Ariel by Jinwoo Chong
Jinwoo Chong’s “Ariel” is the first-place winner of the 2020 CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, judged by Alexander Chee.
“Ariel” took hold of me in the first sentences, and didn’t let go even after I was done. You search the internet for guys that look like him when everybody else is asleep and think of him when you finish, the narrator says of this mark left on… is it the heart? I think it is. There’s an exculpatory force in each line that eventually becomes grace, by the end. Written as a confrontation with the self, the result feels like a love letter chanted in the dark by someone running for their life. Jinwoo Chong is a tremendous new talent in fiction, and I treasure this fearless story, about that love that so many of us know and haven’t told: that complicated knot made when best friends help each other ‘experiment’ with queerness, and then can’t bring themselves to admit they might have been experimenting at love, too. I can’t wait for Chong’s debut, and the books to follow—he is one of the writers I’ve been waiting for, for my whole career. —Alexander Chee
At nine years old you pin him to the soil, knees around ribs, center your two fingers together between his eyes and shout bang, bang, you’re dead, you’re fucking dead. He is writhing, trying to escape you; your sounds are the only ones reverberating off the trees. You can read a rhythm in his movements, might let him get his leg up to kick you off him but you can’t because he’s supposed to be dead—you’ve put two holes in his skull and puddled his brains in the dirt but he keeps fighting back even though it’s against the rules and you don’t know what to do about it. He’s banging his head, gasping let me go, let me go. He is the better actor and you can’t help but feel a little arrested each time you watch him, arrested enough that it takes a second to decipher his panic—you are pressing too hard on his chest and he can’t breathe. You roll off him, he scrambles onto all fours, forgetting you, yanking in his breath by desperate, irregular beats. You sit up, too scared to come closer. His cheeks are flushed, he spits white froth into the ground. You are afraid he’ll go home and tell his mother what you did. You manage to advance an inch toward him and he pounces, rolling you into a muddy patch of grass. On top of you, his hands blot the sun high above, arc downward, plunge a blade into your carotid. You spasm, making ugly, gurgling sounds, spraying blood. You shudder, lie limp under the fringed clouds, he throws his head back and roars triumph, and even weeks later you cannot decide if he’d faked the whole thing just to win.
You have never given him shit for being named after a mermaid, even though Ariel actually meant God of Lions, or something, and you were supposed to pronounce his name like a douchebag, with a long Ah, rolling the R sound on your tongue. You’ve never called him that anyway; you can’t remember a time you ever did. Like the rest of him coming full-formed into your waking memory from the beginning of time, the way of your world is clear and easy: his name is Ari, he is four months older than you, two inches taller, and you spend the blazing afternoons massacring each other in ways so cruel that you’ve sometimes heard your mothers on the phone whispering nervously about it. You don’t remember when that started either.
You are boys. You fear nothing. You have two mothers, two quiet, brick houses, two wooded backyards on opposite sides of the water, two bedrooms; you share it all and wake filmed with sweat in the mornings not knowing in whose room you’d fallen asleep the night before in the glistening mouth of the summer. You love the lake, an opal-black crescent cut into the green valley, Ari’s house, perched on a hill like a bird with its delicate wings pulled around its body. You hate the cold months you spend in different cities, at different schools. You count the weeks until May, when the trees are green, when you find each other again. He waits for you in his backyard, spotting you. He nods, tosses and catches a pipe bomb in his hand, lobs it. You sprint at him, heft his entire body over your shoulder, shout give ’em the pile driver loud and macho like on WWE Raw. His thumb is in your eye, gouging gelatin and flesh matter. You drop him, sinking to your knees, bellowing, wounded, squinting through shut lids to see him perform a mercy shot to the side of your skull. You think you let him win. You always think you let him win.
You go swimming in the lake so often the color in your trunks fades every summer by August. You tread water while he swings off a rope and plunges in, a tangle of limbs and ribs, surfacing. In the hot months the world moves slow—everything, the breeze off the hills, the scream of the bugs through the trees, an image frozen like the swipe of a butter knife through honey, leaving a suspended edge of bubbles behind. It rains frequently: brief, sweaty clouds that pour gallons down in a matter of minutes. They gobble up all that exists like the word of God, leaving swamps and mulched leaves in their wake. The soles of your feet and the half-moons of your fingernails stay black for three months.
You’re ten years old when he tells you his father hits his mother sometimes. On this rare morning you’ve opted to stay inside, he is draped over the side of the quilt chair in your living room by the empty, scarred fireplace, one leg hanging, bare foot sliding languidly around on the floor. He won’t look at you. It is noon, but the day feels over already, your purposes—wake, eat, find a comfortable spot in the dappled sun—duly fulfilled. He might be waiting for you to react. You think you’re supposed to pay this detail its proper attention. You should probably ask if he hits her hard, if he hits anybody else and for how long or how many times. You just don’t know how to say it. You’ve met his father only once, and what you remember about him is that you thought they looked alike, scarily so. Different from your own father, whose eyes and hands are that of a stranger and who speaks too little to be known by the small likes of you. Ari rubs a spot on his forehead, waiting, and you don’t answer him, even though you think you should. Thankful when he doesn’t bring it up again, not ever.
At thirteen, your body is the surface of an infant planet. You pick at red bumps where your boxers rub against your waist, drawing blood that streaks your fingertips. Your face is full and cherubic; your baby fat is malleable, like lava-lamp wax, moving aimlessly around your skeleton. Your stomach and armpits are pale and bald, and you can’t help but stare at his legs, forested with dark, curly hair, when you bake in the grass under the sun. He doesn’t want to play your games anymore. You’ve hunted Nazis, taken Troy, you’ve hacked arms and legs and heads, hung your prisoners of war. Tired of it, you suppose. He turns his head, from where you lie, his face encroached by the tall blades of green. He asks you about the pretty girl you share a Bunsen burner with at school. She’s hot. You think about her? You’re not sure if you do. You kind of like her shoulders, that weird part of her neck where the collarbone is. You shake your head. He props himself on an elbow. Never? He makes a loose fist in his hand and mimes it for you between his legs. Fuck yourself, you say. He laughs, and his hands go behind his head. After he goes home you lock your door and do it the way he did, with your fist. You give up after a few minutes. You don’t like feeling this way. You think jacking off is for pussies and divorced old men. You hate it. You throw yourself down on your bed and crush your eyes with your palms, trying to squeeze his image from your brain, thinking you can do it if you press hard enough. That night you dream about him, you can’t help it.
It kills you that he’s taller, that you are so little while he is so much more than you, that he takes up greater space in the universe and casts his shadow down on your face. You count the ways that divide you: his chin, straight and angular and growing the inklings of stubble, his feet, long and slim, a leathery callous underneath. You search the internet when everybody else is asleep for guys who look like him and think of him when you finish. You are so, so fucked. But these days, you are both content with the silence. You know him, and because you know what he’d do if he knew you, really knew, you say nothing. You just keep growing, each alongside the other. Your voices drop, your faces erupt in cycles, your bodies grow hairs and oily sheens. You sleep over, but not as often, and when you do, you watch movies and bruise your thumbs playing Mario Kart in his basement and don’t really talk except to fill the empty space, when you can both be sure it doesn’t mean a thing at all.
It’s raining in the afternoon, like drumbeats above you while you both lie sprawled on his couch. You think he might be asleep, from the way his chest moves. He sits up. What? He doesn’t answer you. You ask again. He changes his mind, lies back, fake-snores, drags one arm over his eyes. You’ve been alone in the house all day and the light from the windows is bare and blue. Still he doesn’t answer, so you get up, ball your fists at your waist, hiss through your teeth to make the sound of your wakizashi blade through your scabbard. Brave Warrior, you say, you come to me to reclaim your honor. You seek revenge for your father’s death. He doesn’t move except to dig his heel further between the cushions. You raise your arms over your head, primed. I swear to God if you touch me right now, he mumbles, sleepily, not bothering to finish.
You oblige, kneeling in front of him on the floor, and plunge your weapon into your stomach from the side. He listens to you die, choking, drawing the blade across, curls his lip at the noises you make, your entrails spilling out around you. You fall sideways, you lie still. He sits up. You are hopeful, thinking he’s finally playing along. Do you think—you hear him trail off. You lift your head. Do you think it’s possible to love someone and hate them at the same time? It is not what you’re expecting, you don’t know for sure who he’s talking about, but he looks so scared of you, having said it, that you want to do the right thing. Sure, you say. It’s raining harder outside, rising to a downpour. He gets to his feet, and you follow him to the double doors leading into his backyard. You see, through the glass facing the smooth edge of the lake, a wall of falling water, clouds obscuring all but the tops of the trees. He reaches for the door, pulling it open, the sound deafens you both. When he turns around, he’s smiling. Shyly, he pulls his shirt up over his head. Do you dare me, he asks, not waiting for an answer, pulling down his shorts, then his boxers. His broad chest, ribs pressed and shadowed under goose-skin. You strip, hurriedly, surprising yourself. You don’t want him to feel self-conscious. He is the first, your first, to stand there out in the open. You can barely hold his gaze but you don’t have to for long. He takes three steps backwards, onto the patio, into the rain, drenches himself. His hair is slicked to his forehead; he combs it back with his fingers. Your eyes hang there, suspended by seconds. Then you, both of you, start running.
It’s more than cold. The rain reaches its hands down your throat and pulls out your air. You can barely see him sprinting for the trees through the yard to the edge of the water. You call his name, Ari, Ari, afraid of losing him in the grey haze. A few yards ahead you see him stopped, waiting for you, and it makes you so happy and sad that you don’t want to feel anything ever again. He puts his arms out and wolf-howls up at the sky, sinks into the grass, rolling sideways down the lawn, and you tumble after. You roll to a stop, feet from the water’s edge, clung to with loose grass and mud, lying limp under the torrent. You stare at the waves cresting in the falling rain, places where the drops fall harder, more concentrated, then taper off, ghostly curtains billowing in the air where you lay witness.
A hand emerges from the white clouds and you take it, pulled to your feet, aware now of how hard he’s made you. He draws nearer with a curious look on his face, and the sight of him so close is briefly, shockingly new. The scar, above his right eye. Acne-pocks on his cheeks. There’s no way he hasn’t noticed by now, you think. You’re being stupid. You are risking the only thing you have that you’d kill yourself to protect. His mouth moves tenderly against yours; he tastes like the rain.
It’s over when you’ve reached for him and closed your fingers on thin air. You find him backed away, a look, fear and rapture melded like alloys of steel in his face, gone from you. Are you angry? You might be, though you can’t tell with the water falling so hard around you. Please. You take another step closer, work yourself stiff again in your hand, and it feels good but not in the way you want it to. It doesn’t take long with him watching. You finish, shaking, you can’t get enough air. You plead with him to say something, desperate, but he doesn’t. Just looks at you for a while longer, then steps closer, reaches down and wipes you clean, gently with his hands. He tilts his head sideways a degree or two as if to apologize and confirm what you fear, that he won’t ever talk to you again. His hands stay at your waist, he stares at you—you realize—because he doesn’t want to let you go and, just for a moment, you allow yourself the pleasure. But that ends, too. He heads back up the hill for the grey shadow of the house up above, and, knowingly, you follow.
Two years pass before you think of him again, when you find your mother and father waiting in the kitchen for you, strange for them to be up so late; they didn’t wait for you on nights you went out with your friends. You don’t catch them staring until you come closer, not until you hear her voice do you know what it is that she knows, what they know. They ask you how far you’ve gone, and with how many guys; they need to know because your mother has read online about a shot you’re going to need at the doctor’s office. Your father puts his hand stiffly on your shoulder as if to say something kind to you but never manages to move his eyes above the collar of your shirt. You answer all of their questions, and you don’t cry, because you are too barren inside. But eventually you ask how they found out. They tell you Ari’s mother had called. And you ask what did she say? as level as you can though your voice is breaking. And your mother shakes her head, unnerved by the sound of you, says, something Ari mentioned, I think. You two were so close. You didn’t…did you?
At nineteen, you think the summers are not so gold anymore, that it has something to do with the trees, whittled, barer than you remember them, back when they rooted the ground like giants’ legs. Your mother begged you over the phone for a week, just one week, and you gave in and came home. Your father looks at you almost the same, now. You wonder, when he puts his arms around you, whether he is repulsed by the thought of you getting fucked by guys, if he can’t help but imagine it for brief, sadistic moments. You are on the couch with him while the TV blares when your mother tells you Ari is back from the Gulf Coast, building houses, you remember. Won’t he have such stories, she says, and you agree. You’ve forgotten that he’d come out last year, a few weeks before he left the lake, and that for a day or two you’d made yourself be happy for him like you were supposed to be. You haven’t seen him in three years. You don’t know what he looks like anymore and you are, despite yourself, curious to know. You sit quietly in the backseat as you pull into their graveled driveway. From here you can see the old backyard, the sloping grass down to the lake. You’ve lived here all your life. It guts you to find you miss it. You spot the little girl that you’ve heard of, the half-sister, now two, tottering on the grass with Ari’s new father. You kiss a few of the older ladies who haven’t seen you in a while. You are laughing, which you didn’t think you’d do, when at last you see him, stepping shyly from around the front door. He is taller, impossibly. He keeps touching his scalp, buzzed short, and his mother tells a funny story about meeting him at the airport and realizing he hadn’t cut his hair or beard the whole year. Like Forrest Gump, she says, amid laughter. He smiles at the ground, and you wait, familiar with the way parents talk about you right to your face. His jaw is wrapped tight with stubble, like black felt. He shakes your hand.
You step inside with him and tell him about school. He brings you a glass of yellow champagne. You talk the way you do when it’s been a year after high school, long enough, surely, that you can grasp the meanings of things like grown men. It’s harder to hear him inside with so many voices, a crowd by the vaulted windows. All this for you? He laughs. I told her ten people, tops, she never listens. He seems about to say more, and you find yourself holding your breath. You are alone in this little hallway, echoes of laughs and buzzes from the rooms beyond, black outlines of the wooded hills through the double glass doors to the backyard. He looks intently at you, and even after all this time you are not used to the way he strips you bare with his heavy eyes. Not so different, now, from the way you remember. He amazes you. He always has. He is about to say something, and you will it forward, off his lips, but before he can open his mouth your mothers find you, and the change on his face is quick and cruel. He laughs when your mother asks him if he’s dating anyone, feigns mortification, mumbling something about a guy he met in the program, joking about how it’s still so new, being out, like going through puberty again. You are burning, realizing you can’t stand the way he sounds anymore. I think you’re very brave, your mother tells him. I know that’s difficult, coming clean. She catches your eye. I mean, you know, darling, don’t you. You nod. Your glass is warm in your hand. We haven’t seen you two together in years, his mother says, to both of you. He nods at this, keeps nodding at everything they say while you watch. He’d run out of things to talk about one day, maybe. He’d let it slip to his mother, what you did together that day in the rain, and regretted it, having never meant to tell anybody at all. Or maybe he’d done it to punish you. You are waiting for him to look at you again, the way he once did. And at last he does, and this time there is so little in the way his eyes fall on your face, as though he cannot tell you apart from the others, that it hits you maybe you’d made it all up and he was only ever playing pretend, too good to hurt you. You realize that it has always been this way. You want to kill him, reach inside, break ribs, tear bloody pulp from his chest by the handful. So, it feels simple, what you decide, when you grit your teeth and break your delicate little glass, foaming the yellow drink on the floor, hearing your mother’s sharp stab of breath. When you crush your fist harder, so hard that it looks like you’ve juiced a dozen raspberries in your hand.
He sees you only once more, soon enough afterwards that your stitches still hurt. The doctors kept you the night, you’d lost so much blood on the way to the hospital. You are leaving tomorrow; you don’t know if he’s staying on the lake for the rest of the summer. It has been so long since those days when your existence lay pinned by the change of the seasons and yet he’s here, waiting for you in his backyard like he used to, like nothing at all, watching little waves lapping on the rocks. The yard is strewn with the night’s last vestiges: folded bits of paper plates, an overflowing garbage bag propped against the big tree, Ari’s favorite tree. He nods at you and you notice for the first time that he’s nervous, genuinely concerned when he asks you okay? He’d answered only yes when you’d asked to come over, and you’d been afraid of his anger. You are ashamed of what you did. Your rage had emptied vacuum-like inside you as soon as you’d done it. He looks at your mummified hand. You wonder if you could even work this summer with it. When your blood pumps down through your arm it ends in blunt, invading pins on the tips of each finger. It kept you awake all night. You straighten your back. You remind yourself of what you’d come here to do. And it’s easy, this time, to open your mouth and ask did you tell them about me on purpose? He blinks a couple times. Tell them what? he says, and the way he says it is so quick and casual that for a moment it just annihilates you; so cruel you could die right there in front of him if you let yourself. You stop, wrap yourself tighter together. I don’t care anymore, you lie, I just want to know. Did you tell them about me on purpose? And he smiles, he actually smiles, turning his head to face the water. You still gonna keep hanging onto those little things, like all your old games? Stuff we did when we were kids? You see him take a step away and you grab his wrist with your good hand, wrenching him back. He stares at you, alarmed. He tries, tentatively, to pull free. You’re hurting me, he says.
He catches you by surprise, breaking your grip, he is stronger than you. And it’s all gone wrong, you can see that now. You don’t remember any of the ways you’d promised yourself you’d be kind. You don’t see the point. Nothing? You ask him. He just keeps staring, you push him backwards, he doesn’t resist. Motherfucker, you push him again, your eyes are wet already, say something. You shove harder, and he loses his balance this time. At last he opens his mouth, says feebly: I didn’t do anything to you. You are trembling now. You did—your lips move, giving no voice for several hanging moments—everything. You ruined me. You are inches from him, now—you weren’t brave enough. You used me to become you. He is shaking his head, warning you, but his threats are empty. He doesn’t back away, doesn’t even react when you ball a handful of his shirt in your bandaged fist to keep yourself standing. Did you tell them on purpose, you say, so many times. Did you? You’ve stopped caring whether his mother can hear, you think briefly of the little girl, somewhere in the house. Were they watching you rip yourself to shreds in front of him? You can’t help it anymore, you are begging, screaming tell me, please, please, just fucking tell me and through it he keeps shaking his head no, crying now, dripping snot and spit, and you think you will be locked this way forever, alone with his silence. You are so far gone you can hardly understand him when at last he bursts I don’t know, I don’t remember. I don’t—
The first few drops of rain begin to fall, cool pockets of moisture on your shoulders. You let him go, because you have what you wanted, and you let him cry. For minutes he doesn’t do anything else, just rubs his eyes with his fingers like a child; you’ve never heard him sob like this. You turn away, about to leave, and when you do, he panics, says your name, calling meekly for you, and still you realize you’d hear him say it forever if you could. It scares you so bad, the control you cede to him. He catches his breath, staring desolately through you. Says I’m sorry. I love you.
He waits, looking at the space between your feet. Looking so hard that you almost think he’d readied himself for it when you ratchet your fist back and punch him in his fucking face. He topples backwards into the dirt. You stop yourself going further. You’ve popped stitches, you can feel ripped flesh under your bandages. Your hand burns, as if dunked in hot wax. On the ground he cups his nose, blood seeping between his fingers. The rain is full around you. You expect him to lunge, and you jar your feet where you stand because you don’t want to get away with it, but after a minute or two he still hasn’t moved. You turn and leave, stuff your throbbing hand into your pocket; you feel almost alright about it. You don’t last. Halfway across the lawn you can’t stop yourself looking his way again and find the grass empty. You run back, over the curve of the hill, find him crouched at the edge of the lake. You watch him rub his face clean with wet handfuls. He doesn’t notice you, and the rain falls harder, dulling the sharpness of his outline. You watch him take off his shirt and wade in, dive forward into the water made choppy by the downpour. By then you’ve already reached the shore, stumbling down the incline. You soak your clothes, staggering in. You flail after him, a white peak on the surface. You panic, you forget how to swim, thrashing in order to reach him, the bed of shore underneath tapering until you float free. Ari, you choke, gasping for breath. All around you, the lake is alive under the rain; the static on its surface pounds so hard that you cannot tell the water from the sky.
JINWOO CHONG is currently an MFA candidate for fiction at Columbia University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Salamander, Tahoma Literary Review, The Forge, No Contact, and others. He serves as Fiction Editor for Columbia Journal. Twitter @jinwoochong