1. Now, Then
“Can you believe it?” said Hongsik’s aunt. “It’s baekro, soon.”
They were the only people in the restaurant that September evening. It was a miracle they found it, Caleb and Hongsik, as they walked down the length of Changdeokgung-gil, bordered on the right by the bricked walls of the palace. The restaurant had an inconspicuous facade, just a white T-shirt hung at the front of a sliding door, sandwiched between a souvenir shop and a much larger café. Caleb and Hongsik spotted Hongsik’s aunt, sipping on a cup of barley tea, seated at the only table that could accommodate all three of them.
They took off their shoes. As they made their way to the table, Caleb could feel subtle vibrations across the floor, caused by the sound system that was being used next door.
But there was no actual music in the restaurant. Hongsik’s aunt urged them to help themselves to the banchan and to drink water, or order tea if they’d like. She then nodded at the ahjumma standing behind the counter to bring out the rolls of kimbap she’d ordered in anticipation of their arrival.
Caleb thanked her. Yuh-jung, Hongsik’s aunt, was the only person in his family who knew that Hongsik was gay, which meant that she was the only person in Hongsik’s family that Caleb had ever met. Thankfully, she and Caleb got along. Whenever they saw each other, she would always be dressed the same: a black top, her hair up in a messy bun, and frameless glasses. She projected an image of calm under duress, and that night was no exception, in that restaurant on Changdeokgung-gil.
Promising sounds came from the kitchen. Hongsik handed his aunt a tote bag full of books, ARCs of novels he’d translated into Korean. Hongsik’s aunt took a peek into the bag and cooed, just as the ahjumma reappeared with their dinner.
“Eat as much as you want,” said Yuh-jung to the boys. “My treat.”
Kimbap, apparently, was the main thing sold at this particular restaurant. That and barley tea, served hot, or with ice for another 100 won. Hongsik’s aunt picked up a slice of kimbap with her chopsticks and stared at it, while she used her other hand to prop the side of her head.
“This place is so pure,” she said. “So simple.” With a mouth full of kimbap she then added: “I feel strangely cleansed in here. Don’t you?”
Caleb knew a fair bit about the life that Yuh-jung led. Unlike her sister, Hongsik’s mother, who married herself into the life of a homemaker, Yuh-jung had a successful career in the film industry, overseeing outreach and communications for a number of film studios. But her life, she’d insist, was far from the glitz and glamour that Caleb imagined; tonight, for example, she had to head back to work once they were done with dinner, to prepare for tomorrow’s private screening. She had to manage a sexual harassment scandal as well, one that directly involved the director of a future project.
It was when they were down to their final roll of kimbap that Hongsik’s aunt had mentioned baekro, the coming of the new season. Caleb asked Hongsik if the word meant autumn, and his boyfriend smiled and nodded as though to say, “Not bad.” Caleb then watched Hongsik turn to his aunt, to ask if baekro had something to do with dew, and there followed a moment, just a second or two, when a common understanding passed between them, and Caleb finally saw the semblance they shared: it was in the way their eyes had widened, and the way their smiles crooked to the side.
“It’s an in-between season,” Yuh-jung explained, slowly. “When the warmth of the day gives way to a sudden coolness in the evening. The drop in temperature causes the dew on plants to appear earlier than usual.” She cocked her head. “You never experienced this?”
Caleb shook his head. “No,” he said. “Not in Singapore.”
Yuh-jung nodded, pursing her lips. “Well,” she said. “Now you get to, Caleb. Now you get to feel the world change, just by a little bit. But it’s enough to make you feel like you’re stepping inside a totally different reality.”
Caleb and Hongsik stepped outside the restaurant a few minutes later. The two put on their jackets, relishing the fresh, invigorating chill of the evening. It made Caleb want to ask the world: This is baekro? This is what it’s like? The souvenir shop was closed, though the café was still open, its music loud enough to hear from the sidewalk. He walked over to a potted plant, one that belonged to the café, and saw no dew on its leaves.
The door to the restaurant slid open. Yuh-jung stepped out onto Changdeokgung-gil, ducking her head beneath the T-shirt, still in the midst of dropping her change into her wallet. He then watched Hongsik and his aunt shift to the side, to make way for another group of friends clamoring to enter. Caleb found himself staring at the strangers’ backs, relieved that the ahjumma had other customers too. He then looked into the café one final time, at the faces of its patrons, chatting and laughing; he was thinking about how grateful he was, really, for the lives of other people. He felt grateful to be here, to be alive—to be in the midst of so much life. Caleb then heard Hongsik’s aunt thank her nephew again for the books before giving them both a quick hug in parting.
“Get home safe,” she said. She then added, in Korean, that she would see them both tomorrow.
Hongsik’s aunt had organized a private screening of Right Now, Wrong Then, a film by Hong Sang-soo. It was to take place the following day, at a private residence in Seongbuk-dong, in the latter half of the afternoon.
Hongsik and Caleb were both invited. Their plan for tomorrow was to have an early lunch at home and then order a taxi. Now, however, Hongsik wanted to take Caleb out for drinks and was still debating between two options. The first was to head back to his workplace, a studio at Mangwon-ro, where he and his friends could order chicken and maekju for supper. The second was a gay bar less than a kilometer away, in Jongno-gu itself, where they—just the two of them—could enjoy a drink or two before calling it a night.
Caleb looked at his boyfriend, unable to intuit which option Hongsik actually preferred. But he heard a peal of laughter erupting from the café, in the short second or two when its door had swung open. Caleb whipped his head over his shoulder, and then back toward Hongsik, only to find his boyfriend’s eyes widened in an obvious taunt. Caleb then felt a laugh escape from him, for no particular reason, as though infected by his surroundings; it was clear that Hongsik would like to see his friends too, and hang out with them that evening, to be a part of this laughter that was happening across the city. “Okay,” he said to Hongsik. “Let’s go to the studio.”
They walked back the way they came, up the length of Changdeokgung-gil. They reached the southernmost edge of the palace grounds and made a right down a boulevard lined by ginkgo trees; just ahead was the bus stop, where they would take the 710 service west toward Mangwon-ro. But something caught Caleb’s eye on the other side of the boulevard—a man, running, his tie loose and flapping over one shoulder. Out of the darkness emerged a group of drunken others, variously dressed, yelling as they pursued him.
“Hooray,” said Hongsik dryly. “Friday night.”
Caleb winced. He could hear the soles of the poor fellow’s shoes, slapping against the sidewalk, as he yelled something indiscernible back at the others; it was a shout loud and desperate enough to reach Caleb’s ears over the traffic that went up and down the busy lanes of Yulgok-ro.
“What did he say?”
“Hmm?” asked Hongsik.
“The guy being chased,” said Caleb. “He was shouting something. Did you hear?”
Hongsik shook his head. “Don’t bother,” he said, just as a light shone on his face—it was the headlights of the 710, threatening to come and go without them, its engine close enough for its rumbling to be audible. Hongsik quickly reached for Caleb’s arm. “Hurry.”
And so it was Caleb and Hongsik’s turn to run. They managed to board the 710, Hongsik panting as Caleb led them toward a pair of available seats. Just before the bus could pull away, Caleb managed to witness, through the window, what appeared to be the final sequence of the chase: the fellow struggling in vain while being held by the collar, shaking back and forth in another man’s grip while the rest of the group encircled him.
“What would you do?” Caleb asked.
Hongsik was still panting, casting a furtive look around the 710. “Huh?”
“If you were in that situation,” said Caleb, pointing through the window. “What would you do?”
Hongsik craned his neck to see. The scene was already sliding out of view as the bus resumed its route. “Ah,” he said, nodding to himself. “I’d give up.”
Caleb couldn’t believe it. “What?”
A wild smile broke over Hongsik’s face. “I’d give up,” he said again, his second taunt of the evening. “I would let those men hit me, over and over again. All over my body.”
Caleb rolled his eyes; they’d discussed it in bed, just the other night, Hongsik’s brief flirtation with masochism. But Caleb was no sadist: if he could, he’d live a life free of pain, none whatsoever. “Oh yeah?”
“Oh yeah,” he said. Hongsik then paused and licked his lips. He told a story from when he was fourteen years old, one that Caleb had never heard before. He said there was a kid in his class that everyone loved to pick on, who normally never retaliated against any of his aggressors. It started with the basketballers, and then included the girls who did ballet; Hongsik said it was a slow but relentless campaign that eventually deprived the kid of all possible allies, leaving him in total isolation. Sure enough, the kid hit breaking point one day, just before science class began: one of the bullies said something that caused him to snap, resulting in a brief but colossal shouting match across the laboratory.
The bus trembled—just as something within Caleb shuddered as well. “How did it end?” he asked, but Hongsik just shook his head, not looking at Caleb.
“The kid got so angry he ended up crying,” he said. “And then the teacher walked in, and started her lesson, as though nothing had happened before she entered.” Hongsik’s earlier smile was long gone at this point. “Everyone kept quiet. None of us spoke. We pretended to pay attention to the teacher, while the kid continued to cry at the back of the room.”
The bus continued westward, past Gwanghwamun and then around the walls that bordered Sajik Park. Caleb reached for Hongsik’s hand, and squeezed it. Hongsik managed another smile, and asked if Caleb remembered who Dowon was. Caleb said he did, of course he did. He was one of the graphic designers who rented a desk at the studio, one of the friendliest people he’d met in Seoul. Dowon always insisted on speaking to him, on getting to know who he was, even though Dowon didn’t know a single word of English. There’d always be a translator, often in the form of Hongsik, to facilitate the conversation between them.
“That’s the kid,” said Hongsik. “The kid in my class. Crazy, no?”
They had to take another bus, the 271, once the 710 dropped them off at Mapo-gu. Two stops later, they found themselves on Mangwon-ro, a street with shophouses on both sides, selling things Caleb never paid any attention to. There was the Chinese restaurant though, where Hongsik usually ordered takeout; beside it was the entrance to the building where Hongsik’s studio occupied half of the third floor. By the time they reached the landing, however, they found a number of people standing outside the studio: there was Dowon, the graphic designer, as well as a woman named Kim, another tenant, who earned her income as a private investigator. The third person was a Japanese man named Taku, dressed in a flannel overshirt and cargo pants; he was the boyfriend, apparently, of the folk musician/illustrator who also rented a desk, though it wasn’t clear at the moment where she was.
Kim waved her hands in greeting, her mouth and nose hidden behind a mask. Dowon said hello in his usual, cheerful manner. Caleb’s eyes lingered on Dowon, unable to reconcile the story he’d just heard on the bus with the person that now stood before him, sporting a bowl-shaped haircut and bright red cheeks. Caleb felt another wave of gratitude, then, though it came this time with a slight pinch; he’d never admit this, but part of his gratitude lay in never having experienced any hardship in school, aside from the occasional aspersion toward his presumed asexuality.
Caleb remained standing on one of the steps. It was obvious, from the way Hongsik spoke, that he was trying to figure out why they couldn't enter their studio. Dowon and Kim refrained from answering. Taku replied, rather nonchalantly, about what was taking place inside.
Hongsik turned to Caleb. “His girlfriend is shooting a video of some kind,” he said. “We have to wait.”
Caleb nodded, carefully. He felt Taku’s gaze rest on him then, in what felt like a bald attempt to suss out anything untoward or inaccurate in Hongsik’s translation. Caleb looked away and got Hongsik to sit with him, on the steps. Dowon and Kim sat behind them. Taku continued to stand near the door, like a security guard.
Hongsik looked over his shoulder. He then turned to Dowon and Kim and asked if they’d been informed about the video shoot beforehand. Kim said no one told them anything.
The situation felt tense to Caleb. Everyone muttered to prevent Taku from overhearing them, even though the acoustics in the stairwell amplified every sound they made. Hongsik’s gaze flicked back to Taku before he asked Dowon and Kim if they might want something to drink. Dowon shook his head, and let out an audible sigh; Taku spoke up then, saying something Caleb didn’t understand, just as Kim nudged Dowon with her foot. Apparently there’d be more than enough food inside, once the filming was over, Taku explained. Kim got on her feet anyway, and exited the building. She’d get everyone some snacks at the 7-Eleven, and a bottle of makgeolli, to have on the stairs while they waited for the filming to wrap.
No one spoke. It was also a little cold. Caleb took his phone out and turned off airplane mode: his phone began to buzz with the influx of new messages from a group chat he shared with friends from back home. It started with a link from Buzzfeed that Angie sent to the group, one that prompted a “!!!!” from Shakti and a “lol what” from Soph. Caleb clicked on it too, and he waited for the page to load; Hongsik leaned toward him, his curiosity piqued by the text that eventually appeared: Order an Expensive Meal and We’ll Tell You the Age of Your Soul.
“Quiz?” said Hongsik. “Let’s try it.” They were still reading the first question when Dowon made another sound, a tut. Caleb looked over his shoulder and was surprised to see not the friendliness he’d always associated with the man but a clear look of scorn. Dowon pointed at Caleb’s phone while he muttered more Korean under his breath. “Yah,” said Hongsik, nudging his elbow against his friend’s leg; he was telling Dowon to calm down.
Caleb then heard more Korean, coming from Taku this time, loud enough for everyone in the stairwell to hear. Caleb’s gaze darted between Dowon and Taku, aware that a disagreement was unfolding before him. Dowon got on his feet, and Hongsik rose in turn, muttering another stern warning in Dowon’s direction. Caleb then felt a mix of awe and dread as Dowon began to gesticulate in his direction; the men inched closer to one another as Caleb pocketed his phone.
“Uh,” he said. “What—what’s going on?”
It appeared that Dowon was blaming Taku and his girlfriend for preventing Caleb from having a good evening at the studio; he was blaming Taku and his girlfriend for making Caleb and Hongsik’s trip from Jongno-gu a complete waste of time. “I—I don’t care!” he found himself saying. But the Koreans were now arguing, their voices raised, it was all Caleb could hear in the stairwell. There was a moment, too, when the door to the studio had budged open just a fraction, prompting Taku to quickly slam it shut, an act that incensed Dowon even further. And then there was a flash of movement, a flurry of bodies—Dowon had reached for the door while Taku continued to stand guard before the keypad, slapping Dowon’s hand out of the way. Hongsik then entered the fracas, hoping he might stand between them to prevent either one from touching the other again.
There followed a shove, and then a moment of shocked silence. Caleb couldn’t find the time to think, to properly analyze what was happening—all he knew was that his boyfriend was stumbling backward, attempting to right his balance, trying and failing to grasp the railing in time. He moved, almost automatically, catching his boyfriend from behind. And although it was no great height, a sharp pain rang across Caleb’s arm and shoulder while Hongsik cried out, wincing, they’d soon learn, from an ankle sprained during the fall. And then a scream pierced the pain that clouded Caleb’s mind—it was Kim, back from the convenience store, convinced that the two of them, surely, had fallen to their deaths before her eyes.
It was nearly one in the morning when their taxi stopped in front of Hongsik’s apartment building.
Dowon signaled for the driver to wait. Caleb opened the door and helped Hongsik out from the backseat. Dowon quickly looped around to take Hongsik’s other side. The three then walked till they reached the elevator, Hongsik mostly hopping on one foot.
The apartment was on the seventh floor, the second unit nearest to the elevator. Caleb unlocked the door and helped his boyfriend take off his shoes. Dowon accompanied Hongsik to the couch.
Caleb put his own shoes aside. “What do you want?” he asked. “Tea? Shower?”
Hongsik made a face. “Shower.”