On a Monday morning before school, Jimin lay on the floor and tried to die.
Nothing happened, as it never did or would.
At five o’clock sharp, sounded the unbearably high ringing of his alarm. It always did.
By six-thirty he would have the laundry sorted, then himself sorted, and the rice would be cooking on the humming stove.
Seven o’clock, the residents would begin to drift into the main hall to settle on the cushions. Gyeongree would still be sleeping off the night worth of studies, and he would be hoisting his signal flags. Those colorful maritime letters absolutely had to be up every morning, he was sure of it.
After the breakfast, he would make sure Jihyun rode with grandfather Park who was a butcher down at the market and helped them to school most mornings. But it was Jimin’s last year and he had taken a habit of walking to classes and, miraculously, always making it on time even if just half a minute before the bell.
Still it would be enough to hear what Hyejin had to say about her stiff angry mornings and Wheein’s awful habit of staying the night, and always, always about the newspaper.
Every week, in the narrow space reserved for poetry and short writings in the school’s paper, a poem would appear. A three-liner that spoke of a pretty girl with the flags on the hill.
So when he got to the class this busy morning, the poem was there, but seemed worse than usual.
“It’s here again,” Wheein leaned over her desktop, the fluffy tips of her thin braids brushing Jimin’s cheek, “the poem. He still thinks you’re a girl, Jiminie. Wonder who the clown is? How many guys are in the journalism club these days? Four or five or so?”
“Idiot,” when talking to her best friend, Hyejin always let this huff slip. “Anyone could get their scribblings printed there, that’s why,” her eyes narrowed, “the whole school is a suspect.”
Jimin thought that maybe it was time to stop spelling out maritime messages, if this meant not seeing bad poetry anymore. “You still think it’s about me?”
“Seen any other boarding houses on the hill with a flag post full of signal codes lately? It’s you, all right. This stupid little kid, not knowing there is no pretty girl behind it.”
Stupid little kid, Jimin thought of no one in particular that same day, out in the schoolyard, watching the boys kick the sandy ground of the football field. Jimin made busy with his homework because there would be little time at home.
He was watching their games here and there, but there had been that. The rules had been set, unspoken, that Jimin was not to be spoken to. And nobody ever touched him, or bothered with mean words or hurtful pushes. He was just another kid, but the word was that they feared being near him. It amused his friends, and he had many, although none of them boys.
“What’s with Jeongguk today? What’s with you, huh? Can’t see the ball at all.”
There was a sound, a playful scuffle in the dry dirt, and then a burst of laughter.
“Jeonggukkie’s got the creepy shakes,” they seemed to be on a short break, catching their breaths, “on the account of Ladybug over there. Scary, ain’t he? Won’t let you play.”
“You shut up,” came an irritated voice, a little out of breath. Jimin glanced up to see that Jeongguk had one of his friends’ heads in a lock, a frown on his face. “As if you lot aren’t shitting it.”
As soon as Jimin flipped his book shut, all eyes laid upon him. Bizarre, he thought, how intimidated and dismayed they seemed to be for no reason at all. And then something incredible happened. One of them opened his mouth and said, voice shaking with nerves, “What are you staring at?”
As soon as it came, the others buzzed around him with a hush, and kept hissing, dragging him back to the game.
Don’t talk to him. Are you out of your damn mind? What was that, you idiot, you want to die? Better get my aunt over to your house, she’s a mudang, you know.
Jimin watched them moving away, and back at the goalpost stood Jeongguk, completely still, with his school shirt a right mess and hair white with dust.
No words came or sense of anything friendly, and Jeongguk was simply looking, looking, looking. Jimin raised his eyebrows. What was that they and him in particular were so mad about?
Jimin knew of this Jeongguk from the journalism club who was a 2d year and never spilled mean things in Jimin’s presence and only watched, always so odd and unreadable, watched along with his handsome and quietly clever friend – Seokjin was it – who was the head of their club and that also was something Jimin knew from the girls.
And the Jeongguk from the journalism club had been a right pain in his backside for a while, although there had been no reasons or occasions for the two of them to exchange words.
Seeing Jeongguk’s jaw work as if chewing on something, Jimin refused to look away.
The others had been at this routine forever, and Jimin learned to stop trying with those kids, to stop waving and wanting to talk. That mattered little because he was confused at the blank and a little hostile look on Jeongguk’s face. Still he felt himself smile, watching Jeongguk turn away and follow the crowd.
Jimin looked at his lap full of paper and ink. Most curious thing, to be a person of everything and nothing at all.
The boarding house stood like a glossed over shell of everything traditional that mixed with obsessions over English architecture from decades ago. It stood way uphill, almost at the lush-green top, with its hanok part kept away but safely connected to the English side which tall windows and rickety balconies overlooked the port’s hissing greasy life.
The boarding house was rather small for its title, and its insides clean and shiny by Jimin’s and Taeri the housekeeper’s efforts, but as ancient as most of the inhabitants. The old ladies, moderately wealthy for current times, preferred to spend their evenings in the old building, on the polished wooden floors of the main hall. Or play mahjong at the numaru, or by the bubble-like television set in the company of Jimin’s sweetly sad grandmother.
Long before the sunrise, since this month meant humid warmth by as early as seven, Jimin was cooking breakfast for eight.
His toes, tingly and soft in the freshly laundered socks, curled against the chilly kitchen floorboards. It had never been below freezing in winter, in Busan, but Jimin still felt the early memories from another decade; of huddling for warmth in closet-sized plywood spaces meant for two but housing ten, remembered waking up to the cold stiff bodies, old and breathless, in the bleak winter of 1951.
Sometimes he could still smell the rot of human meat while shopping for pork.
Silly boy, came his mother’s distant voice, why can’t you get used to these things? Everyone does.
“Someone’s going to be late,” mocked Jihyun, mid-yawn, shuffling into the small kitchen. “Hyung, and my uniform pants are ruined again,” he added, sitting back on the heels before the table and digging into the meagre breakfast.
“Wait for the noona,” Jimin sighed and blinked at the little yolk sun drowning in the grease of their old cast-iron pan. “It’s not my fault only your things seem to shrink. You think the washing machine’s got something against you?”
“Maybe it’s cursed. Maybe I’m cursed. You think grandmother could ring in Howon’s aunt or something?”
“To what, repulse the evil? Are you five? Why don’t you wake up to the modern age and put that head of yours into studies instead of—whatever it is that you’re doing.”
For a while it was quiet, only the stove hissing and the wet sound of his brother’s chewing.
Jihyun cleared his throat, “Jeonggukkie said—he’s from the journalism club, right? And he must know all of this and that and about,” he weighed in an odd pause. “Jeonggukkie said that some – a bunch of guys – call you things.”
Call me after all your old fishermen's wives tales, whatever, Jimin thought.
He had been an outgoing and diligent student but only chose to spend his school hours around those girls, like a friend would, and that thing for some reason didn’t sit right with the folk’s Confucian values.
“Those things bother you?” At Jihyun’s look of slow bafflement Jimin had to pause before letting out a soft sigh. “Being the brother to a folk horror?”
“Not exactly,” his eyes were shy, gaze sticking to the spoon, the overcooked rice. “But don’t you have guy friends at all?”
“I’ve got you and that’s enough.”
“But girls are—” And he couldn’t finish, as it always happened whenever he struggled to make up his mind.
“Tell you what,” Jimin slid the outer door open, stood and knelt once more on the veranda. He bent down to pick up the worn-out shoes of soft imitation leather, “That Jeonggukkie from the journalism club should challenge these important problems of evil spirit possession in local Seniors through writing. Not through bad mouthing.”
“They say those things, I think,” Jihyun sounded more sure now, “because they’re jealous. You’re not their friend and they don’t understand why.”
“Funny thing,” Jimin bubbled up with soft laughter, “that they can’t get that people should work for it.” That look on his brother’s face again, asking for more words, the look Jimin quietly appreciated. Not many people found interest in his inner affairs. “Because, Jihyunie, I’ve had enough of empty efforts.”
Now facing the garden, his legs dangling from the veranda and just shy above the dry ground, Jimin felt his chest begin to fill with the wet air and the sea, and thought of no lazy schoolboys who couldn’t be bothered with decency, or lonely spaces that crawled with ancient people, and thought only of what that bottom of the ocean might feel like for someone’s back.
It was an early-spring noon the first time they touched.
It was out back in the school’s yard by the old pond, right after Jeongguk had jumped off the rooftop, having slided off the eaves and into the murky moss-green water.
There they were that odd clicking noon, Wheein with Hyejin and Yewon, Jimin by their side, chatting idly over dosirak that Jimin still needed to learn how not to soil completely.
“How swell,” said Wheein, watching Jeonggukkie from the journalism club go down with a rich splash. “It is, right? Swell.”
“Stupid,” said Jimin and stood up to the hush of the crowded schoolyard. What compelled him to rush to the pool’s lip, what pushed to feel for that dumb boy’s hand under the gooey water, what ever, ever–
“Hey,” was the first thing breathed into Jimin’s face by a grinning and completely wet through Jeongguk. And then he added, after having been pulled out of the water and to his feet which were squelching inside the dirtied shoes, “Swell.”
Jimin leaned out to watch the face before him, a boyish face that was breaking out but also smiling from under the litter of minute scratches. There was this unsettling self-satisfied sort of grin, and Jimin moved away.
Right then, as their hands were still locked, some other little character from the journalism club took a picture. The picture would be of Jeongguk’s beaming face, his and Jimin’s hands clutched together, and the winded up students around them, all of which rightfully pissed Jimin off all of a sudden.
That attitude, he thought, scoffing and finally stalking off and back to the table, is what’s always gotten stupid kids hurt and stupid grown ups disappear.
“You don’t think that’s swell,” Hyejin looked at his displeased face which he was actively stuffing with rice. “What was that?”
“Stupid, that’s all. These things—things like that make people forget.”
“About what?” Said Wheein to her dainty hands and the little box with overcooked rice. “You’re too serious for your lettuce age, Jiminie. Here, have a pickle.”
As he chewed on the pickle and reflected on his existence, maybe resembling a puffed up dazed pigeon while at it, Yewon’s voice drifted closer. “He’s watching you,” she whispered, leaning her non-existent weight on his shoulder and observing something behind his back.
“Staring,” Hyejin poked her soggy pickled tomato, pale-green and sour, until the juice shot right into her eye.
“Studying,” Wheein was struggling with her uniform’s scarf.
“Ah, silly cow,” wiping her tomato-juiced hands on Wheein’s skirt, Hyejin shook her head. Then leaned in to help with the tying.
“Taking after you.” A little louder, Wheein added, “But the way he’s glaring… one would think Jiminie was a math problem.”
“Must be a lot of hate in his glaring then.”
“You know, he came from Dongducheon, him and his mother,” it appeared Hyejin decided to gossip.
“So what, Jeolla girl?” sighed Wheein and flicked her friend on the temple. “I think at this point Jiminie and Yewonie are the only Busan kids in the entire damn school.” She was playing some kind of ball game with her banchan now. “Imagine if this remained the capital.”
“That wouldn’t be good,” said Yewon. “We still have all the same Eight Army trinkets and all that nonsense anyways.”
“I only mean,” Hyejin didn’t look very interested in the public entertainment discourse, “that it’s weird how a fisherman’s son comes from a kijichon that’s got no sea to fish at.”
“Why are we talking about this?”
“To give you hives, Jiminie.”
“It’s this way,” the tilt in Yewon’s voice spoke of nerves just as the tight grip of her little hand over Jimin’s, as she dragged him to the school newspaper’s makeshift editorial office despite his endless protests. “Just one signature, Jiminie. It’s for a friend.”
“Sure it is.”
He could only sigh, resentful, at the prospect of standing there in the cluttered dusty space, watching Yewon ask Jeon Jeongguk to sign a photograph of that fateful supply-building-roof-jump a week ago.
Two polite knocks on the door and they were standing before Kim Seokjin’s curious eyes, the editor having just stopped mid-sentence and now studying them over someone’s hunched shoulders.
“Can I help you?” Seokjin adjusted his glasses.
Yewon bowed just a little and suddenly lost all that was barely courageous.
“Yewonie here,” he gently led her to the table, “had a thing to ask.”
She seemed to breathe better in Seokjin’s easiness and finally said, “I wondered if Jeongguk-oppa could sign this—your picture?”
From this angle Jeongguk’s profile was clear, something off about his expression at the request, Jimin could see.
“Sign the picture, Jeongguk. Your heroism is nation-wide,” the way of Seokjin’s speaking was entirely Gyeonggi but even and a little mischievous. “Anything else?”
“The student director said I should speak with Kim Seokjin-ssi if I wanted to join a club,” she said and, to Jimin’s infinite amazement, blushed.
It took only a moment, the signing and the sighing, Yewon’s bright eyes changing to that sated look of a sibling watching their big brother become something exceptional. But Jimin could see Jeongguk’s face and all the unease of the universe reflected there. He could also see something flicking across Seokjin’s expression, from thoughtful to quietly pleased, as the editor glanced between Jeongguk’s still fingers, Yewon’s innocent smile, and Jimin who was only another kid standing there, leaning against the bookcase. His sweaty hands were hidden in his pockets, covered by the untucked starched shirt.
“Jimin-ah,” Seokjin nodded at the paperheap that had been laid out in manifold on the scratched wood, “could you help Jeonggukkie here with the next week’s issue?”
“Any reason why I should?”
"We’re already late and there’s so much to do,” those eyes studying him from behind the thick lenses. “You’ve got pretty handwriting—”
“So does he—”
“—and you’ve got a physics test so soon, so soon. And we,” he leaned closer to the cluttered windowsill and fished out a stack of yellowed paper, “we’ve got the predictions. Teacher Choi, right? I’ve studied his test over the years, charted out a little could be, might be something.”
To his right, he heard Yewon’s excited gasp, even though she had nothing to do with his year, and felt himself giving in. He was sort of fine with physics, but just barely. Great is what he was at math.
“Why would I trust you?”
“Because I am very trustworthy and, if that could be possible, just as likeable an individual,” Seokjin’s smile was contagious. “And so are you. But you need the predictions, I imagine.”
If Jimin could uphold his politeness before, now he only wanted to scoff. He did. Then he looked at Jeongguk whose face was completely closed off. Something then made Seokjin move away and off the tabletop, offer his hand to Yewon with a promise to escort her to any club’s residence should she so desire.
“Ever so grateful, Jimin-ah,” Seokjin smiled on his way out. The door clicked shut.
“She is fourteen, what would she need with clubs?” Jeongguk told his stencils. His fists were clenched tight, and Jimin wondered just how much it was taking the boy to tolerate this moment.
“And you must be older by a decade, huh?” There was no particular irritation or anger to him now, but Jimin felt restless still. “You can’t stand me this much – fine, but don’t do bad with her.”
They started with the new task in strained silence.
To Jimin’s surprise, they still managed to work in peace, both quiet and diligent, perhaps determined to finish with what was beginning to feel like silent torture. Only the distant noise of afterschool life coming with the warm wind through the window and tangled curtains, the heavy sounds of Jeongguk’s work at the press, all that shifting and clanging and scraping gear. Then there was the faint scribble coming from Jimin’s hand. It was true that his handwriting was neat and paper-worthy but hours of slow and careful calligraphy were starting to take a toll on his wrist.
Only one section to go, he calmed himself, itching in his damp shirt, messing up his hair that so desperately needed a cut.
The poetry section, again, and another sentimental thing of three lines and a lot of sentimental snivelling. Stupid little kid, he remembered Hyejin’s words, and laughed.
“In a season of calm tides,” he read out loud, voice scratchy with disuse, “above the meadow and hill, the girl’s colors hoisted high, fluttering home in me, in shivers. This isn’t really a sijo.”
Jimin finished writing out the poem’s last column. “Hell, this guy is filthy. But doesn’t know there is no girl, poor kid. What a waste,” his fingers gently touched the sheet’s corners. “Done here.”
Before he could gather himself and finally leave this paper-soaked dusty hell, a new pressure on his back appeared. Warm breath tickling his temple but the sensation cool over his perspired skin, warm body too close to his. He could see Jeongguk’s hands on either side of the last page that was left drying, could feel this tension strike high throughout.
“Maybe he knows,” said Jeongguk, as if from a distance. “Maybe it’s just something nice to imagine.”
“Must be a romantic then. Not very smart,” Jimin put down the pen, rubbed at the inky tips of his fingers.
“You could see those flags from the water,” his voice so quiet now, his breath stirring Jimin’s hair faintly. “Whoever puts them up is a bigger romantic than this idiot.”
“That’s right,” Jimin told him, closing his eyes to a faint smell of something sweet and calm. “The biggest idiot.”
He paused and it there it was again, so clear, so stupid in his mind, the loneliness of being himself. Just this once, he let it out in words, “All of you… why can’t you stand me?”
It was then that Jeongguk finally moved away, eyes wide and lost, and met Jimin’s calm gaze. But he remained silent.
Instead of waiting for things that weren’t coming, Jimin glanced at the clock face, half-hidden behind the withered plant that collected dust atop the bookcase, and gasped.
He had to run, there was so much to do, Taeri was already off her shift at the boarding house, and grandma Kim needed assistance, and Gyeongree had promised to teach him something new of her medical studies, but here he was worrying over some rude boy, wanting useless things, building nothing out of nothing.
He picked up his bag and made a fuss of tucking his shirt behind the belt. “So long,” he pushed past Jeongguk and to the door.
Pushing the rusty handle, he heard Jeongguk let out a heavy breath.
The air was hot over the chalk-like expanse of the football field, and Jimin watched a human circle form around the quiet boy who looked very scared in his idle laying on the ground. His uniform dusty with white, the boy was waiting at their feet, for another word or kick, just waiting and waiting.
Jimin closed his book. Something snapped so deep within him, pushed him closer to the ugly scene. “Having fun, Hyunwoo?”
Every head turned to him then, all their grinning gone in a second. All of them were smoking, maybe believing it made them look fancy as shit. “Get off my case, Park,” said Hyunwoo and it was the first time they talked.
“What case is that?” It was eerie, almost comforting, watching them change shades in the face, some paler now, deeply anxious at the sight of him. “You need something from him, Hyunwoo?” Silence, more coughing. “Can’t you speak?”
“The test next week,” he finally grumbled and crushed the cigarette under his shoe.
Jimin rummaged through his bag, under this dumb collective scrutiny, until a stack of old perforated cards was procured and flew directly into the leader’s face. “Here,” Jimin said, clicking his bag shut, “predictions. Nobody has the answers, Hyunwoo, because for that you’d need the questions.”
The boy in the dust was unmoving, his eyes like saucers, waiting for the fire to burst out and swallow him whole. But then the crowd shifted in silence after the leader’s reluctant nod, five pairs of legs scuffing past Jimin, shoulders pushing against his. He felt cold fingers brush his nose, Hyunwoo’s fingers, snatching his glasses off and burying the thick frames under the shoe’s heel. It cracked, making Jimin wince to the now blurry world.
“Stick with your wet chickens,” Hyunwoo meant all Jimin’s girls, surely trying to hurt him while scared to touch, but none of those words mattered.
After a short fumble in the dust, Jimin could put the frames back on and was able to see again through the cracked glass, his world now askew, and he could also see the deserted field. The bullied boy was gone.
“Lovely,” he sighed to nobody at all.
“Lovely,” was the first thing to come out of Seokjin’s displeased mouth at the sight of him.
They’d ran into one another outside the main entrance and Seokjin surprised him with the sudden touch and visible worry. He’d insisted Jimin come to the office and get his frames fixed, if for the time being, with the tape and glue they had there in abundance.
And now Jimin was standing there, waiting, feeling discomfort settle in his skin as he was so heavily scrutinized by Jeongguk from the corner.
“Did they want anything?” Seokjin always appeared so easy, it was startling.
Jimin took off the hat just to fill his hands with something. “Only the tests.”
“I’m surprised they had the balls,” Jeongguk suddenly spoke from the press.
Jimin remained silent. He didn’t much care for the meaning of that.
Seokjin finished with the glasses. “My uncle has this friend, an optician fella,” Jimin blinked at him through the cobweb in the glass, feeling the frames sit straighter now. “Write your prescription and I’ll see to it.”
After some staring at the offered piece of paper, Jimin did as asked.
“Lovely,” Seokjin smiled and turned back to his work, saying nothing more.
When Jimin chanced a glance to the corner, Jeongguk looked away. He couldn’t seem to meet Jimin’s eyes at all. All of you, Jimin thought and felt almost bored, why can’t you stand me?
Jimin walked home, having missed the electrician’s three-wheeler, another kind neighbor who’d often give him lifts. He still liked walking but there were days when all this observing the narrow one-storied streets made his mind ill.
Ten years ago, that street to his right where they were burning the rubber was all plywood and cardboard with bodies like twigs, disease-infested and water-hungry. He remembered buying dried pieces of driftwood off the homeless refugees for his family, their one-room house.
Maybe he’d been standing in place for some time, he wasn’t sure, but right as he resumed moving up the dry dirt of the un-paved street, a bicycle sped past him and down to the quay. A hush of tires and the quiet-scrapping of the chain.
The bicycle was now following him.
“Hyung,” Jeongguk’s face was obscured by the fading sunlight behind his back. “Need a lift?”
“You hardly know me, Jeonggukkie from the journalism club,” Jimin glanced sideways, catching the slightest bit of nerves in the boy’s hunched up posture.
“One lift could fix that, right?”
“Little birdie tells me I’m not the sort of guy anyone wants to know that well.”
“That’s not right. Park Jiminie-hyung,” there was something utterly shy in his drawl, “is a big personality in our parts.”
At that Jimin startled himself laughing. A look at Jeongguk’s face, flushed under the sheen of sweat, and big eyes so eager and honest, and Jimin had to stop in his tracks, the move almost jostling Jeongguk out of his seat.
“So big a person that you’re making friends with me after school where no swell friend of yours could see,” Jimin felt himself smiling, hesitant but warm.
“Of course. They’d get so jealous,” he giggled, very dumbly, and then looked at his hands that kept fidgeting with the bell. “But they’re only confused why you won’t—they don’t have the balls to make friends with you.”
“And you do?” Jimin bared his teeth, squinting against the deep red of the late sun, and felt his ears ring because of the clear sound coming from under Jeongguk’s fingers. Ttaleulenung, ttaleulenung.
“A day like that,” Jeongguk finally left the bell in peace, “made me get some and other.”
Jimin moved, around the front wheel and to the other side, so he could watch Jeongguk’s expression all open and proper, watch for any shadows of malice or anything rotten at all. It was endearing how the boy could barely meet his eyes in that direct way but still did, making it so much easier to be sure. And Jimin was kind of that – more sure and a lot more confused.
Only one year below him, Jeongguk was thin in frame where Jimin was sturdy, and he was interesting in the ways that would catch any girl’s eye, while nothing of Jimin’s ever would. Somehow it still did, apparently, to Jimin’s confusion from occasional confessions that Yewon sometimes passed him from the shy girls of her year.
Confusing was what Jeongguk appeared to be, but thoroughly innocent with his curious eyes and dark hair hidden by the uniform’s hat, only bangs messed up by the wind.
“I’m fine being the school’s evil spirit. But all right,” Jimin finally said and climbed on to ride pillion, to the bright light of Jeongguk’s smile and the tug around his own mouth. “My house is at the top of the hill. You can try, big guy.”
He listened to the loud splashing that Hyejin’s quick hands made of doing the laundry right there in the sea, knee-deep in water, just beating the bloodied clothes under the old pier. The wooden post was slick with seaweed where Jimin was leaning, watching her and holding a laundry basket full of wet clothes.
“When will you start using our washing machine?”
“I like to beat something up now and then,” she said, wringing out the skirt with all the power she could muster. Her tanned arms glowed with the strain. “Told you, we have our own, I just don’t like the way the nuns look at me during my laundry duty.”
He remembered the vat in their old house during the war. They’d washed everything there, their bodies and dishes. Next to the vat, a glass jar filled with the mix of washing soda, soap junk, and some odd honey water that his mother used as a detergent, and a plate of charcoal.
He remembered tiny ants in the water, forming a living floating island, clinging like that to survive. Hyejin had told him that at the orphanage there were no bugs. She’d only joked, saying the nuns could scare off any bug with their faces.
“The last one,” she threw the skirt on top of the laundered heap, the fabric grazing his nose. “Now let’s continue.”
They’d been kissing before, all afternoon, just as they often would whenever Hyejin found herself a new crush and needed a whole lot of kissing practice. She insisted it was more for Jimin’s benefit than hers, skill-wise, and for her it was about pumping back that confidence, all up to the surface.
This new crush of hers was someone embarrassing, Jimin knew by the ways of her kissing. They didn’t do much this time, just her on top of him, weighing him down into the wet sand, as she kissed him deep and slow, almost loving. “Who’s the guy?” Jimin asked when they broke off for a breath. “You’re so weird this time.”
“Can’t tell you,” she rolled off and looked up at the moulded wood of the pier. “You ever think how in this country everyone goes about gasping and making horrified faces at the slightest idea of improper things, even though it’s all natural, but everyone and their mother been always nasty since they hit, what, middle school age? I’m talking every generation. Have you seen those old ‘classic’ epics? Incredible filth. What values do they even talk about to us?”
“I don’t really care,” he felt her fingers thrumming against his thigh. “But I get the point.”
“You wanna go once?” She threw her leg over his stomach, giving one smooth roll of her entire body against his.
“But you don’t really like doing it outside,” Jimin held her by the hips.
“Well, I’m only doing it with you,” she wiggled her eyebrows, “so let's bring in some variety through… location?”
“That’s—what’s with you, honestly?”
“Ah, a lot on my mind. Graduation, money, nasty nuns, this and that,” she put her head on his chest, her black ponytail dripping seawater on his shirt. “That stupid boy now too.”
Jimin thought of all the stupid boys she had hurt over. Of the time he and Hyejin met, his first day under the flimsy tent of one of the open primary schools. Her and Wheein had made friends earlier, during the impossible half-legal drag child refugees had to go through, and they’d stuck together, even though Wheein’s aunt suddenly made herself known, and Hyejin ended up at the cluttered child’s home.
Their class counted up to almost a hundred of stray kids, all coming from all over the country, and it was just sheer luck that they had a tent and not the naked sky above their heads. Hyejin had taken his hand that first day, saying they were to be friends for five hundred years and then another half a century because arithmetics had always been her strongest suit.
“You like him that much, huh?”
“Don’t mock me,” she scoffed into the crook of his neck. “When you get yourself neck-deep in shit like that, I’ll mock you until you choke, you nasty boy.”
“You choke me enough as it is, little pervert.”
They kept talking while making a mess on the beach, and Hyejin could not shut up of the values and pure women, just laughing while riding him and being very loud. Wiping his release off her stomach, she told him she could never see herself as someone having kids.
Later he saw her off to the home’s steps, wishing her luck with the new boy, and hoping he wouldn't have to see her cry again.
His legs aching from the long day, his hair and temples quickly damping with sweat, Jimin was rushing down the hill with a bag and only ten minutes at his disposal before the meat vendor would close.
The sun was setting.
Taeri had forgotten to buy pork for the special dinner. And when Jimin, one hand holding a cupful of rice over the heavy pot, had found out about this, Jihyun had conveniently vanished. Just his luck – Gyeongree had returned from her practice and offered to see to the rice preparation and vegetables that needed cutting.
Now he was running and red in the face, knowing he wouldn’t make it, and that grandma Kim’s anniversary would be ruined.
He struggled to stop his running. There was deep-red sunlight in his eyes and the flaking paint of Jeongguk’s red bike gleaming under it. “Hyung. Where’s the fire?”
“At the market,” the burn in his lungs was becoming much clearer now, “at Park’s chops. Need me some pork or they tell me they’ll starve and die, and all I’ll be left to do is hang myself off our cherry tree. Ah, shit.”
“Well, that doesn’t sound good,” Jeongguk made some re-arrangements at the rusty grid of a seat behind him. “Let’s go.”
The wood and paper of houses, some small and halfway in the ground, some so shiny new it hurt the eyes, rushed past them. Wooden telephone poles flicked by, and by, and by. His frame vibrated from the ruined road under the wheels, his vision fogged in the red fading heat.
The bicycle seemed to be flying, so fast Jeongguk was pedalling, and every bump made Jimin swallow a hiccup. The air began to fill with smell, just too many smells at once over the lingering stench of countryside that still was the essence of Busan; warm spicy clouds of bad street food hit, and sharper sensations that the rotting fish gave off, something that would have made an inland visitor sick to their stomach.
The clatter and gurgle of voices were now filling his ears. They made it.
“So late, Jiminie,” said grandfather Park and wiped his hands on the dark apron. “The usual?”
Jimin nodded and counted the hwan coins in his hand. He turned to the adjacent stand where a tired woman was busy frowning over unsold fish cakes. The look of them left much to be desired, but all food still felt like a dream compared to rice that crawled with maggots or “pig’s soup” that used to be a treat a long time ago and was made out of whatever edible garbage people found near foreign military bases.
Those fish cakes looked downright magical. “Two of those, please.”
He paid and looked around. Jeongguk had moved down the street, closer to the intersection, one of those roads leading to the sea. He frowned at the skewed fish cake that was being waved in front of his nose. “For the ride,” Jimin explained. “Eat well.”
The stench of rotting flesh cluttered his nose, stirring old things in his gut, and he suddenly needed to be very far from here. He was so sick of being like this he needed to vomit. “I need to go,” he said.
“Wait,” Jeongguk told him and bit into the oil-soaked cake. He was an eager eater, working through the treat so fast Jimin only had to blink to see the food gone. “Climb on.”
And they were riding again, to the intersection and down the road, all seven ways to the sundown. “You looked unwell,” Jeongguk shouted over the wind, turning his head just slightly when he spoke.
“It’s the flies,” Jimin had to move so that their bodies were pressed together. “I’m someone stupid who feels stupid things.” Why was he so stupid, with a memory so vivid and important, so affected by these things still? He hoped Jeongguk hadn’t heard him.
Down at the quay, they sat on a rope as if it were a swing, and watched the late ships drift by in a clatter of smoke and iron-heavy noise.
“Why were you up there, if you live across the harbor?” Jimin asked as he watched the distant lights glimmer against the darkening sky, blinked at their reflections in the calm sea.
It took a moment of silence in which Jimin could feel Jeongguk shift and not really breathe.
“I—there was no—” Jeongguk turned, away from the water, to look for something at the top of the hill. Jimin followed the line and could only see the hill’s greens and the faded tilling of the rooftop – his boarding house – a gull landing on the empty flagpost. “There was no curry powder at our market. Mother said her friend over here always had some.”
They kept silent, watching each other in the quiet wash of air, in the salt of a late spring evening.
“You’d better go now then,” Jimin said, unblinking. “It’s late.” What exactly was his deal, sitting here while Gyeongree cooked the dinner for eight and no meat at her hand?
“What about you?”
“It isn’t a bother, I can take us back up hill—”
“Your mother will worry,” Jimin said. They raised to their feet and moved closer to where Jeongguk had left the bicycle.
“She won’t,” the sound of that rang so familiar. “I could stay the night?”
“No manners in you, Jeon Jeongguk. No respect. For shame,” Jimin was glad to earn a smile for himself like that. “Go home. I’ll walk.”
Just then his hands felt warmer, his skin dancing with tingles as if he were a walking anthill, because Jeongguk had done something, had reached out and clasped Jimin’s hands in his, and was holding on tight. The hands were rough, just as Jimin’s from the house work, just as Jeongguk’s tiny thorn of a character that appeared so on the first glance or touch.
Jeongguk pressed their hands to his nervous and hardened stomach. Jimin felt it through the coarse fabric of the school jacket. “Safe trip,” Jimin told him and then watched him ride away.
Jimin looked at his hands, rolled up one sleeve to see the minute hairs stand up on his arm. It tingled.
“Tugboats make your insides go jelly,” Jeongguk said, because his uncle owned a tugboat and helped him and his bicycle across the harbor every school morning. “Engine’s like a big bug.”
They rode together every afterschool evening, along the seafront and then up the hill, and had been riding forever, which was to say, for four weeks. Sometimes Jeongguk chased the streetcars, crossing the tram rails right before the drivers’ noses, and laughing at their incessant bell ringing. Sometimes they talked a whole lot and often they said nothing at all, riding in the subtropical warmth and hearing the hush of waves at the shore.
“We should see that new movie,” Jeongguk whined every Saturday noon after classes. It was almost always some foreign adult movie, and those erotica things played at illegal places that were near impossible to get into watching at their age.
“You’re a nasty boy,” Jimin told him.
“I love loud things. Wanna go see a game? Or take a ride on the tugboat?”
But they never did.
Most of the time they shared words, little by little, in between the buildings, the people, dirt under the tires. Jimin observed that Jeongguk talked little at school but was vocal and silly in the comfort of his club’s friends. And here with him, Jeongguk was sixteen and curious about all and everything, but talking slower, always like it was the only time that mattered.
Somehow it flowed up to form a routine, the rides and the talks, which eventually led to Jeongguk observing the wallpaper print of Jimin and Jihyun’s room, the pictures littering the walls.
“Your house is pretty. The residents are nice.”
Jimin said the house used to be a hospital, decades ago, long before they moved here. He thought that Gyeongree almost being a proper doctor now was somewhat amusing in the context of these walls.
“Is that your father?” Jeongguk looked very interested in one of the pictures, a faded image of one sepia couple. “Is he a doctor?”
“He was a sailor. On a warship.” Jimin could feel the stare on him, with his entire skin, and refused to look anywhere but the fluttering flags outside his thinly curtained window. “He taught me the signals.”
“Marrying a sailor, your mother must be very patient.”
“She was a math teacher. I didn’t know her well,” Jimin patted the duvet beside him, inviting Jeongguk to get comfortable on the sleeping mat.
“Is she—” Jeongguk was close now with his entire air reluctant about every single thing at once.
“You know what they called soldiers’ widows, don’t you?” He waited for a nod.
She was no virtuous mother in people’s eyes, even though she felt like one, for a while, but he barely remembered.
“The rumors and gossip and uglier things followed her everywhere, because… isn’t that a tradition? Ridiculous.”
Ap’ure kol, a modern woman, amoral woman, one without honor, and further down to the red lights. Why was it that war widows were treated no better than comfort women, and the comfort women were treated like no human should be?
“One night she was just gone. We woke up to nothing.” He thought of the other mimagin, their grandmother Kim being one. “Some of mother’s friends, fishermen’s widows, they weren’t being bothered much.”
Jeongguk was fidgeting with the thinning cover, “My mother is like that.” His smile never faltered. “She had a bad dream before father’s last fishing trip. Other women in our neighborhood had those dreams too. They begged men not to go but who listens to that anymore? It was September, so a storm had been promised, but—not the typhoon.”
Those days of withered September four years ago, after typhoon Sarah had raged over their shores and the flood had subsided, Jimin had walked the flatline that had been made of the shore’s suburbs, and he’d seen women crying for their sons at the sea, for the homes they’d lost again, and seen American soldiers being very angry at his “God forsaken” country’s climate for bringing loss to their bases.
It felt like ages ago but he remembered that the damaged port had reminded him of a rusty corpse.
Jimin sensed this new weight that urged and urged to touch and soothe the boy next to him. He reached out, let his hand smooth over Jeongguk’s hair. Jimin felt him shiver.
“They never found the bodies, of course.”
“He wasn’t my real father,” Jeongguk said suddenly. Why would he? But he didn’t sound bothered in the slightest. Jimin remembered Hyejin’s words that day after the roof incident. “We all kind of pretended he was. I was fine with that.”
“Four years ago,” Jimin watched with fascination how a boy could melt into something more cat-like under warm human touch, “your father went into that?”
“Sometimes I think he did it on purpose. Does it make him a bad person?”
“Maybe. Just you wait, you and I will be exactly the same.”
“I don’t want to be bad,” Jeongguk leaned in and then down, down until his head laid heavy in Jimin’s lap.
“There’s a choice. Your words, you have the balls,” Jeongguk’s whole body shook with laughter, making Jimin catch onto it, “the balls, all the balls to be better. Don’t go around dying, or don’t drop out, or get expelled, or follow these bad ideas, and—are you going anywhere after graduation?”
“Hyung will be back by then, with the money. We might move back… or to Seoul. Find me a place there.”
“Wanna do humanities?”
“I think so. I hope I can get into Kookmin. Eventually.”
“The way the things are now, you’ll only need the money.” It was a pleasant feeling, conjuring up an image of a successful topical journalist Jeon Jeongguk, being his hot-headed self in the capital. “I still have time to teach you some manners, then,” Jimin bent a little, enough to let out a whiff of air into Jeongguk’s face. He watched the boy’s eyelashes flutter, eyelids falling shut. “I’m out this winter, and then there’s a whole year until you’re done.”
“Aren’t you applying anywhere?”
“I can’t do that. With the house and my tiny ladies.” Before Jeongguk could speak up, Jimin added, “It’s no burden. I like it. I’m fine like that.”
“Don’t you want to be someone?”
“Aren’t I someone?” The slightest traces of annoyance on Jeongguk’s face made him laugh again. “I’ve wanted to be a doctor. For a while now. But it’s too late, you should think about these things as early as middle school. And maybe it’s just Gyeongree-noona and her talent playing up the dream.”
Sure thing, he’d thought about the vague future. A temp job that wouldn’t require higher schooling, for example. He could take up tutoring, particularly with the older generation who would wish to entertain the idea of reading and writing, and he could tutor a lot of dropout kids, he could teach them in the main hall with grandma Kim—
“You’re already a doctor, sort of.”
“How do you mean?” Jimin frowned.
But Jeongguk only shrugged and left it like that, hanging between them, maybe from his lacking in spoken word or some other way of taunting.
“You’re weird,” Jeongguk finally said. “I like it.”
Jimin was fine with that.
Real June brought real mid-term test results, more post-curriculum work and even more so for the kids who would be re-taking the year’s course. But Jimin did all right, just enough to be comfortably heading towards graduation, while Jihyun dragged just a few sad points below Jeongguk’s results in their shared second year.
Amid all of that, came the quiet announcement of Gyeongree moving out to meet her fate as a green-horned therapist. It would be at the worst little clinic one could imagine residents usually were destined for.
Something good came out of this too, for Jimin, because Jeongguk was allowed to stay the night after Gyeongree’s good-bye party. The dinner was a loud and cheery affair of opinionated university graduates, Gyeongree’s closest classmates and future fellow residents. It had a sustainable amount of drinks and no place for high school kids after the main course. Though Jimin helped them take a group picture. The smiles gleamed under the evenings sun like squeaky-clean glass that could be just as annoying if touched with nails.
Later, he knelt in front of his grandmother, going through the last month’s accounts, and un-thinking of anything that had to do with immediate future.
“You seem more tired,” she said after the books had been closed and done with. “It will be less work with fewer people.”
“With so many people it’s not as lonely.”
“Tell me what’s really on your mind,” she waited with no tension to it. “Is there maybe someone on your mind?” Just before he could throw a polite tantrum, or half-a-lie about his father, she cut in, “Could it be someone in your class?”
Jimin looked away and out the narrow latticework windows of his grandmother’s hanok retreat. “Well, not exactly.”
“Tell me about her. Do you—what do you kids call it—have any feelings?”
Jimin was reluctant. “It’s not making me feel so good.”
He thought some more. “She smells nice. Is that funny?”
He thought of the wet wind making wasps nest of his hair, the sweet and comforting smell next to him when he leaned closer to shout something over the street noise as the bicycle sped past the paper houses and rotten markets and loud cars.
“I smile differently, I think. Not like here. I’m sorry,” he bowed just barely, straightened, and felt her fingertips faintly touch the back of his bent-down head.
“How do you think you smile here?”
“Like this is a hospital and we all are walking syndromes,” he dared to look at his always sweetly sad grandmother. “With a house full of people, I’m never lonely,” he reminded her.
She sat, unmoving, in her fine old hanbok that was only meant for celebrations.
Jimin sucked in a breath, “Sometimes I just want to be alone.”
Oddly, she began to laugh. “There is a saying for when two people share the feeling and decide to be together. ‘Let's live on the mountain alone.’ Always found it silly. Another one goes, ‘Let’s smile together.’” It was always like that with her, the calm melodious voice and softer syllables. “You can be alone like that too. And maybe that’s why you smile differently.”
That night he could hear Jeongguk’s heartbeat so close to his own, over Jihyun’s quiet snores and the distant choir of dogs barking out their usual grating song.
The feeling made him nervous but more than that – it made him calm, and he fell into a dream where he smiled like he was someone’s.
“We moved just before the armistice,” his washed out trousers rolled up, Jeongguk splashed his feet in the water. They found a place by the shore so clean and quiet where water was a soft green and with little trace of harbor’s oil. “All I remember after that – mother was always angry. Or maybe upset. At father being like that. At uncle and my hyung and at the world. And hyung was all about the war. Like, full of boils. Even angry at me riding sometimes,” Jeongguk splashed about. “I hurt my leg once, fell off the bicycle. See, one is now longer than the other?”
Jimin leaned to look but couldn’t see the difference at all. “The fish are cleaning your feet.”
“They’re tickling me,” Jeongguk huffed. He looked pleased, with his smiling face and all that bad youthful skin glowing under the afternoon sun.
“Be careful nothing pulls you under.”
Jeongguk’s head was often in his lap, but today Jimin’s ear was pressed close to the other boy’s thigh, almost hearing the tendons move and work, or so Jimin liked to imagine. “Tell me of your hyung," he said and waited.
“I keep forgetting him. Everyone talked a lot—oh was there a lot of talk, words like ‘reparations’, and war responsibility but I think mother was only happy he’d come back alive. He was sick of the seaside so he left. Mother often cried and said we should’ve stayed inland.”
“Wheein’s aunt talks the same. That they should leave. Help re-build the countryside. She talked a lot more after the typhoon. Didn’t you think the same during that flood?”
“What about you?”
“I don’t know any other place.”
And here, now, was that feeling of a knot coming undone, the lonely hot thing that had been pulling at all his strings, from between the shoulderblades. It had been there forever or maybe since that day he had suddenly decided to forget of his being only a child.
“It’s better now, I think,” Jeongguk told him, fingers dirty as coal carding through Jimin’s black hair. “Did you hear the song yesterday morning?”
The week after a certain morning at the boarding house, in which Jeongguk had learned up close of the fast schedule of Jimin’s life, the first song had appeared.
It had been the early morning Munhwa Radio show that aired a short section reserved for listeners’ requests, made so by a phonecall or a letter, and Jimin had been rinsing the hard rice before setting it to be cooked.
“Mr Han wishes his wife a very happy birthday from his trip overseas with 'Innocence at 19' performed by Lee Mija. An elegy queen for a joyous occasion. And after that we’ll listen to a phone request mysteriously addressed to ‘the Ladybug who works too much.’”
The cup had sent a splash in its fall, stainless steel clanking at the skillet’s edge. Jimin had stared at his hand, his fingers buried underwater, under the rice, and laughed. “Idiot,” he had sighed, feeling his cheeks begin to hurt.
He’d spoken nothing of the incident that day, hoping it was an accident, an impossible coincidence, but there had it all been in Jeongguk’s eager eyes, something harmlessly smug and endearing to the full.
After that, every white morning of his had come with songs through the radio static.
“Sure I heard the song. ‘I Look Up As I Walk’?” Was there even a point to request something that never stopped playing? “Ah, what to do with your choices, Jeonggukkie.”
“Put up with me and spoil me lots.”
They switched places, Jeongguk feeling tired and eager to rest his head in Jimin’s lap. Out on the pier’s damp boards, watching Jeongguk’s face that was touched by sleep and looked a whole lot like bliss, Jimin thought of his grandmother’s saying.
He smiled, alone, “What do I do with you?”
On this quiet warm summer evening, Jimin’s face was cold.
The two of them were out, to recklessly spend money on a whim.
Instead of lazing about a music listening club, they had gone to see one of those freshly popular “adolescent films” about all that was naive and melodramatic of their generation. Then they had taken a long walk in the buzzing lights and eaten just too much of ice-cream.
Downtown nights were full of spoils, they could be loud and blinding, surfacing the words of white light and white heat to mind.
In the cooler air of Yongdusan park, Jimin felt the old itch in his mind disappear. The place here was green now. When the seedy refugee houses had been burning here not that long ago, the smoke could be seen from the shore, a fitting cloud to the mountain’s name.
“What do you think of the unity?”
Jimin stared at him, suddenly wary, as if to make sure Jeongguk wasn’t playing. What were they ever up to in that debate club?
“We’re not supposed to think of it.”
“How about the General then?”
Jimin was grateful they had the foresight to find a more secluded place on this mountain. “You better learn what shouldn’t be talked of around people.”
“You’re not just anyone.”
Jeongguk spotted a bench in one of the newly built pavilions and immediately sprawled his long-limbed body over it, deeming it now his deck chair. “Come,” he waved over.
Jimin sat in the little space that had been left there. “Grandmother insists we don’t talk or think much of it.”
Jeongguk’s curious face proved to be enough of a push to start talking. It was like a sudden bursting of pipes.
Jimin told him of his grandmother and the things she’d seen. That woman lived through too many changes and lacked the certainty in political views or standing points simply out of the absence of caring; she still called rice manma and sang Glow of a firefly without thinking but remembered every happening after that; the assassinations, the April revolution as well, remembered every song for total unity and the calls of down with Japan, the newer hymns that were now of communist vermin and so on, and on, to infinity.
She no longer cared for whos and whens in those ruling forces and only desired to keep her place and do something about her two children, one future or another.
“But that’s her,” Jeongguk said. “And we are young. Namjoonie-hyung, he’s from the debate club—and he’s from Sudogwon someplace—and he says we are,” he paused just enough to remember the exact wording, “the barefoot youth that should pave the future. Says the generations have never been wider apart.”
“Sounds like a proper kind of wanker,” Jimin raised his eyebrows, mocking Jeongguk’s incredulous expression. “I think he could be right. Doubt you and I will see that though.”
They sat a long time that way, in the dull moonlight, not speaking. Their thighs were touching. “Did you like the movie?”
“Can’t really tell.”
“Maybe it was too sappy? All that boring romancing and kissing and that.” He chewed at the thought. “Hyung, you ever been in love?”
Jimin suddenly felt the same hot prickle from one quiet evening, when he had a certain talk with his grandmother. “Well, not exactly.”
“Tell me,” Jeongguk leaned closer, ever so curious and blunt in his trust.
“It used to not make me feel very good.”
“And now? Are you still—that not exactly?”
Watching the streetlamps glow with dull-orange from behind the evergreens, Jimin thought he could be wrong, so wrong, about his trust and the risk he would be taking. Something terrible might happen, something so untested and private gushing out for Jeongguk to see, and it could hurt a whole lot.
Jimin hummed. “I want to be alone—and not lonely. And it’s all of that—when I’m with the not exactly,” his skull felt so heavy, and he eased his led-laden head on Jeongguk’s shoulder.
“What else?” Jeongguk’s voice didn’t sound like anything.
“I want to smile,” he yawned.
“You smile all the time.”
“I want to smile together,” Jimin rubbed the itch in his cheek on the soft fabric that thinly covered Jeongguk’s shoulders. “Whatever. It’s just a saying.”
He felt his insides begin to burn, could feel them scorch down to hot dirty coals. Another syndrome brought by too much talking. Jimin took a deep breath, “He always smells nice.” Smiled, “That’s an achievement.”
Then he sat slowly back. Jeongguk was looking at him, that intense kind of studying, not frowning or laughing; not sad or happy or hateful, just looking.
“The movie was fine,” Jimin said.
The movie was just the right amount of what wasn’t allowed for them to see. But not enough to get corrupted as the General’s new people. Broadcasting Ethics Committee was doing just fine.
“Doesn’t matter what ‘not exactly’ feels like, Jeongguk. Doesn’t matter what I think of these things.” He was seventeen. He was very stupid and sensitive. “I’m not going to be anyone.”
Jeongguk waited for a moment and then put his arm around Jimin. The weight was warm but Jimin could see that he was sweating all over. Jeongguk leaned closer. Jeongguk kissed him, once, on his closed mouth. Then he hid his face, touched his cold nose to Jimin’s neck.
“You’re joking,” Jimin whispered. He felt the fear of such great intensity, something he hadn’t experienced in years. “Don’t do it like that again.”
There was a long pause. They could as well be listening to the beatings of their hearts, stuck in this daze, disbelieving.
Then Jeongguk started in a whisper, “First time at your house, I looked out of your window. You can’t see the tugboat from there, you know, the usual route my uncle takes. We have our flags—I’d put them up but I stopped replying after the party.”
Jimin’s breath stuttered and stopped, burned in his lungs.
Then Jeongguk made an odd clicking sound and said, “I pray for rain and safe voyages.” His mouth moved against Jimin’s heated skin. “You pray to the Dragon God a lot?”
“I don’t. Just something my grandmother does.”
He wondered what could Jeongguk’s replies could have possibly been all that time he’d missed them. Something stupid, most probably.
“You’re a shit case of poet, Jeongguk.” They suddenly burst out laughing, something closer to hysterical and coming straight from the heavy chests. “I could never get what the hell any of those things meant.”
“I’m working on it,” he leaned away to do his staring thing once again. “But, hyung. I’ve always known there was no girl. Get it?”
Jimin got it just fine but couldn’t quite believe it.
He kept his eyes downcast, only guided by the nervous waves coming off Jeongguk. Jeongguk who had known and had been in a state of his own not exactly, apparently, and Jeongguk who was saying now, “Can you—if you want—can you kiss me?”
“Not like that,” Jimin let his nails trace the other’s nape until he got out a faint ripple of shivers. “You know why.” One way or another, this boy will be the end of him. “Take me swimming. I’ll kiss you then.”
“Don’t swallow too much salt,” he said, but Jeongguk was long gone underwater, deep in a game of timing his breathing.
One of those summer Sundays, they’d gone swimming. Jimin, chest-deep in waves, his back glued to a prickly dark rock, watched Jeongguk splash about nearby.
Long minutes dragged past, in which Jimin just felt soothed to his soaked bones, until Jeongguk finally re-surfaced, sputtering and shaking his head like a wet dog.
“It was five, right?”
“I counted two hundred eighty-seven seconds. Makes you a loser.”
“You couldn’t hold even three minutes.”
“Didn’t say you were a loser to me. To the world, you know?” This got Jimin a nasty splash in the face. “Anyway, don’t you know nobody should ever swim in these places? Seashore cities, all that sewage. All that shit resting on the shelf—”
“Shut up, it’s far enough from that.” Jeongguk groaned. “You wanted swimming—hyung. You shut up.”
“So make me shut up,” Jimin felt that his smiling face in that moment could be described only as a proper kind of wanker.
Head tipped back against the hard rock, he watched, pleased, as Jeongguk slowly advanced. It looked kind of funny until Jimin found himself trapped in place. Jeongguk’s body was warm to his own, in the water that was never really that refreshing in this time of season; Jeongguk stretched out, all of his height and body-length, against Jimin’s, and pressed so close, solid and slick, and the touch of rock against the skin of Jimin’s back began to burn.
The breath was leaving them, little by little, reduced to rare and nervous intakes, making Jimin want all and everything at once. He let his palms draw something soft down Jeongguk’s back, and that was enough for the set-off.
They met halfway, dizzy, so dizzy, but brightly good and hot in the calm rushing of waves.
It tasted a little bad, like seasalt, their lips moving wetly and eagerly, both of them more sloppy and excited than anything else. Jimin opened for him just like that, mouth parting, sighing deep. He remembered these things they got to see, of so many types of touching, and now it felt so weird and curious to use his tongue like that, or sucking on Jeongguk’s, or finding a better way to play with it. Not at all like with Hyejin.
Both of them were giggling, embarrassed. The slow rocking around them made balancing harder, but Jimin reached up, tracing over Jeongguk’s back and threading shaky fingers through the wet hair, to find support and then push their mouths closer. It was silly, how it felt that he couldn’t breathe like that at all, even through his nose, but he just wanted to take it in, all of Jeongguk and deal with nasty salt and awkward tongues.
As they were slowing down, finally breathless, Jimin laughed between soft pecks that were given his lips. They stood a long time this way, foreheads touching, softly opening their mouths again and again to kiss less hurried, until the shivers got too much and their skin was going pruny.
“I like your mouth,” Jeongguk told him on the shore as he lay lazily on dry pebbles, palm over his eyes, hating at the sun. “You feel great.”
Arms over his knees and his chin nestled in the crook of his elbow, Jimin blinked slowly at the tiny white-caps. He hummed, tried to grab at the pebbles with his toes. “We should fuck sometime.”
“Uh,” Jeongguk said. “Yes?”
Jimin shifted, looked over his shoulder at the starfish of a boy behind him. “Something to consider. You and I have read good reviews. ’Cos damn this crap hurts when you don’t beat it. You know?”
“Why are you—” Jeongguk sat up. His hair had dried up in salt like little ropes. “Have you been holding back for about a century?”
“I only have so many options—places, things.” After a long quiet moment, he got up. “And not like that—just, you know, just the touching. That kind of thing. Preferably before the winter. Sound swell?”
“Hey,” he paused. Once he was pulled up to his feet that burned bare over the rock, he added, “Swell.”
The old dreams started again.
“I wish we could talk,” said his mother, and Jimin knew it was a dream.
He tried slapping himself, hoping he could just wake up and never see the bottom of this dried out sea again. The sun was high in the clear sky, the ground parched and cracked where the sea had once existed.
In the distance, he saw a man on the ground, motionless, face buried in the yellow dirt. It gave him shivers.
With each step he felt the fear claw its way back into his lungs. He passed another body, and another. There were many other men now, sleeping, dead, but he couldn’t see who they were. It was all blank, like smoothed out eggs instead of faces. The stench of rotten meat was sticking to his skin and spreading in one slippery gooey sheet.
Something flashed ahead. Red metal of a bike.
Jeongguk stood there, looking right through him. Looking and not seeing. Come on, just one more step into the dead sea, come on, look at me. No matter how many steps it took, Jimin couldn’t reach him.
“You’re scaring me,” Jimin said. Jeongguk’s eyes were glazed, his pupils blown to black holes. “Did something happen? Jeonggukkie? What are you going to do, huh?”
Another step and his legs began to shake, body going in tremors. Jimin blinked, only for a second, and after that he stood alone.
His ears popped, ringing. Then there was no sound, no wind or air in his lungs. He tried to scream but heard nothing. It boiled inside of him like hot coals, he could feel it burn through his lining. The amber glow was there under the skin of his stomach. Something snapped. He fell back on the ground with his eyes shut, gaping like a fish. There was warm sticky liquid running down his face, from his ears, pooling on the ground.
He wanted it back, all of it, he wanted it back so much, it hurt, it hurt horribly. He barely had any time to have it, have anything, and he wanted it back.
There must be air, thought his hands, scratching at his chest. Scratching it bloody, digging deeper with a wet cracking noise he couldn’t hear, wanting to let the air inside his open lungs. He could feel the bone of his ribs under his fingertips, touch the shriveled up lungs, trace down to slippery and meaty insides. The blood began to fill up his mouth and he wished to die.
“Hey,” a familiar voice sounded as if coming from everywhere at once, “just talk.”
He woke to the early light and warm floor. His hair, the blanket and the sheets, all of it drenched in sweat. Jihyun’s peaceful sleeping face before him.
He got up to get some water from the old well that they still used despite the plumbing. It took a while to fill the small washing basin. He watched the clear water there, his reflection was a million years old. Jimin bent to keep his head under the ice-cold water, he stayed like that without counting but it was sure less than three minutes.
“Noona,” he said to Gyeongree later that afternoon, sitting in her consulting room, “can’t you write out those sleep pills for grandma Kim?”
The medication’s brand name had something to do with light. Luminous pills for luminous people.
“Noona,” he said.
She shook her head.
“Go home,” she gave him a piece of brown paper. There was an address for what looked like a traditional medicine pharmacy. He crumpled it in a ball and binned it outside the clinic.
That evening, after all the dishes and calming routines, Jimin thought he was being dramatic. Everyone dreams. Everyone is sad. And these dreams never harmed him before.
He lay on the floor and hoped he would die easier next time.
The school was the only place where Jimin could see him now, because not a week after they’d gone back to deal with the new semester, the walks and talks stopped, the meetings and kisses, even the songs.
So much confusion at first, and Jimin kept walking up to him, Jimin raised his hand, he waved, he smiled, he tried. But all Jeongguk did was stir away, silently.
Every time Jimin could hear his entire insides drop, his blood burning like ice-cold water. What was even happening?
“Morning,” Jimin said, after having seen Jihyun off to a teacher’s room, and standing on the school’s steps before Jeongguk who had been handing out flyers of some sort.
Jeongguk didn’t seem to hear, but after he’d gone through two weeks of trying to get any attention, Jimin knew it to be deliberate.
Worse than before because now Jimin didn’t exist. Jimin was nothing.
Something must have happened, it couldn’t be just nothing, Jimin couldn’t be nothing. He was smarter than that.
It had been the first day of classes in late August, the first time he had seen that scary blank thing in Jeongguk. It had been poorly done, all flimsy and trembling, and Jimin had kept on pushing.
And how he wished to talk now, maybe ask what in the hell he had done wrong, but he didn’t see any point in speaking anymore. Helpless, that was all he felt, and knew little of what to do.
But even when their eyes happened to meet, Jeongguk looked as if he didn’t quite see him. Jimin felt like his heart stopped working every time.
Maybe someone had found out. Maybe it had been a phase. Jimin stopped reaching out. It was better this way.
“When did you start smoking?” Jimin watched curiously while Hyejin fiddled with the matches to light her cigarette. It looked cheap, no filter, almost transparent. “You can get so much beating for that.”
“I’m flattered by your interest,” she winked. She seemed to be over whatever stupid boy had done wrong with her.
They’d been lying after Saturday classes in the garden of Wheein’s house, her aunt’s place, snacking lazily on rice balls and too-sweet soda. His thoughts felt like violence at noon.
“Where have you been off to every day, huh? Cheating on us like that,” Hyejin took a generous gulp and hummed. “All you guys are the same.”
“Known many guys this way?”
“Not in many moons, old lad,” she sucked in the smoke, wincing. “A woman my age is of no interest to men, no more, no more of that.”
“What balls,” said Wheein.
Jimin let himself laugh, just under his breath, thinking how he missed them.
“Hey, Jimin,” Wheein drank her soda through a straw, scoffing at Hyejin wiggling her eyebrows at the action. “Something happened?”
He chewed around his rice ball. Didn’t he look like a sated mouse with his cheeks full like that? Something his mother used to say a lot. “You know how when you think you’re smarter than those other kids?”
Hyejin nodded gravely. “Yes, of course, because I am.”
“So that, right. And how I kind of played myself just a little.”
The gasp that came the next second almost startled him. “So you have been out and about,” Hyejin rolled over to her stomach to look at him properly. “This is amazing.”
Jimin felt his face morph into a scowl.
“Who’s she?” Hyejin asked.
“Who’s her?” Wheein leaned closer.
Jimin sighed, “Doesn’t matter. She won’t talk to me anymore.”
“That cow,” Hyejin mocked, with a click of her tongue and a shake of her head. “Did you do something?”
“No? Maybe she just changed her mind. I’m not extremely interesting.”
“Well, you are pretty boring,” hummed Hyejin and then reached out to touch his hair. “Don’t go feeling sorry for yourself. What do you think, Wheeinie?”
“I think you should move on and and go out with Gyeongree-unnie.”
“That’s just most illegal,” Jimin laughed at the very idea. “Besides, I’m not—” he swallowed the thought. “Hey, we should see that new movie.” He fumbled inside his trouser pockets for the flyer he’d gotten for Jeongguk yesterday at one of those secluded clandestine theatres, if one could call them that. Grabbed that thing simply out of habit.
Hyejin looked the paper over. She whistled, “You’re a nasty boy, Jiminie. Horrible.”
“Most horrible,” nodded Wheein. “Who takes friends to a movie like that?”
“Only the best ones,” Hyejin shook her match box next to Wheein’s ear. “Let’s go. Beat it out of Jiminie’s system.”
As they walked towards the plaza, Jimin kept his mind carefully blank. Only this, he thought. Oh, how he missed them.
“Morning,” Jimin heard, on a day in the middle of September, on his torturous way up the hill with a bag full of discount beef that had gone half-bad.
He only took a sideways glance, refusing to speak, and saw that Jeongguk was sweating in thick cottons, his face as red as the faded frame of his bicycle.
“Hyung,” he tried again a second later, and then another, and another, until they reached the house and Jeongguk could only see him go.
Through his curtained window, he could see Jeongguk standing there there, in the mild heat and harsh humidity, all the way till noon.
“Afternoon,” Jimin heard a week later, after he’d walked through a pharmacy’s doors.
It had taken him ages to get here, to the other side of town, but the ladies had needed a full re-stock. And now this “afternoon”. He could only sigh. The smell of herbs, medicine, and other strong parlor tricks still filled his nostrils.
“Are you following me now?”
“I just saw you,” Jeongguk told him over the shiny wheel of his bike. “I don’t live far.”
Jimin started down the street, along the streetcar rails.
“Hyung, let me take you for a ride,” his voice was small this time. “On a boat. You’d said you would want that.”
“Why would you want that all of a sudden?”
“To talk to you,” the heels of his shoes were dragging along the pavestone. “Explain things. I was stupid.”
“How would I know it’s not another game of yours?”
“There was none,” Jeongguk sounded properly agitated now. “Oh, please, hyung, please, just this once.”
Jimin almost relented. Then he made hurry, fixing his mind back into sharpness. “Leave me alone,” he said, calm, but wanted to scream.
He walked, hearing Jeongguk call after him, underneath all the city clatter. Jimin felt the warm air thinning. It hissed in his ears. He couldn’t draw a breath, there was no air in his lungs that felt as if they were close to bursting. Jimin felt his eyes begin to prickle and felt so stupid. He coughed to get rid of the feeling.
Around the corner, down the silent street, where he could breathe. He carried on slower, knowing Jeongguk was behind him, hearing the hush of tires and Jeongguk’s harsh breaths in the quiet and empty street, very quiet and sad at this hour.
“Hyung,” Jeongguk said, and sounded quiet and sad as well, “I love you.”
Jimin stopped. What in the hell?
The burning was back, a fire inflating his lungs. A sick feeling in his chest, and he felt that all at once was gushing out, falling at his feet, and him following, with no thoughts, no tongue, nothing.
Jimin turned and saw Jeongguk there, standing still, his mouth a thin worried line.
“You idiot,” Jimin choked out, glancing around to make sure nobody was watching them. He closed his eyes. “Little shit of a kid. Why—what ever happened?”
“Let me take you for a ride,” Jeongguk asked again.
Jimin pressed the curses to the back of his raw throat. He followed.
Out on the deck, feeling the rough iron of the peeled railing under his arms, Jimin glared at the waves. He glared at the sea, wishing it would be just as easy for him, to ebb and flow and go, and not feel a thing.
Jeongguk’s uncle took them around the bay, past the high flow of the green hills and rare sun-bleached seaside houses, where they could go swimming in the clean deep sea. And swimming like this felt so nice indeed. Jimin floundered near the boat, a little embarrassed for being stark naked. It was almost too cold for a swim at this hour but Jimin played in the water until his lips turned blue.
The way back was better, the sky dark in quick twilight. It was beautiful but loud, the tug’s rocking had been sickening but now it brought him calm. He glared at the sea again, sitting on the boat’s dirty wet bridge with Jeongguk by his side, their legs dangling idly high above the main deck’s surface.
Jeongguk just finished his story. “I’m sorry,” he said, maybe for the fifth time. “It was stupid.”
“Sure it was,” Jimin sighed.
Jeongguk was leaving for Seoul.
His brother had come back a few days before the new semester, with his head hot and hands itching for old things, and said they were to move to Seoul. Move houses and change schools, and stay there until the next huge draft of which he’d been so sure.
“It’s Vietnam,” Jeongguk’s brother had said. “The States will need our troops, telling you. I know I’m going to Vietnam. I just know it.”
Jeongguk was leaving in three days. They would have had a month, a little over that, but Jeongguk had done something confused and scared high school kids usually did about the things they found scary and confusing.
“I thought you had this thing… Thought you’d started doubting everything,” Jimin glared at his fingers, at the water underneath. “Doubts happen when it’s just a phase. Fear and hate happen too. Thought you were hating me, yourself—everything that happened.”
“Well,” Jeongguk leaned sideways, nestling his sharp chin over Jimin’s shoulder, to brush his lips over Jimin’s ear and say, “how much do you know about your own insides?”
“I wish I didn’t. None of this shit. What’s up with yours?”
“Not a lot. But I know I want you. And I want to touch you,” he sat back straight. His face looked pained, as if every word was sandpaper to his tongue. “Why can’t I keep you?”
Jimin just kept watching the waves. And after a while, watching, he began to tremble.
The evening air was cool at the water’s dark edge, and Jimin watched their boat’s idle drifting to its docking place. It felt like travelling on a snail.
When it was close enough, Jeongguk leaped over to the pier and grabbed the first thick line to throw it on the deck. Jimin shuffled to it and tied it to the bitt, just as Jeongguk taught him earlier. Once around each bitt, then three turns like figure-eights over both bitts, and then—he felt his mind audibly whizz and die a slow death. Was that it? But then the uncle seemed to be satisfied, doing the same at the front bitt. Then he took Jimin to the gunwale to show how it’s done there, and all of it felt borderline father-like.
“Good hands,” he said and invited Jimin to stay the night instead of walking so far in the dark.
The uncle was already on the pier, strolling to the shore, when Jeongguk called after him. “Can we stay a bit longer?”
“You’d want to?”
“Jiminie-hyung likes the rocking.”
“Do you now?”
Jimin rubbed at his tired face. “Very much, ahjussi. Can’t get enough of rocking. And the marina is pretty at night.”
“Have fun missing dinner then, boys.”
They were left to their own devices, which Jimin was still to figure out, because Jeongguk was acting weirdly, the weirdest he had ever carried himself.
“What’s up with you?” Jimin asked him after a while of sitting in the thick air.
“Trying to build up my character. Rapidly,” he said. “Might take a few minutes.”
A few minutes of that, and Jeongguk led him to the bunk room. Beaded panelling all over the narrow space. A table, a bedding, a shelf and tiny supply cabinet. A brass-bladed fan looked exactly the same as his grandmother’s. Here it was warm. It smelled of fish, coal, and incense.
Jimin sat on the prickly duvet, looked out the tiny square window. As if watching the world out of the fish bowl.
He turned to Jeongguk for more questions, but the other boy was busy with undoing his cuffs. Then he unbuttoned his collar, slowly, and closed his eyes at that. Jimin watched him make a slow show of unbuttoning his shirt all the way down with nervous hands.
“You were building up for this?” Jimin leaned back, watching. “You sure?” Jeongguk nodded. “Come undress me first.”
He obeyed, brushing his palms over Jimin’s sensitive skin as he did, pushing the shirt off Jimin’s tan shoulders and skimming his fingers down his hard sides. “Kiss me,” Jimin told him. “I’ll blow you after.”
They got wrapped up in kissing on the narrow bunk, sliding together and fumbling out of their clothes. When the moonlight cast bleak light, falling in one single square on the covers, Jeongguk lay back, naked, and kept softly sighing under the soft touch of lips to his skin. Jimin kissed his chest and belly, licked the sweat up in the stifling air, and felt Jeongguk’s hands in his hair as he finally swallowed down. He worked his mouth unskilled, unhurried, for a long while, trying to remember what felt best for this. It wasn’t comfortable but tasted just fine. He slipped his mouth off, not ready to let Jeongguk finish.
He crawled further up the bunk. Sitting on Jeongguk’s chest, gasping for air, Jimin asked, “What would you do if you knew it was the last time we’d ever see each other?”
Jeongguk’s hands were hot, rough on his backside. “I don’t like this question.”
Jimin shut his eyes and felt the room tilt under them. It wasn’t the boat, not the waves. “It’ll be fine,” Jimin said then, to himself.
There were a dozen of bottles in the bag from the pharmacy, and he took the one with the blue label. Now he straddled Jeongguk again, caressing everywhere he could reach, gently swaying his hips to get them any friction. He stopped to make use of his own slick fingers, pushing two inside of him. It burned for a while, and Jimin heard himself gasping and make the kind of sounds he’d never heard himself make. He took Jeongguk’s hand, closed over his, then guided it, until Jeongguk’s fingers laid along the cleft of his buttocks. Jeongguk pushed in, and they began thrusting slowly, Jimin leaning down to lay on top with his hands now free, falling more like a riled heap, as he winced through the feeling, through the kissing.
Oh, sure thing he loved the rocking. He nodded Jeongguk “all right” every other second, laughing, and minutes later he gasped at the emptiness.
“We probably stink of fish now,” Jimin said, close to his ear, and felt the sound of sniffing. It tickled his neck.
“You just smell like a nasty boy,” Jeongguk told him. “Why do you carry Vaseline around?”
“That pharmacy was cheap. It’s for chaffed skin, genius,” Jimin said, straightening, and then pushed himself up.
As he began to lower himself, any other thoughts died in his quickly blank mind, and moving like that felt like nothing he could really describe. Their gasps were funny to his ears in the mix of loud wet slapping and fumbling. It all happened in one thick hot wave, the grip on his sides, the dark-bright images of Jeongguk’s flushed face, the even drawn out thrusts. Jimin slid down around him and Jeongguk’s back arched. It felt good, seeing him like that. Jimin rode him like that, hard, stupid and careless, slipping down on him again and again, until Jeongguk was coming, which wasn’t that long a while, but felt like a lot, sticky and hot inside of him.
“Do me,” Jimin stuttered out, with Jeongguk still inside of him.
Once their breathing had evened out, Jimin carefully slipped off with a groan and let Jeongguk touch him, rough and fast to help him finish, and Jimin just watched his face in the dark static, not seeing but feeling everything at once. “That feels all right?” Jeongguk breathed, working with his hand.
“Fine. Just hurry up,” Jimin began to slide, back and forth, over Jeongguk’s stomach. “You’ve got running water, right?”
“It’s cut off at six. Can offer a vat on coals,” Jeongguk flicked his wrist. “Next time we do better.”
“If you promise,” Jimin was smiling, and his thighs were strong and wet against Jeongguk’s hips.
After they’d finished, Jeongguk did his best to clean their mess up but insisted they stay just for a short while.
They kept still in the boat’s ordinary movement. Jimin laid getting his breath. Jimin listened to their hearts beating very fast, to the sad sound their voices made while sharing dumb jokes. Then all was quiet. His right hand was trapped between their chests, over his own heart, pressed tight and heavy, so heavy.
They idled through another hour, their eyes closed.
“Hyung, there’s three whole days.” Jeongguk said. “Don’t be sad.”
He wasn’t sad but he was sure something else. Any dramatic feeling of his age, Jimin thought, never mattered in the long run, to the bigger picture, ever.
“I’m not sad. Just listening.”
“The tide,” Jimin said, feeling warm and perfect, only seventeen, feeling soft and good in Jeongguk’s arms. “Just the tide rising.”