β€”πŸšπŸ β€”

Loveboat in μ„œμšΈ

When You Hold Me Tight


Tuesday night, I spend a quarter at my desk on Zoom with Eomma, trying to help her navigate a medical bill our insurance is refusing to cover. We're both tense, frustrated by the necessity of this call neither of us want to endure. Appa hasn't spoken to me since the -photo call. That he's still angry hurts more than I care to admit, but I try not to dwell on it. At least Eomma hasn't brought the photos up again.

As we wrap up, she says, "Suzy? I found a ticket from Seoul that's almost the right price. I'm watching for it come down."

"Eomma." Just like that, my blood pressure shoots through the ceiling. "I'm behaving. I'm getting all As. I'm even getting tutored. I don't need to come home early, and besides, there's less than three weeks left."

"Your abeoji and I, we made a mistake, sending you away your last summer."

United they stand, as always.

As I sign off, I push to my feet and find my legs trembling. I text Sihyeon:

Are they really still trying to bring me home
Sihyeon: Yes. They talk about your photo every night.

I groan and grab my bo staff, twirl it in a hypnotic whirl until it hums, then spin a full circle myself while keeping it revolving in place, a trick I do for my flag dances. I'd impressed Joohyuk with part of this move. He's been gone over a week, missing the dragon boat race he'd organized himself, from which I was banned. I want to tell him about this dance I'm doing for the talent show. I want to beat him in another duel. I take out my calligraphy inkwell and my thinnest brush, and paint my Korean name onto the staff's tip:

λ°°μˆ˜μ§€

I blow on the paint until it dries.

All Joohyuk's stuff is still here. He has to come back.

He has to.

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 *

Kang's already on the couch when I enter the fifth-floor lounge, the top three buttons undone on his black shirt, his pencil gliding over the sketchbook in his lap. He's drawing out in the open, new for him. A reader and a box of sweets are stacked at his side.

With a finger, he brushes his hair from his eyes. "You all right?"

I slump down beside him and open the box. "My parents are trying to fly me home after forcing me to come here in the first place. When I've finally gotten a group of dancers together." When I finally feel at home.

"I don't want you leaving either." He massages the back of my neck with cool fingers and I battle a twinge of guilt.

I shift away. "Don't."

He puts his hand into his lap. After a moment, he says, "If it's ticket prices they're waiting on, I doubt they'll come down."

"Let's hope not." But I'm not just fighting the ticket. I'm fighting the anxiousness, the guilt that welled like blood from a bad cut when I saw her tonight. The wrinkles deepening around her eyes. Her cup of herbal medicine she takes for ache that won't leave her back. Her bulldog fight to stretch every dollar.

"I brought some rice." I hold up a plastic-wrapped handful, wheedled from the kitchen staff. "We can make rice-clay letters." Sihyeon's tip. We kneed the rice into gray clay and form letters on the table until the rice starts to harden.

"Cool." Then Kang holds up an ancient-looking DVD. "I brought something different for tonight.Β Fighter in the Wind. You said you'd try it."

The taekwondo flick. "I saidΒ maybe." I smile. "The first day, when I didn't know any better." And he remembered. "I'm game."

Kang pops the DVD into the player and dims the lights. It's an old film, the acting overdone, but as the story unfolds on the screen, I sink deeper into the couch. I read the subtitles: an ambitious Korean competitor goes to Japan after WWII to become a fighter pilot but found a different path instead. He goes across the country to defeat martial artists and develops a karate style.

"I can't believe I'm watching this. I mean, myΒ dadΒ watched these movies. Some of the girl stuff is way old-fashioned, but the story's pretty good."

"I tell you, fighting flicks get a bad rep. They're not all beating up guys. They're about honor. Glory.Β Sacrifice." He thumps his chest, making me smile.

I applaud when the credits roll. "Oh, wow. When Yang Donggeun was cornered with a blade to his face, that was seriouslyβ€”"

"The greatest scene in movie history."

"Totally got shivers. You're right about the choreography. Thanks. I'd never have watched that on my own."

He tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. His fingers linger on my neck and this time, I don't pull away. It's past my bedtime, but Jihyo hasn't appeared yet.

"Why do you trust me?" I ask.

His fingers trail down the bump of my shoulder, the line of my arm to my elbow, sketching my outline.

"You never told anyone about my drawings."

"I did before I knew it was you."

"Exactly."

Even if everything Loveboat feels fair game for the gossip circuits, it had never occured to me that IΒ couldΒ stare he was my artist.

"It wasn't my secret to tell."

His fingertips have reached the back of my hand. "That doesn't stop most people."

I pull free. "Can I see your new sketches?"

He holds my gaze a moment. The puts his sketchbook in my lap and shows me the five-arched gateway to the Palace. The jasper meat, creamy layers of glistening fat, as delicious as the real deal. With each page turn, his sketches grow in confidence.

"You have your own act at the talent show," I say.

"For paintings?" He scoffs.

"Sure, why not? You could make a mural and hang it up there."

"I'd rather just show my drawings to you." His gaze makes my blush. I drop mine to the rectangular tube as he tugs a short stroll from it.

He unrolls a sketch of three old men in black hats, sitting in a row with a pots-and-pans vendor of the night market behind them. Their beards are gray, threaded with black. Their cotton clothes patched, dusty in parts. An unusual choice for a rich boy.

"I saw them, and I thought, maybe when you get that old, that's when you find peace. Maybe the secret's just living a ing long time with the right people."

"Oh." A soft chord twangs in my heart. "I love this." A cloud of peace does hang over them. Wistfulness. He's baring his soul.

"I painted it for you," he murmurs.

Without realizing it, I'd hunched closer, my knee brushing his. I smell hair gel and cologne. I close my eyes and try to steady my breathing. What if I did go down this path with him? Him drawing, me dancing, both of us pursuing our art and cheering each other onward? He's rendered my portrait a dozen times and seems so sure of me.

"Kang, I don't knowβ€”"

His soft lips silence mine. He tastes of powered sugar. I pull back,Β  but before I can decide whether I enjoyed the kiss or am angered that he stole it, footsteps pound down the stairwell. The door bands open, and Sohee rushes through, her favorite orange dress wrinkled as if she's slept in it. Her knuckles press to her cheekbone. She averts her eyes from us, but above her hand, one eye purples like a damp ink block.

"Sohee, whatβ€”" Kang rises, but she brushes by, smelling of coconut oil.

I push to my feet. "Kang, I''ve gotta go."

I hurry after Sohee to our bedroom. With her hand still pressed to her cheeks, she fumbles with the hot water thermos on our dresser. Snatching my towel off the back of my chair, I move toward her.

"Sohee, are you okay?"

"I walked into a wall." Both hands go to unscrew the thermos. The white of her eye is solid redβ€”I swallow hard as she spills hot water onto her towel.

"You need cold, not heat. I'll get ice. Wait a sec." I duck outside and jog to the ice machine by the emergency exit, taking the opportunity to wipe the shock from my face. This can't be happening. Is it? Did Seonho ...

When I return, I press the cold bundle into her hand. "Heat's good later, but not for a few days," I babble. "I hit my eye with my flag staff once."

She frowns, not wanting my help. Then she flinches and presses my towel to her face.

"Are you sure you walked into a wall?"

Her good eye glares. "You of all people have no right to lecture him about my love life."

She's right. "I'm worried about you," I say painfully. "You need to tell the Dragonβ€”"

"It's none of your business." Towel to her eye, she climbs into bed and pulls her sheets over her head, turning her back. She lies still.

After a moment, I shut off the lights and climb into my own bed. Her shuddered breath reaches my ears as she stifles her crying. My fist tightens helplessly on my pillowcase. Without Joohyuk here, she's so alone.

I reach over the edge of my mattress for the rattan staff, which I pull into bed beside me, needing its sold comfort. I want to stretch it across to her, build a bridge between us, but I know she won't take it.

And if I can't get through to her, then I need to get someone who can.

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 *

In the morning, Sohee's gone. Her bed is made. She's folded my damp towel into a square and left a note on it that she's gone out with Seonho and won't be back until late. She's never done that before.

I dress and run downstairs, but she's not in the dining room, lobby, or courtyard. Sulli walks across the grass toward me, holding a paper bag of hot steam buns from the convenience store.

"Have you seen Sohee?" I blurt.

"She went out."

"With who?"

"Seonho, Kangjoon, Minyoung, I thinkβ€”they're headed toΒ Inwangsan for the day."

The mountainsβ€”a day trip from Seoul. At least Sohee's not alone with Seonho, but her note has firmed my resolve to get help.

I climb the steps to Joohyuk's floor, in the off chance that he's finally back and I can ask him for help. There's a pain in the center of my chest I've never felt before. What I told Aunty Yumi about him was true. Since I was a little girl, a part of me was drawn to that boy with immigrant Korean parents like mine who had managed to conquer his world. The truth is, if IΒ didΒ have a boyfriend, if I could set aside the annoying fact that my parents worship the ground he walks on, I'd want him to be like Joohyuk.

So I've admitted it.

And he's with Rosie.

There's no answer to my knock. Kang's dad picked him up this morning for the day with family. I head back downstairs to the front desk.

"Is Nam Joohyuk still in the program?" I ask the clerk, hoping I don't come across as stalker-ish. "Has he left for good?" How silly of me to think his stuff is anchor enough to make him come back. Jungwoo could pack a box and ship it to the States.

How silly to hope thatΒ IΒ might have been an anchor.

"I'm sorry, but I don't know," answers the clerk.

"Can I get his cell number?"

He frowns. "I'm not allowed to give out private information."

I never wanted to set foot in the Dragon's office again, but I try her next. Jungwoo is there, whittling a whistle from a stalk of bamboo, which he shoves out of sight when I appear.

"I don't think he's left." He scratches at his thick stock of black hair. "But aren't you leaving? Your parents are changing your ticket, yes?"

"I'm not," I snap. "They'll have to kidnap me and air-drop me home."

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 *

Kang's still out with his dad, so we don't meet tonight. I'm glad he's gone. I still haven't figured out how I feel about his kiss. Whether I'm ready to down this path with him. In my room, I pull my bo staff from my sheets. There's a certain move I love, a series of barrel-turns across the stage, but it's a male dancer's move from Prince Seigfried ofΒ Swan Lake. My room's too narrow to execute it so I head outside to the back courtyard and practice it there under the darkening sky, pushing my leaps higher, sharpening my turns, reveling in the power and the staff. A routine begins to gel, and I laugh when I recognize a few taekwondo moves. Thankfully, only the stone carp is watching me: Suzy Bae the dancing dork.

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 *
(REMINDER: EVERYTHING HAPPENED IN THIS STORY IS FICTIONAL, NOT ALL CHARACTERS ARE LIKE THIS IN REAL LIFE! I NAMED MY CHARACTER AFTER ACTORS I LOVE/LIKE, HOWEVER IN THE STORY DOES NOT DESCRIBE WHO THEY ARE IN REAL LIFE!)
LOVEBOAT INΒ μ„œμšΈΒ Β IS A FICTIONALΒ STORY!

After my shower, I pull on my nightgown and wrap my wet hair in a towel. On my way to my room, my feet dance the new combination: rapid footfalls, a lunge, a one-footed turnβ€”

A scream behind me rips me from the dream.

Sohee races up the hallway toward me, ing her arms into her floral blouse. She's bare-legged in nothing but black and her matching lace bra. Her blur skirt flutters from her arm.

"You !" Just behind her, Seonho lunges in a drunken stupor, hauling up his pants with one hand. He slips, catching himself on a hand and knee. "YouΒ ing !"

Sohee's voice wobbles. "Stay away from me!"

They're back.

I bolt for our door and grapple with the terrible knob, shoving, shovingβ€”why must you always jam?Β Desperation gives me strength and I ram it open, ram her through, tumble after her. She smells of men's shampoo, sweat and fear. I shove the door shut as Seonho lunges, his face a mask of rage and blood-shot eyes, spewing curses. The door shakes under his weight. I jam the bolt in place, than hang on tight. Under me, the door convulses as he pounds and pounds.

"β€”cocktease!"

The door shudders under his blows. The lower hinge splinters and dust bunnies fly over my bare feet while I pray the wood holds fast.

"What the hell, Kim?" snarls a voice outside.

Kang?

My eyes widen, and Sohee's hand flies to .

" off, rich boy. You don't own his hallway." But Seonho's pounding subsides.

Kang's voice is smooth. Calm. "Why don't we go get a drink, you and me? You need to clean up. I'll meet you downstairs."

Seonho grumbles something I can't make out. Then his footsteps shuffle away. After a moment, Sohee sweeps her hair from her face with a trembling hand. My shoulder is bruised, but Sohee is frantic like a hummingbird's wings. Her eyes are wide with panic, the purple eye swelling shut.

A tap sounds on the door. Kang. "You girls okay?"

Sohee's eyes flare. "Yes. Fine." She motions for me to keep the door shut. "Thanks, Kang. I'm fine."

"We're fine, Kang."

"He's already passed out in his room. I'll be in the lounge down the hallway. Don't worry."

Kang's standing guard. I'm grateful. "Thank you," I whisper through the crack in the door. I was only lucky he turned out to be a much better guy than Seonho.

After his footsteps fade, too, I turn to Sohee.

"I thought he was going to kill you."

She slumps on her bed, tucking her bare legs up. Mascara runs down her cheeks and she smear it over her face in a gray-ish splotch.

Her lips narrows, set and furious. "I bit him."

I drop beside her and grab her hand. "It was self-defense. We need to tell the Dragon."

Sohee pulls away with a bitter laugh. "Oh, that'll go over well. The cocktease got a shiner. What's she expect?"

"Sohee." I clench my nightgown in both hands. She can be so strong for others ... why not when it comes to herself? "No guy should treat you this way."

"Yes, eomma."

I give her a measuring look. "I don't think you know that."

Her good eye spasms and she rubs it impatiently. Then she pulls her legs to her chest and buries her face in her knees. She chokes out a sob. "I can't respect him. Any of them. I can't keep my mouth shutβ€”and theyΒ hateΒ me for it. Even if all the probabilities were on my side on Loveboat, Aunty Yumi's right. No good guy's ever going to want me."

Oh, Aunty Yumi. "She has an amazing life, but I'd never wish it on you if I had all the wishes in the world." I tuck a length of my friend's hair behind her ears. "Does landing a guy really mean this much to you?"

"AΒ richΒ guy." She pulls away. "Just let me be the horrible person I am, okay? You have no idea. Even Aunty Yumi has no idea."

"Try me."

"After the divorce, my mom went to work in a hotel and then some manager slapped her and she shoved him ontoΒ his, and now she's cleaning toilets. I had to give up my dinners to my brothers. Eomma comes home with a new gray hair a day. She got ugly in a single yearβ€”no one good wantsΒ herΒ now. I'm never going to be old and poor and thrown away like her."

"You're not your mother.Β YouΒ are freaking going toΒ Dartmouth!" I give her shoulders a shake. "You negotiate like aΒ sharkΒ and you're smarter than ninety-nine percent of the planet. Last I checked, that includes most guys in existence. So why don't you go make yourΒ ownΒ millions of dollars?"

Sohee blinks as if I've spoken pig Latin. But then her legs come down.

"My mom told me not to apply to Dartmouth. Your parents harp on your grades. My mom was the opposite. She said I wouldn't get in, and now that I have, she's worried I'm setting myself up for failure. Like her, I guess."

How can her mom be so blind?Β flares the thought. But another part of me is starting to understand. Like Appa, crushed under the weight of his own wasted education. But instead of pushing her daughter to new heights, Sohee's mom has tried to keep her from the same failures.

"Sohee, you'll run companies someday. You'll get yourself on those most-powerful-women lists." I believe it. "Trust me."

She winds her blanket around her fists. Her eyes are moist. "I have never"β€”she chokesβ€”"done anything as horrible as what I did to you."

"Yes, it was horrible." But I learned something about my myself. That after hitting rock-bottom, I'm strong enough to get on my feet again.

"I knew you wouldn't tellβ€”and you didnt. I wanted to crave your face up for what happened with Kang. But the whole time I knew you were a better person than me. I knew that was why he liked you more."

"I'm not a better person. I was jealous." In all the ways I was jealous of Wendy I was jealous of Sohee. Of Rosie. "I was insecureβ€”I ended up hurting everyone."

She balls her fists in her sheets. "I printed twenty of your photos. I tried to get the rest back, but I don't know who has them. Or is anyone does."

Twenty. I swallow hard. That leaves five left in the world, unless any one of them made it to the infinity of the internet.

I flip open her blue fan and pass it to her. "Do you think, maybe, you like to join my dance team?"

Her eyes widen as she takes it. Turn it over her hand. "What would I do?"

"Dance with us."

She almost smiles.

"I've seen you. You know how to move. I can put you in the center, or the back, anything you want. Just promise me we'll talk to Jihyo about Seonho in the morning."

"Jihyo?"

I nod. "She's not the Dragon. But she knows her. She'll help us figure out the best way to handle this."

Sohee fold down the fan and rubs her cheek uncertainty. "It's not nice when girls tell, right?"

"Or to ever rock the boat."

We fall silent. Then she nods.

"Done." I hug her.

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 *

I find Jihyo at breakfast and the three of us retreat to an alcove off the lobby. Jihyo's thin face grows grimmer as we give her the account. Then she springs into action. Fifteen minutes later, Jihyo, Sohee, and I are in the office before the Dragon. Jihyo does all the talking in speedy, flawless Korean, about what happened to Sohee, and the shame this could bring on the program.

A half hour later, Seonho is sent packing. He's gone before the kitchen staff clears the breakfast buffet.

Sohee alost crises as she hugs Jihyo, and so fo I.

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 *

In the afternoon, Sohee, uncharacteristically sober, bruised eye hidden by makeup and the shadow of a straw hat, joins my dance team in the rain-soaked back courtyard. Last night's storm stripped the cypress trees bare of their foliage and like the trees, none of my dancers look happy with her arrival.

"Are you kidding?" Sulli scowls under her pixie cut and puts to my ear. "We've worked too hard to let her in to stab us in the back. Especially after what sheΒ did. Suzy, think about it."

I squeeze her hand, grateful for her concern, even if it's misplaced. "It'll be fine," I whisper, then raise my voice. "Everybody! Let's do a run-through."

My dancers are gorgeous in their spandex, T-shirts, shorts and leggings, fifteen strong and totally different body types all moving to the rhythm. Sohee sits on a bench and watches critically. For what, I'm not sure. She doesn't seem inclined to dance with us. I don't know how to include her, though I want to find a way, and then I'm distracted by the dance itself. As it progresses, that gapβ€”the thing I'm missingβ€”becomes more apparent to me. Like a hole in a parachute keeping the performance from taking its proper shape.

"You're not smiling, Suzy," Krystal says when we finish. "What's wrong?"

"I'm sorry. That missing tent pole ..."

"I see it, too." Min adjust her red bow headband. "Why don'tΒ youΒ do a solo? Something thatΒ moves. Covers the stage. We'll form up around you."

"I'm not allowedβ€”"

"The Dragon doesn't have to know," Sulli says. "Not until you walk onstage and by then, it'll be too late. You're our best dancer. If we're going to nail this performance, you need to be in it. You know it, too."

The DragonΒ didΒ sent Seonho packing, but her help today doesn't make me immune to her fire. I imagine the Dragon rushing the stage, seizing me by the collar:Β Stop the music!Β I imagine the DragonΒ notΒ rushing the stage, me dancing before those guys who've ogled my photo. My skin crawled backward.

But Sulli's right.

"We can't let her find out," I say. The girls swear on it.

"We have to be extra careful about practice."

"We will."

I start by improvising around them, weaving in and out of the three groups. I tug on Sulli's ribbons, cut through the spaces, try out some of my new taekwondo-inspired steps. The pleasure of doing this thing I love, surrounded by their energy, finally eclipses my worries.

"It's an improvement," I concede, reaching for my water bottle. "It ties the parts together. But it's still missing somethingβ€”energy,Β gravitas."

"You need a drummer." Sohee speaks up for the first time. "I'll ask Subin. He's int he dragond rums elective. Also, what are you doing for costumes?"

"I figured we'd find dresses in the night market."

"I'd recommend blue, green, and orange for the three groups so the audience acn follow along better. Red or white for Suzy to stand out. My aunt has a great tailor in Seoul who's really reasonableβ€”I'll take charge. And one more thing. Your talent's wasted just doing the Yonsei show. Our auditorium's all folding chairs and old curtains. I'll take to Uncle Gongyoo. The National Theater sometimes needs opening numbers."

I choke on water. "TheΒ National Theater?"

"So we'd soΒ twoΒ performances?" Some of Sulli's animosity fades.

"One for Yonsei. One for Seoul." Sohee smiles shylyβ€”thrilled and awed, as if she's walked into a stadium and caught a baseball.

I Know

I return her smile. Then I back up to see the group better. "All right, let's do another runβ€”"

I bump into a firm body behind me. Two warm hands gently touch my shoulders. All eyes shift over my shoulder and widen.

I know who he is before I turn around.

I'd forgotten how beautiful he is in the flesh, even with his travel-rumpled jet-black hair and wrinkled olive shirt. He's slung his backpack on his shoulder, holding it there with a muscled arm. His earbuds are twisted together and draped in a loop over his neck.

His brown eyes meet mine, a sadness in them mixed with a newer light.

"Joohyuk," I croak. "You're back."


Like this story? Give it an Upvote!
Thank you!
No comments yet