henry learns to fall
Henry does not remember his first word.
Not that anyone does, really. People think they remember things like first steps and first laughs but it’s collective memory, faded pictures and cheeky anecdotes what disguise stories told like lessons as memories.
In Henry’s case he doesn’t have the story. No date scribbled yellow notepad paper recounting how it had happened on a warm sunny day and it was a vision, abrupt and wonderful in the sound of his voice gaining coherence. His mother swears it was a Sunday after church, table set with lunch and mama tumbled from his smiling lips. His father’s rebuttal is always quick, he remembers the day like it was yesterday, the pride that swelled in his chest the first time his second born called him bàba and the influx of Henry’s vowels had been perfect.
All of it is null on Henry because it’s not like he could remember even if they ever do get the story straight. What are first words anyhow? Henry doesn’t really see why the first thing he says that makes sense to everyone else should matter when he’d been making sense to himself since the first flutter of his eyelashes. That is when it all starts and what Henry really remembers is sounds. The clatter of silverware against his mother’s chipped china, the squeaking hinges of the fall board when the piano wasn’t being played, the sound that spilled into the room when his fingers plucked finely tuned strings, the thump of his chin against polished wood.
How it had echoed in his mind that this is what belonging sounds like.
When it comes down to it the decision is not as hard as he’d thought.
He is sixteen and has reached the proverbial fork in the road, two paths to choose from.
The grand concert halls and the impeccably ironed tuxedos, the prestige, the renown reputation of his name among a certain kind of crowd, those who long for the greats of the past names like Bach and Paganini and Vivaldi. The thought keeps Henry up at night. He paints out that future on his ceiling using his bow to carve out all the sheet music his eyes have soaked up; ink stains on his own fingers at the thought of his own compositions being played one day make his bones shake.
A few years ago there probably wasn’t even a doubt or the space to second guess.
Everything changes when Henry learns to dance.
The difference between ballet and popping is as evident as the stretch between English and Mandarin. Polar opposite sets of principle, of structure, sometimes it’s hard to understand that they are a branch of the same thing. That’s when it all comes together. It’s all just sound. Dancing, no matter what the backtrack or the restriction with which you control your steps, it’s all just movement. Henry learns to isolate his arms the same way he breaks his feet into standing en pointe. There is nothing like the burn in his palms after hours of perfecting arpeggios on the piano or icing his blisters from pressing too hard and snapping violin strings he spends a whole months allowance fixing.
Yet, the more Henry moves, the more lightness he gains, Henry learns there is nothing like the joy that bursts like a wave each time he glides on tiptoe and grazes the ceiling with his hands.
Be patient, his father tells him, do not rush yourself, Henry. But Henry starts to pain different pictures on his ceiling, his feet sweeping in arches, his arms turning liquid, all the laws of physics and properties of mass he’s had to cram into his brain for high school tests challenged and defied. The biggest challenge is the irrefutable fact that Henry doesn’t just want to pour his soul into delicate piano keys or cries of a violin, but in his own bred instrument, crafted especially for him and kept in his chest and swarming through his vocal chords. The fact that Henry just might want it all.
Auditioning for SM Entertainment isn’t very different from any musical or dance competition he’s partaken in before. His palms get clammy and his knees feel unsteady. Sweat sticks his outfit to his skin, a cotton t-shirt and loose jeans instead of his lucky dress shirt and Clinton’s hand me down slacks.
There are about a couple hundred kids from around the Ontario area, a good handful of them from the provinces and some from the northern US states who heard about the auditions through friends and family and family of friends. Different languages flutter around him as he waits in line. Number 169. The square root of 169 is 13. It’s a good thing Henry has never believed in bad luck.
He makes small talk with the boy in front of him, a half Korean half Dutch from Montreal. He has a thick accent and his hair is dyed bleach blond. He smells like pool but he shares half his chocolate bar with Henry and exchanges a few standard Korean phrases for Henry’s stuttered Mandarin.
“I hear they’re looking for a Chinese kid. That one who’s in that big group, you know them? Well, they say he’s got the Chinese market pretty much bought. Fans are loyal like that. Doesn’t matter if you’re not that good looking as long as you represent their country well; they love you.”
Henry breaks off his last piece of chocolate, chews on it carefully in thought. Is it really that easy? Is it worth it if it is that easy?
Henry doesn’t get much time to think about it. A woman stands in front of the line now, thick bottle bottom glasses obscuring her eyes as she reads off a clipboard, her English streaming out like a gust of vapor. His number is in the next group.
They assemble in another line, always lines always a semblance of order and cordiality even in the face of competition, and Henry remembers they didn’t exchange names.
“Hey, umm, what’s your name?”
The boy smiles and Henry wonders if in different circumstances they could’ve been friends. Henry always thinks like that despite his brother telling him it’ll get him into trouble one day.
Henry almost laughs. He gives Clinton his last swig of water instead and says, “I’m Henry. Good luck in there, Calvin.”
Henry smiles back even though he believes in good luck almost as much as he believes in bad luck.
As it turns out Henry didn’t need the luck anyways.
His friends insist they celebrate the way men do, never mind they’re barely seventeen at the door of eighteen. There is brown paper bag full of beer Anthony snatches from his dad’s stash and a pack of cigarettes Luan gets his older cousin to buy them.
“To Henry!” they cheer, boisterous and loud at the back of their old high school on a Sunday afternoon. It’s risky and sends that boyish thrill up their spines they seem to need every so often.
“This is really unnecessary guys. What if we get caught?” he asks, but he’s smiling, and truth is Henry craves that thrill every so often too. With great talent, with great ambition, comes the expanse of a bit of torture, a bit of insanity, craving freedom from the rigor to make that talent spark to life. All the greats have their black shadows. A price for greatness.
David tosses an arm across his shoulder, knocking their beer cans together. “Come on, dude. Live a little! You’re going to Korea and you’ll have to pretend you’re perfect and pure. Which you’re obviously not.”
Henry snorts and shoves him off, watches with joyful eyes as Luan grabs him in a headlock and sloshes beer all over the school pavement.
Anthony breaks out the cigarettes, suffers through a couple of missed tries to get the lighter flickering a flame, and they all bow their heads to the fire, close enough to inhale the burn but not enough to scar their skin.
Last big one before show’s over and it all blows out.
Henry tries laughing at the sullenness of them moment, the quiet that overtakes them as they inhale smoke and force chokes back down their throats because it’s not cool to cough and wheeze even if your whole chest is on fire. It’s a bad habit, one Henry doesn’t plan on picking up and can’t be too sad at the fact, but he thinks just once. One time he breaks all the rules and it’ll be okay. They all know it will never be like this again. He might come back and they’ll get together just like this at the back of their high school on a cold Sunday, and share a smoke and a buzz that feels like a high. They won’t be boys then. It will never be like this again.
The sun is starting to go down over the highway, setting on the other side of Thunder Bay. Henry realizes, as the smoke starts to wash away the slight buzz, that this is one of the last times he’ll see the sun set over Toronto and it’ll feel like home. He thinks about snow days and chasing Whitney in the backyard during summer, thinks about getting up early to watch Mechanics for Kids on Saturdays and his mom’s burnt chocolate chip pancakes and the syrupy mess he and Clinton would make on the couch. Months, maybe years will pass before he kicks crushed can cokes on autumn days on his way to his favorite music shop or fall asleep on hour long drives to Vancouver in late August for the Light Festival, that distinctive smell of frost in the air a foggy memory.
“Fly, Henry”, his mother says as they sit side by side on the piano bench, his fingers following the last lesson he’ll receive from her in a while. Maybe forever.
When he boards flight 113 Toronto to Seoul with a layover in Los Angeles, please fasten your seatbelts and thank you for flying Korean Air, Henry does just that.
Being in Seoul is like being on another planet. Henry doesn’t understand the language or the people or street signs. Everything is tall skyscrapers and broken glass. Everyone is so wired up they can’t connect with eyes that are too busy attached to a screen. The city is made out of metal but the air smells like rotten skin covered in synthetic fabric, like dirt and mountains and hot air even in the spring, like a mutated monster that can’t shake the human it once was.
He gets picked up at the airport by a trainee who introduces himself as Leo in practiced English, offers help with Henry’s bags and asks him if he’s gotten a Korean name yet.
It’s fitting. New city. New life. New name.
Henry clutches his violin case to his side, hopes he can get a cheap keyboard with his stipend or have an available one for practice in the dorm. Names can wait.
He’s housed in a dorm with eight other trainees, scheduled in for dance and vocal lessons for eight hours a day, Korean and Mandarin classes in between. Henry is different from his dorm mates and it’s not just his vague mix of English and basic Korean and his eye disappearing smiles, always too eager and too ready on his mouth when anyone so much as greets him. The rumor mill among the trainees is one of them is to be put into an already existing group, a marketing ploy no one ever explains but pretend to know all the details to.
Henry can’t say the idea excites him, the idea of being welled into a group, an already well oiled robot Henry will have to adapt himself to, but Henry wants this. He took a gamble on this dream. Henry wanted it all and if this is all, Henry will hold onto it with firm hands and mold his place until it looks like he’s been there from the start.
A few months in and Seoul isn’t just a metal city marked by mountain scented rotten flesh air. Seoul is lonely.
Seoul is days uttering embarrassed apologies when he bows the wrong way or doesn’t use the right honorific, it’s free moments spent getting lost in Hongdae and ripping grass from the Han’s riverbank after hot ramen lunches, the salt and spice numbing Henry’s tongue as he watches the cars drive over the bridge with the water floating bellow holding the promise of that this isn’t all there is. It’s making sure no one else is home so he can practice his violin in peace without disturbing others relaxing time but roommates who don’t think twice about playing videogames until four in the morning and all Henry can do not to go insane is paint all of his dreams on the ceiling as a reminder, as to keep them real. Seoul is watching his roommates go home for the weekend while Henry is slowly starting to forget which floorboards in the back porch creaked, being left out of karaoke nights and prowling for girls because Henry is just the foreign kid; not like he’ll be able to say anything anyways.
He spends most of his time in the dorm locked in his room, web chatting with his brother and his cousin and his friends, sometimes his sister detailing all her insecurities about middle school and how she could never do what Henry is doing, she isn’t that brave.
Henry doesn’t tell her that it takes all his will sometimes not to run to the airport, barefoot and in the dark of night because he thinks he might crack.
It’s the middle of a Thursday afternoon when his mother phones. His Korean teacher had cut their lesson short and it’s really chance that he’s there to pick up her call.
“Is it everything you hoped it would be, Henry?”
Huddled between the couch and the wall, Henry rings the phone chord in his index finger, takes a look around the shoebox apartment he shares with people who don’t really want to get to know him, who think his violin is a sign of snobbery, and think Toronto is a US state. He’s homesick, scared of getting lost in this city he feels will never be his drowned by all the bright lights of Seoul without an escape.
“It’s everything and more,” Henry breathes into the phone, making sure his smile is palpable through the line. He’s lied to his mother before, child driven white lights and boyish fibs he couldn’t really help. This is the first time Henry lies to her to protect her. He wonders if that means he’s growing up.
And then there is Zhoumi.
Zhoumi is all legs, all poise, all smiles. He and Henry live in different dorms, Zhoumi sharing room with five boys who are all younger than him and will probably form a group without Zhoumi.
“It’s like they think I’m stupid,” Zhoumi says over jiaozi. The restaurant is small and they sit by the window, the work crowd making their way for fuel during lunch hour right outside the glass. The water tastes weird, Henry wrinkles his nose deciding he’s had worst, but the waitress speaks Mandarin and Henry gets suffocated with a homesickness he welcomes eagerly. Zhoumi holds his chopsticks the way Henry grasps his bow, delicate yet confident. Zhoumi screams confidence and Henry wants to cling to him like a child does his mother in a crowd of tourists. “Jinki is three years younger then me. Unless they want me to be their baby sitter in which case I’ll book my flight back to Beijing tomorrow.”
Henry laughs, bits of bok choy stuck in his teeth, and tells Zhoumi he looks like he’d be a good babysitter. Zhoumi gasps but grins. They get through lunch in a mix of languages, Zhoumi’s English is actually worse than Henry’s Chinese but his Korean is better and when words don’t suffice they articulate with their hands just fine.
“So if you’re not debuting with the kids,” as Zhoumi himself had put it never mind Henry is also three years younger than him, “when do you think you’ll debut?”
“Who knows,” Zhoumi says, hands in his jean pockets. The air is getting progressively warmer but soon summer will melt away. Henry keeps thinking of summers by the pool, of running out of violin lessons and heading straight first onto Anthony’s couch for a Mario Kart marathon.
Zhoumi walks by his side with swaying strides, steps determined like a diplomat or this year’s catwalk novelty, and Zhoumi’s mind doesn’t seem miles away but right here. If it is Henry can’t tell and he guesses Zhoumi likes it that way.
Zhoumi stops right in the middle of the crowded sidewalk, ignores annoyed stares and disgruntled murmurs, and says, “Maybe I’ll debut with you.”
Someone bumps into Henry’s side, sends him tilting sideways but Henry doesn’t notice, too busy trying to catch up to Zhoumi’s longer strides and imagining learning love songs in Korean, squeezing into pants that are a size too small, all with Zhoumi by his side, tripping over his tongue and rolling his eyes at every mistake and fumble they make together. The thought makes Henry smile. It’s not the sweeping leaves of autumn in Toronto but Zhoumi is the closest thing to home Henry knows in Korea.
None of it matters. A week later, Super Junior’s Cho Kyuhyun gets a prognostic recovery date and Henry is finally allowed access to his own future.
Don’t Don is the strangest song Henry has ever heard. Makes sense it would go to the strangest group of guys Henry has ever met.
Henry has been through the whole foreigner experience, the where are you from’s, and wow your English is good, smile and politely let them know he was born and raised in Canada but thanks for the compliment, man.
It’s not hard to tell Leeteuk is the leader, and it’s not just his age on his profile page or the worry lines stretched on his forehead when he smiles.
“Welcome to Korea,” he says in exaggerated English even though Henry has been here for three almost four months and is not deaf.
There is a multitude of enthusiastic hugs, effusive pats on the back, and questions of if he’s ever met Hally Puto. The dorm is only slightly bigger than Henry’s, cleaner despite such a large group of men, or are they really boys playing pretend, sharing a place. It all gets lost on Henry; the fried rice he inhales more than chews, little quirks he places to names and faces he’s heard of for a few months now.
Rhythm sets the group, the way they weave in and around each other, Yesung steps on Kangin’s toes receiving yells and hollers only to find them minutes later laughing at Heechul dropping a bowl of soy sauce on Eunhyuk’s shirt. Totally an accident he assures though Eunhyuk doesn’t look too convinced. Maybe it’s all in his head. An outsider’s perspective but as Heechul tosses a towel at Eunhyuk’s face and Sungmin asks if Henry wants seconds, Henry thinks they fit even with the mishaps and obvious tensions. This is what it’s like to sacrifice yourself to make yourself a part of a whole.
“They’re not always like this,” Kibum tells him when a fight breaks out, Ryeowook wrestling Donghae to the couch and Eunhyuk tickling Ryeowook’s feet to get him off.
Henry doesn’t really mind if it is. The way Donghae laughs as if it comes straight from his soul kind of reminds him of how Anthony laughs but different. It reminds him of friendship.
Maybe Seoul isn’t such a lonely place after all.
Stereotypes are easily broken.
From what Henry has been able to make out Busan boys are jerks and yet Kim Kibum, soon to be known as Key, is blunt but honest. Guys from Seoul are snobs, stuck up and staring down everyone over their noses but Choi Siwon is one of the nicest people Henry has met so far and Cho Kyuhyun acts nothing but humbled at having his voice back where it belongs.
“You’ve got to watch out for South Jeolla boys,” Eunhyuk advises during a break in their first practice. Henry has two stints in the choreography, a total of thirty nine seconds. Thirty nine seconds. He has to make it count. “Especially Mokpo boys. They’re always up to no good and smell like fish. You can take the boy out of Mokpo but you can’t take Mokpo out of the boy.”
Donghae barrels up to them, flicks Hyukjae on the forehead before tossing his arm across Henry’s shoulders. “Never listen to a Goyang boy, Henry,” he yell whispers, the r rolling off his tongue like an l. “They make up stories and steal all your socks.”
“Hey! That’s you!”
“Shush, Hyukjae. Can’t you see practice is back in session?”
While the manager looks about ready to bust his head against one of the mirrored walls, Henry grins, the sound of friendly banter even in a language he barely begins to understand ringing like comfort. He had had this once. It seems like a bit of a dream that he might have it once again.
He stands at attention for most of practice, watching, learning, waiting. They have big plans for him, they’d told him at a semi serious meeting, no pie chart and graphs but Henry had been able to detail them just fine. First, a trial run with the main group. Second, he’d be sent to China with a few of the other members and form a Chinese market oriented group. A sub-unit they’d called it. The first of its kind. Henry starts dreaming of playing his violin at the Great Wall, his feet gliding over rubble rocks that have outlasted time, withstood every enemy and peril that has threatened its greatness, history itself. Henry himself will make history and the thought makes all the loneliness, the nights spent imagining the run from his bed to the terminal, worth it.
His bow firmly in his hand and feet ready to carry all his weight, Henry counts down.
They hate him.
If it had been after the first performance. If he’d messed up the dance or fell on his face, or hurt someone, Henry would find it in himself to understand. He wasn’t even given the chance to prove himself, to show who he is. He’d been labeled as an outsider, an enemy, a threat, since the start.
And then the China subunit is announced.
In the past months, Henry has in no way become fluent in Korean but the mere sound of Only 13 sends a shudder up his spine, forces a weight upon his shoulders because he has all the odds against him.
Maybe unlucky numbers do exist after all.
It takes a day of self pity, lying his bed for an entire Monday, ignoring any transcontinental calls, and an afternoon spent loitering around the Han River, for Henry to realize. This isn’t about them.
Henry didn’t cross 10,590 kilometers to be pushed down before he even got the chance to stand up. In the flowing waters of the Han, Henry sees the dreams of a boy, a boy who through his fear was fearless, who abandoned the life of the classics, the tuxedos and the halls with acoustics that go on for days, months, years, and resonate for a lifetime. Henry didn’t turn away from that boy’s dream to go home with his bow between his legs and his violin smashed in pieces.
He gets lost on the way back, laughs when he takes the same wrong twice, and can’t be thankful enough to a pair of high school students who direct him the right way. Seoul flashes before his eyes in the metro and each spot marks a greater distance, closer, closer.
10, 590 is bigger than 13.
The first thing he does is find an empty practice room. The second, he makes it his home, albeit temporary. Any spare minute he has is spent perfecting his technique, tightening his control, balancing the weight between his feet so his glides arch wider giving him an extra second to fit each chord in the right time frame. His jaw slips with the sweat stuck to the chinrest. His feet trip over each other when he spins out too fast. Henry stops, breathes, and starts again, again and again until his knees are bucking from the effort and his fingers tremble and the strings become indented into his skin like tattoos branded by fire. Henry presses harder, the steel sinking in until he can almost taste their sound on his tongue.
The managers eye him warily, the members have deep set frowns etched in concern, curious multitude of trainees asking if he’s okay, if the pressure of performing with such an important group will make Henry snap. Henry remains quiet, brushes all the concern with a shrugging shoulder, the only thing keeping his eyes dry is the weight of his violin in his hands and the way his arms sweep in dramatic angles in the reflection of the mirror.
He’s reached the end of the song, not one single mistake so far, when he catches movement in the corner of his eye, abrupt and still standing. For a second he foolishly believes it’s the ghost everyone says lives in this practice room but by the time he realizes how silly the thought is, he’s falling. One second too late he gains focus again and he’s lost footing and Henry is landing on the floor on his butt with a smack.
“Oh, sorry! Did I scare you? I didn’t mean to scare you!” There is a flurry of movement as the person standing by the door moves inside the room. Henry’s heart thumps in his chest harshly but he’s slightly relieved at who it is.
Bow clenched in his hand, Henry shakes off the concerned voice, quickly stumbling over his words the way he just did with his feet. “I’m okay. Really. Just a little startled, Donghae.”
Are you sure, Henry thinks Donghae says but the truth is Donghae is the most difficult for Henry to understand when he speaks. His accent is heavy laced within each of his words, this roughness in Donghae’s voice that makes Henry think of calloused hands and days spent sweating under the blazing sun. Seoul has not erased the way Donghae sings as he speaks, the way it sounds like his words come from the pit of his stomach and pushed out of his mouth in a garbled folk tale. You can take the boy out of Mokpo but you can’t take Mokpo out of the boy.
Donghae kneels next to him, his eyebrows knotted in concern as he taps the violin’s fingerboard and plucks one of the strings. “S’okay?” he asks in slow English, the knot in his brows deepening.
Henry realizes he’d been speaking in English. “Oh! Yes, hyung. I mean uhh Donghae-hyung. It’s fine. And I’m fine. Fine.”
Donghae’s face relaxes. He smiles and shifts on his knees, wrapping his fingers around Henry’s wrist as he stands and hoists Henry up with him. Henry stumbles a bit but Donghae’s hand keeps him steady but Henry doesn’t miss the way Donghae smiles to himself at Henry’s fumble.
“Thanks. Were you guys practicing?”
“No. I like coming here after hours sometimes. Practice by myself if I’m up for it.”
There is a pause and Henry never really takes the time to listen to silence but he does now. Silence isn’t completely soundless, there lies the buzz of the ceiling lights, a door being closed down the hall, the sound of Donghae’s breathing a little off beat with his own.
“You’re good you know,” Donghae says suddenly, pointing at the violin to emphasize. “I’ve never seen anyone dance like that.”
The compliment brings a smile to Henry’s face. “Thank you, hyung.”
“I mean it! The way you move. It’s like…” and then there is an invisible violin propped between Donghae’s shoulder and chin, his index and thumb playing the strings in a sawing motion that makes a quiet laugh bubble in Henry’s stomach. The air gets caught in his throat because the way Donghae moves with his toes pushing off the floor and body following the movement effortlessly, no restraint, no limit, as if time and space mean nothing to Donghae takes Henry’s breath away. Donghae finishes with a flourish, his imaginary bow skittering in the air as he gives a final spin and stares at Henry, beaming. “It’s like you’re made out of magic.”
Something swells in Henry’s chest. He can’t place the feeling, if it’s embarrassment or gratefulness or disbelief but Donghae’s smile turns it into something acute. Donghae is the group’s resident pretty boy, he charms everyone with his shy smile and his over exuberance, he speaks when he wants to and quiets when he doesn’t. He’s that boy people write songs about, girls get red in the face for, and some boys unknowingly trip themselves silly over. If anyone is made out of magic between them it’s probably Donghae but Henry’s throat closes up because after weeks of nothing but hate, the sound of approval makes Henry want to cry in gratitude.
“Thank you, Donghae-hyung. That means a lot. Really.”
Donghae half nods half shrugs, sliding his hands inside his pockets. He looks around the room for a moment before his eyes land on Henry again, excited. “Hey. Magic. You know like Hally Puto?”
Henry grins, the lump in his throat suddenly gone. Kind of like magic. “Harry Potter, hyung.”
Donghae returns Henry’s grin. “You’re going to have to teach me how to say that.”
“Sure,” Henry agrees, thinking he’ll teach Donghae the entire English language if he wants so long as Donghae keeps smiling at Henry just like that, bright and honest when nobody else will.
Preparations for China kick in full force after the second album promotions wrap up. Henry and Zhoumi are short of moved into the Super Junior dorm, trailing in and out for dance practice and vocal practice, Mandarin lessons for everyone except Hangeng and Zhoumi, and member bonding time as one of the manager hyungs calls it because they’re supposed to convince the Chinese audience they’re all friends and not awkward bandmates. Sometimes they’ll play board games on the coffee table or hook up the three player on the PlayStation and Kangin always loses and Sungmin always wins except when he plays one on one with Kyuhyun who beats him at the very last second.
The apartment is a dissonance of languages, Hangeng and Zhoumi making fast talk no one else can follow and Kibum and Henry exchanging book and movie titles but they all come together to eat, greasy take out and warm pans of fried rice and noodles, rock paper scissors calls who the lucky ones to do the dishes are.
Early 2008 is blurry, the days sweeping up into the weeks, the verge of a change and the fear, the thrill, that nothing will ever be the same again.
This is it, Henry thinks when they’re in the lounge area in front of terminal 158, flight 77 Incheon to Beijing. This is when the clock starts to tick. The seconds trickle by with the shadows of morning and they say farewell to this metal city, to the smell of mountain air and rotten flesh. The ecstasy is naked on Hangeng’s face, in Zhoumi’s contained smile; Ryeowook’s hands wring in fragile strings tied around Donghae’s eyelashes, his eyes stretched taught and unblinking. Henry watches them, his stomach gripped and unrelenting.
“I always get scared when I fly.” Donghae lets it drop casually like the weight of Kyuhyun’s head on his shoulder, Kyuhyun’s snores muffled by the flight attendants reminder to fasten their seat-belts and locate the emergency exits. Henry looks away from the window. He tries remembering the last time he saw Donghae blink. “Silly right? We fly all the time but I can’t shake that fear.”
The plane starts to move, wheels digging gravel from the earth as it sprints down the runway. It picks up speed and Donghae curls his hands around the armrests, Kyuhyun groaning at the jostling.
“But it’s okay to be scared, Henry.”
“How do you know I’m scared?” Henry asks. He’s been giving himself away all day. Bow branded like armor and violin case protected in a shield, Henry has been fluttering nerves in the decaying of time.
“Because I am.” Fear recognizes fear.
Then everything starts to move faster. Time is warping as the light flashes in and out through the windows blinding and heart stopping. Donghae’s sharp inhale marks the second they take off. The plane resists until it gives in smoothly and charging up into the air. Vertigo floats in the cabin. Can you fall upwards? Sound pitched high in Henry’s ears, a whistle that pains his eardrums and his temples throb. Falling. He’s falling and if he’s not careful Henry might get lost in space, in time, with no way to find his way back, always between oceans, always between dreams.
At some point, Donghae grabs Henry’s hand, so fast it’s an impulse. The smack of skin on skin is not enough to bruise but enough to disrupt the whistle, and Henry feels more than sees Donghae gripping his fingers so hard all the blood rushes into his forearm leaving his fingers iced and his bones cracked. The pain is numbing but Henry endures it as the sense of vertigo drops into his chest. He can breathe now and it’s not really falling if you find anchor even when your feet are hanging in the middle of space.
Ladies and gentleman we have now reached an altitude of 7,000 feet. You may now turn on any electronic devices but please remain seated with your seat belts in place.
Donghae pulls his hand away, tucks it into his lap. Oxygen circulates blood through Henry’s fingers again. His hand feels numb, electric at sensation repairing the bones, and he wonders if it’ll hurt the next time he plays.
“Look.” Donghae signals to the window. He leans over the armrest to gaze down bellow, as if he didn’t look distraught mere seconds ago. Seoul hangs bellow them in metal shards, somewhere down there among the mountains and the sea.
The feeling is starting to ebb back into Henry’s fingers. He presses his palm against the window. Donghae’s shoulder nudges into Henry’s back so he can get a better look, nose inches from the window and scooting off his seat. Donghae’s bones are harsh but all Henry feels is warmth.
“Not scared anymore?”
Donghae smiles into the glass, sending Seoul a final kiss goodbye. He turns that same smile at Henry and the lights from being closer to the sun blind Henry’s eyes. “Scared? No. I’m terrified.”
Donghae’s smile doesn’t look like fear. It’s being shit scared and shaking in your boots but having the courage, the determination, to walk it through. Henry wants to bottle up Donghae’s smile and keep it with every time he can’t play, can’t dance, can’t sing, can’t face the metal city without crumbling at its feet. His hand will be fine. He’ll play again even if it’s with an invisible violin and a practice room full of ghosts.
China is difficult to define.
China is the sounds of his father, the origins of his mother, faded photographs of the wars of dragons, yellowed and faded at the edges. It’s a symphony of horn claxons and black smoke thickening the air, miles and miles of dark seas floating in the air. No one seems to understand each other and all the eyes flutter through a million paper lights.
It’s not home but it’s not a metal monster either.
“It’s a prison,” Kyuhyun deems at the end of the first week. They’ve seen nothing except car interiors and variety show audiences, flashing cameras and white hotel ceilings.
Ryeowook shoots him a glare, a warning. “Don’t let Hangeng ge hear you. Don’t let anyone hear you.”
Kyuhyun grumbles. Their dressing room is tiny, sound amplified. “Not like you aren’t all thinking the same thing,” he says, dismissing Ryeowook’s warning but again, no one understands them.
A make up assistant walks in, talking spit fire at them. Henry catches Guixian and make-up and Kyuhyun looks slightly guilty for rubbing his face powder away.
The recording is a lot like the first one and Henry is like a fish out of water, dropped into a tank with sharks and manta rays who want to slice his throat open and have him for their feast.
“I never thought you were a drama queen, Henry,” Hangeng picks at him during a break, playing with the cuffs of his jacket. Henry didn’t think so either but he feels even more lost than he did in Seoul. He knows half of what anyone is saying, smiles when people expect answers, and tries to ignore the strange flutter in his stomach. “It gets better,” Hangeng adds, placing a hand on Henry’s shoulder, a reassurance, and if it’s one assurance any of them have, it’s Hangeng. “Trust me.”
The PD announces they have five minutes so they all find their way back on set where they proceed to dance and test their language skills and make complete fools of themselves for the next thirty minutes. All the while Hangeng is there to translate, to dissipate any awkwardness, his hands encouraging and there and trust isn’t a hard thing to give when there isn’t a reason not to.
It is, however, hard to fall in love with China.
Maybe that’s what he was expecting. To fall in love with his roots, head over heels enamored with the legendary stone of the Great Wall and the flight of the cranes, only taste the sweetness hiding in the after taste of bitter tea and feel the wind skitter of his skin in the ports of Hong Kong.
It’s hard to with Zhoumi being a quiet shell of who he is when the cameras are off and the homesickness wrapping over Kyuhyun, over everyone, exhausting because none of the others really want to be here.
“It’s never really been about what we want,” Donghae muses late one night, both on their backs and staring up at the ceiling. It’s their last night in Beijing, flight booked to Nanjing or Shanghai at six a.m. Henry can’t remember and the sounds all tie together when it comes to cities. Donghae does this sometimes, switches rooms with Ryeowook while Henry is in the shower or getting ice down the hall, saying he can’t fall sleep with the noise of Kyuhyun gaming and luckily Ryeowook could sleep through the end of the world.
They are servers to a vague them. Men in prim business suits, girls with tear streamed faces and lit up sign boards, and a large crowd pulled up in front of their screen to watch their rise while craving their fall.
“So who is it about?” Henry asks anyway, speaking slowly because his mind is a jumble of Chinese characters and Hangul, the influx of intonation and the subtlety of double consonants. He’s starting to forget what Toronto sounds like. The strength is in the second o . The r rolls soft on the middle of his tongue.
Donghae rolls onto his side, his elbow creasing Ryeowook’s pillow. “Depends I guess. Why are you here?”
“I don’t know anymore,” Henry says truthfully. He sighs. His last night in Beijing. All he’ll take with him is spots of dust in the corners of the hotel room ceiling. “To make my dreams come true.” It sounds stupid to himself but it’s true. He mimics Donghae’s position, curling his legs. “You?”
“My dad.” Donghae’s voice turns wistful, he’s a thousand miles away or a million seconds back in time. He turns on his back again, stretching his arms to his sides. “But it’s my dream too now. Somewhere along the way it turned into what I wanted.”
Henry’s heart contracts abruptly or maybe it’s his lungs or something else entirely. Sometimes he thinks he may have shattered his father’s dreams a bit, remembers the thump of his father’s hands against his back at Pearson International and make us proud, son ringing in his ears over the whistle of the plane’s engine. Donghae is like that war son hero, the father lost in battle and the son ready to don his father’s shield and sword with the heart of a lion and never looking back.
Henry jumps at Donghae’s voice. “Y-yeah Donghae-hyung?”
“Teach me English.”
Sitting up, Henry scratches the back of his head. “Huh?”
Donghae follows, climbing off Ryeowook’s bed and clambering over to Henry’s. He pushes Henry’s legs and falls gracelessly at Henry’s feet. “You promised remember?”
“I said I’d teach you how to say Harry Potter.”
“I can’t communicate with just Hally Puter. You’re a bad English teacher!”
“Hey,” Henry grins. “That was better already.”
Donghae makes purchase against the headboard, bumping their shoulders together, any shadows of homesickness or sadness pushed away by his smirk. “Now how do I say ‘Do you have God’s number? Because I think he’s missing an angel.’?”
They stay up until the manager hollers at the to sleep through the door, their chuckles muffled through pillows and hushed by the night. Henry falls over from laughing so hard , his heart beating comfortably in his chest, Donghae’s smile spreads slow across his face, eyes dancing as his hands pulling Henry up and back on the bed and the slide of their hands sounds like trust.
“Okay so you’re in the middle of the ocean in a canoe. You’ve lost all your oars. You can either break your arm off and paddle yourself to shore or you can tie yourself to a shark and have it pull you along with the risk of him plunging you into the water and eating your face off.”
“But where does the rope come from?”
“Shut up, Kyuhyun-ah. I thought you weren’t playing?”
“So? Besides, you already asked Henry that.”
“But what if I changed my answer?”
“No. Still wouldn’t chew my arm off.”
Kyuhyun sighs. “You’re both idiots.”
“Ignore him, Henry. Someone’s jealous they are no longer my favorite dongsaeng.”
“Oh please. You just want Henry to teach you English pick up lines.”
Henry snorts, taking the water bottle Hangeng hands him as he sits next to him mumbling under his breath how he didn’t sign up for this and where are his pain killers. The airport terminal is crowded for a five a.m. flight but over the past month and a half they’ve come to realize all of China is one huge crowd, brimming beyond the edges with skin fleshed over souls and the smell of chimney soot and crisp salty sea air.
“Ouch,” Henry yelps when Donghae pinches his side.
“You’re supposed to be on my side!” Donghae fails at being threatening, laughter creeping into his voice but he folds his arms across his chest and sulks. It’s been an exhausting week, the animated sounds from Kyuhyun’s virtual reality robbing Donghae of his sleep. Exhaustion pools beneath Donghae’s eyes, the lightly wrinkled skin almost purple.
Elbowing Donghae in the ribs, Henry persists until Donghae tilts his head and finally glances at him. “Hey.” Donghae frowns. Henry almost reaches out to smooth it into a smile. “Your arm or the shark?”
Donghae purses his lips like he’s thinking about staying mad for a little longer. It’s apparently not worth the effort because he sighs, an echo of Kyuhyun’s earlier. “Drown.”
“Not an option.”
“It’s my game. I can break the rules.”
“You did not invent ‘Would you rather’!”
“Pretty sure I did just now,” Donghae says, smiling now and face twisted in mirth.
Henry laughs despite himself or possibly because Donghae has one of the most contagious smiles Henry has ever seen, infectious until its crawling beneath your skin.
“Hey,” Donghae says, moving in until Henry can feel Donghae’s breath on his face. Personal space? It’s not really Donghae’s thing. “Your eyes disappear when you smile.”
Fidgeting in his seat, Henry breathes in when Donghae breathes out, black tea and coffee and mint and salt filling Henry’s lungs. He swallows and for a second, the vertigo comes back. Henry’s feet are planted firmly on the ground. “I have small eyes,” he says dryly but Donghae’s smile is dizzying.
Donghae bursts out laughing, too loud and cheery for this hour of the morning, laughs until he’s collapsed in his chair and staring at Henry like he’s told the funniest joke Donghae has ever heard.
Henry tries for a laugh but he just feels like the joke is on him.
notes: part two is in process right now. liz is just impatient :|