The first time Jinyoung sees the current is on his eighteenth birthday.
Though it isn't his birthday, not yet. His birthday falls on a Monday but all of his friends are only free on Fridays, all older than him and more entangled in their adult lives. Jinyoung has been patiently watching them grow, watching them shed their old skins and costumes to welcome whatever life planned for them.
At seventeen, he hasn't grown much; he doesn't think so at least. His voice is still a pitch too high and his limbs feel scrawny. Every interest and hobby comes and goes, every romance is just as quick. He feels like he's drifting along, from year to year, birthday to birthday, but he hopes for change. He hopes for direction.
By the time they bring out the cake, two bottles of liquor later, Jinyoung can't stand straight for long, but he makes the effort. He looks at each of his friends in Mark's living room, the oldest of the bunch. Youngjae and Yugyeom are hugging each other, Bambam sits by himself, his eyes flitting open and shut, his energy having gone down with the last drink. Jaebum stands, having drank the most out of them, but still the most put together, his image not even the tiniest bit swayed. He doesn't look mad or menacing, but he looks dark; Jinyoung has come to notice it, after studying so much, first from afar, now up close.
He looks good with platinum blond hair, and he's been meaning to tell him that for months, but he can't seem to bring it up. They are friends, close friends, almost like family, but he can't muster up the words. He is too nervous, his body too frail, too tiny to hold all the emotions that would follow. Because admitting to liking Jaebum's hair would lead to admitting he liked his style, the piercings in his ears, the bump on his nose, even the films he helps produce and direct, the Instagram account he runs meticulously. Admitting to liking his hair would lead to admitting he liked him in his entirety, and that, Jinyoung decides, is a dangerous road. He already feels the balloons of love bumping around inside of him, making him light, close to bursting; this strange, transparent feeling.
It's almost strange to think how this happened -- it took one conversation, though Jinyoung hadn't said much. They were still in high school at a party and Jaebum had drifted to the edge of the room where Jinyoung sat. He was always in the corners, sliding along the walls, not particularly shy but more enamored by the energy of the crowd. Frenetic, directionless. Like static that can't find a home, that bounces around, searching for something.
They didn't say anything at first, only nodded, then Jaebum started talking, first about his favorite movie, then his favorite director, then spoke about what movies he would produce with so much detail that Jinyoung had closed his eyes and he could picture them there, unfolding, flickering in a dark theater. They were friends by then, but not close, and Jinyoung was struck with a feeling he couldn't describe -- something that told him Jaebum was going places, that he should catch up before he disappeared. He could feel a door closing somewhere, another opening, his life path rearranging itself.
And when he opened his eyes, he swore he could see it in Jaebum's gaze. The way his eyes picked up the light, the way he smiled, hazily, as if he could see it, too. A future rushing towards them, demanding too much, but tasting so, so sweet.
Now, Jaebum is on his mind when he blows out the candles and everyone sings Happy Birthday to him, but to his surprise, Jaebum is not his wish. He doesn't wish to date him, to kiss him, to somehow find himself back in Jaebum's apartment with an entire morning to waste together. No, he wishes, instead, for life to steer him in the right direction, but more than that, to show him where he needs to go, what he must do, what the next step will be.
When Bambam turns on the lights again, Jinyoung expects things to have changed. Maybe the four clocks on the wall will point their hands at Jaebum when he walks back to the kitchen for plates, or maybe the candles will light up again and the flames will float in the air and sail around Jaebum's head like a halo, or maybe Jaebum will light up instead of the light bulbs, like a spotlight, as the universe confirms that Jinyoung is right: they're meant to be.
But the room is dim, his head is heavy, and his ears are buzzing. The rest of the boys are scattered around the couch and the table, one of the only three chairs. Bambam is asleep, Youngjae is playing video games, and, with the cake gone, Jinyoung thinks it's time to walk home.
"I'm going home," he announces, tries to sound wary, as if the outside were dangerous. As if the city might swallow him up if he were going alone. He lingers by the door, rests his hand on it, knows that his friends have never offered to walk him home, but they might after his wish; Jaebum might.
Yet, even when he stares at the back of Jaebum's head, he never offers, and by the time Mark suggests they all walk him home, Jinyoung is too tired. He shakes his head, tells them he's fine, and holds back frustrated tears.
Outside, the weather is less stuffy, cold even. Jinyoung doesn't live far enough to warrant a taxi, so he walks instead, rubs his hands together, and that's when he sees it.
The world changes, not in feeling but visually: colors leak out of their shapes and edges, the lights glow and move, it looks like someone has replaced the city with a wet painting of it, then smudged it all with their hands so every light and every color is smeared, pointing. It looks like a current of color and light, and Jinyoung, as if underwater, feels pushed by this invisible wind, this wind with no sound, with nothing backing it but this vision.
He tries to fight it at first, standing still, imagining that he's just dizzy but the more he studies the lights, the more he realizes that they are pointing down the road, like arrows. This current dragging him along isn't just random, but leading him somewhere. This is his wish come true.
Though it doesn't point back to Mark's apartment, where Jaebum is probably fighting sleep, Jinyoung doesn't fret. He is mesmerized, he is still light on his feet, he almost floats down the hillside, past four streets, two blocks to the right. The streets are mostly empty and dark but there are a few neon signs that glow and one of them says, in simple cursive, "Open." And it's that sign, a simple red and blue, that remains still, the only light that stays in place, the only color contained by a shape, not merely a suggestion of it.
Jinyoung almost runs towards it, but even with all this energy, he still walks, almost in slow motion, as if still underwater. Everything moves so slowly -- too slowly -- so by the time he's in front of the sign, it clicks off. Around him, the lights settle into place, the world stops moving, and Jinyoung is left abandoned by the universe next to a mechanic's shop.
A dull blue glow spills into the street from the open garage and Jinyoung peers inside. There are shoes, a leg, a torso, arms pulling down a metal cover to close shop for the night.
"Wait," Jinyoung says, then, louder, "Wait, stop."
"Sorry, we're closed," a voice answers, but the metal frame rises and there is a boy on the other side, a boy with a cap, wearing a jumpsuit with "Jackson" etched on the nametag, "We open at nine on Monday."
Jinyoung opens his mouth to respond, but he doesn't manage a word. Behind Jackson, the entire shop pulses with light, its shapes swelling and blinking, framing Jackson. He tries to step towards him but he almost falls and Jackson leaps forward to catch him. One second Jackson is far away enough to pretend he isn't real, but the next his fingers are wrapped around Jinyoung’s wrist, his hand on his shoulder.
"You're drunk," he says after a second and Jinyoung looks up at him and grins, like a child proud of his mess. Jackson just shakes his head, leads him to the wall, helps him rest against it. Then he says what Jinyoung will never forget, "Stay here, I'm gonna lock up real quick and I'll walk you home."
His finger hovers over the Uber button, ready to start the shift and drive through the night when Jinyoung's picture pops up on the screen. For a second he's confused, as if Jinyoung's image randomly pops up with no context, as if his phone were prodding him to remember, but then the image registers and he realizes Jinyoung is calling him. Him. Almost at midnight.
For a second he wonders if he should ignore it, to ignore Jinyoung just as he has done for these past two years. He doesn't mean to, and often his nights full of work make it easier to ignore him than to go out of his way and acknowledge him, to check up on him like perhaps he'd wanted to before, but life simply unfolds this way. He feels tired, that night; a little too tired to start work just then. He needs to relax, he thinks. He needs a friend.
He swipes to accept the call, and Jinyoung's sniffles fill his car.
"Hey, Jinyoung. What's up?"
"Can you pick me up? I — I'll send you the address and — please, just, could you?"
A silence follows, a silence he could drink; it enters thick into the air and he has to swallow before he says, unsure of himself, "Alright. Is everything okay?"
"Yeah, it's —" he hears a few more sniffles on the other end, "— I'll tell you when you get here. Thanks."
Jaebum's lips part to say some more but Jinyoung hangs up and his screen goes back to the Uber app. For a second his finger hovers over it again, then he locks his phone, waits for the Jinyoung to send a pin with his address, then he's off.
By the time Jaebum picks him up, Jinyoung is on the side of the street, his head twisting this way and that, his eyes wide, red; he looks like a child whose parents have forgotten to pick him up, and when he spots Jaebum's car, although his eyes don't light up, his shoulders straighten out a little. Like a burden has been lifted.
He's inside before the car fully stops.
"Thank you so much — I was hoping you'd be awake, I didn't know who else to call."
Jaebum does: Jackson, Mark, Youngjae, Bambam, anyone else he's close to. Not that they're distant — if anything, they're closer, they have the same interests, share the same music, but Jaebum has kept his distance. For what, he isn't sure. He’s confused when Jinyoung settles into his car with such familiarity; and why shouldn't he? They are friends, after all. Jinyoung has been in his car more than anyone. Jinyoung and him have grown up together, haven’t they?
And he feels that guilt he's felt for the past few years; that he isn't doing something; that he isn't saying something. That Jinyoung needs something that Jaebum wants to provide, but can't, and the more he thinks of it, the more nervous his thoughts become so he clears his throat and starts to drive.
"Were you crying?"
"Yeah, I—" Jinyoung closes his eyes and leans back and Jaebum watches from the corner of his eyes. He breathes in once, twice, lets it all out in a slow, peaceful breath. "Jackson broke up with me."
This makes Jaebum's mouth dry; he licks his lips; looks in the rear-view mirror, pretends to check the empty road.
"I thought you guys were good."
"We were — we are — but he doesn't think I should go abroad to Spain, which makes no sense because he suggested I go in the first place. He's the one who told me I should major in business and all of that — he's the whole reason I even have the chance to go but now suddenly he thinks it's a bad idea. That we'll grow apart, that I'll forget about him, whatever that means."
Jaebum bites his tongue so he doesn't say what he wants to: that sucks, oh, well, Jackson isn't really worth crying over. Instead he continues to drive mindlessly, turning in long circles, taking his time with each turn, driving slowly as if the night could never end. But he can't say this, much less something supportive; Jinyoung has grown from immature high school graduate to someone who's at the top of his class, someone who has options, a career waiting for him. It's been a long time since Jaebum has even felt in the position to give advice, much less to Jinyoung, already shining brighter than him.
This bothers him, not in an envious way — he isn't jealous of what Jinyoung has achieved. Rather, he's proud, so proud that he's afraid of fucking it up. Of getting in the way. Of saying the wrong thing and inspiring Jinyoung to be less than, to be complacent. To be like him. He licks his lips again, taps the steering wheel, and after ten full minutes of silence, of Jinyoung's slow breaths filling his ears, of the car humming, the tires turning, he turns to Jinyoung.
"Where did you want me to drive you to?"
Jinyoung opens his eyes, turns his way, looks offended; his lips part, but nothing comes out. Then he says, quietly, like a child trying to hide what they really want. "I thought we could just hang out — I — I really wanted to talk to you and..."
He trails off, but doesn't shrug. Jaebum's eyes flit from Jinyoung to the steering wheel to where his phone is set up on the dashboard.
"I know but, you know, I have to drive tonight."
Jinyoung still looks dumbfounded and Jaebum feels mean, but something inside of him is screaming to get away. To leave the car. To let Jinyoung's heart wither and float away from him. Something tells him that this isn't a good idea but when he looks around, everything is still, everything is calm. It's just his head again, he thinks. It's just his mind.
"Jaebum, I'm — I need you."
This, this is what breaks him. This is what pushes him to anger, because anger is so much easier than confusion; frustration, that's something he knows. Admitting to things is difficult, but throwing them, banging them against walls, slamming doors shut, this he knows. His lips press together.
"And I need to pay rent."
Outside, the light turns green and Jaebum drives again, but he hears Jinyoung start to rustle and then a zip and then there's money thrown his way.
"Here, just drive. Is that enough? How much should I pay for your company?"
And so easily, anger gives way to peace, a surrender. Jaebum sighs, starts to speak but Jinyoung cuts him off. When he looks over, Jinyoung has his arms crossed, his lips are pushed into a pout.
They arrive at the beach in a few minutes to a house that, by now, is somewhat familiar to Jaebum. He parks the car, looks over at Jinyoung.
"What's this?" Jinyoung asks, staring out, almost mesmerized.
"This is Suzy's family's beach house -- we come here sometimes."
"Come here to do what?"
"Just hang out," Jaebum answers, unsure of why he's nervous to mention it; why bringing up Suzy now, in front of Jinyoung, feels wrong. Like he's crossing boundaries he shouldn't, like he's bringing up a secret he should have kept. He shrugs, and before Jinyoung can ask anything else, he fishes out a key from his wallet and lets them inside.
The house is dark, sparsely furnished, but that's not Jaebum's focus. He walks through it, ignoring the contents, and listens only to the sound of Jinyoung stepping through it, following him closely, almost at his back. He's not warm, but Jaebum imagines he is: a little flame that's licking at his back, floating behind him, not even touching the ground. They cross the foyer then pass a kitchen to their left, a living room to the right, and soon Jaebum is pulling open the back door, sliding the glass and then stepping out.
On the balcony, he kicks off his shoes, peels off his socks and abandons them on the edge. He squints in the moonlight as Jinyoung does the same, without a word, but always understanding. That's his charm, Jaebum thinks: always good at following, at knowing when to do things. He is collected and cool in a way Jaebum could never be. To avoid failure, Jaebum simply doesn't try to please anyone; he's afraid.
They leave the balcony and head to the shore, but a few steps before the wet sand, Jaebum pauses and sits and Jinyoung does the same. In the distance he sees the moon, the waves forming and crashing, everything a deep, deep blue, everything looking so mystical and distant and miraculous that it feels like another world. And in this world, Jaebum is less worried about the one he actually lives in; Suzy, his car, Jackson, Jinyoung's impending departure are miles and miles away. He can't even fathom it, and every second spent here is another second Jaebum wishes this could be like old times; that the old times they shared could have been more like this -- spent in between worlds, just them two.
He tells Jinyoung none of this, instead he curls his toes in the sand. Instead he sighs, then leans back on his hands, still staring at the sea.
"So, he doesn't want you to go?"
There's a pause between his question and the answer and Jaebum is left to imagine his words hanging in the air, floating, pulsing. He's left to imagine the rest of what he hasn't said fading into the sand.
"No. He thinks I'll find someone else."
“And will you?”
Another pause, this one more tense; as if the breeze has hardened. As if it might become harder to breathe and Jaebum wishes he had a cigarette, that he hadn’t quit because it was another addiction he couldn’t afford.
Then, a tiny voice, “Maybe.”
“What do you mean, maybe?”
“I - I don’t know, I love Jackson but — can I tell you something?”
Jaebum feels a lump in his throat. He swallows.
“Sure, tell away.” Now he looks away from the distant horizon to look at Jinyoung, barely visible, lit in soft lights, looking older than he is — older than he seems, at least, most of the time. Jaebum has seen him grow up, but that doesn’t mean he has paid attention. Not this way, not like right now when he can see Jinyoung playing with his hands in his lap, going over his words, no longer a boy but a man having to untangle hard questions like machinery, laying out each piece in front of him, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. A man that stretches his legs out after a second and sighs and makes Jaebum’s heart and chest tighten for reasons he can’t seem to admit, reasons he doesn’t have the language to explain. Not yet, not now.
“I love Jackson, but not in that way.”
“Haven’t you guys dated for two years?”
“We have, and he’s a great boyfriend but — I don’t know — I think we were both just lonely. And I’m so thankful for all he’s done, and all the direction he’s given me, but I — I can’t explain it.”
Jinyoung turns to face him, and for a second his eyes are wide and innocent and catch the little fragment of light the night allows them. For a second they look like two stars that have fallen from the sky, their light faint, fading, already moving towards another galaxy and Jaebum has to look away. He looks up at the sky and tries to place Jinyoung’s gaze there, among the stars, knowing that for the next year while Jinyoung is away, each time he wonders about him, he’ll look up at the sky and try to find him again; his own private constellation; his own reminder that things might shake, shift, take different forms, but nothing actually changes.
They’ll be looking at the same stars, tackling the same questions.
When he looks back at Jinyoung, the other is squinting, looking uncomfortable. He looks like he’s exerting force and Jaebum asks, “Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I just — it’s hard to see when everything’s moving — it makes me dizzy.”
Jaebum glances around him; other than the ocean, nothing stirs; not even a breeze.
“What are you talking about?”
“Forget it,” Jinyoung answers, “Where was I?”
“Jackson not being right.”
“Oh, yeah — well, the night I met him, I felt drawn to him. Like everything led me there. But I no longer feel like that — and maybe that wasn’t romance? Maybe what I felt for him wasn’t romantic love, but need? And isn’t that worse than pretending there’s love there?”
“I mean — maybe.” He cuts himself off, knows that he’s doing the same. That when Suzy and him come here, they don’t come to hang out. They come to feel less alone, they come because the world tells them they need to. They have to date someone, they have to plan a marriage, they have to see a family and a house in the future and a good job and even if Jaebum denounces everything, still drunk on the romance of film and cinema and genre-breakers, he still feels pushed to participate.
There’s so many alternatives to a “regular” life but no alternative to companionship. He can’t do anything alone, he’s tried, and hearing Jinyoung’s words is another reminder. Though, sharing pain, it feels less lonely.
“I don’t want to hurt him,” Jinyoung says, “But I’m also used to him.”
Routine, Jaebum thinks, the death of them all. The familiar will make them tame, will make them want less.
“Maybe you should try to find someone that doesn’t bore you,” he says, though he’s talking to himself, too, “Someone you want to be with.”
Jinyoung giggles at this, and Jaebum turns.
“What’s so funny?”
“Not funny,” Jinyoung answers, almost whispering, “Just a little pathetic?”
Jinyoung just hums, goes back to looking at his lap.
“I have someone like that.”
This doesn’t hurt him, not really, but Jaebum still feels stabbed; with something other than pain, closer to disappointment, to fear. In a second he feels tense, like something he has not yet found a name for is asking to be born, is racing to meet him there, on that beach, with his fingers and toes digging into the sand, with one of his closest friends fiddling with his fingers next to him.
“And?” Jaebum manages, “Who is it? Why don’t you chase them?”
“It’s you,” Jinyoung says, “I always thought — I don’t know, it’s silly. I’ve always had a crush on you.”
Jaebum doesn’t respond, he can’t find the words, and what he’d feared is there: his heartbeat quickens, his breaths go shallow. Jinyoung says exactly what he feared, but what he wanted to hear, but he’s only at the brink of that realization. Knowing that it could work — that dating Jinyoung isn’t repulsive, that he might actually even enjoy it — is a far off idea. First he has to face the impotence he feels, the silent resignation to a bland kind of love; one that doesn’t want; one easily pleased; one that him and Suzy are working hard to master.
Because somewhere along the way, between barely being able to afford to live, between dropping out of school, between his unaccepted invitations to film schools, Jaebum has arrived at the conclusion that he is, simply, undeserving. Not just of love, either, but of most things: little luxuries like expensive coffee and of success and of having a job that requires more than a pulse and a driver’s license. Somewhere along the way, Jaebum has resigned himself to a level beneath everyone else, and Jinyoung, shining as brightly as he does, shouldn’t even be looking his way.
He opens his lips, wonders how he’ll string together what he’s feeling — maybe in the form of a warning, maybe something to quiet whatever flame Jinyoung had been preserving — but Jinyoung beats him to it.
“You don’t have to say anything — it’s dumb, I just — ever since high school.”
There’s room to say more but Jinyoung doesn’t take it, and neither does Jaebum. They sit in silence for what seems like hours, but is only a minute. Jinyoung’s phone lights up and rings and Jinyoung waits a second to answer it.
Though Jinyoung tries to be silent, they're close enough that Jaebum hears the entire conversation. He even imagines he hears Jinyoung's heart in his chest racing, then slowing, then racing again.
Jackson calls, wants to meet up, and Jinyoung, in whispers, agrees. Then Jackson asks where he is and from the corner of Jaebum's eyes, he can see Jinyoung look around -- then at him -- as if seeing everything for the first time. Jinyoung hangs up the phone and the silence from before returns.
"Jackson's coming to pick me up. He wants to talk," Jinyoung says, and though he tries to sound annoyed, there’s fear in his voice. A boy so bright, Jaebum thinks, shouldn't feel any kind of nerves but he doesn't say these things. He lets them fall as thoughts, imagines they sink into the sand like their feet when they stand. And by the way Jinyoung looks at him, with furtive glances, looking his way then away, Jaebum figures that there's a lot unsaid on his side, too.
They stand next to each other, nearly the same height.
"About what I said --"
Jaebum cuts him off with a wave of the hand.
"It's fine," he answers, "Do you need a ride?"
"No, he's coming -- he's close." Jinyoung looks pained for a second, like something is demanding to be let out, to be spoken, but he holds back. Keeps it inside himself.
"Well, I hope it goes well."
Jinyoung just looks down.
"I'm leaving next week," he says, "We'll hang out before then?"
"Yeah, sure, we can do something," Jaebum answers, though he knows this won't be the case. They won't see each other until Jinyoung comes back, he's decided that; and he keeps his word with these things. He's good at running away.
"Thanks for everything."
Jinyoung opens his arms and they embrace for a moment, a piece of time that lasts seconds too long -- a time that allows Jaebum to think how nicely his arms fit around Jinyoung's waist, how well Jinyoung's arms go around his neck. This is a moment that's less about the moment itself and more about the possibility it's soaked in, the little whispers that tell him what more could happen, what this embrace could lead to, how far they could stretch out the seconds but Jaebum closes his eyes so he doesn't think of it. He closes his eyes and focuses about how dark it is like that; no stars; no moon; no rounded eyes, no lights swimming in them.
Then he pulls away and his arms fall, as do Jinyoung's, and the private world they'd inhabited becomes infiltrated by the one outside. In the distance are the sounds of people living and it's no longer just him and Jinyoung, there's an entire world out there with its own set of demands and rules and Jaebum is relegated, again, to the bottom while Jinyoung, well, he's meant to soar.
They walk back together to the beach house but Jinyoung walks towards the door and Jaebum heads to the kitchen for the first time, pretends like he's always done this so that Jinyoung leaves with a smile. A second later he hears a door open and close. Jaebum’s left alone.
He looks around at the kitchen, almost embarrassed. He doesn’t feel like himself but he’s never felt like himself. He’s always felt like he’s hiding, running away from something. He walks to the living room and hears a car hum outside. A beat later, the door opens again. Jinyoung is there, looking wide-eyed, determined, like a child who’s climbed up the steps to the diving board, like a child ready to jump.
Jinyoung doesn’t say a word. He walks up to Jaebum, looks at him in the eye and Jaebum looks back. They remain like this for a second, saying nothing, looking, then Jaebum, giving into the moment, leans over and kisses Jinyoung.
The kiss itself lasts no longer than a second but something changes. Their eyes are closed, their lips warm, pressed together, but when they pull back, when their eyes open, something has changed. Jinyoung is peering at Jaebum, squinting like it’s hard to look at him and Jaebum takes this as a sign.
“Sorry,” Jaebum says, and though Jinyoung shakes his head, he steps backwards, “Tell Jackson I said hi.”
Jinyoung still looks like it pains him to see Jaebum, like he might be nauseous so Jaebum keeps stepping back and towards a hallway and into a random room. He stands there in the dark, alone with his breathing, and outside he hears the door open and close, the quiet engine of a car, the crackle of tires over a sandy road and then Jinyoung is gone.
By the time Jinyoung arrives at the party, he’s exhausted. Two flights and two car rides later, he’s thrust into this gathering of everyone he’d ever known in the area, all excited over his coming home, his graduation. Two years in Spain has accustomed him to another life, other celebrations, and everything about this party is soaked in nostalgia. Here are people he’s grown up with, faces he knows deeply, but faces that have switched places with strangers.
He looks at Youngjae and sees a ghost of some other life, and he is surprised at how small he looks. Like he was never older, never bigger. As if they have always been the same age, the same size. But then there’s Yugyeom who hasn’t stopped growing and Jinyoung has to look up at him and though he searches, squinting his eyes, studying Yugyeom like he would a textbook, he can’t find the little boy he used to know.
Everything is the same and different and this paradox dizzies Jinyoung. He looks over the room full of people, mingling around, drinking, music he isn’t familiar with filling in the empty gaps of conversation and he suddenly wants to be outside.
“I’m gonna go to the balcony for a smoke,” he tells Jackson and Jackson, who has not spoken to him since they’ve arrived, makes a face, then nods.
Jinyoung almost laughs at how little he cares, at how such a strong bond between them -- his first boyfriend, his first love -- has simmered down to nothing but a nuisance. Neither of them want to be together, he thinks, and Jackson was right: two years apart would change them. A few times a year was not enough for their love, but more than enough for them to realize that the things they want are no longer aligned. They grow older, they mature, they change. They shed off the image of a happy life together.
He slides the balcony door open, closes it behind him. There’s somebody there but Jinyoung is distracted by the sight. Maybe this he has missed, he thinks. Landscapes have less tendency to change, and in a world that keeps spinning, he clings to this. Without thinking, he lights a cigarette, sucks some smoke in, lets it exit through his nose.
“You smoke now?”
Jinyoung doesn’t want to look away from the sight, and he doesn’t. He lets Jaebum’s question linger in the air. That voice hasn’t changed either, he thinks, but maybe it’s because he’d paid attention to it more. Definitely more than Yugyeom’s changing height, more than Youngjae’s descent into manhood.
Jaebum’s voice, like the mountain in the distance, is a constant fixture. And when he turns to look at him, he realizes the rest of it -- his body’s reaction to seeing Jaebum -- hasn’t changed. His arms still clutter with goosebumps and the hair on the back of his neck stands, as if he’s been electrocuted, as if the sight of Jaebum is electricity that courses through him and his heart starts to race, just like the first time, just like every time.
But the current hasn’t swayed, either. It’s barely there, subtle, but Jinyoung can see the lights start to bubble and pulse just like they did two years ago on that beach, in that house. But then it had been a violent current, every color rushing, pushing against him like a breeze, trying to get him to leave but Jaebum had just kissed him and he’d dug his fingernails into his palms to brace for the pain.
Now, though, he looks away from time to time, keeps the current at bay. Tonight he doesn’t need guidance, he thinks, but the current doesn’t care; a wish gone awry.
Now he lifts his hands to his eyes to try and rub out the current, to pretend he's tired instead of this: elated, excited.
He still remembers the kiss, and with his eyes closed, everything rushes back: the dark beach house, the breaths between them, the silence, then Jaebum leaning in, Jaebum kissing him. The last two years fold in half and he remembers what it felt like in that moment, to decide, suddenly, to wait. Perhaps not for Jaebum, but something like that: a love that sparks, a love that survives, that grows despite the world around it.
A love that inspires him, a love that wakes him up and stretches his wings and points to the horizon and tells him that it's where he can go, where he can fly.
He remembers closing his heart away into a box the same way he'd closed the door, remembers how quiet his heart had been after that. As if nothing could compare, as if it had fallen asleep, out of reach even for Jackson. These past two years, though wonderful, have been loveless -- have been missing something. And now, standing in front of Jaebum, perhaps waking up again, that little box starts to shake and its latch rattles and he knows, despite the rush around him that tells him to leave, that guides him to the right choices, that he has to be around Jaebum, at least for another minute.
"I picked up a few tricks," he answers, finally, and opens his eyes. Jaebum is there, a few inches away, a cigarette between his lips; he leans closer, presses the tip to Jinyoung's tip and Jinyoung sucks in so that they flare up in an orange glow. Then Jaebum leans back, puffs out some smoke, goes back to leaning on the railing. Though he does this in silence, Jinyoung studies the curve of his lips, the way he smiles gently, quietly, even this having a soft edge. Everything about Jaebum, he knows, is that way: guarded and private, as if the world exists for his amusement only.
Jinyoung goes to the railing, too, and leans against it, though rather than the view, he fixes his eyes on Jaebum. The stern eyes, the simple lines of his face; he's gained weight since he last saw him, but he wears it well; even the curve of his chin, fading into his neck, is endearing. The back of his hair is too long, growing into a mullet, and it's now that he notices it's silver.
"You dyed your hair," he says, takes another drag of his cigarette so he doesn't reach over and run his fingers through it. Inside his chest, he hears his heart rattle and swell, asking to be let out.
Jaebum just looks his way, shoots him another guarded smile.
"I picked up a few tricks," he answers and Jinyoung rolls his eyes, looks away, tries not to show how weak his knees are. He's spent two years maturing only to return to this teenage crush; this little fantasy he's kept a secret. Away from the sun, refusing to let it age.
"One of those tricks must have been not calling," he answers, "Or texting, or writing, or emailing. Even Youngjae sent me postcards."
Jaebum just nods, takes another drag, "Funny how those things go both ways. You never looked back."
"I was busy --"
"So was I."
His stomach drops until Jaebum turns to him again, smiling this time, not trying to hide.
"I'm glad you're back," he says, "We missed you around here."
"I -- I missed you, too."
"What are you gonna do now that you're back?"
Jaebum leans against the railing again, fits his elbow on top; his entire body faces Jinyoung and he feels warm because of this, like the sun is still out, throwing its light against his shoulders, the tops of his ears. He's so distracted that he doesn't even know what to say, as if, suddenly, his life is scrambled. As if he doesn't know exactly what he should do, what he wants to do. He stares, squints, then his eyes water because this moment reminds him of two years ago, but with that thought comes the current, this time more insistent.
The light around Jaebum pulses but it's the sound that bothers Jinyoung. It sounds like actual waves, harsh, thrown against rocks, lapping at his ears like the flow of water, coursing, pushing him away, screaming at him to leave so Jinyoung closes his eyes, bears it as best as he can.
"I have an internship down in L.A. and I think I'm going to try it out for a while," he says, his voice thin, "I -- I'm not sure what I want. I got offered a position in Spain, too. I made a lot of connections there."
Jaebum hums, sounds far away.
"L.A. is closer, maybe you should go there for a while. Come back to visit," he pauses, and Jinyoung sneaks a glance: Jaebum is looking down at their feet, looks shy, "Jackson would like that, I think."
"Jackson would like for me to go away again," Jinyoung says with a laugh, wonders if this is too much, too brusque, but he doesn't care. Not when it feels like the wind is whipping around him, though there's no breeze; not when something's flowing in his ears; not when, after two years, their kiss seems closer than ever, "He's not very happy -- I think he's gonna break up with me tonight."
"Why would you think that?"
"We haven't been the best these past two years -- I think we outgrew each other. We're just not the same people," he says, looks away. The lights start to bleed again, but they flow with less urgency, like a gentle reminder to move along. That his place isn't there. Still, defiant, he continues, "I guess you were right, Jaebum."
"I was right...?"
"About finding someone you're excited to be with, instead of finding someone because you don't want to be lonely." He turns, tries his best to smile despite how the colors have changed, start to drip from Jaebum's face almost. He focuses on his eyes, dark circles with the tiniest of glimmers. "You told me that a while back."
"Two years ago," Jaebum says, his voice low, distracted, "I can't believe you remembered."
"It's hard to forget." There's silence for a few seconds and Jinyoung breathes in, out, closes his eyes, opens them, blinks until the current has faded just enough to make out Jaebum's frame against the skyline. He loses his breath, then catches it again so he can ask, "Hey, do you want to get out of here and, I don't know, just --"
The sliding door opens, they both turn. Suzy is there, two drinks in hand. She smiles at Jinyoung, then Jaebum.
"Babe -- I've been looking for you. I guess you guys are catching up -- I'll meet you inside, I don't want to interrupt --"
"No, no, you're not interrupting anything -- Jaebum's caught me up," Jinyoung says, but it isn't his voice, it's someone distant, someone whose insides aren't a whirl of confusion. Someone whose heart has suddenly leapt out of a box only to fall back in again, defeated, tired of beating. Someone who doesn't want to cry, someone who's happy to see this development, even if a little unsure.
"I hope nothing embarrassing," Suzy says, "I know we've barely talked since school but I know so much about you, Jinyoung. Jaebum talks about you a lot -- I'm almost proud of you myself."
This she says with a smile as she walks over to Jaebum, leans against his side, looks at Jinyoung with such genuine kindness that the only reason he doesn't cry is because he can't see her. The scene in front of him looks like a whirlpool of light and color, as if the current is forming right there in front of him, using all its force to push him away.
"Thanks," Jinyoung says, "I -- I better go find Jackson. I'm still super jet-lagged."
"I can imagine," Suzy answers, and her voice is layered, as if underwater, "You must be exhausted. We should catch up sometime, us three. Soon, please, before you decide to leave us."
Jinyoung grins, or thinks he does, he's too dizzy to tell. "I'll be in touch."
He doesn't wait for a response. He finds the sliding door with his hands, pulls it open, steps inside to this room full of familiar faces, a room full of time swirling around itself on loop and he decides, then, to follow the current, to let it take him away from here. No matter how far.
Jackson finds him a second later, holds his arm.
"Where have you been? Why do you look... drunk?"
And he might as well be, he thinks. He can't control his limbs, can't think straight. He looks at Jackson, his face twisted in concern, and he looks so handsome, so still, untouched by the current. Who is he to fight fate, he thinks, so he leans forward and gives him a kiss, a kiss to save this strand of love they're trying to pass off for a relationship, a kiss to end the loneliness creeping at the edges of their world.
"I missed you," Jinyoung says, breathless, desperate, "I missed you a lot."
When Jackson pulls him into a hug, no longer concerned but surprised, Jinyoung lets him, lets the night assault them, lets the current decide. He's tired of fighting.
After two years, Suzy and Jaebum split up. Not that Jaebum minds, and not that Suzy minds, either. The last year had been rocky at best, dating out of habit than actual want. They had moved in together for a few months, but now she’s moved out with her friends while Jaebum figures out how to pay twice the rent he’d been paying.
At twenty-six, he drops out of school again, not that film school is something he can drop out of. It was a means to an end, a pool of connections and nothing more. He didn’t need teachers to tell him what to do, how to shoot, how to film, how to write movies -- he knew all that. School was a formality, just a way to make sure he was on the right track, or appearing to be.
But now that’s gone, and though he wishes he could rely on his friends like Suzy had, by now they’re scattered. Youngjae moved to Detroit to work for an architecture firm, Mark has his own life to deal with, already on his second child. Bambam and Yugyeom live together, had been working on projects, and now Jaebum is waiting for them to come out as more than associates.
There’s Jinyoung, too, who, for Jaebum, has been a fluttering thought. Even after two years of not talking to him, he jumps into the focus like a magnet and attracts tidbits of news. People offer him information as if he’d asked, but he knows he would ask if they hadn’t.
He’d moved to L.A. after all. A year later, him and Jackson had broken up, longer than his prediction the last time they’d seen each other. He knows Jinyoung is the most successful out of all of them and his career is pointing up, which confirms what Jaebum knew all along: Jinyoung was meant for bigger, better things.
He looks around at his apartment, half populated by furniture that doesn’t match, the broken dreams of newlyweds and young couples and even in this mess, he sees more of Suzy than himself. He’s not expressive, he thinks, but he knows this is a lie. He’s afraid, so, so afraid of taking a plunge into anything, he’s afraid of extremes, he is so afraid of making the wrong choice that he makes no choice at all. He floats from birthday to birthday, like a moth unable to reach the sun; simply slamming its body against whatever the nearest light is.
Maybe it’s being late on rent, maybe it’s exhaustion from working three jobs, maybe it’s the sting from hearing Suzy list her reasons of why she couldn’t be with someone like him, how he lacked passion, initiative, how his life was stagnant and would continue if he didn’t wake up, but he decides to do just that: to wake up. To plunge himself into territories he’s never been before.
And the more he thinks of change, of what he truly wants, the more he thinks of Jinyoung four years ago in that beach house, looking scared but determined. He remembers his own urge to lean forward and kiss him and how, even if Jinyoung frowned, it had been liberating; that was him living, he thinks, and he wants more of it.
He wonders if Jinyoung is up to something, if he’ll be returning. He visits often, he knows, and maybe next time, maybe between meetings and coffee dates he’ll meet up with Jaebum. There’s so much he wants to talk about.
Jaebum opens up each window to let the light pour in. From his closet he retrieves his camera equipment, mind buzzing with excitement of starting something new. Without Suzy around, he has less commitment, and though he feels bad for being happy, he feels weightless. There’s less people he has to please, there’s more time for himself, for what he wants.
Maybe he’ll quit his job, maybe he’ll find a smaller place, pay less rent, maybe share a room. He’s young, he thinks, there isn’t any shame in that. Maybe his life doesn’t move as quickly as Mark’s or Jinyoung’s, but he can still be happy. He can still strive for something more.
He goes over to his phone, pulls up his contacts. He finds Jinyoung, his name still in there as Jinyoungie with a heart emoji -- the residue of a highschool-age Jinyoung -- and he wonders if the number has changed.
He sets his phone down and starts to clean up the apartment, separating things that aren’t his, that are Suzy’s. She’ll have to take it away, he thinks, because he’s done. He’s done living for others, he’s done caging himself into roles that other people need.
He’ll find himself, he thinks. He’ll take these months to find himself and live with purpose. He’ll experiment, he’ll film. He’ll hang out with friends, he’ll worry less, he’ll drink, he’ll sing, he’ll fall in love. He’ll be happy.
He sends a text to the number: Jinyoung? This is Jaebum.
Then he waits, because this new life requires waiting. Because building a cocoon and emerging takes time and processes and stages and he’s okay with that as long as he’s not alone, as long as the person on the other end replies, as long as he has something to dream towards.
There is no time to think that, maybe, perhaps, Jinyoung has forgotten about him, or dating someone else, or simply doesn’t care, but there had always been something between them, something unspoken, though he knows he’s never had the words for it. Doubts he ever will.
There’s something electric between them, he dreams, a current that brings them together. There’s no other reason why he should think of JInyoung now, anyway, so it must be meant to be. The universe pushing them together. Fate pointing with every bit of light, every color, for them to meet.
His phone rings once, then twice. Then it vibrates.
Jaebum is almost scared to look, and while he waits, while he frets, suddenly nervous -- a child again -- the phone vibrates another time. He clicks the button and the screen lights up.
There are two texts: from Suzy, from Jinyoung.
Jinyoung’s says: Yeah. Is this Jaebum? I’ve been thinking about you! I’m going back to visit, I really want to see you.
Suzy’s says: call me.
The text from Jinyoung makes him nervous again, so out of his routine, so wild and spectacular, as if it’s been gilded and thrown into space and arrives to him now, glittering, a fallen star, a chance at hope. He doesn’t know how to respond, not yet, so he dials Suzy’s number.
She picks up on the third ring.
“Yeah, what’s up? Did you forget anything?”
“I -- I need to talk to you. In person.”
“I can’t,” Jaebum says, suddenly seeing his life in front of him; spreading out; unrolling like an old map and he sees the x, his finger pointing at the treasure: L.A., that’s where his new life will begin, “I’m getting ready to leave. I won’t be back for a while.”
“Jaebum… Where are you going?”
“Away, Suzy. What do you care? I thought you were done with me.”
“I want to be,” Suzy says, her voice thorned; but then it soothes; it lowers again, like a wounded animal, “I want to let you be, Jaebum. I love you, you know. I just… I’m pregnant, Jaebum.”
“Suzy, I --” The map folds into itself, disappears into a pocket in his head. L.A., this glittering land of opportunity, this bright fixture in the distance flickers once, twice, then turns off like a light. It disappears. His stomach doesn’t drop, but it grows uneasy.
“We need to figure this out,” Suzy says, “We don’t have to get back together but we have to figure this out. I want you to be around.”
“I want to be around,” Jaebum says, honest about this, and then he sighs, “Do you want me to pick you up? Where are you?”
“I’ll come over,” Suzy says, her voice small, “Jaebum, I’m sorry.”
“No, no, no, no,” Jaebum’s eyes are watered but he smiles, “Don’t be. I -- I’m happy, I’m just a little surprised. I’ll see you here.”
“Okay,” she whispers, or says, he isn’t sure; she sounds miles away, “I’ll see you.”
When she hangs up, he looks back at his phone, Jinyoung’s text still floating on the screen, unopened. He ignores it and goes into his contacts, finds Jinyoung’s name, deletes it and goes into the kitchen. He’ll have to get another job, he thinks as he starts making food for him, for Suzy, he’ll have to move to a smaller place, he’ll prepare for this turn that life has pushed him in.
He’ll survive. He’ll surrender.
For two years he roams, if this is what roaming is. He has two different positions in two years, one lasts eight months, the other however long this one is. He isn’t sure of when he’ll quit -- but quitting is not the word, either. These are carefully curated, advancements, opportunities; this is him reaping the benefits of years of hard work.
Yet, no matter the praise, no matter what he earns, he feels untethered. There is no home for him, not here in L.A. where he rents an empty apartment, where he brings home dates sometimes, where he hosts parties, where he has the life prescribed to him and where he follows the rules.
It’s been six years since Jaebum kissed him, four since they last saw each other, two since the random text had entered his life and here he is again, on the couch, thinking about this sad excuse of a love story. It’s strange, he thinks, to still dream of him, to see him in crowds, to wonder what he’s doing, to think about him so deeply that he’s no longer a person but a symbol of a life he could have had. Maybe if he hadn’t left with Jackson, maybe if he’d stayed, maybe if he’d kissed him back, maybe if the current hadn’t pushed him out of that house, out of that life.
Lately, the current has stilled, satisfied with where he is in life and Jinyoung has been left to enjoy the stillness of it, the security. But the current has left him dizzy with wonder. It’s left him hungry.
He twists in his sofa, pulls out his phone, scrolls through his contacts and finds Jaebum.
Maybe he’s lonely, he thinks, but the parade of people that enter and leave his house is endless. There is no time to be lonely -- he has friends, he has lovers -- and searching Jaebum out, well, it might be the current. That would explain why his insides shift, why his blood seems to rush and point in the direction of North, where Jaebum might be.
He might visit his hometown, he thinks. It’s been a while since he’s seen Jackson, anyway, now one of his closest, oldest friends. The rest have scattered, but Jackson remains, their relationship unburdened by romance. He’d even been picked as the godfather for his son -- it’s funny how relationships change and grow and mature, pruning themselves as the years go by. They used to fuck on top of cars, they used to stay up all night to see the sun rise, they used to make promises in the shower, and now Jinyoung sends cards for his birthday and for his son’s and now Jinyoung has become an uncle and they are friends and Jinyoung is happy, a different kind of happy for him.
Maybe that happiness had always been there, guiding him, disguised as something else, or maybe Jinyoung just wasn’t mature enough to see the difference.
And as he thinks of Jackson, his heart swells with love, the pure kind, the one like colorless light that pours in, that fills him and leaves him empty of want. The kind that refills itself, doesn’t need tending, and when he thinks of Jaebum, he feels a different kind of love. This one requires something . Maybe not reciprocation, maybe nothing else, but it feels him with a need to see him -- no matter if the last time.
His finger hovers over Jaebum’s name, still “Beom” with a heart attached, still the same name as he’d first put in high school. Jaebum had put his full name into his phone but Jinyoung had changed it.
He presses dial, the phone rings, but Jaebum never picks up. Jinyoung leaves a message:
“Hey, I’m trying to reach Im Jaebum. This is Jinyoung, from high school. I’m going to be in town for a weekend, was wondering if you wanted to meet and catch up. It’s been a long time. Call me back at this number, thanks.”
The phone clicks and his heart skips and by the time Jaebum texts back that yes, he’d love to catch up, that he’ll pick him up from the airport if he wants, Jinyoung already has his ticket bought.
He doesn’t know what to expect. It’s been four years, and he imagines this wedge of time between them, like a thick curtain of air. He imagines it will warp how they see each other, that Jaebum might walk right past his table at this restaurant and that Jinyoung might let him, not knowing any better. Around him, forks and spoons clatter against ceramic and the voice of people rises, mixes with the air, everything so busy and alive and so different from his apartment. Even this is a shift.
Jaebum arrives and says Jinyoung’s name and Jinyoung says his name back and he rises, they come together, they embrace. Then they sit and Jinyoung is shocked about how casual this all this. That this might be happening. That this isn’t a dream. Jaebum sits across from him, now 28, somehow thinner than before, just as handsome. His cheekbones are sharper than ever, his lips as curved, his nose as bumped; there are more moles, a tired look to his eyes; there are lines under them, but these look handsome, well-earned.
“You look the same,” Jaebum says, and Jinyoung notices that he’s less guarded, more open. It’s what age does, he thinks; it wears down your walls; it makes you care less.
“Thank you, you look old -- well, older than when I last saw you.”
Jaebum smiles, “Six years ago?”
He’s wearing a black shirt, a black coat, and it makes him look paler than he is. Jinyoung fiddles with his fingers under the table and he decides this is what love should feel like: the years peeling back, a childish look returning; a giddiness; a lightness; the sudden weight and stress not gone, but forgotten for a second.
He decides that this is what love should feel like: a desire for another person, not just their smile, not just their lips, but their life -- a hunger to know exactly everything about them. Their high points, their lowest, what’s filled their past four years, what keeps them up at night, what do they think about -- and, oh, does he dream of Jinyoung, too?
But these questions are laced with a weight that has no place here, in this place where people talk about films and avoid politics and gossip about the friends that couldn’t make it.
And to this, he says, “It’s kind of stuffy in here, huh?”
“I -- it’s not the place I’d usually go to.”
Jinyoung’s head tilts with fascination -- he has places he frequents, usual spots, and though these have always been here, it’s exciting now when he’s confident enough to ask that they go, no longer a shy boy that holds his crush at arm’s length so that he doesn’t get hurt. Because he doesn’t feel like he’s enough.
For once, he feels his age, feels the years pressing up under his skin and they glow because he’s done everything he set his mind to, because he’s successful, because the world is still a bright place to conquer and now he feels like Jaebum’s equal.
“Do you want to get out of here? I’d rather be somewhere you’re used to going -- I just wanted to catch up.”
Jaebum gives him a look with no clear meaning, his head tipped forward, his eyes not blank but busy with thought; dark in this side of the restaurant, outside, with only scattered street lights to splash him in light. This gaze remains with him after the waiter comes and they leave and they board Jaebum’s car and are on their way.
They ride in silence for a minute, the music loud enough to fill the gaps in the silences; then Jaebum turns it down, and Jinyoung, who’d been busy studying the passing sights, trying to locate every tiny change, turns to him.
“This reminds me of that time you called me crying,” he says, “Remember? Before you left for Spain.”
“Yeah, I remember.” Jinyoung smiles. “I was kind of crazy back then.”
“You were just young -- really young. And in love with Jackson.”
Jaebum smiles and Jinyoung chuckles.
“That was a long time ago.”
He means to say more but the surroundings become familiar, so familiar that he holds his breath; they approach the beach, a row of houses lining them and one in particular stands out. It looks unchanged beneath a new layer of paint, the windows hold different curtains.
“You’re still dating Suzy?” he asks, feels his heart quiver.
“No, uh -- no, we aren’t. But I’m practically family,” he answers, parking the car in the driveway. The engine cuts off, Jaebum turns to face Jinyoung, “We’ll park here, go on the beach -- there’s a little food stand a block away almost. It’s nice, you’ll like it.”
That’s how he ends up walking on the beach with Jaebum until they hit the sidewalk again, the moon hanging in the sky like a coin, the lights around them buzzing, the houses silent. He wants to press himself against Jaebum and hold his hand and live the fantasy he’d dreamed when he was young, but now his urges take different forms. He wants to ask him about his life rather than imagine it. He wants to know his intentions, too.
“Are you still making short movies?”
Jaebum hums, “I’m trying to get back into it. I -- I’ve been busy these years.”
“Working,” Jaebum says, “I -- I also have a daughter, if you didn’t know.”
“I didn’t.” Jinyoung pauses for a beat, as does his heart, his steps. The world freezes, then resumes. “Can I -- see a picture of her?”
Jaebum turns to him, then points at the food stall they’re approaching. He pulls out his phone, stops walking. Jinyoung stops, too.
Then Jaebum lifts his phone and shows him a toddler wearing blue, paused at a park, looking at the camera like it’s lost.
“Her name’s Yeji. She’s gonna be two in a month.”
Jaebum looks so proud as he flips to another picture, this one of Yeji in Jaebum’s arms -- they’re standing in front of a rosebush. Then the image blurs, the phone blurs, Jaebum’s fingers blur, the world blurs and Jinyoung realizes his eyes are tearing up. He pulls back, smiling, warm at the thought of Jaebum having this new side to him.
“She’s cute -- she looks so much like you.”
“I’ve been busy these past two years, for her. I -- I want to do things for me, too, but it’s hard. I want to make sure she’s good first.”
These are the words that linger and cloud them when they walk up to the stand and Jaebum orders and pays and soon they’re walking back to Suzy’s beach house, nibbling on their food, commenting vaguely about it.
It isn’t until they get back to the house, though, that their conversation picks up more serious questions, answers. Jaebum had never finished school, and though he hopes to start again, the chances are slim.
“Too expensive,” he says with the authority of someone with responsibility, with a little life depending on him. Maybe that’s what Jinyoung is missing, he thinks: something to work for. Something to care for. After all, all this working, all these achievements feel both exhilarating and pointless. There is no one he’s trying to impress -- at least, no one that’s listening.
“Are you and Suzy going to get back together?” Jinyoung asks, stirring his food around with his fork. The beachouse is in sight, Jaebum’s car parked in front of it.
“No,” Jaebum sighs, and when Jinyoung looks, he’s smiling, “I guess I was right after all.”
“What I told you that one time -- how you should be with someone that makes you excited. Someone you actually love. Suzy and me -- we were just lonely and desperate to get started on life.”
And Jinyoung knows this feeling: the impatience of life simply not beginning. Of preparing and preparing for something that never comes, of life not changing, simply going on, rolling over them, like a river that doesn’t care. And he knows this feeling so intimately that his lips part, he wants to tell Jaebum that he knows, that he’s done his time at that dark place where nothing, nothing changes and everything is absolutely still and there’s no way out, at least no way out they can see.
The world gets further away, life escapes their grasp again; they have to restart; they have to make something new.
“That’s the reason I left,” Jinyoung says, “And I don’t regret it -- I liked it so much, I’m so thankful -- but I was just running away. Life here… it didn’t start, I had to change everything to wake up.”
They make it to the house and Jaebum doesn’t head to his car but the door and guides Jinyoung inside, the house as dark as he remembers. They keep walking to the back sliding door, step out onto the beach. Jinyoung leaves his food behind, as does Jaebum, and they find a spot on the beach to sit in.
“I’m still stuck,” Jaebum says after a second, “I still feel like I’m eighteen, and I have the same dreams, but none of them have ever been close enough to grab at.”
“You have to work for them.”
“I have to work for other things -- that’s the problem. I’m busy surviving, there’s no time to dream.”
They both hum, dig their toes into the sand. The waves keep forming and breaking, filling their ears, soothing them.
“Do you take a lot of people out here?” Jinyoung asks.
“No -- why would I?”
“I don’t know,” Jinyoung shrugs, “On dates?”
Jaebum snorts, and when Jinyoung looks, he’s smiling; not like before; not like he has been. He looks younger than he is, smirking, and Jinyoung is reminded of when they first met. Of those initial years of dreaming about Jaebum; of thinking that something might happen someday. And here he is, appearing like a ghost over those lips, curling them so that around them the years start to peel back. So Jinyoung’s heart starts racing and he’s eighteen again, debating if to wish for Jaebum or not.
“Is this a date?”
“I -- I didn’t -- well, no, it isn’t.” Confident Jinyoung is gone, leaves behind a tongue-tied one with ears that get too warm, with cheeks that flush.
“No -- on dates we kiss. And we, you know.” He ends it with a shrug and Jaebum’s laughter skates in the air.
“So that one time, before you left for Spain -- that was a date?”
“No, that was -- no that wasn’t.”
“But we kissed.”
“You kissed me,” Jinyoung says, shaking his head, knowing this is playful and that Jaebum is teasing but Jaebum keeps inching closer over the sand and Jinyoung feels it shift beneath him -- or at least he does -- and he looks at Jaebum’s fingers disappearing into the sand and reappearing and bringing Jaebum closer. And this is something he’s thought about, kissing Jaebum again, but he isn’t ready, he needs to breathe for a moment.
He needs to remember who he is.
“And you didn’t like it?”
Jaebum is closer now, if Jinyoung wanted, he could lean in and kiss him there. He’s close enough that when Jaebum’s gaze falls to his lips, Jinyoung is painfully aware.. And he wants to kiss him -- oh, does he want to -- but his lips open, his voice acts by itself.
“Do you know how to tango?”
Jaebum doesn’t answer, instead his gaze lingers over Jinyoung’s lips, climbs up slowly to his eyes. Jinyoung feels studied. Then their eyes meet and Jinyoung flushes again, there’s warmth pressing up against him, wanting to be let out.
“No,” Jaebum says, licks his lips, “Are you going to teach me?”
“Yes -- I spent some time in Argentina,” Jinyoung says, watches as Jaebum leans in closer and he stands up, suddenly panicked. He brushes the sand off his pants and stretches his legs. Jaebum remains sitting for a second, not annoyed, just smiling into the distance. His movements are slow and paced, looks like he’s underwater, and he looks up at Jinyoung, smiles again. Then he stands, too, and pats himself off, though his gaze always returns to Jinyoung like metal to a magnet.
“Where should we start?”
Jinyoung lifts his arms and Jaebum mirrors him, and together, with Jinyoung ignoring the weight of Jaebum’s gaze, and Jaebum staring, smiling, they assume position. Their bodies pressed against each other, their legs rubbing.
“You have to do it like this,” Jinyoung says, leads Jaebum into three steps. Jaebum follows well, though Jinyoung only notices the arm around his waist, how much his hand sweats in Jaebum’s, how warm he is -- how warm the night becomes. They dance for two more steps, Jinyoung leading, but then Jaebum stops moving and they pause.
Each breath they take presses against the other, and Jinyoung feels the breath coming out of Jaebum’s nose, feels his gaze again.
“Like this?” Jaebum asks and he starts to lead, starts dancing so well that Jinyoung is the one that has to keep up, and it’s Jinyoung that, after moving in circles in the sand, has to catch his breath.
They pause, the hand on his back pulls him in closer and Jaebum’s breath is on his neck.
“I thought you’d forgotten about me -- after all this time,” Jinyoung whispers.
“I did,” Jaebum replies, his voice steady, firm, “I forgot.”
“Every day I forget you -- all I do is forget you. I forget about your eyes in the morning, about your lips in the afternoon -- I forget about your smile at night. Then I dream about you, just so I can forget you, and when I wake up, I do it all over again -- I’ve made progress these past years.”
They stand in silence, still pressed against one another, Jinyoung still holding his breath while Jaebum leans even closer. Jinyoung’s frown has shrunk and stretched into a little smile, though his lips remained parted; as if still surprised.
“Can I kiss you now?”
Whatever resistance he held, leaves him. He still isn’t ready, is still nervous, unsure of what one thing leads to, but he just nods and Jaebum’s lips are on him a second later. He’s dreamed about this, imagined this moment, pictured it so many times but this goes beyond all of that. This has the waves in the background, the breeze, the moon, Jaebum’s lips fit between his like shapes that were meant to be fit together, that are never meant to be apart, that now, joined in another kiss, gentle as the first, have finally found a home.
Then their arms fall -- Jaebum wraps his around Jinyoung’s waist, Jinyoung puts an arm around his shoulder and the other around his neck and they keep kissing like they’ve been waiting to for years. They kiss like the ocean might swallow them whole in a few seconds. They kiss like Jinyoung had hoped they would, almost ten years ago, before he met Jackson, before he moved, before life got so complicated.
And the world shrinks to just surround them -- the waves are only background noise, the beach ends a few inches from their feet. Jaebum’s tongue is in his mouth and that becomes part of his world, too, and his hands are sliding down his back, grabbing at his bottom and this, too, is part of the landscape.
Just as his knees are giving out, just as he’s melting into the warm body pressed against his, just as he’s ready to surrender again -- this time to Jaebum, to this fantasy of a man, somehow real and tangible -- the current returns. He can feel it coursing through the air, like a breeze, and he wants to shake his head, wants to cry, to fight it. Life never asks what he wants, it only gives him what it think he needs; what does the universe know, after all, about waiting? About patience? About hope? About knowing that this is right, knowing in his bones, so deeply that he might die if he lets go?
So he doesn’t. He pulls Jaebum tighter, shuts his eyes tightly, pulls out of the kiss to bury his head into his neck.
“Pick me up,” he says because the beach starts to tremble, and Jaebum hoists him up. His legs wrap around Jaeubm’s middle. The world goes silent.
Nothing moves, outside of their breaths, and Jinyoung takes comfort in these.
“Do you want --”
“Yes,” Jinyoung finishes. Yes to everything, let Jaebum decide, let Jaebum be his current. Jaebum starts to walk, his hands wrapped around the underside of Jinyoung’s thighs, and each step brings back the heat from before. Jinyoung hums by the time they enter the house, laughs when Jaebum struggles in opening the door with no hands -- then it swings open, shuts.
By then, Jinyoung opens his eyes and he sees a room in complete blue. There’s a window with no curtain, and the rest of the room looks equally empty. There’s a bed, a dresser, lit up in the moon and lights that sneaks in from outside. He can still see the ocean, can hear it murmuring even in there as Jaebum drops him on the bed and hovers over him.
Everything is so peaceful and still -- so perfect.
“Jinyoung, I --”
He cuts him off again, this time with a finger. He doesn’t want to ruin this moment with words -- he cups Jaebum’s cheek with one hand, then leans back on the bed and Jaebum gets the message. Jaebum stands back up, grabs the collar of his shirt and tugs it off, then undoes his belt, then goes his pants, and Jinyoung does the same but he’s slower and clumsy. He likes to watch Jaebum undress, doesn’t want to miss a single second of fabric sliding off of him; of each muscle tensing and loosening; of his silhouette moving against the lights outside, each time slimmer, smoother, until all that’s left is the taut outline.
Then Jaebum’s hands reach forward and help undo Jinyoung’s belt, pull of his jeans, his underwear, his socks -- leaves him naked and trembling, not with nerves but with excitement. Eight years worth.
And then Jaebum’s hand slide all over him, like boats drifting along shores, trying to find their home. Jaebum’s fingers pull his legs apart, then touch his thighs, then skate over his stomach, find his hair. Jaebum’s lips press against his, then kiss his neck, then close around his nipples, all in silence.
They never speak, not even when Jaebum straddles Jinyoung’s chest and slides the tip of his erection over Jinyoung’s lips, not even when he flips Jinyoung around, grabs his ass, pulls his cheeks apart to eat him out for a small eternity.
They only speak later, when Jaebum is sitting up, his legs stretched in front of him and Jinyoung is in his lap, riding him slowly, their bodies moving like they’re rocking ships tied to a bay. Jinyoung’s arms are around Jaebum’s shoulders again and their gazes are tangled and stuck -- he can’t look away, and when Jaebum thrusts his hips up into him, it feels like he can’t breathe, either.
By now their foreheads are sweaty, their hair clinging to their skin. The room is cool, but the heat radiates outwards; Jinyoung feels it in his chest, in his stomach. Something pulsing, his nerves burning without the sting.
Then Jaebum says, “I’m sorry.”
Jinyoung stops rocking his hips, Jaebum holds him in place, his hands on his bottom.
“For what?” he asks and presses their foreheads together; their eyes remain locked on each other. His voice is just a whisper, a tiny breath.
“For not finding you, for not telling you, for not giving you everything I could have I -- I’m sorry.”
Jinyoung sucks in a breath and starts rocking his hips again, still slow, feels Jaebum press against his walls; his cock stretching him; making him feel small and tight and warm and present. Jaebum, in response, tightens his grip on his ass, starts guiding Jinyoung along, quickening their pace.
Then Jinyoung closes his eyes and bends his neck back and holds on to the back of Jaebum’s neck.
“I’m sorry, too,” he mutters. Another sound -- a quiet moan -- tries to escape his throat.
“For what?” Jaebum’s breaths are heavy now.
“I don’t know? For loving you -- for choosing you.”
This time they don’t stop, but Jinyoung feels Jaebum’s hips stutter. Then Jaebum takes hold of his waist and his fingers make creases into Jinyoung’s skin, not enough to bruise, not enough to hurt, but enough to feel held -- enough to be grounded. For so many years he’s floated, not like people usually float, not without direction, but he’s never stayed in one place. And now, as Jaebum tilts him back onto the mattress and bends him in half so that his ankles rest on his broad shoulders and he fucks into him desperately, the room filling with the slap of skin, with their breaths, their occasional moans, he feels, finally, in place.
Jaebum turns him sideways -- one of his legs stretched out, the other bent, held in that position by Jaebum’s grip on his thigh -- and teaches him about a different current, not one outside but one within that runs through his veins, that courses through him, that doesn’t bend light but leaves tiny motes of light behind his eyes when they roll back and his nerves become awash in this current -- electric and sensual.
A current that runs from inside, that he controls.
His fingers grip the sheets when Jaebum turns him onto his stomach and his lower body jiggles and writhes and his mouth opens and closes against the sheet. His toes curl, his breaths stagger, and then it’s over -- Jaebum presses down against him and kisses his shoulder and he feels the entirety of Jaebum’s weight holding him down as his insides fill with Jaebum’s spurts.
Jaebum kisses his shoulder again, then his neck, then nibbles on his ear. By the time he rolls over next to Jinyoung, laying on his back, Jinyoung’s senses return to him.
How sweaty they are -- how wet everything feels, the folds in his skin, by his joints, the wet hair -- and the cum that leaks out of him. The boiling heat in the room that, despite its discomfort, doesn’t stop him from rolling over and resting his head on Jaebum’s shoulder. The waves outside, still singing their song, narrating their story; this little story of missed opportunities, of choices, of deceptions -- a string of mistakes and repressed loves that make up a life. A normal, chaotic life.
But now it’s come to a close, he thinks, because he can see Jaebum’s chest start to calm down and he reaches over to run his finger over the head of his cock -- now flaccid, leaking some still -- and wets his finger and drags it over Jaebum’s stomach so he can watch it glimmer in the moonlight, sharp highlights that contrast against the fuzziness of the room.
“You can come back with me,” Jinyoung hears himself say, from another room, from another life -- one he’s abandoned for this new one, in this barren room with no curtains and a simple mattress with a sheet.
Yet, Jaebum doesn’t respond. Jaebum is staring at the window and Jinyoung notices that his eyes look far away, too, still stuck in that other life. He drapes his leg over Jaebum’s middle when the silence persists, figures they must be too tired; that the answer will come in the morning. He says nothing as his eyes close and he starts drifting off to sleep, his last conscious thought is how good it feels when Jaebum kisses the top of his head.
The answer does come in the morning, but not in words. He wakes up to Jaebum fully dressed, walking into the room. Outside, the sky is blue, and there’s a distant bustle of life. Jaebum has clean sheets in his hands and that’s all it takes for Jinyoung to understand.
Jaebum moves in front of the window, blocks the view and that’s when he notices Jinyoung’s awake.
They look at one another like this, and the more Jaebum looks at him, the farther away he seems -- he looks apologetic, and Jinyoung imagines he must look heartbroken.
His figure looks distant, distant enough that he almost blends in with the sky behind him -- with the beach in the background. Jaebum will always be that: a sky he can never hope to touch, always out of his grasp, always present but never tangible. Like a ghost he can’t shake.
Jaebum trails off, so Jinyoung finishes for him, “You can’t come with me.”
“You have Yeji, you have a family -- you have a life here.”
Jaebum’s eyes widen, then thin. His lips press into a thin line.
“I feel stuck between the person I am and the person I need to be,” Jaebum says but Jinyoung’s no longer listening. He slides off the bed and finds his clothes, pulls it on, tries to ignore the pounding in his ears. In a minute, he’s already walking out of the room. Jaebum follows.
“I meant what I said last night, Jinyoung -- I just need time -- please, don’t disappear. Keep in touch with me.”
The last part is soft, Jinyoung barely hears it, but he does. He turns around, faces him one last time.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea, Jaebum. I -- I don’t think I want that,” he says, firm. When he walks outside, he thinks he’s crying.
He lifts his hands to rub his eyes but they aren’t wet. The world is blurry, but not behind tears, and it takes a few blinks to realize that the current is there. For the first time, it bumbles in the day; it cuts the world into a million strokes of a paintbrush and by now, with his heart not broken but hurt and still beating, like a wounded animal finding repose, he has no strength to fight the current.
It has given him a good life, good choices, always led him away -- away from this, away from pain. A boring life, but a sustainable one. Maybe things will change, he thinks, if he commits himself fully. If he loses himself in this wild, wonderful curse life has put on him.
His head turns to where the world pulses with clarity. He walks in that direction without looking back.
Jaebum turns thirty in the corner room of the karaoke place. Around him is Mark trying to sing, all of his syllables sticking together and coming out as one long slur. Bambam is asleep on one of the couches, Youngjae still sipping beer. Jaebum is painfully sober.
No one notices that it turns to midnight, there is no cake, there is no singing. He excuses himself, though no one is listening, and heads to the bathroom outside. There he pulls up the video Suzy had sent of Yeji singing happy birthday to him. He watches once without a smile, his face twisted in wonder and awe; that’s his daughter, he thinks; he’s her father. There’s a connection there that can’t be broken.
By the third time he watches, the room starts to shift. The lights don’t flicker, though, but they seem to bleed. Like the light were water and it were pouring out, sliding down the walls. He blinks a few times, splashes his face with water, and then it’s gone.
He heads back into the room and Mark still has the microphone in one hand, but he’s no longer singing. His eyes are closed and Youngjae is kissing his neck, murmuring his girlfriend’s name. Jaebum takes a look around, then grabs his bag, shakes his head.
“There’s an hour left -- make sure you guys get out,” he says and Mark nods. By then they should be sober, he hopes. Mark has always been responsible.
He leaves the room, passes down the hall, the rooms bouncing with sound at either side of him. He wants to think of what lives might be unfolding in there, what they could be celebrating, but he’s too tired to think; tired enough that the lights start to pulse again, throbbing like a headache.
Thirty, he thinks, as he finds the front door and rubs his eyes. Such a definitive age -- he’s meant to be somewhere other than here. He should be looking back at all he’s achieved, but instead he’s wondering what else might come. He’s only now paying off everything he owes, finally satisfied with what he’s managed to give Yeji. He’s tried dating Suzy a few times since then but they’re better as friends.
And Jinyoung -- he thinks of Jinyoung now as he steps out onto the street and every single light outside looks broken and streaked -- as if someone has rubbed their fingers over wet paint. He thinks of Jinyoung as the breeze hits him -- but it isn’t a breeze; nothing rustles his clothes, but he feels pushed.
He should be scared, probably, but he feels an overwhelming calm. He turns, to the left and starts to walk, letting this invisible breeze guide him, his thoughts all pointing to Jinyoung.
It takes him to his car, leads him to a gas station. He fills the tank up and the lights around him, glowing, patient, seem to wait for him. Once he’s back inside, they twist and turn again, pointing at the distance, telling him to drive and drive and drive and he does as he’s told -- he leaves the city behind. Above him, even the stars are streaked and pointing, guiding him like a careful mother.
He drives past cities and fills his tank again, keeps driving even when he feels exhausted and tired. He does not take a break, he follows this path of lights all the way to L.A. And, once there, the lights don’t flicker, they don’t settle. Instead they shine with more urgency and point more desperately -- no longer bothering to hold their shape. The world becomes a blob of light.
He makes it down the highway, to an exit, turns on a few streets. He’s never been here, he realizes; thirty years and he hasn’t traveled far -- hasn’t left home. He’s surprised that his car has made it, but more surprised that he feels no fear. The lights take him to wider streets, then homes; the lights of the city glimmer in the distance.
The lights throb in his head when he parks the car, then the breeze pushes him out. Then, as if escorting him, it blows gently behind him; like a whisper; something that almost tickles his ears.
Down the sidewalk, towards the apartment complexes. Towards some in the corner, next to a small patch of grass; up some stairs, towards a door. Morning has started to peek out all around him; everything is blue and gray and stuck in place. The lights no longer pulse, but he still feels a throb in his chest -- his heart is racing, he thinks, notices from miles away. His hand rises and he rings the doorbell.
It takes a minute for the door to open, a few seconds for him to make out the image of Jinyoung there, rubbing his eyes, looking tired. A few more and the image of Jaebum standing at his doorstep settles, and a single second for his lips to pause, to frown, then to smile. The feeling of being home, Jaebum realizes, has always been here.
“Hey,” Jinyoung says.
“Hey,” Jaebum answers, smiles himself, “It’s my birthday.”
“Why didn’t you call me?”
Jinyoung leans against the doorframe, smiling like he’s trying to hold laughter back; like this is amusing and funny, this man that drove all night to be here, the man that’s been waiting for longer to be here.
“I don’t know,” Jinyoung whispers, holds out his hand; Jaebum takes it, “Something told me you’d be here.”
Jinyoung leads him inside, then closes the door.