The Korean folk song that played tonight weaves like a ribbon through the folds of my brain. A dance unfurls to join it: a double ring of girls in colorful dresses, hands joined, swirling in opposite directions around a pair of lovers. My body wants to dance.
There's no hope of sleep when I'm like this.
I'm alone in my empress canopy, legs tangled in cotton sheets. Moonlight slants through the openwork carvings, illuminating horses, fierce warriors in battle, my striped duvet. The air is hot and still, and under my head, my down pillow is soaked with sweat.
It's my second night in Aunty Yumi's mansion, after a weekend's precarious balancing act: Sohee ignoring Kang to flirt with a distant cousin and me avoiding Joohyuk while pretending to be his girlfriend—all while making dumplings in Aunty Yumi's airy kitchen, playing Go with stones, getting magical massages on a padded table, and sitting down to crystal-and-silver meals of chopped lobster, oyster pancakes, and the freshest abalone on the island.
Tonight, though, my head throbs from the rounds of shots I drank with Joohyuk's cousins and aunts and uncles. The teasing about grandbabies, until Joohyuk had to intervene, all right, that's enough.
I sit up and grab the tablet on the bedside table, a loaner from Aunty Yumi. Its white glow stabs at my eyes as I search the internet for variations on "dance scholarship," reading up on the USA Performing Arts Scholarship and Young Arts Foundation.
But as I told Joohyuk, everything is long past due.
My movement sets my pointe shoes swaying from their ribbons on the post from which they hang, knocking softly against the wood. I tug them down and lie back on my pillow and tuck them to my chest, like Dezy, my old stuffed bunny. My audition tomorrow—that's what I need to focus on. The last dance of Suzy Bae.
I squeeze my eyes shut and think piqué turns: toe to knee then down, turning, spotting, turning, spotting, single, single, single, single, double.
What would it take for you to be a dancer?
You could call them—
I drop my shoes, which make double thuds below.
I've let Joohyuk in too far. Now his voice and hope have intertwined themselves into the most intimate secrets of my heart, along with that almost-kiss that I can't stop coming back to—but I need to stop. To untangle this ribbon that has somehow tied me to him without my being aware.
The grandfather clock chimes a solo. One o'clock. Sleep really is hopeless. Sliding from my mattress, I grab my new silk nightrobe—the present from Aunty Yumi for the girlfriend who isn't even the girlfriend. Still, I slip it on and press open my oak-paneled door, then pad barefoot over the runners down the hallway.
Everything in the dark feels muted and lonely. The stone and glass, the Asian vases, all meticulously dusted and arranged. Giant seashells remind me of Sihyeon, who loves them. But the scents teakwood and white flower oil reminds me of Eomma—and something recoils inside me.
In the living room, an orange cinder sparks. A fire burns in the grate, though the air is hot and humid. A log snaps, sending up a cloud of embers. The scent of ashes reaches my nose.
A thread of light glimmers a few feet from the fire.
Kang's back is toward me. His black shirt is rumpled, as if he'd slept in it. In his hand is an ivory-handled tanto—worn by an actual samurai of feudal Japan, according to a cousin, soldiers who didn't fall on their swords like the Romans did, but disemboweled themselves.
"Kang, what are you doing?"
He spins. The short sword glitters in an arc and firelight illuminates his face.
"Suzy." He lowers the tanto to his side. "I—I couldn't sleep." His eyes rake over me and I send a silent thanks toward Aunty Yumi for this robe that hides my thin nightgown. I want to turn and run in the opposite direction, but instead my feet carry me into the room.
"I couldn't sleep either." The thick tatami rush-grass mats, imported from Japan, tickle my feet. The sword gleams again, then firelight illuminates a dark line welling from Kang's palm.
"You're bleeding." I wave of queasiness washes over me. I should have fled while I had the chance. The sword is ancient. Not the thing anyone should be using to become blood brothers. "That blade could give you gangrene."
Kang lifts his hand, as if surprised.
"Were you trying to take your hand off?" Fighting nausea, I grab his fingers, examining the fast-flowing cut. Years of helping Appa treat cuts and scrapes at church picnics means I at least know what to do in principle.
I cast about the room, but unlike my home, which is littered with boxes of tissues for Appa's hay fever, not a single box is in sight. I unknot the sash of my robe and yank it free, hoping Aunty Yumi won't find out I destroyed her present—and then wonder why her good opinion matters so much to me.
Kang's stillness as I wrap his hand with my sash makes me more nervous than his sketches—even in the darkness, I feel the weight of his eyes.
"I saw a first aid kit by the pool," I say. "Wait a sec?"
When I return, plastic box in hand, he's stretched up on his toes, returning the sword to its hooks. His eyes met mine. I flush and draw the open flaps of my robe together.
"I got it," I say unnecessarily. Taking a deep breath, I begin to unwrap his hand. Every layer of the silk sash is soaked through with a Saturn-shaped stain. Blood. Blood. Blood. A wave of vertigo crashes over me and I sway on my feet. Yes, I drank the snake-blood sake, but this blood is human.
Forcing myself steady, I swab his cut with antiseptic, then swiftly bind it with gauze and tape. Only when it's humanely bound do I breathe again.
"I can't stand blood," I confess.
His expression flickers. "I couldn't tell."
My knees wobble. I sway again and he takes the kit from me, and I drop onto the mat, put my head on my knees, and close my eyes.
"Yeah, give me a minute."
He hands me a bottle of wine left over from tonight's festivities. A French wine with a white label. I fit its glass top to my glass top to my lips and take a long pull. Dark cherry, rich and strong. I take a second pull, a third, letting its smoothness warm my body and drive those bloody Saturns from my mind.
I only look back up again when he says, low, "Thank you."
A familiar shame follows. And fear. Even if I manage to cram all the book knowledge of medical school into my sieve-like memory, this is what I'll have to face, every day. Torture.
"Sorry," I croak.
He expels a breath. "I'm the stupid one who cut myself. You all right?"
His reaction surprises me, maybe because it's so—human. "Yeah, I'm fine." And I did it, didn't I? I bound his blood-oozing cut. With a bit more courage, I help him pack up the box. "You've had your tetanus shot, right?"
He nods. The firelights plays over his face, reflecting in his eyes. Under his gaze, I pull my robe closed again. I wonder if he's sketching me in his mind and the thought, instead of making me angry this time, stirs something hot inside me.
Maybe Kang is exactly what I need to forget Joohyuk.
He holds his hand out for the bottle. "What's the real deal with you and Wonder Boy?"
"We're together, didn't you hear?" I ask, bitter.
"And my mom's the Dragon. I'm his roommate, remember? I hear his phone calls. I see his postcards." He hands the bottle back. "So ... what? He has you and her? The jocks of the world always get what they want, don't they?"
I shouldn't drink this much, not after what happened the first night of clubbing, but I take another long pull. I ignore the jab at Joohyuk, who doesn't seem to me like he's getting what he wants at all. Ignoring the stab of pain in my chest as I imagine what daily phone calls and postcards Kang's witnessed.
"I'm just helping him out."
"What's in it for you?"
"Nothing." But heartache. Why doesn't he have the balls to stand up to his family for Rosie? "What do you care?"
"Maybe I feel sorry when I see unrequited love."
"Ha. None here." But I flush. I don't like him peering into my soul like this. "What's up with you and Sohee?" He's still here, after all, though her behavior makes it clear she's done with him.
"My dad would like her."
"But you don't? I honestly don't understand?" Sohee's gorgeous and fun. Super generous. "Any guy would be lucky to be with her."
Kang's eyes are on mine. Watching me.
"I left that rug outside your dorm room," he says. "I pinned a sheet with an SZ on it. For you."
What? The scene when Sohee walked in with the rug under her arm rearrange itself in my mind.
I'd assumed. She'd let me.
"I didn't know," I stammer, but his eyes tell me be already knows. I set the bottle by my foot. The wine has made the warm, still air suffocating. "You weren't lying before."
He gives a short nod. He hasn't contradicted anything Sohee's said about him either—just let his reputation as a Player-capital-P keep building.
"Why did you even come this weekend?" I ask.
His eyes flicker to the fire. "You wouldn't understand."
"I'm pretending to be a guy's girlfriend so his family will accept his real one. Try me."
"Maybe being with a girl's who into you is better than being alone with your worthless self."
Worthless? Handsome, sought-after Song Kang of Busan fame and fortune.
"Why would you say that?"
His eyes flicker away this time. His hand drifts to a workbook I hadn't noticed, then he catches my gaze and moves his hand away. Kang Song, class rebel and collector of demerits—is studying his Korean reader on a Saturday night.
And it's as if his reader is whispering with a secret.
"Can I see?"
He reaches for the bottle. As I hand it back, our fingers brush—his are hot. Feverish.
He trades me his notebook. "Read it and weep."
He finishes off our bottle, climbs to his feet, and rummages behind a liquor bar by the window.
Alone on the floor, I open his workbook, mystified.
The pages feel fragile, as if they might rip if I turn them too hastily. An unfamiliar handwriting crams the margins. Copying Korean characters. Copying their English translations.
"Bibent" instead of "didn't"
"Pensel" instead of "pencil"
"dall" instead of "ball"
A cork pops at the bar.
When he returns, new bottle in hand, I ask, "Is this your handwriting?"
He sits beside me again, closer this time. His leg, bristly with hair, brushes my bare calf. His feet are long and lean. The heat of his arm presses against mine, but my body is slow to react, and I don't move away, and then I don't want to. I put the new bottle to my lips and drink a richer, darker wine that rushes warmth into my fingers and toes.
"Words don't like me," he says. "They bounce around the page. I can run my eyes over them a hundred times and still not understand what I've looked at."
Like Sihyeon. I remember how Kang refused to write in calligraphy, except for that word sun. How he always made me, then Sohee, go first in partner exercises, so he could hear read aloud, then repeat back what we'd read. He's hidden it so carefully, and now he's showing it to me, the girl who shredded his painting into snowfall.
"Are you dyslexic?"
"Something like that." His voice is rough. "Another word for stupid."
I'm stunned. I've read about kids feeling that way about dyslexia, but those stories always felt like time capsules—outdated ideas frozen in amber, like the secret shame of the woman who gave birth out of wedlock in The Scarlet Letter or the witch hunt in The Crucible.
"It's not stupid," I say. "My sister's dyslexic."
"My appa tutors her. She had a special ed teacher through elementary school. Gets accommodations and uses voice dictation software. She loves music but note reading is hard for her, so she uses her ear to help—I mean, it's not easy, but she's top in her class."
He gives a short barking laugh. "My dad says it's an excuse. Western obsession with psychology. Korean kids don't get dyslexia."
I swear under my breath. "Didn't you ever get special instruction?"
He shakes his head. "I had a tutor here in Korea when I was younger. He was about a hundred years old. He told my dad I couldn't learn." He locks his elbows around his knees. "My dad used to say he should've beat me harder to beat it out of me. Then I'd have learned."
I close his notebook. "He beat you over dyslexia?"
Kang drains half the bottle before passing it back to me.
"My mom used to try to stop him."
He's silent. Then, "She died when I was twelve."
"Oh! I'm sorry."
Kang shrugs. "It's just my life. My father set me up in an apartment in Manhattan while he stayed in Seoul. I had an educational consultant. My teachers figured I couldn't read because English was my second language. Eventually, I figured out how to cover it up. Money can buy you anything in middle school and high school." Kang reaches for the bottle again. "Last March, when my dad visited, he found out I hadn't even applied to college. I figured there was no point. He fired the consultant, and I didn't bother showing up for finals. I don't even have a diploma."
He touches the small of his back. "My dad gave me a new set of trophies and told me I was disgrace to nine generations." His lips twist sardonically, and he takes another pull from the bottle.
Trophies. He means bruises.
But the message has penetrated over the years—so deep that Kang believes it, deep down.
A memory of my own resurfaces. Eomma with the chopsticks, hitting the inside of my bare thigh, once, twice, three times. I must have been young; I remember wailing, scrubbing my eyes on the hem of my Hello Kitty nightgown. I don't even remember what I'd done, except that we were in the study. Maybe I'd botched my spelling drills. The chopsticks only came out occasionally, and left no scars, but the shame has lingered.
"Let them wallow in their disgrace," I whisper.
The firelight makes his cheekbones prominent, like blades. His jaw tightens. With a single finger, he traces a line down my nose. Then over each brow. Then, from corner to corner, my lips. Drawing me. Seeing me.
Then he leans in, and kisses me.
His mouth is soft, sweetened by wine. The gauze bandage brushes my cheek as he tucks his fingers into my hair and cradles the curve of my neck. Under his lips, my back arches slightly—
What am I doing?
I start to pull away. But he gathers me to his chest. His arm slides down my back, his lips devouring me. He breaks for breath.
We need to stop.
His mouth silences me, parting my lips, making me gasp with the unexpected pleasure of his tongue. He tastes like the wine, the fire in the grate, and I'm pressing back against him, wanting him to take this Bae rule-breaking kiss deeper and deeper, to heal that hole in himself and to keep making me feel so wanted—
The Sohee's scream rips open the night.