There's a wrinkle on the corner of High Street and Canal. Nobody speaks of it, for they don't often remember that it exists. But those who pass by will occasionally shiver and look about their persons as if they've forgotten something, a trinket or perhaps a memory. A lost moment in time.
It takes Donghyuck years to discover the wrinkle and several more even to remember that it exists.
The corner itself is memorable. It's a high, grey brick structure towering three stories above street level, four if you count the canal itself and the walkway that runs beside it north to south, but nobody ever looks down. The bridge that spans Canal Street is beautiful enough, there's no need to look down. It's as wide as two blocks and connects the cobblestone pathways of High Street. Similar grey brick facades line the other three corners of the intersection, but it's the northeast corner where Donghyuck most often pauses.
The windows of Number 7 are usually drawn open, light spilling out from them in the evenings, light flowing into the panes during the day. And almost always, music spills out from the open window, or it leaks out through the cracks in the frame or the glass itself. Sometimes clear, sometimes muted, ever beautiful. Music and time, around this particular corner, they’re one and the same.
There is a pianist who lives in Number 7. Or maybe he lived there. Or maybe he hasn't come to live there yet, Donghyuck isn't sure. Because there's a wrinkle on the corner of High Street and Canal.
Perhaps the pianist doesn't even exist.
He met him once, he thinks.
People rarely notice Donghyuck; his tattered clothes match the dirt of the street and the weathering of the bricks. Sometimes he wonders, if he sat down in the shadows of Number 7 if anybody would notice him at all, or if he'd simply fade into the wall and cease to be. He can't even say for sure that the pianist has met him. He's a young fellow, tall and broad, although the first time Donghyuck saw him he was old, so very old. The young one, however, is cheerful, jovial to every person he meets, like the tailor on his way to work, the day watchman, the coach drivers as they pass on by, tipping their hats.
He smiles at Donghyuck too, once. And then he whistles a tune, slinging his cane as he strolls away.
Most people don't smile at Donghyuck, so already the man has endeared himself to him. Donghyuck sees him again when he returns home in the evening. He's still cheerful, he still nods at the gentleman and bows to the ladies, but his cane isn't so sprightly and his eyes are a shade tired.
Johnny. Something whispers that name on the wind, a memory of past or future. His name is Johnny.
Donghyuck waits for him to enter his home, waits for the lights in the hallway beyond the parlor to turn on, and then the parlor itself. Half an hour later, or maybe it's longer than that, he sits down at the grand piano and begins to play, and this comprises Donghyuck's favorite time of day. He doesn't need to see into the room to feel a part of his soul returning; hearing the keys of the piano does that for him instead. He can sit in the shadows and blend into the brick, and nobody will see him there. All other sound is filtered out, the clopping of horses' hooves, the rumbling carriages, the chatter and the gossip of the neighborhood folk. Not even the incessant bickering of the couple in Number 8, nor the wails of the children who play near the muck of the canal. It's just Donghyuck and his corner, and the pianist who lives in the house that everybody sees, but nobody remembers.
There's another life somewhere in another reality. It’s one of Donghyuck's favorites, for in that world Johnny says hello to him every day. They greet each other, and Donghyuck has fancier clothes, and the inhabitant of Number 7 doesn't leave for outside work but plays the piano for hours and hours, and days and days, except when he leaves. Then he's gone for weeks at a time and it makes Donghyuck sad, but when Johnny returns he greets him excitedly with smiles and words, actual words. More than words too.
“You’re back,” Donghyuck coos, back arching into the bedcovers as he pulls himself out of a deep sleep.
“I’m back, how nice of you to notice.” And Johnny leans over to press a kiss to his cheek, then the other one, then his forehead. Then his lips which has Donghyuck smiling.
In this world, Donghyuck isn't just a shadow but a fixture in the young man's life.
In the first reality though—and maybe this is the real one? Donghyuck isn’t sure what is real—in the first reality though, Donghyuck doesn't even know his name. And Johnny—though he only learns this later, from the wind—doesn't know his. Donghyuck is merely the pauper and Johnny is a pianist who lives in a house where sometimes, people forget it exists. And it’s Donghyuck’s job to sit against the brick, morning until dusk, holding it up, holding it into existence so that the pianist has a place to come home to at night. He has a feeling, if he fails, if Donghyuck forgets even for a second, would the entire corner just cease to be? Would Johnny cease to be?
So he sits, because somewhere in time their lines are crossed, and Donghyuck would spend eternity unraveling all the millions of threads of all their entwined lines. If he can just find the end… Only, which is more important? The beginning, or the end, or all the times in between?
Somewhere in the middle is a world Donghyuck likes, a place where High Street and Canal isn’t touched by gloom, and the man in Number 7 meets him often.
“Donghyuck, isn’t it? I seem to remember, am I right?”
“Yes, you are. Good to meet you again. Johnny, right?”
He shakes his hand, smiling oddly because it’s such an odd chance, running into the pianist outside of the man’s own home. Who introduced them again? The doctor, or the lawyer? Some acquaintance friend of theirs who dragged Donghyuck from his everyman life to the theater one night.
“This is Johnny Suh! Talented, talented man. In fact, the next concert you attend, you’ll probably be listening to him play.”
“Well that’s rather rich of you, to assume I like music so much,” Donghyuck had chuckled. Music and arts gave him no real pleasure. It was just a means to an end, a hobby other people enjoyed or patronized.
“Donghyuck here doesn’t have as fine an appreciation for beautiful things like you and I, ” his friend apologized to the pianist. Johnny nodded and looked polite. It was only a small garden party, and Donghyuck put in an appearance only because he was dragged here, and it was a good place to meet people. “He works in politics. No idea what he does actually, but he says he’s important.”
Donghyuck had scoffed, but he started to think, as he observed the tall, handsome man, that maybe he could work on developing a greater appreciation for beautiful things.
“You work for the government, is that right? I forget which party... Or, I apologize, I’m probably thinking of someone else. I… met a lot of people that night. So many names.”
“But you remembered mine? I’m flattered.”
“Ahhh,” Johnny clears his throat. “Well, some names do stick. Are you, in the neighborhood? Would you like to come in? I usually spend the evenings by myself, but my housekeeper cooks enough for two. You’re welcome to join me.”
So Donghyuck, trotting home from a long day at work, suspends the feeling of deja vu that caused him to turn down this street, a street he’s never traveled before, and accepts the invitation in.
It’s the first time he listens to Johnny play.
“Chopin, do you know it?”
Donghyuck nods, pretending he does. The composer he knows, the piece he does not, so it’s only half a lie.
Full from dinner, a shallow glass of single malt he swirls in his hand. He’s sitting comfortably in the patterned armchair watching Johnny across the parlor as he stretches his fingers across the keys and begins to play, interjecting every few moments to talk while he plays. There’s a fire in the grate, a chill evening outside, and Johnny is a stranger he’s only met once before. Yet it feels homely, like Donghyuck has come home.
And simultaneous to that, he feels so very much like an intruder, as if he’s not in this body, but in another person’s body who only looks in from the window outside the parlor. How cold he would feel, out in the wind with the snow flurries coming down.
How cold it is, sitting up against the wind, holding down all these memories so they don’t fly away.
“You really don’t like music?” Johnny asks.
Donghyuck frowns and sets his glass aside. “Who told you that?”
“Your friend at the party. I ask, because you look like you’re nodding off. If it bores you I can-”
“No, no, no, please don’t stop.” He’s rewarded with a smile from Johnny, who can speak and play and smile and make it look so easy.
“Okay then, I won’t stop.”
“It’s true I don’t know much about music, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it. The way you play, it’s soothing.” As if his voice, as if his appearance, as if his whole manner and the entire room, every place in which Johnny orbits, Donghyuck could get used to it.
It’s a grim winter’s day, but Donghyuck has a job to do, and that’s to remember that a certain house exists, continues to exist, even if he doesn’t know the man inside, or if that man has any idea of who sits outside.
“I’m glad you like it. Would you like another drink?”
“I can get it myself. Keep on playing, I think I rather like this piece.”
He changes his morning and evening walk, purposefully crossing paths with Johnny daily, or as often as he likes. Some mornings he meets Johnny who leans out the open window and they exchange a few words, and some mornings the pianist is lost in his own little musical world, so Donghyuck stands outside, listens for a few bars but doesn’t interrupt him.
He thinks they might be friends, despite their different walks in life. Donghyuck dabbles in people, in alliances, in contracts and paperwork. Johnny is addicted to his instrument, in making people feel . In another lifetime maybe, Donghyuck would like to experience more of that. He hums as he walks to work, twirling an umbrella, lost in his thoughts and his imagination goes wild. He pictures himself as a younger man, in his twenties perhaps, and he chuckles when he thinks how they could be a good fit. Lovers maybe. The image is so vivid.
“You’re back,” Donghyuck will coo, back arching into the bedcovers as he pulls himself out of a deep sleep.
“I’m back, how nice of you to notice.” Johnny will lean over and kiss both his cheeks, then his forehead, and then his lips. Donghyuck grins wide and delighted, still tired from having overslept.
“I always notice you, Johnny. Are you home for good now?”
“For a few more weeks.”
“Only a few more weeks?” Donghyuck pouts. He reaches up and catches the taller man around the neck, leading him to lay down next to him.
“Yes, unfortunately, for the next series begins soon and they want me to play again.”
Johnny hums. “Yes. Hey, Donghyuck?”
“I love you.”
Donghyuck rolls onto his side and winds his limbs around Johnny’s familiar, travel-tired body. He hasn't been eating well since he went away. Donghyuck feels his ribcage and frowns, but he doesn't say anything about it. It makes Johnny feel bad.
“Johnny… my favorite, favorite, most favorite concert pianist… I love you, too.”
Donghyuck shakes his head. It’s such a silly fantasy. He and Johnny aren’t lovers; they’re barely acquaintances who talk to each other every now and then and occasionally share dinner. Donghyuck doesn’t have time to lay around in bed all day, and Johnny isn’t famous.
But he thinks back to the corner of High Street and Canal, and in his mind the weather turns cold and gray, and there’s a shadow of a man sitting propped up beneath the outside parlor window, and he looks oddly like himself...
Donghyuck stumbles and runs into another gentleman crossing the street. Then he accidentally pokes an elderly woman with his umbrella, and as he apologizes to both and tips his hat, cursing himself for being careless, both images, the lover and the pauper, fade from his mind. So does the pianist who lives in Number 7.
So which is more important? The beginning, or the end, or all the times in between? Even better, which is the beginning, end, or just one of the segments of Donghyuck's life which he jumbles together haphazardly? Like the churning of the murky waterway at the cross-section of High Street and Canal.
He ponders this, in the cold, in the morning, where he sits with a snatched roll from a baker two streets over, fitting himself between the shadows of the grey brick wall while he waits for Johnny to leave his home. Donghyuck chews slowly. He pulls up the corners of his threadbare coat and listens for the creak of the old wooden door. Then Johnny, his Johnny—but not his... not really—strides down the steps swinging an umbrella as he merrily bounds eastwards down the street.
Donghyuck watches him, devours him with his eyes. How can anyone be this happy, this lovely, this handsome, and still have the inclination to peer sideways at a vagrant sitting beside his doorstep and tip his hat to him like they're acquainted.
"Morning, Donghyuck," says the stunning apparition.
Donghyuck's jaw drops. His roll falls away from his hands. When, did Johnny ever learn his name?
"Good morning, Donghyuck... baby, how did you sleep?"
"Like the dead. Don't leave me... I'm cold," Donghyuck whines. "Stay in bed, can't you, pretty please?"
"I'm only going to the piano to practice. It's not the end of the world." Johnny laughs, and he smooths down Donghyuck's wild bedridden hair, smiling down like Donghyuck is the most precious thing in the world.
By the time Johnny disappears in the morning din of foot traffic and commuters, carriages, horses, merchants and their carts, and the general haze of the cityscape, Donghyuck laments his fallen breakfast. He only got three bites out of the stolen sweet roll and now it's covered in dirt. He shakes his head, clearing the memories, wiping the bread against his filthy sleeve and wondering what he saw that made him so startled he dropped his precious, hard-won snack.
It's evening when Donghyuck knocks on the door of Number 7 High Street. His suit jacket scratches his neck. Somewhere in the workday, he spilled coffee on his trousers, but he rests easily on the notion that Johnny, struggling musician Johnny, won't judge him for it. He received an invitation in the mail a few nights ago.
Donghyuck, drop by for dinner sometime? I can play you more of that Chopin you profess to enjoy so well. -JS
Johnny's grin is wide, bright, almost goofy looking when he opens the door, a loud creak as it clings to the side of the frame. It slams shut, and Donghyuck has the distinct impression that inside is a window to another realm.
"So, Chopin?" he laughs awkwardly. The pianist is dressed casually tonight. A thin white linen shirt with the top two buttons undone, untucked from a nice pair of pants that fit his longs legs well.
"I was thinking, dinner first?" Johnny cocks his head.
"Oh, of course, well if you insist upon eating first, by all means!"
Conversing with the man is easy, easier than Donghyuck really expected. It's been a long time since they met at the garden party and Donghyuck was introduced as the person who didn't like music. Now, to watch them together, it would be hard to picture them from back then. Donghyuck is supposed to be a thirty-something nondescript party politician, and Johnny is that talented, talented man. In fact, the next concert you attend, you’ll probably be listening to him play.
Donghyuck hasn't attended any concerts recently, but from what he's heard, landing a performance gig isn't as easy as people make it out to be. Johnny looks especially forlorn an hour or so later. He practices a Brahms concerto, fingers dancing about in virtuosic singularity, and only in Johnny's head can be heard the sounds of an imaginary, accompanying orchestra. Donghyuck's never heard the piece played before with a full orchestra, but he does wonder if there's something he might do to make that a reality.
"When will you take me with you, Johnny... You know I've never heard you play except at home," Donghyuck whines. He barely gets dressed these days. When Johnny is home from a concert tour, there's very little reason to even leave the bed. Except to eat. Johnny always insists that Donghyuck gets enough to eat, never mind that he eats like a sparrow himself.
"I can't, baby. It's in Vienna. You know I can't take you with me... people, will talk."
He's still pouting, thinking about why he dropped his roll this morning, when Johnny comes dragging home in the evening, a salaryman with nothing to look forward to except an empty set of rooms and a piano which is the most beautiful thing Donghyuck's ever heard. He can almost imagine he's sitting inside that cozy room beside the fireside grate listening to a song on the piano that sounds like it's missing its other half. Like Johnny is missing his other half, or something even more.
And somewhere in Donghyuck's waking dreams, as he drags himself up off the pavement, dusts off his raggedy coat and pants so he can take himself off to find a warmer place to sleep, he thinks he looks into the light-strewn windows of Number 7. And it's an older man staring out at him, old and wrinkled, a life already passed by.
'Perhaps he will come back... maybe tonight he will come back, my Donghyuck' the wind seems to whisper.
"I can't believe this." Johnny looks around amazed.
It's not a grand affair. It's not even a major concert hall. Johnny is the guest entertainer for a small party function, and it barely matters that most of the invitees here aren't big music snobs. They're a mixture of paid politicians and elected officials, and sometimes it pays to pretend music is classy even if one has no idea what's going on. Like Donghyuck, before he became invested in Johnny. Literally.
"It's not Vienna, don't thank me too much." Donghyuck tries to play it down.
"No, but this is still amazing, Donghyuck, you're too wonderful."
There's a blush on Donghyuck's cheeks. A matching one on Johnny's. They look equally silly. Donghyuck is no mere boy to get overheated when someone flirts with him. Johnny... is. He's barely twenty-eight and except for the occasional garden soiree where artists and their friends mingle with the slightly more, but not too fancy, elite, engagements like this—performing between sets of party candidate speakers—is an entirely new experience. Perhaps he'll catch someone's eye, a sponsor even. Donghyuck tries not to think how this is like giving Johnny away, but it may be all he can do to give Johnny a leg up in the world. Donghyuck isn’t rich. He just does the bidding of higher officials more well-paid than himself. And people who want to be fancy like nothing more than hiring artists to make themselves look cultured.
Maybe, if Donghyuck was a different person, he could keep Johnny to himself. Get to know him, get to laugh with him, stay late into the night, every night, in Johnny's parlor living room and listen to him play. By the blush on Johnny's face earlier, he judges that maybe they could have been something more. Intimate.
"Johnny, come back here! Johnny, where are you going!?"
"Donghyuck, I told you already," Johnny shouts, exasperated. "I have to leave today. I'm already late, I may miss the train, I—"
Donghyuck chases him through the house, down the stairs to the entryway, and his eyes are naturally drawn to the luggage Johnny has already packed. He's determined to leave today, right after they argued, and there may be nothing Donghyuck can do to stop it.
"Johnny, if you walk out that door right now, you may be coming home in two weeks to an empty house."
The concert pianist just sighs. He doesn't believe me, Donghyuck thinks.
"There's nothing to talk about. We talked about it already... Baby, look. I have a career, this is my job, my passion. And it happens to be the only thing that's keeping you and I fed, clothed, and sheltered. Now if you want to go out and find a way to support yourself and me, then fine! But—"
"I told you I was thinking about going back to school..."
"When, Donghyuck? When? You dropped out. You never went back. I love you, but have you ever considered how one-sided our relationship is? And you still berate me for leaving you when I've been invited to perform somewhere big? That pays me to go and perform?!"
That stings, even if Donghyuck knows it to be true. He just doesn't want to acknowledge it's true. He wants a fairytale, the kind he's always dreamed about, the kind where he meets Johnny and they fall in love and live in this house for the rest of their days and nothing ever goes wrong.
"Fine, go then," he whispers. Johnny looks mollified. Donghyuck approaches him slowly, kisses him on the lips, passionately.
Then the door shuts, and he's alone in this little world, the pianist's correct accusations hot in his mind. "Goodbye... Johnny," he whispers into the silence of the room. Two hours later he runs his hands over the polished ivory keys of Johnny's precious piano, bidding his second love adieu. He lays out a folded letter. Then he shoulders his tattered canvas bag, opens the door of Number 7 for the last time, and vanishes into the street.
"Here, for you."
Donghyuck looks up aghast. He's not even sitting in front of Number 7 this morning. He picked a spot on the opposite side of High Street where he could simultaneously watch the boats go up and down the canal below, and also stare at the grey brick front wherein lives the object of his greatest curiosity. Who now stands before him with his typical morning ware, jovial smile, and a warm basket of sweet bread which may actually be home-baked.
"For me?" Donghyuck echoes warily.
"My housekeeper made too much. I saw you drop your roll yesterday, and felt somehow that it was my fault. That was you, wasn't it?"
Donghyuck receives the basket, his nerves bundling tightly. "Y-yes. You... do you know my name?"
"Do I?" Johnny tilts his head thoughtfully. "I don't think so? But I know I've seen you. You're the one who's always here."
Donghyuck nods nervously, not wanting to verify that yes, he does in fact sit in front of Johnny's home and stalk the man, when he can remember what he's doing. It's a warmer day at least. There may be some work down at the docks that he can do, for a few pieces of copper. Most of the time they only shoo him away, and so he ends up sitting in the front of a nameless building on the northeast corner of High Street and Canal, where the wrinkle is.
He remembers a colder day too. When a swift wind ripped through the panes of the windows in their upstairs bedroom, and the warmest place was in Johnny’s arms. Donghyuck, lying naked on his front, goosebumps on his arms, the back of his neck, his legs. He remembers that chasing that release, Johnny’s mouth tracing the length of his spine, thighs pushed apart and Johnny’s fingers deep inside.
“Good to know,” Donghyuck huffs in between breaths, “that those fingers are at least somewhat talented between my legs.”
That earns him a smack on his butt cheek, the sound a shockwave that reverberates around the room. Reverberates in Donghyuck’s frail memories.
“The fact you can still speak…” Johnny chides him, as the pads of his fingertips press against a spot that chokes out Donghyuck’s retort.
“It was good talking to you today ,” says the Johnny out on the street. “Perhaps another day.”
Donghyuck barely hears him. His body is a well of emotions, of feelings, a sensation he can hardly say he’s ever had before. Except, he seems like he has. Feels like he’s dreaming, but it’s so much more than a dream.
“Johnny…. Johnny, please… I can’t… I can’t hold it anymore,” says Donghyuck in that bed, tears trailing from his eyes, a keen sweat on his cool skin. “Please…”
Followed by the deepest press yet of his lover’s touch, and Donghyuck yells into the sheets.
“Yes,” says the colder Donghyuck, still staring at the roll in his hands, a single tear balancing in the corner of his eye. He can’t remember why he should be this sad. “Another day.”
"Have a good day," Johnny politely interjects into Donghyuck's rambling mind.
When he's a few buildings down, weaving through the street, only then does Donghyuck regain his voice. "Have a good day, too," he whispers, words getting lost in the muffling of the street. "My... my name is Donghyuck. You knew that yesterday. I think it was yesterday."
Donghyuck grows a lot lonelier, now that Johnny has found his break. He has an official sponsor now, a colleague of Donghyuck's from a much wealthier family. He has the connections Donghyuck does not.
Johnny invites him over for dinner one last time. Donghyuck doesn't know that it will even be the last time. Instead, Johnny greets him like usual. They hug this time, as friends... He insists Donghyuck should eat a hearty meal, heaping seconds onto his plate while passing up dessert, and they laugh and chatter together about the friends Johnny has met, other artists, other musicians and the opportunities he'll hopefully get, now that he has a rich benefactor.
"You'll get to play that concerto at this rate." Donghyuck leans against the piano, not content with just sitting on the other side of the room.
Johnny beams. "Maybe..." But it sounds like this time, ‘maybe’ is closer to reality. He grins up at Donghyuck, his fingers playing lazily across the keys. His concentration is down tonight. It's not the only thing that feels off.
"Will you continue to live here?" Donghyuck asks. He heard his colleague lamenting about true artists needing to live near the more fashionable end of town, a bubble neighborhood next to the wealthier patrons and theater district. The only true way to gaining notoriety, not living in a grey brick building looming ominously above a stink-ridden canal. Donghyuck took minor offense to that statement. For some reason, and he can't pinpoint it exactly, but he's rather fond of that canal. Or at least, to walking over it twice daily.
"He wants me to move, doesn't he?" Johnny sighs. "No, but I think I like it here."
Donghyuck doesn't know where his certainty comes from, but it feels like if Johnny ever left here... somehow he might lose him, and never find him again.
"Look at you," Donghyuck covers quickly, "moving up in the world."
"It's thanks to you." Johnny stops playing. He's staring at him curiously. Donghyuck clears his throat and switches his elbows around where he leans bent over against the piano. He crosses the other ankle and dares to meet Johnny's gaze. He wishes he would play the piano again. Instead, Johnny sits there silently, hands in his lap. "It really is, you know that right."
Donghyuck blushes. "It's..."
"Don't say it's nothing." Johnny stands up. Donghyuck has the serious urge to stand up too and move away. He enjoyed it more when he was the taller one, but now the pianist is looming over him, both of them nervous.
"He wants me to go on a trip next week. Meet some people, play at a few small venues."
Johnny is standing too close now, almost caging Donghyuck in.
Donghyuck jokes. "So this is goodbye then? A farewell dinner before you become so famous you'll have no need of someone like me?"
"Donghyuck..." Johnny whispers.
He can almost hear the other half of the plea. 'Tell me not to go.'
But that would be silly. They're not together. They don't mean anything to each other. Donghyuck has no hold on his life, and there's no reason he should stop him from taking this chance. Unless...
Slowly, Johnny palms his shoulders, beckoning down. And Donghyuck lifts his head. The farewell kiss is just that. A sweet, short press of their lips against each other, Donghyuck's last chance to make this something more.
A tear trails down the crease beside his nose when he exits Number 7 a few minutes later.
An uneasy stillness lies within. No one to greet him, no one to peck his lips, bury his head in the folds of Johnny's coat, to take his bag, set it aside and demand all his love and attention the second he gets home.
Johnny sighs. Somehow, he had known. Had dreamed about it for two weeks, nightmares that kept him awake and worried, wishing it wouldn't be true.
Donghyuck is gone. There's not a trace of him left in the entire house. His side of the dresser is empty, his favorite cup, the knick-knacks he inherited from his father, a few books from his school days, the last remnants of when Donghyuck had higher aspirations. Did Johnny rob him of those by falling in love with him? By taking him home and cherishing him too much. Too much, but still too little.
He finds the letter folded delicately on top of the piano. It's uncharacteristically devoid of emotion.
'Johnny, I'm leaving. Bye. I'm going to do something with my life since it obviously displeased you before. Wish me luck. I won't be back. -D'
Outside, the weather is gusty. Donghyuck leans against the brick, melding with it, hoping to be protected from it. So far, nobody's yelled at him today, chased him off, or spat in his direction. It helps when he blends in with the facade of Number 7, where only one man occasionally looks his way.
"You're back!" Johnny shouts. Donghyuck jumps and nearly topples over.
Johnny is standing before him, staring down like he can't believe his eyes. It's late in the day. The resident of Number 7 will be on his way home from work, and if the hour wasn't an obvious sign of that, Donghyuck would recognize the tired haggard eyes of a man who's worked a full day, far different from his morning spritely self. What does he do anyways? Donghyuck doesn't know. A clerk perhaps? Shop boy at a department store?
"Are you... alright?" Donghyuck asks.
Johnny blinks down at him, then very clearly shakes his head and rubs his eyes. "I'm... I'm sorry. For a second I thought you were someone else... forgive me."
Donghyuck only gapes at him until Johnny enters his home and the door slams shut behind him. Half an hour later he hears the piano. So many missed notes, so much frustration, despair. Donghyuck doesn't know how to comfort him.
He doesn't know how to comfort that other person either. The one who looks like himself, but fancier. This Donghyuck wears a suit, someone in the professional business, and he comes by the house front one evening. Donghyuck watches him trudge across the bridge that spans the canal and halt outside the northeast corner of High Street, staring at the empty windows of Number 7. There hasn't been light in them all evening, even though Johnny is usually home by now.
The other Donghyuck stays there for a long while, just staring. Finally, he gets up his nerve and marches up the short stairwell and knocks on the door. Nobody answers. Donghyuck, the quiet one sitting in the shadows, knows that nobody will answer.
"Johnny isn't here," he says.
The other one pauses, looks around. Their eyes meet and it's a strange sort of interaction, neither totally afraid, neither totally surprised, nor comfortable.
"What do you mean? He's already left? Is that what you mean?"
He'll have gone off with that benefactor now, professional Donghyuck's colleague with the shifty eyes and lingering touches. It makes Donghyuck, both of them, vomit to think about it. Donghyuck, both of them, should have stopped him from leaving. That's why he's here now.
"It's too late, I think."
"When did he leave?"
"Today? Yesterday? Maybe last week. I'm never really sure."
They sit down together, in the shadows. Donghyuck shares with himself one of his precious snatched sweet rolls, a leftover that the baker will never miss. It's cold now, a little hard, but still edible. It should be more strange, seeing a person who looks just like himself. Only this is the corner of High Street and Canal, where the wrinkle is, and stranger things have happened. Are happening, or will happen.
"It's okay, you know," he tells the other one, the one who came all this way to see if Johnny was still here.
"I don't understand."
"You don't have to worry about it."
There's a long pause while they take a bite from the bread, chew it slowly, and let it slide down. Not exactly at the same time, but close enough. They're each contemplating life. Not just one life, but multiple lives.
"I still don't understand," says the older Donghyuck who screwed up his chances of making Johnny his. Better at least than that other Donghyuck, the one who never left the house until he said goodbye to it forever.
"I said you don't have to worry. I'm here. I will remember. I will ground this place to memory. That way he can never be lost."
The other one thinks, mulling this over in his head. It makes sense, just the strangest bit of sense, and he doesn't know why that is. "What about me then?"
"What about you?" says the Donghyuck who's been sitting in this spot for most of the day, for most of something he may very well call eternity. Because he's the most real, he can feel that now. Whatever that may mean.
He sees him later that night, Johnny, through the gap in the curtains in the front parlor window. He's looking outside. Donghyuck just happens to be looking in, and they see each other. Only he's different once again. No longer young, no longer the salary clerk, or the rising artist, or the concert pianist who travels the world, he is none of those things, and all of them. He's old. Terribly old, with all his life behind him and too many memories that can never be forgotten. Something about the glaze in his tired, old eyes is haunting. They stare through the glass, seeing Donghyuck, but not seeing anyone. As if everything on the other side of the windowpane is but a wisp, delicate, fragile, either there or not there.
"Donghyuck..." His lips move. He whispers. He sees right through the ghost of Donghyuck standing on the other side. It takes all of Donghyuck's willpower to make him focus, to look at him, really look at him. Johnny startles. "You... I know I've seen you. You're the one who's always here."
"You're the one who never leaves."
"Have you finally come back?"
A knock on the door.
A lover returning home.
How many memories, how many times has Johnny dreamed about Donghyuck, and which one of them is real? Which one of them comes back?
Of course, there is a final memory. Donghyuck, when he wraps his coat around him and turns away from the mirage in the window, smiles for he likes this one the best. For a moment his whole body flickers in and out of existence, like a candle in the wind. Then the wrinkle settles down, the breeze comes to a place of calm. He's walking down the street at night, and a moment later it's daylight and he wears different clothes, a semi-nice pair of pants and shirt that his mother ironed this morning, and he swings a basket with his lunch as he saunters up the steps of a grey brick building on the northeast corner of High Street and Canal. Number 7. He checks the slip of paper in his pocket to reassure himself of the address and knocks on the door.
"Donghyuck?" says a tall lanky man with a handsome smile.
"That's me. I'm your accompanist. The conservatory said you were working on a concerto? Well, I may not be a full orchestra but for now, I can play alongside you until that happens."
Johnny beams, and Donghyuck may just be falling in love. He's twenty-five, born to working-class parents and a dad who worked on the docks. The canal was his life as a child, before he picked himself up, figured out how to get an education, taught himself music by smiling at music teachers, and now here he is. His mom had high hopes for him. She said he was smart enough to do something great with his life, maybe be a politician. Then she changed her mind when he got accepted at the conservatory and said he could probably go for a concert pianist. But Donghyuck... well, life is short, so try to be happy, make the decisions you think you can live with, and call it a day, no?
"Welcome, welcome. And thanks! Please, come in. Are you hungry?"
Maybe in this stage of his life, he'll make a friend that can never be torn asunder. Who knows.
"Starving. Hey, I brought some rolls. Want to eat first? Then I want to hear your piano. I heard it's a beauty!"