Rating: PG 13
Summary, potential warnings: The coffee house by the bend, 3 pm: the Project begins.
Kyungsoo only opens his eyes because there’s a crow outside of his window. It’s jet black and it’s loud, caws grappling around Kyungsoo’s consciousness and ripping him out of his slumber. The crow’s noises cling to Kyungsoo’s eardrums, ringing over and over, even after the crow has flown away.
Kyungsoo sits up blearily. Sleep dangles on his bottom lashes, and his mouth is sticky. He parts his lips and shuts them several times to warm them up from the rusty feeling of exhaustion. His jaw seems to creak as he moves.
Late morning light streams in through his flimsy cotton curtains, just soft enough that it doesn’t burn his eyes as he slowly pries them open with his fingertips.
It’s almost noon, but the city seems just as tired as he is. There’s no rush of traffic on the street just outside of his fourth story window. He’s used to waking up to rush hour’s stragglers, honking noisily as they hurry to a day at work.
Kyungsoo peels himself from off of his bedsheets. There’s a fine layer of sweat between his bare back and the silk. His face feels sticky, like he’s just come back from a run. Standing up is difficult, and moving to the bathroom is the challenge of the century. He groggily feels around for his toothbrush, jamming it into his mouth, then his cheek before blindly patting around his counter to find the tube of toothpaste.
Brushing his teeth is a chore. He squints into the fluorescent lighting of his bathroom and slowly lets his eyes adjust to the day and what’s to come.
What really wakes him up is the cold water he splashes over his face after he’s combed through his hair and put his toothbrush off to the side. It jolts him awake, and suddenly his eyes are focused on his reflection in the mirror.
Kyungsoo looks curiously into the polished glass. The man reflected back at him is thin, but he doesn’t look flimsy. If he squints, the figure blurs away into pale cream, almost paper white, and an inky smudge of black for his hair. Pink lips, bright from the aftereffects of mint toothpaste, grow hazy until they’re barely noticeable on the pale oval of his face.
Kyungsoo tilts his head up, cradling his own chin in between his thumb and index finger to inspect his jawline. The skin is smooth and untouched.
Kyungsoo’s favorite feature on himself has always been his nose. It slopes nicely, and he thinks his lips are a little too thick, his eyes a little too wide when he’s not focused on controlling his expression. Kyungsoo sighs and balances thick framed glasses on the nose he likes so much, obscuring the thin angle he had admired just a moment ago.
Kyungsoo only has one clock in his house. It’s digital and made of stainless steel with a tiny little pocket of shined metal in the back to store the batteries and the gears. If the clock is hung up properly, the mechanisms aren’t visible at all, but Kyungsoo has never gotten around to putting a nail in his unmarred white wall.
It’s because Kyungsoo only has one clock that he doesn’t know what time it is until he steps out into his living room. He balances the machine on a stack of books and leans it against the wall.
It’s eleven instead of nine, which means the city has been so kind as to hit the snooze button for him this lovely Saturday afternoon.
Kyungsoo only knows it’s Saturday because his clock displays the date and weekday alongside the time.
Saturday, his favorite coffee shop is closed. Kyungsoo frowns. He needs a cup of coffee, and his machine broke down two weeks ago. He scratches his head idly and stands in the middle of his kitchen. The tiles are cold against his toes, so he curls them up, balancing terribly before stumbling back out into the living room area.
He should go out to get coffee, Kyungsoo decides. It seems like a fairly sound plan of action, so he nods to himself once and goes back to his bedroom, throwing open his closet and tugging on a gray t-shirt to go with his jeans. He smooths his hair down once with his palms, and toes on his shoes at the door.
It’s spring, and luscious green dusts along the edges of the sidewalks, spilling over from the designated areas for flowers and shrubbery. The air is damp, like the last rainfall, and Kyungsoo takes care to step over the straggling earthworms that had surfaced after the last rain.
The city is like a coloring book, with little patches of green that never pass the beige lines of the sidewalk. The blades of grass shimmer with remnants of morning dew.
Kyungsoo walks with no real aim, just one foot in front of another. He never looks down, and he never looks back. He trusts there will always be ground underneath his feet to catch him and that every step will somehow, someday, take him somewhere.
Kyungsoo doesn’t come to a stop until he finds a cafe. In the part of the city where he’s been walking, cafes are not a regular occurrence. It’s all metallic skyscrapers and high end shops.
Kyungsoo tilts his head and peers in the window of the coffee shop to get a better look before turning on his heel to walk up to the entrance. He wraps his fingers around the metal doorknob and pulls. The front door chimes.
The cafe is shaped like a pyramid tipped on its side, half buried into sand that time has glued into cement. The base of the pyramid is a straight wall made of pine, starting from the ground and shooting straight into the sky. It would go on forever, but it’s cut short by an intersection. A three dimensional intersection is an edge. The ceiling of the shop cuts the wall short, sloping down at a straight, but drastic angle.
There’s a technique in building design where the architect creates a tight hallway, just barely big enough for a party of one to pass through. It’s like suffocation almost, induced claustrophobia. But it’s worth it because that small hallway opens up into a massive space. Almost everyone makes it through that corridor and breathes, “Wow!”
There’s no hallway to the coffee shop. The door leads straight into the massive, right triangle prism, but it has the same effect. Darkness leads to light and compression leads to release. It’s a step from the strangle of the city into the fresh breath of another world.
Kyungsoo stumbles upon the shop on a day when the sky is a pale lilac, and the clouds are grey pencil smudges against the hazy sun.
The one upright wall is made almost entirely of glass, with pine pillars keeping up the integrity of the structure so physics can’t crush the cafe into little pieces. There’s a seam where the glass wall and the sloped ceiling meet and light fixtures hang by braided metal ropes, laced with ivy leaves.
There’s one barista, leaning with his hip against the counter. He’s holding a white cloth and rotating it against the inside surface of a mug. His eyes are hidden under a mop of almost white hair.
Kyungsoo glances around the shop once more. The light catches the surfaces and reflects, creating a subtle, dream-like effect. The cafe seems to be permanently etched into a fleeting moment and every second is just different enough. The sun never captures the world the same way twice.
“Espresso,” Kyungsoo says to the barista.
The barista dips his head in acknowledgment before turning away to fiddle with the machine. Kyungsoo has been to enough coffee shops that he really should know the inner workings of the
coffee building process, but he’s never looked into it with too much detail. Kyungsoo backs away slowly from the counter to find an open table amongst the masses set up in the shop.
Kyungsoo settles for a seat near one of the large expanses of glasses, drumming his fingers along the tabletop and humming through scales as he glances idly out the window. Spring is the season in which everything is supposed to wake. There’s very little nature in the city, just concrete jungles and metallic high rises. The comparison doesn’t seem quite as apt. Kyungsoo thinks that the city in the spring looks very much like the city in the fall, and it’s a pity that a world dying is so similar to one coming to life.
The coffee shop is relatively empty, with the exception of a couple making quiet conversation on one of the couches towards the back of the shop. The barista steps out lazily from behind the counter, thick lashes brushing against his skin as he tries to swipe the sleep from his eyes with one hand while holding Kyungsoo’s coffee in the other.
“Espresso,” the barista says blandly, putting the saucer down in front of Kyungsoo with a clack.
“Thank you,” Kyungsoo murmurs quietly. The barista turns away without a second look, stalking back to his post behind the counter.
The mug for the espresso is clear, made of glass, resting on a matching glass saucer. The drink itself is split into two layers, one a deep brown, nearly black, the other almost a caramel color. Kyungsoo watches as the layers keep their balance even after he lifts the cup to his lips and takes a slow sip.
Kyungsoo likes coffee. The first time he tried it, he had spat it out into his father’s lap. His father had lurched up and roared at him while maids hurried to pat his pants dry.
“It’s bitter,” he had complained.
His father had frowned until the wrinkles were deep set lines in his face before shaking his head and walking out of the room.
Coffee is one of those things that, Kyungsoo thinks, is an acquired taste. It’s naturally fragrant, and the smell of coffee beans is almost universally pleasing. But the taste itself isn’t quite as easy. They say that half of taste is actually smell, receptors’ capabilities mixing together until smell and taste are one.
Kyungsoo likes coffee because it’s real. He drinks it black, with no sugar and no cream, because it’s best in its raw state when he can really taste the bean as it’s meant to be. Kyungsoo supposes his love for coffee was inevitable. It runs in the blood.
Kyungsoo sighs and takes another slow sip of his espresso and decides that he likes this place. They make the coffee just thick enough and just potent enough. It has substance. He will come back.
He wonders if his father ever sold beans to this venue before deciding, no, probably not. It’s not a chain, and it probably doesn’t generate enough revenue to warrant his father’s attention. No matter how much of a coffee lover Kyungsoo’s father is-- was-- he was always first and foremost, a businessman.
The espresso disappears quickly enough, and as the taste begins to fade away on the tip of his tongue, Kyungsoo feels extremely dissatisfied. He orders another.
Time disappears somehow with a sun that slowly rises and slowly sets, no longer in the center of the sky when Kyungsoo shakes himself out of his daze.
Kyungsoo glances around to find that the couples that were here during his arrival are long gone, empty seats left in their places. There’s someone new in the store, leaning against the counter as the barista grinds the beans, a grating whirring noise of the machine before the soft sound of hot water trickling through the filters.
“One espresso,” the barista says, just as dully as before, sliding the saucer over the counter into the new stranger’s grasp. Kyungsoo checks his watch. It’s just past three in the afternoon. His stomach growls in protest to lack of food.
Kyungsoo watches blankly as the stranger fetches his espresso and settles into a table for two, propping his feet up on the other chair. Kyungsoo watches for just a moment too long and the man meets his gaze, giving him a look of confusion and curiosity before shrugging off his shoulders and glancing away.
The man is wearing a business suit, and there’s a briefcase leaning against his chair. He looks young and his hair is slicked back into a clean part. He’s handsome, almost strikingly so, but Kyungsoo finds himself continuing to stare, not because of his face, but because of his attire and the way he sits.
This man is an intern perhaps, Kyungsoo can tell by the way his sleeves are rolled up and his tie is loosened, several stray hairs coming loose from stiff gel while the man leans his weight back on the chair. He’s not entirely professional, not clean and pressed like Kyungsoo’s father was. He’s messy around the edges.
At last, Kyungsoo looks away. He’s been here for hours already, there are four identical cups stacked on top of four identical saucers. He figures if he orders another it would be unnecessarily strange. His stomach is sore because he drank the espressos on an empty stomach and it would be wise to go and find himself a late lunch.
He stacks all his cups and dishes neatly and leaves them on the table to be cleaned up. He stands up slowly, stretches, and makes his way to the door.
Kyungsoo tells the story of his life in snippets. He was born into a family of three, as an only child, the precious son of a businessman and a housewife. Coffee beans were a family trade, passed down from generation to generation. Kyungsoo’s life is all facts and information, he thinks, because there’s really not much to tell. All good stories root from a main character with some sort of disadvantage, and Kyungsoo has none. Kyungsoo’s greatest tragedy is that he has no tragedies at all.
A year after university, Kyungsoo quit his office job and told his father that he needed some time to find himself. His father had put one hand on each of his son’s shoulders and looked him directly in the eyes. Kyungsoo isn’t sure what he saw there, but it must have been more convincing of an argument than the one Kyungsoo had formulated in his head. It took less than a minute for his father to slacken his grip and acquiesce.
“Do what you need to do,” his father said, patting him on the head twice before walking away.
It’s difficult finding oneself. If Kyungsoo were to describe the feeling, he’d liken it to the feeling of being stranded in a body of water, paddling just enough to keep one’s head above the water. No matter where he turns, all he can see for miles and miles is the same thick, black, rippleless expanse of sea. No matter how far he swims, he won’t find anything and there’s no resolution. Kyungsoo just grows very, very tired.
Kyungsoo can’t remember when he didn’t feel lost. There was a time, of course, reason says it can only be so long since he has begun to feel this way, but he can never remember. It’s a cloying fog that settles over his memories and filters what he figures was a much brighter reality. He knows other people can tell, when they rock back on their heels and give him a look of pity. The worst part, is he can’t even justify this feeling. It strangles him daily, but there’s no definite reason. He’s happy, he should be, he just can’t explain why he’s not.
Kyungsoo leases an apartment in the city and portions off his savings to last him through the year. He never calls his parents and they never call him. It feels as if the nothing is eating him alive. Slowly, it’s become this meandering between home and coffee shops, somehow hoping that one day he’ll find solace amongst the beans and answers in espresso.
The next morning, Kyungsoo wakes up slowly, eyes adjusting hesitantly to the light streaming through his windows. He finds sleep never cures his exhaustion, but he indulges himself in as much of it as possible. His comforter is indeed comforting, he muses.
Aside from the warm nest that is his bed, there’s not much to look forward to throughout the day. He indulges himself in coffee shops almost daily because he can’t entirely forget the life he must return to, but also because it’s something he genuinely enjoys. He’s never had anything but good experiences at coffee shops.
The cafe that Kyungsoo stumbled upon slowly becomes a favorite. He begins frequenting it until he removes his previous favorite from his list entirely. It’s a shorter walk anyway, he reasons. The barista never changes his poker face, greeting Kyungsoo with a nasal “Hello, espresso?” before making the cup for him and passing it to him over the counter. He never asks for Kyungsoo’s name, and Kyungsoo never asks for his.
The shop fits seamlessly into his routine and Kyungsoo begins to look forward to his daily sojourn. He leaves just before noon, and leaves a little after two. Sometimes he stops for a sandwich in a shop just before, and sometimes, just after.
The first week that Kyungsoo visits the shop, he accidentally falls asleep once. He wakes up with his cheek plastered against the window, steam billowing out from his mouth and condensing against the glass. When he pulls his head up straight, he can see his own print against the lens to the scenery outside. He’s groggy and disoriented. He straightens himself up slowly, groaning softly as he feels a crick in his neck. He really prefers falling asleep in his bed.
He winces, cracking his jaw and glancing down at his half empty cup of coffee, far too cold to drink now. He sighs and looks at it idly until he hears a soft chuckle from his right. Kyungsoo’s head snaps up and he glares at the source of the laugh, pinpointing immediately on the man he recognizes from before.
It’s the intern, he realizes. The same slouchy style and the same sly grin. He’s watching Kyungsoo shake himself awake and much to Kyungsoo’s embarrassment, he’s laughing. This man is chuckling with the side of his index finger brushing against his bottom lip and his eyes brashly directed at Kyungsoo. He doesn’t look away when Kyungsoo returns the gaze.
It annoys Kyungsoo that this man is laughing at him without the slightest bit of shame. He stands up in a huff, patting his hair down the best he can, and gathers his dishes in order before storming right past the laughing stranger and out the store.
On his way back to his apartment, Kyungsoo finds his mind fluttering back to the thought of that strange young man. There’s something about him that bothers Kyungsoo. He’s the kind of man that Kyungsoo would have known at his workplace before he quit, young and ambitious with that sprinkle of boyish playfulness that has yet to wear away. Still, Kyungsoo can’t help but feel that something is a little bit off.
Kyungsoo doesn’t really know what he’s doing. Coffee shops and sleep are a routine, but not anything with purpose. The issue is that Kyungsoo isn’t so sure that he wants a purpose. It makes him tired to search for something he doesn’t care for. He has so much time, and nothing to do with it.
He thinks, that this is the curse of his generation. The privileged with too much time have no purpose, because they don’t suffer. A painting with no shadows is flat, two dimensional. If there’s nothing to contrast excellence with, no sense of relativity, how is one to know what is truly good?
Days blend into nights, and Kyungsoo finds that just three months into his respite and two weeks into frequenting this new coffee shop, the routine isn’t enough to keep him grounded. He loses sense of time and much like everything else, it becomes a meaningless expanse of nothingness that branches on forever from his trembling fingertips.
It’s two weeks after the odd stranger first laughed at him that Kyungsoo sees him again, or is it three weeks? Kyungsoo would never know. Kyungsoo falls asleep again, this time on one of the couches towards the back of the shop, and over a cup of latte that he doesn’t even manage to take a sip of before he’s lost to dreamland.
He jolts up suddenly, squinting immediately to block the sunlight searing through his eyes. He checks his watch and finds it’s half past three. He’s been sleeping in the shop for three hours, and he hasn’t even had a sip of his coffee. How pitiful.
Kyungsoo feels like he’s being watched, so he slowly lifts his head and glances around the cafe. There’s a boy sitting at the centermost table, leaning back with his feet propped up on the chair across from him. He’s wearing a uniform for a local high school, Kyungsoo’s old high school. The boy his covering the bottom half of his face with his hand, with his elbow resting on the table, but his eyes are definitely focused on Kyungsoo. Kyungsoo furrows his brows and the boy looks away.
Kyungsoo looks back down at his now cold latte and silently debates as to whether or not he should attempt drinking it. He did pay for it after all. At last, he grits his teeth together and lifts the cup to his lips, taking a hesitant sniff before sucking down a mouthful of it. It’s cold, as expected, and not all that appetizing, but it’s bearable. He sucks down the rest of the cup and scrunches his nose as he swallows.
When he leaves the shop, he glances back into the store, just as the door is swinging shut. That boy in the uniform is staring at him again, but this time, Kyungsoo stares back. The boy is definitely the same person as the intern from a couple weeks ago. How bizarre.
He could have sworn the man he first saw in the suit was long out of high school, out of college even. However, he’s also positive that he’s not mistaken, the boy and the man had the exact same face. Logic reasons that they are the same person.
Kyungsoo has questions, but he doesn’t want to ask directly. It would be strange, especially if he were to be mistaken. Instead, when he gets home, he devises a plan. He’s only ever seen the man when he’s fallen asleep, or stayed around late. Tomorrow he will go to the coffee shop later.
As he peels open his package of instant noodles and puts a pot of water on his stove to boil, it occurs to him that it’s a bit absurd. Perhaps it’s just a boy who is particularly advanced and has an internship. Maybe it’s a man with a thing for prancing around in his old high school uniform. As the water starts to bubble, Kyungsoo puts his thinking on hold to slice up the tofu, mushrooms, and scallions that are lying forlornly, unchopped, on his cutting board.
As he tosses the mushrooms and tofu into the pot, Kyungsoo decides that the only reason he is so fascinated with this man, or this boy, is because he’s so lost within his lacuna of nothing that he’s willing to grasp onto anything at all to distract him. He just wants a sense of adventure, Kyungsoo reasons.
The mushrooms soften and Kyungsoo unleashes the entire packet of flavoring into the broth, stirring it twice with a wooden spatula before tossing the brick of dried noodles in two. Kyungsoo isn’t interested in this stranger for anything more than his abnormalities and because Kyungsoo desperately needs something to do. He’s finding himself, Kyungsoo decides, and every little step means something.
He sighs and stirs the pot slowly, squinting through the steam floating out of the pot to see if the noodles have softened enough to toss in the scallions. After a couple of minutes, he tosses them in and adds in a cracked egg for measure. He watches as the clear goo instantly solidifies and turns white, billowing out to catch the rest of the egg, like an exploded airbag. Kyungsoo turns off the heat and reaches for his oven mitt to pour the food out from the pot into a big ceramic bowl.
Kyungsoo feels oddly satisfied. Here, he has dinner, and tomorrow, he has something to do.
The next day, Kyungsoo’s internal alarm clock wakes him up bright and early, long before six. He frowns when he realizes that he has risen before the sun, and makes himself a cup of tea, accidently stewing the earl gray just a tad too long and drowning the bitter in clouds of milk.
The windows in his living room have no curtains, so Kyungsoo gets a clear view of the sun rising, coating the sky with a thin wash of pale orange as Kyungsoo spoons sugar into his tea. He feels around for his remote, and turns the volume down on low to the local station. They’re doing the weather. The forecast man tells Kyungsoo that it’s Sunday, and that today is going to be sunny.
The television is a dull hum in the background as Kyungsoo bangs around his kitchen, popping bread into the toaster and eggs into the pan. Slow breakfasts are the best, because mornings are the time between sleep and human interaction, it’s that stretch of time before Kyungsoo needs to start having pretenses and before he needs to think about what words to say.
Kyungsoo deposits his toast and fried egg onto a plate, shaking his pepper grinder twice before twisting the knob and sprinkling crushed peppercorns all over his fried eggs. He adds a pinch of salt and pulls a fork out of the silverware rack before sweeping his food back up and returning to his spot on the couch.
Kyungsoo doesn’t particularly enjoy watching the morning talkshow on the local channel, but he also doesn’t particularly enjoy anything else on television at this hour, so he doesn’t reach for the remote.
One in the afternoon comes slowly. It takes a severe amount of discipline for Kyungsoo to try and stay awake. The glimpse of his white sheets that are visible from the sliver of open door to his bedroom seem so inviting. It takes every bit of will that he has to keep himself from diving into their warm embrace.
At last, it’s two, and Kyungsoo stands up the instant that the clock switches it’s numbers to report the target time. It takes him almost no time at all to shrug on his jacket, tuck his keys into his pocket, and head out the door.
It’s relatively cold, especially considering that it’s long since been spring already, and if anything, summer weather should be seeping into mother nature’s veins. Kyungsoo buries his chin deeper into the collar of his jacket, protecting what he can of his face from the biting wind.
By the time he reaches the coffee shop, he’s pushes open the door in a rush and sinks into the warmth. His boots clack against the hard, weathered wood of the floor and he shakes his hair out of his eyes.
The shop is empty, with the exception of an old man set up with his laptop in the far corner. Kyungsoo looks around again, just to make sure the stranger isn’t there, before heading up to the counter to confront the barista with his order.
“Espresso,” Kyungsoo says, and the barista nods.
After he picks up his drink, he goes to his usual spot by the window and watches.
Kyungsoo waits quietly as the minute hand on his watch creeps by. Soon, it’s two thirty, and even the old man in the corner has long since left.
The sun sets slowly, in a perfect arc across the sky. It’s nearly summer, so by three it hasn’t quite set, but it’s on its way there. There isn’t much artificial lighting within the coffee shop, it’s almost entirely dependent on the natural lighting that streams through the transparent wall of windows.
The longer Kyungsoo waits, the more the shop dims. He wouldn’t describe the feeling as losing hope, for he has long since forgotten the term, but as each minute ticks by he feels disappointed. This stranger, whose name he doesn’t know, has failed him, and although it doesn’t quite make him sad, it’s a lost opportunity for him to feel happy.
It’s been a long time since he’s done even the littlest thing with conscious purpose, and when the barista walks over to Kyungsoo’s seat at four thirty to inform him that, “Sir, we are closing down. I’m going to have to ask you to leave the store.” Kyungsoo slips into his jacket and goes back home the way he had come.
Kyungsoo has trouble sleeping that night, which is something that he rarely has an issue with. The wave of comfort never comes and he feels uneasy, tossing and turning in his blankets to try and ebb himself into sleep.
It’s the first night that breathes of summer, an almost stickily humid breeze trickles in through Kyungsoo’s open window. His blankets stick to his skin until he pries himself out of them and shoves his window shut. He debates turning on the air conditioner and when he finally goes out to adjust the thermostat, he frowns to find that the switch is stuck. He curses quietly and slips back into his room yanking his shirt over his head and trying to find a cooler spot in his covers.
It’s as if there are little creatures stapling his eyelids open; it hurts them to close them and it hurts to keep them open. He finally drifts off when there’s a pale light outside. He doesn’t dream.
Kyungsoo wakes up late, jolting up abruptly. His sheets jerk up with him, plastered to the skin on his back. He’s groggy and everything is sticky, damp with sweat. He groans, back cracking audibly as he clambers out of his bed. His palms hit the floor first so his torso is dangling over the side of the mattress. He’s stuck in the position between being on the floor and being on his bed and he pauses for a moment before deciding how to proceed. He ends up flopping onto the ground ungracefully, lying there for a long time before peeling himself up off the floor.
The sun is sears through the windowpane and it’s even hotter than last night. Kyungsoo rubs at his arms, but the thin sheen of sweat won’t rub away. He needs to shower; he feels disgusting.
He’s slow in the shower, rubbing gently at all the knots in his back and closing his eyes while the hot water soothes the layer of stickiness off his skin. When the hot water runs out, he steps out reluctantly and towels himself dry, heading back to his room to get dressed.
It’s hot, so Kyungsoo walks around in just a pair of shorts for as long as he can, until he glances at the clock and realizes it’s already two thirty and he should go out to get something to eat.
He groans and slides a cotton t-shirt over his head. Black, it attracts heat, but his white one is in the wash. His hair is still a little damp, but he figures it’ll just help him keep cool. He slides his keys into his shorts pocket and steps out the door.
There’s a sandwich shop about a fifteen minute walk from his apartment that sells hot pressed turkey paninis for half price on Mondays. Kyungsoo makes sure that his wallet is in his back pocket, then hurries down the stairs to start walking.
When Kyungsoo walks places, he does it with a purpose. He never looks into other stores and he never watches people. For some reason, when he passes the coffee shop, he tilts his head just slightly, to toss his hair out of his eyes. He catches a glimpse of the shop in his peripheral vision. He stops in his tracks. There’s a figure at the center table, leaning back in his chair, feet propped up on the seat across from him.
It doesn’t even take a moment of hesitation for Kyungsoo to backtrack and head for the cafe door.
The man sitting there is the same one as before, except this time, he’s someone completely different. Same sly smirk as his gaze surely meets Kyungsoo’s from behind his sunglasses, same body language, and same oozing confidence. This man, today, is wearing his pants hanging so low on his hips that Kyungsoo can see a sizable strip of his briefs. He’s wearing a uniform, a high school uniform, but not the same one as before. Kyungsoo doesn’t recognize this uniform.
“What are you today?” Kyungsoo asks directly, standing behind the chair across from the stranger and leaning against the table. His fingers are splayed out on the table and his brows are furrowed.
The stranger slides his sunglasses down his knows and peers over the top of them, smile never sliding off his face, “What do you mean?”
“I want to know why every time I come here, you’re dressed as someone different.”
The stranger chuckles and slides his feet off of the chair across from him.
“It’s a project,” he pauses to stretch pale pink bubble gum between his teeth and his finger tips. The elastic candy snaps back as he sucks it back into his mouth, pursing lips and raising an eyebrow before chewing again. “Feel free to sit.”
“What kind of project?” Kyungsoo asks. He’s surprised that he asks out of genuine curiosity rather than courtesy. Typically, if someone brings up a subject, it would be impolite not to ask, but here, he actually wants an answer. He’s surprised to find that this stranger’s response yanks him out of his routine state of unfeeling into true interest.
“I--” The stranger pauses to frown, his eyelids darting shut for just a moment as he takes in a deep breath, shoulders falling with the breath’s release, “I wonder if I should tell you?”
Kyungsoo notices how it isn’t a question directed towards him.
This person sitting in front of Do Kyungsoo, be it a boy, or a man, or a god, or a king, rubbing his left thumb in small circles on the surface of the table between them. He looks incredibly frail. He looks incredibly lost.
“You don’t have to tell me,” Kyungsoo says, stirring his coffee slowly with the little sliver of wood that came out with it on the dish, “It doesn’t really matter if whether or not I know.” His mind is backtracking, desperately trying to reverse his confrontation towards this stranger. The questions had been wracking his mind for days, but now, he wonders if these are some of the questions best left unanswered.
The stranger looks up sharply, “What do you mean?”
“I mean it doesn’t matter,” Kyungsoo clarifies, “because it was silly of me to ask.”
The stranger tilts his head curiously and purses his lips. He looks at Kyungsoo curiously before the sly smile returns to his face, “Maybe you should get something to drink.”
There’s an exchange that seems to happen between the two of them, one that requires no words. Kyungsoo is a bit staggered by the immediate connection between them. He’s barely just met this guy and they can already communicate without words. How bizarre.
Kyungsoo nods and stands up to go place an order. By the time he returns, he’s doesn’t even remember what he said to the barista.
“I think,” the stranger runs his index finger around the rim of his cup. He never finishes his sentence.
“My name is Do Kyungsoo,” Kyungsoo offers, extending his hand over the table for a handshake.
The stranger looks at Kyungsoo’s hand for a moment before returning the gesture, “My name is Kim Jongin.”
“It’s nice to meet you.”
Gazes are cautious, sizing each other up, like they’re playing one grand game of poker and trying to raise the other twice their money.
“So who are you today?”
“Kid with too much money,” Jongin answers immediately. Kyungsoo’s eyes trace along the high school uniform as unbuttoned and slouchy as the clean lines will allow. Jongin has paid attention to detail, his watch is really quite nice.
“Kid with not enough money.”
“The week before.”
Jongin snorts, “Yuppie.”
Kyungsoo leans back.
“I bet you’re wondering why?” Jongin prompts, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m wondering,” Kyungsoo glances up as the barista calls his order, “For whom.”
Jongin presses his lips together.
“I think... This might be a good idea,” Jongin smiles.
The cafe closes every day at 4:30, so they end up leaving together right after Kyungsoo finishes up his coffee.
“What do you do?” Kyungsoo asks.
“Nothing,” Jongin replies as they turn around a corner.
“Your profession is nothing?” Kyungsoo frowns.
“I do nothing,” Jongin smiles, “What about you?”
Kyungsoo blinks, “I guess, I do nothing as well.”
“Unemployed?” Jongin raises his eyebrow.
“No,” Kyungsoo shakes his head, “Not working by choice.”
“Where are we headed?” Kyungsoo asks abruptly, changing the subject, just as Jongin’s expression gets more serious and the smile slips right off his face.
“I don’t know,” Jongin says, looking away.
“I know a sandwich shop--”
“Let’s go,” Jongin interrupts, “You show the way.
The street that the coffee shop is located on is relatively quiet because it’s a small back alley, quite a bit away from the main streets. Jongin walks normally for a couple blocks, but as passersby increase in number, his gait seems to shift. His steps grow wider, and he sways more from side to side, like a real teenager who is trying to find himself and is trying on different personas.
“This way,” Kyungsoo steps a little quicker, taking the lead, and Jongin follows.
The sandwich shop is tiny, literally a large indentation on the side of a building. There’s a large circular shape cut out of a wall that intersects at the very bottom region with the ground. There’s enough room inside for a counter and a little space behind it. It’s incredibly minimalistic, with the hot grills right by the cash register and a large stainless steel refrigerator positioned next to a counter with a strip of cutting boards for the ingredients. The walls are black and all the instruments are silver. Just because it’s small doesn’t mean quality is sacrificed. It’s Kyungsoo’s favorite sandwich shop and the pretty young cashier always knows his order.
Jongin stands hunched like an adolescent without confidence, gnawing on his lip and fiddling with his belt buckle.
“Can I have two of my usual?” Kyungsoo orders, forking over the cash. Jongin fumbles for his wallet, but Kyungsoo stops him with a shake of his head.
“Thanks,” Jongin mutters. Kyungsoo blinks in surprise. The confidence of the man back in the coffee shop is completely gone, solidity sublimated into the muggy air, replaced by the jittery nervousness of an adolescent trying to find his identity.
They get their hot sandwiches in a paper bag and leave together.
“Let’s eat these in the park,” Kyungsoo suggests, “There aren’t many people over by the trees.”
“Yeah,” Jongin shrugs, muttering under his breath, “Sure.” Kyungsoo can’t take his eyes off of him like this. Something about the way Jongin is acting rings true with Kyungsoo. He reminds Kyungsoo of himself as a teenager, too lost in trends and the rich world of money and opportunities to figure out who he really is.
There’s a park across the street from the sandwich shop, enclosed within high brick walls. Walking in through the gates is like walking into a world far from the city, brimming with foliage and life. There are tall trees and fountains of cool water trickling down rock structures. Although it’s never really silent, it’s never loud either, not like the city is, with all the honking cars and shouting people. The light tinges green as it streams through the cracks between the leaves, and once they reach an empty bench along the pathway, they can barely hear the din of the city outside the tall brick walls.
Kyungsoo unwraps a sandwich and puts it in Jongin’s hand. Jongin glances around and visibly straightens his posture. The man Kyungsoo met in the coffee shop is back.
“Tell me about this,” Kyungsoo’s sandwich wrapper crinkles as he peels it back to reveal the toasted bread inside, “thing of yours.”
Jongin still seems hesitant, and he rips back the paper on his sandwich more slowly than necessary.
“Or tell me about yourself,” Kyungsoo offers, “Who are you?”
Jongin answers much more quickly after that, “I pick a persona once a week.”
“People are idiots,” Jongin takes a large bite of his sandwich, cheese oozing all over his fingers, “They always make assumptions on me as a person by superficial things like clothing and social status. My question is as to how people treat me if I become one of them on the surface and how that changes how they act.”
“So you dress up as different--”
“Different cliques of people,” Jongin nods and takes another chomp from his sandwich, “Then, I try and assimilate into their culture and see if I can fool them all.”
“My goal,” Jongin says, a look of determination glazed over his eyes, “is to make every fool believe.”
Kyungsoo’s sandwich is untouched, melting in his hands, cheese dripping over the edges and down the lines of his arms.
“You should eat that quickly,” Jongin points out with a nod of his head.
Kyungsoo takes a massive bite.
“I took a break from-- From real life,” Jongin says, peeling the sandwich wrapper back more, “I found myself lost. I thought that taking a break would help me decide who to be.”
“It didn’t help,” Kyungsoo whispers.
“Hm?” Jongin glances, “Did you say something?”
“Yeah, well, anyway, I felt more lost than before. It was this freeform bullshit excuse of a life, revolving around sleep and food. I wanted to fix it, not waste my time. I figured I should do something trivial, stupid almost.”
“Doesn’t seem that stupid,” Kyungsoo says, taking a small nibble off of the crust of his bread, “You’re questioning society. It’s practically an art.”
“It didn’t start off that way. It started off as, if I dressed like this, would I get treated differently? It wasn’t structured.” Jongin has stopped eating, crumpled wrapper and last remains of sandwich dangling off his fingertips like an accessory. It looks almost like a cigar, steam blowing off of the toasted bread like puffs of smoke. “But I think when you do things off of impulse, they’re very reflective of the things that really bother you. Stereotypes were part of what pissed me off to no end before, and even if I run away, it’s still coming back, you see?”
Kyungsoo wonders if what Jongin says is true. What do his impulses say about him?
“Anyway, yeah,” Jongin shrugs and tosses the last bit of food into his mouth, chewing loudly, “Some would say it’s a bizarre pastime, and I say it’s a way to reconcile things with myself. All the things in the world that piss me off, I want to figure them out from the inside out and then, maybe I’ll understand.”
Kyungsoo doesn’t think he can conjure up a response to that, so he takes a big bite of his sandwich and nods earnestly as he chews.
“Anyway,” Jongin glances at his watch, “The kids at the high school get out of classes relatively soon, so I need to head on over there if I want to see if I can blend in.”
It takes Kyungsoo a moment to realize it’s an extended invitation. Jongin is asking if he’d like to come with.
“Yeah, I don’t want to hold you up,” Kyungsoo says, swallowing quickly, “I’ll head home then.”
“Thanks,” Jongin says as Kyungsoo stands up and wipes the crumbs off his pants.
“For what?” Kyungsoo glances back, “The sandwiches were pretty cheap, don’t worry about it.”
“No,” Jongin shakes his head and chuckles, “Thanks for asking. Nobody has ever asked before.”
When Kyungsoo finally gets home, the sun is setting. He still wants something to eat because one sandwich is not enough to satiate an entire day’s worth of hunger. He frowns at the lack of groceries in his refrigerator. It looks barren. He grumbles and fishes out a pack of tofu and dumps the cubes into a bowl with vinegar and soy sauce to soak.
Kyungsoo sits on one of the stools by his kitchen counter as the tofu cubes marinate. He wonders, in this stretch of time away from his family and from the world he grew up in, why the first semblance of true interest in something was voiced through excitement, and why this excitement was for something as simple as asking a strange man in a coffee shop why he was so strange.
Kyungsoo expected the feeling to go away after he left Jongin in the park, but it hasn’t. There’s still that thrumming sense of expectation within him and he’s honestly confused as to what he’s expecting. The adventure is over, after all.
As he drops the blocks of tofu into a hot saucepan, he wonders if tomorrow morning, everything will be back to normal.