Monday, September 26, 2022

Hyuk-jae: K-pop Runaway

Hyuk-jae: K-pop Runaway

J.T. Jefferson




            I can’t believe I was born here, Hyuk-jae thought, gazing up through the skylight of a black Cadillac Escalade as it pulled away from Madison Square Garden and headed south along 7th Avenue. The yellow-white eye of the August midday sun followed him and his small entourage. It was unable to cast its heat inside the tented confines of their air-conditioned coach, and something about that fact added to Hyuk-jae’s growing sense of frustration.
            Like always, he sat in the center-rear seat sandwiched between his manager, Nari, and his stylist. In the middle row were two burly male bodyguards who dwarfed Nari’s diminutive assistant. The assistant never faced forward. She knelt on her seat, tangled in a seatbelt, looking back directly at Nari, careful not to miss any assignments. Nari told her when and what food to order, which pictures to take, where to post them and the comments that HJ supposedly was making at the time. HJ is the stage name Hyuk-jae chose to make himself easier to digest in the English-speaking world.
            A five-story-tall electronic billboard on the corner of 31st Street and 7th Avenue flashed a picture of Hyuk-jae. In the picture, he stood on a stage gripping a silver microphone and wearing a one-piece black leather outfit. His bowl-cut black hair rested on his head with the appearance of unkempt spaghetti. A diamond necklace distracted the viewer’s gaze while he mischievously peered into the audience. The caption on the sign read: ONE NIGHT ONLY! TUESDAY, AUGUST 9TH – KOREAN HIP HOP SENSATION HJ WILL BE ON FIRE AT MADISON SQUARE GARDEN. It was all too surreal for this kid from Queens.

***

            Earlier, on this sultry Saturday morning in NYC, Hyuk-jae landed at JFK International Airport for the first time in nearly 20 years. When he was seven-years-old, his parents pulled up stakes and returned to South Korea. They had met while foreign students at Queens College. Soon after graduating, they opened a dry cleaning business on Main Street in Flushing, Queens. Hyuk-jae, their only child, was born in November 1995. His mother, who was born in North Korea, never overcame her homesickness. His dad believed it was because her mother, Hyuk-jae’s grandmother, was still in North Korea. When his maternal grandfather died, his mother wanted to return to the city of Daeseong-dong in the demilitarized zone (DMZ), just in case her mother ever escaped the ironically named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
            No fewer than 100 young Korean American women and teenage girls had crowded the exit gate at the terminal when his plane arrived. Even before he came into view, they began chanting, “HJ, HJ, HJ . . .” Hyuk-jae was amazed at how the Adorable Representative M.C. for Youth (ARMY), always seemed to know his itinerary. He thought, for sure, that arriving three days before his performance would gain him some peace. Undoubtedly, Nari tipped them off, he figured. The horde of ladies stopped chanting and began screaming during the few seconds it took his bodyguards to whisk him into their SUV.
            “Welcome home!” Nari said to him excitedly, as the driver sped toward Manhattan for their first pre-show walkthrough.
            “Says you,” Hyuk-jae replied nervously. His throat felt increasingly restricted, as though he were a coveted pure breed puppy whose master kept tightening the collar. You’ll never get away, echoed in his mind.

***

            By the first grade, Hyuk-jae’s classmates began introducing him to their musical interests. His very conservative parents only listened to traditional Korean music, so his peers became windows to the vast world of entertainment. Flushing, Queens boasted the most diverse racial and ethnic student population on the planet. First- and second-generation Asians, Eastern Europeans, Latin Americans, Caribbeans, and Indians all mingled with children from old American families. It was the exponentially exploding hip-hop culture and music that most appealed to Hyuk-jae.
            Looking back, Hyuk-jae wonders if part of the reason for his parents’ decision to return to Korea was out of concern for what they may have perceived to be negative influences. Seeing their round-faced, pale, pudgy kid with a mess of black hair on his head dressed in a hoodie and blasting Busta Rhymes from his bedroom stereo may have frightened them. Hyuk-jae smiles as he reminisces about singing lyrics from Ludacris’s Rollout song while getting on a plane to Korea at age seven. None of them knew then that he would someday move them from the DMZ to the most affluent district in Seoul, Gangnam-gu, to live out their lives in luxury with a chef, maid, and gardener tending to their needs.
            Upon arriving in Daeseong-dong, Hyuk-jae became friends with Joon, the boy next door. It helped that they were in the same grade and could walk to school together. Joon, a spindly kid with a perpetual golden tan, appeared to be comfortable with being awkward. Other children gave up on teasing him about his skinny body, ill-fitting clothes, and overbite, since he would only react with a smile, grateful to be noticed. He also loved to share with anyone who would listen that his best friend was from New York.

***

            Joon’s sister, Nari, was already in high school when Hyuk-jae met her. She was at the top of her class and known for actively lobbying government officials to do more for North Korean refugees. It broke her heart to see their bewildered faces on the news after surviving a perilous journey across the DMZ, only to learn that the 1950s dystopian world that they came from was far behind the space-aged existence now before them. Nari pledged to devote her life to law so that she could advocate for refugees. She went on to become valedictorian of her high school and later attended the Seoul National University School of Law.

***

            By freshman year in high school in 2009, Hyuk-jae and Joon had become popular among their local peers for hosting a YouTube channel they called HJ & J Talk Hip Hop. Initially, they would only post videos of themselves bantering back and forth about current happenings in the world of hip hop. Hyuk-jae added English subtitles to the videos to expand their reach. They eventually began including interviews with aspiring Korean hip-hop artists.
            During their senior year in 2012, Joon converted his sister’s former bedroom into a music studio. He had an ear for sound and began making and recording music mashups for their channel. This sparked an idea in Hyuk-jae that would change his life. He understood that simply translating the lyrics of a song into another language and singing it over the same music did not work well because of the differences in pace and pitch of the languages. So, he asked Joon to make subtle changes in the music to match the translation. They shared his first song, “Big Thunder,” on their YouTube show in both English and Korean with the appropriate subtitles for each. It went viral.
            Producers from the top three music labels in Korea reached out to them. One offered them a contract, and that was when things became a bit rocky. They were both only seventeen, so they needed their parents’ permission to sign. Joon’s parents were against him taking this hobby of his any further. Next year, he would be attending college, and perhaps following in the footsteps of his sister the lawyer. Hyuk-jae’s parents were more liberal in comparison and only requested that Hyuk-jae have a lawyer review the contract before signing.
            The only lawyer Hyuk-jae knew was Nari. She read the contract as a favor, shared it with a colleague of hers who worked in the publishing industry, made a bunch of suggested revisions in red ink, and returned it to the producer. Thanks to Nari, Hyuk-jae signed one of the most favorable contracts of any musician. This caught the attention of Nari’s law firm, so they took Hyuk-jae on as a regular client and assigned Nari to manage his account.
            Hyuk-jae’s first full album, New York Seoul, hit the top of the charts in 2013 in over 70 countries. Each song on the album was performed twice, once in English and again in Korean, with slight musical variations. Since then, for nine years now, HJ has never been alone. Of course, he could be alone in a bathroom or bedroom, but not entirely. Outside of any room he is in, there are security personnel. If too much time goes by without his presence, usually not much more than 20 minutes, a knock comes on the door. Nari and her assistant handle much of the chaos generated by the people around him: the dance choreographer, a masseur for his aching muscles, interpreters, a stylist, bodyguards, and drivers.

***

            Nari was saying something to him about a short residency in Las Vegas as the Escalade crept along 7th Avenue, but his mind was elsewhere. Hyuk-jae was fixated on the people walking freely along the sidewalks, in and out of the subway stations, taxis, and buses.
            “Are you listening to me?” Nari asked.
            “Yeah, you want me to do a show in Vegas,” he replied, while wearily pulling his eyes away from the window to look at her.
            “No. I mentioned that the Bangtan Boys did a week's worth of shows there back in April.”
            Hyuk-jae’s thoughts drifted again. How nice it would be to just go out for a bagel or slice of pizza without having to have it coordinated or nixed in exchange for delivery. Never in my adult life have I been able to walk a dog or jog in a park, he lamented.
            Subconsciously, he pressed the small backpack on the floor between his ankles tighter. Stuffed inside of it was a nondescript change of clothes. I’m going to do it, he promised himself. Today, I’m going to do it.

***

            Hyuk-jae hid the real reason why he asked Nari to charter a flight to New York, which got them there early that morning. He knew she would tip off the ARMY to stir up publicity. It was her job to keep him relevant in media circles. Arriving three days before his concert to rest was his stated objective; setting up a rehearsal before noon was how he justified the unusual time they needed to depart from Seoul. What he did not share with anyone in his circle was that he planned to attend the Rock the Bells Festival at Forest Hills Stadium in Flushing, not as HJ but as an ordinary spectator. The all-day event coordinated by Rock & Roll Hall of Fame rapper LL Cool J was taking place that day.
            At some point, their driver headed east before turning north on Madison Avenue. Hyuk-jae noticed a dramatic change in the atmosphere outside this muscle-bound carriage. There were fewer people hustling about, a lower noise volume, and a greater feeling of arrogance emanating from the old concrete buildings. “Where are we staying?” he asked Nari.
            “The Carlyle on 76th Street. It’s the best place in NYC for privacy and quiet,” Nari replied.
            “Is that so?” Hyuk-jae asked sarcastically and redundantly. There seemed to be no place on Earth that the paparazzi could not infiltrate.
            To Hyuk-jae’s surprise, no celebrity gawkers or sketchy fan girls were waiting for him as the SUV pulled up to the curb in front of The Carlyle. Its golden revolving entrance was flanked by two equally impressive golden doors. This won’t be how I exit, he thought, while following his stylist and bodyguards into the lavish hotel.
            Nari was waiting for him inside the foyer, along with four bellhops. Most of the musicians, dancers, and production crew had accommodations closer to the arena. Hyuk-jae envied how everyone they traveled with could explore the many attractions of NYC this weekend unencumbered. Nari shared a suite with her assistant, the stylist had her own room, and the bodyguards were booked into a suite next to his. Both bodyguards were assigned by an executive security agency. All of the agency’s employees had extensive military training, stern faces, and were hyper-alert. Hyuk-jae knew that they would be alternating their work schedules to make sure someone was always seated by his door.
            “Nari, I’ll be eating dinner alone in my room tonight,” Hyuk-jae told her just loud enough so that their entire party and the bellhops could hear him.
            “You sure?” she asked, with a bit of concern in her voice. If he was not feeling well, canceling this show would cost them millions of dollars.
            “Don’t worry. I have a few songs in my head that I want to get down on paper,” he said reassuringly.
            One bellhop accompanied Hyuk-jae and the bodyguards to their suites. He told the guard who drew the first shift that he would be taking a nap and to allow room service to set up dinner in the dining room later while he was in the jacuzzi. This was just a ruse; his plan was to be a ghost in the concrete jungle within minutes.

***

            Hyuk-jae clutched his small backpack and hustled to the bathroom. He paused for a moment in front of the bathroom’s ceiling-to-floor ice-block designed door, which slid soundlessly into the wall. Hidden lights tucked along ornate moldings and mirrored tiles blinked to life once his nose crossed into the Roman bath-inspired oasis. Hyuk-jae shook his head in mock amazement at the expansiveness of this one space. It was twice the size of the apartments he grew up in, both in Daeseong-dong and Flushing.
            Hyuk-jae kicked off his burgundy, custom-fitted boots and sat in front of one of the two vanity mirrors. Looking at himself, he could not believe that the scorching summer sun had only managed to make his pale skin take on a wet hue, not the golden color of his best friend, Joon. The mess of wavy blackness that crowned his scalp gave way to perfectly trimmed, thick eyebrows over long eyelashes that highlighted his brown eyes. His rather common nose and round face were easy to ignore, thanks to his pouty, naturally pink lips. His stylist routinely darkened his lips to ruby red and added a bit of sheen.
            After removing several gaudy rings from his fingers and carefully snapping off an equally obnoxious necklace, Hyuk-jae began unzipping the one-piece red leather outfit he was wearing. He thought of his clothing and jewelry as props for the HJ persona, nothing more. Once undressed, he took a glance at all five foot nine inches of his medium-build frame. Nodding, as though answering an internal question, he opened the backpack he had tossed in the sink.
            The contents of the backpack were dumped on the sink’s counter. It contained a navy blue hoodie, blue jeans with a few random tears, and a pair of slip-on white sneakers. Nothing that would stand out in any setting, Hyuk-jae supposed. He dressed quickly before searching his hotel suite for a way out.
            He found it. In the kitchen, there was a walk-in pantry with a dumbwaiter in the back that descended into one of The Carlyle’s restaurant service areas. That’s gonna be a tight squeeze, Hyuk-jae thought, but I can fit in. Before making his exit, Hyuk-jae took a clock radio from the master bedroom and placed it in the bathroom next to the jacuzzi. He set it to a popular music station and cranked up the volume. In about four hours, room service would be let in to set the dinner table, and they would assume he was bathing.
            Knowing that Nari could track his cell phone, Hyuk-jae decided to leave it behind. The one phone number he might need, Joon’s, was already etched into his memory. He used his phone one last time to check a Google map of the area. An alleyway ran behind the buildings on 76th and 77th streets that extended from behind The Carlyle on Madison Avenue, one city block to Park Avenue. To know where garbage was removed and deliveries made, away from traffic and prying eyes, was all Hyuk-jae needed.
            Using credit cards would be as telling as carrying his cell phone, so Hyuk-jae had made an exchange for a few thousand U.S. dollars while at Incheon International Airport in Seoul. With his pockets filled with cash and a hoodie covering his face, Hyuk-jae climbed onto the dumbwaiter and pressed the button marked “down.” “Rollout,” he whispered.
            Descending from the 25th floor took approximately five minutes. His curled body position made his neck begin to ache from the feeling of heat rising in his spine. As he gained more awareness of his neck, his right leg became numb. When the dumbwaiter stopped, Hyuk-jae uncoiled as he sprung clumsily through wide strips of heavy plastic, which acted as a curtain concealing the dumbwaiter. Thankfully, at two o’clock on a beautiful summer Saturday, no hotel guests were waiting for butler-in-suite dining service. Hyuk-jae found himself completely on his own for the first time in a decade.

***

            The exit door for the alleyway connected directly to the restaurant’s kitchen. This made for quick disposal of uneaten food that would soon rot, surely giving off a scent that only rats would find appealing. Still trying to regain feeling in his right leg, Hyuk-jae limped into the alleyway and made his way out to Madison Avenue. With his head down and his peripheral vision partially blocked by the hood of the hoodie, he bumped into a man walking by. He collided with the man hard enough to send him falling against a light pole.
            “Oh my god, are you okay?” Hyuk-jae asked, reaching for the man’s left arm to help him up. He was a middle-aged black man with a closely cut, expertly groomed beard that featured graying strands on his chin. His scalp was a bald brown orb that glinted in the sunlight. The man staggered slightly upon rising, and he held his right hand over a small bump on his head, where it had knocked into that dirty gray post.
            “Whoa,” the man groaned.
            “I’m so sorry,” Hyuk-jae said while gently steering the man toward the outside wall of The Carlyle to help steady him. The man leaned erectly against the building. Hyuk-jae could see and feel that the man was of average weight and stood about six feet tall. While rubbing his wound, he looked directly at Hyuk-jae. He did not speak. Hyuk-jae saw that his watery eyes were still clearing and his lips were thicker and redder than his own.
            “No worries, kid,” the man finally managed a few words.
            “What’s your name, sir? I’m Kim,” Hyuk-jae said. He wanted to know the man’s name just in case he needed to call for an ambulance. “Kim” was the only name he could come up with in a hurry that is common among Koreans. No need to get exposed before getting away, he thought.
            “Darryl, Darryl Jenkins,” the man responded. His voice was firm now, and he had stopped leaning against the wall.
            “Can I walk with you?” Hyuk-jae asked. “I’ll feel better knowing you got to where you’re going safely.”
            “Sure,” Darryl replied with an embarrassed smile. He did not want to admit that the pain in his head was making him feel nauseous. “My car is in the Quik Park garage just around the corner. Where were you headed in such a hurry?” he asked. “I wouldn’t want to make you late.”
            Remembering the festival, Hyuk-jae smiled and said, “Not a problem. I have all day. I just didn’t want my friends to see me leave. They won’t miss me until tomorrow morning. I made sure of that.” Hyuk-jae thought about what he just said and added, “It’s not an escape, or anything like that. I just need some time to myself.”
            Darryl nodded slowly. He knew he had a bottle of ibuprofen in his car’s glove compartment, and he could not wait much longer for relief. He was born and raised in Queens, New York, but he now lived in Woodstock. Woodstock is a two-hour drive north into the Catskill Mountains. Today’s visit to the city was for a consultation with a renowned heart surgeon. There was no way he could make that drive back home, feeling the way he did now.
            “Maybe you can help me,” Hyuk-jae said as they approached the valet at the Quik Park. “How do I get to the Forest Hills Stadium?”
            As the parking garage attendant went to fetch his car, Darryl rubbed the gray hairs of his chin, as if in deep contemplation. He looked up at Hyuk-jae and said, “How does this sound? It will take me a while to feel well enough to drive, so why don’t you take the wheel while I rest in the back seat. When we get to Forest Hills, I can drive myself home to Woodstock from there.”
            “Really?” Hyuk-jae blurted out; he could not believe his luck.
            “It’s a win-win,” Darryl continued. “I get a chauffeur, and you get to Forest Hills. What kind of event is it anyway?”
            “LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells Festival!” Hyuk-jae answered, struggling to contain the giggles of excitement growing inside him. “Do you like hip hop?”
            “I grew up with old school hip hop: The Sugar Hill Gang, Run DMC, The Fat Boys, Heavy D. & The Boys, LL Cool J, and more. I was a fanatic about it until I went to college in the late 80s and early 90s. I lost interest after that,” Darryl said, as he handed the valet a cash tip for bringing his white 2014 Subaru Forester to the entrance.
            “Wow! That’s really old school,” Hyuk-jae inadvertently said out loud as they climbed into the car. He was not referring to the Subaru but to the list of artists Darryl just mentioned.
            Darryl smiled. He was not offended. Most of the rappers from his day were around his age or no more than several years older. “Hey, Kim, if it’s mostly old school performers, maybe I’ll go in with you.”
            “It is, and it’s my treat,” Hyuk-jae said, in a tone that accepted no refusal. “Another thing . . .” Hyuk-jae began as he typed “Forest Hills Stadium” into the car’s navigation system. “My name is HJ.”
            “HJ . . .” Darryl mused. “That name sounds familiar, but I might be thinking of H&M fashion.”
            Hyuk-jae laughed and asked, “Have you ever heard of K-pop?”
            “I think so. Does it have something to do with Korea?” Darryl asked. Like most born and bred Americans, he carried no shame about being ignorant of the happenings in sports and entertainment that were not popular in the United States. Formula 1 drivers, cricket and rugby players, and even most soccer stars could vacation unmolested almost anywhere in the USA.
            “K-pop is Korean popular music and culture. You must have heard of the group BTS . . .” Hyuk-jae explained as he looked in the rearview mirror to see how Darryl reacted. There was no hint of recognition on Darryl’s face. Darryl’s expression remained placid. Amazingly, he never heard of HJ or BTS. Thinking of this fact actually made Hyuk-jae feel more comfortable. He was finally with someone who was reacting to him as a person, and not “kissing his ass” as an idol.

***

            Darryl and Hyuk-jae reached the festival at around three-thirty in the afternoon. Darryl was beginning to feel better and made his way to the food court for a cup of coffee. Hyuk-jae accompanied him with a growling stomach of his own. He had not eaten since arriving at JFK International Airport. At the food court, Hyuk-jae went straight for Nas’s Sweet Chick chicken, and Darryl settled for Ghostface Killah’s Killah Koffee.
            They stayed at the festival until the last performance, dancing and rapping to Fat Joe, Lil Kim, Ice Cube, and many other rap pioneers. Hyuk-jae was impressed with Darryl’s knowledge about the dawn of hip hop and how he transformed into a happy teenager as the festival rocked on into the night. Darryl enjoyed how one of the only Asian faces in the stadium, his new friend HJ, moved with a sense of belonging among the predominantly black and brown attendees.

***

            “After three cups of Killah Koffee, I’ll be buzzed all the way home,” Darryl said, as they exited the stadium with the masses. “Would you like me to drop you off at a subway station?” Darryl asked Hyuk-jae, who was suddenly looking solemn after the festival.
            “I’m really not ready to go back,” Hyuk-jae replied.
            “Won’t you be missed in a few hours?” Darryl asked. He wanted HJ to begin considering the feelings of those he was avoiding at the hotel.
            Hyuk-jae considered this for a moment before responding. “I can text my friend, Joon. His sister is my manager. He’ll let her know that I’m okay.” Hyuk-jae noticed Darryl’s face quivering slightly. He was clearly uneasy about this runaway.
            This good man deserves more of an explanation, Hyuk-jae figured. “Well, it’s like this. Right now, I feel as though I’m on parole after a long prison sentence. The people around me mean well, but it’s not like I ever wanted to be famous. I just fell in love with hip hop and grew a passion for expressing myself creatively with it. The fans who enjoy my songs have made me rich, but they have also pushed me into a cell. A cell that I can’t buy my way out of.”
            Darryl shook his head up and down slowly to acknowledge that he understood. The young man was obviously conflicted. He was experiencing a conundrum familiar to other elite talents: How to share one’s gifts on the world stage while retaining individual freedom to walk the earth undisturbed? When they were only ten yards from where his car was parked, Darryl asked, “When is your next show?”
            “Tuesday,” Hyuk-jae answered glumly. He felt like a child about to be sent to his room for misbehaving. He then perked up and said, “You know, I’ve always wanted to visit Woodstock. It’s the site of one of the most iconic events in rock and roll history, isn’t it?”
            Darryl knew where this conversation was going, so he tried to refocus HJ’s attention on the possible consequences of his absence. He said, “Actually, that Woodstock event happened in Bethel Woods, about sixty miles southwest of Woodstock. Also, I don’t want anyone coming after me for kidnapping a celebrity.”
            Hyuk-jae smiled. He felt as though this was the beginning of a short debate that he was about to win. “If I can use your phone, I can text my friend. Once he notifies my manager, they’ll use a stand-in for the rehearsals. As long as I’m back in time for the concert, there’ll be no problems,” Hyuk-jae said with practiced and unwavering confidence. He finished stating his case by raising one eyebrow and flashing a broad smile.
            Darryl stood by the driver’s side door of his car, looking over the rooftop at HJ, who waited expectantly for the passenger’s door to be unlocked. He knew that HJ was employing every bit of his charm, but he also felt the young man’s overwhelming need and pain. He gave his car’s keyring a double tap, and after two audible chirps, they both entered the car. Once seated, Darryl offered HJ his phone and said, “Text your buddy.”

***

            Cool, damp air caressed Hyuk-jae’s face with the touch of an invisible cloud. He jerked awake and was momentarily disoriented. “What . . . Where?” he asked himself, noticing the grogginess in his voice. Upon seeing the dashboard of the car, he remembered what had transpired and quickly came fully awake. “Oh right,” he murmured. With the back of his left wrist, he wiped away the drool that had begun drying at the corner of his mouth. A digital display clock read 4:00 AM above the blank navigation display screen. The motor was turned off, but the windows had been left open a crack. Through the windshield, he saw that they had parked in a gravel driveway alongside a small blue house clad in pine board siding. Above its entryway, a weak yellow light illuminated the short walkway. The white screen door was closed, but the red-cedar-stained wooden door married to it was open, and a much brighter white light inside bade him to enter.
            Hyuk-jae entered an impeccably clean and orderly two-bedroom, ranch-style home with rustic decor. The light that beckoned him in came from the kitchen off to his left. Deer antlers held four curly energy-saving bulbs above a kitchenette table. On the table was a sheet of paper with a message written by a thin, black felt marker. Four words were written on it: Make yourself at home.
            His bladder was about to explode. To his right, along a short hallway, he saw three doors: one on the left, the next on the right, and the third straight ahead. The third door must be the bathroom, he thought, and it was. After relieving himself, Hyuk-jae returned to the living room and sprawled out on a large brown leather couch where he quickly fell back to sleep.

***

            It was not the cold hand of nature that woke him at eight o’clock in the morning but the smell of coffee percolating in the kitchen that did the honors. Hyuk-jae’s eyes opened to see Darryl sitting at the kitchenette table, reading something on his smartphone. “Good morning,” Hyuk-jae said cheerfully. He wanted to leave no doubt about how grateful he was for Darryl’s hospitality.
            “Oh, good morning to you,” Darryl replied. “Sleep well?” he asked.
            “Best sleep ever!” Hyuk-jae answered while hustling to the bathroom again.
            “I left a towel and washcloth on the tub, and there’s a new toothbrush still in its wrapper in the medicine cabinet,” Darryl said, just before the bathroom door closed.
            Several minutes passed before Hyuk-jae reemerged from the bathroom, showered and refreshed. His hair was wet and sticking flat to the sides of his head and ears. Darryl thought this made him appear two inches shorter. He knew HJ only had the clothes that he had danced in the night before, so he offered to take him to a local thrift shop to gear up for the next couple of days. Hyuk-jae was game to do whatever Darryl recommended. He was reveling in the serenity of his current circumstances.

***

            Darryl apologized to HJ for not being able to offer him bacon or sausage with his breakfast. He admitted that a heart scare in 2014 had convinced him to go vegan. Hyuk-jae did not mind. The locally sourced organic fruit and berries piled atop waffles smothered in vegan butter and drizzled with lite Vermont maple syrup were delicious. After eating, they sat at the kitchen table sipping coffee and tea, respectively, while getting to know each other better before planning their itinerary.
            Hyuk-jae learned that Darryl worked as an assistant principal for the local school district’s secondary school and coached their cross-country running teams in the fall. He still had a couple of weeks off before the new school year started, so HJ’s unexpected visit was not an inconvenience. Hyuk-jae noticed how intently Darryl listened to his brief life story. Darryl also concentrated on every sip of his coffee and grinned with satisfaction each time.
            The first item on their to-do list for Sunday was to go to a nearby thrift shop. Afterwards, they would eat lunch at a popular restaurant that specialized in farm-to-table dining. The weather was perfect for relaxing outside, with no rain in the forecast and low humidity. Darryl stated that he usually read a book or listened to fusion jazz while sitting by the Ashokan Reservoir just across the road from his house. He suggested that for the evening’s activity.

***

            Hyuk-jae entered the thrift shop, with his hoodie pulled close over his head. He was still a bit anxious about being out in public without his entourage. Darryl saw the elderly male proprietor behind a counter flinch when he looked at HJ. It was not at all from recognizing the K-pop star but from suspecting that this hooded young man was up to no good. Darryl immediately assuaged the man’s fear by saying, “Afternoon, sir. Please excuse my friend. He’s having a bad hair day.” That comment, accompanied by a cheerful show of pearly white teeth, put the man at ease. Darryl also suggested that HJ pickup some items for a day hike in the mountains the following afternoon. Now, the owner, who was fearful a minute ago, was thrilled that they had graced his establishment.

***

            To Hyuk-jae’s surprise, the restaurant they ate at that afternoon seated all guests family style. Woodstock was small enough that most of the locals knew their neighbors, but the summer visitors were treated with the same familiarity. Hyuk-jae was now wearing a loose-fitting sleeveless white V-neck shirt and thin khaki pants. His hair was tamed, and the anxiety of being discovered was abating. He followed Darryl’s lead and politely greeted the six other diners seated at their table, one at a time. While the diners spoke casually about the weather, Catskills hiking conditions, and the delectable way their food was prepared, Darryl made a point of smiling to all who were present. Taking this in, Hyuk-jae thought, What an amazing fellow.

***

            It was not until six in the evening that they sauntered across the road to relax by the reservoir. In two hours, the mosquitos would chase them back inside. Hyuk-jae wandered back and forth along the shore and picked up a few small rocks to skip across the surface of the water. Songs began forming in his head that were entirely inspired by his new acquaintance, Darryl, who was sitting cross-legged, listening to music from the buds in his ears and indeed smiling as he took in the pristine surroundings.

***

            On Monday morning, Hyuk-jae laughed at himself in the full-length mirror affixed to the bathroom door. He wore tan hiking boots, knee-high socks, hiking shorts with too many pockets, and a water-wicking T-shirt dyed with a camouflage design. Darryl was similarly dressed, but did not think it strange; he was accustomed to it. Darryl also carried a black plastic garbage bag and plastic gloves. Hyuk-jae was going to ask him about this but thought better of it. He did not want to come across as being completely naive about the great outdoors.
            The views from their hiking destination left Hyuk-jae speechless. Giant Ledge, in the heart of the Catskills, treated his eyes to surreal vistas. Darryl sat quietly, grinning ear to ear and breathing in deeply. Hyuk-jae also observed how Darryl relished every footstep along the way. As they began to leave the ledge, Darryl pulled on the green plastic gloves he was carrying and opened his garbage bag. They slowly made their way back to the parking lot, and Darryl picked up every scrap of trash he came across, mostly snack wrappers, pieces of cloth, and a few plastic water bottles.
            On the drive back to Woodstock after their hike, Hyuk-jae’s emotions swayed back and forth from sadness to excitement. He was sad that his running away episode would end the next day, but excited to share with the world how it inspired him. Of course, he would share this through songs.
            A new album was forming in his mind. He thought he would title it The Real Woodstock: Peace & Happiness. He never heard Darryl speak unkindly to anyone, so one of the songs he would call “Right Speech.” Other titles this life excursion planted inside of him included: “Listen with Love” that reflected the way Darryl paid close attention to what everyone was saying, “Just Smile” was what Darryl did all the time, and “Everything Mindfully” was the way Darryl cherished each sip, bite, and sight he took in.

***

            “Did you remember to text your friend?” Darryl asked HJ as he took the southbound entrance lane to the New York Thruway in Kingston. He was driving two exits to Interstate 84 in Newburgh. From there, they would head east across the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge. Directly across that bridge was a Metro-North railroad station. The train would take just over an hour to get to Grand Central Station.
            With a teasing grin, Hyuk-Jae said, “Yes, Dad, it’s all taken care of. Joon called his not-so-happy sister, and she arranged to have my security team waiting on the platform. They told me to exit from the third train car.”
            Darryl shook his head affirmingly. The confused and hurting young man who had stood before him after Saturday’s festival was nowhere to be found. He assumed that HJ’s renewed spirit was one of the benefits of clean mountain air. “Truthfully, no one will recognize you. Not just because of the hoodie and jeans,” Darryl said, with true admiration.
            “You know, I’ll never be able to thank you enough,” Hyuk-jae said, holding back tears. “Just call that number I gave you if you ever want to see me perform. You’ll always have backstage access.”
            Darryl chuckled before saying, “You know I’ll never be seen at a K-pop show. Never!”
            They looked at each other and began laughing hysterically.

***

            When HJ’s train pulled out of the station, Darryl made his way back toward the New York Thruway. On his car’s dashboard was a folded piece of paper with an international phone number and the name Joon had been written on it. As he approached the thruway, he took a moment to consider his options: south to New York City, or north to Woodstock . . .





September 11, 2022

Hyuk-jae: K-pop Runaway