ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
The guy pulls me to my feet as if I weigh no more than a monkey. I feel like a monkey—a clumsy one in desperate need of a shower, hair-combing, and breath mints.
"You okay?" he asks. "Jet lag's pretty bad off these flights. It's four in the morning for us."
He's making excuses for me emotional wreckedness; for looking like I just got spit out of a jet engine—and it's the kindness of this stranger that undoes me. As he releases my arm, I dash it over my damp eyes.
His jet-black hair is soft and bouncy, like he doesn't need to bother with first impressions. He's paired an navy-blue shirt with hip-hugging gray slacks that mean he wither has very good taste, or knows someone who has. He's tall and leanly buff—I've never seen a real-life guy with so much prime real estate in arm muscles.
"H-hi!" I stammer wittily. "Um, hi!"
He tugs an earpod free. It stings with a homey Beatles song that reminds me closing down the Patio Grill, where I worked last summer, only there has never been a guy like him there.
"Are you Bae Suzy?" He rights my suitcase with a firm thud and scowls. "You're an hour late. We've been waiting for you."
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울시。⋆ *
Five minutes into the ride to Yonsei, I realize there's something familiar about Joohyuk Nam of the swoon-worthy arms. Is it his name? Face? Maybe I'm loopy from jet lag, but surely I'd have remembered an Asian guy of his sheer size and bulk. He takes up half our bench, which creaked and sagged toward him when he sat beside me. He moves with a sense of controlled—almost graceful—power, as if he's never taken a wrong step in his life. Meanwhile, my upper arm slowly purples with his handprint, a reminder that I nearly wiped out before him and every occupant of this fifteen-passenger van.
"Have we met before?" I venture.
"No." Joohyuk falls into a silence that doesn't invite further conversation, his initial kindness evaporated like a splash of water left behind on the airport pavement. He fidgets with his cell phone, which isn't getting a signal. It drops and he swears and picks it up again, removing and reinserting his tiny SIM card. Oh, no. I forgot to buy one at the airport like Appa told me to. I've never been as addicted to my phone as my classmates, but now I can't even make a desperate lifeline call to Wendy.
Upside: I don't have to take calls from Eomma and Appa either.
Joohyuk restarts his phone. His knee jiggles and he drapes his thick-wristed arm over it, running his thumb along the inside of his fingers in an odd, fidgety gesture. His wall of silence would have felt less awkward if the other kids weren't jabbering a mile a minute around us, as they have since I slipped into my seat.
Is he really that annoyed they had to wait so long for me?
Jungwoo, our driver who is also, apparently, head counselor, meets my eyes in his rearview mirror. He's about ten years older than us, rail-thin under his fluorescent-yellow Yonsei shirt, with a thick shock of black hair, black-rimmed glasses, and a square jaw. He speaks in Korean, and with a jolt, I catch my Korean name—Sooji—which he'd used to check me off his list. Sooji: wiser than others, which has always felt pretentious in Korean. But no one but halmeoni, who named me, ever used it in real life, and she passed away when I was four.
On Joohyuk's other side, by the door, a beautiful girl with pencil-straight black hair pulling over her shoulders wraps up her flirting match with a hawk-nosed guy named Seonho. Beside him is a prematurely graying guy named Yoo Subin, who apparently is taking a gap year to work on a Senate campaign this fall. I haven't gotten the girl's name yet, and I feel a pang, wishing Wendy were here—everyone seems to know each other already.
The van jolts over a pothole as the girl leans over Joohyuk. Her heart-shaped face tapers to a cleft chin. Dark-brown eyes curl ever so slightly down either side of her nose. Her baby pink dress tightens against generous curves and could have come off a runway—by comparison, my lilac T-shirt over jean cutoffs feels basic. Even if I'd changed before deplaning, I don't own anything half as nice.
"Hey, there. Jungwoo wants us to do icebreakers. Whatever, I'm Han Sohee—my grandfather was Korean. I'm from Manhattan, but I live in Maryland now. My parents split up and sent me here for the summer, but I'd have come anyways. Where are you from?"
"Um, Arizona." Aren't Asians supposed to be reserved? But she's so open. And she glitters. Sunlight glints off three earrings on her left earlobe, a contrast to my modest single studs. She somehow reminds me of a combination of Wendy and Sihyeon.
"Cool." She props an elbow on Joohyuk's shoulder like he's a big pillow. His wide, arched forehead and soft nose remind me of a my cousin, though his irises are lighter than the typical dark brown. Why does he look familiar? Airpods, messy styled hair, athletic build . . . there's a resemblance between Sohee and Joohyuk. The shape of their nose and eyes.
"Are you guys related?"
"Cousins," she confirms, and I can't help envying all the benefits that must come with a hot boy-cousin your age, like a built-in network of guy friends, a sounding board for your unrequited crushes. "We went to the same high school. I was a cheerleader. I'm headed to Dartmouth."
"Oh, cool—I dance. Um. Dance squad. Ballet."
"Cool. Joohyuk's off to Yale"—she rolls her head charmingly—"to play basketball." She kneads his shoulder and pretends to cheer, "Rah rah sis boom bah!"
"Quit it, Sophie." He slumps against his seat, frown deepening, looking out the window. "We've hit rush hour."
"I give up." She sighs. "Even I can take only so much of your sulking."
Wait a minute. . .
"You!" I blurt.
Joohyuk frowns. "What?"
When I was nine, Appa showed me a photo in the World Journal: the skinny Korean boy with the birthday just nine months before mine, with bear-life brows that have since spread proportionately over the forehead of the guy beside me. Nam Joohyuk of Maryland had won the national spelling bee, when I didn't even know a round existed beyond my fourth-grade silver-medal victory. Maybe you should put more effort into spelling, Eomma suggested.
When we turned twelve, Nam Joohyuk had his piano debut in Lincoln Center. You should practice more! Harder!
At fourteen, he won the Google Science Fair for some machine learning algorithm. How can you go to medical school with a B in biology? We'd lived the same number of years on this earth, and he'd achieved four times as much.
I told myself he had no soul. He spewed algebraic formulas on command. His fingers were sausage-swollen from his mom's chopsticks coming down on them at the keyboard.
The only time I didn't want Wonder Boy struck down by lightning was when he quit piano to warm the basketball team's bench freshman year. The World Journal was worried, my parents devastated. Who doe he think he is, Brad Pritt? Will he not go to college?
I rejoiced. For once, Joohyuk had done something off the beaten path (for an immigrant Asian American kid). And sitting on the bench—a waste of time by World Journal standards. It was the end of the Joohyuk dynasty and I'd never have to run into a clip of his latest article placed on my pillow again.
But then Wonder Boy got recruited as a running back for Yale, not the best basketball team, but who in the readership of the World Journal cared? It was Yale. He skyrocketed again in my parents; esteem and plummeted in mine. The only other World Journal prodigy I remember half as well died by suicide. His grieving parents commemorated him with a full page spread of his résumé.
"What?" Wonder Boy repeats.
Here he is. The yardstick for my never-ending life, in the flesh.
"Nothing," I say, and Wonder Boy's frown deepens.
"Never met a Suzy before." Sohee smooths things over. "Is it a nickname?"
"No, it's my actual name." I really wish Wonder Boy wasn't between us joggling his arm and leg, putting me on edge.
Sohee's brow wrinkled. "Isn't Suzy—"
"Did you want to trade seats?" Wonder Boy cuts her off, scooting from me. Sohee raises a brow. I flush. Do I smell?
"We'll be on campus in like, five minutes. Calm down. Poor Suzy will think you're like this all the time." Wonder Boy shoves his phone into his pocket and makes a fists that pops his veins out on his tan arms. What the heck is his hurry anyways?
Sighing, Sohee turns back to me. "So Suzy's—"
"They're trying to romanized Sooji, yeah." My flush deepens, my usual embarrassment quadrupled. I don't want to keep talking over Wonder Boy and annoying him.
Wonder Boy glances at me. "Guess it would be easier for the American administration to pronounced. Easy tip."
I'm surprised. He understood. Sometimes things that should be straightforward—like what's easy to pronounce yet different, or why your entire self-worth isn't at stake when you let down your parents—just aren't. If you didn't grow up like I did.
"Yeah," I say.
Not that this makes up for him being the bane of my existence.
"What's it mean anyways?" he asks.
Why am I so weirdly fascinated by the stubble on his jaw?
"Wiser than others. Remember, I didn't pick it."
"Suzy the Wise. I like it," he says.
I can't help a small snort. He can't mean it.
"No, really. Better than my name. Emotional and need to feel love; what a way to describe myself."
I press my lips together, then admit. "That's hilarious."
He groans. "No, it's not. My parents said I cried as soon as I was born and the Joohyuk popped into their mind. At least my sister got a normal name, Josie."
I can't help smiling. "She sounds like a little like my sister, she doesn't want a normal name and wanted to be different, so she got my parents to legally change her name to Korean." I would not have expected this for Wonder Boy.
He looks out the windshield, knee still jiggling, thumb running under his fingers, bored again with this mortal conversation.
Okay, fine. I face out my own window, my cheeks heated. The world feels jarringly off, as if I've dropped into a parallel universe, crowded with strange cars, oblong street signs, speed limits in kilometers, and Korean characters with romanized words. Then the elevated highway lifts us into tree-covered landscaping. Traditional and modern buildings worked together.
Toto, I'm not in Arizona anymore—and I'm not sure how I feel about it. Disoriented, still mad, but also . . . intrigued.
"Sooji, eotteon il-eul wihae gagee deulleoyahanayo?" Jungwoo says.
"I, uh, sorry, I don't understand—"
"He's asking if you need to stop at a store for anything," Wonder Boy says.
I flush. I don't need his help. "Oh, uh, no. No, I don't. And it's Suzy. No one calls me Sooji."
Wonder Boy responds in fluent Korean, conveying my answer, and then some. He even pulls off the elder-speak demeanor shift—his tone more deferential and respectful.
Of course he does.
Maybe it's the universe's idea of a cruel joke that on this trip, which my parents have forced on me, I've bumped right up against their measuring stick.
"If you speak Korean already"—I can't keep the bitterness from my voice—"why'd your parents make you come?"
"Oh, they didn't." His eyes flicker to me. "I came on my own. Sohee and I have family here, so we visit every summer.
Wonder Boy chose to attend Korean summer school. Enough said.
"It's different when you're at Yonsei, of course," Sohee says. "What about you? Why'd you decide to come?"
"I didn't." My voice pitches slightly. "My parents made me."
Sohee laughs. "Well, no one's making you do anything here."
"What do you mean?"
"Our cousins have done this program," Sohee whispers. "Best kept secret. Zero supervision."
Oh, really? "So what does—"
Wonder Boy flicks a warning finger toward Jungwoo, who probably understands a lot more English than he lets on.
"Tell you later," Sohee whispers.
I want to ask more, but our van pulls into a driveway, past a concrete slab bearing two Hangul characters. To our left, red pagoda building—the largest I've ever seen—rises from the mountains. To the right, a guard salutes from his booth and a metal bar lifts to let us through.
"Yonsei," Jungwoo announces.
I peer anxiously out the window as Jungwoo narrates in Korean. A pond laced with lily pads gurgles with fountains. Our van winds toward a small campus of sand-colored-brick buildings with rows of two-paneled windows. More Asian American kids my age bump a volleyball in a grassy courtyard surrounded by lush shrubbery, and beside a rock carved with the Yonsei characters, a bride in a traditional hanbok and her tuxedo groom kiss while their photographer snaps away.
"Is this a tourist attraction?" I ask. There must be fancier places in Seoul to take wedding photos.
The van stops. Wonder Boy steps out after Sohee and extends his hand to me. "Jungwoo says they met here four years ago."
Some traitorous part me wants to take his hand, to see if it feels hot or cold, but the rest of me is irritated, with him and myself—it's not like I can't handle getting out of a van. I hop down on my own, ignoring it.
"Cool. What are the chances?"
"What are the chances?" Sohee flicks her black hair over her shoulder, laughing. "It's Loveboat!"
"Sorry? I don't remember reading about a boat."
"It's not a boat." Sohee shoots Wonder Boy a meaningful glance, but he's already leading us to the van's back. "That's the nickname. Like the old TV show. Add it to the tell-you-later list. Joohyuk, let's hit the markets first."
"You go ahead," he says. "I need to find a pay phone. I promised Rosie I'd call as soon as I landed and I'm way late now."
"Rosie." Sohee huffs. "You should date Suzy," she adds, to my utter horror. "Look, she's perfect for you—you play basketball, she dances."
Wonder Boy rolls his eyes. "Rosie's my girlfriend," he tells me.
So he has a girlfriend.
I guess in my imagination, Wonder Boy always went it alone. Like me.
The other kids have gathered around the van's back door. As Jungwoo inserts his key into the lock, Wonder Boy fishes his phone from his pocket and s it in my face.
"Rosie Chu," he says.
His girlfriend smiles from his screen: a professional photo I couldn't have afforded if I worked a year at the Grill. She's even more beautiful then he is—her heavy black hair frames a slender face, delicate nose, and rosy lips. At , dangling from a fine gold chain, are two small letters R+J. People sometimes called me a porcelain doll growing up, which I half liked, half hated. But Rosie actually fits the description, down to the French manicure on her folded hands. I'm surprised Wonder Boy hasn't broken her by accident.
His arm brushes mine. He's standing too close—I step back and catch an odd expression on his face. Surprise. I pull on my ponytail, realizing too late that it's lopsided.
"She's really pretty," I say.
"She's much more than pretty. She's super smart, too." Wonder Boy's voice sharpens, and my face heats with embarrassment. I hadn't meant to imply she wasn't. Now he probably thinks I'm shallow. "She's going Williams University next year." Is it me, or is he sharing an unusual lot about her?
"Boring, you mean? Sohee yawns. "Hyukie, what am I going to do with myself all summer while you're gone?" she says in an obvious imitation. Jungwoo swings open the van's rear doors.
"Shut up, Hee. She's got plenty to do." With impatient jerks, Wonder Boy hauls our bags onto the sidewalk until he snatches up a black suitcase and lopes up the stairs.
"Joohyuk, you forgot your backpack," Sohee calls.
"Aish." He swings back for it, then catches my eye. "Watch your step, okay? He grimaces. "I might not be around to catch you next time."
What the heck?
With that condescending remark, he loops his bag onto his shoulder and dashes back up the stairs as if his entire GPA depends on him calling Rosie before he takes another breath. At the sliding doors, he nearly mows over a petite counselor.
"Joohyuk, watch out," Sohee chides, but he's gone.
And good riddance. Muscles can't fix whatever his problem is.
"Igeos-eun Park Jihyo," Jungwoo introduces the girl counselor as she joins us, straightening her royal blue shirt over a black skirt striped with white.
"Yonsei osin geos-eul hwan-yeonghabnida!" Park Jihyo waves both hands in greeting. She speaks Korean like a native Seoul speaker (as fluent as Google Translator since I—the author—doesn't speak Korean), though her rounded features aren't quite Korena. Her long black hair is bound in a heavy braid, tied with a blue ribbon. Her face is open and friendly, and when she smiles at me, I almost ask her to please tell me what I've gotten myself into.
Then a girl from the back of our van shoves her bag into Jihyo's arms. Jihyo blinks, but follows on her heels up the stairs in the same direction Wonder Boy took.
I grab my own rolling bag. A city bird alights on the bushes lining the concrete steps. Stone walls close us off from the rest of Seoul, but not the sun beating mercilessly down on my head.
I have no idea how a Loveboat fits into all this.
But if I'm going to be stuck inside these walls with Wonder Boy all summer, might as well shoot me now.