We ride the bus south to a stop whose name I can't read, then rise on a very long escalator into a street filled with a funny mic o shiny high-rises, three-story rows of buildings, and those colorful Korean rooftops—jumbled together like three different sets of children's blocks. The photographer's studio is on the second floor of a narrow building beside a temple, where smoke from incense sticks rises from a brass burner.
I'm thankful to arrive, if only for the break from Sohee's incessant chatter about Kang. A brass bell chimes overhead as I follow her into a perfumed room of polished wooden floors accented by red silk rugs and velvet ottomans. Citrus-scented candles flicker on the counter.
A young adult woman in a plaid beret turns from a tripod facing a white backdrop curtain that unfurls in a room-sized square. "Ah, yeodongsaengie yeogi!" Her black button-down flutters in the AC as she lifts her camera to her face.
Poof! Poof! Poof!
White lights swim in my vision. I blink against them. I'd expected a smile mall portrait studio like Eomma brings us to every year. Not this fancy boudoir. Life-sized portraits paper the walls: a girl a wide-brimmed at, a guy slinging a blazer over his shoulder, couple pressed cheek to cheek.
"Will she really make me look—like those?"
"Even better." Sohee helps herself into a piece of candy from a crystal bowl, as at ease as if we were in her own home.
I'm afraid to even sit down. If I were home, I'd be eating potato chips at the public pool with Wendy, hiding my one-piece under my striped towel. I don't belong in an extravagant studio like this, lining up to get airbrushed like a movie star. My head throbs from my hangover. I feel like a total imposter.
Sohee chats with Nana, who speaks Korean, Mandarin and Japanese, but not English. They are moving to a cash register on a glass counter and I kneel by a coffee table littered with traditional vinyl photo albums and an iPad displaying digital ones. I flip through the iPad: girls in backless dresses lying on lacy bedspreads with their heels kicked up, or golden beaches at sunrise—the colors sharp and bold. I trace the sweeping train of a lemon chiffon gown and try to imagine myself in it.
Then I sort through the albums. I come across one devoted to an acrobatic troop from Shanghai, dressed in fun costumes like green-and-pink flowers, glowing stars, scaly seas creatures, posing on trapezes and as awe-inspiring human jungle gyms.
An idea strikes, and I set the album down. "Sohee, does Nana shoot for other theater or dance companies?"
Sohee interrupts herself to translate for Nana. "Yes, she has some in the albums over there." She points to a shelf in the corner.
I pull out several leather-bound albums—a Kpop-mixed-with-taekwondo class, a dragon drum troupe, a dance last spring by an expensive studio in Seoul I'd found online. But I'm looking for one I haven't run across yet.
At least, I come across a modest album labeled, "More Than Youth Ballet Studio." I bend over the costumed casts "Cinderella, The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty. Swan Lake last August—I've danced in all of them at my studio. The same girls pose season after season, a year older each time. It's as small a dance studio as they come. With a jolt of excitement, I run my fingertips over the address embossed on the back. I can drop by when we finish, but will they have space?
"Omo! Naneun geueos-eul neomu johaha, jiman geugeos-eul gamdanghal su eobs-seubnida!" Sohee lifts her hands to her temples and shakes her head. I love it so much but I can't afford that!
I'm not alarmed, not after witnessing Sohee's killer negotiation skills in the market. Sohee will slowing give in until she gets a the deal she wants, and miraculously, the photographer will feel equally pleased we value her work so highly.
At last, Sohee turns to me. "She'll give us two for one, since we're doing it together. Three outfits each, and she'll cut us a deeper deal if we pay American dollars."
When she tells us, I swallow hard. It's less than what it would cost in the States but wipes out a third of the savings I brought as spending money.
In my purse, my phone chimes with a text. My fingers brush my mysterious sketch as I dig out my phone out.
Sihyeon: Eomma wants to check how Hangul's going better call back soon
My stomach clenches. Eomma's grasping fingers are after me. how much longer can I dodge them? I text back:
Thanks for the warning.
I drop my phone back into my purse, then join Sohee at the counter. I run my hand over the gold embossing that frames a gorgeous girl in the album open before her.
Glamour shots. I can't imagine a more wasteful use of money.
Another Bae Rule downed.
I flip the album closed. "Let's do it."
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
Through her entire first shoot, Sohee yammers on about Kang as she poses in a yellow wraparound dress, standing in a three-inch heels on the white backdrop before Nana's camera. "We really connected, Suzy," and "We never even got his shirt off!"
In the corner, surrounded by dresses on racks, I hold a baby pink gown to my body and examine my reflection. Nothing's right—I've lost count of how many I've tried. I hang it back on its rack with a discouraged thump and dig into an accessories trunk of silk scarves, rope of pearls, and elbow-length gloves.
But at last, when Sohee's session ends, I wobble in knee-high boots to take her place, tripping over the wire to the inverted umbrella that reflects light onto the backdrop. I've finally decided on a Dior strapless top and black leather skirt. Nana's hair-dresser tied my hair into a bun and placed a net on top. The matching ring and bracelet and the gold necklace gave an expensive vibe and I love the overall effect.
But as I face Nana's silvery equipments, I feel like an imposter, as if I've shown up to a Phoenix Ballet rehearsal to the confusion of the entire corps.
An alarming burst of instructions flies from Nana. I throw a pleading glance at Sohee, who breaks off agonizing whether Kang liked her in gold to translate: "Lift your chin. Look straight into the camera. Shift your legs and keep your chest pushed out. More—good!"
I force my fingers to unclutch my skirt. At Nana's instructions, I stretch out on a white chaise that smells of perfume. a leg. The fabric glides against my skin as Nana repositions me, shooting my front, back, profile. She plays with the lights. Throws stars onto the backdrop. My body sinks into the cushions as I finally begin to relax.
"Beautiful!" Nana removes her beret and scratches her short hair.
By the end of my session, I'm flushed with the attention. Any compliments I've received over the years—my dramatic eyes, my silky black hair, my porcelain-dolls features—usually made me cringe with the focus on my Asianness.
But now, an ember inside me flares brighter.
I change into a white jumpsuit as Sohee poses in her second outfit: a black dress covered by a blue trench coat that she slips suggestively down her bare shoulders with each shot. "This is the photo I'll slip under Kang's pillow," she jokes. Then her smile fades. "Suzy, I need your advice. So many girls are after him."
Honestly, how can such a smart, resourceful girl be so single-mindedly boy crazy? She told Joohyuk no one would break her heart and told he she's going in eyes wide open. But she's so earnest, desperate in a way that seems out of character with her confidence.
Still, years of being Wendy's wing woman means I play a darn good moral supporter. I think about options as I zip up a black jumpsuit and put on platform heels and a black floppy hat. I smile at my reflection: elegant, with a hint of business—I like it.
"What about inviting him to your aunt's house at the end of the month?" I suggest. "You'll get him off campus that way."
"Oh, great idea! I'll call her and ask—I'm sure she'll say okay. She's the one who told me about his family." She starts for the dressing room, then turns back. "Oh, and Suzy? Please don't take this the wrong way. But we only get three outfits so maybe go more ... y? Not like that little-girl dress last night—and definitely not that preschooler jumpsuit. I mean—have fun, okay?"
She blows me a kiss that's 100 percent sincere. This is how Han Sohee loves on her friends, like her no-yellow-clothes advice to Joohyuk. Which means I'm in her club, and which also means that despite my trying very hard to break the Bae Rules, my pawn hasn't advanced at all.
I stammer something like sure, okay.
But it's all can do no to stomp my way back to the costume racks.
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
I trade up my jumpsuit for white with gold elements leotard that reveals skin in a suggestive patches. Way more risqué. Nana's hair stylist sweeps my hair into a half-updo that bares my neck. As Nana snaps away, I strike a few dance poses, showing off my flexibility by grabbing my leg from behind. I smile, baring my joyfulness.
"That's more like it," Sohee says.
"My parents would kill me if they knew I was doing this. I've definitely violated the Dress Like a Nun rule."
Sohee, long-limbed in a white Italian bikini, walks to the back of the studio, dialing her aunt. She makes a skeptical noise. "Wait until my next shots—then you'll see a real rebel, baby girl."
I lower my leg, fighting annoyance. I am rebellious.
Sohee chatters with her aunt through the rest of my second shoot. When she hangs up, she's beaming ear to ear. "We're on! She'll send a car to pick us up that Friday." She hugs me and squeals, knocking over my balance. "Suzy, that was the best idea! My aunt lives in this amazing mansion—even Joohyuk says so. Kang's going to be so impressed—and you'll love it, too."
"Joohyuk ..." Damn, of course he'd be there. I regain my balance.
So you were watching my moves?
Why, Suzy? Why?
Another text chimes on my phone. Then another. And another. Another. Another. Sihyeon—is something wrong? I dive for my purse, nearly knocking over Sohee in her bikini as she steps onto the backdrop.
I hunch over my phone, my back to Sohee.
Are you eating well? Studying hard?
Did you find the biology book? We heard you have spare time to study.
Hope you are taking full advantage of learning Korean!
It is hot there but dress modestly!
"Something's wrong?" Sohee asks.
I clench my fist, unable to answer at first. I power off my phone and jam it deep into my purse, under my sketch. "Nothing." Except that my parents have struck again. Violated Sihyeon's privacy and invade my life. My stomach pulls taut and I pivot toward Sohee. "I just—oh my God!"
My roommate stands barefoot on the backdrop, her back to Nana's camera. Her bikini lies in a silky, white heap on the floor.
Not practically. Actually. Nana's lights shine off her golden skin, illuminating paler bikini patches. They bring out her rosy undertones. I gape at her, awed by her daring. She places her hands on her hips.
"Suzy, you're such a prude! This is art, not ."
But a triumphant smirk hovers on her lips. She's y incarnate. A surge of jealousy thumps through my heart as she strikes pose after pose, as Nana snaps away at the unbroken line of her backside.
I remember an afternoon in the park when I was six. I was eating an apple, sitting on the grass in a skirt, when Eomma pounced in a scolding panic, scaring me, reducing me to tears. Apparently, I'd spread my legs too wide. Exposed myself to all the people in the park who might or might no have been looking.
The grip of that shame has only tightened as my body developed more parts to feel ashamed of flaunting.
And I don't want her shame to control me anymore.
I change my outfit for yet a third time. Sohee wraps herself in a bathrobe, digs into a bowl of candies, and drops onto a couch to watch my last session.
With a nervous gulp, I step barefoot onto the backdrop, sliding a rebellious lock of hair behind my ear. I've decided on as provocative an outfit I can stomach . The diaphanous skirt slits to mid-thigh. The sleeveless top, open at the front, flows like angel wings to either side. A single golden safety pin holds the fabric together over my chest, so flower petal delicate that I can't wear anything beneath.
Trule risqué, Sohee-style.
I take a deep breath.
At Nana's instructions, I raise my arms in a freeing Y. I arch my back. My neck. The pin stretches over the barely-there fabric. The slit inches seductively up my leg.
Sohee kicks her heels over the couch arm, translating. "Tuck your chin in—perfect! Now toss your hair—makes you freer! Yes—gorgeous! Not bad for my baby roommate!"
I grit my teeth—Sohee can be so patronizing. But the shyness of my first shoot is gone. I've never felt so . Or so sensual.
A few dozen poses later, Nana flashes me the okay sign.
"One more pose," I say.
If Sohee can do a back shot, so can I.
Turning my back to Nana's camera, I shrug and let the entire outfit slip to my ankles. Fully , I step out its soft ring and nudge it with my toe off the backdrop. My heart pounds and though only Sohee has a view of my front, I cup one arm over my s and fan my other over my crotch.
For the first time, Sohee falls silent.
Stiff with terror, I hold the pose as Nana's flashes radiate off the backdrop. I open my arms to present in second position. I throw back my head, letting my hair cascade to the small of my back. I curve sideways like the marble statue of a water nymph—Dress like a Nun—that rule has most definitely gone down.
At last, the rapid-fire clicking stops, Nana speaks in Korean.
Sohee's no longer smiling. "We're done."
"I told you. She's go another customer in a few minutes."
I don't budge.
This is art, not . And as girly as it is, I want to see my body as I've never seen before. As beautiful and free and daring as my roommate—no, even more daring than Sohee, who, after calling me a little girl all morning isn't saying a word now.
"Just one more pose," I say. "For my eyes only."
"And mine." Sohee rolls her eyes. "I'm picking them up with you, aren't I?" But she translate with Nana, who raises her camera.
I wrap my arms around myself and tense, like that moment right before the stunning opener to a new dance routine.
Outside, I imagine the footfalls of Nana's next customer. My time's up. It's now.
My hands falls to my sides, wrists gently flexed, and I twist to face Nana, baring myself to the storm of a thousand flashes of light.