Matt had been shocked to receive a photo of SyunJoo’s erection. Firstly, because he hadn’t asked for it: he had always felt that the penis lost all erotic appeal when shot in isolation. But more crucially, because Lou had seen him using Grindr again, which could only further increase the tension between them.
After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, the food arrived. The two of them made attempts at conversation on various safe, abstract topics: the lag in development between Korea’s south and north, Hillary’s chances of getting a second term in the upcoming US elections. Lou also showed Matt the demilitarized zone leaflet, and they decided that they would make a trip there the next day if they got up early enough.
When they left Kim’s Matt felt that the ambience between them had recovered sufficiently, so to keep things going well he suggested that they go to Bar Soho for a second time. The bar was located in the less reputable end of America Drive, surrounded by pay-by-the-hour hotels, and shop fronts with frosted windows, with words like ‘Thai massage’ and ‘relax salon’ legible on A4 printouts stuck to the inside of the glass.
When they entered the door with the little rectangular rainbow flag sticker discreetly stuck in the small peep window, the bar owner Oscar looked genuinely pleased to see them.
“Oh, handsome British boys have come back,” he said to the two patrons already there, in his near perfect American English accent.
The warmth of Oscar’s greeting matched the bar’s cosy interior. Covering the walls were posters of Broadway shows and photos of Oscar taken two decades previously during his years spent studying in New York, which he had told Matt and Lou all about on their first visit to the bar. Matt looked at these now as Lou chatted with Oscar. Some were taken in daylight, of a younger Oscar in a bomber jacket, smiling in front of various American tourist attractions: the Statue of Liberty, the White House, Times Square. Others were taken at night, in clubs, of Oscar either topless or in a vest, surrounded by other muscular Asian guys, posing moodily for the camera whilst tensing every muscle.
“What would you like to drink?” Lou asked. As Matt turned around to answer him, he caught sight of one of the other customers.
It was SyunJoo. He was looking straight at Matt.
Trying to hide his surprise, Matt hurriedly sat down on a barstool on the other side of Lou.
“Are you okay?” asked Lou.
“Yeah I’m fine,” replied Matt, unconvincingly.
“So what will it be, guys?” asked Oscar.
“Oh one of your Long Island Ice Teas, of course,” said Lou.
“Yeah, same for me,” said Matt. SyunJoo had meanwhile resumed conversation with his friend.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” whispered Lou. “You seem kind of on edge.”
“So you never told us,” asked Matt, looking at Oscar, trying desperately not to look in Lou’s eyes or at the other end of the bar. “How did you get to study in New York in the first place, wasn’t North Korea really strict about letting people out?”
“Yes, but I am not from North Korea, you know, I am originally from Seoul,” he said. “Quite a lot of gays came to the North, because the South, so much homophobia there. Here, nobody knows, about gay or lesbian things, so there is no homophobia, and we can do what we want!”
He let out a boisterous laugh, before adding,
“There are a few gay bars in Pyongyang, you know, not just this place. There is even a gay sauna just off America Drive.”
“Really?” asked Matt.
“Yeah it’s called Comrades, it’s down an alleyway on the left side from here.”
“So, is it like a brothel?” asked Lou. “Where guys pay other guys for sex?”
“No, no.” said Oscar. “Not like that. Guys don’t pay each other, they pay to enter, then they do it with other guys there. It is mainly US army guys who go there, but tourists and some locals go as well.”
Neither Matt nor Lou said anything.
“But you don’t need to know, right?” Oscar added hastily, laughing. “You two are good boyfriends together, right?”
Matt felt SyunJoo’s eyes on him again, as if he had sensed the awkward turn their conversation had taken, so he stared resolutely down at the varnished wooden bar top.
Conversation then meandered from one topic to another, largely lead by Oscar and Lou. Matt chimed in intermittently, but remained nervous throughout as to where the slightest glance to the right may lead him. However, as they were leaving and saying their goodbyes to Oscar, he gave in and looked at SyunJoo. Their eyes met, and they exchanged a glance that seemed to Matt to be full of possibility. But before he could give it any thought, he was out in the street with Lou walking back to the hotel. Down a side alley, he caught sight of a yellow neon sign branding the word ‘Comrades’ into the night air. Maybe it was the conflict that seeing this arose in him, that made him grab Lou’s hand as they sauntered back along America Drive.