An hour and a half later, after bathing sticky slices of rice cakes and craving radish flowers with Aunty Yumi and Sohee (who craved ten to my three—how does she work so fast?), I search for Joohyuk, peeking between the reclining leather seats in the basement movie studio and moving steadily through silk rug-lined hallways and up curved stairways to the rooftop garden, blooming with sweet-scented gardenias and a lemon tree. The warm breeze blows my hair over my face as I look out over the city skyline, the Namsam Tower in the distance. My body aches to make something of this view—to dance—but I turn around and head back downstairs.
I knock on the oak panel of Joohyuk's bedroom a second time, but there's no answer. He must have gone outside. As I pass Kang's room, soft little moans and kissing sounds reach my ears through his door.
"I did it for you," Sohee murmurs.
I can't hear Kang's reply, but Sohee's angry grunt follows, then the vehement scrape of a chair leg on wooden floor, as if they've pushed apart.
"What's wrong with you?" Her voice rises an octave. "You didn't hold back with Minnie from what I hear."
"I just don't think we should do this," Kang answers.
More furniture scrapes the floor. A thud, like a book thrown down. Pages snapping. My feet have frozen to the silk runner.
Then the door flies open. Sohee rushes out. Stops as her eyes fall on me. She tugs the strap of her orange dress back onto her shoulder as his door slams, blowing her skirt between her legs.
"You okay?" I ask, alarmed.
"He's a moron." She yanks his earring from her ear. "I was so stupid to get involved with him."
"You don't mean that," I protest.
"We're through." She hurls the earring at his door, which pings off and disappears under a grandfather clock. "I'm going to sit by the pool until dinner."
Kicking aside a pink bear, she pushes into her room and slams her own door—her carefully laid weekend plans chucked out the window. I raise my fist to her door as Kang's flies open.
He's shrugging a black shirt over his head. Track lighting glints off his chest. Through his doorway, the bed sheets of his four-poster bed are rumpled, covers turned back, backpacks on the floor.
As his eyes meet mine, he freezes. I wonder what picture of me he sees this time, standing frozen with embarrassment.
"Suzy. This isn't what you think." The absence of a smirk or mocking in his voice makes my stomach dip. Kang the Player is much easier to face than Serious Kang. "Sohee and I—"
"It's none of my business." Skipping over the bear, I bolt for the stairs and down two at a time.
"Suzy, wait," he calls, but then I'm out of earshot.
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
Fifteen minutes later, I find Joohyuk running through a cherry blossoms-lined path in Dream Forest, a few blocks from Aunty Yumi's. Dusk is falling, the sky violet streaked with pink clouds. The scent of freshness floats in the air and a gathering of men and women move beneath them in a tai chi dance, like monks in a temple.
Joohyuk's gray shirt, soaked in a vase-shaped bar down his front, clings to his muscular chest. his body is locked as if he's bent his entire will on outrunning his demons, whatever they are. Sheer determination, that's how he became Wonder Boy.
He catches sight of me and slows.
Wiping his face on his sleeve, he jerks his head at the path.
"Want to walk a bit?"
A surge of nervousness. "Sure." I fall into step beside him and we move down a stone path, shifting aside for a rickshaw to pass with a squeak of wheels.
"Kang was right." Joohyuk shoves his hands into his pockets. "It wasn't fair to make you do this for me. I'm being a coward."
"I'm the one who offered."
"I just—need to get them to stop hating on her." He slouches, fists plowing deeper. "Maybe I shouldn't have come this summer."
"Why did you?"
"I told you before. Rite of passage. I needed a break."
"From Rosie, too?"
"No, of course not." His eyes open wide. He shakes his head. "Yes. Yes, maybe."
"How'd you two get together?"
"Rosie moved in next door in sixth grade. Her parents asked me to walk her to school and she started waiting for me after school, too. In high school, she'd drop by with snacks after basketball practices and I invited her to freshman homecoming. Been together since."
"Does she know how much your family dislikes her?"
"Yes. I've tried to keep it from her, but it leaks out in little ways." His thumb digs at the scars on his hand. "We've had some bad fights. Aunty Yumi's family was over one time when we were arguing and it naturally made the gossip circuit." He frowns.
"Is that why Sohee doesn't like her?"
"Not exactly. Things weigh on Rosie. Friend stresses. Grades. She's an only child and grew up pretty lonely. Her parents travel a lot for work and expect a ton from her, and every bit of stress is like a stone she sews into her clothes—she hangs on to it all. Junior year she lost fifteen pounds. She came over every night and fell asleep in my bed while I did homework.
"I was juggling school and basketball and Sohee didn't like how much of my time she took up. I tried to encourage Rosie to develop interests—she used to volunteer at a children's clinic but she dropped out. She only wanted to focus on her grades and me—I didn't want that either."
"Your aunt said you're transferring to Williams for her."
"I didn't realize she knew." His frown deepens. "Williams hasn't finalized my transfer, which is why I haven't said anything. Sohee doesn't even know." His gaze shifts to a bird in the grass, attacking the last of a bun. "I know my family's upset, but it's hard for Rosie to be on her own. She'll be premed—"
"Premed?" I cringe. "Her parents want her to be a doctor, too?"
"No, she does. She wants to be a pediatric oncologist, working with kids with cancer—she'd be great at it. But uncertainty is hard for her. Your BS/MD program—she'd kill for that kind of certainty. Last year was hell. She applied to a bunch of those programs, got waitlisted everywhere."
I pluck a peach off a tree and rollits fuzzy roundness between my palms. And so this is why the transfer—Rosie needs solid, dependable Joohyuk at her side as she navigates the stresses of college premed, all those stones she'll be sewing into her clothes trying to get into med school. I don't want to buy into his family's Ivy League snobbery, but something feels wrong. Did he really need to give up Yale? I know nothing about surviving long distance, and maybe it's excruciating. But Wendy and Nick have made it work across six states. Williams and Yale are only a few hours apart. And what about basketball? Is he that afraid of losing Rosie?
He's still trying to peel those scars off his fingers. I touch his hand. "Were you with her when you got those?"
His hand stills. "How could you tell?"
"You do that whenever you're thinking about her."
He ball his hand into a fist, as if trying to undo all those other times he's given himself away. "Yes. It was an accident."
His voice is like a brick wall, keeping me out. Whatever happened, the memory has turned out a light in him. I let it drop.
"Do her parents know?"
His voice sharpens. "Know what?"
"How depressed she is?"
"No." He drops his fist. "No, she's not close to them. She made me promise not to tell. Her dad would blame her for being weak—they always told her not to cry growing up."
"They might not get it." Would I feel safe telling my parents? "But you can't carry her all by yourself." I glance up at him. "You really love her, don't you?"
He expels a breath. "Yeah. Yeah, of course I do."
The peach is sour in my mouth. I toss it into the trash as we reach the park's opposite gate, and turn to retrace our footsteps. The tai chi club comes back into view, on break, drinking from metal thermoses. A white-haired man distributes bo staffs to the men and women, who spin them like a field of windmills. We sit on a bench to watch and I extend my leg to one side and grab my toes, trying, with the familiar stretch, to re-center myself.
"You told my family you're going to Tisch."
Joohyuk's not letting me re-center myself. "Joking. Obviously."
"Were you? Because whenever you talk about med school, you look like you've permanently lost the Rose Bowl."
"Whoa, is that like the apocalypse?"
He smiles. "Worse." He grins fades. "It's a real question."
I release my toes. "When I was little, I fell off my bike and gashed open my knee. My appa stitched me up, and said, 'When you become a doctor, you'll take care of it yourself.'
"Every day, he'd come home from pushing his cart around the Phoenix clinic, all deflated and smelling like antiseptic, and I'd run and hug him. He'd tell me about some surgery he'd glimpsed, or someone's life a doctor saved, and how proud he was I'd be a doctor someday. The doctor he didn't get to be. He didn't say that last part, but I always knew. And I was going to make his pain worthwhile and he wouldn't be so defeated anymore."
"When did you turn down Tisch?"
"The day before I flew here."
"You could try calling them." He sits up. "Explain you felt you had to."
"It's too late."
"School doesn't start for a month. Tell them you had family issues. That you didn't think it was an option. You could take those dance and choreography classes. You'd live near Broadway—"
"STOP." I clamp my hand over his mouth. He's ripping open scars I've worked hard to let heal. "What are the chances another girl with my profile will drop out before September?" Another Asian American girl, if Dohyun's right about quotas. "Less than zero. Besides, you're giving up basketball for someone you love. So who are you to talk?"
I release him and he bites his cheek. I still feel the bristles of his warmth on my palm. His eyes are wide, as if I'd tased him. He's paled under his tan.
Then he looks away. "I don't know."
After a moment, I say, "Med school's everything I've worked toward. My parents, too." All the meals Eomma cooked while I studied into the night, covering my chores during finals, acting as my maid, Appa my chauffeur to my internship, all their worries over my applications because my future is their future. Paying my deposit and first semester's tuition. They'd never ask me to pay a penny, not like Wendy's parents. I'm a Bae before I'm Suzy, as much as Joohyuk's a Nam carrying his family name.
A flock of birds sails overhead, the rush of wings stirring the hot air. We both need cheering up. As the tai chi group windmills their staffs in slow motion, I slide off and approach the white-haired man.
"Can we try?" I ask in not-too-shabby Korean.
"Of course, little one." He offers one of his bo staffs; the rest of his Hangul is lost on me. I heft it experimentally, a plain, functional staff—five feet long, and an inch and a half in diameter, the wood splintering a bit at its tip. The familiar weight, so similar to my flag staff, is comforting.
"You want to try tai chi?" Joohyuk's smiling a bit.
"I've got a better idea."
I point the stick to his chest. A real smile breaks over lips. All those hours with my flag team are about to pay off.
"I challenge you to a duel. If I win, you stop moping around this weekend. If you win, you wallow all you want."
He blinks. One brow climbs into his forehead. "You're not even in the elective."
"I also happen to be the best stick fighter in the class. I'm a natural."
I sniff haughtily. "I'll be the judge of that, Basketball Boy."
His brow rises farther, then the rest of him follows to six feet two, forcing me to raise my eyes.
"Happy to decimate you," he drawls. "But I'm twice your weight."
"Give yourself a handicap." I circle him, herding him toward the cart of staffs. "No using your weight advantage."
Then, just to show off, I pinwheel my stick in a perfect 360.
Joohyuk gathers his jaw off the ground. "Someone's got moves."
The old man slyly thumps Joohyuk on the back as Joohyuk selects a stout bamboo rod, worn in its center by many hands. He holds it low, looking extremely competent.
"I'm not going easy on you."
"I wouldn't expect you to."
"And if I win, you'll dance in talent show."
"What?" I lower my staff a fraction. "Not fair. I'm not doing the talent show."
"Don't see why not. Five hundred students and twenty-five counselors is as big an audience as you'll get for Swan Lake in Seoul. Bigger. And it would be your own."
"Fine, but you won't win."
"Famous last words." He gives a mock bow.
I begin to pinwheel my staff. My troop often practiced without flags, so handling a staff is as familiar as crossing my legs. Joohyuk's eyes never leave mine.
"You're trying to distract me."
My hands flicker in deft motions, keeping my stick whirling in a hypnotic blur.
"Ya!" I charge.
Joohyuk blocks lazily, smirking. The crack of wood on wood punctuates the air, reverberating in my hands. I swing again. Again. Force him back until his foot hits brick wall.
I grin tauntingly.
And then he's shoving me back, stick flying all his years of athletic training bearing down on my head.
In a few minutes, I'm panting.
"Do you yield?" Joohyuk taunts.
"Famous last words." I swing a blow at his head. He ducks, but the wind of its parts his hair down the middle. "Ha!" I read the expression in his narrowed eyes: Way too close—no way is Joohyuk letting little Suzy Bae take him out in a bo fight.
He lunges, but I dance aside.
My smile widens. Every move he makes, I imitate and makes my own. He's strong and fast, but I'm way more agile. We duck, swing, press one way on the grass, then the other, in a dance that satisfies a hunger in my body. The energy of our joined steps crackles between us.
Just off the path, I slap my staff against his and throw my weight behind it, trying to force his back.
"Tactical error," he gasps. A trickle of sweat rolls down his neck. "No man moves a mountain. Or woman." I ignore him, shove harder. Our faces inch closer our over crossed sticks. His brown eyes, flecked with sunlight and a hand's width away, hold mine.
The corner of his lip tightens in a smile.
We're close enough to kiss.
The realization strikes me in the nose like the of a staff.
Panicked, I step back, releasing him. His eyes widen as he stumbles forward. I instinctively whip my stick down—and slam his knuckles.
"Ow!" His staff clatters to the ground as he shakes out his hand. "I surrender!"
"I'm so sorry!" I seize his wrist, horrified. "I was going for your stick!"
"I'd rather you hit my knuckles than my stick."
His tone sly, un-Joohyuk-like. I drop his wrist like a hot coal, blushing furiously. "Oh, you get lots more hits for that!"
I pretend to beat him about the head, and Joohyuk swoops down on his staff, rolls to his feet, and blocks, dodges, chuckles. My body sings with our movement—every fiber of muscle alive, in sync.
Then he seizes my staff.
Suddenly, I'm pressed against him, staves crossed. Sweat glistens at his hairline and my own neck is damp. His warm, natural scent fills my lungs and my heart kicks into a higher gear.
Joohyuk's staff clatter to the ground.
Then my chin is in his strong fingers. The pad of his thumb traces my lips, my lips opens slightly and shooting an achingly delicious shiver into me. Our bodies pull tight over my staff, still caught in his hand, and my fingers close on his arm for dear life as he tilts his head down, as our nose brush, as his soft inhalation takes air from my mouth—
And he pulls back.
The almost-kiss crackles between us.
A cold space opens between us, my staff gripped solo in my hands.
Joohyuk wanted to kiss me.
And as for me—he must have read everything in my face, too. I've never felt so , not even when I took my glamour shots. He's Joohyuk Nam. Wonder Boy of World Journal fame and every girl's dream guy.
"Miseuwa, miseeuteo, jeonyeog sigan!"
Joohyuk jumps. A maid in her black-and-white uniform, a woven basket hung on her arm, is coming down the pathway, calling us to dinner. Her eyes flit between us, crinkling with amusement—she's thrilled for the young master Nam and his new girlfriend.
Fat raindrops begin to fall as Joohyuk stoops to retrieve his staff, hiding his face. My hand rises to my mouth, my lips he didn't kiss.
"She's lucky to have you," I choke out. "I hope she understands that."
Tossing my bo staff to the white-haired man, I ran past Joohyuk and from the park as the clouds open. My feet pound an unsteady rhythm through the falling rain. Joohyuk doesn't come after me, and I don't expect him to.
I shouldn't have come.
Not this weekend. Not to this park. I shouldn't have proposed and then stupidly agreed to carry out this charade.
Because before I left home, I knew what my life was: med school, my parents' never-measuring-up daughter, pining after Nick from afar. Then today, for one perfect afternoon, I'd had something else—a future in dancing, a family that accepted me, a boyfriend I admired and respected—
And none of it was real.
The almost-kiss scene we could have had, but Chulsan...