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Authors: David Yoon

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You can’t keep them separate for long.

I can hear what Brit is going to say next before she even says it.

“Maybe I could come over to your context this weekend?” she says. “See Frank Li in his natural habitat?”

“Oh yeah, totally, that would be sweet, sure,” I say, which translates to
Think, dammit, think.
My toes start to float off the ground. No way I could’ve said no to her. That would’ve been tremendously weird. But how do I deal with an actual visit?

“That would be amazing,” says Brit. “Sorry.”

“Why sorry?”

“I made a promise to myself to stop saying
amazing
so much. It’s a dead word.”

“That’s an amazing goal,” I say, to buy my brain more time to scramble up a plan.

“Stupid,” she says, with a smile in her voice.

Finally an idea hits me: safety in numbers.

“I could get my mom to cook up some Korean barbecue,” I say. “We could invite a bunch of Apeys and have a gathering of our own.”

“Oh,” says Brit.

I wince, because I know what she’d been picturing, and I know a big loud barbecue party was not it. I know she had an
image of an intimate dinner with Mom-n-Dad, like how white kids do it in the movies. She wanted to be
introduced
.

There’s a pause, and I can feel Brit let that image dissolve away.

She brightens. “Yeah, that sounds amazing. Not amazing, um.”

“How about
illuminating
?” I say.

She can say
amazing
in every sentence for all I care. I exhale with relief. This way, in this party-type situation, Brit gets to meet Mom-n-Dad—like normal couples do—and I get to keep my ruse with Joy intact. I can kill two birds with one stone, to use an unnecessarily violent expression.

“Illuminating,” she says, and I can hear her smile again.

I realize I’m gripping the doorjamb, hanging on to her voice.

Mom screeches from below. “Frankie-ya! Dinner ready!”

“I gotta go.”

“I’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you more.”

“Oh my god,” says Brit. “We’re becoming those people.”

We hang up. I stare at the small chandelier glowing above the staircase landing.

“Illuminating,” I say to the chandelier.

•   •   •

Dinner is a little bit of everything: Chinese-American beef with broccoli and fried rice, Japanese sashimi and miso, Korean chapchae and eun daegu jorim, and finally Italian-American lasagna.

Dad passes out more beer to us at the kids’ table, again to Mom’s protests. But everyone’s well into the party spirit, and she lets it go.

“It’s nice one,” says Dad. “So-called Belgian Trappist ale.”

“So you get these at a wholesale discount?” says Joy’s dad. His accent is there, but his English flow is light-years ahead of Dad’s.

“It’s most expensive one we selling,” says Dad.

“Then I’ll take three, Mr. Li,” says Joy’s dad, and pulls a hundred from his wallet. I want to roll my eyes and say,
You’re rich, we get it. You’re the richest, smartest, most hard-working immigrant in American history, ever.

“Aigu, you put away money right now,” says Dad.

They laugh, and finally Joy’s dad accepts a bottle with both hands and says, “Well, thank you very much, my sunbae.”

“You welcome, hoobae.”

Sunbae
—as in senior, mentor—is what Joy’s dad calls Dad, since Dad got to America first. Dad calls Joy’s dad
hoobae
—as in junior, understudy, noob. They’ve been calling each other this for decades, and now it’s become this little comedy routine they like to perform. I guess it’s funny because they’re both the same age?

I guess it’s funny because Joy’s dad has so clearly outgrown his mentor in every way?

Joy pours a glass. I eye her:
You sure you should have another?

Something changes in Joy. She becomes almost coquettish. She hoists the bottle with both hands, aims it at my empty glass, and says loud and clear:

“Let me pour you a glass, yubs.”

The entire room dips for a second, then comes roaring back up with an
Aaaaah.

Yubs
is a Konglish (Korean-English American Casual) abbreviation of
yeobo
, which means
honey
. Not honey like beespit, but honey like what couples say to each other.

Impressive. I tilt my head to concede her brilliance, and slide my glass toward her like a player relinquishing his stack at poker. I lift the glass, then take a sip. It’s absolutely terrible. I can’t understand why anyone would drink water that has had hops and twigs and shit rotting in it for weeks.

The adults lose themselves in their own conversation, and we Limbos lean in close around the table.

“Dang, Joy,” howls Andrew. “You need to get into acting.”

Joy bats her lashes. Her face is getting nice and red from the booze.

“Not if it means doing this China doll crap all the time,” she says. She lets her face fall, and it becomes regular Joy again, complete with wry smile.

“So it really works,” says John. “I mean, why wouldn’t it work—it makes perfect sense.”

“Maybe we should all fake-date,” says Ella. “John, be my fake-date buddy.”

“Why, is it because, who do you like?” says John.

“You first,” says Ella.

“Nice try.”

Joy and I exchange eyebrows. Are they flirting?

I frame the air with my hands to grab the Limbos’ attention.
“You guys. Just to reiterate, just so we’re absolutely clear, I need you to promise us that—”

Mom appears at the kids’ table. “Everybody have a fun?”

She of course gives me and Joy little back-and-forth glances, cha-cha-cha.

I need her to leave. Just for this next part. So I say, “Word.”

“What word?” says Mom.

Joy flashes me a look: she’s clued in. She says, “We have an all-in type conversating happening right here.”

“What?” says Mom, and leans back an inch.

The slang is working. Hanna and I used to do this, and I know the other Limbos can, too. If you ever need to hide sensitive conversations from your particular mom-n-dad, one of the easiest ways to do it is to start going heavy with the California Teen Tribal. Hides words right in plain sight.

Hanna and I used to do lots of things. Now she’s gone, and now check me out: master of my parental universe. I am behaving like Ideal Son in Mom-n-Dad’s eyes. I have cheated my way into their favor. Hanna, meanwhile, lives in exile.

What’s that called?

Survivor’s guilt?

I turn to the Limbos. “Before we get all ratchet up in this bitch, I need formal verbal confirmation from the entire squad to keep a certain setup on the DL. Don’t go posting on main. You feel me?”

Mom looks around and around, her brains nicely scrambled.

“I feel you hard, bro,” says Andrew.

“Hard AF,” says Ella.

“Spank you, guys, I mean it,” says Joy. “Hashtag Spanx.”

“Why spanking?” Mom furrows her brow and retreats, and our table of Limbos is left alone once more.

“Hashtag keep it one hundred YOLO swipe right,” says John, who is terrible with slang.

We all look at him for a moment until he settles down.

Andrew reaches out with both hands to clasp Joy’s shoulder and mine. “You have our word. You crazy kids.”

“Are they so crazy, though?” says Ella. “We all just want to love who we want to love.”

And with that, Ella has brought the table to a profound place. I can feel it. I know the others can, too, for whatever secret reasons they have in their hearts. It doesn’t so much matter what our specific secrets are. What matters more is the fact that we have to keep space for so many of them, all the time. We all sit and nod for a moment, letting Ella’s words float before us.

We all just want to love who we want to love.

chapter 13
thank you booleet

The next day I call Mom at The Store to ask if she wants to oh, you know, host a little barbecue party on Saturday, and without even saying yes she goes into Mom Mode: she’ll have to leave The Store early to get the meat, stay up a little later the night before preparing and marinating, get Dad to clean the grill, and so on. She’s so busy muttering her to-do list to herself that she literally hangs up on me.

She acts like it’s going to be this huge pain. But the truth is: Mom loves the chance to host my friends. Because she knows (a) they aren’t judgmental, (b) they’re American kids who will gush over every bite, and (c) she can be openly proud of her cooking without having to fake humility for once like she does with a Korean audience.

I pause, then tap away at my phone.

Heads up,
I say.
I’m throwing a barbecue party, but I am intentionally not inviting you because the package will be present.

Aha,
says Joy.
The package

I just didn’t want you to hear about it from someone else.

Keep our stories straight, roger that,
says Joy.
Over and out

Then Saturday comes. I wake up later than usual, just before noon. I pad downstairs to hunt for milk and cereal in the kitchen. In the fridge sits a hulking silver bowl of marinating meat waiting to be grilled.

Brit begins peppering me with messages.

5pm, right? Ish?

What should I wear?

Sure I shouldn’t bring a dessert or anything?

Each message strikes my thick, stupid skull like a pebble slung by a shitty little magical imp that I can’t shake. My nerves jangle anew.
Frankly, this feels dangerous. Too risky, frankly.

“Shut up with the
frankly
s,” I shout to no one.

Mom gets home early from her a.m. shift at The Store. Dad stays at The Store, because—you guessed it—Dad has never missed a day of work at The Store for almost as long as me and Hanna have been alive. Mom puts on an apron, this freebie she got from the beer distributor with the mentally incongruous image of a bikini girl wearing a fuzzy hat and hugging a giant beer bottle, along with the words
GRIZZLY BEER GRAB A
COLD ONE
.

“I beg you to not wear that,” I say.

Mom looks down at the bikini girl. “Why? It’s brand-new one. Miguel give me free.”

“Does it go inside out?”

Mom unties it, flips it over, and ties it again. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing.”

“Your teacher coming tonight?”

“No.”

“Just friends?”

“Just friends,” I say. The words taste terrible.

Just friends just friends justfriendsjustfriendsjustfriends

“Help me,” says Mom, and when I slide the heavy cold hemisphere of meat out of the fridge, I realize that whatever happens next, I am responsible for.

I help set out the bowls and bowls of banchan: kimchi, lotus root, cucumber kimchi, acorn jelly, spinach, bean sprouts, potato salad, roasted anchovies, all that good stuff. A kaleidoscope of dishes, a feast in wait. While Mom chops stuff up, I carefully cover each banchan bowl with plastic wrap. Then I look up: it’s almost three o’clock.

How is it almost three o’clock?

“I haven’t showered yet,” I say to no one.

“Aigu, stink boy,” says Mom. “You so stink.”

Mom is trying to be funny, so I give her a little laugh just to be a good son. But panic is rising in me. People will be arriving soon. Brit will be arriving soon.

“I’ll be right back,” I say, and leap up the stairs.

I let the steam fill the shower. I don’t really wash. I just let the hot water run over my back for a long time. I start writing at the top of the glass shower door.

B-R-I-T

B-R-I-T

When I rinse the letters away with the showerhead, I realize that some finger oil has stuck to the glass so that when it fogs, her name is still slightly visible.

This means something. Brit Means something. This means that when I step out of this white fog, things will be different. Mom will see Brit—really
see
her—and Brit will be great, and they’ll make each other laugh. Later that night in bed, Mom will report her astonishing findings to Dad:
Brit so nice, she having so big eyes, same like Joy. More better than Joy.
Dad will grumble at first, but when he sees the light of realization in Mom’s eyes, he will relent.

American girl, they okay.

When Mom-n-Dad say
American
, they mean
white
. When they refer to themselves—or me—they say
hanguksaram
, or
Korean
. I never call myself just
Korean
. I call myself
Korean-American
, always leading first with
Korean
or
Asian
, then the silent hyphen, then ending with
American
. Never just
American
.

White people can describe themselves with just
American
. Only when pressed do they go into their ethnic heritage. Doesn’t seem fair that I have to forever explain my origin story with that silent hyphen, whereas
white
people don’t.

It’s complicated. But simple. Simplicated.

Brit Means refuses to call herself
white
, and uses
European-American
instead. Because Brit is wise and aware.

B-R-I-T

I turn the water off and hear voices.

Voices!

I scramble to dry off, run a hand through my hair, and get dressed. I hop downstairs. I’m still sweating from the hot shower. I can hear Mom has switched to Polite Guest English, the dialect she saves for non-Gathering visitors.

“No, why you bringing so expensive one? You don’t have to doing.”

“It’s for everybody.”

“What it is?”

“It’s a French fruit tart with a, um, crème pâtissière filling.”

“Oh, you French?”

“Haha, no, um.”

“Anyway, very very pretty. Thank you, okay?”

“You’re so welcome, and thank you for—”

“Should be put in refrigerator.”

I rush in. “I’ll do it.”

Mom nods at Brit. “Booleet? Bleet? I’m sorry.”

“Brit, that’s right,” says Brit.

“Hard to pronouncing,” says Mom as she heads out into the backyard with a tray.

“Hey,” I say to Brit.

“Hey,” says Brit to me.

And we execute a Standard Friend Hug. It’s the worst hug ever. I can feel Brit’s restraint. I can feel her being careful in front of Mom, who can still peer at us through the sliding glass.

Only then does my mind calm down enough to notice what Brit’s wearing. Not her usual jeans, or ironic tee shirt, but:

A dress.

An honest-to-god dress. A simple cotton thing, nothing fancy, but to me she looks beautiful enough to send a fleet of seamen off to their doom. It’s a dress for a grown-up dinner.

“You look amazing,” I say.

“Aa-aa,” says Brit, wagging a finger at the word
amazing
.

This is impossible, this urge to kiss her. I take a mental step back: here is Brit Means, standing in my kitchen, infusing it with her exotic scent.

“You look . . .
beguiling
,” I say.

Brit smiles at a nearby bronze figurine of a bronco bucking an astonished infant cowboy. “Your parents have super-weird taste.”

“I don’t even see it anymore.”

“Humanity’s greatest strength—and also the reason for its ultimate downfall—is its ability to normalize even the bizarre.”

“Brit Means, everybody.”

Brit takes a breath for courage. “Where’s your dad?”

“He’s at The Store. He’s always there. But you get to meet Mom, so that’s a start.”

I touch her shoulder, then feel Mom’s eyes through the glass, and lean back to fake a more platonic posture.
Just friends.

Brit shakes off some thought and powers up a bright smile. “I’m just happy to be here. With you. And Cowboy Baby. Really just Cowboy Baby.”

I want to hold her badly, like a boy who believes a hug can convince the world.

Brit keeps on smiling. “I’m dying to try this barbecue.”

The doorbell rings, and all the Apeys come wandering in: Q, Paul Olmo, Amelie Shim, Naima Gupta. Even Q’s smoking-hot sister, Evon, is here, wordlessly noting her surroundings like a trained assassin.

Q looks around, too, perhaps spotting what’s changed since he was last here. It feels strange having him over. I wish it didn’t. I wish it felt more like when I’m at Q’s house.

“Hi, Brit, hi, Frank,” shouts Naima Gupta.

Amelie Shim points at a four-foot-tall bronze statue of a giraffe wearing a pith helmet and says, “This is like he’s dressed up for safari but what’s he gonna see like humans right because that would be ridiculous to have a giraffe go on safari to see other giraffes.”

“I think this is a genuine Wyatt Thomas original,” says Q.

“No,” I say.

“Shut up,” drawls Q, his eyes still on Amelie.

The glass door slides open and Mom pokes her head in. “Dinner not ready. You playing meanwhile.”

“We playing meanwhile,” whispers Amelie with a giggle. It’s okay because her parents have even worse accents than Mom-n-Dad.

We migrate to the backyard—all of us except Evon, who borrows my Grape-Escape™ purple charger so she can ignore the world with her phone on a couch—and Q unrolls a small duffel on the grass to reveal a serious badminton set.

Badminton, the sport of nerds.

It takes a while to set up; it takes a while to start playing. I toss glances at Brit every now and then; she catches them, then tosses them back underhand. We bring out a gentleness in each other. It’s a gentleness that glows unwavering even as the Apeys roll and holler around us and Mom barks for help over the sizzling grill cover, shaped like a hubcap to let the excess grease drain away.

“I’ll go help,” says Brit.

“I don’t want your dress getting splattered,” I counter.

“I don’t mind.”

“Polite fight,” shouts Naima Gupta. Naima shouts a lot.

“Brit,” says Q. “Get a racquet and get on my team.”

Brit gives me a look,
Are you gonna be okay?
and I respond with a nod:
Go play.
I stand next to Mom and help keep the meat moving.

“She should be wearing tee shirt, not dress,” murmurs Mom.

“She probably just wanted to be a little fancy for her first KBBQ,” I murmur back. The
K
in
KBBQ
stands for
Korean
. As does the
K
in K-pop, K-fashion, or K-dramas. There’s of course no such thing as ABBQ, A-pop, A-fashion, or A-dramas.

“Anyway,” says Mom. “Dress is pretty.”

I glance up at Brit.
Mom thinks your dress is pretty,
I want to yell.

Doesn’t that count for something? It must count for something.

Q serves, smashing the shuttlecock into a white laser blur. Brit catches a tricky return from Amelie, and Q flicks his racquet and sends it rocketing down. Paul dives for the save setup; Amelie smashes it to the ground.

“That one’s for Totec,” shouts Paul Olmo, high-fiving Amelie but missing. Totec was the name of his doomed mage.

In the end Paul and Amelie win. Q ducks the net to give Paul a crushing hug. “Good game, man,” says Q.

“I was wrong to swap out those gems,” says Paul Olmo into Q’s shoulder. “I understand that now.”

“You’re all right,” says Q.

“Dinner ready!” yells Mom. Then, quietly: “Why she not here yet?”

I shoot Mom a look:
Who?

But I know she means Joy. “Oh, she can’t make it. It’s her turn to teach a rotating seminar webcast about 3D printing techniques using nonrigid biomorphic materials.”

I read somewhere that ultra-specific lies make the best lies, and it turns out to be true.

“Oh,” says Mom, frowning. She examines me for a moment, perhaps wondering if me and Joy are having a spat. She shrugs it off, puts on a smile, and yells again.

“Dinner ready!”

In an instant we’re all devouring food. To my horror, Mom offers forks only to Paul Olmo, Naima Gupta, and finally Brit Means. They all smile politely and demonstrate that yes, as hard as it may be to believe, they can use chopsticks just fine. I know this sort of well-intentioned ignorance is no biggie to Paul Olmo and Naima Gupta, who have awkward immigrant stories of their own. And Mom already knows Q and Evon—who has emerged to feed—can use chopsticks, despite their wacky African-Americanness.

But I feel bad for Brit, whose immigrant stories have most likely been washed away like surf erasing sandwriting. She may call herself European-American, but to most of the world she’s just white. As a member of the majority, she belongs everywhere. As the product of a long, mixed-up heritage, she belongs nowhere.

Right now I can feel her wanting to fit in. She picks up rice from her bowl like
See? I can do it,
but then drops it, perhaps from nerves. A little crestfallen look twitches her brow. So I pick up some rice, then drop it too.

“Crap,” I say, cleaning up my mess.

I find Q giving me a look like
What a gentleman.

Brit stands up. “Anyone want more to drink?”

“I get it,” says Mom.

“No, please, you relax,” says Brit. “You’ve made this amaz—this
stupendous
feast.”

Brit winks at me and I’m a little starstruck.

“Hear hear,” says Paul Olmo.

“Thank you, Mrs. Li,” says Evon with uncharacteristic charm.

Brit fills everyone’s glasses from a pitcher of cold barley tea.

“Thank you, Booleet,” says Mom.

“You’re welcome, Mrs. Li,” says Brit. “What’s your first name, if you don’t mind me asking?”

I freeze. This is all Brit’s family talking right here. Most kids, never mind Korean kids, never ask about the first name of the adults in their lives.

“Eun-hee,” says Mom. “English name is Diane.”

“Your names are so pretty,” says Brit, and holy shit does Mom actually blush a shade. This is pristine territory Brit has discovered. And I was there to see it happen.

The doorbell rings, and I feel a squirt of bile in my gut. I know who it is even before she opens the door.

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