I know what my punishment is even before the Dragon shuts the door of her office, a chaotic workspace for four long tables and a steel desk flooded with papers. The air is sharp with Korean ointment. Photo collages of students from prior Yonsei years over the walls, none of whom, I'm sure, have ever been escorted here for the reason I have.
"Anjda," she commands.
Tight with dread, I sink into a chair before her desk. She dials my parents. I picture them on the other end, bolting upright in their floral-sheeted bed, Eomma on her bedside phone, Appa on the wireless, as the Dragon speaks rapid-fire Hangul.
Then she hands me the phone.
My hand shakes as I raise it to my ear. "Hello?"
"How could you do something so foolish?" Appa cries.
"We raised you better than this!" Eomma cries. "Now you've shamed us!"
"You know what those boys think of you now?" Appa demands, words that puncture a veil between us—he's yet to acknowledge my first bra, let alone that boys might think anything of me. The shame of that little girl who spread her legs too far crashes down all over again.
"What if University of Phoenix finds out?" Eomma's voice rises a decibel and I have to hold the phone from my ear; the Dragon can hear every word. "They'll kick you out. You may have ruined your life!"
Fresh panic erupts like lava in my chest. I clutch the phone. Sohee wouldn't send my photos to them, would she?
"They can't!" I cry.
"We trusted you enough to send you by yourself!" Appa shouts.
"This isn't why I sold my black pearl necklace!" Eomma cries.
Black pearl necklace again?
"I didn't ask you to sell it" I roar. "I didn't want to come here! All I wanted to this summer was dance and you stole that from me!"
Great gulping sobs tear from my throat. The Dragon hands me a tissue, but even with her in on our dirty laundry, it feels so good to hurl that truth into the open.
"How can you be so ungrateful?" Eomma cries. "We've done everything for you. Lord, why did you curse me with such a daughter?"
"How can you call me ungrateful? I gave up dancing! I'm going to medical school! You never ask me what I want!"
And there's no answer. Just the murmur of my parents conversing, then Eomma again.
"We will find you a ticker to come home."
I grip the phone. "No!"
"Go pack your bags. Be ready to leave in the morning."
"You can't make me come home now! I'm not ready!" I'm shouting, making no sense to anyone. I've forgotten how swiftly my parents can cut me off from privileges, even from six thousand miles away.
In a last attempt, I appeal to the cardinal Bae-family sin. "You flew me here already—why send me home now? It's wasting money!"
"You made this stupid decision!" Eomma snaps. "So you suffer the consequences!"
The line goes dead.
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
I barely remember stumbling from the Dragon's office. My chest burns as if my parents have filled it live coals then kicked it in. I had begun to understand where they were coming from. Even felt sympathetic for what they'd given up by emigrating—home, acceptance—and appreciated that they've never pushed me to find a husband or call me a disgrace to nine generations.
All that's gone. I don't care what baggage they dragged over the ocean. They have no right to make me carry it the rest of my life.
As I enter the lobby, catcalls and whistles shatter the air.
A hundred eyes leer from every corner: guys at the Korean chess game, the pool table, the foosball box. The automatic doors glides apart to admit Sohee, prim in her tangerine dress and arm in arm with Kwong Jiyong, a guy dressed in Chanel attire, and another guy whose name escapes me.
Sohee halts in the doorway, takes in the scene, and smirks.
This is what I'll face the rest of my stay. The price of my last days of freedom.
But even as I whirl toward the stairs, as I grip the rail, intending to bolt for my room, a flood of anger surges through me.
These guys know me.
They've broken out with me over the catwalk. Danced at the clubs and even gotten advice on med school from me, for crying out loud.
How dare they treat me like a piece of meat now?
And how dare Sohee?
Releasing the rail, I march up to her, ignoring the boys.
"That was my property," I say. "You had no right."
Sohee makes lewd kissing noises. "Please don't play innocent little victim."
"I'm sorry." A flush rises in my cheeks. I'd underestimated her. In so many ways. "But that silk rug in our room is also mine. So you don't play victim either."
I glare around the lobby, and suddenly no one will meet my eyes. "If you guys want a live viewing someday from a girl you actually care about, then maybe instead of doing a hundred push-ups a day and ogling a photo that doesn't belong to you, you should man up and be the guy who deserves one. So anyone with my photo, hand it over now."
I hold out my hand, palm up. I hate that it trembles.
No one moves.
My heart sinks. Can they really be so piggish and low?
Then Sungwoon crosses from the foosball table and places a photo in my palm.
"Sorry, Suzy," he murmurs, and drifts away.
My entire body trembles but I keep my chin high as seven more photos grow in a stack on the first. There were only a dozen or so guys in the lobby after all.
"How many are there?" I hold up the stack.
Sohee's lips thin into a line. She won't say.
"Don't even think about sending these to my university. Or Dartmouth will get a letter, too." Her eyes flicker—with fear? Anger? Still shaking, I shove the stack into my pocket. "Look around, Sohee." The lobby's emptied out. "No one's left on your side."
Then I walk away.
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
I drop by the infirmary, only to be informed by the nurse that due to her flooded store room, thanks to the latest typhoon, she had to send Joohyuk and Kang to the local clinic. My photo has grounded me for life. I can't even go after them.
The afternoon darkens to evening as I wait anxiously on a couch of silk pillows in the boys' lounge, three doors down from Joohyuk and Kang's room. I don't know who will return first, of if they'll return together, just that so many things have gone wrong since the staff fight and Joohyuk's fingers on my chin: I've lost Odette and my parents are pulling me home. Then there's Kang, and the fistfight, and whether Joohyuk's angry with me for doing the one thing he asked me not to do, and why couldn't he freaking stand up to his family for Rosie in the first place, and why I took that God-awful photo, and how many are still out there and is one going to end up on social media or make its way to University of Phoenix, and did I subconsciously sabotage myself by losing Odette because it would only make the titanium prison of the burglar's lantern more unbearable, and can I ever, ever go back to being the daughter my parents want me to be?
An angry sob issues from my throat. Raindrops spatter the windows that look on the night. I reach for my cup of bubble milk tea, which tips and spills across the black lacquer coffee table. It drowns the seashell figurines of Korean fishermen, which match the living room table back home. I glare at it: another Bae invasion.
They never even gave me a chance to explain.
Ignoring the mess, I rise to stand by the windows. Down below, the blue pipe stretches tauntingly across the black waters of the Han River. A pair of boats, glowing like magical slippers, glides under it. I never got to ride one, feel the spray of water on my face.
"Suzy, you okay?" Subin pauses by the elevators, a wooden jangji box under his arm.
Unlike Joohyuk, Subin really is like a brother to me. So is Dohyun. and Kangjoon.
"Have you seen Joohyuk?"
"He left Seoul."
"Where did he go?"
"Jungwoo drove him to the airport. I heard from Dohyun. He's flying to Busan for a few days."
He never mentioned a trip there—only that Rosie's dad works for a bank there. By the time he's back, I'll be gone.
I'm never going to see him again.
"You coming out tonight? We're hitting the beer garden in Gyeongnidan. Joohyuk said that one's the best; too bad he's not here to join."
"Um, I can't." My bones have turned to jelly. "But have a good time."
I sink back down on the couch as Subin heads off. The pang of loss surprises me. How did that happen? A week ago, I would've been relieved to be shed of Wonder Boy, but now ...
The floorboards squeak. "Hey, Suzy."
Kang. He's wearing his favorite black shirt, the silver threads catching the muted light. His nose is a purplish blue, which fit the mysterious, tough-guy persona he projects, though not the real person he's allowing me to glimpse. A long, rectangular box is tucked under his arm, one of those boxes made to hold scrolls, with two halves that come apart like a tube of lipstick.
The memory of last night's kiss, his soft, sweet mouth devouring me, springs back up between us.
I rise from the couch, braiding my fingers together until they hurt. "You're back."
"And grounded. Twenty demerits, baby." With that sardonic smile of his, he holds out his hand for a high five.
I step back. "I heard Joohyuk went to Busan," I blurt.
He lowers his hand. "To meet Rosie."
"Rosie!" So she's overcome her fear of flying? And why do I feel this stab of betrayal? Or charade had been for her benefit. He's never pretended otherwise but somehow, I feel ... rejected.
Kang's eyes are oddly soft. Sympathetic. I remember the picture of me watching Joohyuk's bo fight. Kang sees me so clearly, and last night—last night, he made me feel so wanted.
"What's in the box?" I ask.
Kang puts a hand to its top. Then releases it. "Nothing."
Something about the way he says makes me reckless. Or maybe it's the kiss that emboldens me. Or that it's my last night in Seoul, forever.
"Let me see."
It's his turn to back away. "No."
I snatch at its upper half and he grabs it back with a small cry of panic, and then the top rips free, followed by a flood of rolled pages. Kang snatches at them, his face desperate, but there are too many: a half-dozen Suzy sketches flutter to the floor. Not hasty sketches like the ones he's given me, but full-colored, detailed, shaded, woven through with shadow and light and time and dedication.
Me dancing at Club Love.
Me gazing out on the lily pond, my hair blowing in a breeze.
Me wrinkling my nose at a gnarly herb.
Me sitting by Aunty Yumi's glowing fireplace, a bottle of wine at my feet.
My eyes filling an entire sheet.
My body trembles as I kneel before these beautiful sketches, pieces of his heart in purple and red and green. Gently, I gather the paintings and roll them back into a soft tube and fit them into his box and rise and hand it back to him.
"I'm sorry," I whisper.
He laces his fingers through mine. "Suzy."
There's a warmth in his low voice. A shy invitation. And it's my last night. Before I return to the straitjacket of my real existence.
Kang's arm goes around me. He cradles my head against his chest, his sensitive fingers massaging the vertebrae in my neck. My back arches slightly with the pleasure of his touch, then pull back to look into his eyes.
The desire there makes my knees tremble.
It's my last night.
But if I take this step, there's no telling where it will lead. No telling what it will mean to leave behind not just my parents and their rules—
Then I put my hand on the back of Kang's head and pull his face to mine.