I splash water on my face and scrub haphazardly. I don't care about the black eyeliner and mascara melting down my cheeks. I'll get it in the morning. I glance at my phone for the time and revise that thought. It is 0346 in Seoul. In two hours I would have to wake up for work and confront the aftermath of tonight's events. I pull off my fluffy, white cardigan - a birthday gift from one of my coworkers - and change into a nightshirt. Sprawled across the floor, I notice a streak of blood on the sweater's left sleeve. I must have used that hand to stop him from clumsily hurting himself even more.
Despite the time, the city streets are not quiet. Yet, the relative silence of my whitewashed loft apartment feels like a cacophony. The soft glow of neon slips between the blinds and dances across my bed. Since moving, I had spent nearly every night basking in the same artificial moonlight. In the beginning, I often asked myself how crazy I had to be to move to South Korea without any connections. But, as one is apt to do, I met someone who wanted to take care of me and it all seemed to make sense for a good while.
Daehyun introduced me to so many parts of the city that I came to cherish. I was thankful for that, but nothing else. After I quit my job and we announced our engagement Daehyun's entire demeanor changed. At first, calling the constant manipulation and gaslighting "abuse" felt too extreme. Then, the last straw came in the form of a push down the stairs and a black eye. In a twisted way, I was also thankful for that display of aggression before our wedding day.
Even then, returning to the United States never registered as an option. For the first time in my life, I had felt as if my wings had room to spread and a wind to catch. I had grown to love Seoul and its unique aesthetic. It was not a hard transition, but there were differences: The towels are small. Air pollution is palpable. Everyone else is so much cooler than you. And, yes, that is your armpit stinking up the subway, you filthy foreigner.
I had studied Korean for years before immigrating. Truly, the only occasional discomfort I felt came from the male gaze. Though, I had felt similar scrutiny in America. As it turns out, tall, curvy redheads aren't commonplace anywhere. All the same, I never expected to become integrated. I didn’t come to find love or adoration either. I knew I would never blend in and, in some ways, that worked to my advantage. In other ways, well... It put me in situations like this one.
I scoop the stained cardigan from the floor and toss it into my hamper.
After Daehyun, I found comfort in the elective anonymity of dance clubs. While the social aspect never interested me much, I loved dancing. Plus, I couldn't remain friendless forever. I was lucky to have found Chohee. We bonded after twerking into each other in Itaewon. Having grown up on the east coast of the United States, her unapologetic nature and brash sense of humor were refreshing. Chohee was also a great connection for another reason: She owned an underground hip-hop club called Secret Society. I decided to become a regular of bar the night I met Chohee. And, after some time, other patrons began recognizing me, saying hello as if I belonged.
Suddenly, I knew my life in Seoul could continue without Daehyun. The pieces would fall into place as soon as I decided to pick them up. Until then, the portrait of my recuperation looked like empty bottles of soju, stacks of paperbacks, destinationless bike rides, endless playlists, and ragged journals full of prose.
I had found my safe haven at Secret Society. The literal hole-in-the-wall was everything I could have dreamed of. A vintage Coke machine door between a restaurant and an art gallery served as the entrance. The vibes were chill and the music was incredible. I felt a true sense of home in the dim lights, bobbing my head between shots of yogurt-flavored alcohol. Regularly scheduled live performances included open mics, rap battles, DJs, and full-blown gigs. Yet, it was never overly crowded. Even on the busiest nights, the scene remained authentic. Chohee had a talent for keeping up with trends. She managed to promote her business without attracting attention from just anyone. Once in a while, she would report celebrity sightings to me. I rarely knew who she was talking about, but I always kept an eye out for a familiar face.
Though, on one particularly hazy evening, I began to wonder how 'secret' Secret Society was. As I locked up my bike outside the art gallery, I noticed a group of schoolgirls gathered on the corner of the street. They huddled together as if conspiring. One looked up, meeting my curious glance. Her eyes locked on to mine as she examined me like a test subject.
"Hello," I waved. It was unusual for anyone under the age of twenty-five to be in this area, but that was no reason to be rude.
She turned back to her friends with a whip of her long, black hair. Feeling defeated by her snub, I started toward the Coke machine door. Before reaching the handle, I sensed a small commotion from behind. Feet scraped pavement and I caught the girls’ movements in the reflection of the glass. Now, they were all looking at me with stars in their eyes. One, the girl with the cascade of raven hair, was approaching.
I turned to meet her. She stopped, leaving about a ten-foot distance between us.
"Hello," she said with a quick bow. The girl was small, but there was an intensity about her that was, frankly, intimidating.
"Hello," I smiled beneath my mask, returning the casual bow. "Can I help you?"
"Are you a foreigner?" she asked without pause.
"I'm American, but I live in Seoul," I explained in fluent Korean.
"Oh," her eyes twinkled a bit, then narrowed, the gears of her mind shifting. Back to business.
"Can I help you?" I asked again, now reaching for the handle of the door. This is usually where conversations with strangers ended. But, she had an agenda in mind.
"We're waiting for someone," she said, motioning to her friends. They were watching us like tiny hawks. As the girl continued, she became suddenly bashful. She pointed to the door then humbly clasped her hands in front of her body. Her acting was good, but not excellent. "We think he's inside there, but..."
"But you're too young to go in?" I narrowed my eyes this time.
"Well, yes," she tugged at her hair, wrapping a thick black rope around a tiny fist.
"Is he a classmate? Your brother?" I asked. She was withholding information from me and I had a good feeling why. "A celebrity?"
"His name is Min Yoongi," she spurted. The girl attempted to contain her excitement, but fell short, "Can you please let us know if he's inside? He has black hair and is about your height with a cute, gummy smile."
"I can't do that," I sighed, tugging on the door handle. "'Privacy is the highest virtue and the one most frequently violated.'"
The girl blinked, her hair falling around her shoulders as her arms went straight to her sides. "Please. We just want to know."
"We won't do anything."
"I said no."
"And there it is," I smiled, making sure my eyes showed it. I tugged the door open and walked inside, met with a momentary chill of AC. The doorman, Byungwoo, engrossed in a mobile game, nodded at me without looking up.
"I hope they leave soon," he muttered.
"Who the hell is here?" I wondered aloud as I removed my mask and adjusted my ponytail.
Byungwoo sighed, "An idol..."
"Idol?" I glanced up and down the bar, brow furrowed. Chohee bustled about, delivering bottles of booze. As anticipated for a Tuesday at 1930, the club was sparsely populated. A couple of foreigners were toasting at one end of the black, L-shaped countertop. About half a dozen men occupied every other stool, drinking alone. Most were wearing hats, dressed in black from head to flashy sneaker. None of them resembled an idol.
I looked at Byungwoo for further clarification then decided against it. He tapped at his phone with furious concentration.
I waved at Chohee who was already opening a bottle of yogurt-flavored soju for me. "Thank you," I smiled at her. She placed the green bottle and small glass on the bartop with a harmonious thud-clink. "Are you alright?" I looked at her from the corner of my eye as I poured my first shot.
"Those girls are insane," she muttered, wiping invisible spots from the counter. I slid in next to one of the men who was drinking by himself.
"The fangirls?" I half-whispered, still trying to figure out who they were following. I glanced around yet again. No prototypical idols in sight.
"They were there for three hours!" Chohee's eyes widened, "Before he even got here!"
"Really? How on earth...?" I swiveled to look out the tinted window. The girls had finally given up hope and left.
"It's like they have tracking devices or something..." Chohee's expression softened. She chuckled, "I guess you can never be too cautious about microchips.”
"Chohee, that's literally terrifying."
"Right?" she nodded, "I should write a drama about a chipped idol..."
"You do that," I chuckled as my friend spirited away to take care of other patrons.
There were no live acts tonight, so Chohee's personal playlist served as entertainment. She had introduced me to countless talented Korean artists. Her music knowledge of hip-hop, rap, and R&B was vast, but limited to those genres. I filled in the gaps with my expertise in indie, new wave, and punk. Swapping links to music videos and songs was the majority of our communication. Chohee had never sent me a disappointing track. Not once.
The bass hummed against my body as another shot of sweet liquid trickled down my throat. Things remained quiet in the club and the lights had dimmed to match the setting sun. I closed my eyes, floating in solitude for a moment of contemplation.
Seoul could be overwhelming for a layperson. I couldn't begin to imagine the experience of an idol. Who coveted that kind of fame, anyway? Sure, the money was great, but privacy was - clearly - nonexistent. There were so many aspects of life that, if given the chance, people would sink their claws into. And for what? An anecdote at a lame party? How any idol kept their personal matters undisclosed was beyond me. Could they even be in happy relationships without taking their partner into public? How would I have felt if Daehyun kept me a secret from the world? Would I have signed up for that kind of arrangement to begin with?
"Ugh... Damn," a quiet voice murmured beside me. The man I had sat next to seemed to be half-asleep when I arrived. I paid him so little attention I had forgotten that he was there. Now he was sitting upright and rubbing his arms back to wakefulness. "Do they have espresso here?” he asked.
“I wish,” I answered, “but then I’d never leave.”
“Hm. I can relate. Where are you from?" he asked through a yawn, not quite looking in my direction.
"America," I answered, in Korean, "but I've lived in Seoul since last year."
"How do you like it?" he politely signaled Chohee and leaned back in his seat.
"I love it," I answered, trying to get a read on him. He was about my age with tousled black hair under a beanie that threatened to pop off of his head at any moment. He had piercing eyes, full lips, and pale skin. His entire outfit was black, aside from the white stripes on the sides of his casual jogger pants. There was an air of confidence about him, bordering arrogance. Even so, his body language portrayed a person simply comfortable in his own skin.
He waited, looking at me as if he knew I was concealing the whole truth.
"Seoul is...different," I admitted, hoping he wouldn't misconstrue my use of the word. Offending a hardcore Seoulite was the last thing I intended to do tonight.
"You're different," he replied without a beat, his voice a smooth baritone.
I felt myself blush. Was he really flirting with me so suddenly?
Then, he continued: "Korea and 'different’ are often at odds." He spoke with a calming, modulated tone. I felt the muscles of my face relax, knowing I was in favorable, non-flirtatious company.
"A little girl outside called me a 'bitch' today," I said, "but that's the worst of it. And I’m pretty sure I could've taken her."
He turned from the bar, smiling. His teeth were perfectly aligned. A blush pink gumline peaked out from the corner of his upturned lips. "What's your name?"
"Minseo," I replied as he accepted a glass of whiskey neat from Chohee.
I poured a bit of soju for myself. "And you are...?"
He hesitated, calculating something as he sipped on the amber liquor. He sat the glass down then took off his hat to shake a hand through his hair. He secured the cap once again and folded his arms.