and the seller who has to stay in the front gets bored right away… and I was hoping you would like to join to my lonely afternoon?”
He wasn’t going to tell him he was already heading to the store anyways
Taehyung always received him with a new cup of coffee made in the pottery workshop he ran during the weekends. His students had talent; he couldn’t deny it. Who else but children would decorate a mug with spaceships and flowers? Brilliant.
“Yeah… I mean, sure. I can buy some pastries before… and…”
The innkeeper lifted an eyebrow.
“I’ll be there in half hour… would that be alright?”
“Of course. I’ll make some coffee.”
“Music to my ears.”
“I never draw faces.” Jeongguk repeated for the tenth time.
“Liar.” The elder tried to keep quiet but at that moment his expression couldn’t be hidden.
“I’m not lying… this is not my strength.”
Obviously, he was doing a great job anyways but he needed an excuse to justify his shaky hand and blushed cheeks as the elder stared at him firmly while he tried to get the proportions right.
“I’m not that critical anyways, you can draw me ugly.”
Taehyung went back to his pose. His pastel blue shirt had three unbuttoned buttons that allowed catching a glimpse of his holly collarbones and his long graceful neck. In that moment Jeongguk wanted to take him and preserve him in a museum or just take him into a smaller coziest room… he wouldn’t mind.
“I wouldn’t be able of doing that even if I tried to.” The little piece of charcoal he was using to draw remained still. Jeongguk bit his lips.
They could hear the murmurs on the background coming from the back of the store where the activities and different workshops took part during the weekends. Although it was another story in the front of the store where the two young men stood alone, the doors were closed and they were sitting on one of the rough counters.
“You got the right flirting manual.”
“I’m not flirting.” The younger managed to keep a straight face while finishing the last details.
“Yes, you are.”
“No, I’m drawing. See, almost done.”
Taehyung rolled his eyes and tried to reach a strawberry from the fruit bowl in front of him.
“I said 'almost' done, not completely done. You’re going to stain your face.”
The elder still reached one red gigantic strawberry and put it on his mouth almost challenging him.
“I’m going to put a mustache on your drawing if you keep moving and disobeying.”
“You’re not…” Taehyung's pouty lips were rosy from the fruit.
Jeongguk couldn't resist.
“You’re right. I’m not going to ruin this portrait… not when I have the original just in front of me.”
The younger put the sketchbook aside and stretched his arm to paint two lines right above the elder’s mouth with the charcoal.
“Ya! What are you doing?” Taehyung complained opening his mouth widely.
It was too late; his face had a new addition that made Jeongguk burst into laughter but before he could mock a bit more, the brown-haired boy stole the charcoal from his hand and drew a pair of round glasses on the youngers face while he was unable to contain the giggles or tried to defend himself.
“The style really suits you.” The elder said admiring his own work of art.
“Ha-ha. You think you’re funny?” Jeongguk asked in a dry tone that was too hard to maintain without the temptation of chuckling again.
Taehyung blinked innocently. “You can’t be mad at me... I’m adorable.” He framed his face with his hands. Even for a twenty-something grown-up man, he was indeed a cute little fluff ball.
“Correction, you were adorable and then you turned into a 60’s pervert with that mustache.”
“If I clean it then I would back to be adorable, right?”
“It depends.” Jeongguk picked the drawing back and look at it. “But I would still be mad at you.”
“That’s not fair! You scratched my face too!”
“But it was because you won’t stop moving!”
Both of them were laughing louder than before. Jeongguk was genuinely happy with him, in fact he was so joyful he didn’t realized Taehyung was kissing him until he opened his eyes and saw the elder so close a moment and the next thing he knew their lips were touching. At first it was sweet and gently but then he felt a pair of hands on the back of his hair and his own reaching for the elder to bring him closer. As their pace intensified he could taste the strawberries from early on his tongue, it was all part of a flavor explosion added to the wonder of the moment.
It was like being inside of a magic cupboard, just the two of them in a hiding place after sneaking out of reality just for a moment. That moment was theirs and just theirs.
The younger looked like one of those 90’s cartoons when his face turned completely red in surprised. He felt the tremble like if he was a carnival hammer right in the moment when someone hits the bell winning a prize.
It was so realistic he even heard the bell above his head.
Only that it wasn’t his imagination, the bell actually rang but it was the door’s bell.
Taehyung covered his face while hiding a grin. “I’m sorry.” He cleared his throat and assume the seller role again. “Welcome.” He greeted a new client.
Jeongguk stood still completely paralyzed, still feeling the electric struck of the other boy’s lips on his own.
Then the elder winked at him and cleaned the black charcoal of his face.
Later that day after the last child was picked up from the pottery class and the teacher said goodbye, the eyes of the younger landed on a new bouquet of fresh flowers on the counter he had noticed earlier.
“I picked them up this morning.” Taehyung noticed he was staring at the arrangement. “There is a field next to the lake where they grow free and wild. You should go one day, it’s a great spot to place an easel.”
“I would love to… sure…” The younger kept tracing circles on the table while Taehyung came to play with his earrings until got his finger stuck momentarily on one of them.
When he finally was able to release his finger the elder was aware of Jeongguk's eager stare. “Or we could go together… I’m not an expert but I know where the best place to catch the sunlight is.”
The younger scratched his scalp.
“Are you asking me out?” Jeongguk showed a bunny toothed smile.
“It’s about time don’t you think?” Taehyung tried to act as if it wasn’t big deal when he was shaking underneath.
“That was goddamned smooth.”
“Take it or leave it before I realized what I just did.”
“Yes. Let’s go see those flowers.”
The flowers were an excuse and both knew it.
Things weren't working out.
The air of the city became suffocating as if he was breathing poison, deadlier by every second he stayed there.
The phone rang for the twentieth time that day. He didn't need to check to know it was his agent, Sooyoung, asking again where his paint for the next exhibition was. The deadline obviously had passed some time ago, but as he was Jeon Jeongguk, he had a free pass on everything and everyone.
"Jeongguk, open the door. I'm outside." He heard the sound of her firm knocks.
Some things were unavoidable.
As he opened the door, the woman managed to pass through the frame like a hurricane. His luxurious loft was exactly as he had left it the previous night, expensive oil paint drying on unclosed bottles, three different palettes of ugly combinations of colors and dirty and useless canvas stack on the coffee table while the easel was empty. He was still summited in the dark of the room; waken up by the unwanted visitor.
"What's wrong with you? This is the third time you won't deliver a piece, how am I supposed to sell your work if I can't even promote it?"
Sooyoung took a look at the appealing appearance of his apartment. Unlike past times where she came to pick a frame when the canvas was the spotlight of the room, nowadays the unfinished work remained in a distant corner of shame gathering dust and loneliness.
"Jeongguk... What happened? Last time I was here that frame was looking excellent." She said looking under the white sheet that covered his work.
"I don't like it anymore." He answered dryly.
His agent sighed. She knew she would waste her breath trying to convince him. He wasn't going to finish that piece either.
"At least make this place habitable, could you? What about the maid I hired?"
"I gave her a week off."
He could hear the sound of her needle heels passing through the living room. She opened the curtains letting the clarity penetrate through the window glasses. The vision was even more miserable in the daylight.
"Jeongguk, not all the artists have the same liberties you have. Not all the artists earn 1.1 million dollars for piece. Tell me, what's wrong? I'm sure there's something I can do to fix it."
"I think I have an artist block. I begin really enthusiastic about the project but I can't manage to finish them." The young man admitted while extending his legs on the black leather sofa.
Sooyoung's eye twitched at the mention of the words ‘artist block’.
“Noona, what if I don’t have it anymore? What if I lost it?”
The woman sat on the sofa in front of him with a blank expression.
“You know you could paint three single dots on a blank canvas, signed it and I could sell it as the piece of the year? It’s because it’s you. It wasn’t easy. When I discovered you, you were… how old?”
“Do you have idea how many artists reach success at the age of twenty? I could count with my fingers. Now you’re on the top and you’re barely twenty three. Jeongguk you have talent, you are pure talent. There are people who would kill for that, there are people who pay for that.”
“Maybe just need some rest. Get away from everything…”
“Wasn’t your mother in a cruise? You could join her? Somewhere in the Caribbean.”
“I don’t know…” The boy hesitated.
“Well it doesn’t have to be there. Maybe Europe? Paris would be lovely. Or New York? Remember when we held that exhibition in SoHo? I heard the Big Apple is divine at this time of the year."
“Do you think you can get me a plane ticket for tomorrow? Or this afternoon, the sooner the better.”
“For real?” Sooyoung blinked a few times in disbelief.
“Of course. I'll tell you what, I’ll pack my stuff and you go get the ticket, first class I don’t care how expensive it is.”
“Jeongguk… I don’t think I can make the reservation I would probably have to go to the airport and check the availability within this sort time.”
“What are you waiting? Here, take this credit card.” The boy handed a black limitless plastic card.
“This is going to be so exciting. I’ll tell Anna you’re on your way to New York she would love to see some of your work again and… I have to hurry. I’ll see you in a few hours to take you to the airport, be ready. I’ll text you the details of the flight.”
“Great.” He tried to sound excited and Sooyoung bit the trap.
She didn’t understand the concept of ‘resting’. If it was for Sooyoung she would put him on a plane directly to the MET or would organize a press conference about his new work when he didn’t even finish one piece in the last three weeks. That’s what she had done before but this time was different.
This time he had control over his actions.
Jeongguk packed a suitcase with clean clothes and separated two piles of cash without even knowing how much it was. Then he left his phone, his credit cards and a note for his agent, she was going to freak out when she found out but he had plenty of time until then.
He climbed the next bus that went to the train station and then he bought a ticket for the furthest spot in the countryside, deciding that was his new destination.
“Hi Jeongguk! I called to tell you I have a new package of watercolors that just arrived. New color palettes...” The elder made a pause before clearing his throat. “This is a totally routine call I always make you know...”
“Watercolors? I should drop by later to take a look. I- uh… thank you.” He tried to move once again but the crowded room was summited in a sudden silence.
He felt the innkeeper and all the other guests gaze on his back.
At that point, it was hard to keep their relationship as a secret.
They were the current talk on the town.
“By the way, one my clients, who’s also slowly walking into the watercolor path, asked me which technique you preferred to paint sceneries. Wet on wet or wet on dry?”
There was something on the elder's voice that suggested he wasn't talking only about painting.
His mouth went dry.
“I… I mean you can use both it’s not actually… I do both. What I mean is that I use both techniques, both is good.” Why did he feel so flustered and unable to make coherent sentences?
“Alright, I’ll tell her. Thanks a lot and see you… tomorrow? You know for our art expedition.” The elder said, undaunted with the same cheerful tone.
Maybe Jeongguk was just imagining things. His mind was betraying him once again.
“Yes, of course! Tomorrow. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Great!” There was a paused before the elder spoke again with a lustful voice. “I like wet on wet more, just for the record.” He said suddenly and deliberating before hanging up.
Maybe he wasn’t.
Taehyung was humming a song while packing the last details. The sun was shining and the smell of cut grass and flowers remained in the kitchen. He smiled when he spotted one of Jeongguk’s little sketches under a fruit magnet on the fridge. It was a simple drawing of one of the shelves full of paint tubes but there was something on the younger’s hand that made them look like if he had taken the best of those objects and transformed them into a memorable thing.
He took it off the fridge and placed it on a scrap book where his other drawings were. There he pressed a small branch of baby's breath and glued a ribbon and a piece of white lace. Lately his collection was getting bigger thanks to Jeongguk.
Collecting things into scrap books had become a hobby for him. He always found something new to add, flowers, pieces of fabric and now Jeongguk’s drawings on the spotlight. He thought he should had add something else but when he started writing the date he felt the pain.
The pain that gnawed his articulations and was insupportable like a giant bee sting under his fingers and nails.
He tried to remember what the doctor had said about it. A pill for the pain, another for the adverse effects of the steroids and a liver protector to avoid that the drugs would pierce his organs. He walked to the front of the store where he kept the medication on the desk, there he reached the labeled bottle on one of the drawers and swallowed the first pill.
“Not now…” He took a deep breath before taking the second pill and drinking some water to pass the horrible sensation that was left on his mouth.
When he placed the empty glass on the wooden counter Taehyung herd the familiar sound of the door bell ringing.
Jeongguk was walking in looking as handsome as always. The vision of the younger reminded him the feeling when you lay in a bed with clean sheets after a long day, fresh and comforting. He smiled right away when he spotted Taehyung and his heart skipped a beat. Instinctively, the elder hid his hands on his back and smiled back.
“Hi,” Jeongguk said shyly as if they hadn’t been kissing the day before. “are you ready?”
“Yeah, let me grab my keys and lock the back door. There’s a basket prepared on the kitchen, I hope you like watermelons because you’re carrying one.”
He managed to smile through the pain that slowly started to fade when the medication started to work.
Jeongguk had bought the oil paints a few days back when he confessed the elder his skills with watercolors weren’t getting better, even though he had half of the right supplies to paint with them. He needed the familiarity of what had given him a remarkable name back in the capital.
Taehyung extended a plaid tablecloth right behind of him. The younger had the perfect view of the crystalline lake and the flower path in front of him but the brown haired boy insisted he had the best panorama.
Indeed, the younger moved skillfully with the brush as it was part of his hand. He attacked the canvas with strong strokes but at the same time he didn’t neglect the small details of the scenery. Taehyung had seen many landscapes in museums before but he recognized that the talent of Jeongguk belonged to the nature itself, like if he was meant to paint in the wild and not locked inside four walls.
Watching him was fascinating.
He took his time to check again and again the angles; he was abstracted on his creating movement, completely gone inside the canvas. The elder didn’t want to miss any second of it, there was something about the passion he radiated while holding a brush that made him more captivating than he was already.
“What do you think?” Jeongguk asked once he was halfway finishing the painting.
“It’s amazing, it's like a picture but better. I wouldn’t be able to put it on words.”
The elder was holding a slice of watermelon while staring at it. A single seed was sticked on under his lip that was just too cute to ignore. The younger left the palette on the grass and laid on the tablecloth next to him.
“Why every time you’re eating I want to kiss you?”
Taehyung bit his lips and placed his head next to him.
“I don’t know. Explain.”
“Well, your lips turn all red and appetizing as the fruit you’re eating.”
His eyes traveled from his brown eyes that had become darker and his tempting upper lip he wanted to bite so badly. Taehyung acknowledged the desire on his gaze deliberately kept licking the watermelon of his lips.
The younger grin and with the tip of his index removed the black seed that was ruining all the attempts of the boy of being sensual. That little action was enough to break the tension and turn it into a funny situation in the blink of an eye.
“You should’ve seen your face while…” The younger exaggeratedly imitated his facial expressions and tongue movement. “And you had that sticked there all the time.”
“Ya! You little brat you were dying to kiss these lips just a second ago.”
The younger laughed until his stomach hurt, it was a sonorous laugher full of joy that made him roll on the floor while the elder hit him lightly on the forearm.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Jeongguk repeated and while he was still laughing he passed his left arm around the elder, wrapping him in a hug and bringing the boy closer to his chest.
Then he proceeded to plant a series of gently butterfly kisses on his forehead that made the elder giggled. Taehyung took the chance to get closer and kissed the boy’s neck, then his chin and finally his lips.
“I could kiss you all day long.” The younger managed to say between their kisses.
“Then don’t speak and kiss me.”
The synchronized movement of their mouths clashing together was orchestrated as if the nature itself had planned it. They had to stop to catch some breath otherwise one of them might have fainted. In the meantime the elder was able to satisfy his lingering need of touching his hair as if any pain he had even thought about it would go away if his fingers kept interlocking his hair strands.
It was hard to stay quiet after that but their swollen lips needed some rest before connecting again. Meanwhile, they tried to catch their breath while admiring the blue sky above their heads as if it was the first time they realized it was there.
Jeongguk tried to catch Taehyung’s hand to hold it but the elder quickly removed it in a slippery move. The elder sat up looking jittery.
“Sorry… I didn’t mean to… I just need something to drink.”
Even after that, there was an uneasy feeling Jeongguk couldn’t shake away.
“Jeongguk, dear, is Taehyung from the art supplies store. He’s asking for you, again.” The old lady shouted.
“Thanks, Mrs. Im. I’ll take it.” Maybe he did need a phone for himself. “Hi, Tae.”
The short way of the name didn’t pass unnoticed by the innkeeper whose eyes sparked with naughtiness.
“Hi! I was going to ask you out today but it seems like it’s about to rain but… I wanted to hear about your day anyways.” There was something on his voice that made him sound fragile and made the younger a bit worried.
“Oh, that’s okay. I was finishing a small painting and Mrs. Im had asked me if I could take a look at one leak but I'm already free. I still can drop by in a few minutes, we can watch a movie or something.”
“It’s just… I don’t feel really well today. Maybe tomorrow.”
“Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, yeah. Of course.” He was lying and Jeongguk could tell by the way he dragged the last words and the high pitch on his voice. "I might take a nap now... I'll see you later. "
“Oh… okay. See you later.” He hung up.
Again that feeling of the other day. As if there was a missing piece he couldn’t place in the rest of the puzzle.
“I’m going out, Mrs. Im.” He announced heading to the door.
“Are you sure? It looks like it’s going to rain really soon. Take one of the umbrellas from the lobby.”
The innkeeper smiled at him.
Jeongguk knew that old lady was a gossip, but what he didn’t know was that her best office was as a matchmaker.
The wind was blowing strong enough to make his way to the art supply store difficult but that wasn’t going to stop him that easily. Four kilometers felt like nothing after all those daily walks, Jeongguk needed to know if Taehyung was fine. He didn’t sound okay on the phone.
He arrived at the bridge that he had crossed several times already, only that this time there was a lonely boy sitting on it while balancing his legs back and forward above the running water that passed under the bridge.
The first raindrop fell before he could reach him. Breathing heavily, Jeongguk stood right in front of Taehyung until the elder noticed his presence and the imminent storm. His face was covered in wet hot tears that were bigger than the rain drops falling from the sky. The younger slowly collapsed on his knees and his forehead ended on the elder’s shoulder.
“Tae, tell me what’s wrong. You’re scaring me.” Jeongguk’s hand found the elder’s nape and started caressing his head.
Taehyung sobbed. “It’s nothing, don’t worry about it.”
Rain coated everything in just seconds.
Their hair, their clothes. Everything was soaked.
Jeongguk carefully stood up and helped the elder doing the same. Then he wrapped his arms around him in a big hug. Taehyung grabbed the back of this shirt, and buried his head on the younger’s chest, crying endlessly.
"I lied." He cried out. "Don't go."
“It's okay. I’m here, I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. Tae.”
For every tear he let down, Jeongguk kissed the top of his head, his forehead, every part of his face until he was sure he was covered in as many kisses as raindrops had fallen from the sky.
“What is this place?” Jeongguk asked.
“It’s my past life.” Taehyung admitted while turning on the light switch.
After they dried with a couple of towels the elder had remained silent for a few minutes before asking Jeongguk to come with him upstairs. Rain kept falling outside. They were on his bedroom first, it was simple bedroom, a bed, a bookshelf and even a computer placed on an old desk but again he noticed the absence of any decoration there were marks of places where frames used to be but now it was empty. It was odd considering how passionately the boy talked about art even when he had said he didn't consider himself someone artistic.
Taehyung grabbed a key and showed him what it looked like a closet but actually was a door. There they were, a room where the sunlight never came. All the furniture were covered in white sheets that kept the dust away. As the light illuminated the place Jeongguk could see that it wasn’t furniture, that room was full of rectangular pieces he knew too well what they were.
The elder nodded.
“Can I?” He softly asked while grabbing one piece of fabric.
The younger pulled the sheet off reviling an extraordinary piece of art. It was an abstract surrealist portrait of a woman covered in rose petals that fell from above and at the same time detached from her skin. There weren't more than five different colors of the same palette but the way they were combined made the face of that imaginary human glow in shades of pink and yellow.
Jeongguk stared at Taehyung. “Are all of these…?”
“They are mine.”
“Taehyung, this is… this is astonishing. And I’m not saying this just because it’s you. I’m talking from one artist to another.”
“Thank you.” The brunette blushed.
“What… what happened? Why do you keep this here? You should talk with someone about it… I’m sure my agent knows someone who can help and-”
“Arthritis.” His eyes became watery. “I have rheumatoid arthritis, it affects my articulations and it hurts. I can’t paint like I used to… it takes me hours and… the mobility of my fingers is different.”
Jeongguk felt a knot on his stomach.
“And before you ask… there’s no cure but it’s under control… steroids.” Taehyung took a deep breath. “It’s not that bad but… when I saw you the other day I remembered… I remembered what it feels like when you’re holding a brush on your hand, that warm titillation on the tip of your fingers. I felt envious.”
“Tae, you don’t have to feel bad about it. Does it hurt often?” The younger got closer and pressed his hand on his right cheek.
“Well, on days like this overall. Humidity is not my best friend…”
“My grandma had it too but she was like ninety. I don’t understand. you’re so young…”
“It seems like this place it’s not the only thing my great grandpa inherited me.” He sniggered. “I’m sorry this is too depressing I know…”
Jeongguk grabbed his hands and this time didn’t let go of them, not even if the elder tried to get rid of his hold.
“Does it hurt if I touch them?" Jeongguk held his hands as if he was holding the most fragile piece of crystal in the world, those hands were even more precious than any gem.
Taehyung shook his head. “No. It doesn’t… It’s just… my grandpa had it and as he got older this fingers got crooked and deformed and I’m scared the same thing happen to me. It’s shallow and stupid, I know…but I don’t want to be sick… I hate it. I hate it so much… you don’t have idea.”
“Tae, stop trying to minimize your feelings, you’re the only one who has the right to complain about it. And don’t be afraid.” The younger lifted his right hand and stroked his fingers on his tan skin. “I don’t see anything wrong with your hands. In fact, they are beautiful and I thought that at the right moment I saw you…”
“Did you?” The elder stared directly at his eyes.
Taehyung’s eyes were full of blooming hope. There was something that sparkled on them as if he had a pair of zircons incrusted on his face. Maybe it was that his fondness and tender affection was evolving into something stronger because when he looked at that boy with city manners he only could think about how blue was the sky even under the scariest grey storm.
“Yes, they are so beautiful.” He kissed his knuckles. “So beautiful…” then he kissed his fingers and his palms. “You’re so beautiful, Taehyung. And I’m not saying that just because your physical appearance, there’s something about you that’s beautiful inside and outside.”
Tears were rolling down his cheeks but this time it wasn’t because he was feeling sad. Those were joy tears, the ones created to be comparing to fresh morning dew and not a dark cloud sky.
“So beautiful…” Jeongguk got the chance to say before the elder kissed him.
It was another kind of kiss they hadn’t known until that day. It wasn’t fruit flavor and it wasn’t as sweet as their other kisses, it was full of hidden secrets and absolute truths. It had something that made their bodies feel untamed and their hearts rowdy. It was written in history people should’ve kissed like that.
Taehyung’s hands always found their way to the younger’s hair as they traveled round trip, upside down all over the back of his hair in a frenetic frenzy. Jeongguk didn’t miss the chance and pulled him closer as his hands closed around his waist. Their clothes were still moist but it wasn’t something that supposed a problem.
The brown haired boy pushed him through the door until they fell onto the bed. That place that was an alternative universe itself where the rules could be broken and things could change from one second to other.
The bed was just a physical space where abstract concepts and broken metaphors became truth.
Things weren’t what they were. ‘Stolen kisses’ weren’t a crime. ‘Sticky’ and ‘wet’ weren’t conceptualized as weather factors. 'Bites' didn’t mean pain and pain didn’t mean what it proclaimed. 'Swollen lips' didn’t mean stop and caress meant as much as words because there was no place for words in a moment like that.
That place where clothes were not allowed beyond the boundaries of the situation. Where silky touches and hungry kisses were at the order of the day. Where bodies and pieces of bed sheets were intercalated in a complex but enthralling dance.
Jeongguk got rid of the last piece of cloth that adorned the body of the other boy; he took a moment to admire his naked honey skin as he was contemplating a work of art hanging on a wall. A piece of living art that had way more motion than a painting. The moment didn’t last much now that both were involved in the same work.
Collarbone kisses and pulled hair. Lips on lips and everywhere else.
If Jeongguk were a religion, Taehyung was devoted to his lips.
The hunger of their mouths couldn’t be satisfied with kind pure pecks. It demanded more skin, cruder and rougher movements, and actions; it begged for careless contact and limitless tremors compared to earthquakes and clashing tidal waves.
It claimed for a universe falling apart.
And they gave it.
“It wasn’t romantic when Edward watched Bella sleeping and it’s not now.” Taehyung half opened his eyes to find the younger boy down on his knees on the mattress while holding a sketchbook and a pen on his hand.
Jeongguk giggled. “I didn’t mean to wake you up.”
The brown haired boy stretched his arms like a lazy cat. “But you did and that means you have to give me something to compensate those valuable sleeping minutes you stole from me.”
Jeongguk kissed his lips, this time taking his time to explore them.
“Much better.” The elder murmured. “Let me see what you drew.”
“I don’t do portraits or faces.”
“You know you’re a liar and I’m not saying this because it’s my face on that paper.”
It was a simple drawing on black ink but as always, Jeongguk got magic on his fingers. All his features were printed on a piece of paper to perfection.
“I was thinking…” The younger said as he returned to the bed next to him. “You miss painting don’t you?”
“Of course I do.” The elder moved so Jeongguk could cuddle in with him.
“Isn’t there a way you could do it again? Like I’ve been reading on your computer and some doctors say it could be useful to do some exercises and the pain will cease considerably… maybe then you could… try again.”
Taehyung took a deep breath. “I don’t know. It’s been a while. Maybe I’m not good anymore, I haven’t practiced in years.”
“Hey, don’t forget what you told me. Either you have it or you don’t, or you build it from zero.”
“You’re quoting me? I should charge that too.”
“I’m serious. I wasn’t joking when I said my agent might find someone interested in your paintings, Tae.”
“Oh yeah, who are you to have an agent anyways?” The boy chuckled.
The younger scratched the back of his head. “Jeon Jeongguk.”
Taehyung choked and coughed. “Jeon Jeongguk like… the Jeon Jeongguk the artist… Oh my God I’m so stupid.” He facepalmed himself.
“You’ve heard of me?”
“Jeongguk all Korea knows who you are. This is incredible. I slept with a famous artist isn’t that something you brag about it?”
Jeongguk laughed. “Only if you want to.”
“I can’t believe you jackass didn’t tell me.”
“It changes something somehow?”
“Of course it does! I can sell all your doodles online and gain money enough to buy this town.”
The younger burst into laughter again.
“I’m dead serious.”
Jeongguk grabbed his neck and kissed him while smiling.
He wasn’t serious.
It had been two months since Jeongguk was missing. His agent was about to completely loose her mind from one moment to another. People kept calling her, asking where they were able to buy one of the ‘ghost’ artist Jeon Jeongguk who was also compared with Houdini and now more than ever was required on the scene.
“No, no sir. I know. I gave you my word but I couldn’t find him anywhere. Not even the private detective…” The woman’s conversation got irrupted by a man from the post office who knocked at her door.
“Choi Sooyoung?” He asked.
“Yes. It’s me. What…?”
“I have a shipment for you.”
“Ugh… right. I’ll call you later.” She hung the phone.
“Please sign here and here so I can bring the truck to your door.”
“My- my- truck? Isn’t this the toaster I ordered?”
“It’s not apparently, I have twenty paintings for you sent as a priority.”
The woman almost fainted. “T-T-T- Twenty?”
“All from the same person.”
Sooyoung hawked. “Yes of course. Of course I’ll sign, bring them please.”
Twenty brand new pieces were on her apartment. All finished, all beautiful.
They came with a single note from the artist, the name of the collection.
“What do think of this particular piece?”
“Compared to the rest of the collection I think it’s my favorite but I don’t want to flatter the artist too much or his ego will reach Jupiter. From what I heard the critics will love it and all of them were curious about the story behind the name.”
“There’s nothing much to think about it. As Beethoven had For Elise, I have Twenty Pieces of Taehyung.”
“You didn’t think much about it, did you?”
“Oh, I did. But please, go on, I want to know why this is your favorite.”
Even if Jeongguk had said he did sceneries and landscapes he still had managed to create a full collection of Taehyung’s body fragmented into pieces for the public to admire. It was the day of the inauguration and hundreds of people were waiting outside to take a look at his eagerly awaited comeback to the artistic world.
But no one else could see them before Taehyung; he was the ultimate muse and the only one whose opinion matter for Jeongguk.
“You painted my hands. And I know you have a kink for them." The younger chuckled. "But you did it because you know it’s my most vulnerable part and still… you brought it right to the center, to the spotlight to be admired. You made it art. Thank you.” The boy looked at him with sparkled eyes.
Jeongguk kissed his knuckles. “You and your hands are incredible. You make everything brighter and what you touch becomes precious to me… that’s the wonder of you.”
Taehyung placed a quick kiss on his lips. “The only wonder of this world is that I have you to love you every day.”
“That sounds like a great world to live in.”