Gurgling water echoes in the darkness. Joohyuk lights a candle. It illuminates a flagstone floor enclosed by a solid fence of bamboo poles, a pagoda roof that partially shelters the square space of this bathhouse, nearly a quarter mile from the main resort.
Joohyuk's already pledged a hundred dollars of his own savings to my collection for Jihyo. It's a start. But she and her family, our talk over dinner all weigh on my mind as I grip the knotted sash of my robe. I dip my toe into each of two pools built of flat stones. The smaller pool is warm, the larger hotter than any Jacuzzi. They smell of minerals. A spring pours from their corners, continuously refreshing them.
Joohyuk slides the doors closed. "You first. Promise I won't look."
I hear his smile through the candlelit darkness. Some of my worries give way to the thrill of being here with him. Maybe part of fighting the unhappiness in this world is to seize happiness when we can.
He turns his back to study a line of three showerheads facing as many stone stools while I disrobe and slip into sinfully silky waters. They scald with a delicious heat. My bare feet slip over smooth stones as I sink to my shoulders and find an underwater ledge to sit on. The bamboo walls and the closed doors shut out the world.
"Mmm," I groan. "Let's stay here forever."
Joohyuk slips in beside me. His arm glides against mine. I try not to think of that bare chest, the hard muscles of his abdomen. Our hidden ness, with nothing but water between us.
"This is the first time we've been alone since you came back from Busan."
"When we were in my room for three minutes? We should have stayed there. Why did I have to show you the Goo mansion?"
"Because it's the best in Seoul," I mock him.
"True." Joohyuk sinks deeper, to his chin. His voice takes on a sly tone. "You know, some onsen label themselves nonual. Just to be clear. Although the gender separation's been a thing since the Meiji Restoration opened in Japan to the West."
"How do you know so much, Wonder Boy?"
"Do I? I guess I read. Everything. And remember all sorts of useless things."
"Not useless." I flick water in his direction. "So in theory, Professor Nam, if two people were to engage in such forbidden activity in this vicinity, would they fly in the face of years of tradition."
"A hundred thirty. And regulations. It would be serious breaking of the rules."
Moonlight catches his impish smile and he turns to face me and flips a lock of my hair behind my shoulder. Wraps a strand around his fingers. "Does it make me shallow that I'm obsessed with your hair?"
"I didn't know you were obsessed with it."
"It's not just black. "It's blue and brown and red. In the moonlight, parts are silver."
"How would you feel about me if I were bald?"
He kisses my forehead. "I guess you have other qualities. Meaningful ones. Like your shoulder." His hand glides along the bare skin there. "Your neck."
I push him gently back. "What if I were in an accident and got disfigured? Lost my mind? Not trying to be morbid. Just realistic. Nothing's certain in life."
His hand grasps my waist, drawing my body toward him until my thigh bumps his knee. "Remember how I said the timing makes no sense? But you're here. Like you'd finally shown up and I didn't realize I was looking for you." His voice has turned serious. "Maybe some people are meant to be a part of your life. And we don't have any control over when they drop in. Or over anything else that's going to happen that might take them away again. If I couldn't talk to you anymore"—his lips brush the tip of my nose and hover—"that part of me that needs to talk to you would die."
I kiss him. Hard.
His arms close around me, his strong hands grasping my back. My lips part, drinking down his hot mouth, his tongue that tastes of mint and plums. I slide my hand between us, along the planes of his chest, his ribs, exploring his body, those muscled abs. His firm fingers glide down my wet skin to my waist, then come up to thread into my hair and cup the back of my head.
I have no idea how much time passes, or when the stars begin to cluster so thickly overhead that the sky drips with their lights.
We separate at last, dizzy, breathing heavily.
"Why didn't we do that sooner?" I murmur.
"There's more where that came from." His voice is languid, lazy.
"You're so smug."
We slip lower into the water, resting our heads on the ledge, listening to the soft song of crickets in the night. I want to stay in this warm moment with him forever.
But a thought from dinner stabs into my head. A connection clicks and I sit up with a soft splash.
"What did you call this place?"
"Hot springs?" He turns to look at me, his head still resting on the ledge.
"You used a different word. The Japanese word."
"This is what that tourist was looking for. He said it wrong. 'The outdoor onsee.'" And he took it out on Jihyo, while her parents were running for their lives from a flood. My throat swells shut. I can't explain why it makes me so sad to realize the tourist had been in the wrong on two fronts.
"What's wrong?" Joohyuk sits up, alarmed. "Did I hurt you?"
"No. Her parents—" To my horror, a sob escapes my throat. "My parents—"
"Come here, princess." He pulls me to his chest and I sob against him.
"I'm so sorry," I choke out between hiccups. "I don't know what's wrong with me. This is our one night together and here I am raising the salinity of the hot springs."
His laugh echoes off the waters. "I have never met anyone like you, Suzy. Don't worry. We're still having our night." He kisses the top of my head, my cheek. "What are you thinking about?"
I rest my head on his shoulder. I hadn't wanted to burden him, when he's already borne so much for Rosie. But this is Joohyuk: solid, dependable. Maybe it's okay to lean on him. I try to pull together my thoughts, what it is that's been troubling me, not just tonight, but for so many nights.
"My dad's fifty-five. Older than most of my friend's parents. He didn't have shoes until he was nine. His mom cooked noodles with scraps of meat, because they couldn't afford more. When he first came to America, he admired the roads so much, because all he knew were dirt ones. When I was little and spit out meat, he ate it because he couldn't bear to let protein go to waste. And now Asia had built itself up, and meanwhile in the States, my parents have had immigration officers on their backs, and dried-out dragon fruit, and my mom sold her necklace to send me here to learn their culture, and every time I let them down, it's like I spit in their face like that tourist.
"I hate when they remind me, but they have suffered. Like Jihyo's family. And no one cares. And tonight, when Sohee said I could be a surgeon general—do you know what that would mean to my dad? He's always dreaming about big stuff like that when he's pushing his orderly cart—that's how he's kept himself going. That's how he injured himself; he walked right onto a spill at the Phoenix Clinic and never even saw it.
"But I don't have it in me to get there. And then I thought, what if I didn't become a doctor? What if I became a dancer instead? Even wanting it feels like I'm betraying them."
Joohyuk combs through my wet hair, gentle, comforting . "Do you think they want you to be unhappy?"
No matter how angry I've been, I have never doubted they want the best for me. The molecular biology textbook was for my future. My happiness.
"No," I admit. I lift my eyes toward a horizon I can't see. "But I can't talk to them. If they were American, maybe I could. Like Wendy and her parents. If I were Korean, maybe I'd want more of what they want, like my cousins in Korea. No confusing American messages about individualism and self-actualizing. But they've seven thousand miles away, and even if we were standing in the same room speaking the same words in the same language, those six thousand miles are always there. This Great Divide. Between us."
"It was the opposite with my family." His thumb skims my thigh, then disappears. "They were right about Rosie. And I couldn't hear them. Didn't want to. If I had, maybe I'd have gotten help for her sooner." He rests his nose in my hair behind my ear, inhaling me. "Maybe I wouldn't feel so guilty now."
"Guilty for what?"
"For being happy. Bigger. Like the biggest nesting doll, instead of the smallest version of myself. Not because of her, but who we were together." His voice catches. "I didn't know it was supposed to be like this. Between two people."
Because he's the eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest son, carrying the weight of his name. Not after his own happiness, but the happiness of others.
"Suzy." His fingertips brush my bare stomach. "I know you think I'm not ready—"
"Shh." I catch his hand.
Then I draw it to my chest.
His touch is hesitant. Tentative. I place my hand over his, holding him to me.
"Suzy, are you sure?"
We're moving too fast, whispers a small voice in my head. But I don't want to stop.
"I want you to touch me."
He palms the whole of it, setting me trembling. My fingers find him under the water, and explore, both of us learning each other's muscles and curves and contours. His mouth takes mine again and we move together in a haze of hunger and heat. At some point, I become aware he's pushed me into a corner. The stone edges press into the backs of shoulders as he kisses me mouth, my chin, the back of my jaw, my neck, his hands still exploring under the water.
"I'm hot," I whisper.
He lifts me by my waist to sit on the ledge. He stands between my knees, kissing me as I wrap my legs around his waist, cling to the short silk of his hair.
"I have a confession," he murmurs between kisses. "That first day, sitting beside you in the van. I wanted to kiss you then."
"Was that why you were such a jerk?"
"Where did you want to kiss me?"
His voice is husky. "Everywhere."
"Then do it," I breathe, and his breathe quickens with an answering hitch. His lips graze my collarbone, presses to the tops of each shoulder. My hands curl in his hair as he lowers his head to my s. A laugh escapes my lips.
"Shh." He rises with a soft splash. His lips brush my ear, "Unless you want counselors joining us?"
"No and don't stop," I say, and he dips me gently until I'm lying flat on the stones, gazing the eaves at the stars, legs still in the water. Bracing his hands on either side of my elbows, he kisses my lips again, a single, chaste point of contact that makes the rest of me burn with jealousy.
"Wait here," he breathes.
"Wait here for what?"
His mouth burns a line down to my belly button. It makes my body quiver like a tightly strung instrument. The splash of water echoes as he slips back into the pool.
And his mouth keeps descending.
Omo... is he—?
My stomach dips as his hands part my knees. He slides his shoulder between them, and his hands tuck under my thighs and take hold of my hips. He kisses a trail along the inside of each thigh, his breath warm on my skin, so near and intimate. My palms press the stones, all my body throbbing, unbelieving, as he asks permission to continue, and my whisper yes blends with the gurgle of the hot waters.
He takes his time. A slow burn that builds and builds, until I am clawing at the stones and my back arches and my toes splash and my body ripens under his grip.
Until the stars above explode into a billion supernovas of light.