Third Place Winner of 2020 The Voyage YA First Chapters Contest judged by NYT Bestselling Author Dhonielle Clayton
Next to kimchi, Koreans have perfected one other thing: The Dramatic Pause. You know, it’s that moment right after something big happens. It’s long, drawn out, and makes for such good drama.
In my extensive repertoire of K-dramas, I have scientifically narrowed it down to three broader categories in which all dramatic pauses fall under:
1) The good: Two star-crossed lovers finally meeting face-to-face after just missing each other one too many times. (Swoon.)
2) The bad: Finding out that your family lost their entire fortune in a bad economic investment and are now destined to a life of destitute and degradation. (The shame!)
3) The unexpected: Discovering that your father is not actually your father and your life is about to change. Dramatically. (Like the one Hazel and I are watching now.)
After a long day of commencement speeches, the celebratory graduation cap throwing (then the inevitable cap finding process), and fake smiles, Hazel came over to watch a much needed episode of the K-drama, My Professor, My Father.
“Chloe Kang!” Hazel taps me on the shoulders. “Some of us have to read the subtitles.”
“Hey, just because I’m Korean doesn’t mean I don’t have to read the subtitles, too.” I may be 100 percent Korean (99.4 percent to be exact), but that doesn’t mean I know how to read/speak/understand Korean.
“Any closer and you’ll be inside the tv.”
“Yeah, sorry.” I scoot back, only mildly embarrassed. As my best friend since forever, Hazel knows that I can’t help myself when it comes to dad discoveries. Second only to Shin Ramyun.
“Is that the Shin?” she asks.
“Obvs.” I point to the signature fire red lid on the instant noodle cup the main character is eating from. “Shin is the best.”
“THE best. Just hearing the slurping sound of the noodles makes my mouth salivate like some weird Pavlovian response.”
“Saaaamme.” We share a look then giggle, but get distracted when the main character is about to find out who his dad really is. When I inch closer to the screen again, Hazel shoots me a dirty look.
“Heeey! I couldn’t read the subtitle just then. What did he say?” she shout-talks to me.
“He said he can’t believe that all this time, his professor was his father!”
“Oh my god!”
Then it comes: The Dramatic Pause. We hold our breaths with smies (you know, smiles so big it shows in our eyes). It’s silent for a full minute while we watch in a trance as the camera pans from one character to the other. And then, as we knew it would, the episode ends abruptly.
“Noooo!” I yell to the ceiling.
“Arrghh! Why do they always do that?” Hazel protests with her fist in the air.
Instead of responding, I smile stupidly at her.“How much time do you think we wasted watching K-dramas.” Just hours after our last day in high school and I’m already feeling nostalgic. Pretty soon, Hazel and Seb will be off to California, and I’ll still be here, in same old Oklahoma.
“Wasted? How dare!” She gasps with a hand to her chest. “You mean invested.”
I laugh. “You’re right. It was worth it.” We lie side-by-side on my bed, staring up at the ceiling. All those memories of us spent holed up in my room binging K-dramas will somehow have to sustain me for the next year.
“You think he’ll tell the professor he knows? Or is he going to pretend he doesn’t? Gah, how am I supposed to go to dinner now?”
“Calm down. There are fifteen more episodes. It’ll still be there tomorrow.” I smirk at her. She’s come so far from the first time we watched a K-drama freshman year. You’d think it was like asking her to try snails for the first time or something. But as soon as the first dramatic pause came at the end of the first episode we watched together, that was it. Hazel was hooked, and so was I.
“You’re just saying that because you get to binge-watch the rest of the season tonight.”
I try to hide my frown. I’d so much rather be at a restaurant with my extended family celebrating the greatest accomplishment of my life to date: high school graduation. Instead, as Hazel astutely pointed out, I have no family (no extended family, that is) so I’ll be free to watch an entire K-drama in one sitting. Whoopee.
“We’ll still meet after, right? At Summer’s house?”
“Yeah, sure. You know where to find me.” I point to the floor of our house.
“Hey.” She sits up on my bed and leans over, looking down at me with her big brown (hazel, to be exact) eyes. “You’re okay, right?”
Hazel knows how big family gatherings bring me down. Not that I have anything against my mom, she’s great, as far as moms go. Every father’s day, she takes me to six flags and lets me eat all the funnel cake I want—and ride the upside-down rollercoaster as many times as I can without puking (and sometimes with puking). She does her best, but she already spends most of her time at the hospital, often working double shifts. Sometimes, I wish she could just be my mom. Not Breadwinner Mom. Not Dad-Mom. Just Mom.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I only sort of lie to Hazel. I may be down now, but I’m sure I’ll get over it. I always do.
“By the way, did you get your results from the 23 and Me test Seb and I bought you?”
“I did and—”
“Oh, shoot.” Hazel looks at her phone. “Luana is causing major drama right now. You’d think it was her big day, not mine.” She rolls her eyes. “Sorry, I have to go help my mom with the empanadas since my sis and her boyfriend broke up for the thousandth time.”
“Yeah, okay. Bye.” I wave my hand, but she’s already out the door.
Later that night, my mom comes home from work early with a box of take-out from Seoulful Tacos. While Mom and I gorge ourselves with Korean tacos in silence, I can’t help but think about what Hazel and Seb are doing. Hazel is at the local banquet hall where she’s probably enjoying a three-tiered cake while watching a slideshow her sister made for her. Sebastian comes from a big Greek family that celebrates everything together, so he’s at his grandmother’s with thirty of his closest relatives. I’m not ungrateful or anything. Seoulful Tacos are a splurge, and Mom getting off work early enough to have dinner with me is definitely special. But on such a night like tonight, I can’t help but wish it was just a little more.
“I can’t believe you’re officially done with high school.” Mom stares at me holding a limp taco in her hand. “My baby’s a college student.”
“Technically, a community college student. And Mom? Don’t go crazy emotional on me.”
“Me? Emotional? I don’t do that.”
I stare up at her. “The time I got my wisdom teeth pulled out. The eight consecutive years in a row I made honor roll. My birthday. I can keep going.”
Instead of a response, she just smiles. “I’m so glad you’ll still be close by. I don’t know what I’d do if I were Hazel’s or Seb’s mom. I’d probably cry myself to sleep at night.”
I do my best to replicate her enthused expression, but I’m not quite as thrilled as she is about going to Tulsa Community College down the street from our high school.
I’m about to go put my dishes in the sink when my Mom pulls a box out from under the table and slides it in front of me.
“What is this?” I look at the box, then back up at her.
“It’s one of the Jonas Brothers.” When I give her an unamused look, she says, “It’s your graduation gift, duh. Open it up!” Her whole face lights up with excitement.
I peel off the tape, skeptically. Presents are something I’m used to seeing other people open, not myself. But it’s graduation, so I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised.
“Oh my gosh, Mom!” It’s the shiny new sewing machine from JoAnn’s Fabric I’ve been begging her for since I started hemming my own clothes in middle school.
“I thought you could keep up that hobby of yours, making those ultra cool clothes. Especially now that you’re going off to college.”
My enthusiasm goes down a notch. “Community college,” I correct my mom for the millionth time. It’s more than just a hobby, and I doubt TCC is the type of place you wear haute couture to, but I don’t tell that to my mom either. Instead, I give my mom a big hug and thank her.
After the dishes are cleared it’s only seven. Hazel and Seb aren’t coming to pick me up for another hour, so I decide to pull out the dress I’m making for Hazel. It was supposed to be for my first day at the Fashion Institute and Technology in New York City, but when I realized I couldn’t go, even with a scholarship, I decided to make it for Hazel instead. She’s off to the University of Southern California in the fall, and they have more of an appreciation for high-fashion in Los Angeles than in Tulsa.
Mom sits down next to me on the couch and props her feet up. She’s still in her favorite scrubs, the ones with the knock-off Mickey Mouse on it that makes him look like a cracked-out rat. Mom says the kids don’t notice so much and it still gives them comfort when she’s poking and prodding them with needles and monitors. Still, I wish she would just pay the extra money to get the licensed version. Especially when I know it costs less than the Seoulful Tacos she brought home for dinner tonight.
Since I started the hem by hand, I decide to finish it by hand. I’ll set up the sewing machine tomorrow for my next project. Maybe I can make some new scrubs for my mom. Or some practical chinos for me, now that I know I have no use for my talent for high fashion. I focus on hand-stitching the hem of the dress since that is something I have actual physical control over. God, I hate thinking about money all the time.
“That looks nice. Tres chic.” Mom eyes my stitching.
“It’s for Hazel, when she goes to LA. She’ll have more places to wear it to than me.
Out of the corner of my eye, I notice my mom’s lips curve downward. A second later she says, “I can probably score some weed from the new orderly from work.” She nudges me with a smirk.
Mom’s always been the cool mom, not giving me the third degree every time I go out on the weekends or trying to talk about boys with me (not that there is anything to talk about). But she’s trying a little too hard right now, even for her. Maybe she’s picking up on my mood. I usually try not to let her know I feel like I’m missing out on anything, but having to watch everyone’s excitement about the next chapters of their lives while I stay here, going to Tulsa Community College, is too much for me.
“No thanks.” I flash her a fake smile then go back to finishing the hem.
I’m not some privileged diva or anything—I don’t expect to go to any college I want or don’t know that tuition costs a buttload these days. But ever since I overheard Mom talking to another nurse that she couldn’t even pay for in-state college, I knew my choices were limited. The next day I enrolled in the nursing program at TCC to be a nurse, like my mom. That made her real happy, which makes me happy. So if A=B and B=C then A=C, right? I mean…right?
“Your father would’ve been proud,” Mom says, jolting me out of my pity party.
I stop mid-stitch. Mom never talks about my dad. She always seems so sad when she remembers Dad, as if it happened last year and not eighteen-years-ago. And I usually never probe, but on the day of my graduation, I need something.
I turn and face her. “Tell me something about Dad. Anything.”
She sighs, staring deep at the coffee table. Then, there it is. A long. Dramatic. Pause.
I stick the needle in the fabric and set it aside. The day has come. She’s finally going to tell me about my dad. The real story about who he is, not some vague answer about how he died in a car crash and that was the end.
“Tell me you’re happy. About nursing school, TCC, all of it.” She leans back and looks at me with pleading eyes.
I frown. Maybe I’m not doing as good of a job about hiding my feelings about going to community college as I thought.
“It’s just…I could’ve gone to med school, become a doctor, and given you the life that I know you want. If your father didn’t…”
I lean my head back thinking about how to respond. What I want to say is, No, Mom. I’m not happy. I wish you went to med school. So we wouldn’t have to worry about money all the time and so I could pursue my passion in fashion design. I wish Dad never died so we could have a normal family. But I can’t say that because it won’t change the past. It will only make her feel worse.
So instead, I say, “Of course I’m happy.” I give her my best Are-you-kidding-me? look and hope it’s convincing enough. It’s not her fault, but it’s just so unfair. I lost my dad, my future prospects, and family, all before I was born. And the worst part of it is, I didn’t even have a say in the matter.
Mom nods and turns her face so I don’t see her crying. I pretend not to notice and blink back my own tears. Now I know why I never ask about my dad. It’s too hard for my mom.
After Hazel and Seb are done with their respective family parties, we go to the real party at Summer Ranquist’s house. She’s got that perfect combination of big house and parents who are never around that make her one of the most popular girls in school. By the time we get to Summer’s house, there are already so many cars there, Seb has to parks the car way down the street. Before he gets out of the car, he turns to give Hazel a peck on the lips. How do I feel about my best friends suddenly having feelings for each other? On the outside, I’m cool with it, on the inside I’m retching into a toilet bowl.
I’ve been hanging out with Hazel and Seb since middle school. Seb was just one of the girls, interested in fashion and rom-coms and Just Dance competitions. The summer before freshman year, he grew ten inches and somehow developed muscles and became this heartthrob at school. I just thought Hazel and I were permanently in the friend zone until Hazel and Seb came out to me as a couple the beginning of our senior year. Then I realized, it’s just me that will be in the friend zone. Forever.
We can hear the music thumping before we reach the door, and the lights in the backyard make the house glow from behind. When Seb pushes open the door, it appears like everyone from Westford High is at Summer’s house. Well, all the seniors anyway. After enduring the walk of fame (or shame, depending on who you ask) of fist bumps and exchanges over where everyone’s going to college, I slip behind Hazel while she tells people about LA. Everyone always goes gaga over that news. And I can’t say I don’t get the appeal. Seb’s going to UC Santa Barbara. He insists he’s going for their marine biology department, but we all know it’s because Santa Barbara is less than a two-hour drive away from LA. I would try to psych myself out about TCC, but there’d be no point. Tulsa is the biggest city in our area, but it’s not LA or NYC.
I just had one of those feelings that I wasn’t meant to be here and I’d been waiting this whole time for my life to begin. Except when I heard that I wasn’t going to FIT, it hit me that I’m never getting out of this town. Tonight isn’t so much of a celebration as it is a realization. Chloe Kang, like it or not, this is your life. Forever.
“I’ll be outside,” I whisper in Hazel’s ear and motion to the back doors. Less than five minutes here and I’m in need of fresh air. Summer’s parents own a Burger King in town and they are as celebrity as you’ll get around here. She’s got a dance floor set up in the back, complete with a DJ and somehow a floating strobe light. The mood tonight is set up for the most epic night ever, but I somehow can’t get into it.
Hazel and Seb come outside a few minutes later with red Solo cups in hand. Seb hands me a cup full of something fruity (mixed with something not so fruity). He holds his cup up and we clink ours with his. Then he says, “To Sebchlohaze.”
“Nope!” Hazel and I protest together on cue.
“That’s the worst.” I shake my head.
“THE worst,” Hazel agrees.
Ever since we became friends in middle school, Seb has been trying hard to give us a group name, trying being the operative word. Some of his attempts in the past have been Schlaze, Hazebchlo, and Chlazeb. Not surprisingly, none of them have stuck, but that doesn’t keep him from trying. His outsides may have blossomed into a Greek god, but the insides are still the same Seb we met in middle school with the same thirteen-year-old humor.
Hazel rolls her eyes at him and I ruffle his hair like the kid brother I never had. And, for a moment, I feel like the old us again, pre third wheel. Then Seb wraps his arm around Hazel and pulls her in for a kiss, and I’m back to third wheel. I stare deep into my cup, pretending there’s something interesting going on in there when a group of girls sits next to us.
“Wanna see what my dad got me?” We overhear Samantha Jensen ask Danica Jones.
I panic, looking around for a trap door, a portal to anywhere but here, but there is none.
“Oh my gosh, I’ve never owned anything from Tiffany’s before. You’re dad’s so sweet,” Danica says.
“Isn’t he?” Samantha clutches the heart pendant on her necklace. “He says he doesn’t know if he’s thrilled I got into Wellesley or if he’s sad it’s so far away.” She pouts.
“Mine got me a jet-ski so we can go by the lake on weekends,” Danica says.
“He must be trying so hard to get you to come home on the weekends,” Someone I don’t know says.
“Yeah, UT Austin isn’t that far away and he got himself one so we can go together.”
“Awww,” the other girls say in unison.
Instead of rolling my eyes, they well with tears again for the second time today. I could care less about the material items given by their dads. It’s the quality time I can’t get over. Because no matter how many presents I’ll gain in my lifetime, I’ll never be able to get time with my dad.
Hazel puts an arm around me and rubs my back. She must’ve noticed the sudden mood change.
“Want me to kick their asses for you?” Seb leans over and offers.
If anyone’s ass is going to get kicked, it’d be Seb. He’s a golden retriever. Still, it gets a chuckle out of me. “God, what am I going to do without you guys next year?” My mood plummets again.
“Aww, don’t say that. This is not goodbye forever. I’ll always come home during the breaks.” Hazel hugs me tighter.
“And there’s always FaceTime.” Seb manages to wrap his freakishly long arm around both me and Hazel.
“Yeah,” I say unconvincingly. We all know that once they’re out of Tulsa, they’re going to realize how much they’ve been missing out on their whole lives and spend all of college making up for lost time. That’s what I’d do anyway.
“Hey, whatever happened to that 23 and Me kit we got you?” Seb asks.
I roll my eyes. The running joke is that I’m either adopted or fathered by an anonymous sperm donor since my mom is so tight-lipped about my dad. Plus, I look nothing like my mom. Anyway, Seb and Hazel got one of those DNA kits for my eighteenth birthday this year, and I don’t know what’s worse: the notion that I’m not related to my parents or the fact that I took the test and secretly hoped there was some shred of truth to their joke. But the joke’s on me because the test results came back verifying what my mom has been telling me my whole life.
“Got my results this morning. I’m 97.4 percent Korean. Sorry to disappoint you guys.”
“What? No way. It’s gotta be wrong.” Seb is surprisingly serious.
“It’s DNA. How can you doubt something so indisputably accurate? It’s how murder mysteries are solved and rapists are convicted.”
“Damn. This conversation turned dark real fast.” He winces.
“Let’s face it. My mom is right and there’s no hidden secrets. Take it or leave it, this is who I am.”
It isn’t a bad night, in the end. Hazel and Seb do their best to cheer me up. We dance stupidly for hours and it helps me forget that my life is staying the same when everyone else’s is about to start. But when I get home, I do something stupid. Real stupid. I pull out a letter I have tucked away under my mattress.
Dear Ms. Kang,
We are delighted to inform you that you have been accepted into the Fashion Design Department at The Fashion Institute of Technology for the Fall 2022 school year. In addition to your outstanding qualifications, you have also been awarded a scholarship from winning The Most Innovative Design Award in our nationally held Spring competition. Kindly let us know by August 25th of your decision. We look forward to hearing from you and congratulations on your accomplishments.
Tears blot the paper before I fold it up and tuck it under my mattress again. It’s one thing to have a dream and quite another to be offered a chance at pursuing your dream, only to have to turn it down because you can’t afford it. I never even told my mom about it because what’s the point? It can never change the fact that she can’t afford it, and it’ll only make her feel worse. I just have to face it. I’m going to TCC in the fall. I’ll be a nurse like my mom. And I’ll live here alone for the rest of my life. The end.
MESSAGES (1 NEW)
* From: Tae Young Noh RE: Hey Cuz? 12:01 AM
I just checked and noticed that we are linked together cousins. This may sound forward, but can I ask how we are related?
* From: Chloe Kang RE: Hey Cuz? 12:03 AM
Dear Tae Young,
Cousins? Unfortunately, I don’t have any cousins. My parents are both only children and have no siblings. Sorry, there must be some mistake.
* From: Chloe Kang RE: Hey Cuz? 12:03 AM
Wait. This is DNA. There aren’t any mistakes with DNA. My parents are Joon Pyo and Theresa Kang. Do either of the names seem familiar to you?
* From: Tae Young Noh RE: Hey Cuz? 12:20 AM
I don’t know about Joon Pyo Kang, but I had an Uncle named Joon Pyo Noh. He’s my father’s brother who died when I was two. I never met him, but here’s a photo. Is this him?