Chanyeol was lost in the haze above the city.
Sometimes, when he stared out the window for too long, his mind would creep out into the ever-present clouds that encircled the skyscrapers. His vision strained towards the misty horizon as if trying to find the edge of the city, though he knew that was impossible to see from where he was.
“Park. Park?” An urgent voice snapped him back behind the windows, back inside the fluorescent, spare office.
“Sorry, sir. Can I help you?”
His director sighed. “I know the afternoon’s getting late, but we need to finish the report before tomorrow. I found some additional information about the company’s portfolio I was hoping you could incorporate.”
“It’s no problem, sir. I’ll be here until the job is done.”
“Thank you, Park. The information's all here." Junmyeon handed a thick stack of papers to Chanyeol and returned to his corner office.
Chanyeol got back to work, trying to ignore the pull of the view outside his window. Lately, he’d been more prone to daydreaming, floating out to the clouds and letting himself gently drift towards the past. When he’d first started working at the bank, he’d been dazzled by the 50th-floor view, but even more so by his work – the flashy computer and multiple monitors, the high-profile analysis they’d assigned him. Now, he just wanted to gaze out at the city, watch it breathe, watch the clouds condense and rain themselves down as they did almost every afternoon. He wished he could see the sunset, but it rained most days, and the days that it didn’t rain, he was invariably absorbed in work and forgot to look out at the right time.
Chanyeol didn’t leave the office until 9PM that night. That was only a bit later than average. At the 7/11 by the train station, he stopped to pick up some “food”. Whatever was left in the warming boxes, chips, cookies, soft drinks. He’d scarf them down while watching TV at his tiny cell of an apartment. Maybe tomorrow he’d splurge on something more filling, more satisfying.
He stepped back out into the rain, which at night made the city shine slick. As he trudged through mirror puddles, he picked up an achingly delicious scent. Was that… sizzling butter? Sweet cornbread? And maybe some kind of barbecue? He peered up at the neon signs for some indication of what restaurant might be responsible for this ambrosia, but nothing fit the bill. He craned his neck down alleys in case there was an improbable soul food street vendor. He could swear he smelled maple syrup beans. But there were no street vendors at this time of night in this kind of weather.
Chanyeol continued trudging home, but now he couldn’t help fantasizing about the food of his childhood. And the best meal he’d ever eaten.
It had been a night like this. Rainy. But there, in his hometown, the dark earth soaked up all the rain, and the town was so quiet that every rumble of thunder could be heard clearly. Chanyeol was running home from school with his jacket over his head, cursing himself for forgetting an umbrella again. It was only early evening, but the sky was almost as dark as midnight. He paused at a forgotten bus stop to see if he could wait out the downpour.
He was visibly shivering and trying to wring out his jacket when a beat-up old car slowed down in front of him. It took Chanyeol a moment to notice it because the headlights were shot. The driver leaned over to crank down the window. “Want a ride?”
It was one of his classmates, Jongin. Chanyeol’s main impression of him was that he slept a lot in class, probably because he played on all the sports teams, but he seemed nice enough. Chanyeol hopped in to the car, trying not to touch anything in case he got it wet.
“It’s not much, but it still drives,” said Jongin.
“Thank you.” Chanyeol tried not to shiver too violently.
Jongin eyed him. “I’m sorry, but the heater’s broken too.”
“Here, at least have some hot tea. My thermos is in the cup-holder.”
Chanyeol held the thermos in his hands, pressing against the warmth. The tea he sipped warmed him from the inside, and before long he had chugged the whole thing.
“Um, it’s Chanyeol, right?”
“Yeah. Sorry. You’re Jongin.”
Jongin was watching the road carefully as they slid through the rainy street, but his warm brown eyes seemed concerned.
“Listen, Chanyeol, my house is right up there. Why don’t you stop by, dry off and warm up for a second before I take you home?”
Chanyeol felt uncomfortable accepting a mere acquaintance’s kindness. “Oh it’s OK, it’s f-fine.”
Now Jongin looked over at him. “Dude, it’s basically snowing out there. You look hypothermic. Please. Just for a minute. Is there anyone expecting you at home?”
The question hurt a little bit, and Chanyeol’s face must have fallen, because Jongin quickly continued. “Never mind then, just come warm up. See, here we are.” He pulled up into the driveway of a dilapidated but cozy-looking house.
With trepidation, Chanyeol followed Jongin in, trying to squelch out the wetness from his boots before he stepped inside.
He was greeted by the most amazing scent he had ever smelled. Warm, sweet, rich. “It smells so good!” he exclaimed before he could stop himself.
Jongin laughed, his eyes and nose crinkling up. “Yeah, my mom’s making cornbread tonight. You want to try some?”
Again, Chanyeol was at a loss for words in his abashment. He already felt like he was imposing too much. But Jongin was pushing him onto the bench in the entryway and saying, “Just take off your boots here. I’ll put your jacket on the radiator.”
Jongin returned with some towels and a plate of steaming golden cornbread. Chanyeol eyed it hungrily. He was tearing it apart with his hands when a woman appeared in the entryway. “Kim Jongin! Why haven’t you invited this guest in? Where are your manners?”
Chanyeol scrambled upright, almost slipping in his wet socks. “Ma’am, sorry, I was just going to dry off for a second…” but she cut him off.
“My god, you’re soaked to the bone! You’ll catch a cold! Get in here this instant!” Jongin looked embarrassed, but Chanyeol had no choice but to follow the woman into the brightly lit kitchen, still clutching the towels. She quickly busied herself with arranging his outer layers on the radiator. Jongin sat down at the table next to Chanyeol.
“Are you a senior too, darling? Jongin’s year?” asked Mrs. Kim.
“Such good manners.” She winked at Chanyeol while laying out plates of food for him and Jongin. Obediently, Jongin began to eat. Chanyeol was amazed by how quickly the food disappeared. Chanyeol picked up his spoon and dug in to the puddle of brown, soupy beans.
His taste buds were hit by ecstasy. He closed his eyes. The warm light of the kitchen pressed against his eyelids, the radiator warmed his back, and the delicious food filled his empty stomach. Next to him, the calm normalcy of Jongin and his mother gave him a feeling he didn’t quite know how to describe. Like he was in a home, not just a house.
From then on, on rainy days and sometimes even not-rainy days, Jongin would give Chanyeol a ride home. He and Chanyeol lived on the same long lane that wound away from the school, and though Chanyeol was more than a mile further, Jongin was just one of those people who could insist on going out of their way for you. He had a natural kindness and the grace to make you feel at ease. Chanyeol offered him gas money, but Jongin said he would accept cigarettes. Chanyeol was old enough to buy them. Frankly, they were more expensive than the gas would have cost, but he didn’t mind.
Sometimes they would stop at the levee and smoke. There was a gnarled tree with wide, dense branches that offered some cover from the rain. Chanyeol didn’t smoke, but occasionally tried a cigarette for camaraderie with Jongin. One day, he worked up the courage to ask Jongin about it.
“Why don’t you quit smoking? Aren’t you the star of the football team?”
Jongin laughed, tapping the cigarette ash out into the wind. “Thanks, but that will end soon. I’m not trying for college sports or anything. Anyway, it’s a habit I picked up from my dad.”
Chanyeol’s whole life revolved around getting out of this town by going to college. He pressed Jongin. “But you could definitely get an athletic scholarship, couldn’t you?”
“Maybe. But I already have a job lined up at the mill. That will pay. A lot. Unlike going into debt for more school.”
Chanyeol didn’t say anything, just watched Jongin’s full lips close around the cigarette as he took a long drag. Jongin saw him watching, and smiled after he exhaled. “What about you, then? Always staying late at school to study.”
“I’m trying to get into the city college. That’s been my dream since we first moved here.”
Jongin clapped Chanyeol on the shoulder. “That’s great, man. I’m sure you’ll get in.” Another blinding smile, and he got back in the car.
Jongin and Chanyeol. The jock and the nerd. Their high school was small enough that the social boundaries weren’t rigid. Nobody batted an eye when they started carpooling together every day. They were neighbors, after all.
They didn’t always talk in the car. Jongin spoke a lot when he was fretting over something, trying to fix something, or trying to take care of Chanyeol, but he was surprisingly shy beyond that. Chanyeol sometimes went on tangents about his nerdy interests, but mostly he was lost in the clouds of trying to get into college, trying to save money, trying to stop his mom from drinking too much. On a particularly quiet ride home, Jongin flipped on the radio. A plaintive song filled the car. It was a tune that everyone knew.
Chanyeol hummed along. When the chorus came, he couldn’t help but sing along quietly. “Country roads, take me home… to the place… I belong…”
“Whoa, you have a good voice!” Jongin whistled appreciatively. “You’ve been holding out on me. Keep going!” But Chanyeol was too embarrassed. He felt his ears turning red. He’d only ever sung alone in his room.
“I have a shit voice,” said Jongin. “I wish I could sing like you, I’d sing all the time!”
“No, I don’t know how to sing at all…” Chanyeol protested.
“But you have a good voice. I mean, the kind of voice that’s just plain nice to listen to.” Now it was Jongin’s turn to blush.
To cover Jongin’s embarrassment, Chanyeol kept singing. “Driving down the road, I get a feeling that I should have been home yesterday… yesterday…”
At the chorus, Jongin joined him, singing very quietly. He carried his voice close to him, caught in his mouth, not like Chanyeol’s deep, chesty baritone.
As they pulled up to Chanyeol’s house, the song ended, and they sat there in silence for a moment. Chanyeol didn’t want to go inside. It had been the last day of school before winter break, and two weeks of emptiness stretched out in front of him.
“Y’know…” “Do you…” They spoke at the same time.
“You go ahead,” said Jongin.
“I was just gonna say you have a good voice too!” Chanyeol insisted. Jongin’s caramel skin turned pink. “Sorry, what were you going to say?”
“Oh, nothing. Just… have a good break.”
Chanyeol opened the door and stretched one long leg out of the car. “I’ll try,” he muttered, swinging the other leg around.
Jongin’s hand caught his arm. “Wait, Chanyeol.” He looked back. Those brown eyes shone up at him. “Is everything OK?”
“I’m fine.” Jongin’s grip tightened, and Chanyeol was pulled back into the seat.
“C’mon, man. I’ve never seen anyone at your house. Are you at least going somewhere for the holiday?”
Chanyeol swallowed. “No. But my mom’s here. She works night shifts at the hospital.”
“Do you want to… come by my place one night? All my family from around here crowds over at our place for the week. You’ll fit right in. And my mom pulls out all the stops on her cooking.”
It was awfully tempting. Chanyeol imagined the warmth and light of Jongin’s house. The warmth and light of Jongin himself.
“S-sure. Thank you.”
The night after Christmas, Chanyeol found himself standing outside Jongin’s house. There was a light coating of snow on the lawn. He felt like an idiot. In one hand he was clutching a bottle of wine, in the other, the handle of his guitar case. He could hear many voices emanating from the cozy home, the rattling of floors as people walked about, the clanking of plates and cups. This had been a terrible idea. He was already flushing with embarrassment, and he turned to walk the cold mile back to his silent house.
“Chanyeol?” a voice called out. It was Jongin. “There you are! I thought I saw you through the window. I was waiting for you!”
Now Chanyeol was caught. He was drawn towards Jongin’s lanky frame, a shadow in the glowing doorway.
“Yeah, I brought my guitar. I though maybe we could… sing Christmas carols?” It sounded so stupid now. But Jongin’s face brightened.
“That sounds awesome! The kids will love it. Please come in.” He reached for Chanyeol’s guitar case, and their hands brushed. Jongin leaned forward to whisper in his ear. “I have to warn you, Chanyeol, my family is kind of overwhelming…”
But he was interrupted by a familiar shriek. “Oh, darling, you’re finally here! And such a kind gift! Put it here, take off your coat…” He was bundled inside by Mrs. Kim and quickly swarmed by a gaggle of young children who were begging Jongin to play with them. From there, the night was a blur of Jongin’s family and conversation and, true to Jongin’s word, even more delicious food than the first time he had dined there.
Later, when everyone was full and a little bit tipsy and the children were sleepily lolling around on couches and chairs, Jongin asked Chanyeol to play his guitar for them. And just because it was Jongin, Chanyeol obliged. He muddled his way through the chord progressions of the Christmas carols he knew, and Jongin’s family clapped along, many of them singing too. Even his taciturn father, who worked in the coal mines several hours away and only came home on weekends, joined in. The children loved Frosty the Snowman and begged Chanyeol to play it several times.
His short repertoire of Christmas songs exhausted, Chanyeol turned to folk tunes. He’d been practicing alone in his room when he was tired of writing college application essays. When he got to the John Denver standard, the room grew quiet. It seemed everyone was content to let Chanyeol’s gravelly but sweet voice carry the tune. Jongin pulled out his phone to take a video of Chanyeol.
“Jongin, no…” Chanyeol groaned, but Jongin just grinned and kept filming.
Chanyeol kept strumming. “Life is old there, older than the trees, younger than the mountains, growing like a breeze…”
Jongin gave Chanyeol a ride home. They stopped at the levee because Jongin said he was itching for a smoke after all the alcohol. It was a perfectly clear night, and they stood out by the bank of the water and looked up at the stars. As Jongin ground his cigarette into the dirt, a bird dropped from a nearby branch and soared noiselessly over the water.
“An Eastern screech owl,” said Jongin. “You’re lucky.”
“They’re pretty secretive and hard to spot.”
“How did you know what kind of bird it was?” The moon was just a crescent in the sky, and the bird had been a featureless shadow to Chanyeol.
“It’s smaller than most owls, and it has big ear thingies like you.” Chanyeol reached out to shove Jongin, but Jongin’s lithe arm easily deflected him. “But seriously. I used to go birding with my dad when I was kid. There’s lots of cool birds around here. I know most of the plants too.” Jongin sat down on a flat stone near the edge of the water.
“I never really paid much attention,” admitted Chanyeol.
“You’re so focused on getting out. But to a lot of us, it’s all we have. So we’d better get to know it.” Jongin patted the small space on the stone next to him. “Sit here. It’s cold.”
Chanyeol didn’t feel that cold – probably the booze – but he sat next to Jongin anyhow, pressing up against his thin but strong frame. He could smell the cigarette smoke, the cold wind out of the woods, the clean smell of Jongin’s jacket. Jongin lit another cigarette, puffing slowly.
“Thanks for inviting me over tonight.”
“No problem. The more the merrier.”
“It was special. I don’t think I’ve… been to a Christmas gathering like that… with family. A nice, big family.” Chanyeol stumbled over his words. He wanted Jongin to know what it meant to him.
“Really?” Jongin turned to him with a little smile that was as white as the moon.
“Really.” Now Chanyeol was lost for words. He was drowning in his crush on Jongin, had been for some time. He’d heard rumors last year that Jongin was dating Jennie, the cheerleading captain. He’d shoved away any hope, settled on the thrill of just being Jongin’s neighbor. Jongin’s friend. But the way Jongin was looking at him now, Chanyeol felt like a whole world of possibility was reflected in his beautiful face.
Chanyeol was leaning forward. It was the alcohol. He told himself there was nothing to lose, it had already been a perfect night, and he was going to get the hell out of this town anyway. The distance between their faces closed. Jongin’s full lips parted.
Right at the moment that Chanyeol’s mouth reached his, Jongin grabbed his hand. They both froze. Chanyeol looked at Jongin, so near to the spray of freckles across his nose, their mouths lightly pressed together. Jongin’s eyes were closed, and his hand was warm on top of Chanyeol’s.
Chanyeol pulled back, surprised at himself. But Jongin didn’t let go of his hand. “Oh my god, I’m so sorry, sososo sorry…” Chanyeol muttered, trying to hide his face.
Jongin squeezed his hand. “It’s OK.” Chanyeol looked up at him. Jongin looked surprised. Surprised, but not upset.
Jongin examined their intertwined hands, lifted Chanyeol’s hand up. Looked into Chanyeol’s eyes and up and down his face and even at his ears, considering him. Chanyeol’s heart was pounding. He’d already appraised every bit of Jongin, and now he felt like Jongin was looking at him in the same way for the first time.
“You’re… really attractive, Chanyeol.”
“I am?” Chanyeol imagined himself as a gawky nerd whose pants and sleeves were always a bit too short. “I mean, uh, thanks. So are you.”
“I… didn’t know what it would be like,” said Jongin, more quietly.
Chanyeol blinked at him in confusion.
“I mean, kissing a guy. I guess it’s pretty much the same.”
“Sorry… I, uh… I’ve never kissed anybody before.” Chanyeol inwardly kicked himself for admitting that. But he was just relieved Jongin hadn’t wrenched himself away or recoiled from Chanyeol in disgust.
“Then you should try it some more.” Jongin leaned towards him, his face reflecting a world of nighttime stars that was opening up and pulling Chanyeol in…
Chanyeol woke with a start. His alarm was beeping, each grating noise pushing his sweet dreams further away. Grunting, he reached over and silenced his phone, annoyed that he’d forgotten to turn the alarm off for his one day of rest that week.
Ugh, those spicy 7/11 chips always gave him the weirdest dreams. Chanyeol’s breath tasted rancid, and he roused himself to go to the bathroom and brush his teeth. He hadn’t planned anything for the day. Maybe just play some video games, order some takeout, indulge in a long nap. His job was so exhausting he rarely had the energy to do anything on the weekend.
The bathroom had the only window in his apartment. Mostly, it only showed the gray, barred windows of other apartments in a thicket of buildings, but high above, Chanyeol saw a shimmering patch of blue in the sky. Good weather for once? Chanyeol checked his phone, and indeed the weather forecast was for a perfect day.
He settled back into bed, intending to go back to sleep, but the memories of his dreams pushed his mind back to the patch of blue sky. He felt like he was being pulled towards the window, towards the outdoors. He had been here for more than a year and never really explored the city.
Unbidden, Jongin’s face flashed in his mind. He hadn’t thought about Jongin in a while. Sometimes, he would dredge up the precious memories just to look at Jongin. How beautiful he had been. Though the last time he saw Jongin they were both still teenagers, Chanyeol’s mind easily and naturally aged Jongin to the age Chanyeol was today, bringing him along into the present. It was so strange how the mind played tricks like that.
Yes, he had dreamed about Jongin. Something about the memory of him gave Chanyeol a burst of energy. He vowed to go out and explore today. On his phone, he thumbed through a map of the city and found the last station on one of the subway lines. He hoped that at the edge of the city he would find more greens and blues. Those were the colors that had painted the summertime landscape of his teenage years.
After winter break, Jongin didn’t come back to school. His father had been laid off without warning when the mine paused production. But on the way to his new job at the mill, he still gave Chanyeol rides to school, picking him up super early in the morning and dropping him off before anybody else had arrived. Chanyeol was fine with moving his extra study time to the morning if it meant carpooling with Jongin.
They still rode in silence, but sometimes Chanyeol would tentatively reach for Jongin’s hand, and they would interlace their fingers.
And as sweet and shy as the morning car rides were, the nighttime trysts by the levee were without abandon. It had to be secret – they both knew that without saying. On the nights when Jongin texted him, late late after his family went to bed, Chanyeol would run as fast as he could, gulping in the cool air, to the cluster of trees by the water, hidden from the lonely road. The headlights of Jongin’s car would swing in, and he’d jump out and embrace Chanyeol while the car was still running, pulling Chanyeol back into the car with him. The backseat was too small for the two lanky boys, but it somehow held an entire world to discover.
When the weather grew warmer, they ventured out onto the loamy ground, sheltered by the roots of the old trees. Sometimes Jongin was too tired to do anything but lay in Chanyeol’s arms, exhausted from standing on the mill floor twelve hours a day. Jongin’s hands grew calloused and rough, but Chanyeol loved to kiss them all the same.
One night Chanyeol was particularly breathless when he arrived. His legs had taken him faster than ever before, propelled by adrenaline.
“Whoa, babe, are you OK?” Jongin was there waiting for him, leaning against the beat-up silver coupe.
“I got in… college… the dream…” Chanyeol gasped.
“You got in? That’s amazing! I knew it!” Jongin grabbed his arm and spun him around. “Headed to the capital city!”
“No, not the state capital. I got in to my dream school... I didn’t even tell the counselor I applied... The big, big city.” Chanyeol could barely speak with excitement. “I can’t believe they’d take me.”
“Of course they would, babe,” said Jongin. “You’re gold.”
Chanyeol saw Jongin’s smile falter, like a flickering light bulb struggling to stay lit. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I didn’t tell anyone. That way… I could hide the rejection.”
“I’m happy for you.”
He reached for Jongin. “You could come too. Apply next year. They have athletic scholarships. We can get away, we can just be ourselves in the city…”
Jongin held his hand, but didn’t draw him closer. “Don’t even say that. That’s not my road, you know that,” he whispered.
“Jongin, c’mon. This town is dying. The mines are closed for who knows how long. The economy is changing, the free trade agreements…” Chanyeol was shaking. They had to run away together. When his imagination ran wild, Chanyeol’s worst nightmares were of Jongin slowly falling apart from working at the mill, turning to painkillers to make it through the day, his slim frame wasting away… or maybe the mill would shut down soon, and Jongin would turn to vice in his unemployment, again ending up a strung-out addict filled with nothing but hate…
Jongin pressed his fingers to Chanyeol’s mouth, and their warmth brought Chanyeol back to the real, gentle, whole person in front of him. “I don’t care about global trade deficits or whatever you’re always telling me about. This is my home, Chanyeol.”
“Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, your home isn’t exactly welcoming to people like me. Like us.” Chanyeol pushed himself against Jongin, Jongin’s back bumping against the car, tilted his head back and kissed him hard as if to make his point. Jongin moaned, whether with sadness or pleasure Chanyeol didn’t know. They tumbled into the backseat that was the cradle and the grave of their relationship.
This is the last station on the line. All passengers, please disembark. Chanyeol awoke with a sharp intake of breath. Just because he’d managed to go out and explore today didn’t mean he was any less exhausted. His dreams had chased him all the way across town. But he’d made it to the end of the line, which was further than he’d gone yet. He thumbed across the screen and gauged directions to the bay. Here at the edge of the city, there was a small port and supposedly a seafood market.
He walked down to the piers, which had a sleepy feel compared to the electric city just a few stops away. There were seafood stalls with fresh fish flopping in buckets out front. An old man wearing a Hawaiian shirt played African drums, and children with water guns ran and played. The weather was holding up. He stopped at a tiny museum of local history and a folk temple to the goddess of the sea. One pier offered a boat tour of the bay for a reasonable price. The old motorboat looked rickety – rustic, Chanyeol assured himself as he paid for a ticket.
The bay was actually quite beautiful, with small mounds of dark green islands rising out of the surprisingly clear water. The breeze felt tropical. I wish you could see this, Jongin, he thought suddenly. The boat bounced over the waves, and Chanyeol felt the salt spray misting across his face. I wish you could smell this, hear it, taste it. This. Anything. It wasn’t just the ocean spray in Chanyeol’s eyes.
Jongin had refused to drive Chanyeol to the closest airport, which was a few hours away. At the end of that long summer, filled with secret trysts and dinner at the Kim’s where they played footsie under the table and Chanyeol going to watch Jongin coach Little League practice, when it finally came time for Chanyeol to depart for the future he thought he’d always wanted, Jongin said he couldn’t bear to take him.
So Chanyeol again found himself at the defunct bus stop, his only suitcase in tow. He was taking a breather before continuing on to the one working bus stop in town. His mom had a shift she couldn’t miss, so she’d kissed Chanyeol goodbye that morning and left in tears. He hadn’t made a big fuss over it, since he knew she needed the money to help him pay for school. He’d saved some from tutoring, enough for the plane ticket and the first few months. But despite the pride he took in his resourcefulness, this still felt like a shitty way to go.
Only a few more rolling hills. He huffed and puffed and prayed the bus would be on time.
But a familiar honk made him stop in his tracks. Jongin’s car pulled up alongside him, windows down.
“Hey,” Jongin said.
The car idled as Chanyeol stubbornly averted his eyes.
“I’m sorry. I decided I do want to drive you.”
Chanyeol started walking again.
“Please just get in.” Jongin let the car roll slowly alongside him.
Chanyeol kept walking, but his suitcase wheel got stuck in a muddy patch. As he yanked at it, Jongin got out of the car and quietly wrapped his arms around Chanyeol as he struggled and finally broke down crying.
“Shhh, babe, it’s OK.” Jongin stroked Chanyeol’s hair, there in the broad daylight in the middle of the road.
On the car ride, they were mostly quiet. Chanyeol tried to drink in the landscape, in case it was the last time he saw it. He also stole glances at Jongin, though he tried to convince himself it wouldn’t be the last time he saw him.
Presently, Jongin spoke in his soft voice. “I always knew how it was going to end.”
“I did tell you my plans. When we first started hanging out. It’s not like a surprise.”
“I guess I never really faced it.”
“I’m sorry. I guess I never really factored you into my equations.”
“But would that have changed anything?”
Chanyeol bit his lip. “I guess not.”
“And I wouldn’t want it to. Let’s just make a clean break, then.”
Chanyeol felt his heart cleanly breaking, even though he was the one who was leaving. He didn’t want to press Jongin about calling or texting or visiting. He knew Jongin was at his limit taking care of his family. As painful as it was, Chanyeol willed himself to just disappear, now when the love between him and Jongin was blessed with clarity, the vividness of first love, so that they would remember each other at their best.
At the airport, Jongin leaned over and kissed him deeply. “This is for you.” He handed Chanyeol a sealed envelope. “It’s just a card. Congratulations on graduating and going to college and everything.”
“Thank you. For everything.”
“It was really special.” Jongin screwed his face up, trying to hold back tears. “Really, really special.”
Chanyeol drew in a sobbing breath, ran his hand down his face. “Yeah, it was.” He couldn’t bear it any longer, and stepped out of the car. He took his luggage out of the trunk and tried not to look back at Jongin’s silhouette hunched over the wheel in the little silver car.
On the boat, Chanyeol pulled Jongin’s card out of his jacket pocket. He handled it like a precious object. It had come with him from his dorm room in college to his first apartment and now his first job halfway across the world.
Something about this moment felt sacred, as the glittering city unfolded itself before him across the water. Jongin had pushed himself up from the depths of Chanyeol’s dreams, and Chanyeol was determined to ride out the memory.
The phone call had ripped open a hole inside him that never really healed. Chanyeol had been drunk at a party in college. Junior year. His friends, acquaintances really, were all hipsters who smoked like chimneys but didn’t look half as good with a cigarette between their lips as Jongin did. Chanyeol had been quite drunk, actually, and stumbled out onto the fire escape to enact his first drunk dial. He found that Jongin’s cell was disconnected. Well, that wasn’t unusual. Their hometown was the kind where most people still used landlines. But he felt queasy. Impulsively, he dialed Sehun, a kid he’d tutored and been fairly close with. Sehun was in college now too.
“Chanyeol?” a muffled voice answered.
“Hey, man! Yeah, it’s me.” Chanyeol tried to sound chipper.
“Dude, it’s like… three in the morning here.” He heard Sehun rustling around in his bed.
“Ah yeah, sorry. Uh…” Chanyeol felt like an idiot. “Hey, uh, have you heard from Jongin? His phone was disconnected, so I, uh… yeah.”
The rustling stopped. “Chanyeol… I’m so sorry… you didn’t hear?”
Chanyeol could feel each beat of his heart very precisely. His body turned to ice from the outside in as Sehun spoke.
“You heard the mill closed, right? Because of the fire? Jongin was there… I mean, he went back in. The fire trucks weren’t coming fast enough, so he went back in. He was so strong, you know how he was… he saved three people. He was a hero, Chanyeol.”
When the ice reached Chanyeol’s center, something inside him died. He hung up the phone.
Chanyeol still struggled with the guilt. He was trying to let it go – he’d gone to therapy. You may feel guilty – guilty that you didn’t spend more time getting to know the deceased or guilty if you left things without closure, his therapist’s notes read. He lived with the guilt now – it was curled up next to the dead part inside him. He blamed himself for not going back in time. Remember that it’s not your fault, and it is important to recognize these feelings as normal and natural response to grief. His mother had remarried and moved away from that town after his first year in college, and he could never find a good enough reason to visit. Jongin was more than a good reason, but he didn’t know if Jongin would want to see him. And he wanted to accomplish something before going back, to prove to everybody, to Jongin, that leaving had been worth it.
Guarding it carefully against the wind, Chanyeol opened the card Jongin had given him all those years ago. Just to complete the memory. The memoriam.
Hey Chanyeol! Jongin’s handwriting was bunched and childish.
ConGRADulations! Your dreams finally came true. I’m so happy for you.
This note is for your eyes only, so keep it safe.
I just wanted to tell you how proud I am of you. You’ve worked so hard, and you deserve the world. I know you’ll walk an amazing road.
I hope you won’t forget me, and I hope you’re proud of me too. I’ve saved a ton of money already, and paid for Dad to take a computer skills course. The Kims are back on track!
Also, please don’t forget how beautiful it is here. Just because our futures aren’t the same doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. I’m so happy here. It will always be here for you too, our hometown. He had underlined “our”.
I watch that video of you every day. I love you.
Chanyeol watched the sun set from the pier. He vowed to do it again soon instead of continuing to lumber blindly through the days. I’m proud of you too, Jongin, he wished into the fading sun.
As Chanyeol walked back to the train station, he heard the plaintive chords of a guitar. Somebody was busking beneath the elevated tracks, a local boy with a small, tacky-looking guitar and a karaoke box. But he had a smooth, captivating voice.
“All my memories… gather 'round her… Miner's lady, stranger to blue water…”
Of all the songs. Chanyeol legs grew roots into the ground as he watched the singer, drowning in nostalgia. A few people tossed coins into his open guitar case. The singer finished, bowed, took a short break, and then started playing the song again. Chanyeol didn’t mind. He listened to the song three times, the first time he’d listened to it in full since all those years ago. The singer’s accented English gave the lyrics a different, more whimsical inflection. “Dark and dusty, painted on the sky… Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye… Country roads…”
After the third time, Chanyeol walked over and handed the boy a large bill. The boy’s eyes widened. “Wow, thanks man!”
“Where’d you learn that song?”
“Everybody knows it, man. We all miss our hometowns.”
“But yours is right here.”
The boy shrugged as he gulped down his water. He finished and sighed as he crumpled the bottle. “Home’s not just a place. I’m here, but I don’t always get to enjoy it.”
“You work around here?” Chanyeol asked.
He nodded. “I’m a student at the university branch out here.”
“Look, if I buy you another water bottle, can I show you how to do the chords for the bridge?”
The boy laughed. “Ha, yeah, I hadn’t quite figured it out. It’s not one of my standards yet.” He appraised Chanyeol. “You seem nice enough. I’m Baekhyun.”
“Chanyeol.” He shook the boy’s hand.
“Chanyeol, I’ll buy you a drink with all the money you just gave me.” He started packing up his case. “You can help me roll that,” he said bossily, motioning at the karaoke box. “C’mon, there’s a teashop here that’s been operating for decades.”
Chanyeol obliged, following the boy back towards the pier and the deepening night. He stopped again in front of the temple, taking in the inscriptions and the mural of fishermen going out to sea. “Eh, I didn’t even notice that, and I pass it every day,” said the boy.
“It’s a gift to know a place, but often wasted. I wish we had a goddess of the sea where I’m from, but it’s landlocked.”
“I knew it, you’re not from around here. Where are you from, then?”
“I’m from the place that song is about.”