“Hey, weirdo! Why’re you looking at me like that?”
A hard shove to the center of Do Kyungsoo’s chest snapped him out of his intense concentration. In front of him, a mess of black, tan, and white shapes danced—an older boy’s eyes peering hard at him, his arms crossed. Kyungsoo was simply trying to make out what was in front of him but his eyes were full of a haze that couldn’t be cleared by a hard blink; the astigmatism was more of a full-body disorientation, making his thoughts cloudy along with his vision. Kyungsoo was unable to speak.
“Hey. You got a problem, egg-head?” the older boy said, pushing the short-legged, much willowier Kyungsoo again, and caused him to stagger slightly backwards.
“Um,” Kyungsoo began, but instantly shied when the other boy’s arms crossed in front of his chest, waiting.
“You’re still looking at me, ugly. Why?”
Kyungsoo couldn’t remember this boy’s name, but he knew by the colors of the school uniform that he probably went to his school.
“N-no. Sorry, I just—I can’t see well, so, uh, sorry,” the smaller boy stammered.
He continued to stare hard at the other boy’s face, trying to make out some distinguishable features that would jog his memory of who exactly he was looking at, but all he saw was colorful fuzz that would only relent slightly if he was out of the sunlight, away from here. His head was already starting to throb from the amount of energy it took to focus on this face.
“Stop looking at me. It’s creeping me out,” the boy said.
“I-I’m sorry. I—”
Another shove, a blow to the shoulder, as the boy walked away, muttering angry insults to himself as he left. Kyungsoo sighed heavily, and continued walking, with the beginnings of a migraine thrumming across his temples.
This was a typical interaction for him. Since he was a kid, Kyungsoo had trouble making friends because of his severe astigmatism, his “bad eyes”. When he looked at the faces of his mother, father, and little sister, the astigmatism made them seem like they were being viewed through scratched glass; the shapes of their faces were visible, but nowhere near in focus. And, of course, it got worse. When the optometrist gave him his first pair of glasses, the schoolchildren chortled and teased him, calling him Bug Eyes or Goggle Head. Towards the end of elementary school, Kyungsoo found that the glasses provided little relief, so he decided he would manage without them, but that came with a whole onslaught of other problems.
He was often teased for staring too hard, or too meanly, at something that he was just trying to process. High school life was challenging in itself; the fluorescent lights gave him horrible headaches and made his eyes even worse, often resulting in nurse’s visits, where he’d lie in the dark room for hours until his head stopped swimming. Because of his repeated lack of attendance in class, his grades faltered, and Kyungsoo wondered if it was even worth studying at all. The only time he was his happiest was when he was singing. His mother had enrolled him in piano and violin lessons as a young child, but reading the sheet music was virtually impossible, so he took to singing, and found that he was quite good. At family gatherings, his mother would haul him up by the arm in front of everyone and force him to sing traditional Korean folk songs. The folk songs weren’t his style, but when his mother bought him a copy of Thriller, the album unlocked a whole realm of what singing could be, and he fell in love. Now, he hummed to himself constantly, and would frequent a coin singing room on the way home every day after school. The one three blocks down from his home had a special of three songs for a dollar, and Kyungsoo always had at least five thousand won from his mother stashed safely away in his knapsack’s front pocket. At least in the singing rooms, he could sit as close to the screen as he wanted without facing judgement from his peers, and as he read the words to his favorite song, his mood lightened and he could breathe again.
When his mother decided to take him to a big singing audition in Seoul and showcase his talent, he was uncontrollably nervous; not because of the audition process—he knew his voice was good, and he would be able to sing steadily—but because of the other people there. What would they think of him with his weird eyes and angry face? He practiced by looking at himself in the mirror, trying to make his stare look less intimidating. The night before the audition, Kyungsoo peered at his face closely: the thick eyebrows, the slightly rounded dark eyes, a good nose that wasn’t too small or too big, the heart-shaped lips. Kyungsoo wasn’t unattractive, but even now, as he stared into the mirror, his eyes strained to see without the blurriness. It was a part of him that Kyungsoo prayed the judges wouldn’t see. The last thing Kyungsoo wanted was to scare them away. But, depending on the distance of the table from him, he could probably disguise his concentrated gaze as dust in the eyes or the emotions of the day.
The next day, Kyungsoo and his mother drove an hour into the middle of Seoul to the large convention center. When they parked the minivan and stepped out of the car, the sun’s glare was too bright, and his eyesight blurred and the shapes of the other cars in the parking lot rattled in his brain like a broken television. He blinked hard, trying to clear the fuzz, and his mother noticed. She put a reassuring hand on his shoulder and bent down to look into his face.
“Whatever happens today, don’t let your eyes bring you sadness. Focus on what makes you the happiest. That’s why we’re here,” she told him.
She waved him on to go ahead of her, saying something about how she needed to run errands anyway and would be back to pick him up. Not having his mother there was a relief. She was a great mom, but a little overbearing sometimes, and Kyungsoo was already nervous enough.
He walked through the open doors of the convention center, his mind already a blur of colors and shapes. Some things were blaringly in focus, like the big WELCOME! sign hung across the threshold in bright cerulean letters. But other things, like the person’s feet in front of him, were not. He felt his toes make contact with the back of their heel and he was snapped back to reality. The slightly taller boy in front of him stumbled slightly, and turned around to make begrudging eye contact with Kyungsoo. He could make out the blurry but handsome face from behind a broad shoulder. This boy would definitely make it through auditions by his looks alone.
“Watch where you’re going,” the boy said, and continued walking, slightly faster now that the smaller boy had injured him.
Kyungsoo sighed—he was not off on a good foot, literally.
He waited in line, got his audition number, and found a seat near the red exit sign. The convention center was brightly lit with fluorescent overhead lights, and Kyungsoo could already feel the dull throb of a headache setting in. Whenever his eyes did focus on something, it was only for a moment before he would have to refocus and squint. A staff member came around with bottled water, which he took and drank small sips of to calm his pounding head. He waited alone, watching the crowd of young boys and girls just like him slowly dwindle as their audition groups were called.
Kyungsoo's group was last—a total of seven boys (including himself) and three girls. When he heard his audition number over the loudspeaker, he stood up slowly, and with sweaty hands, smoothed out the creases in his khaki pants that his mother insisted he wear, and walked towards the front of the large room.
He came to stand next to a petrified-looking girl. He gave her a brief, close lipped smile, but avoided her eyes. A producer explained to them that they would all go into the room and perform, one by one. When they were finished, they were free to leave and if the judges liked them, they would be notified after a week. The group filed into a small dance studio and stood facing a panel of older men and women with brown clipboards and clicking pens. The judges sat in front of a wall of mirrors, and it was then that Kyungsoo could see his group fully. Each of the boys had their own unique look to them, and he knew it’d be hard competition if they could sing well, too. The girls were meek, but poised, and pretty enough to make it big. A gigantic, gangly boy with the biggest ears Kyungsoo had ever seen was heading the line. He stared hard at the boy in the mirror, his brows furrowed in concentration as he tried to make out his facial features clearly. He noticed the smaller boy’s odd expression and a large, toothy grin appeared on his face before he turned away. Kyungsoo thought the boy looked like a big puppy, with his round eyes, shaggy brown hair and squishy nose.
“First up,” a lady with a clip board said. “Park Chanyeol.” The goofy-looking boy stepped up to the front without hesitation and began his audition.
To Kyungsoo’s surprise, the puppy boy wasn’t here for singing at all, but for rapping. He completed his audition and also sang a bit to appease the judges; his voice was low and smooth, and strikingly contrasted his rapping style. The panel seemed to like him, and when he was finished, he turned around and looked directly at Kyungsoo, flashing him the thumbs up sign with that same toothy grin and gave the smaller boy a thumbs up before exiting the room. The shy boy couldn’t help but smile back. Park Chanyeol.
Kyungsoo was last to go, and when they called his name, he stepped to the center. He quickly introduced himself, trying hard not to stare at any one thing for too long, before launching into his song. His eyelids fluttered shut as he became lost in the music. With music, you didn’t have to see anything—you just had to feel. He felt confident in himself so he opened his eyes again, and the judges were sat back watching him. He didn’t have to ask to know that he did well. When the song was over, the panel applauded and he bowed politely. The man in the middle of the table spoke first.
“Your name is Do Kyungsoo, correct?”
The man smiled. “How old are you?”
“I’m seventeen, sir.” The man nodded, and told him that they would be contacting him if he made it through the audition process.
The small boy was elated, and couldn’t help but plaster a huge smile to his face as he left the room. He didn’t care that his brain was threatening to explode out of his skull from how dizzy his eyesight made him—he was going to make it. But he didn’t get very far until he was already colliding with another body. The person made a loud oof! as Kyungsoo bounded into them. Immediately, he stepped back to see who he had accidentally run into, and his face fell in mortification. The goofy boy from earlier stood there, clutching his stomach.
“I-I’m sorry, I can’t see very well and I should’ve been watching where I was going and—” Kyungsoo started his usual speech, but the tall boy cut him off with a loud laugh.
“Hey, don’t worry about it. I can take a hit,” the much taller boy said.
To Kyungsoo, he looked more like a bean sprout than a puppy up close. A bean sprout with floppy hair and a squishy nose.
“You sounded great in there. I was listening.”
Kyungsoo’s cheeks boiled red hot from embarrassment and he cast his eyes to the ground.
“Oh. Thank you. You were great, too.”
The boy stuck his large hand out in front of him, and once again, that big, toothy grin spread across his face.
“I’m Park Chanyeol. It’s nice to meet you.” His eyes were actually sparkling.
Kyungsoo took Chanyeol’s large hand in his own and shook it. “Do Kyungsoo. Nice to meet you, too.”
Kyungsoo tried his best to take in Chanyeol’s appearance without looking too fearsome. His eyes strained and his head pounded, but he could make out more of the round eyes, round, button nose and full lips on the boy’s face. Chaneyol noticed his hard stare and his brow furrowed, but the smile stayed intact.
“Wow, that’s an intense gaze you’ve got. Do you always look at people like that?” he asked. Kyungsoo knew that the question was purely out of curiosity, but it still made him self-conscious.
“Um, well, my eyes are pretty bad, so I have to concentrate really hard on something if I want to see it clearly,” he explained, chuckling slightly to ease his discomfort. “It’s pretty freaky, right?”
“Freaky indeed. I bet you have the girls falling all over you with that stare, though. It’s piercing.”
“Oh, um, no,” Kyungsoo laughed. “It’s quite the opposite, actually. No one really, um, talks to me.”
“Really? I don’t know, Kyungsoo, you seem like a pretty likeable guy,” Chanyeol said, and the smaller boy felt like he was floating from the compliment.
“Thank you,” he said quietly, a small smile pulling at the corners of his lips.
Chanyeol kept talking, his big hands moving extravagantly with his words, while Kyungsoo continued to listen as they walked down the corridor together, back into the big auditorium. Chanyeol told him all about himself—where he was from, where he went to school, how old he was. He completely towered over Kyungsoo by a full head and a half, and looked painfully skinny underneath his baggy shirt and pants; he truly was a bean sprout. If Kyungsoo really concentrated, he could make out the sharp points of Chanyeol’s clavicle and the wing-like shoulder blades jutting out from his body. He talked to Kyungsoo like any friend would, and the small boy realized that this was the longest another person his age had ever spoken to him. It made his heart and stomach do happy little flips at the attention he was getting, and slowly, he began opening up about his own life. Kyungsoo told Chanyeol about why he started singing, while the gangly boy listened intently.
“You must really love singing. I can see it on your face,” Chanyeol said.
Kyungsoo nodded. “It’s the only thing I really care about. Well, and since I don’t have any friends…it makes me feel less lonely.”
Chanyeol surprised Kyungsoo by putting his gigantic hand down on his shoulder, nearly covering the entire thing.
“Well, don’t worry. I’m your friend now,” Chanyeol smiled that same toothy grin, and Kyungsoo felt like he was staring into the sun, but his eyes hurt a little less.