"Where's Joohyuk?" Sohee tugs impatiently at the skirt of her orange dress, which shows off cleavage to the point that it's distracting even me. We are standing on the lowest step outside Yonsei, as the driver loads her suitcase into the back of Aunty Yumi's Mercedes van. She wrinkles her skirt in a nervous gesture. This weekend means so much to her—and as for me, the Bae Rules are taking a back seat to supporting her. Anyways, I've only got No Boys/No Kissing Boys left, and at this rate, that one's going nowhere.
"Aunty Yumi's waiting." She climbs into the van as Kang climbs in from the other side, setting an orange backpack on the floor. I avoid looking at him. "Joohyuk better hurry."
"I'll go find him," I offer.
She grabs my hand and tugs me close to whisper in my ear. "Please. Joohyuk needs to come. Uncle Gongyoo will give Kang the third degree if he's not there to run interference."
"I'll drag him by his hair if I have to." I set my dance bag at her feet, but when Kang reaches for it, probably to add it to the baggage pile, I snatch it back as though he were trying to steal it. Sohee is too busy dialing her aunt to notice.
"Suzy," Kang begins, but I head off, glad to put distance between us while I can.
It's funny to be going into a weekend not devoted to sneaking out clubbing. Almost a relief, if I'm honest. The lobby swarms with kids and backpacks headed to visit families, with as many gathered to stay, gearing up for the talent show at the program's end. Two guys toss yo-yos. Another pair performs magic tricks with a man-sized rubber balloon.
"Have you seen Joohyuk?" I ask Sulli and Krystal as they strum on guitar and zither.
Sulli's fingers dance on her strings. "Sorry, no."
"Maybe upstairs?" Krystal sweeps her loose hair from her eyes.
Five minutes later, I knock on Joohyuk's door. It opens with a soft click. Joohyuk's desk comes into view: hosting a blue retainer case, a half-used tube of acne medicine, and a bar of soap, separated from a mountain of Korean and American snacks he's stockpiled—bags of dried fruits, nuts, suncakes, a can of Pringles, six-packs of Arizona tea. Kang's half of the room is more spare: a hamper of laundry, blanket barely dented, as if Kang's trying to pretend he's not here.
"Please calm down," Joohyuk says. "I told you. My phone's still broken. The time zone threw me off."
Joohyuk stands at his window over the burlap sack of rice he bought for weights. His black hair, damp from a shower, darkens the collar of his navy blue shirt. He presses his landline phone to his ear. His thumb rolls along the scar inside his fingers in that gesture of tension I've come to recognize.
Even from here, I can hear the girl on the other end:
"I'm sick of your stupid excuses! You and your whole family's—"
"Rosie, I said I'm sorry. If you could fly out here—"
"If you want to with me, Joohyuk Nam, then you never should have gone to Korea. You could have done that right here in my own bedroom."
I cringe. Try not to let her words paint images in my head that I don't want there. I half expect him to explode at Rosie—but I'm dreading it, too.
"Rosie, I know it's hard to be apart. I need you to be patient. Please. Rosie? Rosie—wait!"
Joohyuk swears and drops the phone, his easygoing stance replaced by a body webbed with stress lines. I want to go to him and siphon it off.
Then he slams his fist through the center of his rice sack. Rice grains rattle as they pour from the split fabric onto the floor.
He catches sight of me, and jumps a foot into the air, knocking over his lamp with a crash. The door slams behind me, gusting a breeze that ruffles the workbook on his desk.
"Sorry," we chorus. I'm not sure who's more mortified—him or me. He rights his lamp, then kneels and begins to sweep the rice into a pile.
"I'm sorry you heard that."
"What's wrong?" I grab his trash can and scoop double handfuls of rice into it.
"I don't even know. She wasn't happy I came on this trip. We've never been apart longer than a few days."
"Really?" Even I've been away from home for a week, for school field trips. Is that the problem then? She must really depend on Joohyuk. I feel a curl of sympathy. I know a few girls like that on my dance squad: smart, fun, pretty girls who for some reason can't set foot out their houses without the boyfriend they always seem to need around.
"Didn't she think about coming on this trip, too?"
"Couldn't. She's volunteering at a horse camp for disabled kids. I'm trying to get her to fly out for a week, but she's terrified of flying."
"The ticket's really expensive."
"Not for her. Her dad's an executive in the Bank of Republic of Korea Busan."
"Oh." I flush. All my sympathy evaporates—buying an international plan ticket at a hat's drop, no pearl necklace sold off. I can't imagine it. I roll to my feet, brushing rice from my palms. "Sohee and Kang are waiting downstairs."
"Crap." He dumps the last handful of rice into the trash. "I completely lost track of time."
I shake the sack's remaining grains back down, then fold it in half and lay it on his desk by a stack of postcards. The top one is inked with Rosie's name and several lines in bold, blocky handwriting. Her four-page letter, filled with copperplate cursive, rests beside it. I can't resist a peek. The top page is the last, which reads at bottom:
Josie and I went to Sweet Connections today. Wish you were home already. Still trying to understand why you had to go. I found you a cool song—will save it for when you're back and we can listen together.
Love you forever,
A Polaroid photo shows Rosie with her arm around a girl in pigtails, Sihyeon's age, with Joohyuk's brown eyes. They're grinning like a pair of thieves over ice cream cones. Josie. Joohyuk's sister. This girl is totally in love with Joohyuk. Her sweetness feels at odds with the girl on the phone, and yet this letter-writing pal of Joohyuk's little sister must be the girl he loves—and I'm standing here reading his private mail.
Joohyuk's staring at his phone, as if he can bring her here by telepathy.
"Joohyuk?" I clear my throat. "Are you still coming?"
Joohyuk starts. "Oh, majda." Seizing his Yonsei bag, he opens his drawer and crams socks and boxers into it. Then he slaps his bag down on his dresser and shoves the drawer shut. "I can't take my family right now."
I frown. "What do you mean?"
"Last Christmas, my sister and I visited my mom. Every day, I got an earful from five aunts and uncles: 'Joohyuk, you need to drop that girl like an anvil and find the right one.'"
"They've met her."
"Yeah. The summer before, in the States. My mom fasted for three days trying to get me to break it off."
"Fasted?" Guilt-wise, Joohyuk's mom puts Eomma and her back pearl necklace to shame. My gut clenches as I remember Nick sprinting down our driveway. How dare they try to dictate who we love? "That's bull, Joohyuk. My parents never let me date either."
"Oh, they want me to date." He laughs, a brittle unlike-Joohyuk laugh. "My family's more traditional than the Gojoseon Dynasty. I have twenty first cousins, and I'm the only boy with the Nam last name. They're all depending on me to pass the family name along." He drags a hand over his face, defeated again. "Just not with her."
"Why don't they like her?"
I grit my teeth. "I'm sure they are."
"This year's going to be 'What about Loveboat? Two hundred fifty nice Korean American girls—HOW CAN YOU WASTE THIS OPPORTUNITY?!?'"
I seriously want to kill me some Nam family members.
"Can I do anything?"
"It's hopeless." His thumb worries his scars. "The only thing that will get them off Rosie's back is if I bring home a girl who isn't Rosie."
He crashes backward onto his bed, two hundred-plus pounds in no hurry to go anywhere. Sohee is waiting downstairs. Do I let her know Joohyuk's not coming and ruin her perfectly balanced weekend? Even without his fasting mom, this family visit sounds like torture. But better than moping alone after that call. And I want to help him—he took me home passed out drunk and never said a word, got me the fan, even if I gave it to Sohee, tried to help me track down my artist, even pretended to be my boyfriend to rescue me from the cupcake guy—
"So, what if you did bring a Loveboat girlfriend home?" I blurt. "Pretend I'm her—like you did for me at the club. That'll get them off your case, wouldn't it?"
As soon as the offer leaves me mouth, I know it's a mistake.
But Joohyuk lifts his head off his pillow. He gives me a speculative look. "You mean, introduce you as my girlfriend to my aunt and uncle?"
I back away, toward the door. "It's a terrible idea. Forget I said anything."
"No! No, it's perfect, actually." Joohyuk sits up. Grabs his basketball and spins it on his knee. His eyes narrow. "Really perfect. My family will love you."
"They will?" Is that a compliment or insult?
"Totally." He gets up, drops his basketball. "They can't say I didn't try. And when you break up with me a month later, that's the perfect excuse for why I'm back with Rosie. This could be a way to get them off our case permanently." His eyes widen, earnest, oddly desperate. "Suzy, you really won't mind?"
Curse me and my stupid ideas. His family must be a murder of trolls to inspire such insanity on his part. And I'm just as insane.
"We're not going to act like boyfriend and girlfriend, right?" I cringe at the high pitch to my laugh. But I can't. I can't hold hands with Wonder Boy.
"Course not. This is Loveboat. Especially with Sohee bringing Kang, if we tell them we're together, they'll believe it. Suzy, I owe you one. You're brilliant."
No, I'm a fool. But his gratitude is like a bar of dark chocolate. I can resist.
"I'll have to leave early Sunday for my audition.
"No problem. I'm coming, right?"
"So, no problem."
"What if Rosie finds out?" Or my parents? After all the rule breaking, pretending to break one—the No Boyfriend rule—feels the most risky, with the most to lose.
He grabs his laptop and opens his email. "The only person who'd tell his Josie. I'll tell her not to repeat anything she hears."
Fighting panic, I grab his Yonsei bag off his dresser and start for the door.
"Hey, I've got that." He grabs for it, but I yank it back, snapping a strap.
Bad sign, but I'm already rushing out the door. "What are little sisters for?"