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Authors: David Yoon

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“How big?” says Joy.

“This is going to sound weird.”

“I’m totally okay with weird.”

“My big what-if,” I say, and look into Joy’s eyes. “It’s more of a proposal.”

“Uh,” says Joy.

I drum my fingers on my knees. “You have a Chinese boy problem. I have this white girl problem. Our parents have these big, huge blind spots—racist blind spots—in their brains. What if we used those blind spots to our advantage?”

Joy raises an eyebrow. “What do you mean.” She says it like a statement, not a question.

“What I propose we do is this.” I take a breath and hold it. “I propose we pretend to date each other.”

Joy stares at me.

I gallop a little in my seat. “We pretend to date each other, because you know the parents are just gonna let us date and date and date as much as we want, right? School nights. Holidays. Whenever. But on every date—”

Joy’s eyes go big. “On every date, we meet up with our date-dates.”

I point my fingers, Wu-style. “Wurd.”

Joy’s frozen with this incredulous smile that grows and grows until she explodes with her weird rapid-fire squirrel army laugh. She laughs and laughs and laughs.

When she stops, I notice that the party downstairs has gone silent. They’re trying to
listen
.

“You’re crazy,” says Joy.

I fold my arms and smirk the righteous smirk.

“But you’re a fucking genius,” says Joy.

chapter 9
total perfect mind control

Joy and I huddle in close over our phones.

“So I just text you when Wu wants to go out?” she says.

“Yeah. And then I make sure to set up a date with Brit for the same day and time.”

“But they can’t know.”

“You mean Wu and Brit.”

“‘Oh hey there, Brit Means,’” says Joy in dumb-boyfriend voice. “‘I’m just pretending to date Joy as my rent-an-alibi so we can see each other without any questions from my super-racist parents who hate ninety-eight percent of the country.’”

“You put it like that, I guess it wouldn’t go over so well,” I say.

“But just logistically it makes life so much easier,” says Joy.

I smile at her.
Right?

“So then you just text me back when our dates are in sync, and vice versa?” says Joy.

“That’s a lot of texting,” I say. “Oh, I know: we should make a shared calendar.”

“Nerd,” says Joy.

I just look at her like
So?

“Actually, a shared calendar might make sense,” says Joy finally.

I send her an invite. She accepts. I create a test calendar event for tonight on my phone, titled
FRANK AND JOY OFFICIALLY STAR
T DATING
.

Joy’s phone buzzes; she sees the calendar event, laughs.

“Okay, then.”

“Okay, then.”

“Frank!” yells Mom from downstairs. “Dinner ready!”

I nod at Joy. “You ready for this?”

Joy nods back, and for a second we feel like two rangers getting ready to jump out of a plane.

The way we do it is this: we hold hands and walk down the stairs together. I’ve held her hand plenty of times in the past: during thumb wrestling, ersatz seances with the other kids during Halloween, or interminable prayer circles before holiday feasts. That’s always been with other people present, though—this time, it’s just me and Joy.

“Your hand is all sweaty,” says Joy as we descend.

“That’s all you.”

“You.”

“You-you.”

Once we reach the bottom of the stairs, we execute the final part of the maneuver: turn, make sure to fall into the parents’ line of sight, hold hands for a half second longer,
and then let go quick. The point is to appear as if we forgot to stow our PDA until it was
just
too late, because that’s how into each other we have miraculously become over the last ninety minutes up in Joy’s room.

It works.

“Ahhhh,” say the parents.

“What?” I say, all innocent.

“Eat,” says Mom.

“Eat, eat,” says Joy’s mom, fussing with Sternos under ornate silver pans.

“You want wine?” says Dad.

This is when I know they’re falling for the plan. Wine?

We grab some food. Dinner’s French food done all Korean-style, meaning in the form of a buffet and in quantities that are way, way too much. I pile my plate. Joy piles hers. When we get to the last buffet pan, I see that Dad is waiting for us.

He
escorts
us over to the kids’ table and hustles out chairs for us, like a swarthy maître d’ from Middle Earth, and we sit. The kids’ table is usually larger than this. There are usually more Limbos. This table is meant for only two. We sit facing the adults; the adults sit facing us. It’s like a sweetheart table at a goddamn wedding.

It’s silent for a moment. Then someone—Mrs. Song, fiddling with her giant Korea-only phone/tablet thing—abruptly puts on an adult contemporary rock song: some insipid string of croony cliches.

Meanwhile Dad pours the wine all the way to the rim of our glasses as if it were orange juice and we were six.

I never knew I could feel this way / The clouds are breaking it’s a brand-new day

Joy is vibrating, like she’s itching to flip the table. “Oh man oh man, I can’t do this.”

“Stay strong,” I whisper.

We both crack up.

The parents freeze and gaze at us with these big, dumb happy-donkey smiles. Then they all catch themselves and clumsily resume their adult conversation, like drunks trying to be sly.

It’s excruciating, but it’s
working
. So it’s a sweet pain.

“Let’s toast,” I say. “I hear booze can help.”

We can’t lift our glasses—they’re too full—so we duck our heads and sip and immediately regret it, because damn, who seriously drinks wine straight up like that without at least mixing it with Sprite or something? Alcohol, I don’t get you.

“Hey,” whispers Joy. “Watch this.”

“What?”

“Just look at me for a three-count.”

I look into her eyes for three seconds, and out of my right ear I can hear the grown-ups’ table fall dead silent.

“Now look at the grown-ups’ table.”

I do, and so does she, and the drunks pretend to chatter again.

“Look back at me,” says Joy.

And I do. I always assumed her eyes were black for some reason. But they’re not. They’re a deep hazel. I find myself wondering if they would be big enough to meet Mom’s
ludicrous size requirements. Her upper eyelids have that little double fold to them: that ssangkkeopul so coveted by Koreans they’ll risk cosmetic surgery to get it.

I don’t have ssangkkeopul. Does that mean I should be envious?

Eh, whatever. I like my eyes. They’re black, by the way, like the soul of an ultra-rare level twelve chaotic evil antipaladin.

“Huh,” I say. “I never noticed you have ssangkkeopul.”

Joy attempts to look at her own eyelids, which is funny. “They went like this after puberty for some reason. Mom says they make me look tired.” She blinks, tugs her eyelids flat.

“Stop doing that, dude. It’s like Chinese-Japanese-look-at-these-dirty-knees.”

“Jesus, that shit.”

“Sorry to remind you.”

Chinese-Japanese-look-at-these-dirty-knees
was a racist song white kids used to sing to kids like us when we were little. It was always accompanied by the pulling of the eyelids, to make things extra ching-chong.

“Anyway,” I say. “Your eyes look nice just the way they are.”

Joy just starts laughing her full-on Joy laugh, eekeekeek-honk-eekeekeek, because two things are happening right now: the grown-ups’ table is as dead silent as fascinated meerkats, and the music playing is actually singing the words:

You’re beautiful just the way you are / Girl, you know you’re a shining star

“Ah, fuck,” I say, and laugh too.

“Look back on three,” says Joy. “One, two, three.”

We do, and the parents start talking again.

I feel the potential of immense power. Total perfect mind control will be mine.

Dad approaches and knocks his heels together to stand at attention, and I swear he considers a curt bow but decides against it. He sees my still-full glass. “You no drinking wine?”

“Dad, I’m so full, I’m gonna barf.”

“Eigh,” says Mom.

“You wanna go visit the vomitorium so we can keep eating?” I say to Joy.

“That’s disgusting,” says Joy, and giggles, and nudges my shoulder.

And the parents fall silent again. Really, it’s like a light switch.

Finally it’s time to leave. Me and Joy execute the fatal finishing move of tonight’s smashing inaugural test run.

“I’ll get the car warmed up,” I say. It’s chilly for Southern California, meaning an arctic 60 degrees, and Mom likes a warm car even if it increases the likelihood of Dad throwing up in a to-go cup.

I go outside. Joy follows me.

I do just like we planned: start the car, crank the heat, and leave the vehicle.

Then, in full view of the Songs’ open front door, I lean in to Joy and make like I’m kissing her cheek.

“We’re a couple of goddamn zoo pandas,” I whisper into her ear.

She laughs.

Let me tell you something. I live to make people laugh. Parents, siblings, friends, lovers, doesn’t matter. I just have to. If you for some reason don’t know how to make someone laugh, then learn. Study that shit like it’s the SAT. If you are so unfortunate as to have no one in your life who can make you laugh, drop everything and find someone. Cross the desert if you must. Because laughter isn’t just about the funny. Laughter is the music of the deep cosmos connecting all human beings that says all the things mere words cannot.

Joy laughs and we separate, and the orange rectangle of the Songs’ front door has become crowded with silhouettes.

This is gonna work gangbusters.

frank li

in

love

chapter 10
old new loves

Joy and I spend the next couple of days working out the kinks in our system. First, I set a calendar event titled
OLD NEW LOVES
MOVIE WITH BRIT
. Joy immediately deletes it.

Dumbass, don’t use any names,
she writes.

Aha,
I write back.

So I make a new event titled simply
SATURDAY: F

OLD
N
EW
LOVES
MOVIE
. The
F
very cleverly stands for
Frank
.

A day later I’m in Calculus, and we’re going over test answers together. Q got a perfect 100, for he is Q. Q also scored a perfect 1520 on the PSAT, forever ago.

I got a 97. So did Brit. She reached over and drew a fat heart around my number, which is totally middle school, but I do not care one single bit.

I feel a buzz and dare to take a peek at the screen:

S
ATURDAY:

TITANFIST
3
R
ESUSCITATION
MOVIE

Titanfist 3
is one long bro-yell of a movie, and I can so clearly picture Wu fist-pumping at the screen while Joy buries herself in her seat that I have to stifle a laugh.

“Mr. Frank, are you seriously looking at a phone in our sanctuary of learning?” says Mr. Berry Soft.

“I’m so sorry,” I say, and put it away. I give Brit a quick grin and her nose crinkles happily:
What are you up to?
A wave passes through me. A wave of something. Mischief? Thrill? Daring?

Mr. Soft holds his gaze, not mad or anything, just patiently waiting. “Anything you’d like to share?”

I do want to share. I want to stand on my desk and declare,
I have my first real date with Brit
to the class. But I just offer a contrite smile and shake my head no.

“Next week our SAT boot camp starts,” says Mr. Soft, “so let your brains rest. No homework this weekend.”

“Aw,” says Q with genuine disappointment.

“I am blessed to have you as a student, Mr. Q,” says Mr. Soft. “Pound sign blessed.”

•   •   •

Later, I gather things from my locker for the weekend. I look at my warped reflection in my cheap stick-on mirror. I’ve never thought of myself as good-looking. But Brit must think so. Wouldn’t that make me officially good-looking? I slam the locker door shut to reveal Q’s face inches from mine.

“Jesus,” I say. “You scared the poop out of my butthole.”

“We’re hitting the Blood Keep bonus level tomorrow,” says
Q. “Me, Olmo, you, and the Patel brothers on webcam. Bring your headset, because it’s us versus a friggin’ demigod.”

“Q, Q, Q,” I say. “Listen.”

Q’s face falls. “No.”

“I have a date.”

“Urghhh,” says Q.

“Pull yourself together, old chap,” I say in my best posh lockjaw.

Q closes his eyes. “Deep breath, soft focus.” He opens them again. “Right, then. My boy Frank, I am quite delighted for you. And this date is . . . ?”

“Dinner and that
Old New Loves
movie.”

“Brilliant.”

Q eyes me, like my face suddenly got different. Maybe it has.

“And your parents are cool with her?” he says.

I inhale sharply and yank my backpack straps. “Mhm,” is all I say. I don’t want to tell him just yet about my covert dating strategy, which probably seems ludicrous if you look at it up close. But ludicrous times, they say, call for ludicrous measures.

“Wow, that was easy,” says Q. “How did things turn around with them? Did something good happen with Hanna?”

“Why?”

“Huh?”

We both stare at each other for a moment, confused. My phone buzzes.

“That’s her, gotta run,” I say.

By
her
, I mean Joy, saying,
Pick me up in 30.
But Q doesn’t need to know that right now.

“I’ll just be at the Blood Keep, then,” says Q.

•   •   •

I drive home in my unenthusiastic Consta as fast as I can and pound up the stairs to my room to get ready. I have just enough time for a five-minute shower, hair gel touch-up, and a fresh shirt: my favorite one with the dog sipping tea in hell saying
This is fine.

I’m tipping my head back to clip my nose hairs in the mirror when a voice sings softly at me.

“Where you going tonight?”

It’s Mom, leaning against the doorjamb.

“Dinner,” I say. “Then a movie.”

“Good, good,” says Mom with obvious relish. “What movie?” she asks, as if the film choice will augur my future.

“It’s called
Old New Loves
.”

“What it’s about?”

“Mommy, you don’t bothering Frank, okay?” calls Dad from the other room. “He must be get ready.”

“Sound like love story,” says Mom. “Joy like it, I bet. Girl like love story.”

“Mom,” I say. “I gotta go.”

Dad appears in the doorway next to Mom, holding keys. “You take my car.”

I look at him. I’ve never driven Dad’s car before. He holds his keys out like a chef would a big pinch of salt.

“Thanks, Dad.”

“Mmm,” says Dad.

Mom-n-Dad stand all smiles in the doorway, blocking me.

“Can I . . . ?” I say.

Finally they clear the way. “Okay, go,” says Mom.

I hammer downstairs and jump into Dad’s QL5, and by the time I’m backing out, Mom-n-Dad are already in position to wave me off like I’m going out to sea.

•   •   •

I get to the Songs’ insane beach cliff house and text Joy from the car.

Standing by

Roger,
says Joy.

Joy comes exploding from the giant designer cherry front door, and as she whirls once to wave bye to her parents, I see her hair flash green in the blue light of dusk. She slams into the car.

“My dad used to have one of these,” says Joy, glancing around at the faded interior. She smells like rose, like an actual rose.

My heart is pounding. I can tell from a single pulsing sinew in her neck that hers is, too.

“Let’s do this,” I say with a grin.

As we drive away, I can see Joy’s parents waving and waving until we are out of sight.

“Do you know what my parents actually said just now?” says Joy.

“What?” I say, taking a turn a little too fast. The thrill of the caper is slowly ebbing to make way for another thrill waiting in the wings: Brit and I sitting close, dreaming together of love on a big screen.

“They said, ‘Don’t wake us up when you get home.’ Can you believe that? They basically just said I could stay out as late as I want.”

I nod and nod at her in happy disbelief. “My dad gave me his friggin’ car.”

“I bet we could go out every single night and they wouldn’t care,” says Joy with wonder.

“Dude,” I say, and high-five her.

“Whoa whoa whoa,” says Joy. “Got a visual on the package.”

We’re approaching her movie theater. In the distance stands Wu, the aforementioned package, before a
Titanfist 3
poster, trying to imitate the crouched fighting stance of the twenty-story-tall robot depicted there. But he’s not satisfied with his pose, so he shakes it off and tries again.

“Go, go,” I say.

Joy releases her seat belt. “So don’t worry about getting me home, okay? Wu’ll give me a ride. He’ll insist.”

I imagine Wu pulling up to Joy’s doorstep, to the confusion of her parents. “But—”

Joy preempts my concern. “I always have him drop me off at the wrong house a couple doors down. It’s worked out so far.”

“Damn,” I say. “Poor Wu.”

“You mean poor Wu if he ever met my parents,” she says,
and slams the door. She calls through the glass: “Go do you.”

“You too.”

And I’m off again.

Alone in the car, I take a deep breath, hold it for a second, and feel a calm silence seep into my mind. The handoff is complete; all that’s left to do is get Brit and enjoy the evening.

I let myself sink into the cracked leather seat. I roll down all the windows. I dangle an arm to catch scoops of dewy air outside, and my hand becomes the rudder of a boat cutting through a perfect sheet of water.

Brit’s house looks different during the day. There are jewel-colored succulents dotting a gravel yard like little sculptures; didn’t notice those the night of our calculus assignment. There is a mermaid carved from driftwood hanging over the front door. It looks historical and beloved. And the door itself, painted red—it looked brown that other night—has a small silver knocker the shape of a dog’s butt.

I can’t help but compare it with my house: a low-snouted cookie-cutter ranch house with a blank green lawn in front, all practical. My parents work too much to carve mermaids for the threshold. But they must be working toward that kind of stuff, right? Toward that time in life when the hustle eases up, the body relaxes, and the mind begins to contemplate the ideal door knocker.

Otherwise what is the point?

The dog butt jiggles. The door opens to reveal Brit.

“Dog butt,” I say, pointing.

“You like that, huh,” says Brit.

She’s changed clothes too, and now wears a tank top with a battleship bearing a bar code on its hull, with the caption
LET’S SCANDINAVIAN
.

“I love that shirt so hard,” I say.

She draws a hand down my chest to examine my shirt and says, “I love yours, too.”

Then something occurs to her. “I forgot my sweater. The movies are always so freezing. Come in and say hi.”

She runs upstairs and suddenly I’m in her house again, alone for the moment. I scan in all the details I can: a bouquet of old blueprints rolled up in a tall vintage milk can, a framed French movie poster the size of a bedsheet, a photo of Brit when she was little, tumbling around with her parents in a colorful ball pit. Everything in the room holds intent and emotion and significance.

I think again how different things are in my house. Mom collects chicken-shaped ceramics for no real reason, the cheaper the better. Dad likes souvenir hooks. Any kind of hook from anywhere, the cheaper the better: Hermosa Beach, Los Angeles Airport, Scotty’s Castle.

My parents’ house feels like it’s constantly on the way toward something. Brit’s parents’ house feels like it arrived there a while ago.

“We meet again,” says a voice, and it’s Brit’s dad, approaching in a gray hoodie.

“Hey,” I say.

And with that, he gives me a hug. “I had a feeling about you, buddy. You want a beer?”

“Uh,” I say. “I’m eighteen?”

“Ah, right. How about some weed, then?” He hugs himself and laughs. “Just kidding.”

“Good to see you again, Frank,” croons a voice, and it’s Brit’s mom, also in a gray hoodie. Brit appears behind her, holding a thin sweater.

I regard the four of us, parents in matching hoodies, kids in matching novelty shirts, and want to giggle at the cuteness of it all. A moment passes through the room like a warm updraft in a night vale.

“We should get going,” says Brit.

“Don’t want to miss the previews,” I say.

“I was just going to say that,” says Brit, quietly impressed, and gives me a tilted smile.

“Before you go,” says Brit’s dad, “I wanted to give you something. Brit says you’re into found audio assemblage.”

The words
found audio assemblage
ping-pong around in my mind. So there’s a phrase for it. And Brit’s dad knows it. An incredible feeling pricks my skin, like when your name is called over the loudspeaker at an awards assembly and everyone looks at you.

Brit’s dad hands me a small round tin. “When Brit’s mom and I were still just courting back in Brooklyn, I had this hobby of recording subway sounds. You might dig it.”

“Whoa,” I say, accepting the tin. “Are you sure?”

“See what it inspires,” he says, and gives Brit a wink.

Brit does not eyeroll or sigh or do any of the teenagery things teenagers are supposed to do. She holds her gaze upon
me, like she’s sure I’ll do something great with this small old tin. And indeed her look makes me want to do something great.

•   •   •

The best part of
Old New Loves
isn’t the movie itself—although it’s great, a perfect blend of rom and com, two of my favorite things in the world—but the part before the movie where Brit and I are in line waiting to get snacks. In line, among the other couples young and old, boys with girls holding their thin sweaters and men with women holding their thin sweaters, plus the occasional boy with boy or girl with girl also holding their respective thin sweaters.

I feel like I’ve joined a club. A club of couples.

“Can we get extra jalapeños for the nachos?” says Brit to the cashier.

“I was just going to say that,” I say, drunk with wonder.

We give the previews our full attention and whispered critique, because it turns out we’re both like that. We give the movie our full attention, too. By the end a single hot tear is shining down my cheek, and Brit wipes her own eyes before wiping mine.

We save our kissing for the end credits. I can taste pepper and cheese and she can too, because we both get the urge to wash our mouths out with soda before trying again.

“Much better,” I say.

A short drive away there’s a dumb little cafe over in Crescent Beach, the kind of place with oars and license plates on the walls and old music and older patrons. There’s no
reason to ever go to a cafe like this, really. I mean: it’s even called Scudders.

Except now with me and Brit sitting side by side in a booth with cups of cocoa, it’s the perfect place to be.

“I love Scudders,” I say. I take out my Tascam and record a length of ambient audio—all soft clinks and murmurs and long chair scrapes sounding like whalesong—then put it away.

“It’s beautiful in its own way,” says Brit, examining a cluster of glass floats. “Not kitschy, though. I hate kitsch. Kitsch is not seeing something for what it is, but what you think it should be.”

“It’s like making fun of someone else’s taste.”

“It’s so mean,” says Brit.

I think about Mom’s chickens and Dad’s hooks. Are they kitsch? Am I mean about them?

I realize I kind of am. It makes me wonder if chickens and souvenir hooks were big in Korea in the eighties.

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