Jisung’s first relationship was with a girl named Yeojin, who’d asked him out at snacktime on the first day of kindergarten and had wedding invitations made out by lunch.
They got married at recess two days later—she’d worn a white sundress over her school uniform and tucked dandelions in her hair, cheeks bright red from the blush she’d stolen from her mother’s purse applied hastily in the girls bathroom before they went outside.
He can still remember her walking down the aisle, her bridesmaids giggling, shoving bouquets of weeds and daisies into her hands, the way she grinned at him with missing front teeth as all the girls in their class laughed around him, and the way the boys teased him from a distance for catching cooties so early on in his school career.
One of the girls had an older brother in third grade, who they’d brought over to officiate—Jisung didn’t know it at the time, but he’d later learn that his name was Mark, and instead of reading a proper wedding declaration, he’d opened his Bible to Leviticus 18 because it was the last thing he’d learned in his religious class and read until the end of the passage.
Yeojin kissed him then—not on the lips, because girls did still have cooties and Jisung did still have standards—but a cheek kiss, which was the only consummation needed to send the girls in their class into a fit of giggles, throwing cut paper as confetti in celebration and running off into the corner of the playground to gossip about the new couple.
Nothing really came of the marriage—Yeojin had filed for divorce a week later, and the week after that, she ran off to marry some first grade boy instead.
With Jisung’s new bachelor status, he was finally accepted by the boys in his class—no playground wife meant no cooties, which meant Jisung was allowed to talk to any boy he wanted again.
Three years later, Jisung learned it was all bullshit.
Religion class was always an adventure for their class; all the boys Jisung’s age were wild enough on their own, and combined with the girls’ screechy giggling, it was no wonder the nun teaching them was practically ripping her hair out every second.
Sister Taeyeon wasn’t a bad teacher per say; she was just too sweet for her own good and had no idea how to discipline properly, so when the children were particularly rambunctious, she usually just let them have their way.
Occasionally, however, there were good days where they’d sit and listen to the scripture she was reading—on the days where the cafeteria staff gave them fruit instead of sugar for snack time, or on the days when the air conditioner in the chapel rooms had broken down and they were too consumed by heat to be as wild as usual.
Sister Taeyeon’s voice was sweet like honey, especially when she talked to her younger students, and for how strict the other handful of nuns were, she provided a nice change of pace. Although their school was one of the more conservative private schools in their state, she always tried her best to be as gentle as possible when pushing the church’s views. Looking back on it, Jisung realized the reason she was so gentle was because she didn’t entirely agree with everything herself. She just had a job to do, and the job was to educate her students on the scripture under their denomination, which didn’t tend to be a very accepting one.
Leviticus 18 was the passage Mark had read on the playground that day. For Jisung, those words had been in one ear and out the other. It was his wedding day, for Pete’s sake; he was supposed to be paying attention to his fiance, not the pastor.
Not that he paid Yeojin much attention either—he’d only married her because he was too nice to say no, but that was beside the point.
His kindergarten vocabulary was too limited for him to understand the words back then; they were all big and hard to pronounce, and Mark had stuttered through half of them anyway. Jisung was older now—he was in third grade, he could handle big words. He could read them by himself.
“You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the Lord your God. ” Sister Taeyeon read aloud, while Jisung followed along on the Bible in his lap, pointer finger running under the words to help him keep up.
“So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the Lord.”
Jisung nodded along, only vaguely understanding the words. He knew Sister Taeyeon would go back and explain it in simpler terms—she always did.
“None of you shall approach any blood relative of his to uncover nakedness; I am the Lord.” She continued, and Jisung could hear the frown in her voice. He could see why. It must be awkward for her to read out a bunch of rules on grown-up things to a bunch of third graders.
That was what she’d said the class would be about today: rules on grown up things . She’d told them it was mostly for when they were older and the devil began to tempt them, but that it was important they began learning now so they wouldn’t be taken by surprise when the time came.
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father, that is, the nakedness of your mother. She is your mother; you are not to uncover her nakedness.”
Naked mothers? Gross!
“You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness.”
Naked fathers? That sounded even worse. These rules didn’t seem hard to follow at all.
“The nakedness of your sister, either your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether born at home or born outside, their nakedness you shall not uncover.”
Alrighty, so no nakedness. That seemed pretty easy to follow. Being naked around other people seemed weird, anyway.
Sister Taeyeon read on, looking up every few verses to make sure the class was still following along, until a she read out a sentence that didn’t sound right to Jisung’s ears.
“You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female;” she read aloud, “it is an abomination.”
Maybe it was the last word she used: abomination . That sounded pretty scary, and more serious than the other rules had sounded.
“Sister Taeyeon?” One of the girls piped up from the row in front of him. “Can you stop for a second? I want to know what that means.”
Looking over, Jisung saw it was Karin. She was much taller than he was, and out of the girls in his class, she was usually the one to cause the most trouble. But something was out of the ordinary. The look on her face matched what Jisung felt—concern, uncertainty, like something was definitely wrong and she wasn’t sure what.
A few other kids looked up, too—Yeojin was one, along with a boy named Samuel, and another girl whose name he couldn’t remember.
“Yes, Karin, which verse are you confused on?” Taeyeon asked sweetly, but the look on her eyes said otherwise. She didn’t seem to like where this conversation was going, either.
“Leviticus 18:22, the one you just read. I don’t know what…” Karin looked back down at her Bible for reference. “A..bom...in..ation means, but I do know about the ‘bomible snowman, and he’s pretty scary and if the word sounds like that, it must mean it’s an extra scary rule, right?”
Taeyeon sighed, and if Jisung had to take a guess, she’d probably said a pre-lesson prayer hoping somebody wouldn’t bring this up.
“An abomination is something a lot of people don’t like,” she spoke slowly, carefully. “It’s telling you that there are certain things that should only be done between boys and girls, and if they… stray from that rule, then, well… God would not be happy.”
Karin frowned, sitting up straighter in her seat. “Like, what kinds of things?”
Taeyeon looked around nervously, unable to meet anyone’s eyes, as if she were afraid of what she was about to say. “Relationships,” she answered finally, shoulders slumping in defeat, “marriage, and, well… the type of nakedness that was read aloud in the previous verses.”
“But I don’t like boys.” Karin pouted even harder. “Boys are ugly and I don’t want to marry them. I want to marry a girl one day, girls aren’t gross. Girls are nice.”
The entire class was dead silent, save for Samuel, who was flipping ahead a few pages.
“Sister Taeyeon, what happens if I want to marry a girl? Does that mean God would hate me?”
Taeyeon pursed her lips, looking back down at her Bible. “According to the scripture, it is frowned upon, so yes.”
Before anyone could say anything more, Samuel spoke from the back of the classroom. “Pardon me for looking ahead, Sister Taeyeon, but I found another verse that says kind of the same thing.” He looked back down at his own Bible, clearing his throat. “If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death.” Jisung had no idea how he read those words so confidently, but then again, Samuel had always had a higher reading level than the others in the class.
“That means…” Yeojin spoke slowly from the front row. “That if we’re a boy who wants to marry a boy or a girl who wants to marry a girl, then God will kill us? Because that’s what it sounds like, Sister Taeyeon.”
Yeojin was usually snarky and witty with her comments, always being the first to talk back to teachers or start a game on the playground that would get them in trouble. Now when she spoke, her voice was softer with a tinge of anxiety—eyes darting around the room, leg bouncing, hands gripping the edge of her seat so tightly that her knuckles were white.
Taeyeon closed her eyes, closing the Bible in her lap and taking a deep breath. “That is what is said in the verse, yes.”
“So boys can’t date boys and girls can’t date girls, or we’ll go to hell?” Another girl, the one who’s name Jisung didn’t remember, said. Her voice was less shaky than the others, more curious, as if it was a mistake in the writing.
“That is what the passage says, yes.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you, Sister Taeyeon?” Karin spoke again, her voice more defensive now. “There’s a boy down the street from me who has two mommies, and they aren’t in hell. Me and my sister are friends with him. We play with him all the time.”
Taeyeon sat up a little straighter. “Karin, I appreciate your consideration for my opinion, but my personal beliefs on this subject isn’t my job to teach. I gave away any beliefs I disagreed with when I decided to pledge my life to God. It is only my job to teach you the word of the Lord, and according to Him, homosexuality is a sin that shall not be forgiven.”
Karin’s face fell, shoulders slumping. “So my neighbors are going to hell? If Donghyuck’s mommies die, they won’t be able to make playdates anymore. That’s not fair.”
“Your friend Donghyuck won’t be punished in the afterlife. He isn’t the one living a life of sin. And besides, so long as they live a good Catholic life in every other sense, there’s a chance they’ll be forgiven.” Taeyeon smiled, and she seemed almost hopeful.
“Oh, they do witchcraft.” Karin said, sitting back in her chair.
“Oh, they’re definitely going to hell.” Yeojin snorted, laughing her own nervousness away. Jisung could feel her tense energy from three rows back in the classroom, like she’d be slapped if she made the wrong move.
“Calm down, Yeojin, please.” Taeyeon sighed again. “I’d like to move on and continue reading, if that’s alright with you all. There are certain things in this world that god intended to be between a man and a woman, and that’s all there is to it.”
Jisung looked around the room, locking eyes with the girl in the row behind him—Hyojung, was it? She was biting her lower lip raw, fingers drumming on the desk, cheeks flushed as if she was being put on the spot even though she’d only spoken once.
She’d been new this year, having gone to public school until the end of second grade, and hadn’t gotten the chance to befriend any of the other girls yet—she was tall and awkward looking, with round glasses perched on her nose that made her eyes look even bigger than they already were.
Jisung made a mental note to talk to her on the playground later that day. For the few weeks they’d had of school, she’d always spend her recess alone on the swingset, and it seemed like she was in need of a friend—especially after how scared she looked now.
“Now if you’ll follow back along, We left off on verse 23.” Taeyeon opened her Bible again, shifting in her seat and clearing her throat.
Jisung looked down at the book in his lap again, resting his forehead on his desk. He wasn’t quite sure what had changed, or why he was so tense—he’d never really liked anyone, boy or girl, not counting his Kindergarten wedding with Yeojin, and wasn’t sure why the discussion struck a chord within him. It didn’t concern him. It shouldn’t, right? He didn’t like boys, and he would probably grow up someday and marry a girl and have lots of babies like his parents wanted—however that was supposed to work.
He shook his head and continued following along with his finger, although it was trembling now.
Why was he shaking so much?
Oh well, he should probably just ignore it. These were things he could worry about when he was older—according to Taeyeon, the rules didn’t apply until then, anyway.
A month after the Leviticus Incident (as Jisung had started begun referring to it in his head) they were assigned reading buddies from two grades up.
Jisung’s reading buddy was a boy named Jaemin. He was in fifth grade, but his birthday was just before the age cutoff, making him only a year and a half older. His inky black hair flopped down into his eyes, and it grew so fast that the nuns and teachers had given up on trying to get him to control it. His eyes were bright, cheekbones high with a smile that lit up the whole classroom.
The whole purpose of reading buddies were so the older ones could help the younger ones understand the Bible better. The fifth graders would come down from their classroom on the third floor of the school and they’d sit with their third grade buddies on the floor, spending an hour talking and reading the Gospel they’d been given.
Jaemin and Jisung’s location of choice was in the back corner of the classroom, halfway hidden by a dry-erase projector on a cart with books stacked on the bottom shelf to weigh it down. It was out in the open enough for the teachers to not be suspicious, but hidden enough to give them the privacy they wanted.
It worked out perfectly, because Jaemin rarely talked to him about the Scripture, anyway.
Jaemin’s voice was lower than Jisung’s—still prepubescent, no doubt, but everything about him seemed cooler somehow; he was taller, older, his shoulders were slightly more filled out than Jisung’s were. Most of the boys in Jaemin’s class were like that, Jisung noticed—he paid a lot more attention to the boys in Jaemin’s class than the ones in his own.
“So He told them this parable, saying,” Jaemin read, voice soft, following the words with his finger.
He’d taken his blazer off, but left it hanging over one shoulder for Jisung to use as a pillow—the younger was leaning on it, back against the wall and eyes drooping. He’d had a stressful day today—the playground drama was at an all-time high, especially since he’d started talking to Hyojung more. It was nice to be with Jaemin, to hear him read and just relax in his company.
“What man among you,” Jaemin continued, “if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it?”
Jisung nodded lightly against his shoulder.
“When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.” His hand closest to Jisung was trailing up and down the younger’s forearm, soothing him, fingers lightly skimming the fabric of his dress shirt. He was leaning against the corner where the two walls met, feet on the ground with his legs bent in front of him so he could rest the book against his thighs. His free hand was the one turning the pages, following under the words with his fingernail so Jisung could follow with his eyes.
“I tell you in that same way,” he spoke, glancing to make sure Jisung was still listening. “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“I don’t understand it.” Jisung mumbled against the older’s shoulder. “Explain it.”
“Ask nicely, Jisungie-yah, I’m your hyung.” If Jaemin’s smile was anything to go by, he didn’t really care. He just loved the idea of being an older brother figure.
Jisung sighed and looked up, hair frizzy where it had been resting against Jaemin’s blazer. “Jaemin-hyung, can you please explain the parable? I don’t understand it.”
“You can keep laying on me.” Jaemin grinned, reaching out to pinch Jisung’s cheek.
Jisung smiled back; it was impossible not to. He didn’t know how anybody could not smile when they were around Jaemin. He laid back down, letting his arm flop onto the ground again for Jaemin to run his fingers over.
“Basically what it’s saying,” Jaemin began, closing the Bible and ruffling Jisung’s hair, “is that God is happier when bad people repent than when good people repent. Because, hey, the good people are already trying their best, but to come from living an unholy life and find God in that mess? That’s what makes Him happy, people finding Him even in the darkest of places.”
Jisung nodded a little, although he still wasn’t sure on the meaning. He just wanted to seem smart—Jaemin would think he was cooler if he seemed smarter.
“Think about it like this...” Jaemin nudged him a little, moving to sit criss cross applesauce in front of him. “Someone who gets really good grades gets the highest score on a test, sure everybody is happy for them and it’s good they try so hard in school, but it’s not a big accomplishment.”
Jisung nodded, thinking of another girl in his class, Sunhee, who’d never a grade below 90 a day in her life.
“But if someone, like…. who’s someone in your class that gets bad grades?”
“Yeojin,” Jisung answered immediately.
“If Yeojin gets the highest grade on a test, then everyone would be surprised and happy for her. She doesn’t usually get good grades, so she must have studied extra hard and worked her butt off to get that grade.”
Jisung frowned, then nodded slowly, somewhat understanding. “But what’s the point in living a good Catholic life like we’re supposed to, if God isn’t as happy when we go to heaven?”
Jaemin bit his lip, eyes knitted in concentration. “That’s a really good question.”
“Because if God celebrates more when a sinner is converted, then what does that make people like you and me?”
People like you and me. Jisung wasn’t sure what he meant by that exactly; he wasn’t the best Catholic by definition, he still celebrated Halloween and watched violent cartoons at home, and from the way Jaemin walked through the halls with his tie undone half the time, Jaemin probably wasn’t a golden christian either. But they both still went to this school both went to mass on Sundays and listened to Sister Taeyeon during her lessons. Wouldn’t that make them good Catholic boys in their own way?
“I don’t know,” Jaemin answered, “that sounds like it would be a good thing to talk about in Sister Taeyeon’s class, you should bring it up tomorrow.”
Jisung’s face flushed lightly—he’d never been one to talk much in class, or much in general unless it was to his friends, but since Jaemin had become his reading buddy and encouraging to bring all his questions up to Sister Taeyeon, he’d been met with overwhelming praise by his teachers.
“You’re so cute, Jisungie-yah.” Jaemin smiled fondly, reaching out to pat the younger’s shoulder, and Jisung felt his heart swell with pride. Normally, he hated being called cute—he was one of the shorter boys in his class, and his face was still round and squishy. It was something he got a lot, and it usually made him feel looked down on, like he was a puppy. Coming from Jaemin it was different—he liked it when Jaemin called him cute. It made him feel like all those happy boys he saw in Disney movies after they’d won the sports game and gotten the girl.
“I can’t wait until you’re old enough to go on the retreat with us next year,” Jaemin continued, pushing Jisung’s hair out of his face and squishing his cheek again. “Usually, the rooms are divided by grades, but with how much the teachers like you now, I’m sure they’d let you room with me if you asked.”
“My mom would let me sleep over your house now though, if I asked.” Jisung frowned. Jaemin’s and Jisung’s mothers had met one night at a PTA meeting and taken an instant liking to each other—the friendship of their sons was just a bonus.
“I know, but I want you to stay with me and all my friends. Like, Jeno and Sanha and all of them. They’d think you’re cute, too.”
Jisung knew some of Jaemin’s friends—he wasn’t close to them, but he recognized their faces, said hello to them in the hallways. Sanha he was slightly more familiar with personality wise—he was Hyojung’s older brother, and while the third and fifth grade schedules didn’t match up all the time, Sanha always hung around with them whenever he could. He was shorter like Jisung, with chubby cheeks and big eyes. The glasses he wore only made his eyes even more bulging, and sometimes the other kids teased him because of how crooked his teeth were. But underneath it all, he was sweet and shy—Jaemin decided to give him a chance at the beginning of this school year, and they’d been friends ever since.
Jeno was a different story. They’d never directly spoken, and according to Jaemin, it was because Jeno was too shy—he always followed Jaemin around like a lost dog, clinging onto his arm wherever they went.
He was one of the most handsome people Jisung had ever seen in his life, second only to Jaemin and Zac Efron, with an eye smile that you couldn’t help but grin back at no matter how you were feeling. Jisung had only ever heard his voice once, when he’d said something to Jaemin before he went off to find his own reading buddy, but from what Jisung could remember his voice was soft like velvet, almost as calming as Jaemin’s was.
Nobody could beat Jaemin in Jisung’s mind—Jeno came close, sure, but he didn’t listen like Jaemin did. He didn’t have any type of friendship with him, no bond to solidify Jisung’s admiration. Jeno was just another fifth grader to him, and so was Sanha, as well as every other fifth-grader Jisung had ever met—Jaemin was someone special.
“Don’t call me cute.” Jisung bit back a smile. He at least had to pretend he didn’t like the compliment—he needed to protect what was left of his dignity, just in case someone else was listening.
“I know you like it.” Jaemin giggled, pinching both of Jisung’s cheeks this time. “You love attention, you’re just too shy to ask anyone else for it.”
Jaemin wasn’t wrong by any means, but there was a part he was missing—he didn’t love attention per say, not from anyone else. He loved it when Jaemin doted on him and told him how cute he was, how the older boy would pet his hair and squish his face and offer his shoulder as a pillow. If anyone else tried to treat him like that, Jisung would probably run and hide—he wasn’t a touchy kid, always ducking away from group hugs and his grandmother’s kisses, and the fact that only Jaemin could treat him like that confused and perplexed everybody Jisung had ever met.
Jisung thought for a second before his lips quirked into a smile, cheeks flushing even brighter. “Only from you, hyung.” He answered softly, and both of them dissolved into giggles.
“We need to get through all the parables in Luke 15 today, we should probably keep going.” Jaemin said after they’d quieted down a little.
“I don’t like parables.” Jisung whined, leaning back against the wall. “They’re so hard to understand, and they all mean the same thing in the end.”
“I don’t like reading them either.” Jaemin sighed, shifting into his old position again. Jisung snuggled back into his shoulder once again, closing his eyes.
“To tell you the truth,” the older boy continued, looking up to the ceiling, “I don’t know if I believe half the stuff they tell us. I mean, I see all this stuff on the new about all these guys doing terrible things—do they really deserve forgiveness too? Do they deserve to be in heaven with us?”
Jisung looked up again, meeting Jaemin’s eyes.
“I don’t think they do. If everybody who repents goes to heaven, and it doesn’t matter what they’ve done in their life before they accepted God—well, I don’t know if I wasn’t to be in a place with people like that.”
Jisung stared up at the boy in front of him, eyes wide—Jaemin’s words were bold, nothing he’d ever heard before from anyone in school. Not even the eighth graders spoke like that, and they were the most defiant kids in the school.
“Do any of the other fifth graders talk like that?” Jisung whispered, scanning the room for signs of anybody listening in.
Jaemin nodded. “Jeno does. He doesn’t believe any of the things they teach us here.”
That was news—someone going to Catholic school but not believing in Catholic ideals? He hoped, for Jeno’s sake, that the teachers didn’t know about it, or he’d get a stern talking to.
“There’s kids in your class that don’t believe it either. You guys are just younger, so you’re too scared to talk about it.”
A memory flashed in Jisung’s mind—approaching Hyojung on the playground the day of the Leviticus Incident, saying he wanted to be her friend. They’d talked about it that day, and Hyojung had said she didn’t believe that girls who liked girls and boys who liked boys couldn’t go to heaven. There was a word for it, she’d told him, but she wasn’t comfortable saying it—it was a banned word in the Noh household, and even in the corner of the playground where nobody could hear, Hyojung was still afraid of saying it.
“Jeno is great, I feel like you’d like him a lot.” Jaemin leaned back against the wall, his eyes sparkling. Why were his eyes always so sparkly?
“Maybe,” Jisung hummed, tilting his head slightly. “But you’ll always be my favorite fifth grader.”
Jaemin grinned, wider than Jisung had ever seen, and wrapped his arm around the younger’s shoulders. “You’re cute. Now come on, we really need to finish the parables soon. I heard Sister Taeyeon’s gonna be asking you guys questions on them tomorrow.”
Fourth grade was when Jisung realized why the Leviticus Incident struck him so hard.
They’d gone on their first retreat as a school—well, only the older students. It was a rite of passage at their school. Fourth, fifth, and sixth graders were taken to a Christian camp for a weekend each semester, where they’d sing songs around the campfire and go hiking and do all sorts of other faith-building activities to help strengthen their fellowship to each other and the church.
Well, that’s what it was supposed to be. What it always actually ended up being was normal playground drama on overdrive, a food fight or two, and throwing multiple people into the lake.
Jisung wasn’t sure how, but Jaemin had somehow sweet-talked the nuns and teachers organizing the trip into letting Jisung room with them, and that’s where he was now—sitting on his bottom bunk in one of the cabins, unrolling his sleeping bag for the weekend, while Jaemin dangled a shoelace in front of his face from his bed on top.
Jaemin’s friends were in the cabin with them; there were four to a room, and Jeno and Sanha had taken the other bunk, and were too preoccupied with throwing their socks at each other to pay attention to whatever Jisung and Jaemin were doing.
Being in a room with three now sixth-graders was nerve wracking, to say the least—they were just so much cooler than Jisung could ever hope to be, standing high on a stage that Jisung couldn’t find the stairs to climb up to.
“Jisungie, are you excited?” Jaemin asked, the squeaking from the mattress above him told him Jaemin was probably bouncing in his own excitement.
A thump, then a whiny “ Ow! ” Jaemin had hit his head on the roof of the cabin.
“Yeah, I’m excited.” Jisung said, snatching the shoelace dangling in front of him while Jaemin was distracted. Jaemin whined again, this time in protest at his game being over.
Jeno and Sanha stopped their bickering and sat on Sanha’s bottom bunk, grinning in anticipation.
Jisung felt his face heat up. Boys with their attention on him made him nervous, and he didn’t know why.
“Um, I’m excited to hang out with you guys more,” Jisung continued, “and I’m really excited for the campfire tomorrow night.”
“Look how cute he is! I told you he was cute.” Jaemin climbed down from his bunk and sat next to Jisung, wrapping him into a hug, and if Jisung’s blush wasn’t apparent before, it definitely was now.
“He is really cute.” Jeno agreed, smiling, and Jaemin smiled back.
“He’s, like, our communal little brother.” Sanha said, brushing his hair out of his eyes. “Because he’s friends with Hyojung, I kinda think of him as my sister too. Except not my sister, ‘cause he’s a boy, but you know what I mean.”
Jisung wasn’t actually sure what he meant, but Jeno and Jaemin seemed to agree, so Jisung nodded too.
“Sister Taeyeon wants us at the chapel at 12:30 for lunch.” Jaemin said. “Sanha, what time is it?”
Sanha looked down at his pokemon watch, squinting to read the numbers. “It’s eleven forty-five now.”
“We should get unpacked.” Jeno stood up, and Jisung finally felt himself relax.
“Jisungie is almost done, you two have just been messing around the whole time.” Jaemin deadpanned, pinching Jisung’s cheek.
“Well, you two can just cuddle or whatever you guys do until we have to go down.” Jeno replied, and it almost sounded a little… malicious?
“We’ll do that.” Jaemin apparently didn’t hear it, if the way he was squeezing Jisung even tighter was anything to go by.
“Jisungie? Are you still awake?”
For a second, Jisung thought he was dreaming—Sanha’s light-up watch across the room read 12:30 and the screen glared at him like a single eye in the darkness—watching and waiting.
For what, Jisung didn’t know.
“Jisungie?” Jaemin whispered again, then Jisung saw the shadow of him clambering down the ladder.
The younger sat up in his bed, crawling out of his sleeping bag. “Yeah, I’m awake.” His voice was scratchy from not talking for hours—lights out had been at ten, and Jeno and Sanha had fallen asleep soon after. This wasn’t their first retreat. They weren’t keeping themselves up all night, scared of the monsters in the dark like Jisung was. They were sixth-graders, and sixth-graders were brave. Maybe when Jisung was in sixth grade, he’d be brave like them and be able to fall asleep on retreats.
“Come outside with me.” Jaemin whispered. “I want to talk to you.”
Jisung frowned—what could possibly be so important that they had to talk outside? Regardless, he slid out of his bed and put on his slippers, following Jaemin out the door.
“I’m scared, Jisung,” was the first thing that came out of Jaemin’s mouth as they sat down on the front steps.
Jisung looked up and was met with Jaemin’s stone cold gaze—it was nothing he’d ever seen from the older boy, and the thought terrified him. What could be so serious as to make Jaemin stop smiling?
“What are you scared of?”
“I don’t know… maybe myself, if I’m being honest.” Jaemin started at the ground, picking up a stick and dragging it through the dirt. “What the school might do to me if they find out. What my parents might say.”
Jisung frowned. Maybe he wasn’t as old as Jaemin was, and didn’t have the wisdom that came with passing fifth grade, but Jaemin didn’t seem frightening at all—he was warm and loving towards everyone he met, always making sure the people around him were happy and healthy before worrying about himself.
“Find out what?” Jisung asked quietly. He was scared too—he’d never seen Jaemin this serious before.
“I like boys, Jisung.”
For a minute, it took Jisung to process the words. Of course Jaemin likes boys. Jaemin’s nice; he likes everyone. Then he thought a little harder, and the weight of the older’s words finally hit him.
Jaemin liked boys.
All the blood seemed to rush to Jisung’s head at once, a handful of images flashing through his mind: marrying Yeojin on the playground, except instead of her and Jisung, Jaemin was staring up lovingly into a nameless boy’s eyes. How uncomfortable would Jaemin have felt in that third grade Leviticus lesson, shifting uncomfortably in his seat, wondering about his fate at too young an age? Jisung thought of the way Jaemin would let the younger boy rest his head on his shoulder as they read through the Gospel, always more affectionate than with any girl.
It all made sense, but not in a good way—if the nuns found out, Jaemin would be kicked out of the school and the church, and Jisung might never see him again—sure, their parents had each other’s numbers, but if Jaemin really did like boys, then there was no telling how Jisung’s parents would react.
“Please don’t tell me you’re mad, Jisung, please...”
Jisung opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again. He wanted to say something, he had to. He just wasn’t sure how to make Jaemin feel better.
“I’m not mad,” the younger finally said, looking Jaemin straight in the eyes. His mother had always taught him to do that when having important conversations. “It doesn’t change anything. You’re still my favorite hyung.”
Jaemin didn’t say anything then, only looking at Jisung with a shocked expression before surging forward and wrapping him into the tightest hug the younger had ever felt.
“It’s scary, Sungie.” Jaemin murmured into his ear. “You can’t tell anyone. You know what they’ll do.”
“I know.” Jisung replied, hugging back because there wasn’t much else he could do. “I won’t tell anyone, I promise.”
“Pinkie promise?” Jaemin pulled back, keeping one arm around Jisung’s shoulder and holding the other between their chests, his little finger out and ready.
“Pinkie promise.” Jisung smiled a little, linking their fingers together. He was sure he wasn’t supposed to keep secrets this young—his mother had always told him that secrets didn’t make friends, and that honesty was the best policy.
Jisung wondered if Jaemin thought that, too.
“Um, how did you know?” The younger asked, shifting to lean on Jaemin’s shoulder like he always did.
“The girls in my class,” He said, eyes on the ground again. “I asked them how they felt when they had crushes, and then I realized I felt like that with boys, not girls. They all thought I was asking about a girl, though, so now everybody thinks I have a crush on Heejin.”
Jisung laughed at that—he’d met Heejin once, because she was Yeojin’s reading buddy, and while she seemed nice, she didn’t seem like the type of girl that Jaemin would be drawn to.
“What does it feel like?” Jisung asked, looking up. “Having a crush, I mean.”
“It’s like…” Jaemin bit his lip, thinking. “It’s like the entire world shuts off when you’re with them, and they shine brighter than everyone else. And when he talks to me, or smiles at me, I get butterflies in my stomach, and I just want to be with him all the time, and I’d do anything to make him smile. His smile is so nice, Jisungie.”
“You’re talking about someone. You have a crush on a boy?”
“Yeah, you’ll never guess who.” Jaemin smiled then, bright and full, and Jisung his own heart beat a little faster.
“Um, is he in your grade?” Jisung asked. Now, his interest was piqued. With Jaemin’s affection towards him, it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility-
“Yeah, he is.”
JIsung ignored the way his heart dropped down. It wasn’t like he’d been hoping for anything, but there was a tiny piece of his brain that was wondering if it might had been him.
“I don’t know many boys in your grade.” Jisung replied, trying to match Jaemin’s upbeat tone.
“It’s easy, trust me, you’ll get it.” Jaemin grinned even wider, his eyes shining.
“Okay, um…. Eric.” Jisung only knew him because he was Samuel’s reading buddy and had mentioned him once or twice.
“Nope.” Jaemin shook his head.
“Um... Bomin?” He tried again, again, only knowing the name because his and Yeojin’s families were friends.
“Not him either. It’s someone you know.”
The only sixth-graders Jisung really knew were the ones Jaemin had introduced him too, which narrowed it down to two. He thought about it for a moment, eyebrows knitted in concentration—Sanha was sweet, but he was kind of funny looking and nerdy and even shorter than Jisung was, which left only one option.
“Is it Jeno?” He asked, a little louder than he meant to.
“Shh!” Jaemin hissed, holding a finger to Jisung’s lips and pointing towards the door with his other hand. “He’s sleeping right there!”
Jaemin leaned back again, lips curling back into a smile. “Anyways, yeah, it’s Jeno.”
Jisung wasn’t sure how to respond. On one hand, he was happy Jaemin trusted him enough to tell him, but on the other hand, he knew how awful Jaemin would have it if that information got out. Besides, there was no way Jeno liked him back—boys liking boys was so unheard of at their school and within their religion.
“Are you gonna tell him?” He finally asked, knowing he wouldn’t like the answer no matter what.
“I don’t know, maybe someday.” Jaemin’s eyes were sparkling again, and Jisung felt his heart sink even lower.
“Hyung, I don’t think that’s a good idea—”
“Not anytime soon, but….” He gazed up at the stars. “I don’t know. I have a feeling everything will be okay, in the end. Do you think if I prayed about it, God would listen?”
Jisung didn’t answer, and Jaemin’s face fell a little.
“We should go back inside.” Jaemin said finally, standing up and brushing the dirt from his pants.
Jisung nodded and stood up too, turning to open the door again before Jaemin stopped him, grabbing him by his arm.
“This doesn’t change anything though, right?” The older asked, and even though his tone was light, his eyes were worried.
Jisung thought for a second—it didn’t change anything, did it? Jaemin was still his best friend, and he’d still be his reading buddy for the next two years. But to say nothing had changed would be lying, and knowing now that Jaemin liked guys definitely gave him a different point of view on the older. It wasn’t a negative point of view and Jisung didn’t think of him as lower or less worthy of his friendship, he just wasn’t sure exactly how to define it yet.
“It doesn’t change anything.” Jisung confirmed, pushing the uncertain thoughts to the back of his mind.
“Good.” Jaemin grinned, bright and happy like he always did, and Jisung felt his face heat up for some reason.
They shuffled inside, trying not to make too much noise, and Jisung exhaled in relief when he heard Jeno snoring and saw Sanha’s light up watch on his wrist still hanging off the bed.
“Goodnight, Jisungie.” Jaemin whispered before climbing up the ladder to the top bunk.
“Goodnight, hyung.” Jisung echoed, ducking into his bed and crawling into his sleeping bag.
Jisung didn’t allow himself to think about Jaemin’s secret until two days later, when he was at home in his own bed Sunday night.
Jaemin liked boys in the same way normal boys liked girls, and Jisung wasn’t sure why, but he felt a sense of security in the fact. Some sort of confirmation within himself that he couldn’t put his finger on. Maybe he wasn’t old enough yet, or maybe he just wasn’t smart enough to connect the dots.
Either way, it was getting late, and his eyelids seemed to be growing heavier by the second. He should probably sleep soon, anyways.
Jisung slid out from under his covers and kneeled at his bedside, sighing and clasping his hands together.
“Dear Heavenly Father,” Jisung began, voice shakier than expected. “I feel like there’s something I’m just not getting. Whenever I have a question about the bible, I ask Sister Taeyeon. Whenever I have a question about what girls do, I ask Hyojung, and whenever I need help at home, I can ask my mom and dad, but who do I ask about Jaemin? I don’t really think he needs help,” Jisung glanced around the room, as if paranoid someone was listening in. “Because even though the bible says liking boys is wrong, Jaemin seems so normal. It doesn’t… it doesn’t feel wrong for him, and I feel like I understand him a little more now. But I feel like it means something for me, and I don’t know what to do about it, and I-” he stopped suddenly, a lump catching in his throat, and saw his vision go blurry. He blinked and felt something dripping along his cheeks- was he crying?
Jisung barely ever cried, unless it was for something reasonable like falling and skinning his knee, but as soon as he started, he couldn’t stop.
“I don’t know what it means.” He hiccuped softly, trying to stay quiet so his parents wouldn’t hear. “I don’t know what it means for me and I’m scared, because I feel like it’s important. Has that ever happened to you?” He sniffled. “Where you think you’re supposed to know something but it’s just not making sense, like there’s something missing?”
He wiped at his eyes with his palms, felt the wetness sticking to his eyelashes. “Of course not. You’re God, you have all the answers. You probably have the answer I’m looking for, too, right?”
He was crying so hard he could barely speak now. He had to figure out a way to close out the prayer, so he could stuff his face into his pillow and go to sleep.
“I don’t know what I’m asking anymore. I guess…” He hiccuped, wiping away more tears. “I guess just, help me figure out what I need to know. Because I feel like there’s something missing, and I really don’t know what it is. Please help me find it. In the name of the father, the son, and the holy spirit,” He raised a shaky hand, following along with the cross symbol. Up, down, left, right. “Amen.”
He crawled back under his covers, scrubbing his face with his comforter, and let his eyes fall shut.
Two months later, Jisung’s answer came to him in the form of Jaemin getting an iPhone for Christmas.
Their parents had arranged for a playdate at Jaemin’s house between the two of them- although, Jaemin insisted on dropping the “playdate” label instead referring to it as “hanging out.”
Hanging out was what older kids did. And Jaemin was, in fact, older.
After eating the sandwiches Jaemin’s mother had prepared, they scurried up to the older’s room and closed the door, giggling as they ran to the wall where the phone was plugged in.
The phone had come with earbuds too, and Jaemin handed one end to Jisung, plugging the jack into the phone.
“What are we doing?” Jisung asked, bringing to earbud to his ear and twisting it in until it felt secure.
“Well…” Jaemin looked down, biting his lip. “I was wondering if you were curious about, like, adult stuff.”
“Adult stuff?” Jisung frowned, confused, and felt his cheeks starting to heat up. He only had a vague idea of what that adult stuff could be, and he wasn’t sure if he was interested in finding out the specifics.
“Yeah, haven’t you ever been curious about it?”
If Jisung were being completely honest with himself, he had- many times, but always pushed the thoughts out of his head before they could go anywhere. He reckoned God wouldn’t like him thinking about that type of stuff, anyway.
“I mean, I just kinda thought it would be interesting to see. I’m curious. Just once, and if you don’t wanna look at it, then we can stop.” Jaemin looked up, face red.
Jisung opened his mouth, speaking slowly. “I’m just worried. What if God is mad? I’m pretty sure that goes against the naked people rules.”
“That’s what confession’s for, Sungie.” Jaemin grinned and ruffled the younger’s hair.
Oh yeah, confession. That was a thing. And if Jisung had to guess, this was the exact type of situation confession was invented for.
Jisung shrugged and scooted over so he and Jaemin were sitting side-by-side. “Okay, sure.”
Jaemin didn’t reply, he only tapped the passcode into the phone and opened up the browser app.
“How’d you even find out the website to go to?” Jisung asked, watching Jaemin type a short site into the search bar.
“Jihun found it in his dad’s internet history and snuck back in after his parents went to sleep to watch it. He told all the boys in my class about it at Christmas Eve mass.” He answered, tapping the enter key and waiting for the website to load.
The younger bit his lip and nodded, flinching once the webpage on the phone screen loaded.
There were a lot of naked people on that screen, and Jisung knew that God would definitely not approve of this.
Jaemin scrolled down, clicked on a random one, and tilted the screen sideways so they could view it like a movie.
It started out as what seemed like a badly acted movie. A girl wearing a low cut top and teeny tiny shorts was sitting alone on her couch reading a magazine, before there was a knock at the door. She walked over, hips swaying, and opened it up.
There was a man holding a pizza box wearing a tightly fitting red and black polo, all the buttons undone, his biceps nearly tearing the seams open. “You ordered a pizza?” He asked, smiling.
His voice was deep and velvety, teeth pearly white and eyes sparkling like stars, and Jisung instantly felt his heart jump to his throat.
He found the man attractive. One by one, every dot seemed to connect, and a wave of nausea washed over him.
Jisung glanced at Jaemin, who was staring at the screen with a bored expression, and shifted a little. “Can we, um, turn it off?” He asked, voice strained. “I feel like I’m gonna be sick.”
Jaemin paused the video and locked the phone, glancing over with concern. “Yeah, no problem, I can just look at it later. Are you okay? You look awful.” He turned to Jisung, reaching a hand out to feel his forehead, but the younger flinched away.
Jisung scrambled up and clapped a hand over his mouth, running out of his room and towards the bathroom across the hall. He barely had time to close the door before leaning over the toilet and throwing up all of the lunch he’d just eaten.
“Mom!” Jisung heard Jaemin call from out in the hallway, but the sound was strangely muted, almost like he was underwater. “Jisung is sick!”
He collapsed on the bathroom floor, his head pounding, vision blurring at the edges, a million thoughts swimming in his head.
It wasn’t the fact that he’d seen a sex movie, that wasn’t the problem at all. They hadn’t even done anything in the movie yet, and the naked people on the webpage wasn’t what had gotten to him either.
He was attracted to the pizza man in that video, that same attraction had been exactly what Jaemin had described that night on the retreat.
It was exactly what he felt when he looked at Jaemin.
“I’m gay.” He croaked, having never dared to say the word out loud before.
Jisung liked boys when he was supposed to like girls, and before he could get up to even flush the toilet, his vision went black.