Authors: David Yoon
“Hello?” says Joy Song.
“Aigu,” says Mom, scooting away to the entryway. “You late.”
“I know, I’m so sorry, Mrs. Li,” says Joy.
“Shoes off,” says Mom.
Joy realizes she’s rushed halfway into the house in her boots, and now must backtrack. “Shit.”
“Frankie-ya, Joy here,” yells Mom. Then, to Joy: “You sit next to Frank.”
I can hear it. Everyone can hear it. Mom has switched from Polite Guest English to Family Casual, just for Joy. Brit glances at the door, then at me, oblivious. What in God’s hipster beard is Joy Song doing here? I close my eyes and will a hole to open up and swallow me.
Before any hole can appear, Joy takes a breathless seat next to me. Everyone scoots their chairs to make room.
“Hey, everybody,” says Joy. She quivers like a beetle has just snuck up her sleeve.
“Do you guys know Joy?” I say to the crystal salt and pepper shakers, which are purely decorative and never actually used. The shakers say nothing.
“I know Joy,” says Q. I shoot him a look. He looks back at me with naked fear.
“I know Joy,” says Brit.
I can feel the world tilting—tables and chairs sliding to one side of the room, trees outside groaning with the increasing angle. When Brit showed up to The Store, it felt like two worlds colliding. Now she’s here in my house, meeting Joy, and it feels like a third planet has joined in.
Mom slams the world level again by plonking a plate before Joy. “You eating.”
I dare a quick glance:
What the fuck, dude?
Joy looks back with helpless eyes.
It’s not my fault.
Are the Apeys staring at us? No—they’re all back to happily
devouring their food. Evon finishes, excuses herself, and disappears behind a high-backed lounge chair.
“Oh,” says Brit to Joy, realizing something. “Are you one of the Gathering friends?”
“Yeah,” says Joy. “I’ve known this bozo since we were little.”
Brit means it, mothafucka,
” says Brit with a quiet smile.
Joy smirks. “That was me, ha.”
“That’s incredible that you’ve been such good friends for so long,” says Brit.
“We’re not like friends-friends, though,” says Joy, and it’s the wrong thing to say, but she can’t close her stupid mouth fast enough to trap the words. So she keeps going, especially now that Mom is examining her performance. “We’re like family friends, like family-family. Anyway, I guess you could say we’re really close.”
This seems to satisfy Mom, who smiles and waddles out of the room with two kitchen trash bags.
Joy has just misted the room with bullfart, and I’m so convinced Brit can smell it that I want to facepalm the table to see how high I can send the plates. Instead, I stomp on her foot.
“Wow,” cries Joy to no one. She tries to stomp me back but only hits bare hardwood. “Wow, this tastes amazing,” she shouts.
This is getting stupid quick. I have to break up this table. I point at Q. “Is it time?”
Q springs to attention. He digs in his bag and produces a small game console.
Let’s Heart Dancing
?” he says.
Everyone groans, but once Q has it set up and is dancing in his strange—but infectious—blind shaman style, people can’t help but join in. Brit grabs a controller and begins punching the air with her elbows. She glances at me, and I want nothing more than to be her dancing partner in a vectorized video game world of our own. But a jab in my ribs jolts me out of my dreaming.
“Your fuckin’ mom called my fuckin’ mom,” hisses Joy. “She’s all,
Frankie invite you too, right?
What the fuck was I fuckin’ supposed to do?”
“Fuckin’ pretend you were sick or some shit!” I hiss back.
“Fuck you, like I had a fuckin’ choice!”
“Go Brit, go Brit,” shouts Naima Gupta over the thudding music.
“You need to evac in five,” I whisper. “I’m fuckin’ trying to do something here.”
“What the fuck do I say?” says Joy. “I can’t just eat and run.”
“SAT study. Go.”
I get up, grab a controller, and dance with Brit. We face the screen and move in sync. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Joy bowing to Mom with both hands on her thighs, the picture of meek apology. She’s doing it: expressing regret for having to leave early, adamantly refusing leftovers, impressing upon Mom the urgency and importance of not keeping her fictional SAT study buddy waiting, gracefully berating her own lack of planning and rudeness.
“Frankie-ya,” says Mom. “Say bye to Joy.”
“Bye, Joy,” I say, not missing a beat.
“Aigu, Frankie, stop playing and say bye.”
“It’s okay,” says Joy. “Isn’t he so silly?”
Joy holds a finger-phone up to her ear—
Brief me later
We’ve reached the part of the song where Brit and I must actually dance touching each other, and we do—just both palms joined, practically puritanical in its innocence, but to me it feels like getting married. Me and Brit, making asses out of ourselves with everyone as our witness. Including Mom, who just shakes her head with bemusement.
The dance ends. Brit and I heave our chests and watch the score rack up.
“Frank ninety-two, Brit one hundred,” shouts Naima Gupta. “Purr-fect.”
I’m so happy for Brit that I thrust my hands in the air to cheer, and immediately punch a solid wooden ledge by the fireplace.
Brit snatches up my hand. “Ouch. Are you okay?”
“I’m purr-fect,” I say, laughing. I’ve skinned my middle knuckle, but who cares.
I feel like I’ve dodged the swing of a huge razor-sharp pendulum. Tonight was a close one. But it was worth it. Brit and I sit jammed tight next to each other on the couch with the others, and she rests her sweaty arm on top of mine, and for a long moment I can picture things how I’d like them to be. Not how others think they should be, but how I want them: my terms, me, me, me.
One day, I’ll sit on this couch and kiss Brit Means like it’s nothing.
Suddenly Brit springs up. “I’ll help,” she says to someone. To Mom.
For Brit has spotted Mom clearing the table. When she tries to help, Mom holds her at bay with gentle refusal. But Brit leans in, armed with powerful manners of her own. A spectacular polite fight ensues that culminates with Mom awarding Brit an apron and a place at the sink. Brit’s good. Really good.
I try to help, but Mom shoos me away. “Go play,” she says.
“Yeah, go play,” says Brit, and draws a long line of soapsuds down my forearm. She gives me a look like
Can you believe I’m washing dishes with your mom?
The fake dating, this fake barbecue, all of it on paper equals me lying to Brit. All of it equals me treating my gentle, smart, kind girl bad. I know this, but I find it easy to pretend otherwise for now—because look at them, washing dishes like this. This must count for something in the long run. Right?
Everyone leaves at the same time. I walk them outside; Mom stands in her apron, waving from the porch.
“Thank you, Mrs. Li,” says Q.
“You welcome, Q,” says Mom.
“That was so amazing just the way the barbecue was marinated so perfectly and all those dishes must have taken you forever to make but they were totally worth it,” says Amelie Shin as she vanishes into Q’s car along with the rest of the Apeys.
,” says Brit out of nowhere.
is the proper way to thank a host after a meal:
I ate well, thank you.
“Holy shit,” I say.
“Oh,” cries Mom. “You speaking Korean?”
“Well,” says Brit. Now it’s her turn to blush. “The Internet does.”
,” says Mom.
Cheonmanaeyo. You’re welcome.
Brit gives me a sly smirk. I frown and arch an eyebrow, impressed. Who studies vocab the night before a date?
A nerd. A beautiful nerd.
Q toots a farewell toot. As he backs out of the driveway, there’s Dad, pulling into the driveway. Dad gets out in time to wave hi-bye at Q’s car full of Apeys. Then he turns toward the house and sees me, sees Brit.
“Hey, Dad,” I say. “How was The Store?”
“Oh, same-o same,” says Dad, which is his version of
. He smiles at Brit. “Nice see you again.” And he heads into the house.
Brit and I look at each other like
That went better this time.
“I’m gonna walk Brit to her car,” I say.
“Very be careful,” says Mom.
“It’s fifty feet,” I say.
When Brit and I walk the ten paces to her car, the urge to throw my arm around her waist almost sends me into shouting floor spasms. She smiles. But she’s quiet. I dare a glance at the front doorway: Mom is gone, leaving only an empty orange rectangle of light. So I hook an index finger and tip Brit’s chin up to face me.
“Hey,” I say. “You’re my favorite, did you know that?”
Brit takes my hand in hers. I check to make sure it’s not visible from the front door.
“I know what I’m up against,” says Brit, because Brit Means is not stupid.
But I pretend anyway. “What do you mean?”
“I know your mom wishes you were with Joy.”
“Did she say something to you?”
“She didn’t have to,” says Brit, playing with the thick part between my thumb and forefinger. “But man, she really, really wishes it. She knows Joy’s with Wu, right?”
“She doesn’t, because I’m pretending to date Joy to hide you from Mom-n-Dad.”
I of course say no such thing. Part of me wants to just do it. But I think about how much those words would hurt Brit, so I leave them unsaid. Instead I say:
“I’m sorry about Mom. It’s such bullshit.”
“It’s okay,” says Brit. “It’s just—you’ve seen how my family is. I’m not used to being held at a safe distance. And look at me. I’m as safe as safe bets get.”
“You’re way better than safe,” I say. “I so want to kiss you.”
“Me too, frankly.”
“Here we are, wanting to kiss, and we can’t. I’m sorry.”
We stare at each other for five otherworldly seconds. Five seconds on Venus.
“Can you bear with the bullshit?” I say. “I promise you it’ll be worth it.”
I’m saying it to myself, too.
I promise all this gem swapping, all this deceit upon deceit, will be worth it.
“As long as we’re honest about what we’re dealing with,” she says, all trust and smiles, and gets into her car to drive away.
slithers up my pant leg like a vine of shame. Her car slides around the corner and fades away. I stand there as the night increases its volume around me.
My phone buzzes. It’s Joy.
Not your fault! Can’t avoid the physics of parental forces.
Joy types for a while, then says:
Everything would be so much easier if only we just actually liked each other lol
“If only,” I say.
J: DINNER (LOCATION TBD)
F: WE ALL SCREAM FOR ICE CREAM EXHIBIT @ THE HENRY GALLERY
J: SKEEBALL TOURNAMENT @ GAMEDOME
RETURN TO BASE
Making the drop is kind of a pain this time around—apparently Wu’s decided on a Cheese Barrel Grille right behind the very place I’m taking Brit, this pop-up art event thing called
We All Scream for Ice Cream
. I let Joy out of the car.
“Go do you,” I call through the window, quoting Joy back to her.
“You too,” she says, strutting backward.
Then I drive over to Brit’s. I climb the steps to her house and knock on her red door and she appears immediately, as if she’d been waiting just on the other side.
We stand there for a moment, just admiring each other. Her tee shirt reads
WHAT HAS FOUR
, which takes me a second to get. Brit immediately kisses me. She hangs on to my neck. And when Brit’s dad appears, she doesn’t let go. Again, I’m amazed at how comfortable her family is with open affection.
“Hey, Frankie,” says Brit’s dad, dressed in a gray tracksuit, cradling a beaker of tea.
“Hey, Mr. Means.”
“I read in the paper about this ice-cream exhibit thing. They’re calling it
art for the Snapstory generation
Snapstory is an app where you can share photos. Everyone uses it, everyone loves it, everyone hates it. It’s basically this horrible corporate surveillance machine that cranks out nonstop soul-crushing envy as a side bonus.
“Eh, I’m taking a break from Snapstory these days,” I say. It’s true. I feel so much happier not having to obsess over getting or giving likes.
“Really?” says Mr. Means. “I was just thinking I should get up to speed on Snapstory.”
“It’s a super-self-conscious, super-judgy place. You can’t just be yourself.”
“So everyone there is faking it.” He sips his beaker.
I nod with a knowing eyebrow:
I shake Brit’s dad’s hand and dance away with his daughter down the steps, and when we get into the QL5 to drive away, Brit puts her hand atop mine atop the drive shifter knob and we sit in silence like a young king and queen sharing a scepter.
The pop-up museum is in what once was Playa Mesa’s old factory district. There’s a bunch of hipster restaurants and bars in converted warehouses; people my age go there to pretend we’re adults already. Hanna used to take me here before.
Before she got disowned.
I park and snap a pic of the outside of the museum: it looks
like a corrugated hangar that’s been attacked by giant multicolored scoops of ice cream. But I don’t Snapstory it—I text it to Hanna.
Guess where I am.
Look at you, hipster,
writes Hanna in a rare quick response. I wonder where she is. Is she at home, curled up next to Miles? On the train going home from work?
I miss you,
I want to write. Also,
I’m dating Brit by fakedating Joy.
But me and Hanna don’t really talk like that. Instead we use the world as our backboard, like squash players.
I’m growing a beard and a man bun after this just to piss you off,
I say. This means
I wish you were here.
You do and I’ll come back and cut that shit off myself,
says Hanna. This means
I miss you too, little brother.
And when I say
I dare you,
I really mean:
I wish you could come home and everything could be simple like it used to be.
I wait and wait for a response, then give up. When Hanna goes silent, it could be ten minutes or ten days before she writes again.
“Who’s that?” says Brit.
Brit knows I have a sister Hanna. She knows I love her. She knows she’s cool. Brit knows because I’ve told her so. But she doesn’t know about the Miles situation.
“Tell her I say hi,” says Brit.
“I will,” I say, but I don’t.
Inside the museum we find ourselves surrounded by a forest of towering sugar cones and Popsicles the size of felled trees.
Brit cranes her neck in amazement. “Guh, I feel like Brit and the Brownie Factory.”
“I feel like Frank and the Frozen Yogurt Factory.”
There’s a swing made of licorice; there’s a climbable wall of gumdrops the size of watermelons. In the distance, I can see people swimming in a pool full of rainbow-colored jimmy sprinkles. Everyone is doing the Snapstory dance: swing the phone up, pose for the photo, then chimp around the screen hunting for the perfect emoji, stickers, and filters to post with.
“This place is manipulating my brain at the ganglion cellular level,” says Brit. “Must. Take out. Phone.”
“Stay strong, dammit,” I say, shaking her shoulders. They’re awesome shoulders.
She takes her phone out of her back pocket, raises it, and tucks her face close in beside mine.
“Come on, one selfie,” she says, laughing. “Let’s brag about us. Let’s make everyone feel like shit compared with us.”
For a full second, panic racks my body like a fever. I imagine our selfie going up, then one of the Limbos seeing it, then one of their parents perhaps catching a glimpse over their shoulder, then phone calls to Joy’s mom and my mom, and then the slow rumble of suspicion and its impending questions looming dark in the sky.
But no way in Pastafarian hell can I deny Brit a selfie. To do so would be incredibly awkward. Like ruin-the-night awkward.
So we take the selfie. At the last second, Brit kisses my
cheek. The kiss is captured. She tags it, stickers it, face-filters it, the whole nine, until it becomes a perfect mess of a social media garbage plate. Then she hits Share. It’s undeniably a boyfriend-girlfriend selfie. There is nothing at all friend-friend or study-buddy about it. She writes a caption:
Love demands you do stupid things like post goofy selfies, but if that’s what love takes, then I can be stupid all day. At #WeAllScreamForIceCreamExhibit with @frankofhouseli
Wait. Is Brit saying she loves me?
I look at the photo, then at Brit. I want to know how it would feel to say the word
. But I’m scared of where that would lead. I’m scared of the stakes it would raise. I find myself standing paralyzed before a whole entire next level to our relationship.
“There’s a whole entire next level to this exhibit,” says Brit, and leads me up a flight of vanilla wafer stairs. At the top they’re handing out samples of ice cream with bizarre flavors, like jasmine and bacon caramel.
“I’ll try the jalapeño pistachio,” says Brit.
“Getting crazy,” I say, kissing her cheek. “I’ll try the cinnamon churro.”
“Frankenbrit!” says a voice in strong California Surfer Local.
“I saw your post, so I figured—” says Wu with a little pop-n-lock move “—we’d come check it out to kill some time.”
Joy appears from behind a gummy bear the size of a real bear. “The wait for Cheese Barrel Grille is like ninety minutes.”
I have to stifle a laugh. Joy absolutely despises Cheese
Barrel Grille, whose presence fatally undermines any hipster cred the warehouse district might’ve had. She hates it down to its spelling of
with that extra French-for-no-reason
is originally Brit’s joke. Brit is here, Joy is here, Wu is here. We’re all here standing close together, and it makes me feel like my deception is hidden only by the thinnest of curtains, ready to be revealed by the slightest accidental breeze. My head starts to spin and my heels leave the floor just a millimeter.
Wu starts performing for a selfie video, and he hook-arms Joy into the frame, where they make goofy faces and stick out their tongues and laugh. But as soon as he stops recording, he’s all business, tagging and captioning and whatever. Brit leans in to help Wu spell tags correctly. While they screen-chimp, I whisper to Joy.
“Seeing all of us together is kinda freaking me out.”
But Joy seems lost in her own thoughts. “We’re fighting.”
Fighting? A moment ago they were having fun for the camera. Then I remind myself that social media is all a lie. “Why?” I say.
“Same shit,” says Joy. “He feels like I’m holding him at a distance. Because I am.”
“Wait, so it’s hashtag?” says Wu to Brit. “Not circle-A?”
“Hashtag,” says Brit. “And then hit Share.”
“Nice, thanks,” says Wu with a moonwalk step. Then he notices Brit’s tee shirt.
WHAT HAS FOUR LETTERS
Wu thinks. “I don’t know. What has four letters?”
“That’s the joke,” says Brit. “What has four letters.”
Wu stares and stares.
,” says Brit, counting on her fingers. “Four letters.”
“It’s the word
!” cries Wu. He claps his big hands once. “Which has
! Fuck, Brit Means, that’s funny—but like mind-blowing also?”
He looks around at the room as if to say,
Have you seen this fucking tee shirt?
Many, many girls stare back at him. He elevates his elbow, runs a hand through his hair, and stuns every single one of them with his eyes: zap-zap-zap. Their boyfriends lead them away like orderlies.
“I just wish we could be ourselves, out in the open like everyone else,” says Joy. I can see a weariness in her eyes. She looks tired.
“I wish the same wish,” I say.
Joy’s left buttock starts vibrating. She reaches into the pocket and holds up a restaurant pager flashing angry red.
“Baby, our table’s ready,” says Joy.
“Fuck yeah,” says Wu. “See you, Brit. See you, my Asian stud brotha!”
He gives me a devastating body slam of a hug. Like many things Wu Tang,
Asian stud brotha
somehow makes sense coming only from him and no one else. When he says it, I start to think,
a stud; I
Even though by the next minute I’ll have no idea what any of that meant.
I watch them leave. I watch and watch. I realize what I’m watching for: a lookback from Joy.
Joy looks back with a smile and a shrug.
Wish me luck, Frank.
“Wu is so . . .” says Brit, searching for the word.
Brit looks shocked. “No!”
“It’s okay, you can call him dumb. He’s dumb. I still like him.”
“It’s just that Joy’s so . . .”
“Smart?” I say, with a little pride. For Joy is my very good friend, maybe better than I fully realize. I’m proud to know her.
Brit nuzzles my neck. “You’re smart.”
“I’m not so smart,” I say. “I’m kind of a dum-dum.”
Brit giggles. But it’s true. Only a dummy would keep a girl like Brit a secret. Only a dummy would think that made any kind of sense. Or that it was in any way fair.
“Should be peak sparkles right about now,” says Brit. “Wanna see?”
I have no idea what she’s talking about, and I don’t care. I hold her hand. We zip into jackets and stumble out onto an empty beach. The moon watches over a sandscape gone blue and ice cold. There is no one there. The world is ours.
I cinch Brit’s hoodie down tight around her face and she does the same to mine, and we both look like cartoon characters waddling toward the pounding surf. Just for fun we attempt a kiss. It’s as awkward as flipping a light switch with your nose. I love it.
“I’ve never been to this beach,” I say.
“Technically it doesn’t exist,” says Brit. She points. “This
city doesn’t want it, and neither does that one. Oh, there’s the sparkles.”
At first I think it’s just the white foam catching the meager light. But when my eyes adjust, I see it: an alien blue glow blooming and dissipating wherever the ocean churns. Peak sparkles.
“My brother studies marine biology,” says Brit. “The way he explains it, the sparkles are caused by tiny dinoflagellates that glow as a defensive response when they get tossed around. So their beauty isn’t what it seems, because really they’re undergoing trauma.”
Metaphor incoming. “Sorry, dinoflagellates,” I say.
I sneak my hand up her jacket and feel the small of her back; she tucks her fingers under my belt. We stand strapped snugly together like this. It feels like we’ve known each other forever already. Maybe this is why people get married? For this cozy feeling? Because I could savor this cozy feeling for a long time.
It’s a ridiculous scene. The moon hangs low and full like a lamp. The sea, a shining sheet of mercury.
I reach up into my jacket pocket—into our warm little world—and extract earbuds for me, earbuds for her. I hit Play on my phone. And I get to simply behold her face transforming as she listens to what I’ve titled “Song for Brit.” She doesn’t have to say anything. I can see the memories flickering silver and gold in her eyes like a music video.
It’s a song cut and pasted together, using sounds from every time me and Brit have been together so far. There are the plinks and scrapes from Scudders, a tweaked
Let’s Heart Dancing
, a layer of ambient room tone from our first partner project at her house. On top of it all I added water sounds from Lake Girlfriend. It’s our brief but brilliant history, in a single track.
As we stand here in this perfect-perfect setting, listening to the movie soundtrack of us, Brit and I become familiar A-list stars in a classic romantic film everyone knows and cherishes. I know what will happen next. Everyone knows.
We kiss, drawing circles upon circles over and over again. Then she says it:
“I love you.”
She says it like it’s something that urgently needs to be said. Like something she really needed me to know. And as soon as she says it, concern shadows her eyes. I sense that she was assuming I loved her too. That I would say “I love you” back. But now she might be wondering: what if I didn’t? What would she do with all the white sand on this beach? All these blue sparkles? That damn moon out there?