The next morning, Kyungsoo wakes up with that same nagging feeling in his gut, urging him to do something, reach for the goal. The problem is he doesn’t know what he should be searching for.
He buys a clock for his bedroom, an old style kind with two massive bells on the top of it and a small hammer in between the two of them to make blaring noise when it’s set to go off. It’s really just a trivial purchase, but as Kyungsoo sets it on his nightstand, he sees it as a momentous change in his mentality.
Who needs an alarm clock if they have nowhere to be, right?
But at the same time, the first night with the clock, he doesn’t use the alarm setting on it. He never flips that little switch from off to on, and it serves simply as a timepiece. He spends a lot of the next week indoors. He leaves twice to go the the mart and drag back bags of groceries, but other than that, he spends most of his time on the couch watching television or surfing the net, lazily jumping from video link to video link until he ends up watching pointless cat videos for hours on end.
He buys a calendar when he’s at the mart buying tomatoes. When he gets back, he pins it on the plain expanse of wall just above his nightstand, dangling about a foot above where the silver alarm clock rests, silent.
He buys a thin, red marker when he’s at the mart getting pepper paste. He sets it just to the right of the clock and marks off the date every day after he wakes up.
On a Wednesday, he’s sitting on his couch, as usual, and it’s two forty five. He’s watching one of those channels that is half infomercials and half shows for middle aged housewives.
“It’s important to stay active!” the host says. They’re talking about retirement plans. “Don’t stay inside all day! Go out! It helps keep the mind young and active!”
Kyungsoo stares blankly at the screen.
There’s something about watching a wrinkly old retirement planner encourage the osteoperosis plagued generation to be more active and more youthful that forces Kyungsoo to turn the tv off and slide his feet into his shoes.
He walks out of his apartment in a daze. He doesn’t even react when the first burst of muggy summer air punches him in the face. He lets the heat curl around him and drag him out into the massive blanket of drowsiness.
He stumbles along, half asleep and half melting, until he comes upon that coffee shop. He glances at his watch. It’s three. He glances inside, and Jongin is there.
It’s hot, he decides, and the cafe has air conditioning. It’s also been a long time since he’s had a coffee that he hasn’t made himself. If he goes inside, it’s not because he wants to see Jongin. They’re strangers again. All his questions have been answered. He’s going in for coffee and nothing else.
With that thought, he shoves open the front door and noisily makes his way inside. The barista glances up at him and tips his head as if to ask for his order.
“Espresso,” Kyungsoo says, but he’s not looking the barista in the eye. His eyes are trained down on his wallet, which he’s put on the countertop. There’s a metal piece on the clasp, shiny and reflective, and he’s staring down at it, using it as a mirror of sorts.
Jongin is there, leaning back in his chair, and he’s watching him.
Kyungsoo realizes, bemusedly, that Jongin is watching him watch him watch him watch him on to infinity. As the barista slides his cup to him over the counter, Kyungsoo decides to stop thinking about it. It’s a paradox, he decides, and there’s no use twisting his head around something he can never solve.
When Kyungsoo picks up his little saucer, balancing his cup in its spot, he’s hit with a wave of panic. Is he supposed to sit down next to Jongin? Jongin’s sly smirk and confident gaze seem to suggest that’s what’s expected.
Naturally, Kyungsoo breezes right past him to his normal spot by the window. He can see out of the corner of his eye how Jongin’s head swishes along with his line of movement. Kyungsoo chuckles underneath his breath and the questions in his eyes.
There’s immediate tension, but it’s not hostile or unpleasant. As the two of them sip away at their beverages, they steal poorly concealed glances in each other’s direction. Kyungsoo catches Jongin staring at him more than once, and at a certain point, Jongin stops trying to play it off as looking out the window behind Kyungsoo.
It’s a bit ridiculous, Kyungsoo thinks, but it’s also a bit fun. It’s silent playful banter, and there’s something about the massive glass paneling and the way it filters the bite out of the heat and dulls it into something comforting that adds to the atmosphere. The bright sun reflects off of the small hanging plants within the shop, adding a soft myrtle green tinge to the beams of light.
At last, when all Kyungsoo has left in his cup are the tasteless foamy bits, Jongin walks over. He’s dressed casually today, in a large, wrinkled shirt and slightly baggy jeans with stains of something that Kyungsoo assumes is paint.
“What are you today?” Kyungsoo smiles as Jongin sits down across from him.
“What do you think I am today?” Jongin counters.
“Starving artist,” Kyungsoo eyes the sharp line of Jongin’s jaw as he turns his head briefly to glance out the window.
“Hm,” Jongin smiles, “I wonder.”
“You’re not going to tell me?” Kyungsoo places his cup into his saucer with a clack.
Jongin looks at him, eyes skimming up and down his face. Kyungsoo feels like he’s being analyzed, a bug under a microscope.
At last, Jongin grabs Kyungsoo’s wrist and pulls it towards him, lying Kyungsoo’s arm across the table. Jongin pulls a black pen out of the front pocket of his shirt, shakes it twice, and then pops open the cap.
Kyungsoo holds his breath as Jongin presses the tip to his skin. Jongin is close enough that he can smell the linseed oil wafting off of Jongin’s skin. Starving artist for sure. Oil paints. Jongin’s handwriting is rough, and the press of the pen against Kyungsoo’s skin is hard enough that it verges on painful.
“Come to this address on Sunday, three o clock.” Jongin says as he presses the last several characters into Kyungsoo’s skin, “Bring a camera.”
With that, Jongin stands up and puts the cap back on the pen, slipping it into his shirt pocket and turning away.
“I’ll expect you there,” Jongin says, not turning back to look at Kyungsoo.
When the bell at the door chimes to signal Jongin’s departure, Kyungsoo stares at the black letters written on his skin, each line traced by the gentle reddening of his pale skin.
Defiance urges him not to go, but Kyungsoo as he traces the lines on his arm, he has this sinking feeling that curiosity is going to win out this time.
Sunday comes quickly, but Kyungsoo convinces himself into thinking it’s forever. He waits like a child, expecting a visitor, clammy hands, nervously looking at the address that he’s transferred from his arm to a sheet of scrap paper.
The intrigue is back, full force, and Kyungsoo is staggering in its wake.
He rips through his cabinets to find that old camera that his father had gifted him for his twentieth birthday. It’s unused. Cameras, especially digital ones, are made to capture instantaneous moments that need to be held onto. Kyungsoo has no need for that, but it was a gift, and Jongin said to bring a camera.
Kyungsoo sits there during that time between the night of Saturday and the morning of Sunday. There’s a massive cup, filled with ramen. There’s an egg half submerged in the soup. Yellow and white in a big sea of red. The noodles are already gone because Kyungsoo finished them, but he left the egg there, untouched and treading in broth.
The camera is out of its box, and Kyungsoo has fitted it with batteries and an sd card. It looks almost alive, except for the bits of dust that Kyungsoo couldn’t clean out of the cracks.
He falls asleep on the couch, egg uneaten and dust settling further into the inner workings of his camera.
Kyungsoo wakes up with a sudden lurch, body terrified that he’s overslept. His clock tells him that it’s barely eleven and he relaxes.
He takes his sweet time getting ready, showering slowly and shaving even though he doesn’t need to. He loves slow mornings, he thinks to himself, as he turns his toast over in his hand and uses a knife to spread raspberry jam all over it.
Summer rain, Kyungsoo notices when he glances out the window. He expects it’ll be cooler today. The droplets hit the window pane and it seems to fit, like some sort of perfect orchestral composition. Strangely, it lifts Kyungsoo’s spirits as he tosses his dishes into the sink and straps on his watch. His umbrella is by the door.
Kyungsoo stands in the center of his living room and wonders if he should wear a rain coat. But he has an umbrella, he decides, so it seems so unnecessary. He hates the waterproof material against his skin and he’s wearing short sleeves today.
He leaves his apartment at five past two, shaking out the umbrella before stepping out into the rain. He has the slip of paper tucked into his pants pocket.
He recognizes the street name. It’s actually not all that far from where he lives, but knowing himself, Kyungsoo expects to get lost within the first five minutes.
He does. He has to loop back three times before getting back onto the right track, and by the time he finally finds that fateful street sign with the same words etched with ink into that piece of scrap in his pocket, it’s already almost three.
When he starts down the street, he fishes the paper out of his pocket and tries to match the numbers to the numbers on each building door.
He isn’t actually sure what he expects, but it isn’t an apartment complex. It’s a tall, sleek building-- surely incredibly high in property tax. He stands in front of the sliding doors, checking to make sure it’s the right place. It is. The doors slide open and Kyungsoo slides his umbrella shut.
He steps in cautiously and checks the address on the paper. He wonders if he copied it down wrong. He steps into the stairwell and climbs up three flights of stairs. There’s a security pad at each level’s door. He stands, puzzled, and stares from the slip of paper to the keypad and back. He presses the four digits written at the end of the address into the keypad and it makes a satisfied click. Kyungsoo pops open the door.
He peeks in through the door, expecting to find a hallway. Instead, he finds a door, with a waiting area. There’s no mistaking his destination. He’s supposed to be here.
He breathes in and out twice before rapping his knuckles on the door in time to his exhales. He knocks five times, then stops, clasping his hands together in front of his lower stomach. His camera is slung over his shoulder. He’s standing in front of this big gold-emblemed door. There’s a massive doorknocker, the head of a lion, but he uses his knuckles instead. The floor is a checkerboard of black and white squares underneath his feet, and everything that isn’t the door is white. It’s as if the door is saying, “Hey, I’m what you’re here for. I have to be. There’s nothing else here.” And it is. Kyungsoo is here for that door and as he waits, he’s here for the sound of footsteps on the other side of that grandiose door.
There’s this sense of claustrophobia in that little white excuse for a room. It’s not meant for anyone to stay long, it’s a waiting space and nothing more. When the big door finally opens, it’s more than relief, it feels like a blessing.
Jongin’s face is there, smiling, eyes crinkled up at the corners and teeth bright. He’s not wearing anything bizarre. There’s no costume today, it’s just a heavy blue sweater, hanging just barely off his left shoulder, and tattered jeans.
“You look nice,” Kyungsoo says, awkwardly shuffling his feet and Jongin holds the massive door open.
Jongin laughs, sound resonating off the walls, “Come in, come in. Take your shoes off in here.” He gestures to a shoe rack on the other side of the gigantic doorframe. Kyungsoo steps through it and toes off his shoes.
“I bet you’re wondering why I called you here,” Jongin says, turning his back to Kyungsoo and beginning to walk. Kyungsoo follows him.
The apartment doesn’t match the door, but it does. It’s so minimally furnished, but it’s so maximally designed. It’s a very expensive, but very empty space.
“I am,” Kyungsoo says as Jongin leads him into another room. There are no doors, it’s one big space separated by partial walls. There’s a table in this room, and a couch big enough to sit five. Neither of the pieces of furniture match the room’s design. The architecture suggests a grand dance room, There’s a wall that’s entirely mirrors, and a wall that’s entirely windows, not unlike the cafe. There’s a barre by the mirror, running parallel to it.
The table and the sofa look out of place, as if dragged off the streets. They’re not arranged nicely around the edges of the room, but haphazardly placed in the center of it, just slightly off skew. The sofa faces the door they entered from, and the table is placed diagonally so that the long edges face the corners of the room. There’s a bunch of miscellaneous items on the table. Kyungsoo squints at it. They seem to be little pots full of cream color.
Jongin is by the table at this point, using a wooden stick to stir a pot of something viscous.
“You’re here for this,” Jongin says, lifting the stick into the air. The substances drips like hot, thick sap from the sad little popsicle stick onto the surface of the table.
“What would this be?” Kyungsoo asks as he steps closer, pushing the camera behind his back.
“This is how it happens,” Jongin smiles.
“I’m starting a new one today,” Jongin says. Now his smile has meaning.
Kyungsoo slings his camera off of his shoulder and puts it on an empty space on the table.
“And you’re going to help me make the transformation.”
“Why me?” Kyungsoo blurts.
Jongin looks at him like he’s crazy, “Who else would I ask?”
“I don’t know,” Kyungsoo shrugs, “a friend?”
Jongin’s smile is mysterious, “There’s no one more fitted to call than you. I’m glad you’re here. Aren’t you?”
Kyungsoo doesn’t answer. He shrugs.
“You are.” Jongin laughs. The sound rings echoes. “I’m glad.”
“What am I helping you with?” Kyungsoo asks, eyes skimming along the pots of color and slime all over the table.
“I’m going to show you how I do this, and you’re going to help me.”
“What specifically?” Kyungsoo frowns.
Jongin holds up his index finger, as if to say, “Wait here just one second.” Then, he dashes out of the room. He comes running back with a leatherbound book in his hands.
“This is the journal that ties it all together,” Jongin says, opening the book to the first page. He passes it to Kyungsoo and Kyungsoo runs his fingers along the first set of open pages. The first two pages are blank, the two pages that you’re not supposed to write on.
“I need to do some serious makeup for this one,” Jongin says, stirring that sticky fluid again, “and I figure I’ll have some trouble taking the pictures.”
“Pictures?” Kyungsoo questions.
“Open the book.”
Kyungsoo peels back the next page. Jongin’s handwriting is gorgeous, like script, it loops to form elegant words.
My goal is to make every fool believe.
The words don’t fit the penmanship, Kyungsoo thinks. He flips the page. There’s a polaroid picture pasted in the center of the lined page, held on with four flimsy pieces of scotch tape. Jongin’s loopy handwriting names the event just above the picture.
Jongin is entirely unrecognizable in the picture, decked out in rags for clothes. He’s not just playing dress up. There’s something genuine in those eyes, staring up into the lens. He would fool anyone. Kyungsoo imagines him sitting in the rain, smiling up into a polaroid camera he’s holding by himself. A homeless man taking a picture of himself when nobody else looks, just to document the fact that nobody looks. Nobody looks long enough to see through the facade. Kyungsoo stares for a moment too long.
“There’s more than that one,” Jongin chuckles. Kyungsoo glances up to find Jongin holding the stick above his face, letting that mystery substance drip all over his face. His eyes and mouth are closed shut.
“You know,” Kyungsoo breathes as he turns the page, “There’s something about memories and identity that I read in school.”
“Hm?” Jongin keeps his mouth shut as he dips the stick back into the container and scoops more onto his face. It looks like raw honey. It’s probably some sort of rubber.
“People, if they keep lying to themselves, can convince themselves of a new identity,” Kyungsoo says as he flips the page. Every page has a polaroid picture, always taken by Jongin himself with whoever he’s with. He stands out, but he blends in.
“Say, what is that you’re putting on your face?” Kyungsoo asks. He closes the book because he’s reached the end of the content. The book is still half empty.
“Homemade concoction,” Jongin says, tilting his face back up. The stuff seems to harden as it dries, dripping down his face in globs. It looks like amber colored sagging fat.
“What are you supposed to be?” Kyungsoo asks. Jongin applies more to the sides of his face.
“Project senior citizen,” Jongin says through gritted teeth as he waits for the substance to harden.
“There’s foundation on the table,” Jongin says, “Help me put it on. There’s a sponge somewhere too. As soon as it’s dry. I’ll tell you when.”
Kyungsoo finds the bottle of flesh colored makeup and the little circular sponge. He stands next to Jongin, the book and the camera on the table, waiting for further instructions.
“Now would be good,” Jongin says stiffly. Kyungsoo nods and pours some of the makeup onto the sponge.
“Just pat it on?”
“Yeah,” Jongin shrugs, “Doesn’t have to be perfect, I’ll fix it up later, this is just the base.”
Kyungsoo scrunches up his nose and pats the sponge on Jongin’s strange jelly face. Jongin takes one glance at his expression and barks with laughter.
“It’ll look better later,” Jongin says, taking the bottle and the sponge from Kyungsoo and taking over the job himself. He’s done within the minute, his entire face washed over one, yellow-toned color.
“You look really yellow,” Kyungsoo comments.
“It’ll look more natural once I get to add some finer details. In the room to the left there’s a black bag full of clothing. Can you fetch that for me?”
“Yeah,” Kyungsoo shrugs and pads off to the room. He spots the bag in the corner and sweeps it up before returning to find Jongin squatting in front of a mirror. He’s holding a palette of assorted colors and using a brush to sweep them across his face.
Kyungsoo stands back with the black bag still in his hand as Jongin leans over the mirror, painting years onto his face. He’s good, the wrinkles look realistic, and those sagging
lumps of jelly turn into sagging skin. The more Jongin adds to his disguise, the more realistic it becomes. Every layer of fine powder comes with more of the moldable jelly, forming little marks and dents into Jongin’s new skin.
At last, he steps away and spins towards Kyungsoo with a vigor unbefitting of his appearance.
“How do I look?”
“Old,” Kyungsoo says, “But your voice--”
Jongin corrects his voice, letting it squeeze from his throat in broken crackles, “How do I look?” He says again.
“Perfect,” Kyungsoo breathes in awe. Jongin grins, the mask moving with his face. It looks just a little bit off, but only if looked at closely.
“Give me the bag,” Jongin reaches out.
“Nobody ever notices?” Kyungsoo asks as he passes the bag to Jongin.
“Nobody looks long enough,” Jongin says. He pulls a massive shirt out of his bag, something to button up over his sweater. It’s very plain and very old. He tugs off his jeans and replaces them with a pair of dinky looking corduroy pants. Kyungsoo glances away politely as he changes.
The transformation is complete. Jongin’s shoulders begin to sag as if he has the weight of an entire lifetime on his shoulders.
“Your job,” Jongin says, voice creaking, “is to take pictures. I’ll tell everybody you’re my grandson.”
“Grandson? Don’t you think that’s pushing it?”
Jongin shrinks even more on himself, “No, I think nobody will ask.” He smiles.
Jongin looks in the mirror and fidgets with his clothing, pulls on a wig, messes with his makeup. Then, he nods once.
“Let’s go!” He encourages. Kyungsoo follows blindly as Jongin bursts out of the apartment, racing down the stairs.
The second the front door to the complex is open though, Jongin’s pace drops steeply. He staggers like an old man, clutching at his back and grasping and Kyungsoo for balance.
They walk slowly to the nearby park. Kyungsoo breathes in the fresh air and drinks in the greenery. There’s a set of chess tables by the children’s sand pit and a duo of old men arguing over the pieces.
Jongin takes Kyungsoo’s hand and carefully hobbles over.
Then, once the two old men take notice, Jongin is the perfect actor.
“This is my grandson, Kyungsoo,” he smiles shakily, “Do you have room for two more players?”
The two old men exchange a glance and shrug, “Sure, why not?”
It’s almost like magic, the way Jongin seemlessly slips into the role. It’s not until they’ve been playing chess for an hour that Kyungsoo realizes that Jongin isn’t acting at all. Sure, the appearance is different, and the voice, and the small mannerisms. However, although he’s known Jongin for such a short time, he feels that everything that comes out of his mouth is something he would say, regardless of costume.
The other old men tell stories about their lives. Times that Kyungsoo and Jongin have not lived through, but Jongin fakes right through it. Kyungsoo takes pictures.
This is insane, crazy, extreme, but Kyungsoo is utterly fascinated.
When it gets dark, the other two men leave and Jongin and Kyungsoo head back the way they’d come. Kyungsoo stands at Jongin’s front door and they look at each other, both searching for something within the other’s eyes that may or may not be there.
“Come back tomorrow,” Jongin says firmly, “One o clock.”
Every day of the week from Sunday through Friday, Kyungsoo ends up coming back. They don’t return to the chess playing duo of old men in the park, but they always manage to find a little group that is more than willing to adopt them into their little family. Every day is the same, but Kyungsoo’s interest never dwindles. It’s utterly fascinating to see how different Jongin is treated, just because of appearances.
“Come back tomorrow, one o clock,” Jongin tells him on Thursday, “But Saturday, I don’t do this. Saturday I stay home.”
“What do you do on Saturdays?” Kyungsoo wonders. His camera is heavy in his hand. There are hundred of pictures stored on the sd card, he’s sure of it.
Jongin smiles, “I do nothing at all.”
It’s Friday. The last day of Project Senior Citizen. Kyungsoo and Jongin are walking back from the park and Kyungsoo watches carefully as Jongin becomes more and more himself on their way to the coffee shop. By the time they push open the door, his back is completely straight, and he’s walking like a young man of twenty despite the wrinkles on his face. The barista looks at him funny, but doesn’t ask questions.
They sit together at the table by the window, making small talk over the men in the park. There’s no meaning to their words, nothing deeper than surface level, and years later, Kyungsoo finds that he can’t recall any of it. If he does, it’s a snippet, and a snippet of something much more important.
“Say, you only ever keep one picture, right?” Kyungsoo asks, taking a long swig from his ice coffee.
“Yeah,” Jongin nods, he uses a fork to split a scone down the middle, “Only one.”
“What do you do with the rest?” Kyungsoo wonders.
“I throw them away.”
“It seems like a waste.”
“Does it?” Jongin stirs his coffee, “I don’t think it is.”
“Do you mind if I keep the ones you don’t use?” Kyungsoo says. He’s flipping through the pictures on his camera.
“Yeah, do what you want with them.”
“Can I put them online?”
Jongin glances up, meets Kyungsoo’s gaze, then drops it again.
“Yeah, you can, so long at the one picture I pick is seen by nobody but me and you.”
“Yeah,” Kyungsoo agrees quickly, then he hesitates, “But why?”
Jongin leans across the table and rotates the camera so the both of them can see it. He slides his thumb against Kyungsoo’s and presses down so that the pressure of Kyungsoo’s finger holds the next button down.
“I like this one,” Jongin says, “If you could get it printed, I’ll put it in the book.”
“Oh,” Kyungsoo blinks, startled by the sudden contact, “Yeah, sure.” He can see Jongin smiling through the makeup and the mask.
“Besides, if everyone can see that one picture, it isn’t special anymore.” Jongin smiles brightly, the makeup is cracking at the corners of his mouth. He looks up suddenly, smile falling off his face, “We should go,” he says, glancing nervously out the window, “It looks like it might rain.”
They leave together, headed back in the general direction of both their apartments, when it begins to pour from the sky.
As the rain hits Jongin’s face, the mask seems to come off with it. The jelly is solid, so it doesn’t melt off. Instead, that thin film of adhesion holding Jongin’s face to his face breaks apart so chunks of fake flesh fall to the ground. Jongin doesn’t make an effort to salvage the pieces and instead leads the charge towards an awning by a bus stop for shelter. He takes Kyungsoo’s hand, pressing warm, dry palms together to protect them from the rain.
When they’re under the safety of the small plastic roof, Jongin peels off what remains of his fake face, grinning broadly at Kyungsoo’s look of disgust.
“Gross, huh?” Jongin taunts.
“Ew,” Kyungsoo agrees as Jongin rubs off the little flakes of makeup near his hairline.
Jongin laughs at him and makes a cup with his hands, extending them out from under the awning to catch some of the rain pouring onto the streets. He splashes it onto his face and pops out his fake teeth, rinsing the pieces with rainwater and stuffing them into his pocket.
“I don’t have an umbrella,” Jongin says.
“Neither do I.”
“We could run home?” Jongin suggests. Kyungsoo looks at him with such distaste that Jongin laughs and mocks him.
“I don’t look like that.”
“Yeah you do,” Jongin fights back, “Don’t worry, it’s cute.”
“I’m not cute,” Kyungsoo says stiffly.
Jongin raises an eyebrow but doesn’t say anything else.
At a certain point, with the two of them standing together in silence, Jongin unbuttons his massive button down shirt, leaving him in the same sweater from before. Kyungsoo eyes him rolling up his pants before looking back out into the sheets of rain pelting down onto the sidewalk. There are no people, no cars, just gallon after gallon of never ending water.
“It’s better with company, you know,” Kyungsoo says, eyes not wandering from the pouring rain.
“It’s better with your company,” Jongin amends. His eyes don’t meander either.
“Uh,” Kyungsoo isn’t sure what to say, “Thanks?”
There’s a long pause.
“Would you like to come again next week?” Jongin asks.
Kyungsoo looks at him, “What?”
“Do you want to come and help me with my project for next week too?”
It’s almost funny, because Jongin is asking Kyungsoo this question like they’re both schoolboys again. Will you come help me with your project? It’s hard to decide if this is more or less sad, because on one hand, it’s something so much bigger, but on the other hand, it’s something so much bigger than they can ever be.
“Yeah,” Kyungsoo shrugs, “Sure.”
Jongin smiles so genuinely that Kyungsoo can’t help but stare.
“Same place, same time,” Jongin laughs, “and I’ll see you Sunday?”
“Yeah,” Kyungsoo whispers, “Yeah, I’ll see you then.”
“I’m glad,” Jongin says, delighted, “No one can walk a path entirely alone. It’s good to have a partner in crime. Crime against social structure!”
Kyungsoo decides that Jongin is right. The rain stops.
Kyungsoo begins to accompany Jongin on all his adventures. He’s there as a piece of the background. A son, a friend, a brother, whatever is needed for the occasion. The only constant to identity is his camera. He takes hundreds of pictures and uploads them all online. He organizes each set and labels it accordingly. It’s simple, just a method of collecting images and memories.
Weeks pass slowly. Kyungsoo finds the sense of anticipation never leaves, but the feeling of emptiness does. Slowly but surely, he starts waking at a set schedule. He isn’t sorry to let his old routine go.
Jongin is a fascinating creature, not just in what he’s doing, but also in his philosophies and his way of living. Kyungsoo finds himself captured by Jongin’s words. He can’t help but stare when Jongin smiles.
Kyungsoo’s favorite image of Jongin is when Jongin is getting dressed for the day, putting on his costume. It’s always when Jongin looks the most engaged. Kyungsoo tries and take a picture of it once, but Jongin swats him away and forces him to delete the picture.
“Only of the project,” he insists.
Jongin is adventurous, every project is something entirely different. After senior citizen, he dresses himself up in drag and sees what it’s like to walk around if everyone assumes you’re a housewife. Kyungsoo follows around as a son, constantly impressed at how good Jongin is at makeup.
After housewife is dentist, then plastic surgeon, then mailman, and then after that Kyungsoo can’t quite remember exactly which one is next. He knows somewhere in the mix Jongin tries to see what it’s like being a prostitute and hauls Kyungsoo around as his pimp. There’s a point in which Jongin pretends to be dying on the street as a rich man, and the reactions from passersby are horrifyingly different from the reactions when he pretends to die on the street as a poor man.
With each project, Jongin seems to affirm his theory about humanity, that people are awful because they design their morals and their actions all around aesthetic qualities. Every project makes him more horrified, yet more determined. Kyungsoo watches with his camera, snapping a picture at every moment when Jongin seems to slip, just a little bit, and every moment when he doesn’t slip at all.
Kyungsoo’s little website for storing the pictures grows massively, and he finds that people have discovered it. People wonder what it is. People ask questions, but Kyungsoo never answers.
At last, there comes a query that Kyungsoo can’t quite ignore. In the winter, just over six months since he first met Kim Jongin, he gets a phonecall. There have been dozens of projects since then, every set uploaded and organized on Kyungsoo’s website.
The call is from a museum. They want to have an exhibition of Jongin’s work.
“No,” Jongin snaps when Kyungsoo tells him, “Absolutely not. I told you, all the pictures in that book are special, nobody else can see them. Just you and me.”
“But that’s not the pictures they want,” Kyungsoo frowns, “They’ve been looking at the other ones, the ones I’ve uploaded onto the internet.”
Jongin stares at him, “Oh?”
“Yeah. They called me last night.”
“But it defeats the purpose of this entire thing. You’re making something that outs societal norms into a display for people trying to fit into societal norms. Nobody goes to galleries for shits and giggles! It’s all pretending for approval from others.”
Kyungsoo is quiet for a moment, letting Jongin’s words sink in. Jongin is about to leave the room in a huff, when Kyungsoo gently rests his fingertips on his wrist.
“But wouldn’t that be great?” Kyungsoo wonders, “To out the social construct in front of the social construct?”
Jongin is hard headed, single minded, and impossibly stubborn, but those words get him. Kyungsoo stands there, fingers wrapped around Jongin’s left wrist, as Jongin changes his mind.
“Alright,” Jongin decides after a minute.
The preparation for the exhibit is all very much a blur. Jongin and Kyungsoo end up not being all that involved in the actual construction or design of the exhibit and end up just continuing on their own way, continuing to fill up Jongin’s book of projects as the museum workers do everything for them.
Opening night is in January. There are hundreds of people flooded into the new exhibit to see the work. Jongin and Kyungsoo are both there to greet people, but once the first couple people trickle in, Jongin pulls a vanishing act and disappears. Kyungsoo is left fending off the questions and finds that he can answer almost all of them, just as Jongin would.
Eventually, the exhibit closes for the night. As seas of people ebb back with the tide and out into the moon of the night, Kyungsoo is left by himself. He thanks the curator, goes the the procedures, and then he feels strangely alone. The feeling of nothing seeps up like smoke from the edges of that exhibition room, creeping in long, spirally tendrils, threatening to draw Kyungsoo back in.
“Jongin!” Kyungsoo shouts.
There’s no response.
Kyungsoo storms into the next room, searching for any evidence of this life. Jongin wouldn’t have left him here alone, no matter how uncomfortable he is.
Kyungsoo finds Jongin seated on the floor in the very last room, right by the very last photograph. He’s sitting there, back hunched, head just a couple inches from the wall. If his face were cut off and placed into a nice black square with a nice white border, that expression could be one of the pieces in the exhibit. The project maker could be a project within himself.
“They got it wrong,” Jongin says, just loud enough that Kyungsoo can hear. Kyungsoo walks over to him, standing and looking down as Jongin sighs.
“What did they get wrong?” Kyungsoo asks patiently.
“Here, in the brochure, they don’t get it. This blurb about the entire exhibit, it’s wrong.”
“What’s wrong about it?”
“Kim Jongin has engaged in a series of projects. Changing himself to fit a series of stereotypes that he himself doesn’t belong to in order to create a captivating image of metamorphosis and become a true chameleon.”
Kyungsoo says nothing.
“They got it wrong,” Jongin says, rolling his head back and shutting his eyes. His forehead crinkles. “It’s not about fitting yourself to other people. It’s not me changing myself. I don’t change, it’s the superficiality that changes. They’re missing the point.”
Kyungsoo rests his hand on Jongin’s forehead to smooth the harsh lines out.
“It’s not project,” Jongin whispers into Kyungsoo’s ear, “It’s project. I want to be a projection of society, just changing the first layer of skin, the first layer of identity. I’m not transforming, I’m not changing as a person, it’s just-- It’s just perception and-- They’re wrong, they got it wrong. They got the entire point wrong.”
They’re here, on the floor of some museum’s gallery after the visitors have left and lights are all off. There’s just a few lining the darker corners, protecting against robberies and vandalism. Except for the color washing through Kyungsoo’s cheeks and the warmth of Jongin’s skin, the entire room is black and white.
“You know, I say this. I say I want to project a persona, in every single picture, every single project,” Jongin says, his voice crackles like an old recording, threatening to break with every turn and twist. “I’m here, and I’m doing this, but it feels almost like I’m lying to myself. You know, we’re here because we’re showing these rich, privileged people that once you put on the mask, all that respect and justice goes out the window based on such superficial qualities. But,” Jongin takes Kyungsoo’s hand, “Oddly enough, I don’t feel like I’m getting the last laugh. It feels wrong.”
If there’s any moment to fall in love, Kyungsoo realizes, it’s here. Lost in the melancholy beauty of this situation, two people falling together by defying social structure, finding themselves in a place where social status is admired and revered. The audience of the entertainment is also the source of the joke. It’s a loop of satire, and it’s cynically beautiful. Kyungsoo thinks that this is exactly what Jongin started out to do.
Imagine how beautiful the image would be. These two figures, torn out of the loop of their own game, sitting together in a gallery after hours. Imagine how much more beautiful the image would be if they fall in love for the first time.
But you can’t fall in love for the first time, Kyungsoo realizes, if you’re already in too deep. You can fall in love for the second time, or the third, or perhaps, Kyungsoo realizes, it’s something continuous. Falling in love, maybe, never ends.
“It doesn’t matter,” Kyungsoo says, sliding down to sit next to Jongin against the wall, “Because it’s not about who gets the last laugh. It’s an ideal, and it will always stand. Even if the man behind the idea is gone, it’s still there.”
Jongin glances up.
Maybe that’s why breakups hurt so much, Kyungsoo realizes, because if love were to terminate, if it didn’t accumulate, it wouldn’t hurt at all. In only hurts because it keeps on going.
“I’ve always wanted to ask,” Kyungsoo whispers, “What happens when the book is done?”
Jongin stares at Kyungsoo for a moment in the darkness and presses his palm to Kyungsoo’s cheek.
“I’ve thought about it a lot,” Jongin whispers, “and I had this plan when-- I had a plan.”
“What happened to the plan?” Kyungsoo asks, eyebrows furrowed.
“It’s still intact,” Jongin says slowly, “I’m just not sure if I want to go through with it anymore.”
Kyungsoo brushes his fingers against Jongin’s, still resting on Kyungsoo’s cheek. Jongin’s hands are abnormally warm, like he has a fever, but when Kyungsoo rests their foreheads together, he’s not sick. Just his hands burn hot, wrapping themselves tight around Kyungsoo’s fingertips. He pulls Kyungsoo’s fingertips up to his lips and just holds them, suspended in a kiss that’s not quite there.
“Funny thing is,” Jongin chuckles weakly, “This is nothing like what I expected it to be. I thought I would find myself and there are less and less pages in the book now. I thought I’d grow more detached, but--” Jongin glances at Kyungsoo, “Then there’s you. It’s like I have a limited amount of time to decide what is me and what isn’t, and decide what’s obsolete.”
Kyungsoo wonders why Jongin seems so affected by the mortality of his little leather notebook. Why he seems to look at Kyungsoo with a pained look. It’s not like Kyungsoo is going anywhere.
“There’s a time limit on everything,” Kyungsoo points out.
Jongin stares at him.
“Yeah,” Jongin sighs, “Yeah I know.”
After opening night, Jongin and Kyungsoo don’t return to the exhibit. Three weeks later, Jongin gets a shipment to his apartment. All of the photographs are given to him, in their frames, with the plaques. There’s a note sending the museum’s deepest most sincere thanks.
Kyungsoo arrives at Jongin’s apartment on Sunday and when he knocks, nobody comes to the door. Kyungsoo knocks and knocks and knocks, but nobody ever answers. Kyungsoo sees all the boxes, stacked at Jongin’s door, with the thank you card right on top.
He checks the shipment slip. It says it’s been here since yesterday. Since Saturday, the only day that the two of them don’t meet.
Has Jongin not come out of his apartment?
Kyungsoo stands there, slamming his fists against that big, ornate door for half an hour. Nobody ever comes. Should he call him? He doesn’t have his number.
At five o’ clock, Kyungsoo walks away and takes the stairs back down out to the street. Disappointment is harsh, and Jongin has never let him down before.