(the person that you love is 72.8% water.)
sunggyu/woohyun | pg-13
|they lecture on emotions in woohyun’s human development seminar. about times centuries ago, when humans were ruled by instinctive physiological responses to stimuli. unpredictable, uncontrollable. they teach about anger and hate, and how close the world came to destruction. old news; they teach these things in elementary school social science, too. woohyun already knows. it wasn’t all that long ago that they began the purge, after all. the world has a long memory.|
“nam woohyun, you did well on your homework assignment.” the teacher gestures for him to stand, so he does. “please explain the historical significance of oxytocin.”
“oxytocin,” woohyun says. “checmical makeup carbon-43 hydrogen-66 nitrogen-12 oxygen-12 sulfur-2. it’s a chemical hormone related to human sexual reproduction.”
there are murmurs from the class. sexual reproduction. how outdated.
“please address it from a historical standpoint,” the teacher says.
“oxytocin is a hormone related to the emotion called ‘love’,” woohyun says. “it was thought to be a powerful motivating factor in societal development. philosophers theorized that entire societies were build on bonds of ‘love’, including familial love and romantic love. it is also theorized that love was what destroyed many societies, as well.”
“and what have you concluded about love?” his professor asks. “do you think it’s a positive or negative emotion?”
woohyun pauses. he thinks about strong societies and weak societies. it makes no intellectual sense to call love a positive emotion, when its capacity for destruction was so great. cities fell, countries fell. love fed other, even more destructive emotions, such as hurt and betrayal. ships were sunk; monarchies crumbled.
but woohyun thinks about a boy with beautiful eyes and says, “i think it can be both.”
seoul is a quiet city, now.
woohyun has heard stories from his parents, and his grandparents, about what it was like before the purge. bustling, dirty, noisy, full of people who all had somewhere to be. seoul had been a place of emotional decadence, alcohol, laughter.
“there was a word in the korean language once for people who had too many emotions,” his mother had told him when he was twelve and curious. “it was called hwabyeong, fire sickness. these people carried so many emotions around inside them that they began to fester. eventually they lost their minds.”
“that sounds inconvenient,” woohyun had said.
“yes,” his mother replied. “very.”
but the seoul woohyun sees now is very different. the streets are quiet and orderly. everyone is going somewhere, but they do so logically. people avoid unnecessary distractions or disturbances, and hardly anyone pauses to have a conversation on the street. it wouldn’t make sense, would it, to stop in the middle of a journey to exchange superficial pleasantries; better to save conversations for a time when both parties can schedule accordingly.
looking back, woohyun thinks that if it weren’t for seoul’s order, he never would have met sunggyu.
“what are you writing about?” sunggyu asks, leaning over the back of woohyun’s chair and trying to read his paper. “history class? aish, boring. why don’t you live in the present a little?”
“the past is important. it helps us contextualize our current experiences,” woohyun explains patiently, erasing a word and rewriting it. “and it’s important to understand past mistakes so that we can avoid repeating them. there was a saying once, ‘history, when forgotten, is doomed to be repeated’.”
“as long as you keep taking your pills, it won’t be,” sunggyu says. his voice sounds strange. woohyun doesn’t understand why. “it would be awfully inconvenient for everyone to have emotions again.”
“do you think that emotions are inconvenient?”
woohyun abandons his homework for the moment and turns in his chair to look at sunggyu, who is sitting on the edge of woohyun’s bed. sunggyu’s face sometimes does things that woohyun doesn’t understand; right now, his eyebrows are drawn together and the corners of his mouth are pulled down, and he’s looking at woohyun very intently.
“i don’t know how i would live without them,” sunggyu finally says.
“no,” woohyun says. “i don’t think you would.”
in infancy, the neuron blockers are delivered through intravenous injection, once a week until the child is two years old. then they’re delivered in liquid form, banana-flavored so that the child will not reject the treatment. when the child is old enough to eat solid food, the neuron blockers are delivered as a pill, and the treatment is continued this way until the end of the adult life.
woohyun doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t taking pills with dinner.
they’re not mandatory, only encouraged. but woohyun thinks it would be illogical to try to exist in an emotionless society. no one would understand; explanations would be time-consuming and frequent. there is an emotion that describes the feeling: fear. often prompted by what could not be understood or did not conform to societal norms, fear was a highly motivating and very volatile emotion.
“oxytocin?” sunggyu asks. “i don’t know anything about oxytocin.”
“it’s a chemical hormone associated with the emotion called ‘love’,” woohyun explains.
they’re sitting in a field outside woohyun’s school. sunggyu is picking daisies from the grass and winding them together into a chain. he does these kinds of things sometimes, little repetitive gestures that woohyun can’t fit into a pattern. (there is a lot about sunggyu that woohyun can’t fit into a pattern.)
“oh,” sunggyu says. “so you want me to explain to you what it feels like to be in love?”
“if you can.”
“oof.” sunggyu flops back onto the grass and stares up at the sky. it’s very bright blue, and hurts woohyun’s eyes if he looks too long. sunggyu must have stronger eyes than woohyun does. “that’s a tough one.”
“if it’s inconvenient—”
“it’s not inconvenient. god, i hate that word.”
hate. another emotion, often considered the opposite of love. described by philosophers either as an awareness that something is harmful and a desire to withdraw, or a desire for something’s annihilation. a destructive, negative emotion, and very powerful.
“love is... hard to explain,” sunggyu says. his eyes are closed now, but his fingers are still playing with the flowers. “it’s a connection between two people, it makes you... want to be around them all the time, and make them happy. you want to see the other person smile.” (woohyun has seen sunggyu smile. sunggyu had explained that it was an involuntary expression of happiness.) “you care about what happens to them. if they’re hurt, you want to heal them. if they’re sad, you want to make them happy—but i guess you wouldn’t understand that, would you? sadness, happiness.”
“i know what the words mean.”
“i know you know what the words mean.” sunggyu sits up and runs a hand through his hair. “that’s not the same as feeling it.”
woohyun has been taught that understanding is what matters. feeling is secondary, and often useless—a hindrance to logic, nothing more. “i don’t need to feel it to understand it,” he says, because this is what he’s been taught, and it makes intellectual sense.
sunggyu looks at him for a very long time. “that’s not true,” he says. “and i think you know that.”
this is how woohyun met sunggyu:
“i’m only a couple hundred won short, can’t you just loan me the difference?” a male voice, pitch low, tone ragged. it was uncommon to say the least; everyone woohyun knew spoke in the even, modulated tones of those with no reason to speak otherwise. the boy looked to be woohyun’s age, and he was making more noise than woohyun was used to.
“that would make no sense,” the bus driver said, gesturing politely for sunggyu to step off the bus. “i would have no guarantee of return.”
“just—trust me, i don’t want to ask for pity any more than i have to—”
want. pity. so this boy was one of them.
“excuse me,” woohyun said, holding out two hundred-won coins. “take these.”
the boy looked at the coins, and then looked at woohyun. “why are you doing this?” he asked, even as he reached out to accept the money. “what about logic?”
“it is illogical,” woohyun said. “but it is more illogical to allow this conversation to continue when we all have schedules to keep.”
the boy exhaled loudly and paid the driver. when woohyun was seated, he took the seat next to woohyun, offering his hand to shake. “i’m kim sunggyu,” he said. “and i’m definitely going to pay you back.”
“nam woohyun,” woohyun said. “all right.”
“have you ever once done something just for the sake of doing it?” sunggyu asks. woohyun can identify some of the telltale symptoms of frustration: narrowed eyes, clenched fist, quickened breathing. he contemplates suggesting that sunggyu calms down, and then remembers research indicating that anger does not react well to placidity. he stays silent. “you haven’t, have you?”
“no,” woohyun says. there is no point in lying.
“and you don’t feel like that’s—boring? fruitless?”
woohyun has never been bored. nor has he ever experienced dissatisfaction, so he cannot answer sunggyu’s question. the answers hinge on experiences woohyun has not had, things he has never felt—woohyun’s life simply happens, following an easily discernable pattern of actions and reactions that never takes him anywhere surprising.
“i don’t feel anything,” he says.
sunggyu’s expression goes from angry to something else in the blink of an eye. judging by the dampness of his eyes and the way sunggyu bites his lip, woohyun might identify it as sadness, except that it’s also a little bit angry, and a little bit something else altogether. it seems complicated.
“i know you don’t,” sunggyu says. his voice is very quiet. “that’s the problem.”
nobody kisses much these days, but woohyun’s read enough that when it comes—when sunggyu’s lips press briefly against his own, he knows what it is. he knows what it is, but he doesn’t understand it. historically, kisses have held many cultural connotations: affection, respect, good luck, friendship, greeting. he doesn’t know what sunggyu means by this strange and uncomfortable gesture.
“why did you do that?” woohyun asks when sunggyu pulls away. he presses his fingertips lightly to his lips.
sunggyu smiles, but it doesn’t seem genuine. “i don’t know,” he says.
there had been a girl named yujin in woohyun’s class in elementary school who was one of them. the few who refused the treatments were called jeongin, and it wasn’t that they were ostracized. they were just disorderly.
the girl had smiled and laughed her way through fourth grade and halfway through fifth. her happiness seemed to come easily, and though woohyun did not understand the intricacies of emotions, he could appreciate the simplicity of feelings that flowed so simply. but she was a distraction to the other students, and so woohyun was there when the laughter stopped.
“if you mean for everyone in this class to fulfill their intelligence, you should stop coming to school,” one of the girls said. her name was solbi. she was easily the most intelligent girl in the class.
“because your emotions are loud and are disruptive to people who are trying to learn,” solbi said. “it does not contribute to our learning environment.”
“...oh,” yujin said, her gaze focused on solbi’s feet. woohyun didn’t understand; if yujin intended to carry on a conversation with solbi, it would be more logical to look at her face. “i’m. i didn’t mean to—”
“whether you meant to doesn’t matter,” solbi said. “what matters is that you correct your behavior immediately.”
yujin had fallen silent, and solbi had walked away. woohyun thought that would be the end.
but the next week yujin came to school dressed in muted colors, her hair braided neatly and her face expressionless. she wasn’t jeongin anymore. she was just like them.
“i don’t understand how it would be beneficial,” woohyun says, tilting his head slightly. it’s a gesture he has adopted from sunggyu—he does it sometimes when he’s trying to understand. “our society is built on a foundation of logic, and i would have no place outside that framework.”
sunggyu sits back. “societies weren’t always built that way,” he says.
“i understand that. but societies build on bonds of emotions inevitably failed. emotions are complex and volatile, and best avoided.”
the look on sunggyu’s face is the same look he’d had once when woohyun had declined to leave the house, citing inconvenience as his reason. woohyun had inquired; sunggyu had said that his feelings were hurt, but woohyun didn’t see how feelings could be hurt—they were chemical reactions, neuron pathways, they didn’t have nerve endings to be injured—and in the end sunggyu had walked away without finishing the conversation.
“you won’t ever understand the world completely if you haven’t experienced everything there is to experience,” sunggyu says. “woohyun, do you trust me?”
“trust?” trust: a bond of attachment characterized by one participant’s relinquishing control over the actions of the other. “you stimulate me intellectually. i am interested by your insights about the world.”
“but you don’t trust me,” sunggyu says. “because you don’t know what trust feels like. don’t you want to know, woohyun? doesn’t it interest you?”
“...it would help to complete my knowledge,” woohyun says.
“you could consider it a trial period. go off the treatment for a month, just for research, and then go back on when you’ve gathered your data. no harm, no foul, right?”
“i don’t know what that means,” woohyun says. “all right.”
“is that a yes?”
“yes,” woohyun says. “yes.”
the first signs of change come four days after woohyun stops taking the pills with dinner. it’s barely noticeable, just a flutter in his chest, a twinge between his eyes when sunggyu won’t stop talking about someone who woohyun doesn’t know. “wait,” he says, holding up a hand, and sunggyu stops immediately. “i felt something.”
“yeah?” sunggyu smiles, tilts his head. “like what?”
“i don’t know,” woohyun says. “i only know about emotions in theory.”
“well, what were you thinking about before you felt it?”
“i was thinking that your topic of conversation isn’t very engaging, since i don’t know who lee sungyeol is.”
sunggyu laughs and flops backwards, and woohyun feels the same almost unpleasant pinch in his chest. “i think you’re annoyed,” he says. “it happens sometimes when people keep talking about things that don’t interest you.”
“we studied it two semesters ago,” woohyun says. “a negative emotion, characterized by irritation or distractibility.”
“it figures,” sunggyu says. “your first emotion is annoyance.”
he smiles, and woohyun feels the pinching fade into something a little warmer, spreading like sunlight inside his chest. “then what’s this?” he asks. “it feels warm. in my chest, and throat, but—i don’t mind it.”
sunggyu smiles. “that’s happiness, woohyun,” he says.
happiness, woohyun thinks. he can live with that.
the first two weeks leaves woohyun reeling. when the effects of the treatment have worn off, he’s vulnerable to wave after wave of crashing emotion, overwhelming. sunggyu knows how to cope with these things—he’s felt them all his life. but woohyun is new born and very fragile.
“how can you stand this?” he asks, his hands clenched in the fabric of his bed’s sheets as his body is racked by surge after surge of what sunggyu says is sadness. the thought—of sunggyu with this emotion inside him, carrying it around through life—is enough to send a fresh wave of sadness through him, and woohyun doesn’t understand why his eyes are wet but they are. “this is awful, sunggyu—”
“it’s not bad,” sunggyu says. he’s close and very warm, his hands rubbing soothing circles against woohyun’s shoulderblades. “the good emotions make the bad ones seem insignificant. you’ll see. i promise, woohyun.”
they fall asleep together, eventually, and when they wake woohyun can’t even remember what made him cry at all.
that’s sadness. anger is no better—he breaks three plates and two of his knuckles before sunggyu can calm him down enough to take him to the doctor, who treats his hand and doesn’t ask any questions. “‘i’ve never seen you do what i just did,” woohyun says, when his hand is wrapped in bandages and cradled in his lap. “why?”
“because i know how to control myself,” sunggyu says. “i’ll teach you. it gets easier.”
“you keep saying that,” woohyun says. he looks down at his hand and wonders if sunggyu’s telling the truth.
but there are good things, too, like the way woohyun feels when sunggyu catches a hummingbird trapped in his light fixture and cups it in both hands, feeling the impossible rhythm of its heartbeat. sunggyu sets the bird free from his window, and woohyun can’t decide if he’s impossibly happy or impossibly sad. “what is this?” he asks, laying his hand over his heart in what’s come to be their gesture for feeling.
sunggyu shakes his head. “i don’t know,” he says. “some feelings don’t have names.”
or again, when woohyun wakes up in the middle of the night and sees the moonlight casting a pale glow on sunggyu’s skin. the shadows his eyelashes cast are long and very dark. woohyun watches for a long while, until sunggyu stirs and opens one eye.
“what are you feeling?” he asks, his voice rough.
“i don’t think this has a name either,” woohyun says. it takes him a long time to get back to sleep.
woohyun tells sunggyu about yujin, the girl in his elementary school class who sacrificed her emotions for the sake of assimilation. “i thought i understood it then,” he says, stretching one hand up above him to examine his fingernails. “but i thought i understood a lot of things and look how true that ended up being.”
he’s not sure why he’s thinking about it now. maybe he regrets it, regrets letting her do that (though he knows it wasn’t his fault; sunggyu had explained that regret is often independent of blame). maybe he’s nostalgic. maybe there’s no reason at all. woohyun has come to understand that things happen that way sometimes.
“i did the opposite of her, though,” he finishes, dropping his hand back to rest on his stomach. “she sacrificed her emotions to fit in. i sacrificed fitting in for my emotions.”
to his right, sunggyu shifts, then leans into his field of vision. his head blocks out the sun, and woohyun can’t distinguish his features. “do you think you made the right choice?” he asks softly. woohyun recognizes the tone: uncertainty, vulnerability. he understands those better now. “about the treatments, i mean. are you going to start them up again?”
“i don’t know,” woohyun says.
it’s a complicated question. the treatment means fitting in, it means an easier, less complicated life. the emotions woohyun feels are still too harsh on raw nerves, and sunggyu says there’s nothing for that but time. there’s the question of his parents, what they’ll say, what they’ll do—his education, his housing, his life. it’s complicated.
sunggu sighs and moves away. woohyun knows he’s disappointed. “remember that time we sat up here and you asked me to tell you what it feels like to be in love?” he asks.
“do you understand it any better now?”
there’s something else lurking under the question, and it makes woohyun nervous. (how funny; nothing has ever made woohyun nervous before in his life.) he sits up too, turns halfway to regard sunggyu. “what do you mean?”
“wanting to make someone happy,” sunggyu says. “protecting someone, hurting when they hurt, cheering them up when they’re sad. do you understand it?”
he thinks about the last month, the overwhelming, gut-wrenching, heart-soaring surges of emotion. he thinks about sunggyu’s hands warm on his back, between his shoulderblades, rubbing out tension that woohyun didn’t know he was carrying. he thinks about the silver gossamer moonlight on sunggyu’s cheek. he thinks about sunggyu’s anger when woohyun broke his knuckles, and under that anger, fear. he thinks about happiness. he thinks about feeling. he thinks about impossibility.
“i think i’m starting to,” woohyun says.
there’s a galaxy in sunggyu’s eyes when he turns to face woohyun, and woohyun thinks he understands better than he knows.
woohyun hadn’t understood kissing, before. he knew what it meant, knew that it had carried cultural significance, that it often indicated familiarity and affection between two parties. he knew that. but he didn’t know why, didn’t understand how the press of lips against someone else’s lips or cheek could mean affection.
but when sunggyu kisses him—
when sunggyu kisses him woohyun can feel sunggyu’s breath warm against his lips, and he thinks about the mouth, about breath—about how everything that sustains a human life is taken in through the mouth, and he thinks, maybe it’s not about lips against lips. maybe it’s about saying this is my life, i want it to mean something to yours. maybe it’s about saying when you forget how to breathe, i’ll breathe for you.
so woohyun curls his fingers around the back of sunggyu’s skull and kisses him back, and thinks about trust, and thinks about love.
“so does this mean you’re not going back?” sunggyu asks when they pull back. his lips are red, his cheeks too (embarrassment?), and woohyun feels affection, yes, but also something baser than that. “on the treatment?”
woohyun touches the edge of sunggyu’s jaw. he can learn to cope. a heart is a heavy burden, but it’s a burden woohyun can learn to carry if sunggyu doesn’t mind picking him up when he stumbles.
“i don’t think i could if i wanted to,” he says. they kiss again, and it feels like a promise.
note: In case anyone was curious, C43H66N12O12S2 is the chemical makeup of oxytocin, which is often called the "love hormone"! Also, thank you very much to the late Diana Wynne Jones, who provided the line "A heart's a heavy burden" in her novel Howl's Moving Castle.