Title: Hard To Love
Genre: dystopian au
The first time they fall in love with each other, Kim hates himself.
He hurts and he steals and then grovels for mercy when the police lock him up, but he doesn’t mean it. He means nothing. The thanks he gives when he passes by the church, the apologies he makes when he bumps into someone and picks their pocket, the hellos, and goodbyes he offers to the faces he meets every day: they’re all no more than token utterances that fall off his tongue easily. He does not consider them to be an expression of his gratefulness or his remorse. He does not consider them to be any more than vague sounds.
He means nothing and feels nothing. When they throw him in lockup overnight, the tears that he quietly sheds are weightless in their definition. When a convenient accomplice snorts a joke, his guffaws are worthless. A shiny car splashing mud on him raises an anger he does not possess. When he pulls a job off successfully, his stomach is full of food but he feels just as empty as he did before.
He hates the sound of his voice, hates the way his palms feel, hates his reflection in a shop front. He hates what he used to be, hates what he is, hates what he is destined to become. The past has conspired with the future to stamp hope out of Kim’s eyes.
In a few years, the country falls apart. Poor and hungry, Kim roams the streets to find that everyone is just like him. There is not much silver left to filch. There is no more money left to beg for. The darkness of alleyways is now his home. The broken lid of a garbage tip is the roof above his head.
In a few months, the air is cold and biting; the sun is heavy and piercing. He shields himself from it all by hiding. He hides his body in rags and newspaper, shuts his mind in his skull, covers his words in a trap of teeth, conceals his feelings behind a pair of cracked sunglasses he finds on the ground one day.
In a few weeks, Kim is on the verge of dying. Then and only then does Tae appear before him.
The first time they fall in love, he wears a white suit, with a visor and thick gloves. He bends down. He asks a question but words have long lost all significance to Kim. He frowns and it aches. He groans and it feels like his throat is about to disintegrate. He breathes and his lungs are collapsing. A voice yells for help outside the diminishing circle of his consciousness. A pair of padded hands shakes him a little before they sit him upright, hold a glass of water to his lips, and feed him a few spoons of something coarse and bitter.
In a few weeks, Kim learns to stand back on his feet. He walks with purpose from one end of the room to the other. Tae nods and smiles at that, scribbles something on a notepad, asks after his eating habits and sleep cycles. “No more pain?” he inquires, pulling on a stethoscope and checking for a heartbeat.
“No more pain,” Kim confirms, but wonders if it’s just because he has never felt anything in his life. He wonders if he is actually in agony but does not realize it yet. The cabin they give him to live in while he undergoes treatment is very comfortable. The air is always warm, the bed is always soft, the walls are always bright, and the linens are always clean. Tae gives him company for a few hours every day, asks him innocuous questions like how he is feeling and if there’s anything he’d like to eat. But Kim could very well be dying even as they face each other, and he cannot be sure. There is no way to know for sure.
So he says what he supposes the other wants to hear. “No more pain,” he repeats every time he is asked.
In a few months, he wolfs down a whole serving of galbi by himself and asks for more. Tae chuckles at that and throws the remaining strips of meat on the grill. “Sure you don’t want some maple syrup on that?” he confirms and Kim looks at the man like he is out of his mind. Perhaps he is, for all the terribly incongruous contents of lunches he describes. Perhaps he is crazy for thinking everyone else has the same weird tastes. Perhaps he is mad when he laughs at Kim’s insults after the fact, and when he insists to cook for the man to prove himself right. Perhaps Tae is out of his mind to give Kim so much time and attention; to clean him and clothe him, to care so much for someone who is worth nothing. Perhaps Tae made a terrible mistake saving Kim the way he did.
The first time they fall in love, perhaps Kim belongs in hell.
He finds out that several others were brought here with him. He finds out that not all of them make it, that some were so weak and far-gone they never had a chance to redeem themselves the way Kim tries every day. He helps clean the hallways, helps chop wood for the boilers, helps carry the supplies off the trucks and into the hospital pantry. He helps paint the new cabins, helps haul water from the wells, helps doctors like Tae with their daily rounds once in a while. He works hard, works day and night, works till his legs are sore and his back clicks. He toils at everything but it gives him no satisfaction. The emptiness of his former days still remains, churning in the pit of his stomach like a little hurricane of grief. So perhaps Kim never deserved to leave his misery behind.
In a few years, they colonize the valley. Most of the cabins are empty now since their residents have left them behind. Kim builds himself a home of his own, a few ways away but close enough that the shadow of the hospital still falls on it. It is not much, enough for just one. He digs the ground, fills it with rocks, fixes the ring beams, locks the bearers and joists in place, raises the studs and nails the rafters in, all by himself. He builds a new life, all by himself. And then he invites the other.
When Tae finally visits, he is impressed. He runs his little palms over every surface, appreciating the wood and stone and glass. He fixes them a pot of ramyun to snack on, squeezes two lemons from the tree outside and sips on the juice as they talk about nothing.
Kim has a job now. He finds things to occupy his days, has dreams to fill his nights. He is part of a community, a bigger whole. He has friends who call in sometimes, co-workers that joke and laze around with him. He is not alone, anymore. He does not go searching for comfort in dark alleyways, does not dig through garbage for solace. He has slowly cut his hate into several little pieces, planted each piece in distant parts of the world–parts he will never visit again. He has filled his emptiness with scraps of validation.
When the evening gets cold, Kim throws a few logs onto the fireplace. He stokes it into strength and sighs when he is satisfied with the resulting flames.
“Will you stay for dinner,” he suggests more than asks of Tae.
“Mm,” the other confirms, deep in thought. Kim nods back. He walks to the little kitchenette and pulls out a few recipes he has scrawled on yellowing paper. A visitor calls for a feast, he reasons, and he wants to occupy his mind with no more than that. His shoes squeak against the flooring as he moves around, preparing his favourite dish. Sometimes he throws a glance in the other’s direction and finds him either reading book titles on the shelves or looking out of the curtains. Sometimes their gazes meet and it is easy to share a smile.
The first time they fall in love, Tae quietly hums a long-forgotten tune, resting his elbows on the kitchen island. “How are you feeling, by the way?” he asks his usual question.
Kim chuckles. “How do you think?”
“Hmm,” the other stalls. “I can never tell.”
“I’m fine, what’s to tell?”
“I mean I can never tell when you’re lying,” Tae states it so simply Kim has to stop what he’s doing. His hands are coated in the dough, his front is covered in an apron, the fireplace crackles, and the wooden house creaks. It has occurred to him before, the fact that he will be caught one day. The fact that Tae will catch on and leave in disgust. He faces that day head-on now. He does not hide himself anymore.
“I don’t know how I’m feeling,” he admits. “I never have. I don’t–” He drops a sticky hand in a mixing bowl. “You ask me how I feel all the time but…” he shakes his head at the half-kneaded flour on his fingers. “But I’ve never known. Not when I stole for a living, not when I was living in a waste tip, not when I was so shitty that someone like you would think twice before spitting at me.” He lets out a derisive laugh at himself.
“That’s not you anymore,” the other frowns.
“How do you know?” he challenges.
“Because I know a Kim,” Tae affirms. Kim clicks his tongue in disagreement and almost returns to what he’s doing. But the conviction that shines in the other’s eyes is difficult to miss. It draws him in. “I know a Kim, and I know what he’s like. I know what he does and what he thinks never match. I know he is sharp, he is rough. I know he was torn and I tried to put the pieces back with cello tape, like a hopeful child. I know he says things he doesn’t mean. And I know he’s hard to love. But here we are,” he ends with a shrug and a lop-sided smile, the one he flashes when he pours honey on his oyster stew. The one he wears when he takes his stethoscope off his neck. The one he offers when his pen runs out of ink mid-note taking. The one he has given Kim time and again by granting him a million second chances; Kim just didn’t know what it meant at the time.
His dough-clumped palms hang to his sides. Tae moves forward and clasps them by their wrists. “No more pain, Kim,” he whispers. The other can manage no more than a mournful nod before his head is taken into a careful hug.
The first time they fall in love with each other, Kim hates himself. But Tae makes up for it between the two of them.