(Originally posted 30 Jan 14 on tumblr)
Hyo-shin stands before his mother, his back ramrod straight, hands stiff at his sides. He can’t bring himself to meet her piercing gaze, so he watches her mouth.
“I want Kang Jae-sung as my therapist.”
Her lips press thin for the briefest moment—but it is long enough for Hyo-shin to register her displeasure—and that is enough sign for him to feel as if he made the right choice.
He is aware that making a decision based on what would most displease his parents is ridiculously childish and petty, but this small rebellion makes him feel—not better. Lighter, perhaps. Not as compressed.
It’s a start.
The worst part about L.A., Kim Tan writes through SNS late one night, is the summer break. The days bleed together so much that I lose track of them. Like there won’t be any end to them. And if they never end, I definitely won’t ever go back home.
When will you come back? Hyo-shin writes back, but Tan doesn’t respond.
The silence eats away at him—not because he actually wants Tan back, but because he hates that Tan has a future he looks forward to.
(That’s not entirely true. Part of him wants Tan back in Korea, if only because Tan knows what happened and hasn’t made any demands of him for it. No explanations, no expectations, no secrecy. They can talk around and through it without getting caught up in the whys of it all.
Neither of his parents have asked why yet. It’s both a burden and a relief, because Hyo-shin doesn’t know how to lay the charge at their feet, or even if that’s where it belongs.)
Hyo-shin is picking through his lunch in the almost-empty cafeteria when Bo-na rushes over to him, Chan-young trailing in her wake. She slams her hands on the table to halt her momentum, but nothing can curb the alarm in her voice.
“The second year test scores were just posted,” she says. Then she bites her lower lip and falls silent.
Lee Bo-na is never uncertain what to say. Chan-young finally catches up to her and rests one hand on the small of her back. It is an intimate, comforting gesture.
Hyo-shin drops his chopsticks. He pushes away from the table so quickly he nearly topples over in his chair, but he manages to keep his balance. It is all he can do to walk instead of run to the main bulletin board. Bo-na does not follow him. He adjusts the cuffs on his jacket and straightens his tie on the way, because if his hands are not occupied, they’ll start to shake.
There is a substantial crowd of students milling around the test scores, and Hyo-shin creeps to the fringes, only getting close enough to find his name.
It is not first. It is not even second or third.
He has to look all the way down to twelfth place before he finds Lee Hyo-shin.
A nearby student turns away from her score and freezes when she comes face-to-face with him. Her ecstatic grin slips, fades.
Hyo-shin puts on his best smile, the empty one he has perfected for the world. “Congratulations on taking first place.”
His voice catches other people’s attention, and in a matter of moments, most of the second years are staring at or whispering about him. Hyo-shin slides his hands into his pockets because he can’t stop them from trembling any more than he can stop the dread hollowing out his insides.
Perhaps something of that crosses his face, or perhaps his expression is not as perfect as he thought, because the new first place clasps her hands together and drops her gaze. “Thank you.”
He keeps his smile bright; it is his last defense against the potential pity or compassion or questions he’s surrounded by. “Better keep working hard,” he says, “because I won’t slack off next time.”
Hyo-shin walks away without waiting for a response, and he keeps his head held high until he can lock himself in the broadcasting room.
His mother says nothing about his ranking until she puts the lid back on his afternoon bottle of pills. “You should have a new tutor sometime next week. Until then, I expect you to study on your own.”
She may as well have slapped him for how he’s reeling. “You fired her?”
“Not yet. I will be calling her shortly to let her know.”
His mother tucks the pills in her purse and zips it closed to hide the evidence. Her face is drawn in incredulous lines when she finally looks at him again. “You went from first to twelfth place after she became your tutor. Clearly, it was a mistake to hire her.”
It was a mistake to trust you.
Hyo-shin nearly chokes on his question. “You’re going to blame her for my performance?”
“Who else is responsible for it?”
Hyun-joo. Not his depression, not his suicide attempt, not the crushing expectations of a future he does not want. His mother is so determined to cram him into the mold she’s made for him that she can’t even feel how he is cracking under her hands. She can’t tell how desperate he is; she won’t believe him if he says that being the reason an innocent person is fired will break him anew.
(Hyun-joo doesn’t care that he’s on medication. She hasn’t changed her treatment of him. With her, he can pretend he is the person he used to be—someone who had the ability to be happy.)
“It’s my fault.” He tries, valiantly, to keep his voice steady. “I didn’t sleep the night before the test.”
If he tells her the whole truth, she will put him back in the hospital. He settles for a half-truth he knows he will regret: “I got caught up in editing some video footage.”
The footage he took from Young-do’s balcony. The threads for a story are starting to come together, more potential and possibility than anything concrete, and working on it was a productive use of his insomnia. Or so he thought at the time. He doesn’t remember much of the test the next day. He’s not even sure he’s thinking of the right sleepless night.
His mother’s knuckles go white around her purse strap. The ice in her voice is almost enough for him to recant and stick Hyun-joo with the blame instead. “You let your little hobby interfere with your academics?”
“It won’t happen again.”
“No, it won’t,” she agrees.
By the time he gets home, his cameras and the computer he uses for editing are gone.
Hyo-shin shuts his bedroom door so he can’t hear his mother lecture Hyun-joo downstairs. He clings to the fact that she is not getting fired (not today), but that doesn’t ease the constriction in his chest whenever he looks at the spaces where his cameras and computer used to be.
His mother’s cool efficiency is destroying him, and there is nothing he can do to fight against it. She even has his medication under her control.
The knock at his door barely rouses him from his churning, oppressive thoughts. “Come in.”
Hyun-joo strides into his bedroom. Her face is pale, her motions harried. He nearly apologizes for his mother, but then Hyun-joo says, “Lee Hyo-shin, what are you doing getting twelfth place? You’re better than that.”
“Don’t.” He hates that his voice cracks, hates the desperation rising up like bile in his throat. “I can’t. Not today.”
She takes her seat at his desk, but she doesn’t take her tutoring materials out of her bag straight away. Instead she watches him, and the concern in her eyes is enough to make him look away. He doesn’t know how to deal with compassion, and he is fragile enough it will break him as surely as his mother’s salt-and-burn tactics.
“I would offer to cancel today’s session,” Hyun-joo says after a moment, “but I think your mother really will fire me if I leave early.”
Hyo-shin squeezes his eyes shut. “Don’t say that. Please.”
She says nothing for a while, and eventually he hears her digging through her bag and then arranging things on his desk. He forces himself to open his eyes.
Her phone is in front of him instead of a workbook. He watches in confusion as she plugs a set of earphones into them and pulls up some unfamiliar music.
“I’m getting paid to teach a lesson, but you don’t have to listen.” She jabs a finger at him. “You’d better not get used to this. This is just for today, all right? We have to get you back to first place.”
Hyo-shin nods because he cannot trust himself to speak. He slips the earphones on, closes his eyes again, and lets Hyun-joo’s favorite music drown out her voice as she launches into her prepared lecture.
By the time she shuts off the music and takes back her phone, his lesson is written out in her neat hand. She even wrote out the sample problems instead of referencing page numbers in his workbook.
On bottom of the last page, there is a message: Text me if you have any questions. I’ll see you Thursday. —Hyun-joo
Her number sits beneath her signature. It gets a little easier to breathe when he saves her information in his phone.