Sehun, White Plains, Radio Station, 5:04am
“So Juko asked Insoo. He didn´t want to but I told him it would be okay. I mean, the idea is perfect. Juko and Zico have a lot of talent and Insoo has a lot of money. He still was shy about it. I guess, Insoo was about to say no or at least say he needed to think about it but then something strange happened.” Brooke sighs at her cellphone display, forgetting she was in the middle of telling me something. “Luhan acts strange these days. I dunno.” She shoves the cell into her pocket and leans against the wall. We´re outside the radio station and wait for Ezra. Usually I don´t pick her up at the station but most of the nights I set the alarm clock to be awake when she comes home. Today Brooke woke me around two in the morning and came over because she said she couldn´t sleep. Luhan who had to get up early was sound asleep next to her and she had too many thoughts whirling in her mind. “Strange?” I ask. I know what she means, but I can´t tell her that he actually isn´t doing anything she has to worry about. “Yeah, like, I dunno.” She shrugs. “Oh, so I told you that Insoo came to nomjas night with a woman.” She didn´t tell me but now I know, so I nod. “She has a child. The girl went to Luhans kindergarten group. She was like, ´Hello, Mr. Kindergartener, how are you?` and I thought `Damn, I want to be a mom`.” I look at Brooke and she looks away. “Anyway”, she goes on, “We were wondering if they´re dating but I think they´re just pretty close. And Insoo dotes on the girl like crazy.” Now I take a look at my cell and sigh. The radio show already came to an end. Why does it take so long for Ezra to come out? “After dinner Juko asked Insoo if he would finance their activities. And then Jael, that’s the mother, said, when Insoo was hesitating, `Didn´t you say Layken believed in Zicos talent and asked you to help him?`” Brooke pauses and I gape at her. “He talked with her about Layken?” Brooke nods, “That was so strange! He never talks with us about her. I even panic to bring up her or Gunwoos name and she just shows up and says, `Don´t you think it´s what Layken would have wanted?´ and he´s all like, `You´re right. Okay, Juko I help you.` And we don’t even know her.” I phone Ezra but hang up after two rings and go on staring at the door. “I think Luhan has something to hide”, Brooke spits out. “All those calls and he´s gone more often, he leaves me notes, telling me he´s hanging out with one of you. But last time he said he was out with Joon, Joon called me and said Luhan wasn´t answering his cell. Then he got nervous when I said they were supposed being together. You think he´s dating someone else? A Chinese girl?” My mouth drops open. “Wow”, I say. “Are you sane?” She scowls at me. “I mean, c´mon! This is Luhan we talk about. He won´t ever… He wouldn’t….” I can´t make a proper sentence because I can´t even think about it. Does she really believe Luhan would cheat on her? That´s the least thing he is capable of. I´m sure he doesn´t even have the word in his vocabulary! “Just wait a few more days and things will sort out.” Brooke sighs, “That´s all everyone ever tells me, things will sort out, just wait and see.” I grin, “Have a little trust in us.” Then I nudge her with my elbow and turn my attention towards the door that finally opens.
It is funny, whenever I see Taemin I want to pat his shoulder and tell him he needs to move on. I want to tell him that Ezra tells me everything and I know every word he said to her and every clumsy flirtation he tried. He walks beside Ezra and they talk. From the few sentences I catch before they see us I understand there is some trouble in the station and a few will lose their jobs. “Not yours, I´m sure about it.” He hugs her and then looks at me and nods. I nod back, shoving the hands into my pockets and bridge the distance between Ezra and me. I hope Taemin loses his job. I´m not afraid the two of them will ever do more than harmless flirting but I am jealous anyway. I kiss her cheek and lean closer. “Let´s not go home.” She looks startled but nods.
“We walk you home”, I tell Brooke but she waves my words off. “I take an early shift today. I just call one of my drivers to pick me up. You need a ride?”
“No, we will walk”, I take Ezras hand. We wave Brooke goodbye and start walking. As soon as we´re out of earshot I say: “Let´s wake up Zico and head over to the café. Brooke starts fantasizing about Luhan having an affair with a Chinese girl.”
Ezra rolls her eyes, “Brooke and her inner cinema. I need coffee first.”
Luhan wants to open the café next week but if we get the rest of us come here before or after their jobs we might be finish by tonight. I really don´t want Brooke to ruin her trust in Luhan because we´ve been lazy in the last few weeks. And I have my own project. I look at Ezra who lies under the new kitchen unit and tightens the screws firmly. I know Ezra doesn´t want to marry; she made it clear from the start. But I want to. And after five years I am pretty sure there´s not much she wouldn´t do if I ask her. So I plan to propose but I don’t want to propose like all those stupid jerks who by a ring and mumble some cheesy words and think that´s it. I want the beach and the sea and a starlit sky and fireworks. For the things I want I will need a little help from our friends. I already talked with Zico about it. He laughed and said, he hopes Ezra says no, just to see my stupid face. I guess, he actually hopes she says yes to see the stupid face of their parents when we tell them. Not that we talk much to their parents. In the five years I met them two times. The time we got Ezras stuff from the hotel and the second time when Zico got released from prison. They told Ezra I am an inappropriate choice and I said, `Thank you for the compliment´.
“Insoo is giving us some money”, Zico says. He is not much help since he says he needs to wake up before. After the third coffee and two muffins he is still not awake enough to work. “He doesn´t even want to have a say in the things we do. But we had to agree to one condition. He wants us to name the label after his sister. But c´mon, who will buy CDs from a music company that´s called Layken Music?”
I hear Ezras laughter.
“I wanted to call it Z”, Zico pouts.
“What about Layzi? That´s what you are, lazy.”
“Very funny. Layzi looks stupid.” He writes it on a piece of paper and I have to agree. Then he tries “Lay Z” and I say, “Find someone who´s called Lay.” He crosses both names out. “Call it Gun”, Ezra drops the screwdriver on the table. “Layken loved Gun.” Zico raises his left eyebrow, “Yeah and then I make stupid slogans like, `Don’t make war, listen to music` or `Don’t buy guns, buy CDs´.” We´re still laughing when the bell behind us tingles and Joon, looking wide awake and Juko, looking tired as hell, walk into the café.
“I have an hour before I need to open the bookstore, give me something to do.”
“You can put the kitchen utensils away”, Ezra says.
“I´ve three hours”, Juko lets us know. Zico nudges him when he passes by and Juko smiles happily. He admires Zico and looks up at him. And Zico loves Juko because he knows he gives him the structure and eagerness he lacks.
“I´m done”, Ezra crashes on one of the new cozy couches and pulls the hood over her face. I sting Zico into helping us and let her sleep. Just once in a while I stop and watch her steady breathing, suppressing the wish to snuggle against her and let the rest finish the work alone.
Jael, Soho, 7:26am
As I told my parents Jia and I would move to New York they answered, the city was no place for us, we wouldn´t know how to handle it, and we´d sooner be back in Yosemite than they could miss us. The first week after we came to New York I thought they might have been right. In Yosemite everything had been save. We had my parents around to look after us. I had a job. We knew nearly everyone who lived there. It was a community and Jia had her friends. Children who were just like her, were running wild, learned how to catch a rabbit and deal with a bear if they meet one. Children who socialized differently. But in Yosemite people never forgot who I was. The girl who tried to escape and returned in shame. The girl who chased away a reliable member of the community. I wondered every time I heard it, how reliable someone is who tries to pay his freedom with a few bucks. I knew that things wouldn´t change if I didn´t do something. So I grabbed my car keys, packed two suitcases, loaded everything in the trunk and drove from California to New York, the place where, at least until I found out I´d be a single parent, I had been happy. Running someone over the moment we arrived in New York felt like a warning sign, a sign I decided to ignore. But my parents had been right. New York was no place for us, I rented a flat I couldn´t pay, sent Jia to a kindergarten where she was the loner, couldn’t find a job, was running out of the bit money I had saved and Jia hated the city and mostly everything in it. Now, a few weeks later, I think we just needed to get used to the new life.
This morning Jia came back from another overnight trip and I wonder what kind of mother I am sending my daughter away with a stranger. But Insoo doesn´t feel like a stranger any longer. Since Jungmin told me that Layken is Insoos sister and I asked him about her, he feels like someone I know for a very long time. That day he confessed me, feeling guilty for having failed as a brother, I realized that maybe he needed Jia more than we needed him and I stopped feeling guilty about asking him for favors. So, Jia and Insoo went to a wolf park close somewhere around New York yesterday and I wanted to go with them but Jungmin made me work late. I guess, actually he made me spend time with him since there wasn’t much work left to do. Anyway, when they came back this morning Jia was overly excited and she told me if she was a plant she wouldn´t have had roots until now.
I still think it is the cutest thing I have heard in some time and at the same time I think she needs to read less. A four year old girl shouldn´t be supposed to talk like that nor should she be able to read at all.
Insoo holds the door open. I remember the address. It is the café where I asked for a job and a guy told me they were only hiring male staff. Now it looks completely different. It had been in bad state when I saw it the first time. Now it´s cozy. It is still small, just as big as a living room, but that´s exactly the charm of it. The place got turned into a living room, into the living room of friends. The door behind the counter is open and you can see the well-lit kitchen.
“Is being here really okay?” I don´t feel comfortable. “I didn´t help with the renovation.” Before Insoo can answer Luhan walks over. “Hello Mr. Kindergartener.” He kneels down, “Hello Jia, do you want me to help with the candles?” She shakes her head looking at me, “Fire is dangerous.” He takes one of the LED candles. “It´s without fire, see, you just push the button and it looks like a candle.” Jia observes the object, then she takes his hand when he gets up and offers it. “And you can help setting the tables”, Luhan smiles at me. Just like that he makes us involved and makes me feel less uncomfortable. He makes us feel welcome actually.
Being in a room with strangers who don’t feel like strangers is quite odd. While Insoo and I set the tables and I admire the ceiling where they painted a blue sky with cotton-wool clouds Zico comes to me to thank me for not killing him in the car accident and talking Insoo into helping him. I didn´t talk Insoo into anything, I just reminded him of the things he told me. But Zico doesn´t listen to my protest and promises me to give me a signed copy of his first release. Then he introduces me to his sister Ezra and her boyfriend. Her voice is different from the voice on air and on the phone but the way she talks is the same and so she too feels somehow familiar. Juko and Kai greet me and they declare Jia as a real nomja because she follows Luhan into the kitchen and comes out with her mouth full of chocolate and a skewer with chicken in her hand. I get to know Joon who I already met two times. Then Aoora and Sangsoo arrive and I have to laugh because the short time I lived in New York I was working for a small business that tried to sell costumes to Broadway shows to pay my studies and Sangsoo was my boss. He doesn´t remember me, but I can´t blame because I left soon after I signed the contract. In contrast Sangsoo is a person you can´t forget.
Luhan hushes us and turns out the big lights. Now the ceiling is dark and it looks like a night sky and when the tiny bell over the door tingles the timing is perfect because slowly little lights in the ceiling start shining. One after the other until we stand under a perfect starlit sky and Brooke starts crying.
Jia darts into the kitchen when Luhan pulls Brooke into a tight hug. I am still wondering if I need to follow her when she comes back, carrying a plate with a piece of cake and very carefully trying not to drop it while trying at the same time to run. She stops next to Luhan and Brooke and tugs Brookes sleeve. Brooke wipes her face at Luhans shoulder and he takes her face in his hands and kisses her cheeks as if kissing her tears away and then both turn to Jia who says, “Stop crying. Everything will be fine with cake.” She says it as if cake is the key to world peace and for a moment the whole room is quiet and then all of us burst into laughter at once. She grins like a little girl that knows she did something funny. Brooke takes the plate and flops on the nearest chair, still overwhelmed she does nothing else but looks around and smiles.
After a while Brooke recovers and starts looking around in her café and hugs everyone to thank them for their help, even me and I mumble I didn´t do anything, but she waves my words aside. Then Luhan, Juko and Kai start loading the tables with food and I wonder how many hours they needed to prepare all of it. By the time everyone eats and talks and laughs the bell rings and Jungmin enters the café. “We had a girlfriend-drama”, he rolls his eyes and before he does anything else Aoora and Sangsoo want to know the whole story and start gossiping and rolling their eyes about “women”. If I ever wondered whether they´re homosexual or not I´d now have my answer.
Insoo touches my elbow and hands me the plate Brooke gave him. “I´m full”, he sighs. I am more than full too and so I lean over to one of the tables and put it aside. Jia fell asleep on the sofa, sprawled all over Insoos legs. Sometimes you meet someone and a part of you makes a choice whether to fall in love or not. I guess I had this choice with Insoo. He nods over to Jungmin.
“You don’t have to sit here”, he says.
“I know, but he´s talking.”
“I´m sure he´d rather be talking with you then listen to more gossip from Aoora and Sangsoo.” Insoo nudges me with his elbow. “Go.” He also made a choice. So I get up and cross the room to stand beside Jungmin who winks at me and rolls his eyes about Sangsoo who is now complaining about an employee they once had who was scolding him all the time for gossiping about everyone and anything. I hide a grin, because somehow he does remember me.
I haven´t been surrounded by strangers very often in my life. But whenever I meet new people I sort them into people I don´t really need to see again and those who might become friends. Looking around now I don´t know how to divide those people. They seem to be close but they don´t seem to be those kind of friends who need to do everything together all the time or share every secret. They remind me of a string of pearls. Some pearls are closer and some are further away but in the end they are all connected.
Luhan put a shelf with books next to the couch and in the shelf I spotted Laykens and Gunwoos books. I read Laykens novels but not Gunwoos since it´s in French. After knowing what Layken wrote and after listening to everything Insoo told me about them I wonder if Gunwoo and Layken were the pearls with whom the chain started. They got lost with time. Just as you lose pearls from a piece of jewelry. But that doesn´t mean the string has to rips. Sometimes the pearls slide closer to close the gaps and sometimes they leave them open. Sometimes you find something to fill the empty spots. And although this can´t replace what you once lost, it can make the string complete again, in a different way. Standing here in the middle of the buzzing energy of companionship I really hope there´s a space for Jia and me to fit in.
Sehun, Turtle Bay, 3:17pm
I lean against the counter. Ezra leans against my chest. I have my arms wrapped around her. We listen to Zico complaining. He can´t find a job, out of obvious reasons. He also can´t find a bank that grants him credit. He wants to open a little label or a little music club or CD store. His dreams are modest but we can´t help him. It´s okay to pay from the money I make for Jukos lessons but I can´t afford more. I know the rest of us is lacking money as well. None of us earn a lot. Except… “Ask Insoo.” I put my chin on Ezras shoulder. “He´s right. Insoo has more money than all of us together.” Zico sighs, “But he´s a mess. When I ask him for money he might burst in tears. I can´t stand crying men.” Ezra kicks against Zicos heel. “Don’t talk like that. He has a hard time. He isn’t wearing shoes, she is. He moans in pain and rubs his foot. “I know. I won´t ask him for another reason. Then he wants to be involved in the business and I don´t want to be mean but his taste in music sucks.” I chuckle. Ezra pokes my cheek. “Think about it, it´s your best chance. He will love to help you and Juko. I bet he has no idea what else he wants to do with the money.” Zico sighs and gets up. “Brooke´s waiting. Talking about Brooke, I see you later, right?” Ezra and I nod at the same time. Zico rolls his eyes. “The two of you will become Siamese Twins, but don´t say I didn´t warn you.” He grabs his jacket and heads for the door. “Did I call Juko?” Ezra lets her head fall back against my shoulder, shouting: “I told you Juko won´t take over your shift! Call Joon!” I kiss Ezras check and turn her to face me. “I bet he doesn´t have Joons number and has to head for the shop first.” Ezra laughs. “I know. We´ve two hours, what will we do?” From the look on her face I know she thinks I will say, we´re going back to bed, but I met Jungmin earlier. He probably would have enough money to sponsor Zicos business, but he won´t do it, he says, Zico is a Johnny-on-the-spot. I would agree, but not in this case. Hip Hop, or music in general, is Zicos passion and it´s Jukos too. The two of them will do great in the music business. I hold up the key. “We cruise around in the racing car and you can drive.” Ezra lets out a cry of joy and flings her arms around my neck. We call Brooke to tell her she has to wait for Zico and to ask her for a route without much traffic. Ezra risks attracting the attention of the police more than once, but we arrive at the beach on Staten Island without intermission. Sitting in the sand, Ezra says, Brooke said Insoo went to the nomja evening on Friday. “That´s a relief.” I stretch out and let the waves wash over my feet. Ezra does the same and rests her head on my outstretched arm. I let my fingers run through her hair. “He told her, their parents want him to start a foundation in Laykens name. For children. I mean, it´s so obvious they´re doing this for themselves. They don´t want Insoo to have the money, but that was Laykens wish and I guess, Gunwoo knew what would happen, so he´s okay with it.” I bury my nose in her hair. “Children. I´m sure both of them never had a thing for children”, I say. Ezra nods agreeing. “Brooke thinks Insoo won´t do it.” A bigger wave wets our pants and we tuck up our legs. “I hope he won´t do it, if he does the chance that he helps Zico is gone.” My cellphone peeps. It´s the text of Juko we were waiting for. “All clear, let´s move.” I jump to my feet and pull Ezra with me. We don´t put on our shoes but carry them in our hands and jog back to the car. We park it in front of Jungmins Company and take the metro.
Luhan , Upper Manhattan, 4:19pm
“Hi”, the woman smiles. “My daughter went to kindergarten here for about a week. I know it´s been weeks but she didn´t miss her doll sooner. She hates dolls, she says they´re scary but she loves this particular doll.”
“We have a room where we store lost items but since it´s a doll I fear another child took it.” I gesture over to the room and she follows me. “What kind of doll?”
“It blushes when you tickle it and when you put it in the sun it gets tanned. Jia likes it because she wants to find out how it works.”
I smile at her. I like children´s urge to explore. “I have a look.” She waits at the door while I rummage through the boxes, but as I feared we don´t have any dolls. “I`m sorry.”
“Thank you and have a good day.”
I wave goodbye, lock the room again and hand the key to my boss. I´m the only male kindergartner and sometimes Brooke gets a little upset because whenever she picks me up from work she says, she feels stupid because the female kindergartners look at her. I stopped telling her about the notes with phone numbers and invitations I get. In the beginning I did but it upset her even more. Now all I do is throwing them away.
“You took time off?”
I nod and look at my cellphone. Zico wrote me he can´t come, but actually he has never been invited to help. Juko wrote he is on his way and Sehun texted that they are still at the beach but will be on their way soon. Kai and Insoo will be there too. I call the painter and he tells me he´s ready but leave the paint behind.
I call Brooke to find out when she will be home and she tells me, Juko wants to show her his new music collection so she will need a few hours at least. “I`ll wait home.” I lie a little. I take the metro and get off in Soho.
The bookstore is arranged new. Brooke and Juko helped Joon to scribble quotes on the small blackboards. They also crafted quote-clouds that hang from the ceiling. The door is open and Joon stands behind the counter. As soon as he sees me he holds up my bag with books. I came here to read often in the last few weeks. “It´s time?” I nod and pull out a book from the bag. I made a lot of notes. “I hope we don’t mess it up.” Joon laughs, “Stop worrying, it will be great.”
A few customers are reading the quotes. “I fear it distracts them from buying.” Joon turns his attention towards the door where a new customer arrives. It´s the mother I met about an hour ago. She recognizes me with a smile. Then I spot her daughter and recognize her. “Hi Jia.” She blinks at me and adjusts her glasses. “Hello Mr. Kindergartner.” It´s the little girl that had to play alone during the week she was in my group. I wave. Her mother drags her over to the counter.
“What was it you wanted to say to Mr. Bookstore Owner?”
“Nothing”, Jia folds her arms.
“My daughter stole a book. A Zombie book.” She puts the book with the pink cover on the counter.
“I didn´t steal it! I told you put the money where the book was! The man was reading, I couldn’t give him the money. You don´t disturb people who read, that´s mean!”
I look at Joon who holds back laughter. “Well, she didn´t stole it. I found the money. Everything is okay.” He takes the book, crouches down and gives it the girl. “It´s yours. Do you like it?”
“It´s okay.” Then she looks at me. “And it´s okay you didn´t find the doll. Dolls are scary.”
“Totally”, Joon and I agree.
“Thank you”, her mother says and before Jia can open her mouth, she adds: “Don’t even try to ask, we don´t buy a new book.” They leave and Joon starts laughing. Collecting himself he asks, “She goes to your kindergarten? I bet she is a lot of fun.”
“She was there for a week, but the other kids stopped playing with her. And I guess, they couldn´t afford paying for it.”
“Shit”, Joon mutters. “She was asking for a job in the café weeks ago. I should have offered her one in the bookstore.”
“I would give you her address, but we don´t keep files form children who left.”
“It´s okay. Hey, you´ve a job to do. Good luck.” He shoos me away and I run over the street and down to the metro that spits me out where the rest is already waiting. “All clear”, Sehun says. “Juko is doing his job, let´s start with ours.” I put the key in the door and turn it. The lights are off and I stumble over an empty bucket. Kai chuckles and turns on the lights. The café looks totally different and we all stop in awe. The dark floor is gone. Birch wood makes the room lighter and bigger. The walls are painted in light colors too and the ceiling shines in a clear sky-blue.
I know I could have paid an electrician for what we will do the next, but I wanted the new café to have at least a touch of me. Something I made for Brooke entirely alone – okay, with the help of our friends, but it´s more personal than paying someone.
“Okay”, I display the book. “Whenever someone has a question I can´t answer, ask the book. And now let´s start.” Insoo and Sehun carry ladders into the middle of the room. Ezra looks a bit skeptical but then steps on the ladder that Kai stables and I explain her what she has to do. Sehun doesn´t work while Ezra is on the ladder. He watches her anxious. It´s the other way around when it´s Sehuns turn to be on the ladder. I decide to make them more useful and let them hold the ladders while Insoo and I work on the ceiling. Aoora and Sangsoo come around with bags of food, inspect our work and offer their help. I let them take care of the decoration of the wall behind the counter. They tell us they don´t have any Broadway business right now. Due to the lockdown most of the musical stages went dark. Luckily they won´t run out of money because their “Perfect Agency” is still growing thanks to Jungmins public relation work. We all think it´s mostly thanks to his face.
I lose track of time and I am total absorbed from work. The cellphone startles me. It´s Juko, saying: “Brooke left. Hurry.”
“Shit”, I almost kick into the air when I try climbing down from the ladder faster as possible.
“Can you….shit…” I knock a box with tiny lights over.
“Leave!” Ezra laughs. “I am in control, we will wrap this up tonight before work.”
“You are in control?”, Sehun raises an eyebrow and starts tickling her sides. I can hear her hysterical laughter echoing over the street.
Jungmin, Murray Street, 5:48pm
I tend to forget faces. It doesn´t mean I am not interested in the people I meet. Maybe I just meet too many of them every day. So, when the woman cocks her head and says my name I stop and blink at her. A little girl wiggles around her and tugs her sleeve. I stare at the girl, sending a silent prayer to whomever that she´s not mine. She´s a bit scary with her big eyes behind the glasses and the way she narrows her eyes and scowls at me as if I did something terrible doesn´t make it better.
“Jia, please, give me a moment.”
“But I”, the girl starts to protest.
“Insoo will wait.”
Insoo? I wonder if it´s a common name. I wonder if I should have once in a while showed a little interest in the people I hang out with.
The girl sighs, but keeps quiet. Her mother turns towards me. “You don´t remember me?”
Should I? For a moment I feel like a terrible person. She shrugs, “I´d probably didn’t recognize you if your face wasn´t watching me on every bus stop and metro station.”
“This actually doesn´t help me to remember you”, I say.
“You saw me crying”, she says.
This doesn’t help either. Then I start wondering how many people you see crying. Seriously, even our friends try not to cry in front of us. Crying in front of people is embarrassing. I am not sure if I cried at all. Ever. I mean, I probably did, but I tend to erase it from my memory.
Suddenly I remember how I met her. Five years ago I came to New York, trying to erase another memory from my mind – till now with not with the desired success. In the first weeks I was mostly walking around, did some sightseeing, tried to find a job. It was shortly after I started working for Aoora and Sangsoo and after trying to figure out if I was ready to start dating again when I strolled around and stopped at Ground Zero. Not many people where there and I didn´t plan to stay long. Let´s be honest, it is just the place where once two skyscrapers stood. Not much to see. But then I thought how unbelievable easy it is to destroy something that was planned to last a lifetime. I stayed a little longer and after a while I realized I wasn´t alone. Between the people who came, made pictures and left, was a girl that was crying.
I wondered if she had lost someone in the Towers or if she was just a bunch of emotions that even cried over Disney movies. When she didn´t stop I moved a little closer and asked if she was alright. She said, “Yes, I´m fine.” I was about to walk away, when she sniveled, “I´m pregnant.”
“Well, that’s great.” She looked at me as if I had made a terrible joke. “Okay, I guess it´s not great.”
“No, it´s not great at all! I called my boyfriend and when I told him he said, he was thinking about moving to Texas and I said, I don´t want to move to Texas and he answered, who was talking about me? And then he said he will leave me his savings, like 3000 Dollars but no address because he doesn´t feel like having a child.”
“Um”, I said.
“Yeah”, she answered and wiped her face with her sleeves. She didn´t say anything for a while and then I said: “Hey, you stopped crying.” She laughed and started hiccupping. And that was how Jael and I met.
Instead of asking Layken for a date I started hanging out with Jael. She came to New York a few months ago to go to college but now she´d go back to Yosemite where she grew up. She knew everything about bears and the giant redwood but not really much about life. Growing up in a national park meant seeing the same people all over the year and it was the first time she was living in a city. She always had to walk. She walked for hours through the streets and when I wasn´t getting paid to date I joined her. We walked and talked and that was all we ever did. I told her about Carissa and Seoul, about my job as escort boy and now as rentable boyfriend and we discussed whether I should ask Layken for a date or not. By the time Jael had argued me into asking her out, Jael found out about my job and made it very clear she wouldn´t date me. And then one day Jael and I met in Central Park and she told me her parents wanted her to come back immediately. We promised to stay in touch but we didn´t.
“Still into walking?”
She smiles, knowing I remember her. “Actually, it´s Jia.” She´s ruffling the hair of her daughter. “She gets crazy when she can´t run around.”
“I´m not crazy!” The girl complains.
“I didn´t say you´re crazy.”
“Can we go now?”
“She´s eager to come home because somehow she talked our neighbor into having a pajama party.”
I raise an eyebrow and she chuckles. “I´m not invited. They´re building a secret tent or whatever.”
“It´s a cave!”
“So you´re free tonight?”, I ask. She nods. “Is it far? I can give you a ride?” I point behind me where I parked the car. Now she raises an eyebrow. I told her about the car, more than once. The girl observes the Supra and says, “I like blue.” I guess, that settles it.
Maybe Insoo is a common name, maybe not, but it turns out that the Insoo Jia is having a pajama party with, is actually Laykens brother. He looks at me confused as I appear behind Jael, and not too pleased, when I answer his gaze with: “She doesn´t have to pay me.” We hand over Jia and Insoo nods to the seven million advices Jael gives him until Jia calls: “Leave!”
Sitting in a nearby restaurant Jael first says: “It´s so weird not to walk around with you.” I suggest we can grab some food and walk but she laughs that she´s really tired. I ask her how she has been and she tells me that her ex-boyfriend truly disappeared and although her parents tried to find him he had vanished without a trace. She has been housekeeper for the cabins in Yosemite for the last four years but realized that would be all she ever does in her life if she doesn´t try to change something, so she moved back to New York a few weeks ago. She tells me; she read Laykens books and saw the movie and that she´s very sorry she died. I admit that I was never close to Layken but that Insoo is probably still suffering. She had no idea Insoo is Laykens brother but now she has she looks as if some things make sudden sense.
At the end of the evening I offer her a job. “You know, I hate paperwork but Aoora and Sangsoo let me do all of it, and I hate sitting in an office and answering the phone. I thought about finding a secretary. You could bring Jia with you.”
She doesn´t say anything, so I add, “You could help me picking the future boyfriends from the lists the hunters give me, and if you like someone you can keep him.” I wink at her, but he still doesn´t say anything. And then she says, “Thank you”, and I guess she´s holding back tears.
Ezra, White Plains, Radio Station, 2:54am
“You´re listening to 107.1 Late Night Talk with Ezra. Hello to our next caller, what´s your request?”
“Hi.” The caller pauses. “I recognized your voice as I tuned in and I…uhm…I run over your brother with my car. I guess, it was two weeks ago. I just wanted to know if he is fine.”
I blink. I get a lot of strange calls, but it´s the first time somebody confesses a crime live on air. But is it a crime if nobody got injured. I shake the thoughts away. “Wow, that’s…wow…I thought he was drunk.”
“No, I don´t think he was drunk.”
“Were you drunk?”
“No, of course not! I don’t drink and drive!” She sounds shocked.
“That´s exemplary. Well, he´s fine, which means he acts as irresponsible as always. I hoped a little bump on the head would fix that.”
“Okay, did you fell in love with him on first sight or were you really just checking on his health?”
“Uhm. No, no love at first sight. Sorry?”
“Don´t be sorry, he´s hard to handle.”
She´s silent then. “Do you have another request? It´s wish night, so you can send your wish over the radio and hope to get a response.”
“Well, actually, I´m looking for a job.”
“What kind of job?” This is not so unusual. We often help finding jobs. We more often help finding lost one night stands or flirts.
“Any job will do.”
“Any job, huh?”
“No weird stuff so.”
“Aha.” I try not to chuckle.
“I mean, weird is okay, just not too weird, like selling my body or internal organs.”
“Okay, no weird stuff including body parts. What´s your name?”
“Okay folks if you have a decent job for Jael give us a call tonight. We will connect the two of you right away.”
“Your forgot asking her for a song”, my assistant sighs when the line disconnects. Shit, I mouth silently, “Okay, next caller. What´s your request?” While waiting for the answer I type in the chat window – one of two ways to communicate with Taemin, my assistant, during the show:
“Be happy I like you otherwise you´d be fired! It´s your job to ask the caller what they want to listen to after we spoke!”
I look over to the window that separates us and he makes a heart shape over his head. Then he sticks out his tongue and connects me with the next listener.
“I want to let my girlfriend know that when she comes home she is supposed to wake me even if I´m fast asleep.”
I clear my throat to answer, “I´m sure she will consider it.”
“Thank you. Oh, and I told your assistant I want to listen to “Crystalized” from The XX, although he didn’t ask me. You should find a new one, he´s doing a lousy job.”
“I know. Good Night.” I know I should because working with Taemin is not the easiest task. If I wasn´t so deep into Sehun he would stand a chance. But I am and Taemin is not as interesting as he may hope to be. I check my cell, seeing a text I missed from Joon. He wrote three hours ago.
“Do you remember the stolen Zombie book? You won´t believe what happened! I found 99 cent on and under the shelf. Guess it´s not stolen.”
“Maybe a Zombie took it”, I text back.
“Do Zombies pay?”
“I dunno. But they can´t speak with the cashier, maybe he was too shy to face Juko.”
“Or maybe it was someone who was too ashamed to buy such crap.”
“Or maybe it´s like the tooth fairy! It´s the Zombie fairy and it collects books!”
“You´re on air, you should work!”
“Do you listen?”
“No, I was asleep.”
“Sorry, sleep well and don´t get bitten by the Zombie fairy!”
Shortly after four I leave as usual. I wave Taemin goodbye. He is not only my assistant, so he has to stay till six in the morning, assisting the moderator that comes after me. I meet him in the lobby, nod with a yawn and step into the night. I stop a car and almost doze off on the backseat. I fumble for Sehuns keys. He lives downtown, in a friendly neighborhood. One that is saver than Turtle Bay, but somehow I like Turtle Bay much better. I know he wants me to move into his apartment but I can´t bring myself to leave Zico. We still try to make up for the time we lost. I hurry upstairs and sneak through the apartment without switching on the lights. I tiptoe into the bathroom and take a short shower, then dressed in shorts and one of Sehuns t-shirts I slip under the blankets. Sehun is fast asleep and I breathe cold air against his neck. I see his forehead wrinkle and he twitches in his sleep. I place a kiss behind his ear and then pull it with my teeth. I chuckle when he groans and, still half asleep, tries pushing me away. “I was supposed to wake you up”, I smirk and lean over him. “Not supposed to eat me.” His voice is scratchy from sleep. “But you´re so delicious”, I giggle. He wraps his arms around my waist and pulls me on top of him. “How was work?” His hands run over my back and slide under the shirt. “Okay. I couldn´t find the girl who almost killed my brother a job, though. I guess, nobody wants to hire someone who runs over people. Or someone who runs over people and confesses it on air.” He sits up, his hands following the lines of my ribcage, his fingertips brushing over the skin of my breasts and I suck in breath when we roll to my side of the bed and he´s now over me, kissing his way down to my belly and deeper until the thrilling sensation of his body possessing mine makes me forget I had been tired.
Insoo, Lenox Avenue, 10:06am
I stumble over the mess in my apartment when the doorbell rings. It usually rings when someone delivers food. That´s the longest conversations I have these days, with the people who bring food and with my friends when I answer their worried calls and texts with texts never calls. I thanked Brooke for the food someone brought me yesterday, or the day before, or maybe a few more days ago. I lost a little track of time. I called in ill at work and I told my parents to leave me alone. Not that we have been in touch in the last five months. I can´t see them any longer since my sister died. I wasn´t mourning her until we saw the movie two weeks ago. I also read the book, twice. Still no answers why she died and if she wanted to die or why she didn´t tell me that she wants to die. It rings again. I step over delivery boxes and clothes and a bike, wondering what the bike is doing in my living room and open the door.
It´s a woman and she looks as if she tries to get dressed while torturing my doorbell. She´s buttoning up her blouse. It doesn´t really suit her. She looks more like someone who feels comfortable in jeans and t-shirt. “Hi, sorry, I….” She stops and takes the sight of me in, she scans me and decides whatever it was she wanted she doesn´t want it any longer. I really can´t blame her. I wear the same clothes I wore yesterday (or maybe the day before), clothes I slept in, and I haven´t shaved or showered since I put them on. “Sorry”, she forces herself to smile. “Wrong door.”
“Mommy will find a job because someone from the radio called us and she wants you to ask if you can look after me because she can´t take me with her and she made me promise to be a good girl and don´t say that we can´t pay you. Ups, I said it.”
I lower my eyes and spot a little girl, four or five-years old, with nerd-glasses and tousled hair. Under one arm it has a stuffed dragon, under the other a book.
“As I said”, the mother says and tries to turn her child around, “wrong door.”
“But you are in a HURRY!”
“I know, we will ask the older lady who lives on the other floor, okay?”
“But she is smelly and she scares me!”
“She´s not scary, she´s just a bit weird.”
I clear my throat and realize I haven´t said a word till now. “I take a shower and run over to your apartment if you leave me the keys. My apartment is not really…representable...right now.”
She looks over her shoulder. “It´s okay, really, don´t bother yourself with showering.” That probably sounded wrong even to her ears. “Sorry, no offense.” She gives her daughter a little push. “I buy you a new toy later if you stay with the nice old lady.”
“Okay”, the girl sighs. “But she is not nice!”
Great, now I turned into a bugbear that scares away neighbors. I definitely need a shower. I am as fast out of the shower as I am in it, because it rings again. I slip into clothes, new clothes this time, and open, but not before I grabbed my purse and hand her my ID-card. I´m not sure if it makes me more trustful or weirder. “It´s valid.” She looks defeated. It seems the old lady wasn´t home. “Okay, Insoo”, she hands the card back. “I´m Jael, that´s Jia. Here are our keys and I´m back in two hours latest.” She crouches down and whispers some advices into her daughters’ ear, and then she kisses and hugs her. Before she goes, she narrows her eyes and says, what is supposed to scare me, I guess, “My husband is a police officer.” I nod. “Really”, she adds and I don’t believe a word.
“Mommy´s lying. I know what a husband is and mommy hasn´t a husband. I don´t have a dad, that´s because she hasn´t a husband.” The girl looks up at me. Through the glasses her eyes seem to be big. “You´re wet.”
She is right. I didn´t towel down before slipping in clothes. “I have to…uhm…shave.”
“Okay, I wait.” She passes me by and her eyes fall on the mess in the living room. “Mommy can clean your room. It´s her job. She cleans our apartment and she cleans the houses of strangers.”
“No, she doesn’t have to clean for me”, I say fast. “I can do this alone.”
She narrows her eyes, just as her mother did, and disagrees, “I don´t think you can do this alone.” She flops on a free spot on the floor, puts the red dragon between her legs and the book on her knees.
“Okay, don´t move.” I dash into the bathroom and actually cut myself while shaving because I am in such a hurry. I like children. Whenever I see a cute child I want to kidnap it. I probably shouldn’t admit this towards her mother. I blot dry the blood away, wash my face and go back to the living room. The girl is reading. I sit down next to her. “What was your name again?”
“Jia. J-I-A. It´s a short name, because mom says long names you can shorten and then it sounds stupid. Your name is Insoo, people could call you Soo. That would sound weird.”
“Yeah, that would be really weird”, I agree. “Did you have breakfast?”
“I had cereals.” She rubs her right eye under the glasses. “Do you like cereals?”
“Yes. Are you hungry?”
“No, but I want ice-cream.”
“I don´t think you´re allowed having ice-cream this early in the morning.”
“You´re probably right, but I like ice-cream.”
What´s with this kid who talks like a grownup? “You´re very smart.”
“Thank you.” She closes the book. “Mommy says girls have to be smart. My kindergartener says I shouldn´t cry, the other children just don´t want to play with me because they don´t understand me.”
I can imagine that. “Don´t you have any friends?”
“I have Wufan”, she holds the dragon up. “He came with me from Yosemite, that´s where we lived. It´s a national park and we have bears.”
“Yes, but they are not dangerous. You have to lock away anything they want to eat, that´s mostly everything. But they don´t eat dragons or children.”
“Good to know.”
She gives me a very serious look and then points out that I must be hungry because she can hear my stomach growl. I tell her she´s right and go into the kitchen, but I don´t have any food left. At least nothing that isn´t so long over its time that it tries to run away. I close the kitchen door when she appears behind me. “We have food.” She is carrying the book and the stuffed dragon and walks over to the door where she slips into the green sneakers and waits for me.
Their apartment has two rooms just like mine. Jia shows me the kitchen. It´s chaotic, but clean, the leftovers of their breakfast stand on the table and I put the bowls in the sink and the cereal package in the board. The fridge is not full but they have enough. I find a lot of vegetables, salad and fruits, but also a lot of unhealthy stuff like chocolate, microwave hamburger, frozen pizza and a pack of vanilla pudding. I don’t feel comfortable taking food from them but then I grab a bowl and eat some cereals while Jia shows me her room. She doesn´t have much, a bed and a small shelf with books and a wardrobe but all her clothes are still packed in the moving boxes. “We moved to our home four days ago. Before that we lived in a hotel, but that was too loud.” She sits on her bed. She has a collection of stuffed animals waiting for her to go to sleep. I don´t see dolls. I think dolls are scary. But she has a box with cars and Lego and the talking hat from Harry Potter and a tiny Dumbledore standing between her books.
“You like Harry Potter?” I wonder if she isn´t too young for Harry Potter.
“I want to be a wizard.” Her answer makes me smile. She pats on the spot next to her and I sit down. On the small bed for children I feel huge.
“Did you read the books?”, she wants to know.
“No, but I saw the films.”
“Mommy says they´re too scary.”
“She´s right, but you can watch them when you´re older.”
“I know and then I can have my own library card and I can read books about becoming a wizard.”
“Right”, I say. She smiles at me and then opens another book and starts reading. “What do you read?” She shows me the cover, it´s pink and something about Zombies. “But don´t tell mom.” I promise. Actually I think if a child tells you to keep something secret it´s a good idea to tell the parents, but it´s just a book and from the few lines I catch it´s much less scary than Harry Potter. I let Jia read and clean the kitchen. Then I am in the living room and realize that her mother has to sleep on the sofa in lack of a third room. I´m not sure if it´s okay but I fold the blanket and fluff up the pillow. Things I´d never do at home but I can´t stare at the girl while reading for until her mother comes home. There´s not much in the room that could tell me about Jias mother. Two moving boxes are still closed, two more emptied and folded. She is reading too and I feel a lump in my throat when I realize she´s reading Laykens book. I am about to pick it up to find out where she stopped when it rings.
She didn´t get the job, I can tell from her expression. When she sees me her face softens a little. “What a shower can change.”
“Well, yeah, I am actually a human being and no hobgoblin.”
“Sorry if my reaction was too harsh, I was already stressed.”
I wave her words away.
“Was everything okay?”
“Perfect. She´s awesome. She was reading most of the time.”
“Then she has one of her good days.”
“What do you mean?”
Now she waves her words away. “Thank you for your help.”
“Let me know when you need someone to look after her again. At least I´m not smelly.” It comes out strange.
Passing by she tilts her head a little and says, “No, you´re not.” What might be even stranger.
Brooke, Downtown, 3:03pm
When I walk into my office I see Zico chilling in the armchair. He put his feet on the desk. I cock my head but he doesn´t even realize I am there. I kick the door close and he jerks up and lands with his butt on the floor. I grin, “Hi boss.” He´s not the boss, but he wants to be a boss in something. “Oh, about that, sorry.” He wipes his sleeve over the desk. “How was the day?”, I wonder. Zico shrugs. “Cars left, cars came back. No accidents, no calls reporting incompetent drivers. A good day for a cab company, I guess.” I nod. Zicos helping me out when I help out Aoora. But I guess the latter is in the past. While I made tarts, three different kinds, Aoora told me he sold the café. It wasn´t making profit since, well, forever. It was mostly a hangout spot for his friends, or how I know now, and I guess I was the last to know, for his rentable boyfriends. I watch Zico wiping the seat, which he does to make fun of me, and sit on the edge of the desk. Zico is doing whatever job we can offer him. Due to his criminal record it´s impossible for him to find a decent job. He washed cars for a while but that was beneath his dignity. He got kicked out. Maybe because some of the car owners feared he might steal the car. “Aoora finally sold the café.” Zico looks at me. “Ah. So.” He doesn´t really care, but there is also something else in his eyes, an amused look. “You care?” He asks. I shrug. Aoora could have asked me if I want to run the place. The cab company is okay, but it´s no job I want to do forever. I know I could stop driving. I have enough drivers but I still like the cab rides and grab a car whenever Zico is willing to stay in the office, or someone else who helps me out, but it´s mostly Zico.
“Mind if I go for a ride?” I ask
“Mind if I put my feet on your desk?”
“Then go”, he slumps in the chair, puts his hands behind his head and turns the volume of his music up. I know the tape from Juko. He was listening to it the whole morning for as long as he needed to get ready for his dancing class. Sometimes he sleeps on our couch and I like it, it feels like family when the three of us are together.
Turning around Zico stops me by throwing a candy against my shoulder. “You´re mad they just sold it? Don´t be. Things will work out and then I´ll be the king of this place and you will do something better. K?”
“K”, I say, wondering if he has one of his famous intuitions.
I take the key off the hands of one of the drivers who ends his shift and slide onto the seat. I have to adjust the seat since the driver seems to have incredible long legs and arms and then I hit the road. I don’t enjoy driving through the hours of day too much but tonight I am supposed to watch one of Jukos small performances. His rap teacher wants the students to get used to being on stage. He loves it and I hope he will get the chance to perform on real stages one day. Thinking about changes I sigh. I always waited for better chances. I never wanted to be a taxi driver. I stumbled over the job and got stuck to it. I loved it and I thought I just do it for a while and then grab another chance. But far and wide no chance in sight. I stop when a woman, holding the hand of a girl, shoots her hand in the air.
“Closest police station, please”, she says. She seems to be upset. Like really upset. Like one of those people who have a bad day from the start. “Someone stole my car.” She runs a hand through her hair, mutters, “Shit” and apologizes while fasten the seatbelt of her daughter. “Sorry”, I say. Some people might think it´s just a car, but for someone who doesn’t have much money a car can be much more. I watch them in the driving mirror. They don´t look like having a lot of money. “You know”, I start. “You won´t see the car again.” Her eyes dart over to the mirror. “It´s New York, and since the cuts plan people do no more than necessary.”
“Okay”, she leans back. “Drop us off anyway.”
I drive in silence, until I have to apologize for the thick traffic. I turn the taximeter off without having her notice. The girl starts kicking my seat. Again and again. Softly first. Then violently. “Stop it”, her mother says. The girl kicks harder. “I´m so sorry, I can pay for the cleaning or if something is broken.” I make a little wave with my hand. She smiles, “Thank you.” The girl kicks with both legs now. “Stop it, Jia!”
I sit up a little straighter, looking at the little girl in the rearview mirror. Actually she looks like one of those well behaving girls. A bit nerdy, a bit wild but not aggressive.
“Where´s the good-day-mood gone?”
“Just gone!” A kick with her sneakers. “I hate cars!” Another kick with the left foot this time. “I hate the city!” Kicking with both feet now. “I want to walk!”
“Okay, sorry for… just sorry, can you stop here.” Her mother unbuckles immediately, asking me how much she has to pay.
“Oh, well”, I try to look annoyed. “I guess the taximeter broke. So”, I shrug. “It´s okay.”
She fumbles for the purse. “No, really…”
I cut her off. “It´s okay. Have a nice day and good luck with finding the good mood again.” I smile at the girl that climbs out of the car and tells me in a serious whisper: “Bears ate it.”
The next passenger doesn´t talk about bears but lets me know he is on his way to the airport to attend an important meeting and that´s all about aliens. I guess; I go with, bears that eat good moods. But I smile and nod and listen to the story of his alien-kidnapping. I wonder why the space shuttle he describes sounds so familiar. When I yell “Death Star!” because I finally remembered the Star Wars movies he glares at me and stops talking. After that I don´t stop for passengers but drive up and down smaller roads with less traffic until I come back to the office and send Zico home.
I stay the rest of the day but leave when it´s dark. I pay two drivers extra who share the night shift and take calls. I buy food. Two bags and send Insoo a text. “I bought food; I can just hang it at the door handle. Just checking that you know when to open.”
“I´m home, just ring and I let you in”, he writes back immediately. He was already shopping and is about to clean his flat. He seems to be in a better mood than how he was when we have seen him the last few times. I stay for a cup of tea and make him promise he will come to the next nomja meeting. Although he does promise I know it doesn´t count until he is truly there.
Luhan is already home and he cooked. When Luhan cooks he combines Chinese food with American food. Today he improvised a Peking Duck Burger. He doesn’t realize I´m home until I wrap my arms around his waist and kiss his neck. Luhan moans, a comfortable moan and places his hands on my arms. “How was your day?” I shrug. “How was yours?” I lean against him, feeling the well-known warmth of his back. “Two kids tried to kill each other, and then they combined forces and tried killing me. It was a normal day so.” He laughs his light, pleasant laughter and turns around. “You look tired.” His lips brush my forehead. “What about a bath after dinner?” I nod and take the plate he hands me. The Peking Burger a la Luhan, he wants me to call it like this if we serve it the nomjas on Friday, is tasty, more than that, it´s awesome. He runs a bath for me while I wash the dishes. Then he calls for me. He lightened candles along the tub. While I slide in the hot water, Luhan sits on the floor and lets his hand dangle into the tub. “It bothers me that Aoora sold the café”, I confess. He looks up. “I walked by today and saw it´s closed.” He doesn´t look as if it doesn´t matter, but he as well does look a little amused. He gets up and bents over me to place a gentle kiss on my lips. “Now, relax. I have to make a few calls.” He leaves the bathroom door ajar when he heads for the living room where I hear his voice muffled as though he closed the living room door.
Tell me about Love II
Genre: New York novel part 2
Characters: Sehun (EXO), Luhan (EXO), Insoo (MYNAME), Zico (BLOCK B), Jungkook (BTS), Joon (MBLAQ), Park Jung Min
Story: This story takes place after Gunwoo and Layken went to Paris. It shows the life of their friends, how they find love and tells how Insoo deals with losing his sister.
Once upon a time a boy and a girl met in Paris and fell in love. But it wasn´t how they´d expected love would be. Their hearts weren´t racing; their palms weren´t sweaty. When they looked at each other they weren´t seeing the future with a house and three children. They didn´t even like children. When they looked at each other, they wanted to go where the other one went. They felt together they were their best selves. Others might think of them as spoiled, unworldly, arrogant or broken. They too judged others but never each other.
One night in Paris a boy and a girl met at the Seine and fell in love. Drunken from the city, drunken from feeling they found someone who understood them completely, drunken from just being alive they kissed each other. Only once and then never again. But love trickled into their hearts silently and made them see in each other what others never saw in them. A tiny, sparkling, exceptional world. A universe full of creativity waiting to be released. And so they followed each other wherever they went.
One day in Paris a boy and a girl who fell in love a long time ago took the wrong turn and millions of ideas faded into dust, unborn.
Luhan, Bam Rose Cinema, Brooklyn, 10:41pm
Insoo next to me sobs and I know no matter what I do, no matter how hard one of us tries to comfort him, he won´t stop. The screen went dark. The cinema is empty. Except us. This movie was about us. The screenplay was written by Gunwoo. A movie about our lives in New York five years ago. It was the movie adapted from a novel, about us. A novel about love and friendship. A novel also about Gunwoo and Layken who we all knew, but never really well. A novel written by Insoos sister.
“I knew there was a story”, Sangsoo says and Aoora shoos him.
All of us are here. Brooke, Ezra, Zico, Joon, Jungmin, Sehun and also Juko who isn´t even a part of the movie.
In memory of Lee Gunwoo and Layken Kang
This movie was finished post mortem
It is as if those last lines still glow white and sharp on the black screen. I put my hand on Insoos back. “We should go.” He nods but doesn´t get up. He hasn´t seen his sister in five years. He won´t ever see her again. Till now none of us saw him cry, maybe he needed the movie to realize she was gone for good.
“Was good to see you.”
“Stop by from time to time.”
“Okay, see you tomorrow.”
“Come home save.”
Around us the rest gets up and goes home. Patting Insoos arm sympathetic, smiling encouraging or keeping uncomfortably quiet; they all know Brooke and I will stay. We wave them goodbye, but while I stay on my seat Brooke gets up to answer outstretched arms with a hug. After a while we lead Insoo into the night. New York on screen had been more colorful, brighter, more exciting than it is today. The night is dark. The street lights are turned off. New York has to save costs. It affects the whole town. The Bam Rose Cinema is none of the fancy ones, it´s small, 265 people fit into the biggest theater room. It has been a music hall first, then a playhouse. It opened more than 150 years ago and got turned into a movie theater fifteen years ago. No cabs wait in front of the building, except Brookes.
“You can come home with us”, she says. “Stay overnight.”
“It´s fine”, Insoo answers. “I´m fine.”
“At least let me drive you home.”
“Do I have to pay?” The glimpse of a grin tips Insoos face.
“You´ll pay the food shopping for Friday, deal?”
“It was my turn anyway”, Insoo laughs and slides on the backseat. We drop him off Lenox Avenue. He lives across Lenox Lounge, the place that was the hangout place for the main character in “Shaft”. I know all those things about New York, maybe because I am not born here and I don´t take things for granted. I still feel the wish to explore the streets and find out about their history, mostly about their history linked to pop culture. There is also a movie about the street, it´s called, “Murder on Lenox Avenue”. It´s from 1941 and so bad I bet nobody except Brooke and I watched it.
Insoo could have moved. Downtown, to a chic apartment building with a doorman, but he preferred staying. Gunwoo and Layken had signed their last wills half a year before they died. In his all he owned got handed down to Layken. In her will everything she appointed Insoo as her heir. They did well in Paris. Some money came from competitions they won, from a book with poetry Gunwoo published. But there was money nobody knew where it came from. So apparently, Insoo is rich now. He is also getting all the earnings from their books and movies. The book is selling much better after the news of the Laykens death and all the art-house theaters across the country ordered the movie. It doesn´t happen often that a writer foresees his or her death. Sehun voiced the thought that had probably crossed all of our minds. This was, in an eerily-beautiful way, too perfect to be coincidental. Maybe what looked like an accident had actually been well planned suicide. We will never know. I guess that´s what haunts Insoo the most, he will never know for sure why his sister died.
We drive home in silence. I moved out from the apartment I shared with Tao last year and moved in with Brooke. We found a cute, small apartment in Upper Manhattan, Hamilton Heights is not far from Insoos apartment, but in a totally different world. The name Hamilton Heights comes from Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers.
“The movie was less depressing than the book”, Brooke says when I unlock the door to our apartment. I shrug. I´m not sure, it was still very depressing. “I guess, I get up a little earlier tomorrow to bring Insoo breakfast.”
“I can walk to kindergarten”, I answer and put my coat at the hook. “Hungry?”
“Starving”, Brooke smiles. “I eat whatever you cook.” Her lips brush my cheek when she heads for the bathroom. We have take-away food in fridge. I pour it in the pan and mix it with fresh chopped vegetables. The sizzling in the pan mixes with the sound of the running shower. I lean against the kitchen table and feel my head nodding up and down while I try hard not to fall asleep. It has been a long day. When my chin meets my chest the shrill tone of the phone makes me jerk up. It´s Aoora. “You alone?”, he asks. “Sure.” I take the pan and put it aside before I burn the food. “I thought about it on the way home. You can have it. It´s yours. Stop by tomorrow.” He hangs up and I try to erase the wide smile from my face before Brooke comes into the kitchen.
Zico, Resorts World Casino, Queens, 3:19am
“No more bets, please!” Sehun raps me on the knuckles when I try to push another chip over to the red eight. “Game´s closed”, he takes the chip between his fingers and puts it on the pile next to me, giving me a scowl. He looks neat but also funny his fancy suit with the small tie. He spins the roulette and everybody stares at the tiny, white ball that is taking its rounds. Sehun leans closer and hisses, “How many times did I tell you not to cheat? You must be thankful I could get you into these walls considering your mile-long criminal record.”
“Philistine”, I whisper and he pinches my ear. He saw me pinching Ezras ear too many times and now uses it against me whenever he can. I rubbed my ear with a groan. The white ball stopped. Red. Eight. I won. Again. I shoot a huge smile at Sehun who rolls his eyes and pushes all the chips over to me. `Time to leave` , he forms the syllables silently. “It was nice sharing the table with you, sirs and lady.” I wink at the elder lady who is winning a lot of rounds too and slip a few chips onto her pile. Then I head to the cashier and exchange the chips into cash. I made a few hundred dollars tonight. Money I plan spending on music.
I push the doors of the casino open and breathe in the cool night air. From the night club in the basement music pours into the night. Loud techno vibes let the sidewalk vibrate in rhythm. I shove the money into my pocket and cross the street. That´s when a car runs me over.
One moment I walk and the next I stretch out on the ground in an almost comfortable position. The car stops with squealing tires. The door opens and I hear a woman’s voice, “Oh my God. Oh my God. omo omo omo. I hit someone.” The patter of feet on the pavement. “Shit, is he alive? Ambulance. I need an ambulance. He needs an ambulance.” I sit up and feel the back of my head. Feels okay. No blood on my hands. She looks at me. “You´re alive!” She falls on her knees. She´s pale from shock. “I thought I killed you.”
She holds three fingers up. “How many fingers?” I chuckle, “Sixty-seven, you must be an alien.” She frowns. “Is it safe to assume, you´re joking?” I bob up to proof it. She lets out a deep sigh and sits down. “Hey, your car barely nudged me.” I offer her my hand to help her up. The radio in her car is put on a low volume but I can hear the voice announcing the next song. “It´s four in the morning and I´m heading home. The next song is for all those who committed a hit and run lately. “Always crashing in the same car”, Bowies hit from 1977.”
“Very funny timing, Ezra.” I shake my head, what hurts a little. The woman looks at me, finally takes my hand and gets up. “Ezra, the radio host, she´s my sister, talking about hit and run. It´s like a weird siblings-connection. But hey, you didn´t step on the gas.”
“I wouldn´t do that”, she assures me. “I can drive you home.” She pauses. “If you know how to get there, I don´t have GPS and just came to New York.”
I´m not sure if I want to sit in the car that could have killed me if it wasn´t driving slowly as a turtle. “I like walking”, I say. That´s not quite right, but a white lie. “Once again, I´m really, really sorry. I didn´t plan this.” I have to laugh again. “Usually people get to know me before they plan to kill me.” She looks a bit uncertain if I´m joking or not. “Okay, sorry again. I need to find my hotel.” She gets in the car. “I should get away from the street before another car hits me.” I wave. My joke makes her grimace. I can see it before she closes the door.
I take a cab to our apartment in Turtle Bay. It´s one of Brookes cars. I can tell so easily because in the back there is a small box with sweets inside. Passengers can take what they like without extra fees. I take a chocolate bar, tip the driver and step into the apartment. Strange to think about it, this place belonged to Gunwoo and Layken. Now Ezra and I share it, although Sehun wants her to move into his flat. Ezra opens the door shortly after me. “Your hit and run joke hit me”, I tell her. “It wasn´t a joke. I want people to drive carefully.” She yawns. “A car hit me the moment before you announced the song.” She raises an eyebrow. “You´re kidding me?” I shake my head. “But it was so gently, I guess it wanted to cuddle.” Now she narrows her eyes. “Are you on drugs?” I sigh. No cookies since I´m out of prison and I don´t do other drugs. “Night sis.” I shuffle into my room, which had been Gunwoos before, flop on the bed, throw the money on the nightstand and fall asleep.
Joon, Soho, 2:21pm
The little bell over the door rings when it opens. The customer, a woman in a woolen coat, stops and wipes off her boots. I stop polishing the silverware, that´s not even real silver. But I have nothing else to do. As usual there were only a few guests who came to the café over the day; on an average one customer per 90 minutes. I hope Zico shows up in ten minutes as he promised. He hasn´t answered his cell yet, so I fear he is still asleep.
Finally she steps into the café and looks around. It´s small and too dark during autumn and winter season. A handful of empty tables and walls with pictures from Broadway costumes, all of them designed by Sangsoora. That´s how Sangsoo and Aoora named their company.
“You´re hiring?”, she points at the forgotten piece of paper in the window.
“Oh, ehm, no, sorry.”
“But you´ve a “We´re hiring” sign in your window.” She looks disappointed.
“Yes.” She looks cold and I put a mug of steaming tea in front of her. “We´re only hiring male staff.”
“Oh, okay.” Now she looks confused and glimpses at the tea.
“It´s on the house.” I scratch the back of my neck. “This is…nothing personal…and it might change. If come back in a few weeks we might have a job for you.”
“I don´t think I can wait that long.” She empties the tea fast, grimaces a little because it was hot. “Thanks for the tea anyway.” She is gone before I can think about offering her another job. I clean the cup and decide removing the paper from the window. Boyfriend for rent is not hiring this way anyway. In the last few years the company grew and we have so called “Hunters” who look for promising employees.
I check my cellphone; try to call Zico without much success. Then I call the store and say I will be late. “No, no, no, you can´t be late!” Juko almost yells into my ear. “I have drum lessons.” I promise I will hurry, send Aoora a text, that I will have to close the café – I don´t think he cares much – and jog over to the store.
In the shop window we rebuilt scenery from Paris, or more specifically, from the movie we saw last week, and display Laykens two novels and Gunwoos collection of poetry, although it´s in French.
I own the bookstore. I opened it last year after earning enough money as a rentable boyfriend. I am not an employee for Sangsoo and Aoora anymore, but I hold shares.
I wave at Juko who hands a mother with a bunch of misbehaving children her bag with books. I hold the door open for her. We change the decoration in the store every month. For this month Aoora suggested to sort the book by color. We have small blackboards that inform the customer what they find in the shelves. Now those boards call out: “Pink is the new black” and in the shelf you find only books with a pink cover. This way we need ages finding the book our customers look for, but they like it.
“Someone stole a green book”, Juko says. “I don´t have enough time to look up which one”, he points at the computer screen with the lists of each shelf. “Need to hurry, drum classes. See you!” He starts running, stops and whirls around. “Got a message from Zico, he woke up and is on his way to the café. I let him go, otherwise he would have went on sleeping.” Juko grins and darts out of the store.
Juko who finished school this summer and is spending most of his time with Zico and their dream of starting a music label is the only employee I have. I hire helpers for the last weekend of each month to re-create the interior. I could afford to pay at least another helping hand but I like spending my time in the store. It´s one big room, neatly arranged, so I can overview most of it from the counter where I dawdle away time with reading. I check the list. Someone stole “Never slow dance with a Zombie”. It´s a non-seller and we priced it 99cent to get rid of it. Why steal a book that costs less than a dollar?
I mull over the question when Ezra strolls into the store. “Hi Joon, do you still have the stupid Zombie book?”
I raise an eyebrow. “You stole it to test Juko?”
“What? No. It got stolen? Who steals such crap?”
“Ask the one who stole it. Why do you ask for the book?”
“I wanted to buy it and give it to one of my listeners. We have Zombie-Night. Two hours full of songs about Zombies, Death and Undead. Do you have another crappy book?”
I scroll through the lists. “We have “I kissed a Zombie and I liked it” It´s pink, so you´ll find it over there.”
“That will do.” She walks over to the shelf with pink covers. “Six dollars?” She sighs coming back. “Now the listeners have to tell six dollar worth stories. I fear that will be a long night.”
“I´ll tune in.”
“Okay. Thanks. Do you think a Zombie kiss tastes rotten?”
I shrug. “Ask your listeners.”
“I will, bet they have some stories.” She waves goodbye and disappears into the grey afternoon. It looks like rain and I decide to push the shelf with rainbow colored books to the front of the store.
Jungmin, Garment District, 6:09pm
In the past Aooras and Sangsoos agency didn´t even have a name. By the time I started working for them I met four other boyfriends. None of them works for the agency now. But we have forty-eight employees. We decided on a name a while ago. “Perfect boyfriend.” The name works out. We have an office now that is located in the fashion district and three hunters who look for new employees. We put advertisements in newspapers and had a TV spot. Sangsoo and Aoora come looking once in a while how the business is, but I do most of the work and became the face of the agency.
Sitting behind the desk and flipping through the profiles of potential new boyfriends I wonder how many night-blue Toyota Supras you might find around the world. “Not so many, it´s a very rare car”, the seller promised me. It´s impossible that this is the same car I gave Carissa a long time ago. He gave me a day to consider. I thought it through during work hours. I stumbled over the car by chance when I walked home one day and spotted the car in a side-street. My stomach still drops whenever I think about the years in Seoul and how easy Carissa let me go after all the time. So, I saw the car and needed to have it. Then I came back to senses and took into consideration how expensive the car is.
I pick up the phone and dial the number. “Can I write a check? I can bar cash, too.” I listen to the answer. “Then I´m there in fifteen minutes, you can already prepare the papers.”
An hour later Juko gapes at the new car. “If you have money to waste why don´t you pay for my musical education for a change?” He hops on the passenger seat and buckles on. “Let me remind you that I pay for your breakdance lessons.” Juko sighs. “I know and I am very thankful. Can you drop me off at Brookes apartment?” I nod. Jukos aunt can´t afford paying for his education since he left high school. Therefore all of us pay for his classes. Zico teaches him how to compose music and the rest he learns from tutors and mentors Zicos choose. Brooke and Luhan pay the drum lessons. Joon started paying for guitar classes. There are also singing, dancing and rapping classes Aoora, Sangsoo, Sehun, Ezra and Insoo pay for. It´s an investment for the future, since all of us believe in Jukos talent after Brooke and Zico did a big deal to convince us.
“Do you want to eat with us?” Juko grabs his backpack. “Brooke cooks always too much.” I hesitate but then I park the car and follow him upstairs. It smells tasty when we hang the jackets over a chair in the living room. “Hi Jungmin”, Luhan waves. Brooke just nods. She´s not too fond of me, sometimes she looks at me as if she fears I will start clawing. Juko runs into the kitchen and I see how he flings his arms around Brooke. It looks cute because he hit a growth spurt and is now so much taller than she is. The doorbell rings. “Can you open?” Luhan asks. He has his hands in a bowl of meat and Brooke is kneading some pastry. It´s Kai. He is also a student of Jukos singing tutor. Seeing him I realize I witness one of the nomja meetings. Since Kyungsoo moved to Korea and Tao went back to China he is the first new nomja to join the elite circle. I saw him once when I picked Juko up. “Is Insoo coming?” I lean my shoulder against the doorframe while Kai shrugs out of his jacket and asks if he can help. “I don´t think so”, Brooke sighs. Luhan turns to me, “He didn´t show up last week although it was his turn to do the grocery shopping. But he writes texts, so at least he´s alive.”
Brooke hands me a bag with boxes full of food when the evening ends and asks me to check on Insoo. I do as she asks after Kai, Luhan and Juko stop admiring the Supra. His flat is quiet and dark. I knock and ring several times but it remains that way. I decide to hang the bag at the handle and push a note under the door “FOOD!” If that doesn´t convince him to open I don´t know what else would, but I don´t stay long enough to see if he reads the note. I have a party to attend. We throw parties in expensive clubs to secretly test the behavior of future boyfriends. It´s funny, because for this night, we pay girls to play potential pick-ups.
Brooke, Soho, 10:00 am
In the quiet kitchen the ringing of the phone startles me and I drop the dough. I look at the floor with a sigh. It´s not an easy recipe and I needed three hours making the perfect dough. Now I will have to start again. I pick up the phone. “Hey, is Aoora there?” A woman’s voice asks. “No, he won´t be here before 12.” Probably around 4. “Oh…”, she hesitates. “Are you Brooke? You sound like Brooke?” How does Brooke sound like, I want to ask. “Depends on who is asking.”
“Insoos sister, Layken.”
Then I guess, I´m not Brooke. It´s obvious that Layken and Gunwoo don´t like me too much.
“So, Brooke, right? Okay, do you by any chance know where Sehun lives?”
“But he´ll be in the café to pick up an order. You can come over in two, three hours, okay?”
“Okay, great, you saved the day.” She hangs up without letting me know why I saved her day.
Two hours later I have an okay-dough and put it in the oven. Just in time, because the bell over the door rings softly. I wash my hands, but don´t find Layken at one of the tables. It´s Joon. I tilt my head when he looks up. It feels strange seeing him in another place than the garden.
“You work here?” He asks, not as startled as I am.
“Are you friends with Aoora?”
“Me too, somehow.” He smiles. “Can I have a coffee?”
“I make you some.” I go back to the kitchen, hearing the bell ring another time, I decide to ignore it for as long as I need to make coffee. I peek at the cake that looks good enough and check the clock, still enough time for Sehun to deliver the order.
“We want coffee too!” It´s unmistakable Laykens voice. I hope she´s not with Gunwoo. I assume we need three coffees and I am right. Layken is with a girl. I wasn´t taking her for a girl that knows how to make female friends. As I put the mugs down on the counter and Layken and the girl turn towards me with a question flashing in their eyes, the bell rings a third time and Sehun runs into the café, shouting: “Brooke! I need your help! I know you can help, you drive taxi. I…” He stops when the girl turns around. “Oh”, he says, clearing his throat, he adds: “You already found her.”
Sometimes you see a whole story unfolding in front of you when two people meet, like some event that bound them together, but you know too, you´ll never get to hear the story. I know, I saw the girl somewhere and digging in my memories I see her sitting in the cab on her way to some party she doesn´t want to attend. I gave her the flyer for the Hip Hop battle. She might have been there, but I´m not sure; I was too distracted by Luhan and Juko. Sehun could have met her there, or somewhere else, but he definitely not only saw her. They gaze into each other, not at each other, but into each other. I get another coffee, put two cups on a table and usher them over. In the meanwhile Layken grabbed the two remaining mugs and joined Joon. From the way they start a conversation they know each other as well.
A while later I tell Sehun I can take care of the delivery if he will stay in the café. He nods without looking at me and I take the bags and leave.
There is this place in New York I haven´t visited yet. When you stand at two opposite sides of the hall and whisper against the wall the other person can hear it over the noise. It´s inside a train station as far as I remember. Maybe people go there to propose. I wonder how it works. For me this place reflects the city. Through some magic strings everything is connected.
I don´t have to drive the cab today, so I stop by at Jukos aunt, although we have English class tomorrow and pick him up to show him a record store Sehun recommended. It has handpicked international indie music from countries as Belarus or Togo. Juko enjoys it, he even starts a conversation with the shop owner, a middle-aged hippie who praises Jukos taste in music and tries to ignore his flaws in English. I would take Juko to the nomjas whom I seeing today, but his aunt said, no more than two hours, so I drop him off exactly two hours later with a bunch of new CDs and a little more courage to talk English with strangers.
Walking home I meet Aoora who, seeing me, remembers he has a café. He is heading downtown with Jungmin, they have business to do, as he tells me. I let him know that Sehun is looking after the café. Then I´m home and catch a nap. The doorbell wakes me and I let Insoo into the apartment, tell him to make himself comfortable while I shuffle back into the living room to change clothes and wake up.
We lost a nomja last month, okay that sounds more dramatic than it was. Daehyun got a full scholarship and is attending a university in Busan, where he was born. It´s his first time in Korea but judging from the pictures of food he sends us, he likes it. But we also gained a new nomja. Luhan moved into Taos apartment as soon as Daehyun moved out.
It´s Luhan who opens the door when we arrive. He even takes my jacket. Something nobody in New York does because it seems so old-fashioned. I like it. When it comes to Luhan I like everything. I like the way he speaks and what he has to say, I like that he can listen and how he laughs, and I like his hands and his smile and the way he looks at me. What I like best is that I know he likes me back, but we don´t talk about dating yet. I need my time. I need time to be comfortable with someone and I prefer being friends first since it´s the best foundation for a relationship. Skipping the part and rushing along rarely works out.
We prepare Mexican food today, because I like it best and Luhan never had it. It´s a nice evening. Kyungsoo brought donuts and shows us the song he is working on for his exam. We eat the donuts even before we start cooking. Sometimes Tao and Luhan start talking in Chinese and their voices float over me like music. I wonder if Luhan will go back to China but he´s already so newyork-ish that I can´t imagine it or maybe it´s just my wish to keep him here.
We mess up the food. Too much talking and laughing and too much salt. In the end no one knows who was in charge of the salt but Kyungsoo jokes that one of us must be madly in love and Luhan and I blush and Insoo sighs and grabs his car keys and says, “Okay, it´s on me. Where do we find a good Mexican restaurant?”
We slip into the night. New York is buzzing. It´s radiating life. Luhan and I link arms and Kyungsoo snaps his fingers, calling: “Luhan! I told Luhan to put salt in it. I said, a little! Not the whole box!”
“Oh, leave him alone”, Insoo says.
“Why? We can use his pink ears to illuminate the darkness”, Kyungsoo giggles.
“Can we concentrate on our task to find food? I´m hungry”, Tao shoves his hands into his pockets and strides out so fast we have to run after him.
Gunwoo, Turtle Bay, 1:57am
Layken comes home from one of her smelliest jobs. “Instead of caring to find a job today our new roommate found a boyfriend who takes care of her”, she tells me, wiggling out of her shirt. “The guy from last night? I thought they were just making out.” Layken shrugs and disappears into the bathroom. I lean against the wall and talk with her through the closed door.
“Do you love New York?”
“I was born here. I don´t know”, she shouts over the sound of the shower. “It´s like asking me if I love my family. I would answer, yes, because they are my family, but then again, I don’t want to see them or talk with them and whenever we do I hate them. Except Insoo.”
“So, you´re saying you hate New York?”
“No. Maybe. I don´t know. I´m a part of it. You´re hating New York?”
“It never worked out for me. I don´t like the place or most of the people in it.”
The door opens a crack. “You´re leaving. Can you make tea? I get dressed.” She pushes the door close again and I set the kettle on the stove.
“When?” Layken flops on the chair and sweetens her mug of tea with honey.
“I haven’t decided on it yet, but soon.”
“Okay, then we will throw one last party.”
“I will come back though when you have your reading tour after publishing your bestseller.”
“Yeah, we should come back for that, otherwise I will have to read via skype. Hey, that could be cool.” She chuckles.
I raise an eyebrow. “We?”
“Of course. I won´t stay here when you´re leaving, it doesn’t feel right. We´re going back to Paris, aren´t we?”
I nod. I started thinking about moving back to Paris after I lost the poetry slam and not even reached the final round. Till now it was me who was moving back, it never occurred to me that Layken really would come along.
“You have your novel, you need to find a publishing house”, I start.
“I´m coming with you, unless you tell me you don´t want me to. Then we will fight about it and I will win.” She grins and I roll my eyes. She knows she wins only when I want her to win. “I can finish the novel in Paris, send it to publishers from there and if necessary I fly to New York. I thought about giving Ezra the keys. As soon as Zico gets out of prison he will need a home. This place should do it.”
“You thought about it in the few minutes I needed to make tea?”
“I am fast. Oh, and I thought you should give your office to Brooke.”
I nod. It´s not that I have too many options. Brooke is the only driver who stayed with me longer than four months.
“Good. You want me to come with you, don’t you?” She now hesitates for the first time, until I nod. I just nod, but the truth is I hoped she´d say she hates New York and wants to leave, because – and that´s something I am not sure I would admit if she asked me – I can´t imagine walking the streets in Paris without her again. Layken gets all excited and tells me we should rent the small apartment we had first again.
“But it´s tiny!”, I protest.
“But we loved it!”
“We were smaller then.”
“You didn´t grow”, she sticks out her tongue. “And I don´t think we were smaller, younger, okay, but our ideas where bigger. I guess now we have enough space there, since we somehow stopped having big ideas. C´mon, please?”
“I can´t even remember where it was.”
“I´ve the address somewhere. I call there right in the morning and book tickets and oh my god, I need to draw all the money from the bank account Taecyeon is monitoring and…”
I interrupt Layken. “Can you stop making my head spin? Let´s plan a party first. Who is invited?” And she starts talking again.
Layken, Turtle Bay, 10:42pm
I invited everyone who became a part of our life. Aoora and Sangsoo arrive in the costumes which got rejected by a prospect. I want send them to Egypt to film a costume drama. They bring us a gift. Couple clothes Gunwoo and I will never wear. The mere thought of it makes us gag. Sehun and Ezra arrive holding hands and bring their dazed happiness as a gift. Insoo brings Zico. Zico inspects his future home and claims my room as his. Ezra wants the same room. They don´t fight. They both know, she has the better cards because he won´t be released from prison until next year. Brooke and Luhan bring the food and Joon and Jungmin the drinks. No drugs today, Luhan and Insoo made me promise.
Is no party in the terms we usually have parties. This gathering has a purpose.
“All of you know I´m writing a book”, I start after we dried the dishes. The babbling stops and they lift their heads. “No young adult fantasy romance stuff this time. I want to write about love.” I know Insoos smirk, it says, and now tell me what exactly you know about love? I lean back. “Since I´m not exactly an expert, you´re here to tell me what you know. I want to hear your thoughts about love.”
It´s silent. It´s the uncomfortable silence of people who don´t know each other well enough to talk about their most intimate thoughts. But then Sangsoo starts to throw a sentence into the room. And gets a response and another. It´s like a sparkling firework of short opinions and I love it.
“Love is being accepted for who you are”, Sangsoo says.
“Love is not being afraid of being different”, Aoora adds.
“Love is fighting”, Sangsoo says and Aoora scowls at him.
“Love is waiting”, Zico answers. “And music. Mostly music. Okay, love is music. Screw the waiting.” I wonder who the girl is that promised to wait for him and didn´t.
“Food”, Brooke says. The rest of us chuckles.
“Food is great”, Luhan gives back. “And home. No not home, New York, but somehow New York became home.”
“Love sucks”, Jungmin says and makes me laugh. “That´s my sentence”, I say.
“No really”, he looks at me. “It sucks. Oh, and cars suck too.” I make a mental note to ask him about the story behind his words. There is always a story.
“Love is pretending”; Joon goes on.
“Fate”, Ezra interrupts.
“Frenzy”, Sehun says, looking at Ezra.
“Love is being high”, Aoora chuckles looking at them.
“Stay away from drugs”, I advise. “You´re already high enough.”
“Love is wanting to be where the other one is”, Brooke says.
“Love is realizing you have to let go”, Insoo answers with a short look at Luhan and Brooke. I follow his eyes and then smile at him. Actually Insoo is a fine person. I mean, he is my brother, he has to be. Maybe I should invite him to Paris so he can see how we live. It will be different this time. Gunwoo and I have changed, our relationship changed too, it gained a new shape. Going back to Paris where we have been quite different from how we have been in New York will make the shape more visible. I can´t grab it, not yet.
Everybody assumes we have a history. There must be a story behind the things we don´t tell.
And I will tell it sometime. Maybe in my novel. And if they ever adapt my novel for the screen I want this to be the opening scene: All the main characters meet at a party and speak about love. Then the movie will show how they live up to their words. That would be the perfect beginning or maybe the perfect end. I don´t know it yet.
Layken, Turtle Bay, 9:01 am
I wake up at the foot of the bed. The space between Gunwoo and me is filled with crumpled papers. I guess, inspiration kicked in after smoking Opium. I have light headache and feel dizzy. Hangovers after Opium consumption are the worst. So Gunwoo and I decided we rather suffer from a hangover in our beds than somewhere else. When we went home we wanted to take Sehun and his girl along but they were too busy with staring into each other’s eyes to even hear us. Today the hangover is bearable. I read through what I wrote and it´s actually quite inspired, it has a plot and some great ideas. Maybe I will write another bestseller. I let Gunwoo sleep and shuffle under the shower. When I meet Luhan in the living room he is packing his belongings.
“You´re moving out?”
“That´s what I told you yesterday.”
“Sorry”, I grimace. “I wasn´t listening.”
“I´m moving in with Tao.”
“The Chinese guys who is friends with Brooke?”
Luhan smiles, “Sometimes you do listen.”
“Yeah, sometimes.” I take the still hot kettle and pour a cup of tea. “Are you dating? Brooke and you, not the Chinese guy.”
“You hate her.”
“Na, she´s just one of those people you can´t stand because they´re everywhere.” I empty the mug and put it in the sink. “Can you wake Gunwoo before you´re leaving? Call me if he´s miserable, then I´m heading home.” I grab my purse with the credit card. “Oh, and call me when you´re in your new home, okay?” I look at Luhan. This gentle angels-face, those warm eyes. He´s a good person. Not really going along with the way Gunwoo and I live. Maybe it´s better he´s moving away. I hug him goodbye and head over to the Opium den.
The door is locked but a servant opens after some time of knocking. “Your friends are still asleep”, he informs me and hands me the bill. I pay 1490 dollars for last night and I am quite sure Taecyeon will call me soon and ask how you can spend that amount of money in a literature café. I find Sehun sleeping on the chaise lounge. Ezra snuggled in his lap. I shake them awake and the servant brings strong tea with a little Opium. It helps through the worst part of the hangover. They´re still pretty miserable and not very talkative when I drag them into a taxi and drop them off at their homes. Sehun lives in a quiet, neat neighborhood. One of those midtown streets that are so peaceful you know they´re hiding a lot of dark mysteries. Ezra lives in the Plaza. She sleepwalks into the lobby. I arrive at the restaurant where Hobart, my industrial dish washer, is waiting for me. He spits dishwater on me as usual. Luhan calls to tell me Gunwoo is fine, just a little grumpy. During work I start feeling the hangover. It feels as if someone sucked all the energy out of my body. When the shift is over and I leave the air smells wet like it´s going to rain. I buy a hot dog, the first food I have today and a bottle of beer. I just walk through the streets; I have two hours to kill before I have to head for the second job. Not enough time to drive home. I end up in East Village. Here is where I grew up. I could visit my parents but I rarely ever feel the wish to see them. I text Insoo, asking him if he can get Zico out tonight because I have shift in the bar. I tell him he can accompany Zico but he shouldn´t dare showing up without him. He texts back immediately: “Sometimes I wonder if you even like me.” I write: “Mostly I don´t. Sometimes I wonder too.” I don´t know when I started being so mean to my brother, now it became a habit. We used to be pretty close when we were younger. Then I came back from Paris, wrote a bestseller without much effort, and became rich and famous overnight. He instead was working as correctional officer. Nothing that brings much glory. Different from my parents I don´t care what he is doing, but Insoo started comparing us and got jealous. I don´t think he understands me any longer. I discover a garden in a backyard, stretch out on a bench and try reading. I am asleep before I turn the first page.
Joon, Creative Garden, East Village, 4:42 pm
First I think it´s Brooke but when the girl tumbles from the bench and starts from her sleep I realize she´s not. I couldn´t see her before. She was curled up into a ball, lying onto her stomach, a book under her cheek. Moaning she gets up, rubs her eyes and fumbles for the cellphone in her purse to check the time. “Are you alright?” Her head jerks around, narrowing her eyes she considers if I´m some kind of freak who watched her sleeping. I didn´t watch her, I was reading. She slumps on the bench. “I´m fine.” I nod and go on reading but from the corner of my eyes I see how she tilts her head.
“Is it good?” She points at the book.
“Quite good, but I just started it. I saw the movie though.”
She flings the bag over her shoulder and walks over. “How was the movie?”
“Good enough to read the book.”
“I guess I could see it then.” She offers me her hand. “Hi, I´m Layken.” I take her hand, with the free hand she flips to the last page of the book. I stare at the photography of the writer, then up to her face.
“You haven´t seen your own movie?”
“It´s not my movie, I just sold my idea.”
“But still, usually the writer gets invited to the premiere.”
“They invited me. I just never felt like seeing the movie though. Friends said they messed it up badly.”
“No, really, it´s a good movie. I bet your book is better. But you should see the movie. I have the DVD home.”
“Who on earth is still buying DVDs? You can get everything online”, she chuckles.
“I avoid doing illegal things.”
She laughs harder. “Okay then, did you just invite me to see the movie with you?”
Did I? Actually not. But why not? I write her my address on a piece of paper. We set the date for tomorrow evening. She shows up two hours too late with two pizza boxes. We watch the movie. She says, it managed to show all the things she couldn´t tell in her novel. I´m not sure what that means. I want to know if she is writing something and she says, she started a new book yesterday. She talks a lot about all the jobs she has, about friends, her life. Eventually I realize I heard Jungmin talking about Layken before. He wanted to ask her out but he was too busy with work for Aoora and Sangsoo. Then suddenly she showed no interest in him any longer after Gunwoo blurted out about his job. “I know Jungmin. We work for Aoora and Sangsoo.” Layken leans back. “Oh.” I wonder if she got interested in me and the interest fades now.
“What bothers me about your job”, she starts, “Is that it´s not right.” Not right? “You pretend being in love.”
I protest immediately, “We never do this. The women know what they pay us for. It´s company not love.”
“But you´re the perfect company and maybe they can´t help and fall in love with you. Then you just end the contract and get rid of them”, she argues against it. She empties her glass. She seems to be furious but it´s not against me. “That´s what my novel will be about. How little we value love these days. So little we don´t even know what it feels like.” She gets up. “Hey, do you think you and Jungmin would meet me some time and talk about your job? I could need some inspiration for the novel.” I offer my help and promise to ask Jungmin. We exchange phone numbers and a short hug and she leaves me wondering if something in the job we´re doing indeed is wrong.
Ezra, Plaza Hotel, 5:53pm
“You´re home?” My mother towers over me. Her hands put akimbo. “Nichkhun told me you left last night with a stranger. Some lowlife guy from the streets? Then you dare not coming home the whole night and look at you! Where the fuck have you been?” Did my mother just say fuck? She never said fuck. Never. I feel like throwing up, head throbbing, ears ringing. Something smells really smoky and stings like alcohol. I realize that something actually is me. I scratch my head.
“You´ll end up like your worthless brother!”
“Wonderful”, I mumble. “As long as I don´t end up like you.”
“I´ll call your father.”
“What for?” I lift my head. “You can´t send me to military school, you´re not even in the position where you can control my life any longer. I´m not underage!”
My mother narrows her eyes to her famous deadly-scowl. I pull the blanket over my head. “Leave me alone.” To my surprise she does, but she returns half an hour later. “Move your butt out of my bed.” She throws an empty suitcase on the floor. “And leave my apartment.” I sit up. “What he …” She cuts me off with a gesture. “Enough. I went through too much with your brother. I won´t go through it another time with you. Why is none of you thinking about me? How everything you do falls back on me? How do I look like to our friends? How does your father look like at work? They talk about us! Do you even care?”
“No”, I say. “I don´t.”
She gasps at me, not saying anything more while I pack. Not saying anything when I leave.
The night crawls slowly back to my mind. Sehun. I don´t even know his last name, have no idea how to find him or any of his friends. The face of the girl who brought me home is blurred. Great. I don´t know where to go. Chen is an option but not my first choice. I wander through the park and then I decide it´s time to break another family-rule and visit my brother.
I ring at the prison door and wait. A woman opens and lets me in after I tell her I am a family member of one of the inmates. Then she tells me, very friendly, but strict and without any chance to change it, that I am by law prohibited to see Zico. That is how much power my family has.
I leave without having any clue where to go or what to do next. I rummage in my bag, of course, my mother confiscated my credit cards. I have a little money left, but not enough to pay for a hotel room. Someone taps my shoulder, turning around I think I know the face but I´m not sure. “Hey, you´re Zicos sister?” It´s one of the guards and I nod. “He´s babbling of you all the time. He´s friends with my sister and will be out tonight to see her in the bar where she works.” He hands me a note with the address. “Show up there, around ten.” He points back over his shoulder. “I have to go back to work.” He disappears inside the building before I can thank him.
Zico, NoHo, 10:14pm
Insoo was almost scary when he told me, I had to see his sister tonight and I wasn´t supposed going anywhere else and then he said he would accompany me to make sure I was showing up in the bar. Just some time ago he sounded completely different, saying, he´d make sure I´ll got send to another prison where I was not allowed walking around if I would dare dating his sister. “Really”, I answered, “Your sister is nice but not my type.” He didn´t seem to be convinced. And now he coerces me to see her. That´s weird. Her shift hasn´t started yet when we arrive. But there is Ezra. I freeze in the middle of the room. Insoo walks over, taps her on the shoulder, says something to her and then slides on a stool, ordering a drink from Fernando. Ezra turns around. I haven´t seen her in ages. She looks different, yet just the same. My sister flings her arms around my neck and then we blurb out the same time: “I wanted to see you, but I couldn´t.” Then we laugh, almost hysterical. We grab a seat at the bar, order beer. Fernando rubs my shoulder, knowing how much seeing her again meant to me. We start talking but get interrupted by Layken who takes over the shift from Fernando. “Hey Layken, that´s my sister Ezra.” They know each other. I can tell from the smirk that touches Laykens lips and the widened eyes of Ezra. “Do you know where I can find Sehun?”, she asks. “Who is Sehun?” I want to know. “The guy your sis made out with last night.” Ezra frowns. I frown. Layken chuckles. “Park Avenue, I don´t remember the number, but I can ask Aoora.” She looks at her cell. “I ask him tomorrow, right now he´s seeing the Broadway musical he and his boyfriend designed costumes for.” Ezra nods, “Thank you.” I still don´t know who Sehun is and start questioning her. She doesn´t seem to remember much but her eyes get this lovey-dovey glamour. “You did drugs?”, I pinch her ear just like I did when we were small children. “Don´t you dare to ever pinch my ear!” Layken points at her brother. “Don´t worry”, he answers. “I gave up on saving you.” She frowns. I tell Ezra about life in prison which is not as interesting as it sounds. Then she tells me about life with our parents, just as boring, and how she decided she needed to get away, which has something to do with this Sehun guy. I guess, I might like him. “You got kicked out?” Layken leans over the counter. “Need a place to crash?” She cocks her head. “Don´t give her drugs or I pinch your ear”, I warn Layken who nudges me. “Our roommate just moved out. The couch is comfortable and you don´t have to pay rent if you can´t afford it. I can also introduce you to some of my dozen bosses. They always need a helping hand.” Ezra looks at me. I shrug. “It sounds better than moving in with a guy I haven´t met yet.” She rolls her eyes and shakes Laykens hand. Deal done. We talk about music and that I almost had participate in the Hip Hop battle and could have met her a day earlier. She met Sehun there. Maybe I like him just a little more with every time she mentions him. We talk and drink and I realize she actually changed. She grew up, got a tattoo, has own opinions and rebelled against our mother. I am proud. We talk until Insoo clears his throat repeatedly, letting me know it´s time to go. I hug my sister. I don´t hug Layken. She´s still mad at me for calling her Lake. “Humans might consist of 80% water, but that doesn´t make me a freakin lake!” I will call her Lake again just for the fun of seeing her getting this angry wrinkle on her forehead.
Ezra, Plaza Hotel, 9:22 pm
“MOTHER! I know, I´m late, but it´s not my fault you thought I am fat and bought a potato bag!” I hear my mother hiss something and slam the door. “I hate wearing dresses”, I groan. Aoora, that´s how he introduced himself, looks up with a quirky grin. “Me too.” He spend the last hour sewing so the dress will look wearable. “I bet”, I give back. He hands me the expensive clothing. “Change and let me have another look.” I grab the dress and stride into the bedroom. I really hate gala events, I don´t want to go there, most of all I don´t want to be there as Nichkhuns date. It´s unbelievable how our parents came up with the idea setting us up for a date! When I called Nichkhun yesterday he was chuckling and then he hung up on me after saying “See you tomorrow, babe.” I will give him `babe` when I see him. I slip in the dress. The poor dress, although I hate dresses, it´s a beautiful one and now it fits perfectly. Such a shame wasting it on Nichkhun.
“You look like the unhappiest girl I´ve ever seen”, Aoora informs me when I´m back. “Do you want me to change more? I can make it shorter or…” I shake my head. “No, it´s not about the dress.” He starts packing his things. My mother hired him as our personal dressmaker because the older lady who lives with us in the building raves him every time they meet. I remember I saw him before, when Nichkhun tried starting a fight with Aooras assistant. “Then what is it?” I shrug. “It´s everything.” He cocks his head. “If everything makes you that unhappy you should think about at least changing something.”
The door is flung open and my mother comes to my apartment. She has a keycard, of course. “You look stunning!” She goes mad about the dress for about five minutes and I roll my eyes behind her back. Aoora tries to hide a grin. I like him, right now he feels like the only ally I have. “I´m already late, mother, I´m leaving.” My mother practically growls at me. “Don´t call me mother, I´m your mom.” I grab my purse. “I´m still leaving.” I head for the door. “Be nice!” She calls after me. “Maybe”, I mutter under my breath and Aoora who followed me chuckles. “Where are you going?” It´s none of his business but I tell him about the horrible gala that´s awaiting me.
We step on the street and he´s so nice to stop a cab and open the door for me. Then he leans into the car with laughter. “Hey Brooke, can you come over tomorrow morning? I got an order.” The driver nods as I slip into the back of the car. “Thanks”, Aoora shuts the door, but not without winking at me. “Have fun or make the evening for your date as remarkable as possible.” I bet he actually means screwing the gala up for him.
I sink into the comfortable leather seat and feel Brookes gaze on me. I tell her the address and then look out of the window. As we drive by the Lincoln Prison my heart stings as it does every time I see the building. Zico is so close but still out of reach. I miss my brother. I miss how he did what he wanted to without caring how angry our parents got. Although I am older I was never brave enough following in his footsteps. I thought going to college far away from home would change things, but it didn’t change anything at all. I sigh and Brooke shoots me another look. “You know, I am a taxi driver, that’s practically a therapist.”
“It´s nothing”, I answer. “I got paired off with someone horrible.”
“One of my friends.”
She raises an eyebrow.
“I know, you shouldn´t think of your friends as horrible.”
She doesn´t answer. My cell vibrates and I see Chens name beaming on the display. He will be at the gala too. And so will Junho and Jonghyun. It´s a charity event only for the children of high society parents. Chen will be the only one without a date. I´d rather go with him than Nichkhun.
“Do you remember Donna from our school?”
“Well, she just stole your date.”
I breath out in relieve. “Awesome.”
“Yeah”, Chen pauses. “Everyone will pity you when you´re without a date. But hey, then I won´t get pitied alone.”
“Is it boring?”
“You´ve no idea!”
“Meet me outside, okay? I´m your date.” The moment we stop outside the venue and I bend forward to pay the driver. Handing me the change she hands me a flyer. “If you want to try something different.” I get off the car and study the flyer while crossing the street. Hip Hop. I was at an underground concert in London once. It was great. But Hip Hop and rap is not really what high society kids listen to. I shove the flyer into my purse and wave at Chen who waits for me. The evening will still be boring but at least it will piss my mother off.
Layken, Harlem, 7:54 pm
“He´s a male whore?” I almost choke on my beer.
Gunwoo shrugs. “Aoora and Sangsoo run some kind of escort agency, they rent out boyfriends.”
“Uh”, I frown.
Gunwoo studies my face, and then he chuckles. “Guess right there someone lost interest.”
“I wasn´t that interested in Jungmin.”
“Of course not.” He nudges me and I take another sip while heading downstairs into the basement of a club where they don´t have security at the door and the admission is free. Loud hip hop music thuds against our eardrums. I admit I was interested in Jungmin and now I get why he never had time for a date. He has to date a fake girlfriend.
“I think it´s disgusting.” I stop on the stairs and Gunwoo turns to me. “You pretend being a boyfriend, the whole gamut, minus sex, at least I hope, and you know you´re just an actor and it´s not real but what about the woman who booked you. She has reasons to choose you from the catalogue, maybe she fell in love with your face or your profile, because you like art as much as she does and you´re such a perfect actor that she can´t separate the act and the reality and then after a while, when she can´t pay for your service any longer, she´s again alone and miserable and now also heartbroken.”
“Okay”, Gunwoo says.
“No, it´s not okay! What about love?”
Now he perks up his eyebrow. “What about love, Layken?”
I sigh. “I don’t know. Love sucks.”
“That´s why we write, at least there love only sucks if we want it to.” He holds open the door for me. “I bet when it comes to love most people know the art of disguise. That makes renting a boyfriend not that disgusting.” Gunwoo puts his hand at my back and shoves me through the door with the words, “This conversation has too little swag for this place.”
I push my way through the people – mostly boys and girls who are dressed like boys – to find Zico. I find Insoo first and with him Brooke. Gunwoo will be so pleased seeing her. Showing up behind me, I hear him sigh against my ear. “She´s such a stalker.” I chuckle and then tilt my head and read the expression on Insoos face. He has a crush on her. I whirl around to Gunwoo to tell him I was right when he narrows his eyes. “Okay, I was wrong; your brother has a crush on her. But…” He doesn’t finish the sentence, because now I see what he sees and that´s Luhan who leans against a barstool beside Brooke. Whenever she pauses while chatting with Insoo her eyes also pause at Luhans face.
“I was wondering why he´s home seldom. Guess, that´s the answer.”
“Can we get rid of him before he and Brooke make out on our couch?”, Gunwoo sighs.
“No, I like him and he can cook Chinese.”
“I can order food, that should be enough for you.”
I laugh and draw Insoos attention towards me. My opening question lets him frown. “Where´s Zico?”
I don´t hide my surprise and annoyance.
“I couldn´t get him an early start position and I can´t sneak him in and out as you please.” Insoo folds his arms over his chest.
“I said I think about it and I thought about it. It wasn’t possible. I did him a favor earlier.”
“Yeah and I bake cookies for you!”
“Then don´t bake cookies.”
“Okay.” I spin around and grab Gunwoos arm. “Let´s leave.”
“Why are you leaving?”, Insoo sighs. I can´t answer right away because a boy runs into me. A cute boy, with big brown eyes and dark hair. He apologizes in Korean, then looks at Brooke, grimaces and apologizes again in English. “It´s okay,” I tell him in Korean. One of the few sentences I learned from Gunwoo. “I just came to wish Zico good luck”, I say over my shoulder. The boy walks over to Brooke who ruffles his hair.
“Nice”, Insoo says.
“Whatever”, I give back.
“Don´t whatever me!” Insoo calls after me.
“That´s not even a sentence!”
Insoo and I glare at each other until Luhan steps in. “Hey, can you just stop fighting and cheer for Juko.” He points at the boy. “He registered for the battle and he is really good.”
“You heard him already?”, I ask surprised.
Luhan shakes his head. “No, but Brooke told me.” Oh, well yeah, then it must be true. Gunwoo and I exchange a gaze, then he takes the empty bottle and edges his way over to the barkeeper to get a new one. I am about to follow him when I see Sehun and wave. I don’t know Sehun well, but he came with Aoora to one or two of our parties. He waves back, but not at me. He smiles at Brooke and stops in front of her. Why does she know the whole town? I don´t hide my annoyance but the only one who sees it is Insoo and he thinks my expression is for him. “Hey, I didn´t know you were here”, Sehun says. Brooke points at Juko and explains why she is here. She is his babysitter or something. “What are you doing here?” She gives back. “Ah you know, checking out what´s going on.” Sehun shrugs. We spot the empty stool at the same time but he is faster and snatches it away from under my nose. Now he notices me. “Hey, where´s Aoora?” I open my mouth to answer but Brooke is faster: “Oh, I didn’t ask him to come.” She knows Aoora as well? I wonder and that´s exactly the same question Gunwoo whispers into my ear. “I fear we´ve to find new friends.” I agree.
Insoo organized the battle with a few friends. So far I was informed, but I had no idea that they had a special performance. Do you know the feeling watching someone doing something embarrassing but he doesn´t get that he´s embarrassing himself and so you feel like dying in place of him. Watching my brother turn into a swaggediswagg rapper is so horrible I turn away and burry my face at Gunwoos shoulder.
Luhan and Brooke tell Insoo he was great. What I like about Sehun, what I already liked the first time I met him, is that he doesn’t lie. He keeps quiet and so does Juko. When Insoo looks at me for my opinion, I answer, “Ah you know, I´m not into swag but I´m sure there were a lot of people who liked it much better than I did.” That´s probably true.
I have to clarify that I like Hip Hop, as long as it´s good Hip Hop. The evening starts with bad swag but gets better and better from performance to performance. After a while I am happy we stayed and I am sad for Zico because I´m sure he´d be one of the highlights. The area around the stage is crowded and while Brooke and Luhan push forward to cheer for Juko and Insoo is somewhere doing organizational stuff Sehun, Gunwoo and I stay behind, close to the bar. I left the stool to Gunwoo and lean my back against his legs, seeing how Sehuns attention turns away from the stage towards a group of people who don´t fit in. I thought Gunwoo and I don´t fit in this place but they stick out. They wear designer clothes and order expensive long drinks. They are loud and disrespectful. Three of the four boys most of all. One of them actually seems nice, shy even, and the girl is just rolling her eyes at the behavior of her friends. The boys are annoying and arrogant and when one of them, the little one, tries flirting with me, Gunwoo slides from his seat and, now standing behind me, places his hand in my neck and the jerk runs off.
Sehun, Harlem, 10:27 pm
I`m not really sure how I ended up at the club. I found the flyer between the quitting in Aooras café. The café he keeps because his boyfriends for rent need a place to hang out. Brooke has no clue. She works in the café once in a while, mostly to take care of the few orders Aoora gets. Most of the time the place is empty, but Aoora doesn’t care about it. He and Sangsoo make good money with their boyfriend business and their designer career is not going bad either. I like hanging out with them, because their company keeps me entertained. They have interesting friends, some of them are really crazy, most of them gay, a few depraved, all of them artists. I even tried working as a rentable boyfriend but Sangsoo kicked me out after two dates. I couldn´t bring myself to shut up. If the woman can´t keep a boyfriend because she´s an ugly bitch I think someone needs to tell her. I mean, that way she can work on it. Otherwise she goes on believing she´s okay and the men she met were wrong, nothing´s her fault. Where´s the sense in that? So I told her. I said it nice and I even tried explaining it. After the second date she refused paying Sangsoo and Aoora for my service and she didn’t want to try another boyfriend. They saw my point in saying the truth although it hurt but since it´s bad for business they allow me working in the café or helping with deliveries and they still value my opinion on new boyfriends but that´s it. They also advised me to stay away from girls in general since not many would be able to handle my honesty.
Juko, Brookes student, actually wins the battle. Brooke looks so proud she´s about to cry. I´ve never thought of her as very affectionate. She goes along with Aoora and Sangsoo well, and although I try treating her nerves she seems to like me. But she´s different with Juko, cuddles and hugs him all the time. She´s different with Luhan as well. Aoora always worried she´d end up as an old maid, lonely and weird. He actually told Jungmin and Chanyeol he´d pay them if they´d go out with her. Brooke showed absolutely no interest in Jungmin and never did more with Chanyeol than hang out with him, not much closer than she does with me. Sangsoo advised trying to set her up with a girl but I don´t think this would have worked either. Therefor I´m somehow happy to see the fond look in her eyes whenever she smiles at Luhan.
Brooke has to bring Juko home and Gunwoo and Layken discuss whether to go home or calling some friends to hang out. I think about joining them but then Layken starts fighting with her brother why she doesn´t want him to go out with her and Gunwoo, and I decide it´s better to leave. Outside I take a deep breath to clear my lunges from the thick air inside. The idiots from the Plaza Hotel leave too. I ignore them and cross the street to buy something to drink in the shop on the other side. I´m not the only customer, a lot of people who attended the battle are here too. As I pay the chocolate milk and turn around to leave the girl with the “No” tattoo in her neck stands behind me. It´s a slip out when I say: “I don´t like your friends.” She blinks at me, frowns, but then she sighs and answers, “I don´t like my friends either.” I hand her the chocolate milk. “Maybe it´s time to change something about it.” And then I pass by but I stop and hold the door open with my boot. “Coming?” She cocks her head, considering what just happened, wondering if it´s save or if I´m a crazy freak who will bury her in my backyard. “I don´t have a backyard”, I wink. She lifts her eyes and chuckles. “I guess, then I´m coming. We can share the milk.” “Nice”, I grin, “since I paid for it.” We pass by her friends who stare at us. “Sorry”, I wrap my arm around her waist and look at the stupid puppy-faced guy, “She has enough of your superficial, egocentric bullshit.” They gasp. The girl beside me is silent. “What the hell, Ezra?” One of them spits out. “I bet, hell is more fun than being around you guys”, I smirk. And I bet they want to punch me, but I am good in ignoring bullies, and I usher her around them towards the metro station.
We meet Gunwoo and Layken who wait for their train to come. “Where are you heading?” I ask. “Some den”, Layken answers. “Mind if we join you?” I imagine wherever they´re going might be fun. They exchange a look, and then they glance at Ezra. “She´s cool”, I promise. Gunwoo shrugs. The train arrives and we get on it. A few stations later we are in an entirely different world, a lot of backyards and narrow streets. We knock at an iron door, when it slides open we follow the narrow stairway down into a basement. It´s dark and hot, the air is thick or thin since there´s almost no oxygen left because of the smoke that floats under the ceiling. Chaise lounges and cozy armchairs invite to stay. “Where are we?”, Ezra whispers into my ear. I shrug. There´s a guy with huge glasses sitting in the middle of the room in a chair and he´s reading out loud some kind of poetry. We sit back on one of the empty chaise lounges. Gunwoo takes the armchair next to us, Layken sits on the armrest. Nobody asks us if we want something to drink but as soon as we sit down a waiter puts down a bottle and four glasses. I read the label. Ezra beside me chuckles. “Everything here looks like some bohemian movie setting and now Absinth?” What I know about Absinth is that hundred years ago French artists drank it for inspiration. The concentration of thujone changed, otherwise the liquor would be prohibited. Gunwoo leans forward and puts sugar cubes on the spoons, pours the alcohol over it and sets the sugar on fire. “At least it looks classy.” I wink at Ezra. We lean back again. We almost sink into the soft backrest. We watch the sugar melt and drip into the green liquid. Another poet starts reading, some erotic nonsense that makes us laugh. Except the four of us nobody laughs. The rest looks stunned or stoned. The Absinth tastes like licorice and it´s effective. After half of the glass I feel cozy, warm and pleasantly heavy. After the second glass the backrest seems to swallow us. Ezra leans against me, my arm around her shoulder, her head presses slightly against my arm. The third poet seems to be really interesting, almost brilliant. Maybe it´s the alcohol, maybe he´s really that much better than the other one. We don´t talk. We just listen. I am aware of Ezras hair brushing against my arm, of the warmth radiating from her body. The waiter brings a tray with a pipe. Layken nods, takes it first. I´m not sure if we should smoke whatever this is, but when Layken leans forward and offers the pipe to me, saying: “Opium”, I hesitate only for a second. I feel high immediately, after a few moments, while I watch Ezra smoke; I get really calm and peaceful. I feel invincible, everything is possible and everything matters although nothing really matters. I don´t know when exactly Gunwoo and Layken disappear, if they said goodbye, did they went home, are they even gone? My head is in the clouds. My fingertips explore Ezras skins. I start with tracing the letters on her neck. “Why NO?” Her skin is soft, her breath steady, relaxed, until my fingertips brush the side of her neck, trail down to her shoulder and run over her collarbone. “I rebel against the belief systems of my mother.”
“What is it your mother believes?”
“Everything I don´t believe.” She turns around and looks at me. Her eyes muzzy, deeper now, almost dark. Her lips are welcoming, soft. Kissing her feels like drowning. It feels like losing track of time. Or as if time swallows us and spits us out in an entirely different world. A world full of colors and intensity.
“I´ve a car now and do you know what, the worst are all those slips of paper they put under the wipers!”
“At least you´ve a car.”
“Yeah. But it´s old and rusty and when I bought it from this Chinese martial arts warrior a wheel was missing. He sold me a car with three wheels!”
“Did you kill him?”
“No, I just got released; I want to enjoy my freedom for a while.”
I clout Fernando. “Do you know why those rumors started? Because you talk like a freakin serial killer!”
“It´s good for business.”
I roll my eyes, but can´t say he´s wrong. Girls love the idea of flirting with a serial killer. The two friends resume their talk and I go on eavesdropping. „But tonight I spotted this.” Fernando pulls a crumpled piece of paper from his hip pocket. “It´s a hip hop battle and it´s early. Maybe you can extend your permission to go out for an hour or two. They give you money if you win.”
“Hello, customers waiting!?” I kick Fernandos heel and he moans. He is actually a nice guy. I guess he went to jail for stealing a bunch of computers. Just to buy his girlfriend a wedding ring. It´s cute, in a desperate way.
I watch him mix cocktails and talk to the girls. The club had never been famous except for the high population of cockroaches we share it with. I wait tables one night a week for a more than a year and for the first time I go home with generous tips.
“Can I get another beer? It´s on Fernando.” His friend smirks.
“It´s on me if you tell me what you did.”
“What I did?”, he knits his eyebrows.
“Oh, you know I am a writer seeking for a story; every conversation could spark off my inspiration. You´re an inmate, aren´t you?” I open a bottle and place it in front of him.
“It´s a long story”, he says.
“The longer the better.”
He grins, takes a sip and leans back. “I am the son of rich parents, but as soon as I was able forming my own thoughts, I thought: fuck society, fuck money, fuck establishment. I broke the safe of my dad open, took his money and burned it on the middle of Time Square.”
“You did that?” My eyes widen in surprise and pride. “The next beer is on me too.” I gesture to Fernando to take care of my part of the bar as well and slide on the stool beside the guy. “I cut out the article and put it in my locker.” I offer him my hand. “I´m Layken.”
“I´m Zico”, we shake hands. “So you had a crush on me?”
“Keep on dreaming”, I laugh. “But it was impressive. Okay, go on. How did you end up in jail?”
“My dad put me in one of those camps for maladjusted children. They kicked me out. He sent me to a private school, where I was the problem student and they kicked me out. He thought I needed a lesson and sent me to one of those work camps for criminals, hoping I´d see where I was about to end. Sadly, for him, I learned a lot from them. After that I got arrested for drug use and dealing, stealing a car because I wanted to see the Grand Canyon, I was fourteen so I also got charged for driving without license, last for grievous body harm because one of those bastards dared looking at my sister the wrong way.”
“Shit”, I say, “I may have a crush on you now.”
Zico laughs, getting that I don’t mean it. “Pity that I won´t get out for the next few months.”
I follow his gaze to the clock at the wall, in the form of a cockroach it´s really ugly, but fits into the place. “`Cause you should be locked into your cell since eight?”
Zico shrugs, “Fernando never stops babbling and by the time I realized I was too late, I was already so late to get punished for it. Therefor I thought, fuck prison, if they punish me then at least for a great night.”
I hop down from the stool and fish for my cellphone behind the bar. “Since you´re one of my childhood heroes, I´ll do you a favor.” I leave him with a big question mark in his eyes and stroll out to the back of the bar, into the staff area. I hold door open with my boot. Insoo has night shift and I´m pretty sure he´ll find a way to sneak Zico back in.
“I hate him”, Insoo growls. “How did he find you?”
I chuckle, “I doubt he was looking for me. I work with one of your ex-inmates.” Insoo sighs and I know he considers the possibility of getting Zico busted right here. “C´mon, I´ll owe you and make sure mom won´t call you anytime soon to complain about me.”
“He has to be at the door exactly two minutes before three when we have shift changeover.”
“Thanks, oh, and Insoo, can you make sure he´ll get out on the weekend of the Hip Hop Battle and gets one of the first competitor spots? I´ve the feeling he´d love to attend the battle.”
“I´ll think about it”, Insoo grunts and hangs up.
I return with the news and Zicos eyes run over my face calculating. “Then you´re Insoos sister. Thanks for the cookies. He´s a rapper?”
I laugh. “No, but he believes he has swag.” I make quotation marks in the air and Zico bursts into laughter.
Gunwoo, Harlem Coffee Cave, 8:36 pm
“What´s she doing here?”, I mutter under my breath and lean against the counter. It´s a nice place, low ceiling, dark wooden walls, square leather cubes act as seats. But I wonder who the drunkard was that had the idea to build the bar a few levels lower. People have to walk down three steps to get new drinks. Not that easy for someone who is drunken. Layken narrow her eyes. “Who?” I point over to Brooke who just came into the café and looks around a little lost. “I didn´t invite her, she´s not supposed being here, I don´t want her to be here.” I am definitely not pleased to see one of my employees at the Poetry Slam. It´s a side of me they should not know. “I can drag her out on her ponytail”, Layken offers. That’s tempting but we need her. She´s a good driver and one of the few who doesn’t mind making several night shifts in row. “Who´s she, like a secret crush or something?” My lips curl up to a frown. “More like the opposite. She works for me and it´s okay to spill out your soul in front of strangers but not in front of the people who should look up to you.” Layken holds back laughter. “I really dislike saying this, but I´m quite sure she never looked up to you.” She nudges me. “And by the way, you never spill out your soul. That´s why people like you, you don´t make them listen to your personal bullshit.” She glimpses at her cell since she has to work later the night. We turn our attention towards the stage where the first “poet” appears in the spotlight, it´s a tiny, blond girl with a squeaking voice. “Oh yeah, that will be great”, I´m already rolling my eyes. After hanging out with artists and wannabe-artists you just have a feeling if one has talent or not.
According to the thesaurus…
And according to me
There are thirty different meanings for the word
She starts like that and the room gets a little quieter. I have to admit it isn´t the worst start I´ve ever heard. She takes a deep breath and then she quickly yells out thirty words, making most people in the room flinch. She starts with jackass and jerk, gets lame with the words heartless and bitter and ends with a full line again.
And my favorite – asshole
“Who pissed her off?”, Jungmin - whom I invited together with Aoora and Sangsoo, who won´t show up, I am quite sure about that, - next to me laughs.
“That was impressive”, Layken chuckles.
“No, she´s just hurt and frustrated and I bet the guy she wrote this masterpiece for wasn´t even in the room.”
“You´re rancorous”, Layken informs me. “That´s a thesaurus of mean.” We lock gazes and try hiding laughter. Then Laykens attention snaps towards the door and she yells: “Luhan, over here!” He turns into our direction and waves. Easing his way through the standing crowd, he brushes Brooke with his arm and stops to apologize. They exchange a few words and then he joins us but I can see how Brookes eyes follow him and how she furls her eyebrows when Layken pulls him into a hug.
“Do you know her?” I nod over to Brooke.
“Not really, but I saw her once when she picked up a Chinese guy I know. They´re in a cooking class together or something, I´m not quite sure.” Luhan gets interrupted by Layken.
“That´s Brooke?” She is almost yelling the name. “They meet once a week to cook.”
“Yeah”, Luhan nods. “I guess that´s what it´s about.”
Layken turns her back towards Brooke. “I guess then she´s the girl Insoo has a crush on.”
“She´s a cab driver, the first person I met when I arrived in New York, Jungmin now looks at me. He wasn´t there when I explained Layken who she is. “One of yours, huh?”
“Now she´s everywhere or what?” Layken snaps.
“I don´t think Insoo has a crush on her”, I reassure her. “She doesn´t look like swag.” I make quotation marks in the air and Layken at least grins for a second.
“He´s babbling about her all the fucking time. Brooke does cook awesome and she´s so nice and she recommended the restaurant I tried yesterday; it was so good, you need to go there too and Brooke said Korean food in East Village tastes even better than in Korean town. Blah-blah.”
“Wow”, I make. “Do you want to go on stage and blow off your steam?”
“I think she looks nice”, Luhan says, diplomatic as always.
“Oh, get lost!” Layken and I echo.
Luhan flinches, then Brooke comes down the stairs and orders juice. “She drinks juice”, Layken murmurs. I guess that’s a thesaurus for “I can´t stand her”. Brookes eyes dart over to Luhan who notices it and flashes a smile. He knows better than to introduce us but then she spots me and her eyes widen a little in surprise. “Hey there”, she says irritated. “Hey there”, I give back. Layken digs her elbow into my ribs and whispers, “Don´t mention my name.” I nod, but I fear eventually someone will do. “How´s Tao?”, Brooke asks and Luhan scoots over. They lose themselves in a conversation about martial arts and food. I had no idea Brooke practices martial arts. I got educated in Taekwondo since I was four and stopped when I moved to Paris. Scary that we actually have at least one thing the both of us are interested in. I unfold my notes for the slam and follow the conversations and the meaningless words from the people on stage with half an ear. Only paying attention when Jungmin complains that he was in Club 66 and Layken handed him a beer and acknowledged his presence with a smile before she gave her undivided attention to the guy next to him. “But he´s not here now”, she answers in her best flirting tone and I sigh and hope they will at least not end up in our apartment.
“It´s my turn”, I inform them and get four nods and slight waves. It´s great having friends who are interested in you. That Brooke is the only one who smiles at me when I head towards the stage doesn´t make me feel better. But I know I will have their attention, in fact the attention of the whole crowd, once I start talking. As always I skip the introduction. Other poets recite their whole life up to the point when they stepped on the stage. I never do. I adjust the microphone to my height and say: “I´m Lee Gunwoo from Paris.” And then I start right away.
Shooting off vicious
Collections of words
The losers make facts
By things they have heard
We´re no difference
We love to talk about things
We don´t know about
But we´re in this together
With the sanity drained from our eyes
I don´t know why I like the spotlight so much. It´s not the applause or the cheers and not even the knowledge people admire or envy you for your talent. Maybe it´s some kind of narcissism, I know I am good with words and I want to show off. It´s deeply satisfying. I haven´t left the stage yet when Layken flings her arms around my neck. “Guess next week next round. You´ll make it to the finals.” I shove her away with a sigh. “You reduce my chances getting laid by a woman who thinks she has to explore my deepest depth and emotional scars.” She breathes laugher. “You can sit and whine with Jungmin who just got ditched. I´m off to work.” She winks and leaves the café.
Brooke and Luhan are still talking and suddenly someone taps Brookes shoulder. “Am I late?” She turns to him. “About an hour.” Looking into my direction she first says, “You are good” and then asks if there more poets to perform. I nod and grab the last empty stool beside Jungmin who eyes Brooke talking with the guy. “Hey Joon”, he finally says. He seems surprised seeing Jungmin here and I wonder how it comes that Brooke seems to know everyone in town. Okay, she is a taxi driver but I thought it means bringing passengers from A to B and not befriending them. “You know each other?”, I ask nobody in particular. “Kind of”, Jungmin and Brooke answer. “Wherefrom?” I want to know. The one Jungmin addressed as Joon smiles, “It´s kind of a secret.” A secret I don´t solve although I am condemned spending the rest of the evening with them.
I stretch and yawn when the bell over my head rings. Aoora sits with his back turned towards me at the bar. His head rests on the counter. “Long night?” He startles and almost topples from the stool. “Slept an hour”, he yawns. “Or less.” I put my bag behind the counter and hang my jacket over a chair. “You drooled”, I inform him and point towards the dark flyer he slept on. “Oh, it´s just something someone I know gave me.” He turns the flyer around. “Poetry Slam.” He shrugs and drops the flyer on my bag. “I am busy, I won´t go there.” I roll up my sleeves. “You´ll take care of the order?” I nod. “It´s on the fridge, they grab it around 10. I´m back around 12 to take over, but Sehun might come around earlier and help you out.” I nod and then wave him away. “Take a shower and get the job.” I relax once the door closed. I hate being observed while working in the kitchen. Aoora runs this place that is as small as my apartment. It´s a cozy place, but it´s lacking guests. I don´t even know why he still runs the café since he makes no profit with it. I guess, it´s most of all a place for him and his friends to meet and hang out. I don´t work in the café but I help out whenever Aoora needs me. We met in Design School two years ago and dropped out of it the same day. We kept in touch, although you can´t say we´re close. I know Aoora lives in a relationship with Sangsoo who I met once in the café. Together they design costumes for Broadway shows. In the last few months they had a hard time attracting new business. Today they meet a producer and maybe might get a new job. I saw half a dozen plays at Broadway because they put me on the guest list. I take a look at the flyer for the Poetry Slam and shove it into my bag. Then I study the order at the fridge. Sandwiches, Muffins and a cake, that´s nothing I can´t do in the two and a half remaining hours. I finished just in time and hand the boxes over to the man who gets them. He gives me a little tip that I put in the jar on the counter. Sehun doesn´t show up but so does no customer. I enjoy a peaceful cup of tea and a muffin I kept until Aoora calls me. He wants me to close the café because they got the job and are celebrating and he won´t be back. He invites me to party with them but I decline. We don´t have the same kind of friends and I won´t feel comfortable among them.
I close the café and put the key in the small space in the wall. I don´t think it´s an awesome hiding place but it´s the one Aoora uses. Checking my watch I realize it´s not enough time to go home and sleep but still too early to meet the nomjas.
I wander through the crowded streets. People swoosh by and barge into me until I remember why I don´t like New York during day time. I´m yearning for some peace and head over to East Village where one of my favorite places is located, but before getting there I buy something to eat and two cups of tea. The “Creative Garden”, as the community garden is called, is surrounded by an ordinary dark-green fence. The gate is open between 11 am and 6 pm each day. I step through the yellow gate with the handwritten, wooden sign over my head. The garden is more a backyard and it is really small. To both sides tower the walls of the bordering buildings. Someone arranged a round table and three chairs and a garden swing. The space is green, full of flowers and trees and a few benches. Usually when the residents are at work and the children still at school the place is deserted. I find Joon sitting in the garden swing and reading a book he read four or five times already, but he says it makes him feel like he belongs to something because he knows everyone in the book so well. I put the cup down and flop on the bench not far from him. He acknowledges me with a smile. We aren´t friends or something and I don´t know much more about him than his name and the books he is reading. For me he is a part of the garden. I have no idea what I am for him but I don´t bother asking. I really don´t need to know. I never stay long in the garden when other people are here, they tend being too noisy and stress me. With Joon it´s comfortably silent and sometimes it´s good to know someone is there when you got lost in your thoughts or a magazine and lost track of time.
I flip through the magazine I bought, but I can´t concentrate. My head feels tired and my eyelids are heavy. “Can you wake me around three?”, I ask. Joon looks at his watch. “Okay”, he says and returns to his book. I stretch out on the bench and take a nap.
He jolts me awake. “It´s three.” I rub my eyes and sit up. “Thank you.” I shove the magazine in the bag. “Thanks for the tea”, he says. I just nod. “See you”, I say and walk along the path. “You lost something!”, he calls after me and waves the flyer. “You can keep it”, I shout back and step on the busy sidewalk. I ponder whether to take the subway or a bus when I get a text from Insoo: “Can pick you up. Where?” It´s ridiculous but I don´t want anyone to know where I spend my time and so I walk over to the nearby station and text him I´m waiting there.
Today we meet in Daehyuns and Taos apartment. They are roommates. Tao gives classes at the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts College and Daehyun attends the musical school together with Kyungsoo who waits for us in front of the building. He carries two bags from the grocery store. Insoo gets another bag from the trunk.
Our weekly get-together started three months ago with Insoo and Daehyun who met at a cheesecake eating contest. Daehyun won but he felt so ill after it that Insoo drove him home. Tao thought it was funny how sick Daehyun looked and invited Insoo to come over and eat with them the next day. Insoo said Daehyun made the most tortured sound he ever heard when Tao kept on talking about food. They met again the next day and I got more or less invited accidentally. I was taking classes and Tao was our trainer for the time the actual trainer was on vacation. I was talking with one of my classmates about a few restaurants we loved and when the girls headed for the changing rooms he apologized for overhearing the conversation. He was wondering if I was a good cook because apparently the rest were just good eaters. I dragged along Kyungsoo whom I still knew from school and found out that he was friends with Daehyun and so the nomjas were formed.
Tao and Daehyun pull me into a hug and then into the kitchen that already drown in chaos. At least everything is clean. Once a week I feel like a director. I am in charge and make sure everybody has something to do and knows what he is doing. We need two hours to prepare two different dishes and dessert. Everybody is talking. Tao about how the four year old boy in his class beheaded a teddy bear with war cries and about the new guy he met at the regulars ‘table. He goes to a place in China Town every month to meet other Chinese people. He misses his home and family and this place cures his homesickness a little. Daehyun and Kyungsoo practice for a school play and I make them sing the musical piece they work on. I share stories about my nightly taxi rides. Insoo talks about his job in the Prison in the Park. After updating each other about our lives we talk about food and then we can finally eat.
I love those evenings, I like being surrounded by people who crave food and above that I really like the four boys. Although we never meet to do anything else than cooking and eating together I can feel we are close. And in a city where friendship is used in the most superficial kind of way having the feeling you´re surrounded by people you can rely on is good.
Insoo, Turtle Bay, 12:09 pm
Layken kicks out for me as I pull away the blanket she is snuggled under. “I sleep naked!” She groans and tries to grab the blanket from me without having to open her eyes. “I saw you naked before”, I fold the blanket and throw it in the end of the bed. “And by the way, you don´t.” I flop down at her feet. “Who´s the guy that sleepwalked through the corridor?”
She stretches her arms over the head with a deep sigh and sits up. “Luhan.” I look at her ruffled hair and the smeared dark make-up under her tired eyes. “New boyfriend?”
She yawns.” You can´t date angels.” I give her the questioning look she says makes me look dumb. “He´s Chinese.”
That doesn´t explain anything. “He looks wasted.” She shrugs, “We had a little cinnamon punch.”
“What kind of drug is cinnamon punch?”
She grins. “It´s punch, but I guess cinnamon is an aphrodisiac.” Layken found her cellphone and rubs her eyes. “It´s in the middle of the night”, she slumps back and pulls the pillow over her head.
“You´ve a drug problem.”
She chuckles. “It´s not a problem unless you don´t know how to handle it. I know how to handle it, therefore I don´t have a problem.”
I sigh. Eight years ago I saw off my sister at the airport and got back an entirely different girl. As children she looked up to me and adored me. Now she adores Gunwoo and looks up to him. She dashed off a book in a few weeks, went back to Paris and the next time she returned we were even more alienated.
“Mom called me. You wasted 1000 bucks on shopping?”
“I bought a skirt.” She throws the pillow away and swings her legs over the edge of the bed.
“Who wore it?” I don´t understand how she gets tricked into buying stuff that she thinks belonged to famous people in the past.
“The Queen of Scotland.”
I raised an eyebrow as she pointed at Gunwoo who walked through the corridor. He was wearing dark jeans and over it something that looked like a large belt but must be the infamous skirt.
“What else did you buy? Don´t tell me this thing costs 1000 dollars.”
“What else did I buy?”, she calls after Gunwoo who stops. “A pp-suit.” Layken and I looked quizzically. “A suit that screams poor poet. And new shoes.” He disappears into the bathroom and slams the door.
“I was generous”, Layken gets up.
“Don´t give him your credit card”, I followed her into the kitchen. “It´s always me mom calls and lets off steam. I can´t stand it.”
“Then don´t answer her calls just as I do”, she advices and hands me a mug with coffee. “Why are you here?”
“I need new cookies.”
“Can´t you ask your baking buddies to help you?”, she frowns.
She hops on the counter. “One day they catch you and then you´ll end in jail.”
I shrug. “Then you have to answer the phone and listen to moms babbling about what a waste of talent I am.”
“Which talent?”, she mocks me. We´re both not what parents imagine when they have children. Layken had always been the brighter one, the smart one and our parents; mom first of all, had high expectations. She had a good start, A grades in school, promising college possibilities. The year in Paris was something our parents wanted her to do, to broaden her horizon. It broadened her horizon in a quite unexpected way. Coming back with barely 18, Layken thought she was worldly-wise. Dad said she acted crazy, as if she were on drugs. They had no idea that she indeed was on something. Nevertheless they were proud when she published the bestselling novel and sold it to a movie director. Then things got out of control and they turned towards my direction, hoping now I would meet their hopes. In school I got no more than C´s, and different from Layken who attended extra classes – creative writing, year-book, poetry – I hung out with friends and listened to music. I never had high ambitions and after high school graduation I received training as correctional officers and work there ever since. Dad still tries to talking me into medical school, but with 26 I feel too old to go back to school. Mom feels guilty for not forcing me to take ballet lessons longer than two months, she said I looked gorgeous and could be a dancer. But I am happy as it is.
“We bake cookies”, Layken hands the mug to Gunwoo and bounces down the hallway into the bathroom. Shortly after the door shut the shower starts running, but Gunwoo and I haven´t said a word yet. I don´t like him and he knows. The Chinese boy, Luhan, collapses on a chair with a moan, then stretches out so that he lies on two chairs, his arms and feed dangling over the seating surfaces. As Layken comes back to the kitchen she strokes his head. “How do you feel?”
“The dizziness will go away. Anything else?”
He shakes his head with a painful sigh. She takes the kettle and reaches him a cup of herbal tea. She drops to her haunches in front of him and holds the cup under his nose. “Don´t do this again. I told you not to drink anything.” Luhan nods and gropes his way until his hand touches the porcelain. “It´s nothing for you, okay? It´s for me and Gunwoo and the rest, but not for you.” She pats his cheek and gets up after being sure he won´t drop the cup. “Okay, let´s make cookies”, she claps her hands and shoves Gunwoo and me towards the kitchen counter.
That´s why I don´t like Gunwoo; whenever he is around it is as if I am not there. They have uncountable private jokes. A nudge, a glimpse, a chuckle, a do-you-know-when…and the joke is told. I am jealous because that was us when we were children.
We make chocolate cookies, dozens of them, and fill them into plastic bags. Gunwoo keeps one of the bags, for his help, as he says. Layken helps me to store the rest in the trunk. “Gunwoo is attending a Poetry Slam next weekend. Will you come?”
“The evening will have a lot of swag.” She makes a gesture she thinks underlines the word `swag`.
“You think that convinces me?”
She tugs at my shirt. “It says `swag` and it doesn´t suit you.” I scowl and she goes on, “And you over-exercise, your shoulders broaden but your waist doesn´t. It will look ridiculous soon.”
“Stop complaining”, I hiss.
I roll my eyes. “I´m off to work.”
She sighs and slouches in the doorway, waving with a look on concern in her eyes when I take off.
Work isn´t challenging. While the female officers gossip about their husbands and boyfriend, or girlfriends, I am on my own to do what I call my second business: Sell chocolate cookies to the inmates. Zico is one of my best customers. “I hope there´s more in them than last time”, he tells me. “I will take the money from your account”, I answer, ignoring his comment. He takes a bite. “Tell your sister, I love her”, he smirks. I tilt my head. I fear Layken would like him. “Don´t dare to ever look for her”, I groan and lock his door. Walking down the hallway, not only the echo of my steps but also his laughter follows me. I´ve a short shift today, but will have to take the night shift from one who called in ill later. When I leave I text Brooke and pick her up at a station in East Village.
Sehun, Plaza Hotel, 3:04 pm
“Thanks for helping me”, Aoora beams at me with relief when I showed up in front of the hotel. “I was home anyway”, I shrug and grab one of the suit bags.
“You should go to school more often.”
“I was in school, and then I got bored and went home.”
“You need a proper education.”
I roll my eyes. “You don´t get a proper education at school. I learn more from hanging out with you than from sitting in the classroom.”
“I finished school and Sangsoo even went to university. It´s important.”
“You sound like my mother; you even have the same high-pitched voice.” I tease Aoora who smiles at the doorman who opened the gold-framed glass door for us.
The lobby smells like flowers and perfume. It is a disgusting mixture that makes me gag. Aoora frowned. “Behave yourself”, he scolds.
“This is so…”
“Splendid”, Aoora looks around wide-eyed, taking in the interior and the glitter.
“I meant ugly”, I give him a push and linger in a corner behind one of those glittery pillars. Aoora talks to the servant and I observe the people who swarm through the lobby. All of them wear the same boring clothes. Most likely they had spent the monthly salary of a common man on the crap they called the look of the high society.
“We´ve to wait till he picks up the phone”, Aoora appears behind me. I nod, but didn´t take my eyes off the group of pseudo hipsters who poured into the hotel. Four boys, one girl. All of them only a few years older than me. But the boys look old, like those kinds of people who reach their destination early in life and that destination was called: Being the son of rich parents. Their clothes scream `Look at me, this was expensive!. I swallow the desire to yell back: Look at you, you´ve no style!
Aoora leans against the pillar and flipps through the presentation he had prepared the whole night. I go on studying the pseudos. They stand in the middle of the entrance hall, blocking the way of new guests, and discuss. The two taller boys gesture in annoyance and try to impress the smaller guys by towering over them. The girl moves her head rotating. I imagine hearing the creak of her neck. She looks bored and seems to be bugged by the behavior of the boys. She has a hole in her sleeve. Right over the elbow. She is wearing black and her white skin shows through the fabric. I don´t know why, but I can´t stop staring. It’s a flaw, something that shouldn´t happen to someone in her social class. It´s careless and makes me wonder what kind of person she is.
“Sir, you can now take the lift, it will bring you to the tenth floor where you have to turn left to find room 132.”
I spin around to Aoora who thanks the hotel employee. We reach the lift the moment the group heads over as well. One of the guys bumps into me and I wait the length of a heartbeat for an apology that, of course, never comes, then I hiss, “Yah, you´ve eyes, don´t you?” Disdainful he tries to stare me down. “Watch your tongue”, he growls. Aoora gazes at me pleading. “Asshole”, I murmur under my breath. The guy hears it and glares at me; in a way he thinks it´s intimidating. I ignore him for the sake of Aooras weak nerves and step into the lift. Then I feel a hand grabbing my shoulder, but immediately the grip eases. “Let it go, Jonghyun”, the girl says. She has a nice voice, not one of those girly-girl voices that make your ear bleed.
Up to tenth floor it is a long ride. I stand behind the group, facing their backs. She has her long hair pulled back in a ponytail and I cock my head when I see something that looks like a birthmark at first. Then I realize it is a tattoo. Her neck says “No”. That´s all and I like it.
“It´s so depressive”, I say when we leave the hotel a few hours later. “How can anybody call this place a home?” Aoora shrugs. He is happy, the dress he designed was a hit and the presentation didn’t appear as chaotic as it had been before I took a look at it. Now he and Sangsoo have a job for some rich, old lady with creased skin. “Many people live in hotels.” I know him for a while now and I know when a sentence doesn’t end but fades that there is something more to tell. Fastening the seatbelt I ask, “Did you live in a hotel?”
“Yeah”, he grins. “My parents are rich.”
“But you´re not the heir they wanted and when you had your coming-out they cut you out of their will.”
“You´re such a smart ass”, he winks and merges into the dense traffic. I´m happy my parents’ don´t have any money hand down to me. If they knew with whom I spend my time they would freak out. My mother would ask first of all if I was gay, which I am not. Then she would ask if I plan to become gay, which I don’t. And then she would cry and beg me to find better company. I would hand her a pack of tissues and leave the room.
Aooras mouth shapes into one of those impish smiles. “Private party, wanna join us?” I grimace in disgust and Aoora bursts into laughter.
Brooke, Koreatown, 5:59 pm
I don´t speak a word Korean, except dirty words and some swearing I caught up from passengers or the nomjas. It was more or less an accident that I ended up working as English teacher. It started with a Russian friend from Aoora who couldn´t find a job because of his lack of English knowledge. Whenever he was in the café I taught him some words, later sentences, then Aoora said, he´d pay me for lessons. Now teaching is something I do whenever I am not too tired from nightshift. I have two students right now. One is an elder man from Germany who lives in the US for twenty years but still speaks horrible gibberish. The other student is a teenager from Korea who will attend school soon. At first it was hard, we couldn’t communicate but with gestures and nods or smiles. But he worked hard and after a few weeks teaching him got easier.
The strong scent of garlic and chili tickles my nose when I climb the narrow stairs to the apartment. I raise my hand to knock when the door gets yanked open. “Noona, hello, how are you, I am fine”, he chatters immediately and leads me into his tiny room. In lack of a desk we sit on the floor, our backs rested against the bedframe. “You practiced”, I say. Juko nods smiling. “Show me your diary.” I ordered him to write down a few sentences each day and I know he tries hard, looking up the right words in the dictionary but never being able to put them together to fitting sentences. Today I figure out that he ate hamburger with his aunt, played soccer with his cousins and practiced vocabulary. He looks at me with those big, dark eyes waiting for words of praise and I want to caress his hair and pinch him in the cheeks. But I control myself, put the book on my outstretched legs and let him read the conversation. Then we go through it and I help him understand the short dialogue, after it we practice the same lines over and over again until I have the feeling he is getting their meaning and not just repeats them like a parrot.
After an hour it is time for me to go. Juko pouts. He knows I was a taxi driver and he waited for me to invite him to a ride. I guess he hadn´t seen too much from the town yet. His aunt pays me and sighs when she sees the pouting. “I could take him to work and drop him off around nine”, I suggest. Juko is looking back and forth between us trying to figure out in which direction the conversation is going. His aunt shoots me a worried look. “It´s okay with me, I will make him fasten the seatbelt and I am a good driver.”
“Please?”, Juko blinks at her.
She sighs, trying to hide her soft smile. She says something in Korean and he hugs her. “I want him back on the stroke of nine.” I promise and run after Juko who is darting downstairs.
Gunwoo glances at me when I grab my keys. “You´ve a brother?” It´s the most personal question he ever asked. “No”, I write my name in the list of drivers. “Child?” He tilts his head. “He is sixteen”, I frown. “Early practice only makes the master”, Gunwoo grins. “I just remembered why we never talk”, I snap and pull Juko into my car. Today someone ate oranges inside. I find peels on the front seat, but at least it smells pleasant.
I don´t pick up any passengers in those two hours I spend with Juko. We buy ice cream and I point out places I think he should know or places I like. As we cross East Village I think about showing him the garden, but it´s already closed. I talk a lot and he is listening carefully, although he won´t understand much of my monologue. Once in a while he nods excited and repeats a word. When I stop thinking about what else he needs to know about New York he starts talking Korean and I listen. We have to stop at a traffic light on our way home. The time flew by so fast and I think it´s sad I won´t see Juko until next week, I really like him. A few boys on skateboards dash over the street and stick flyers under the wipers. Juko looks at me and I nod. It´s still red and so he unbuckles the belt and hops out of the car to get the flyer. He holds it up and I have a look at it. It´s for a hip hop battle. Juko observes the flyer and then points at his chest. “You wanna go there?” He cocks his head, shrugs and tries it again. Now I shrug. Juko lets out a deep, cute sigh and starts to rap. I don´t know if it´s freestyle or if he practiced it for ages but I am so surprised that I almost crash into the car that suddenly stops to snatch the parking space. “You´re awesome”, I say. He shrugs, not getting my words, but smiles.
I drop him off in front of the house. Juko leans over and gives me a hug. “Thank you”, he says, grabs the flyer and jumps up the few steps to the door. He rings and I wait until the door opens and he turns around and waves before disappearing into the dark hallway.
The rest of my shift is particular boring. The most interesting passenger is the guy I picked up at the airport some time ago. I only remember him because he gives me a gaze of recognition and says, “Plaza was a little expensive.” Whatever, I think, put on a smile that´s not inviting and drop him off at Club 66. They say it´s the In-spot since they have a new barkeeper. I heard rumors about him being a serial killer who mistakenly got released from prison.
A girl I drive next shouts at me to pull over, and turfs her boyfriend out of the car. “Drive!”, she yells when she pulls the door shut. I´m not sure if it´s legal what I´m doing there, but I step on the gas. She looks through the rear window and bursts into laughter, but then she starts sobbing and asks me to turn around and pick him about. The fight in the car, then they start making out and I try concentrating on the street and not catch glimpse of them. It´s a scene I saw dozens of times before, I witnessed more breakups and reunions in the rear mirror than I saw on TV.
Jungmin, Soho, 3:24 pm
I see the “Hiring” sign and step into the small café. I look around. It´s empty except a guy who sits on a barstool and scribbles something in a book. A backpack sits on the floor next to him. He has a half empty glass of soda waiting. He turns around when the bell over my head rings and calls: “Guest” to a closed door. I spot another guy I haven’t seen before on one of the tables, flipping through a movie magazine. The door opens a second later and a man with stonewashed plum colored hair waves his towel at me. “What can I bring you?” He sizes me up, then smiles and gestures over to the table next to the one where the man is reading. There are more empty tables but he wants me to sit at this particular one. I don’t complain and sit down with a shrug. “Tea.” He nods and gazes at the reading guy while nodding into my direction with raised eyebrows. I wonder what I did wrong or maybe they´re just curious because I am Korean too. The café owner or waiter or chef identified me immediately and asked for my order in our mother tongue. The reader tries to pretend he is still paying attention to his magazine but I feel him glimpse at me. “Actually I am looking for a job”, I say once I have the tea, although I am not sure any longer if I want to work here or if I will make it out alive since they act more than weird. “A job as what?”, the man asks. “Well, you are hiring, tell me.” He chuckles and sits down. “I´m looking for a dishwasher but”, he looks at my hands, “you would ruin them immediately.” He offers his hand, introducing himself as Aoora. “Jungmin”, I say and shake his hand.
“Are you a new New Yorker?”, he wants to know.
“I arrived two days ago.”
“How do you like it so far?”
I shrug. New York is loud and crowded and buzzing with restless energy. It´s not so much different from Seoul. I tell him that and he seems to like my observation. “He is smart”, he tells the reading guy. Then he turns back to me. “What is your job?” I worked as escort boy in Seoul for the last few years, but in the last months I didn´t do anything. I suffered from a mild depression after being dumped by my girlfriend who liked illegal car races better than me. “This and that”, I answer.
“Ah”, Aoora leans back. “Did you ever work to please women?”
The guy at the bar laughs but isn´t turning around. I look at his back and his colorful hair, like a rainbow.
“You make it sound as if you want him to sell his body.” The other one looks up from the magazine.
“Oh, you´re selling your body too, you just don’t get it”, he pats the arm of the frowning guy. “That´s Joon by the way”, he introduces us. “What shall we call you?” I narrow my eyes, I said my name before. “Jung…”, I start but he interrupts me. “Not your real name.” He shakes his head and looks thoughtful. “We didn´t have a Romeo for a while.” I wonder if I stepped into some kind of candid camera and look around. “Romeo never worked out”, the one they call Joon says. “It does. There are so many lonely Juliet in the town.” Aoora smiles at me. “Sehun, honey, what do you think, does he look like a Romeo?” The boy at the bar doesn´t turn around. I see his shoulders twitch up and down. “I say, it´s none of my business and I don´t care and don´t call me honey.” Now he looks around with a deep frown. Aoora winks at him. “But your opinion is valuable. You´re Switzerland. You´re neutral.” Sehuns eyes wander over me and turns away. “Pay me for my opinion or leave me out of it.” Aoora sighs. “Don´t you have anything to do? School or something?” Sehun closes the book he was writing in and shoves it into his bag. “Yeah, something.” He empties the soda, slides from the stool and flings the strap over his left shoulder. “See you tonight?”
Aoora shakes his head. “We´re invited to a party.”
Sehun looks surprised. “A party without me?”
“It´s for fans of literature.”
“Who invited you then? I don´t think you ever picked up a book except the Kama sutra.”
Aoora whips his towel at him. “Get lost!”
Sehun grins and opens the door, turning to me he says: “Once you said yes you´ll never get out of the lunacy.”
“What exactly are you talking about?” I ask. I am about to leave because their talks make me feel like they´re running some weird business I don´t want to get involved with.
“About a business I´m running with my partner, we kind of rent boyfriends to lonely girls who are under the pressure of their families and society who think they´re worth nothing without a man. It´s just dating, pretended being their boyfriend, be nice to their moms, cutting a fine figure in the public. You´re paid per actions. We have strict regulations about that. But you don´t sell your body.” He glowers at Joon. “We don´t offer sex, just company.”
“Well”, I lean back. “That´s something I am used to.” Now I tell them I was escort boy and without asking if I want to Aoora shakes my hand in excitement. “You´re hired.”
Zico, Central Park, 7:56 pm
When I turn to my left I can see the façade of the building where my family lives. Turning around I face the building that has been my home for the last eight months. It has the same view on the Central Park as the Plaza Hotel, but people who stay in the Plaza pay 7000 Dollar a night and I have to pay nothing. The government covers all my costs and I even get a small pocket money to “adjust to normal life”. I have a room on my own but share the place with 257 other men. Our home is the Lincoln Correctional Center, or as New Yorkers call it, the Prison at the Park. Most of the correctional officers are women. One might think that would be a nice detail, in fact they are ass-kicking female fighters with a lack of humor. It is a low security prison which means after a while of showing good behavior we are allowed to go out, “adjust to daily life”, find a job, and meet family and friends. I will be released in less than a year and I am allowed going out for two months now. I have no friends left, I am not really looking for a job and I am not allowed to approach any member of my family closer than the distance between the Plaza and the Prison. It is court order and I guess even if I would try my parents would run away yelling for the police. Nevertheless I enjoy being outside. I stop the woman who is pushing a buggy. “Can you tell me how late it is?” She looks at me, not suspicious but not really friendly. I wonder if “inmate” is stamped on my forehead. “Four minutes to eight””, she tells me. “Shit”, I answer and dart through the park. If I am a minute too late I won´t be allowed going out for twelve weeks. I fly upstairs and pound against the door. “Just in time”, the officer frowns. I know she would have punished me with pleasure.
I get searched, from head to toes, and then I have to write down where I have been and what I have done. After that I have to give back the money that´s left, they will hand it over to me the next time I go outside. The officer asks me if I am hungry but I had plenty of hot dogs while listening to a group of rappers who were doing freestyles in the park. I thought about joining them but their raps were so lame I would have embarrassed them as soon as I opened my mouth. I am being accompanied to my room and then they lock me in for the night. I am used to the small room – it´s larger than the room I had to share with another inmate before – and the high window with bars. I slump down on the uncomfortable bed and turn on the radio to listen to the underground hip hop station. I wonder if Ezra is still listening to the same music or if her surrounding managed to correct her after they got rid of me. I don’t yearn to see my family again, but I miss my sister and I am worried they will turn her into a copy of our mother. I shiver on that thought. In the last few months I saw her a few times when she came out of the hotel or walked through the gates of the university she is attending. She didn´t see me and I don´t want her to see me yet. Not as long as I don´t know if they brainwashed her or not.
“Yo Zico”, one of the inmates calls. He will be released tomorrow. Although I don´t answer he goes on: “I found a job!”
“Where?” I ask now.
“I´ll be a barkeeper in Club 66 down in NoHo.” A club is not exactly the place where I am allowed going but I accept his invitation to get free drinks whenever I want. I wonder what will happen if I stumbled drunk back into prison. Can they penalize me for being wasted? Well, I guess I will find out soon enough.
Luhan, Slaughterhouse Harlem, 2:11 am
So this is my first job in New York. I scrub the blood from freshly slaughtered cows from the walls and the floor. It smells like blood, raw meat and death and I guess I start being a vegetarian tomorrow. I saw a guy eating a steak while working on the machine. It´s disgusting but he seemed to enjoy it. I hose down the blood and it flows into the gutter. I haven´t talked to anyone yet and nobody makes an attempt talking to me. I don´t fit in, it was obvious from the moment I stepped into the hall. Those who work here are rough looking, coarsely talking men and women. They stare at me whenever I walk buy. I am the only Asian, and compared to everybody else I look like a small-boned, little boy.
“Water!” I suddenly hear a scream. A girl, one who doesn´t seem to fit in as well, runs towards me. I look at her and at the water hose I am holding. “Water!”, she points at the hose and then at herself. “Great, he doesn’t speak English”, she mumbles and grabs the hose. She bends forward and holds her head under the jet of water. Bloody water drips down and flows into the gutter. She stays like that for a while and I keep quiet, waiting for her to return me the hose so that I can go on with the work. When she gets up, she shudders. “I quit”, she shoves the hose into my hand and flops down on a wooden box. “What happened?” I ask, turn off the water and sit down beside her. “One of the workers thought it´s funny to bath me in freshly drained blood.” She frowns. I wrinkle my nose in disgust and then I stretch out my hand. “I am Luhan.” She smiles at me, “Layken.” Shaking her hand I recognize her.
“I read your book.”
She laughs, “I wasn’t thinking I´d meet here anyone who can read.”
I grin. “What are you doing here?”
“Seeking for inspiration?”
“Your next book will be a dark gangster novel where they slaughter human instead of pigs?”
“That would be an idea”, she leans back. “No, I´m not writing anything. I just need the money.”
“You should be rich”, I raise an eyebrow.
“Apparently I am not.” She gets up. “Let´s quit together, what do you think?”
“I rented a room that I´ve to pay tomorrow.”
“You can crash on our couch.” She´s already leaving and glances at me over her shoulder. “C´mon, let´s get your stuff and with some luck we´re home before the party is over.”
“Which party?”, I ask as I get up and leave the slaughterhouse behind her.
When I decided I want to live in New York my parents told me it is a dangerous place and I should never follow a stranger. I should contact our distant relatives and stay in China Town, but I didn’t leave China to end up in China Town. I threw the number of the relatives away and rented a room in Harlem, the most unlikely place where my parents would send someone to find me. I left with only one bag with a few clothes and some memories. We grab this bag and then head over to Turtle Bay where Layken lives. She tells me about her roommate and that they throw parties once in a while with whomever they think might be interesting. I ask her if she thinks I am interesting and she shrugs with a smile. “Tell me something interesting.” I tell her I left China because I felt trapped and then I don´t know what else to say because I never did anything interesting. “Good enough”, she winks at me and fishes for her key. “Do you do drugs?” I am startled by her question. “No.” She opens the door. “Okay, then don’t drink, eat or smoke anything you get offered.” I follow her upstairs and I am a bit worried what I will find once I set foot into her apartment.
Smoke whirls through the corridor that is plastered with band posters. I haven´t heard of any of those bands before. Layken kicks her shoes into a corner. Music blares from the living room. It´s music that makes you lazy, summer sounds. Someone comes dancing through the door, stops and turns around. “There is an angelic Asian guy and a girl with a blood splattered shirt, do we need to call the police?”
“Sounds like Layken and some pick-up. No police.”
Layken rolls her eyes and says, “I don´t pick up guys frequently.” She points towards one of three closed doors. “That´s my room, store your bag there till you need it.” She turns to the tall, slender man who is still wobbling to the music. “And you are?”
“Sangsoo”, he takes her hand and pulls her into the living room. “Lake, tell us how you lost almost 5 million dollars in six months.” She looks at me pleading to save her but I grin and head for her room. It´s a bit unexpected but she has a girls-room, one with curtains and fluffy pillows and stuffed animals. But she also has a broken guitar and a samurai sword. I drop my bag and walk back to the living room. Someone with stonewashed plum hair hands me a bottle as soon as I appear in the doorframe. I smell at it and he pats my shoulder with a chuckle. “It´s ordinary beer.” I take a sip under his watchful eyes. It tastes like beer. I take another sip and sit down cross-legged.
“You just started your story when the angel over there interrupted you”, Sangsoo says.
“Don´t call him angel, his name is Luhan.”
“Yeah, right, don´t call him angel”, stonewashedplum frowns.
“Are you jealous?” Sangsoo smiles.
“Are you a couple?” I blurt out.
“Are you Chinese?”, plum gives back.
“Then don´t answer”, his boyfriend advices. “The Chinese lock their homosexuals away.”
“Oh no, we don´t. We murder them.”
Layken and the guy with red hair where you see the dark growing out again burst into laughter. The couple looks at me and I shrug, “We´re not in China, are we?”
“Okay”, Layken sits up. “I went back to Paris to live with Gunwoo again.”
“How romantic”, Sangsoo sighs.
“No, not at all”, Layken answers.
“You were never a couple?”, plum asks.
Layken and Gunwoo exchange a look. “No”, Layken then decides. “Never. So back to the story..” She gets interrupted again by Sangsoo who says, “I know there is a story behind that look.” Gunwoo gets up and disappears into the kitchen where I hear him talking to someone. I crane my neck but I can´t catch a glimpse “Whatever”, Layken says. “We rented this awesome antique building where Napoleon was supposed to live. I prepaid six months.”
“Napoleon didn´t really live there. I told her from the start.” Gunwoo comes back and puts a carafe on the table. Now the one he was talking to comes to the living room and takes a seat on the floor. He pushes the black hair from his face and I can see whatever story Gunwoo and Layken might have had once, she is obviously not chained to it anymore because the glance she casts at Mr. Kitchen says more than enough. She clears her throat and turns to Gunwoo. “It was Napoleons home! You could smell the history.”
“All I smelled were the cats of our neighbor”, he answers and downs a drink from the carafe. I´m not sure if I want to know what´s inside.
“Okay”, Sangsoo says. “600 000 gone, what about the rest?”
“We had a lot of friends and threw a lot of parties.”
“You spent all your money on parties?”, I gape.
She nods, “You´ve no idea how much you can pay for expensive liqueurs and drugs.”
“One time she went to a rooster fight and bet on an old cock. She lost everything. And this other time we went gambling and she couldn´t stop and I had to leave my golden watch behind. Not that I liked it that much.” Gunwoo reaches his glass to Layken who adds: “After three months my parents realized what I was doing in Paris and brought me home. I went shopping a lot and bought a lot of stuff that belonged to famous people once…”
“At least that´s what she believes”, Gunwoo interrupts. She glares at him and Sangsoo concludes: “You´re such a spoiled rich girl.” Now she laughs, “Not really, I´m an impoverished girl who just quit her job in a slaughterhouse.” She gets up. “And now I change.” Passing by she whispers: “Don’t drink from the carafe. Gunwoo says it´s cinnamon punch but it´s actually Opium sweetened with cinnamon.” She giggles when I gape again and goes to the bathroom.
I lived a boring, protected life in China. I never did anything illegal, I didn´t even smoke. I came to New York to find a new side of me, to meet interesting people and to do something extraordinary. I am not sure if I am in the right place at the right time right now, but I get up and take one of the glasses and hold it into Gunwoos direction. He raises an eyebrow and then nods towards the carafe. “Help yourself.” I hesitate but then I fill the glass to the brim.