there’s something strange about occupying the same room with another person. at night, when samdong is deep in slumber, and when you can’t bring yourself to fall asleep, the rhythm of his breathing is all you can hear. it’s regular, like a slow, peaceful two-four time, except when it’s interrupted by the odd, erratic snore.
the first time you experience the early morning hunger pangs, it’s only four days after you move into teacher kang’s house. it’s not long enough for you not to feel as if you’re imposing, but it’s long enough for you to know that both teacher kang and his sister are good people, even if she can be a little intimidating at times. just last night she’d force-fed you five whole bowls of rice and then some, and even though your stomach was all too willing you still felt as if the progression should have taken place a little slower, like you should have accepted, based on your gut feeling, only two bowls. of course teacher kang encouraged you to eat as much as you wanted even though the combined costs of keeping the three of you in the house was probably going to burn a large hole in his paycheck, and of course hyemi was busy showering you and samdong (shovelling huge amounts of meat into his mouth at risk of choking) with her full attention. her glare reminded you of a mother you never had.
your alarm clock says that it’s five thirty. you’ve chosen a bad time to wake up; you’ll need to be up in an hour at the latest and your growling stomach won’t let you go back to sleep anyway. it’s a miracle how much you eat, but growing boys will be growing boys, and that’s what you tell yourself while you stumble out of your room and into the darkness and feel your way down the staircase. for a house that is relatively foreign to you, teacher kang’s kitchen is pretty easy to figure out.
you can’t cook to save your life, but you think scrambled eggs and toast are definitely not out of your repertoire, and you hope it won’t give everyone in the house food poisoning. you’re busy swallowing your own handiwork, having saved the bulk of it as breakfast for everyone else, when the sound of people trundling down the stairs reaches your ears and suddenly, quite suddenly, you don’t really know how to explain what you did.
“i made breakfast,” you say awkwardly when teacher kang takes a seat next to you, looking pleasantly surprised, and hyemi and hyesung just kind of gape at you from where they’re standing at the foot of the stairs.
“it’s my duty to make breakfast in this house,” hyesung says, eyes wide, as if you’ve just robbed her of her one and only talent.
“i’m sorry,” you tell her. “i’ll let you do it next time.”
samdong is still asleep when you go back to your room to change out for school, lying face down on his pillow. you’re pretty sure he’s drooling.
friday night, eleven p.m.:
“two pairs,” you sigh, laying your cards on the table.
“uh, what is five six seven eight nine?” samdong asks.
“full house,” hyemi declares triumphantly, flashing her cards – three kings and two eights – in your faces. “pay up, guys.”
you give her the last five thousand won bill you have in your pocket, and samdong looks sadly at his own hand and says, “can we stop now? i haven’t got any money left.”
“sucks to be you,” hyemi tells him, but then gathers all the cards together and shuffles them back into the deck. “fine, we’ll all go to bed now, happy?”
it’s too much of a happy coincidence, you think as you watch her shove the cards back into their cardboard housing, that all of you are stuck rather painfully in the half-admissions class and live in the same house, and therefore serve as constant reminders to one another that if you don’t do something about it, you will be left there to rot until you finally graduate or, god forbid, withdraw from school. still, you think common misery might just lead to common progress. sometimes, in the midst of all this mess, you find that you can’t quite remember who started it.
during dance practice sessions after school pilsuk is always apologetic about crashing into samdong. hyemi never seems to care if she breaks your foot. all of you return home tired and aching, and samdong calls dibs on the shower before you can even protest. you fall onto the couch, watching as hyemi disappears up the stairs. an odd sort of contentment washes over you, and it’s strange, because there isn’t really much to be content about – there’s too much that’s on all your minds – but there isn’t any other word you can think of that describes how you feel.
when you move into the dorms you share a room with taesun. jason gets a room all to himself, and that’s only because he won at three-way scissors paper stone.
taesun is a horrible roommate. every time you fall asleep, the last thing you hear is taesun humming along to whatever song you’re supposed to be practising that week, his voice cracking over the high notes. either that, or his music player is on at full blast, the strains of michael jackson escaping from his headphones. you conveniently forget to remind him that it’s bad for his ears.
some nights you wonder what hyemi is doing, and you wonder if samdong is asleep in the bedroom that now belongs solely to him, his snores going unheard. you also wonder if staying was the right decision. for something that you thought was an obvious choice, you’re certainly getting a lot of flak.
you really like hyemi.
this is not a secret. this is not a secret you want to keep from anybody, and if somebody finds out, so be it. it’s not something you want to assert and it’s not something you want to deny, and hyemi isn’t a prize you’re fighting to win, but if that’s what samdong wants then you’ll gladly oblige him. you know that in real life, being childhood friends means nothing much. meeting for an hour and having someone sing you a birthday song because she pitied you, however much you appreciate it till this day, means even less.
japan, you think, is a good place for reconciliation. you forget to watch the view from the ferris wheel because hyemi’s cheeks are red from the cold, and you’re telling her things you never thought you’d tell anybody, things you thought you’d kept locked up and stored away somewhere in the attic of your being, left to be forgotten. you’re crying because she’s crying, or is it the other way round?
“thank you,” you tell hyemi afterwards, like a weight’s been lifted off your chest. tears are running down her face in the most inelegant fashion ever, and the ferris wheel has the two of you trapped in the air in a wretched imitation of unwanted displacement, taking its time to wheel its way down to the ground. it is then that you realise you’ve spent your whole life afloat. suddenly, you want to go home, back to seoul, back to where you cohabit with the oddest group of people you’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. there’s finally something to go back to; you realise that there always has been.
“do you ever miss home,” you ask.
“what?” samdong says.
“i said, do you ever think about what’s going on back home,” you repeat.
“i can’t hear you,” he replies, hands full of score sheets.
“figures,” you mumble to yourself. “and let me use the piano, you’ve been hogging it for an hour.”
by the time you’re both done it’s way past dinnertime, and everyone’s gone back, even hyemi, so you’re stuck with each other. you go to a roadside stall and order enough food to feed a small country.
samdong no longer eats like he’s been starved for months. his bites are careful and calculated and he chews before swallowing. suddenly you see past his funky new haircut, that one weird ear piercing he got out of the blue; you see past all the bitterness and cynicism and all that change that he’s accumulated in the past one year, and you wonder where song samdong has gone: that country bumpkin you met so long ago, old-fashioned windbreaker and all, that country bumpkin who believed anything all of you city folks said. you’ve long convinced yourself that if he’d stayed where he was, in the countryside, tending to fields, all that talent would have gone unnoticed. the ends justify the means; that’s what everyone says.
you foot the bill later and refuse all attempts to split it.
“are you taking pity on me,” samdong says flatly. “i’ve got money, you know.”
“yes, i am taking pity on you,” you say, “and no, i know you’re broke for the rest of the month.”
hyemi is doing her homework at the kitchen table when you get home. she takes a look at the both of you, scowls, then hastily stacks her worksheets and exercise books on top of one another and stomps upstairs. samdong nudges you with his elbow, and belatedly you remember that the two of you were supposed to come back to discuss the upcoming auditions with her.
“don’t be angry,” you yell up the stairs, “we’ll buy you ice cream tomorrow.”
“i don’t associate with people who go missing without notice,” she huffs back, and samdong glowers at you as if half the blame wasn’t his to share. you shrug.
samdong watches as you change out of your uniform later, dabbing his freshly-washed face with a towel. it’s a little unsettling, but there’s nothing you can’t get used to. besides, you’ve been living together for months.
“listen,” he begins, “i just want to remind you –”
“yeah, man to man and all that,” you interrupt him, tugging on an old t-shirt. “i know.”
you get up in the middle of the night to make yourself a peanut butter sandwich with extra peanut butter, and the sweet, salty stickiness is somehow easier to swallow than you thought it was. it’s cloying, filling, and extremely satisfying.
pilsuk has fallen asleep, her head pillowed on jason’s shoulder, and if you didn’t know how important manners were to jason you probably wouldn’t have found it strange that he’s dozed off, head tilted back and mouth wide open. samdong is lying sprawled on the floor of the studio, and baekhee is seated against the mirror, her head nested atop her bent knees. you stretch a little, all sore and tender, and wander out of the room to get some water.
a little further down the corridor hyemi is propped up against the wall, arms folded, her eyes closed. they flutter open when she hears your approaching footsteps, though, and her face arranges itself into a tired smile.
“hey,” she says.
“hey,” you reply.