They are old men now. Ree has suspected it for a while, but today he is sure. They are sitting at the hotel balcony with their seats turned away from the table at an angle to face the sea. Across from him, DH is leaning back with his face tilted to the sky. He’s wearing the black leather jacket he wore for their debut stage; it hangs odd on his frame now–tight in the arms, loose in the shoulders. Ree is sure his own one had been thrown out years ago.
Today, he’s decided to wear a crisp, white buttondown that reminded him of the cover of their fifth album. That was his favorite: the concept was about time travel and space; when thinks about it, the memory is nebular–he sees explosions of light, dancing meteors.
He looks at DH’s face and notices how deeply the creases in his forehead run, like mud too deeply loved by tires. It is like a joke, a caricature and it almost makes him laugh but when he opens his mouth there is a feeling in his jaw like blood blooming on a fingertip so he doesn’t. Instead he looks at the sea, skyline, blue on blue. The service was simple: only ashes in a slim silver casket the size of a jewelry box, white flowers, no dirt.
The waitress comes to take their orders. She is wearing a dress that matches the tablecloth and a small hat that is useless against the sun. They order a carafe of soju between them. DH tries to protest, but Ree insists and threatens him with paying for the entire meal. In the end, they both get the salmon and decide to split the rice. The chopsticks are made of steel.
DH holds them up, snaps them open and closed, imitating an alligator’s mouth.
The drinks arrive first. Ree pours.
DH puts the chopsticks down, poises a hand over his glass.
How have you been?
Ree takes a sip.
There is the choice of telling the truth, of talking about how they moved out of the house because he had a hard time climbing the stairs. He could talk about empty nests and the exhaustion of moving and pretend he liked living in the city again. He could make off-hand remarks about pretty nurses and how he’s still got it and how the past years have been laid-back but he imagines DH nodding, saying that he himself was thinking of moving back, renting a flat. He can see his friend’s face raising its eyebrows, a familiar gesture that sits odd on its new facade. It turns something in Ree’s stomach like someone checking to see if a pancake is finished and seeing it is still under-cooked, gooey, not-quite-yet. Ree has been to their house with the big garden, has played with DH’s grandchildren who were numerous even before they turned sixty; he’d always had a bad habit of saying things to be kind. Ree has remained ruthless.
Ah, that kind of talk is for old people. I’m alright. Anyway, we should be happy. Looks like we’ve finally gotten what we wanted.
DH looks confused, his eyebrows knitting together like a rug laid wrong.
Finally, I’m the eldest and you’re the maknae.
The remark clicks in place and DH laughs, plays along.
Finally, you can boss me around and all the fans will love me for being cute.
Ree flashes him a peace sign.
All the girls will swoon when I sing the main line in the chorus and all the boys will want to be you when they grow up because of how you wore your hat.
The sea breeze comes in, ruffles their hair. They cheers, drink their glasses dry. Ree pours another round.
You can be the visual, I’ll be the center. In the music video, we’ll be in the middle: everyone else will be flanked around us–we’ll be the vertex during the dancebreak, the ones who hide behind the others and then jump over to make everyone scream. They’ll lose it when you toss your hair or smirk or miss the lines to the song you’re supposed to be singing.
Laughter punctuates their sentences. They double over, clutch their bellies, bang their fists on the table.
The food arrives. They wheeze, the laughter leaving them like air draining from a tire. DH tries to take his jacket off. It takes a while. There are half-moons of sweat staining his shirt under the arms. Ree doesn’t look.
DH starts to mix sauce into his rice.
Seriously, though. These days I keep losing keys and walking into corners of tables and breaking picture frames and then forgetting to clean up and stepping on the broken glass. It’s a strange feeling, like I’ve lost command of a robot I didn’t know I was even controlling.
Ree nods. He taking a page from DH–he is trying to empathize because he doesn’t understand.
His problem is the opposite: he wonders if he is capable of forgetting anything it all. When he closes his eyes it is all still there: the stage set up to look like something out of Westside Story with brick walls and yellow lamps and windows opening onto fire escapes on which leggy women sit languid in dresses with skirts like diving bells. In the middle of the street, there are seven boys standing tall with their heads down and hair slicked back (violet, blue, black, black, green, pink, blonde) wearing shirts folded up at the sleeves, jackets slung over their shoulders.
He still remembers the sensation of sweat dripping down a leg clad in tight denim pants and the pinch in the toes from the black leather boots, how they chafed after dancing too long or too quickly or both. He knows all of it like a finger on the back of his nape before it touches his skin: he remembers how it is to sense all of them tensing, the slight pinch in their shoulders as the red, blinking light comes on and the song starts pounding through the speakers. He can still see all of them giving it everything they have–finally dancing for someone who isn’t a mirror. Ree remembers his heart thundering in his chest long after the beat dies. He has learned that that is not how a heart attack feels.
In the hospital, his children thought he was going to die and had rubbed holy water onto his temples, had called for a priest to say the rights. He’d seen the memory dangling in front of him, then, both dark and sparkling. He held onto it tighter than eyes closed in a nightmare. His children were saying they loved him and recounting different stories from their childhood telling him to go if he had to go–he would survive if only to lasso the past.
He is a hangman and it is a noose. It was raining outside and the conference room smelled like garlic and fabric softener. All of them huddled around the screen. Ree was nervous. Someone pressed play and it began. He waited to see himself, to see the light bounce off of the hair they spent so long styling, anticipated the close-up of the eyeliner (jet black) and the ankle-turn carefully calculated to reveal a henna tattoo labored over for the better part of an hour. They were two minutes in when he realized black didn’t catch light–not like periwinkle or emerald or lilac or flax or fuchsia. He remembered that moment as the point from which they’d become friends: he and DH looked at each other over the others’ bright heads. He raised his eyebrows and DH shrugged–the pot recognizing the kettle.
DH puts a hand on Ree’s shoulder. For a moment, he forgets that DH can’t read his mind and he flinches. The waves pound the shore and they watch the foam break on the rocks.
Ree takes a deep breath. I should forgive them because old men forgive dead friends.
He is unsure if he has said this aloud but DH turns to him as if he has. When was the last time you went swimming in the sea?
Ree looks at his friend with a joke for a face and then laughs long and deep and loud because he can’t remember.