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Loveboat in μ„œμšΈ

Red Light


After the Dragon's threats, we laid low. But on Friday night, hours after I ace our first Hangul exam, Sohee and I and a half dozen girls from our floor decide to chance it again. We tiptoe into the humid midnight and down three flights of stairs.

The Dragon has posted a guard at the back, and although a part of me doesn't believe we can pull off another break-out, we've planned tonight with care: splitting up into smaller groups, leaving past midnight, after the guard in his booth at the top of the driveway has gone home and even the Dragon should be deep in REMβ€”plus disguise: I tuck my scarf more securely around my face.

In the lobby, we move stealthily past the potted plants, the cherry-root chairs. Outside, the waxing moon illuminates the lawn. We hurry around the lily pond, the splash of the fountains drowning our steps. A laugh escapes my lips and Sohee pinches my arm.

"Shh," she breathes.

We near the guard's booth, the street coming into view. A cab passes and we quicken our pace.

Then a muted voice behind us calls, "Chingudeul, deuleobwa!"

Jungwoo in his paisley pajamas is jogging after us, shoving his glasses toward his face. On his heel, Jihyo gasps for breath, the colors of her skirt muted by moonlight.

"Run!" Sohee cries. I yank my scarf tighter. We're hailing a cab on the street by the time Jungwoo emerges around the bend behind us, then our doors double-slam. We're laughing so hard Sohee can barely give the driver directions to Club Babe.

"They're not really trying to stop us," I gasp as we pull from the curb. I can't help feeling guilty. "Jihyo looks like she'd rather come out with us than chase us."

"She's not the enforcer type." Sohee finger-combs her hair into order. "Anyways, it's game."

"How so?"

"They need to make a show of trying, but they don'tΒ reallyΒ want to catch us. If they did, then what? Drag us back by our hair?" She shakes her head. "The program wants us to have a blast, so kids'll keep coming to Loveboat."

"The Dragon seemed serious," Krystal says.

"We got aΒ lecture." Sohee scoffs.

"Maybe it's that Asian nonconfrontational thing." Sulli adjusts the rings on her fingers. "When have your parents ever stood up to anyone?"

"My parents never rock the boat," Sohee says.

I adjust my spaghetti straps. "MyΒ parents would stop me."

"Maybe they're' more Americanized."

"No, my dad's put up with the crap from his boss for years. They're only confrontational when it comes toΒ me."

Sohee laughs. "Too bad for them they're not here," she says.

I smile. "Too bad." Turning back, I see Jihyo watching us from behind Jungwoo, who is scowling, texting on his phone.

Out of his line of sight, Jihyo gives the cab a small wave before we round the corner.

Κ•ΰ₯-Μ«Ν‘-Κ”ΰ₯ΰΎ‰*α΄Έα΅’α΅›α΅‰α΅‡α΅’α΅ƒα΅—βœ²οΎŸβ±βΏ*γ€‚β‹†Β μ„œμšΈγ€‚β‹†Β *

A contingency of other Yonsei kids are already rocking it up at Club Babe.

Sohee makes a beeline for Kang at the bar. Wonder Boy's here, too, and as it turns out, he's a terrible dancerβ€”big motions, no variety, just rocking to the baseline, nodding to the beat. Yay, finally, an imperfection! But he doesn't dance much anyways. He sticks to the bar with the guys like abalone shells on rocks, and in my book, the farther he is from my space on the dance floor, the better.

But during a lull in the music, I find myself ahead of him in line for a glass of water. He's wearing olive green, a much better for him. I keep my eyes on the pitcher of ice water ahead, pretending I don't see him.

Then he taps me on the shoulder.

"Hey," he says.

"Hey," I say, and face forward again.

"I'm sorry I was rude the other night. I wasβ€”I mean, I don't really care if we get in trouble. It wasn't your fault. I probably come across like Jekyll and Hyde. I just ... I have a lot on my mind this summer."

Why did he have to go and apologize? I'd already put him back on the proper shelf in my own mind. Now he's a guy who not only recognized his own behavior but is big enough to say sorry. I want to ask what's bothering him, but we're not there yet.

"I've definitely noticed that about you," I say finally, turning to face him.

His eyes flicker. "Really?"

"Yeah. but thanks for saying something."

His shoulders settle. I hadn't realized how tense he was. "You're not afraid of anything, are you?" he says. "I mean, we were three stories high."

"I'm afraid of a lot of things." I pour us each a glass of water. "Just not heights. I used to sneak out of my room at home like that."

"I'm still poking around about your artist. You're right. Kangjoon's a really good one. So are a few other guys."

"Oh, um. Thanks. I didn't realize you were checking."

His smile is almost shy. "I said I'd help. Might help if I take a look at the evidence."

Maybe he's just being kind. Still, I fish the delicate sketch from my purse.

He whistles, and I can't help a flush of pleasure. "You lookβ€”so real." If Joohyuk's the artist, he's a good actor. But, of course, he's notβ€”he's the most devoted long-distance boyfriend on the planet.

"ItΒ couldΒ be Kangjoon." He tilts my sketch so my dancing figure catches the strobe lights, making me move on the page. "I've gotten to know him. I'll get him to show me of his other work. I'll be discreet, I promise."

He's surprisingly committed. "Cool. Thanks, Joohyuk."

He sets my sketch on the bar and pulls a lamp closer to illuminate it. Traces his thumb down the curve of my hair, like he's trying to unlock the secrets of the sketch. I watch him, resisting the urge to snatch it back from under his fingers.

Κ•ΰ₯-Μ«Ν‘-Κ”ΰ₯ΰΎ‰*α΄Έα΅’α΅›α΅‰α΅‡α΅’α΅ƒα΅—βœ²οΎŸβ±βΏ*γ€‚β‹†Β μ„œμšΈγ€‚β‹†Β *

We "sneak out" every night for the next week.

The game repeatsβ€”cat and mouse between us and our chaperones, whose attempts to catch us grow more half-hearted with each jailbreak. Jihyo even starts looking the other way as we pad down the hall in our dresses and heels. I'd say she's seriously neglecting her job, but this works out better for all. She can stay in her pajamas, and we don't get sweaty sprinting for the gate.

Free drinks drive our agendaβ€”we stop at Club Kinki for its complimentary booze hour, then grab a cab to Club Gaga, then on to the next. We stay out until four and wake before dinner, and no one bangs down our door; instead, everyone fails a pop quizβ€”another Bae Rule downed.

It's a first for me, but I brush aside the pinch of guilt. Besides, with enough demerits, the conflict between the Tour with Seoul andΒ Swan LakeΒ goes away. When the Dragon marches toward me in the hallway, I spin on my heel and duck outside.

Three weeks in, the intensity of living together, eating together, studying, and breaking out together has bonded us tighter than I've gotten with most of my high school. Secrets, crushes, hurts, humiliationsβ€”every topic is fair game around the table of truths in the late-night lounge. Two more sketches appear: one under my door, the other tucked into my puseβ€”me sorting cards with a fortune-teller; me in a black dress, emerging from a cab, eyes lit with anticipation.

"Who could it be?" Sohee marvels as we slip down the hallway for a night at Club Oppa.

"I don't know." All three sketches are set in public places with dozens of Yonsei kids. "He's doing a good job hiding." There's a thrill in my heart, A secret admirer. When except for that brief flame that was Nick, no guy has ever been interested in me.

At the club, I dance with Sulli and Krystal under pulsing green red lights to one awesome song after another until I collapse beside Joohyuk at the bar and drain his water in three gulps.

Somehow, I always wind up next to Wonder Boy.

"Hey," I gasp.

"Hey." A brief smile flashes then fades. His mood's swung tense again: his elbow on the bar, his right thumb running over the inside of his fingers in that fidgety gesture. Now that he's warned me about his moods, I don't mind as much. I hope whatever's bothering him ends soon. The strobe lights illuminate four pale scars across the inside middle of each finger.

"You must have needed stitches." Only a few days ago, I wouldn't have asked. "What happened?"

He closes his fists and drops it. "Just a little accident last year."

"Did you try to scale a wire fence?"

"Something like that." Turning to the sharp-boned bartender, he orders two pineapple cocktails, my favorite, in Korean. I've added more key food words to my vocabulary.

"I've got mine." I dig into my pocket, but he's already paid.

"My treat."

"Um, thanks. I've got the next round."

Joohyuk clinks his glass against mine. "It's not Kangjoon. He draws comics. Not the same style at all. A few guys are after you, but I have more artistic ability in my pinkie toe than they have in their entire bodies."

"AΒ fewΒ guys?" I splash more water from a pitcher into my glass. "Who?"

"Not your type." Joohyuk waves them away, chaff on the wind.

"Well, whoever it is, he struck again." I pull the new sketches from my purse. "Maybe I haven't met him yet."

Joohyuk holds the pictures to the light. Studying them. "Oh, you've met him."

"What? How do you know? Wait, do you know who?"

"No, but he's talked to you. See, look." Joohyuk points to my sketch's mouth. "Your lip quirks like this when you're excited. Wouldn't be able to see that if he wasn't talking to you."

I laugh, self-conscious. I feel my mouth quirking like the sketch. "Um. No one ever's pointed that out before."

Joohyuk's still studying my sketches and I pull them from his fingers and tuck them away. He glances up at me, surprised.

"Well, what about you?" he asks. "You have any leads?"

I've met dozens of guys on Loveboat, from all over the United States, Canada, and Europe. I've definitely felt some sparks here and there, another thing that's new for me.

"Well, Dean and I had a good talk about me growing up the only Asian girl in my class and him growing up half-black, half-Korean up north."

"Dean's cool. I'll check out his drawings. What about Sungwoon? You've become his premed adviser, from what I hear."

"And guys say that girls gossip." I face the dance floor, hiding a flush of pleasure. "I'mΒ soΒ not helpful. These BS/MD programs follow a different process. I won't have to take the MCATs."

"I'm sure you were helpful." he sets his elbow on the bar, brushing my arm. "You told him interviews were key."

"He told you that? That's from my guidance counselor. They find out what kind of human being you are then." I frown.

"What's wrong?"

"Just remembering."

"Your sketches?"

"Applications. Killing myself over the Krebs cycle, all tohse hours writing essays. Interviews, waiting, agonizing.Β  never want to go through that againβ€”but it's only the beginning."

"Yeah, senior year was hell. That's why I'm hereβ€”I needed a break. Simplify like for one summer before the hits the fan again, you know?"

"I'm happy to be here," I admit. "I didn't think I would be."

The band switches to a popular slow song and a collective sigh floats from the dance floor. As arms snake around necks, my smile freezes. He's not going to ask me to dance, but why must my mind even go there? My eyes fall on Sohee, her fiery-orange dress pressed like flower petals to Kang's all-black, her white arms around his back, cheek on his chest, swaying with her eyes closed. She really does seem to like him, although I wish she wouldn't constantly urge him to buy her thingsβ€”sweet cakes, a stone pendant. They feel like her way of keeping score.

Beside them, a couple locks lips on the dance floor. Another couple grinds slowly to the music, oblivious to the world. The air ripens with hormones. I avert my eyes, only to meet Joohyuk's.

My blush deepens. I set my glass between us. "So tell me why Wonder Boy quit piano to warm the basketball bench?"

The corner of his lips turns up, and I get the feeling he knows exactly what I'm doing. "You want the sanitized version? Or the truth?"

"Nothing's straightforward with you, is it? Both."

A dimple I haven't noticed before flashes in his cheek. "Seventh grade, the guy who played piano after me at Lincoln Center had music seeping from his pores. I wasn't that guy. I could play, but I couldn't feel itβ€”not like he did. I realized it wasn't piano, it was mastery I wanted. So, I figured out what I would be willing to put that kind of time in for."

"Basketball."

"Curse you, Nam." Dohyun reaches past Joohyuk and grabs his cocktail, his bangs swinging into his eyes. "That's how you took my slot at Yale." With a wink at me, he finishes off Joohyuk's drink. I grin.

"You're running track for UCLA," Joohyuk retorts. "You're one of the smartest guys I know. If it makes you feel better, Kangjoon took my spot at Princeton, though he turned them down."

"You can't know that," I object, "You can't say you didn't get in because he did."

"Think about it." Dohyun waves at the Yonsei crowd. "Everyone here applied to the same schools. All of us Asian Americans are in the same bucket. One Asian American boy with perfect SAT scores gets in, another doesn't. Quotas."

"You and your Asian American soap box," Joohyuk says. "They say they don't have quotas."

Dohyun scoffs. "TheyΒ say. Like they'd ever admit it."

Joohyuk's thumb digs at his scars, his voice edged. "The world has way more space than the Ivy Leagues. If you're good, you're good."

"So, the real reason you dropped piano?" I prod.

"I was the smallest guy through middle school. Half the girls got picked before me in gym. The team captains who got stuck with me would roll their eyes. Pure torture. End of eighth grade, the high school football coach came to recruit and promised undying glory and respect. I went home and begged my mom on me knees to let me quit."

"And she'd agreed? Just like that?"

"She's never been on my case about school or activitiesβ€”not that she doesn't have her own issues with my life." A shadow flickers over his face. "Also, she has rheumatoid arthritis, so she's not the toughest cookie in the jar. And my parents were going through a divorce. Guess that gave me leverage."

"Oh, I'm sorry." I chew on my lower lip. Jenny Tran's mom had RA too, and she's in a wheelchair. I was so wrong about him being some parent-driven drone.

"Lee, you in?" yells a guy from the game tables.

"Thanks for the drink, Nam." With a playful salute, Dohyun slips off. Joohyuk tucks a big green bill under Dohyun's glass, then pushes a plate of sticky rice cakes toward me.

"So, what would it take for you to be a pro dancer?"

"Pro dancer?" I choke on a bite of cake. "You got that from seeing me clubbing?"

"Yep." Unfazed.

"I'd have to audition for the New York Ballet. Or a Broadway show." I make it sound as impossible as it is.

"Well, why not try?"

"BecauseΒ no one'sΒ a dancer."

"No one's a basketball player either, not that anyone goes pro out of Yale."

"I applied to Tisch," I admit. I haven't spoken about it since Wendy. "I got off the waiting list."

"NYU, right?" Joohyuk whistles. "That's a serious program."

Still feels presumptuous to say it. That someone who's gotten an acceptance letter withdrew, then Tisch admissions pulled out their bucket of waitlist hopefuls and, somehow, picked ... me.

"I turned them down. We could never afford it." Even with that tiny scholarship I'd clutched at like a drowning person for a single afternoon. Quickly, I add. "But I'm auditioning Sunday forΒ Swan Lake. Should be fun."

"Cool. Where at?"

"Just a small ballet studio. I'm taking the bu from your aunt's."

"Can I watch?"

"Seriously? You want to?"

"Professional curiosity. I've been to a dozen basketball tryouts but never a dance audition. Do they height-check you? Examine your speed?"

I laugh. "You're in for a disappointment. I do a short pieceβ€”"

A thump against my backside knocks me into Joohyuk, splashing water from his glass onto us. "Oh, sorryβ€”" Turning, I look up a big, sandy-haired guy covered in tattoos of Chinese characters, ordering a mai tai from the bartender.

"Heeey, sweet cheeks." He grins down. "Wanna dance?"

Sweet cheeks?Β Gah. "No, thanks. Taking a break."

"How about taking a break with me? You're the sweetest little Asian girl I've seen here." Two hundred pounds of meaty guy crushes me against the bar. He reeks of alcohol and sweat. I shove back, but it's like trying to move a brick wall.

"I'm"β€”shoveβ€”"good"β€”shoveβ€”

"Sorry, man." Joohyuk smoothly hauls him off. "She's with me."

Coolness. I'd like to kick the guy where it counts. Instead, I tuck my arm through Joohyuk's and flash the guy a sheepish smile.

"Hey, man, didn't see you there. So sorry." He practically falls on his face apologizing to Joohyukβ€”and had Joohyuk grown a few inches?

"Sorry," Joohyuk says to me, after he's gone. "Didn't mean to rescue you, but you weren't into that guy, were you?"

"No, you read me right. Thanks." I force my fingers to unpeel from his farm. "How annoying he apologized toΒ you. Like I'm your property."

Joohyuk grimaces. "I know his type."

Guys with Asian es. "Maybe he's not," I say. But it's one of those things I bet most Asian American girls have dealt with. I explained it to Wendy last year over one of our long coffees, why it's not flattering, why it's based in stereotypes that have nothing to do with who you are, how it reminds me that I look Asian on the outside, not matter how I feel inside. I make a face. "I guess you know they're out there, but it's still jarring when you run into them."

I reach for my glass, but Joohyuk catches me hand. "Hey, do something for me?"

His palm is calloused. This close, I catch that grassy, outdoorsy scent of his, as though his days on the court have permanently infused his skin.

Suddenly, I can't quite meet his eyes.

"What?"

"If you want to check someone out before you go for him, you can always ask me. I'll let you know if he's okay."

My voice comes our high. "Why the interest in my dating life anyways?"

I'm still not quite meeting his eyes. But before he can answer, raised voices from the dance floor draw our attention, and he drops my hand. A pair of dancers yell as they're shoved aside, then Kang storms around them. He slams into me, his sweat-dampened shirt sneering my arm. Fury bubbles in his eyes as they meet mine.

"Watch where you're going, man." Joohyuk's tone is sharp as he grips my elbow and steadies me. Then Sohee leaps onto Kang's back, piggy-back-style, her orange dress streaming behind her like the tail of a comet.

"I didn't mean it!" She clings to him while he tries to shake her off. Heads are turning all over the club. "Kang, I'm sorry. I know it's none of my business."

"Sohee." I seize her arm. What the heck is going on? I've never seen either of them like this before. "Sohee, please calm down."

Kang finally succeeds in peeling her off. As she grabs for him again, Joohyuk catches her by the waist and tugs her back. Kang vanishes into a mosh pit of grinding bodies.

"Sohee, I told you, he's not worth it."

"Oh, like you of all people are the experts onΒ that?" She shoves him off, sending his cell phone skidding over the floor. The she flies after Kang.

I'm sober as I retrieve Joohyuk's phone and hand it back. I didn't miss the dig at Rosie, but I don't have the courage to ask. As for Aunty Yumi'sβ€”will Kang want to come now? Are Sohee's plans over before they get off the ground?

Joohyuk runs a hand down his face. "I hate it when she gets like this."

"Like what?"

"About guys. She has the worst judgement. Four boyfriends and none of them deserved her."

He's so protectiveβ€”she's lucky to have him for a cousin. But he also seems to have a blind spot when it comes to his roommate.

"She usually seems happy with Kang."

"No one deserves that guy." Joohyuk frowns at his phone. The screen's cracked and dark.

"You warnedΒ meΒ off himβ€”didn't you say something to her?"

Joohyuk's eyes shift. He won't tell me. Not the whole truth. He pockets his phone. "I didn't see them coming. Then it was too late. She wouldn't listen."

"But why me then?"

He shakes his head. "Just watch out for her, okay? I'm glad you're her roommate." He drains his glass, chews on ice. "My prior offer still stands. You want to date someone on Loveboat, I'll check him out for you." I open my mouth to accuse him of changing the subject, but he continues, "Sohee wouldn't listen to me, but I'd do the same for my little sister."

Little sister.

I've leaned into him, my shoulder pressing into his upper arm.Β Little sister. A step above friends, but a metaphorical finger to my shoulder, pushing me back an inch. I open a gap between us. He and Sohee are the same: generously embracing me, her roommate, as family.

I hold out my hand. "I promise to check with you,Β Oppa."Β BigΒ brother.

"For family," he drawls, "no charge."

We shake on it, sealing our new relationship.

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