Our first task, Sohee declares, is to find clubbing outfits.
But downstairs in the humid lobby, Jihyo and other counselors are herding kids into a dimly lit auditorium for the opening ceremony. I look inside. The room appears to have been built with a smaller crowd in mind because every seat before the red-curtained stage is taken, with more students jammed in along the back wall and overflowing down the aisles.
"Come on," Sohee whispers, and we duck around a group of guys, steering clear of Jihyo.
"How many people are here anyways?"
"Four hundred." Sohee pauses at a table, where dozens of boiled intestine sausages and intestines.
"Four hundred?" With a ladle, Sohee scoops a sausage out, drops it into a paper cup and presses it into my hand.
"That's bigger than my entire high school."
Drumrolls echo from the auditorium, seductively deep and rhythmic. I crane my neck to see the stage, where two guys in sleeveless white shirts and black pants are raining whole-arm beats down on barrel drums. A lion, shaking its over-sized gold-trimmed head, leaps out from between them.
Sohee grabs my arm. "Come on. Let's get out of here."
I almost suggest we stay—I've never seen a lion dance on this level of incredible. From the doorway, a counselor in a royal blue T-shirt beckons to us, calling, "Ppallippalli."
But Sohee pulls me around the corner, scraping my arm on brick, and then we're pushing out double doors into blinding sunlight. A pair of gardeners kneels in the dirt, planting flowers.
"Go!" Sohee urges, and I sprint with her up the driveway and around the lily pad pond, past the guard booth to the street.
"Won't they come after us—ah!" I leap out of the path of a parade of bikes. Their rush of wind tears at my hair and skirt.
"No one knows who we are yet." Sohee's laugh bubbles as she pulls me firmly onto the sidewalk, then sets off at a brisk speed. "Don't yet yourself run over, okay? Traffic here is human rights violation."
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
The sun beats down on my head as I took a bite of the sausage and try not to keep with Sohee. I haven't eaten a tea egg in years, not after I opened my lunch box to shrieks of horrified, "What are those?" and I begged Eomma not to pack me anymore weird Korean food. Sohee devours her own sausage, making noises straight out of a scene I wouldn't be allowed to watch on TV. I bite another of the sausage.
"Yum," I say.
Yonsei's driveway opens into a major street, facing a tree-covered with that enormous pagoda building. Directly across from us, a brick mural of Korean farmers is built into the hillside. Up the street, we pass a small, red temple with the fanciest tiers of rooftops—like a paperback book opened and laid face down, sides gently sloping, corners upturned like the prow of a ship. It's painted in a riot of colors—pink flowers, intricate designs, Korean scholars in red robes. A long, blue dragon, its back flaming green spikes, undulates over the top.
"Wild," I say. "I kind of like it."
"There's stuff like that all over Korea." Sohee drops her empty cup into a trash can. "You'll see."
We veer off through a tree-lined park, then through narrow streets lined with five-story buildings, fronted by garage-size stores. We pass hairstyling shops, a tea room, a whiskey store, all labeled with Korean letters.
At last, we step into an outdoor market crammed with vendor carts, small shops, and tiny restaurants with only a few benches for customers. A man miss a mountain of kimchis. A stout woman, hair bound in a purple scarf, pulls dough into foot-long sticks and drops them into her copper vat of oil; another shakes out a bolt of red silk. Jewelry shimmers like colored fireflies.
On Sohee's heels, I wander deeper through stalls. Vendors call, "Sonyeo, iliwa!" and motion to their fruit stands or dress racks. Their energy draws me in. I'm stepping into a tradition that must date back hundreds, even thousands of years. Sohee pulls out her wallet at every other stall—she buys a Hello Kitty shirt, a cloth pencil case printed with Line characters, bottled water for us.
"Don't you want anything?" she asks.
My stomach knots a bit. My family counts every penny, and I've never felt free to just buy whatever strikes my fancy, unlike Sohee, clearly. Our goal is outfits, and I need to save all my firepower for that.
"Um, yea, sure," I answer. "Still looking."
Sohee flips through a stack of Guess jeans, tries on a yellow K2 jacket, hefts Dior purses in her hands. "Everyone knows these are knockoffs, but they're such a steal," she gloats. She dangles a striped Elle-labeled dress before my body. "What about this one? Cut's perfect for your body type. You're slim, but sturdy."
"Thanks, but not this one." I push it aside. "I want an outfit my mom would kill me in."
She laughs. "I like how you think."
"Hey, Sohee." To my dismay, Wonder Boy is coming toward us, head cocked to make room for the hundred-pound burlap sack balanced like a baby whale on his shoulder. So he's skipped the opening ceremony, too. The 100 percent humidity clings to my skin, but somehow, Wonder Boy with his forest-green shirt stretched across his broad shoulders looks as cool as the shady underside of an oak tree. I grimace.
"Rice?" Sohee beats a fist on his sack, scandalized. "Are you transferring into my cooking elective?"
"I tried to sign up, but it was full." Wonder Boy hefts his sack higher. "This is for weights. Turns out real weights cost fifty bucks a kilo here, so I bought this instead. Ten cents a kilo." He grins, obviously pleased with himself.
My brow rises. Creative. And surprisingly unpretentious.
But Sohee sighs. "We've been here less than three hours and you're already working out."
"I sat on the plane for fifteen hours with my knees to my ears. Enough downtown to last me the rest of the summer."
I agree—instead of jet-lagged, I feel charged enough to dance a loop around the entire city. Wonder Boy levers the sack to his other shoulder. His T-shirt rucks up, offering a glimpse of tanned, flat muscles, from which I swiftly remove my eyes—but not before he catches me. Damn bad timing.
"At least you're in a better mood," Sohee says. "Good call?"
"Yeah, I got my SIM card working. I have a landline in my room, too."
"No fair, really? We don't."
My roommate's some VIP kid. Kang. Haven't met him yet."
"Of course they'd give the VIP kid to you." Sohee catches my eye and quirks her brow. Kang.
"Whatever. Rosie says hi. I found her this." He touches the head of a carved bird tied with a red ribbon, jutting from his pocket—so Wonder Boy's the Wonder Boyfriend, too. Of course, I still can't believe Sohee suggested he date me—no way would I bring down a house of parental blessings on myself like that. Why can't Mr. Perfect SATs at least have the modesty to look the part: scrawny with thick glasses and acne, for starters. And Sohee's right—his mood's done a complete 180.
"We're hitting Club KISS Thursday," Sohee says. "Suzy's idea."
His thick brows rises. "Not wasting time, are we?"
"Carpe diem." I shrug, keeping it cool. Latin, not Korean, on the streets of Seoul. So there.
"Carpe noctem," he answers. Seize the night.
Deodamnatus! Wonder Boy's trumped me again—how many languages does he knows anyways? I indulge a fantasy of me using that big, hard body as a punching bag.
"Meet outside of our room at eleven," Sohee presses on. "And please don't wear yellow. It makes you—"
"Look jaundiced, so you've said." Wonder Boy rolls his eyes at me. To my dismay, my heart skips a beat. "Aunty Yumi will be thrilled to hear you begged me to chaperone. Even bribed me with such excellent fashion advice. I'll be there. Don't want any broken hearts."
"It's the real Nam Joohyuk again. Welcome back. Tell me this isn't a result of you and Rosie having phone ."
"Mind out of the gutter please."
"Well, no worries about us." Sohee links arms with me while I try to block out unwanted images. "No guy's breaking our hearts."
"Oh, it's not you girls I'm worried about." With a smirk, Wonder Boy heads off, sack still balanced on his shoulder.
"We don't need a chaperone!" I call, but he's gone.
ʕु-̫͡-ʔुྉ*ᴸᵒᵛᵉᵇᵒᵃᵗ✲ﾟⁱⁿ*。⋆ 서울。⋆ *
An hour later, I gaze uncertainty into the full length mirror of a curtained dressing room. My black laced-dress stops mid-thigh. I twist to examine the the backside of my dress. It is also see-through across the shoulder and arm area. It calls for a dance—leg lifts, pirouettes, strong hands encircling my waist. I love it.
My hair tied up in a ponytail and a natural look with a bright pink lip. The only accessory were my pearled dangling earrings.
So shameful! Eomma's voice rings. You want boys to think you're a bad girl?
My reflection winces. The Dress like a Nun rule is going down this summer, but maybe not with this outfit. Besides, what will Joohyuk-the-Chaperone think, I wonder, before I remember I don't care.
Reluctantly, I peel off the dress and return it to the protesting vendor. It's really more than I can afford anyways. But it gives me an idea. Maybe I can find a dance studio to join in Taipei. The thought gives me fresh hope.
I navigate out the shop's racks of dresses and cross the alley to another shop, where Sohee is modeling before a mirror. She tugs down the hem of a gold lamé dress laced with delicate flowers. The silk lings to her full body and she lifts a bundle of gold chains over her head. They pour down the plunging V-neck into her cleavage. She's the definition of y—and not afraid to flaunt it.
"Eolmaibnikka?" Sohee asks the vendor. How much is it? "What?" she explodes, when he quotes her the price. "Neomu bissan!" Too expensive!
I watch, open-mouthed, as Sohee puts on a performance worthy of an Academy Award: she haggles, gesticulates, verges on changing her tearful mind, until she gets her dress to a third of the ask and the merchant smacks his hands with satisfaction.
"Wow," I whisper as he wraps the dress in newspaper.
Sohee shushes me. "He got a great deal," she whispers, then sprints off to a shop with Burberry coats.
I pull a black cocktail dress from its rack and lift it to my body. My reflection frowns. I look like a girl headed to a funeral. Even from 6,000 miles away, Eomma's turned me back into a little girl, while Sohee will look exactly like an eighteen-year-old breaking out for a night of dancing.
A horn honks from the street intersecting our alley. I step out of the shop to see a silver BMW with tinted windows, forcing its way through pedestrians to pull up beside the sidewalk. To my surprise, a familiar-looking guy in a black shirt swings a leg out the back door. Straight black hair tumbles into his face. An opal earring glitters on his earlobe.
The boy making out with the pink girl—Kang. Joohyuk's VIP roommate.
I duck out of sight and move to a gap between two vinyl flaps, through which I watch Kang stop halfway out of the car. Inside, a man with a face like Kang's grips his arm. Kang's dad? Does he live here?"
They exchange an impressive torrent of Korean in loud, angry voices that cause a few tourists to scurry by. I recognize one word from his dad, only because my cousins used it on each other when we were little: babo. Stupid. Kang flashes his middle finger, hops out, and slams the door. The silver car squeals away.
I draw farther back, shaken by the force of their anger. Kang's body is all hard, furious lines as he stares after the car, arms at his sides, fists clenched. A reddish blotch shines on his cheek—a bruise? Did his dad hit him? Whatever his dad wants—better grades, not a toe out of line, postrated nose-to-the-pavement filial piety—Kang's not just taking it like an Suzy Bae.
He's fighting back. Can it work? Is it even possible?
Nick floats to the center of my memory. My first real crush, who sat behind me in eleventh-grade chemistry. He was the only senior, and Ryan Smith called him an idiot, too. He lent me a pencil, then I lent him one, and we started partnering in labs, helping each other decipher the teacher's chicken-scratch on the blackboard. Nick was struggling with solubility calculations and asked for help.
"Sure." I'd danced with excitement into the eye-wash station. "Want to come over?"
I'd been an innocent then.
When Appa opened the door to Nick—tanned, blue-eyed, towering half-a-head over him and asking for me—Appa's jaw dropped. As we worked on the coffee table, he hovered waspishly close, flipping his newspaper, blowing his nose trumpet-loud.
Nick came two more Tuesdays. He wasn't an idiot; he was acing world history. His brain just wasn't wired for calculations. And maybe I'd smiled too much while he was over. Laughed too hard when he used my pen to play connect-the-dots with the freckles on his arm. Because when we slipped outside behind the backyard shed and he took hold of my waist, we were together for only five minutes before Eomma was raging over us like a stung bul, swatting at us both. Have you no shame? Her cries, long after Nich had sprinted down our driveway, still echo in my ears.
I ran to find Nick in class the next day, desperate to explain. But when I arrived, he was emptying out his desk behind me. "Sorry, Suzy," he'd murmured. "I just can't get in the middle of that." Before I could speak, he slipped away to a seat at the back. Then bolted after class before I could catch him. As the days turned into weeks, I lost the courage to speak. He lent me a pencil when I asked, but never borrowed mine again, and if he hadn't started dating Wendy, I wouldn't have known him well enough to congratulate him when he graduated.
I snap back to the present. On the roadside, Kang's shoulders have slumped. There's something vulnerable, almost little-boy lonely about him, left in the dust of his dad's fancy car. He jams his hands into his pockets and heads into the crowd, dodging a family eating at a Korean corndog stall. The crowd closes over him like stage curtains.
Before I can lose my courage, I return to the shop across the street and tap the vendor on the shoulder.
"I'll take that dress after all," I say.