A/N: extracts from the letter are a rough translation of the song “Kyon” from Film Barfi.
“Hey,” Kim’s voice came out of nowhere.
Lee clutched at his front in shock, his common sense going for a six. Whatever he’d been holding in his hands fell out of them and he let out a squeak unbefitting of the situation. His shoulder knocked a few board games off the shelves, their contents making a rattling sound. Somewhere two aisles away a pair of sneakers squealed against the floor and a trolley rumbled along into the distance.
This isn’t how he’d imagined they’d meet again.
“H-hey…!” he belatedly crowed. “What uhh—wh-what brings you here?” he backed a few nervous steps away so there was at least a respectable distance between them. “I mean, to this part of the country?”
Kim grinned despite how stupid he sounded. “Business,” he easily stated, offering a respectful smile that implied that he wouldn’t be offered any hugs or handshakes. “I was in the city for the week, therefore thought I might cook something up. Came here to get supplies, but here I see a familiar shoulder,” he explained away with a shrug. A quick peek in his basket revealed a loaf of bread and some eggs but nothing more.
“Ah,” Lee nodded. “Right.”
They stood in awkward silence for some long minutes after that. Feet shuffled, coat pockets jingled, gazes dropped, overhead speakers let out the latest pop songs. They shared a quick polite smile until one bent to clear up the damage he’d created and the other let out a chuckle. Eyebrows were raised in question.
“That’s a good game,” Kim pointed at a set of Cranium. “You might want to reconsider shelving it back. It’s good for general knowledge and team-work. Just… you don’t make friends playing it, heh.” He sounded like he spoke from experience, which was weird because the Kim Lee he knew and remembered hated everything to do with board games. He was more of the cuddle up in a blanket and watch black-and-white movies type.
A frown studied the box. “It’s sixteen plus,” Lee shook his head. “My kids are still toddlers.”
“Oh…” Kim let out. And from the way his face fell a little anyone could tell he hadn’t been hoping to hear that. “Well, then I guess… I guess you can wait a few more years,” he limply relented. “Anyway, I should get going. It—it was nice meeting you, after all these years. Uhm… enjoy shopping!” he bade a hasty farewell before whipping around and scuttling away.
His sad little back only made it as far as the end of the row before Lee shook out of his reverie. “Wait!” he called. “D-do you have time for coffee?”
Why don’t we, you and me, walk along twisting roads with no shoes on our feet? Let’s get lost on our way there, like fools. Why don’t we, you and me, fall onto the bed of leaves that fell before us, and leave our passing marks with a wave and a kick each? Let’s not come back. Behind your sharp gazes, beneath your solar smile, your answer is hiding and seeking… Don’t you think?
A miniature superman action figure oscillated from the rear-view mirror.
“My daughter’s a big fan…” Lee clarified while the light was still red. “Gets up early every Saturday morning for her fix of superheroes. Her brother… he’s more of an artist.” A stubby finger traced along wild meaningless scratches on the dashboard. The two men chuckled at that. Lee felt slightly embarrassed about the way the engine puttered and clanked. The car belonged in a dump yard, to be honest, but he could never bring himself to part with it for the memories it held.
“Hmm, they both sound cute”, Kim commented.
“They are, they are,” Lee insisted. “And uhh… what about you? Any kids?” he ventured.
“Hmm?” the other looked over in surprise. “Oh! No, no, no. I’m… no, I’m not married yet. So no kids.”
The revelation was something of a shock. He stared at the side of Kim’s face with… with something. Longing? Disbelief? Frustration? Regret? He wasn’t sure what to name the feeling, or even if it was a good feeling or a bad one. All he knew was that it pricked, especially when the other turned around to meet his stare with one of his own. It pricked, much like the thorns in the rose bush of his garden—a funny analogy according to him because that’s what he’d always thought Kim was.
It was only when someone started to honk at them that Lee snapped out of his thoughts and stepped on the gas, zooming from street to street. “So how’re you getting around the city?” he conversationally quizzed. “I would’ve suggested getting a bicycle but some of the roads have no access for that stuff. Especially the underpasses, of course.” It was blather, and he was aware of that but he had to say something to ease the air after their little gawking match.
“Ah, for now am just using the bus,” Kim nodded, self-consciously fiddling with his hair. “I’m staying close to work so it’s… it’s fine, really.”
“That’s not interesting at all,” the other shook his head. “You should totally go to the Medieval History Museum. In fact…” he paused as they took a turn into a narrow lane. “In fact, I can take you there today.” He looked at the other for a second. “You know, if you like.”
“Uhh, no, I couldn’t impose on you like that, sorry.”
“Nothing imposing about it” Lee grinned. “Besides, it’s a great place around this time of the year. I’m sure you’ll like it. You’re into all that historical stuff aren’t you?” He spotted a café and flicked his turning signal on. “We can go. I have some time on my hands today.”
Kim let out a noncommittal hum.
Why don’t we, you and me, walk like we’re drunk on life itself? Let’s go get lost on the way there, like idiots. Why don’t we, you and me, crawl in circles over soft grass only to find ourselves stranded under the shade of lazy trees? Let’s leave right now, let’s be stupid. In the humming wind, in the fluttering breeze—what’re you staring at me like that for? I’m leaving everything else behind. Are you?
“Oh man, she looks just like you!”
The girl in the photo grinned till her eyes disappeared, two front teeth flashing prominently. The picture had been taken a while back when she was still a baby, but it’d remained in Lee’s wallet all this time. He was aware that he’d been showing off about his little ones and maybe so was Kim. But it felt good to tell the other about them. It felt nice, to finally share these things with him like he’d wanted to for all these years.
“And I suppose he takes after his mom?” Kim flipped to the second picture.
“Yeah, in almost everything,” the quiet answer came. “He gets aggressive sometimes, but he’s also very protective of his sister,” he chortled. “And he cries too easily… just like Yuri.” The mention of her name at a time like this felt mandatory. Even if Lee had initially decided not to do so out of respect for Kim, he couldn’t stop himself when the opportunity presented itself.
The other carefully closed the wallet and handed it back to its owner. If he’d been hurt, the smile on his face gave nothing away. “I’m happy for you,” he courteously answered. “You have a lovely family.”
Lee pocketed the offering and nodded for lack of anything to say. With a sigh he looked around the establishment, wondering if he should’ve ordered them a round of alcohol to go with their coffee.
In the seven years since he’d left Seoul—and Kim—behind, a lot had changed. Between and within them. Phone numbers had been deleted, e-mails had been sent to the spam folder, and discussions that toed dangerous boundaries were abandoned without a second thought. Eyes hadn’t looked back one last time, fingers hadn’t lingered over the doorknob, feet hadn’t halted for a moment of revaluation. Lee had done everything in his power to isolate himself from his past, and now; that it sat before him in this nondescript café he had no idea how to act mature about it.
“How’re your parents?” he opted to inquire over a million other, safer things.
Kim looked at him with something like hurt, but not for too long. He thumbed the fringes of his tissue paper. “They’re OK. Dad retired last year, so they’re on vacation around Europe.”
“That’s good,” Lee approved.
“Hmm.” The other bit his lips for a moment, an old habit of his that gave him a terrible chap in the winters. “They…” he hesitated. “They asked about you. Once.”
“And what did you tell them?”
Kim’s eyes glowed a little when he looked up from his coffee, clearly feeling attacked. “The truth?”
They sipped from their cups and occasionally winced when china clicked too loud or spoons stirred too much. Grains of sugar dotted the table top, circles of condensation dripped from bottle of chilled water, one of the customers on another table let out a mad laugh. Lee had a thousand words waiting to fall off the tip of his tongue, and Kim looked like he had a thousand other places to be. But they both squirmed in their respective chairs, trying to live out the silent seconds as they ticked past them.
Don’t spend your words on discussing this with me. And I won’t waste my breath convincing you. I’ll look at you once, take that as my pebble to your window. That’s our conversation. We don’t need words, what’re those? I have plenty of black in my eyes to use as ink. I’ll write you a hundred letters with it. And send it to the address of your heart. You’ll accept that, won’t you?
Had it been winter, and had they still meant something to each other, Kim would’ve walked through the gardens with their arms bumping as was his habit. But neither was it winter, nor were they together.
Lee felt a gnawing need for some sort of physical contact between them. There was grass below them, there were rhododendrons beside them, and there were birds and the sky above them. Everything was in the same position as it had been every time he visited this place. And yet nothing seemed familiar. The museum with its memorable walls and memorable pathways held nothing memorable in it at all. All the recollections in his head were now bleached with those of Kim.
They shared no words between themselves. And the silence was comfortable. Once or twice Kim nearly reached to tug at Lee’s sleeve like he used to before excitedly pointing at something. But his touch would never be completed and his arm would fall back to his side, limp.
Looking at the other’s profile was like watching the waves break against a seashore. Lee strolled along, waiting for those great moments when Kim’s face would collect into a smile like waters would collect into frothy foam between his toes. And every time he smiled in return, the other oscillated back into his comfort zone—back into the vast magnitude of sea. This was the difference between their past and their futures. The fact that the sea would no longer tug at him, no longer carry Lee away with it. He would remain standing alone on the sandy beach, the sun on his head, the salt in his eyes. This was what had changed.
Lee turned on his heel and started to walk backwards. “So,” he asked, gesturing around them. “What do you think? Pretty?”
“The past is always pretty,” Kim replied, beaming down at his feet now that they moved face-to-face. “It’s made of all the memories we live through. It’s everything that we’ve said and done and felt.” He shrugged, joining their gazes for a moment before turning away. “It’s the future that turns ugly.”
“And what about painful memories?” Lee reasoned, their steps matching for each left and every right that followed. “What about a past filled with nothing good? Nothing worth remembering? How can memories of being in pain be pretty?”
Kim giggled. “They’re pretty because we live to have them. We survive.”
There were some parts of him that Lee missed unbearably. There were some pieces of Lee that had fallen incomplete in their time apart.
It wasn’t like he wasn’t happy before they met. It wasn’t that Kim added some special meaning to life—he did, but everyone Lee met was special in his eyes. The sun still rose before the moon, and then after. The earth was still round. The sky was still intact. Everything was in its rightful place, every aspect of life remained unchanged despite Kim. They weren’t two pieces of a puzzle, they didn’t even exist in the same puzzle box. One was a rubix cube and another an abacus. They did not have a love song, and in some ways Lee was glad because he’d never wanted one anyway. But something had changed when they met. In that maybe he became another organism altogether. His cells changed shape, his blood transformed in color, his eyes were deeper, his skin pulled extremely taut. His brain pulsated with heavier charges. His lungs were fuller and yet emptier at the same time. He was something else then, just because Kim was his. And he was Kim’s. In ways he hadn’t actually understood. Ever. How can someone belong to someone? he often wondered to himself. How can the concept of ownership extend into living breathing human bodies? Is that not another form of slavery? But they, Lee and Kim, weren’t unpleasant. The word “we” didn’t hurt. It didn’t make his thoughts race in circles like rabid dogs. It simply… was. And it would’ve remained to be had they allowed it.
They walked back to the car and stayed inside to wait for the engine to heat up.
“Last week,” Lee began, running his fingers along his steering wheel. “I was moving the furniture around and. I found a letter you wrote to me once. I’ve been thinking about you ever since, and now—”
“And now we run into each other, what a coincidence right?” Kim exclaimed, turning in his seat.
“Hmm,” the other nodded, thoughtfully. “It’s been ten years, you know,” he whispered to his still speedometer. “I’ve been waiting all this time, staying in the same place you last saw me. Hoping you’ll knock on the door one day and stand on the front porch with that stupid grin of yours.” They both chuckled here. Lee looked at the other. “Why did it take you so long to find me?”
“Because,” Kim seemed to take a moment to think of the right words. “Because I didn’t know where to begin the search.” He shook his head, fingering pills of loose threads on the seat. “And. Because you had a life and I had a life and both those things were separate. They weren’t the same thing anymore. It…” he breathed out with a hint of reminiscence in his voice. “It took me a long time to accept that fact. And when I did, I knew I couldn’t ever come crawling back to you. That wouldn’t be fair.”
“To either of us,” Lee completed.
“To either of us,” Kim nodded, lips stretching in a soft smile. An accident of light shone against the golden hazel of his eyes, and as Lee continued to watch, they swam with equal parts mirth and sadness. A long time ago, when he would crane forward for a kiss, the irregular changes in Kim’s blinks turned uniform after a few seconds had passed and their lips had found a pace they could maintain. But now that the blinks steadily came and went, the recollection of those irregular changes—those soft and quick kisses felt like a tantalizingly unreachable dream. A perfect and beautiful past had suddenly become an ugly and imperfect future.
Lee felt a momentary impulse in the quiet evening, a spike of energy in his nerves that ordered him to lean across the handbrake and press a kiss to the other’s mouth. He gripped the steering wheel tight, veering his mind back on its course. A thick beat thrummed in his chest for a second, blood reaching up to his cheeks and heating his flesh. The moment passed with unbearable slowness.
“It’s late, your family must be expecting you,” Kim reminded. They let out sighs that didn’t steam anymore. And that was a sign for them to go back to living their separate lives.
“I’m divorced,” Lee mumbled. And as soon as he did, a physical wave of shock lapped towards him from the passenger seat.