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Authors: David Yoon

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chapter 12
illuminating

“Frankie-ya, you want beer, something?” says Dad. “Joy, hi, nice see you.”

Dad sets a six-pack of beer—nice stuff, supposedly, IPA something-or-other—onto the floor as if feeding a cage of strange animals, and steps out again. It’s the Kims’ turn to host tonight’s Gathering.

“Daddy,” says Mom’s voice. “Don’t give alcohol.”

“They take SAT, should be relaxing now,” says Dad.

Yes: I took the SAT this morning. Although it feels a little like the SAT took me.

First, I sneezed on my test booklet, a prodigious specimen, and had nothing to wipe my nose with except the test booklet itself.

Then a girl’s cell phone went off, and she was almost disqualified but for an impassioned three-minute speech about her dreams of becoming a pediatrician. That bit of theater was entertaining, sure, but it also destroyed my concentration.

When we Apeys gathered by the flagpoles, I could tell by the way everyone was kicking at the balding grass that they hadn’t done so well, either.

“It’s not over by a long shot, guys,” said Paul Olmo. “Let’s grind our butts off for test two.”

“Grind our butts off?” said Naima Gupta.

“You know what I mean,” Paul said. “Come on, isang bagsak.”

Isang bagsak
is this Filipino thing where we all applaud in unison, going faster and faster until we end the whole thing in one big clap. Paul calls it a
unity clap
.

Our unity clap didn’t go so well either, and just wound up sounding like sarcastic praise.

Looking around at the Limbos now, I can tell we’re all thinking the same thing:
I could’ve done better.

I glance at the beer. “I don’t really drink, Dad.”

“Thank you, though,” says Joy, and gives Dad a sweet look. Man, she’s good.

Dad holds the look for a moment before gazing back at me. Then he seems to remember there are other people in the room. “Everybody doing good job today,” he says. “When is next SAT?” he adds.

With that, the room sags. Dad just acknowledged out loud that we fell short.

Mom-n-Dad vanish downstairs to the game of yut nori being played by all the parents on a big fuzzy mink blanket, named
mink
not because it’s actually sewn from murdered minks but because it’s as soft and thick as a mink coat. Yut nori is this dice game from a million years ago but instead
of dice you throw fat dowels carved from solid birch wood. Then you move little tokens around on a board. I think it might be one of the first board games ever invented. I don’t know. I should look that up.

I can hear the sticks from down below, plinking with a clear, ancient sound that feels out of place here in modern-day suburbia. Each throw of the sticks elicits oohs and aahs, or groans, or roars of laughter. I want to take my Tascam down there to record that beautiful, almost crystalline birch tone, but I’m afraid that if I do, everyone will look at me weird and start asking questions.

So I stay and stare at the ceiling. Joy stares with me.

“Stupid SATs,” says Joy. “I can’t wait for kindergarten to be over.” That’s what she calls high school:
kindergarten
.

Joy’s plan is to get into Carnegie Mellon University, in faraway Pittsburgh, so she can learn how to make the AI-powered robots that will eventually decimate humankind.

Ella Chang is here, crocheting some kind of amigurumi demon rabbit with fine needles. John Lim is here, playing
Craft Exploit
on a tablet. Andrew Kim is here too—it’s his room, after all—idly doing arm curls and staring and staring at the beer until he can take no more.

“Fuck it, I’m having one,” he says, and twists it open with thespian gusto. Andrew has been on a low-carb regimen to lose ten
camera pounds
, as he calls them. Andrew’s plan is to become the first Asian-American actor to, quote,
bang a white chick in a major feature film full-nude no merkin
, end quote.

I had to look up
merkin
.

“You guys want?” says Andrew, holding out bottles. “Booze cures anxiety.”

“I’m good,” I say.

“I better not,” says Joy Song.

“Dulls the mind,” says John Lim.

“Gimme one of those,” says Ella Chang, and stares at John with bemused defiance. She and Andrew toast. They take a long pull. I knew Andrew partied, but I had no idea about Ella. Between school and cello practice, where did she find the time?

Joy said
I better not
, as in
I better not drink
. So I ask her, “Wait, what happens when you drink?”

Before Joy can answer, Andrew belches.

“She talks,” says Andrew. “A lot. I was at a party Wu was at that one time.”

“Andrew at a party, surprise,” says John, eyes on his screen.

“Joy was all blah-dee-blah-dee-blah,” says Andrew.

“Shut up,” says Joy, laughing.

“So wait, are you still with Wu?” says Ella. She’s already on to her second beer. It’s been like forty seconds.

Joy freezes. “Uh, mhm, yeah, yes. Why?”

Ella blinks. “Oh,” she says. “Oh. Nothing. Never mind.”

Then I freeze, too. Me and Joy thought all about keeping up our charade for the parents, but we hadn’t thought about the Limbos. Do we fool them too? Or are they down? Telling them would be a risk—a potential leak in our boat.

But the fact is: we all go to the same school. We nod at each
other in the hallways. It would only be a matter of time before they began to suspect things. Trusting the Limbos with our secret might be the only path of action.

“I gotta pee,” I say, and pad down the hall in my socks to find a dark, empty bedroom. I text Joy right away.

Master bedroom

After thirty long seconds, Joy’s silhouette appears in the doorway.

“Dude,” I say.

“What?”

“I think we have to tell them.”

The birch yut nori sticks clink, and the parents all shout with glee.

“I can’t hear you.” Joy comes over and sits next to me on the bed.

“I said, we have to tell them,” I hiss in her ear.

“What? Why?” says Joy. But then she gives me a look:
You’re right.

“If they knew, they’d think we’re crazy,” I say. “But I bet they would keep our secret if we asked them. I bet they would be cool like that. Except maybe John.”

“That fucker just wants to see the world burn,” says Joy.

“I know, right?”

“But you know John’s secretly in love with Ella, don’t you?”

“No.”

“Dummy, John likes every single thing Ella puts up. He pontificates forever in her comments, too. Every. Single. Post. Haven’t you noticed how at Gatherings he spends the whole time ignoring her?” Joy waggles her eyebrows.

I laugh as quietly as I can. “Ella would cut his heart out and sun-dry slices for her pasta salad.”

“Oh my god, Frank, that’s so gruesome.”

We grin at each other in the dark for just a second, then remember the task at hand.

“What I’m saying,” says Joy, “is that maybe John can be trusted with a secret since the boy has a little secret of his own, capiche?”

I imagine a mobster Joy blackmailing John into silence, and snort. “I think he’s cool,” I say. “I think they’re all cool. If anyone’s going to understand why we’re doing something this crazy, it’ll be other Limbos.”

“Good point.” Joy heaves a single breath in and out. “Okay. Let’s tell them.”

I stand, take Joy’s hand, and slingshot her off the bed.

When we return to Andrew’s room, I see John holding court before a rapt audience.

“And then I saw him vanish with her,” says John.

“That Brit Means girl,” says Ella.

“I can explain that,” I say, startling the room.

The Limbos stare at me, waiting.

“So here’s the thing,” I say.

“You and Joy have an open polyamorous relationship,” says Andrew.

“That’s exactly right, how did you know,” says Joy flatly.

“Let him talk,” says Ella.

“So,” I say. “Me and Joy have come to this agreement, whereupon the arising of certain occasions for socializing of a romantic nature between, say, myself and a certain
member of the female population who might cause tension within a certain traditionally minded population of our shared ethnicity, uh.”

“We’re fake-dating,” says Joy.

“Ohhhh,” say the Limbos.

“So you can go out with Wu and as a bonus avoid confronting deeper issues of identity and family,” says Ella.

“Dang, Ella,” says Joy.

“And you’re with Brit Means,” says John.

I nod. I look at Joy. We shrug. We make shy little jazz hands.

“So can you keep a secret?” I say in a small voice.

Ella claps her hands to her temples and squeezes with joyful disbelief, breaking the silence. “I love it. You guys are pulling some crazy shit.”

Andrew punches the air. “Craziest! Shit! Ever!”

Ella gives me a sappy smile. “You look handsome in love, Frank.”

John bolts to attention at this. He tries to speak, but can only move his mouth like a speared fish gasping for water.

It’s too pathetic to watch. So I facepalm, but with the door frame. “I’m gonna pee.”

“Like, really pee?” says Ella, still holding her head. “Or just fake-pee?”

•   •   •

I pee for real. I slam the soap plunger, wash my hands, and dry them using the floral towel set out special for tonight’s Gathering. I notice my hands are shaking. Me and Joy just took a big risk and blew cover. Can the Limbos be trusted?
Even with their promise of silence, they could still let something slip purely by accident.

Why does everything have to be so complicated?

For a brief flash, I think to myself,
Fuck everything.
I consider ending things with Brit. Spending senior year as a monk. Saving all my dating for college. The logistics will be easier then. Why bother with all this workaround life-hackery?

I step out into the hallway and my phone buzzes with Brit’s custom pattern—dot-dot-dot, dash-dash-dash, dot-dot-dot, Morse code for SOS—and that bitter flash of
fuck everything
vanishes in a little green poof of shame. I could never simply forget Brit. She’s a book I just started reading, and I need to know where the story goes.

“Hey, you,” I say.

“Hi, Frankly,” says Brit. She’s in a quiet room somewhere, with the mic close to her mouth so that her voice sounds like it’s right in my head.

“That’s my nickname for you:
Frankly
,” she says. “Isn’t it convenient that your nickname is also your full name?”

“I’m calling you
Britmeans
, then,” I say. “Breans. Beans? Hey, Beans.”

She clicks with quiet laughter. “We can work on that one.”

The sounds of the party bark and babble around me, and I have to cup my phone to protect our conversation.

“Where are you?” says Brit.

“I’m at this Gathering thing,” I say. “It’s loud. Can I call you later?”

“What’s a Gathering?” says Brit with genuine curiosity.

A warm feeling comes over me. My forehead, which I’ve
been holding tense this whole time, goes slack. Because I realize that for Brit, I am the book she just started reading, too.

“So,” I say, “my parents and their friends promised to keep in touch when they came to America, and every month we have these get-togethers. We’ve had them ever since I was a baby. Before, too.”

“That sounds incredible.”

“It kinda is,” I say, because Brit is right. It
is
incredible. Suddenly that game of yut nori downstairs clicks into place in the cosmic timeline: it’s not just a board game, but an ongoing celebration of sorts that says,
We came all the way here. Look at us now. Look what we brought with us.

The roomful of Limbos suddenly becomes the most precious of life’s achievements: children who will never want for anything, who speak native English, who will go to the best schools in the world and never have to run an office furniture rental service (like Joy’s parents), a dry cleaner (Ella’s), a beauty supply (Andrew’s), a tourist gift shop (John’s), or a grocery store (mine).

These amazing children, the living proof of so much hard work and sacrifice in an alien land, now come blundering like idiot clowns out of Andrew’s room and spot me standing there with my phone cupped in my hands like a boy clearly talking to his girl.

“Who you talking to?” says Andrew. “Is that Brit?”

“Behold,” says John, as if witnessing a mystery revealed. “Frank Li in love.”

Ella rushes up to me, reads my phone screen, and turns her face to meet the mic. “Hi, Brit.”

“Hi, Brit,” say Andrew and Ella and John.

“Buzz, buzz, leave him alone,” says Joy. But then she, too, hoots cross-eyed into the mic. “Brit means it, mothafucka.”

Andrew’s mom screeches from downstairs: “Dinner ready!”

The Limbos go tumbling down, making faces at me the whole way. Joy gives me a stage wink before turning, hitting her elbow on a doorknob, and muttering, “Fuck.” I guess she had that beer all right.

“Who was that?” says Brit, laughing.

“Friends,” I say. “All us kids of the parents. They get buzzed off of one beer.”

“They sound so crazy. I wish I could see.”

“Eh, it’s boring,” I say. “I mean not boring, but not like fun-fun.”

“It’s family stuff.”

“Yeah.”

“I get it,” says Brit. “Still, I would love to see it. I would love to see you out of your usual context.”

Her words
love
and
see you
gently topple me so that I must lean on the wall.

“Like it would be so endearing to see what Frankly is like around his mom and dad and sister. How does he move? How does he talk?”

The mention of Hanna makes my heart clench.

I know I can’t both date Brit and prevent her from meeting my parents. Meeting family is not only inevitable, it’s
normal
:
normal
people date, things get serious, and then they start meeting the people most important to them. It’s just what
happens
. I’ve already met Brit’s parents, twice, and I
liked it. I liked seeing her with them. I get what she’s saying about different contexts.

The idea of keeping worlds separate—the world of Frank-n-Brit and the world of Mom-n-Dad—sounds about as impossible as, oh, I don’t know, keeping the worlds of Korea and America apart here in Playa Mesa.

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