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XOXO: Chapter 39

It’s a wonder you don’t have an SNS profile, Gi Taek texts at two in the morning, which is six at night Korea Standard Time. Though maybe that’s a good thing. . . .

I’ve been home a week and would have gotten over the jet lag if it weren’t for the group chat Gi Taek started with Angela and Sori the minute I landed at LAX. He’d titled it “FWOJ,” which stands for “Fun Without Jenny.”

Sori: I would hurt anyone who came for you on SNS. I’d be in the comments, belittling people.

Gi Taek: You’d make things worse.

Sori: How dare you.

Angela e-laughs: ㅋㅋㅋ

Maybe it’s because I don’t have any social media profiles that the backlash from the scandal hasn’t been completely awful, at least on my end, but also it could be because no one knows the identity of Bae Jaewoo’s rumored girlfriend. The photograph that was released shows my face, but my features are blurred, and I kind of look like a strange alternate version of myself who, if released from the photo, will come to murder me and take my place.

Anyone who knows me can tell that it’s, well . . . me, but otherwise none of my personal information was released, including my name.

I think a part of it is that I am a minor, but it’s more that Joah’s lawyers are working around the clock to protect Jaewoo, and by extension me.

The Monday after the scandal broke, while I was somewhere over the Pacific, Joah released a statement declaring that the members of XOXO’s private lives were, exactly that, private. It was a hard stance, neither an admission nor a denial. But the message was clear—Jaewoo would have the full support of his company. I was surprised, since I assumed they’d cover it up, like with Nathaniel and Sori, but maybe Sori convinced her mother to set a new precedent.

On XOXO’s official SNS, Jaewoo released an apology for the inconvenience to the hospital staff and patients the night the article was released, not explaining why he was there, but accepting responsibility for any disturbance he might have caused. The comments below his apology are filled with support from his fans, condemning the paparazzi for following him into the hospital and endangering his life by chasing him.

Though there are a few hostile comments, calling him ungrateful for his fame, selfish for hurting the band, and a hypocrite for “acting” like a prince but “behaving like a pauper.”

Seeing these comments, I have a mind to channel Sori and leave scathing replies, but I know, ultimately, that won’t help.

Sori: It’ll calm down in time. Anyway, your news is boring. Did you see the news that Lee Jae Won and Lee Tae Ra are engaged! Lee-Lee couple! I knew their chemistry in Rebel Heart was real.

Angela: I’m so happy for them!!!

Me: You guys, it’s 2 in the morning here. I’m going to bed.

Angela: We miss you!

Me: Miss you too.

I close out of our chat, but instead of sleeping, open up a browser out of habit. It’s only been a week, but I move by rote memory, clicking on XOXO’s profiles on all their SNS platforms and checking to see if there are any updates, and then logging onto their fan sites to see their daily schedules.

I can’t exactly tell, but it seems they’re just as popular post-scandal as they were before, if not more so. XOXO also released their tour dates for the All the World’s a Stage tour, kicking off in Seoul for two nights of concerts, and then traveling through Asia, Europe, and finally, the US.

They have a stop in New York City.

The same day as my audition for the Manhattan School of Music, which I already have plans to fly out for.

Not for the first time, I check the availability of tickets. But nothing’s changed since they sold out in the first twenty-four hours. The only ones left for purchase are re-sale tickets at exorbitant prices.

I groan and fling my phone across the bed. Why am I even looking?

It’s not like I’ll go.

Or maybe I will. I’ll purchase one of the tickets so far in the back you need binoculars to see the stage and I’ll just watch him from afar. That seems like a very specific and cruel punishment that I rightly deserve.

My phone blinks with a message and I hurry across the bed, knowing it won’t be from Jaewoo, but still . . . hoping.

It’s from Mom:

We visited the hospital today and they said Halmeoni’s made a full recovery, which means I’ll be coming home on time after all! I’m sorry, for a lot of things. I think we should have a long talk when I get home. I love you, Jenny.

Love you too, Mom

Why are you awake? Go to sleep!

Laughing, I drop my hand to the bed and look up at the ceiling. It only took Halmeoni surviving a major surgery for my mom to open up. She was only a little bit angry that I didn’t get the spot on the Philharmonic orchestra, oh, and that I was involved in a K-pop scandal with an idol. Luckily, instead of getting angry at me, she started calling up her colleagues who specialize in privacy law, only calming down when she saw that Joah had a handle on things.

Our relationship isn’t the same as it was before Dad passed but we’re talking, and it’s a start.

I close my eyes, but I know I’ll have difficulty sleeping, so I do what I’ve been doing since I got back from Korea. I open my music app and press repeat on XOXO’s album.

Their music is the only thing that can calm me enough to go to sleep.

I don’t know why it’s been so hard to adjust.

Maybe it’s the jet lag, or maybe it’s that I miss him.

The week before senior year starts, Uncle Jay and I fly across the country so that I can tour East Coast colleges. I also set up a live audition at each school I visit. I could have set up a video call, but I really wanted to audition in person.

Uncle Jay generously offered to cover the costs as my “early graduation present.” And since Mom has a big case coming up, he’s the one taking me, which is fine for him because, as he put it, he wanted to “check out the karaoke scene in New York’s Koreatown” anyway.

“I’m sure it’s exactly like LA,” I say.

“No, no. These East Coast Koreans do things differently.”

It’s the third and last day of our trip and we’re sitting having lunch at a restaurant that overlooks Times Square. I’ve already visited and auditioned for the Boston schools, and Julliard just this morning. I have the audition for the Manhattan School of Music in an hour, the audition that will determine whether I’ll attend the school I’ve been dreaming of going to half my life.

But it’s hard to concentrate.

XOXO is here.

In New York City.

They were in Europe for a week, and they arrived at JFK sometime in the past twenty-four hours. I know because I follow one of XOXO’s dancers and she regularly updates her status, which the fans use to track down the members’ location.

“Why aren’t you eating?” Uncle Jay asks, tapping my tray of burger and fries. “Are you that nervous? You have nothing to worry about. You crushed your auditions at all the other schools.”

He’s right. I’ve already received a verbal acceptance from Berklee.

“I’m not nervous,” I say, letting my gaze wander outside the window where hundreds of people make their way across a busy junction, billboards flashing above them, bright even in the daylight.

One catches my eye. A Broadway ad for the newest hit musical. Uncle Jay and I didn’t have time to watch one this trip, but when I’m back in New York City, it’s going to the top of my bucket list.

Then the ad switches to a commercial, with a few people on the street stopping to watch: XOXO Live Tonight at Madison Square Garden for the All the World’s a Stage Tour, Doors Open at 7.

“Isn’t that the kid you dated?”

“Uncle Jay!” I hiss, looking quickly around at the other restaurant goers, but none of them are paying us any attention.

“Is he performing in the US or something?”

“He has a concert at Madison Square Garden.”

Uncle Jay whistles. “Damn. Did you really meet him in my karaoke bar? I should have gotten him to sign something. That would have been great for publicity.”

“I met him the night you told me to get a life.”

“What?” Uncle Jay has the audacity to look offended. “I would never say that.”

“It literally was the catalyst for all my insecurities!”

“Whoops.” He shrugs. “Sorry.”

While I fume, he takes a bite of his BLT. Outside, the ad begins to play on another billboard. I’m tempted to take out my phone and record the ad just for myself, especially the part where Jaewoo appears on the screen, with his name and position in the band listed.

On the street beneath the billboard, a couple of tweens have stopped in their tracks, pointing at the screen and fangirling.

“So you took my sage advice to heart, huh? How mad would you be if I did it again?”

I look at him warily. “Just say it.”

He leans back in the booth. “It’s more of a story.”

I sigh. “As long it’s not a movie quote.”

“It won’t take that long. You eat, while I talk.”

I comply, if only because I refuse to waste food.

“When your dad and I were around your age, this new girl moved into town.”

I narrow my eyes, not sure if I want to hear a story about one of my uncle’s many exes.

“Naw, hear me out. She was a new student at our school, from Seoul. Really pretty, and of course she wouldn’t give your dad and me the time of the day, some scrappy kids from LA’s K-town. I gave up pretty quickly—there were a lot of people who wanted my attention.”

I roll my eyes.

“But your father, he was determined. He’d write her letters and walk her home from school. Then he got sick . . .” I remember. He was first sick in college, later he would relapse. “And so he started to pretend he wasn’t interested in your mom. . . .” He pauses. “We’re talking about your mom, by the way.”

I laugh, tears in my eyes. “I know.”

“But by then, she was in love with him. And so though he tried to push her away, she pushed back even harder, visiting him in the hospital, writing him letters. After he got better, they graduated and got married, and had you, and they were happy. For a long time.”

“I miss him,” I whisper.

Uncle Jay doesn’t have to say anything. He misses him too.

“You’re like both your parents, Jenny. You’re stubborn and loyal and good, and when you love, you love with your whole heart.”

I stare at my uncle, who isn’t my father, or related to me by blood, but who’s been there for me every day of my life.

“What are you saying, Uncle Jay? You have to tell me in Jenny-speak.”

“I’m saying, people do strange things to protect their hearts. But when you’re afraid, your heart is closed, and it’s never the right time, but when your heart is open, and you’re willing to be brave enough to take a chance, the time is always right.”

“I think I made a mistake, Uncle Jay, and I don’t know how to fix it.”

“That’s not true. You know exactly what you need to do. You just gotta . . . go.”

“Jenny, after your audition and reviewing your portfolio, we’re pleased to offer you a verbal acceptance into the Manhattan School of Music.”

I gape at the admissions director, who’s watching me with a warm smile of understanding. I’m sure she’s used to witnessing a similar shocked expression on the faces of the students she delivers happy news to. This is the culmination of all my hard work, everything I’ve ever wanted.

“Professor Tu, our cello professor,” she continues, “is taking a few students to dinner in a few minutes, if you’d like to join her.”

“I—what time is it?”

She blinks, glancing at her wristwatch. “It’s a little past five thirty.”

“Then I’d be honored to join the professor for dinner.”

The dinner is at an Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side. It’s served family-style, much to my excitement. I’m already in awe of Professor Tu, who besides having taught in Asia and Europe, has also been a member of award-winning ensembles.

The students also seem really cool, especially the girl seated next to me who’s a sophomore studying contemporary cello and the boy across from her who wants to be a composer.

The conversation at dinner flows and, honestly, I’d have lost track of the time if I wasn’t so conscious of it. Six o’clock passes, then seven. At half past seven, I’m chomping at the bit, literally chomping on a piece of garlic bread. Everyone’s having a great time. The few students who are old enough are on their second bottle of wine. When the waiter comes over, the professor asks to see a dessert menu.

“Are you all right?” The sophomore girl has a concerned look on her face.

I stand up abruptly. All eyes at the table turn toward me. “I’m sorry,” I say, “but I have to go.”

“Of course, Jenny,” Professor Tu says. “Do you need someone to ride with you back to your hotel?”

“I’m not going back to my hotel,” I say, and I don’t know what possesses me to further explain, but I add, “I’m going to a K-pop concert.”

“You should have said sooner!” Professor Tu exclaims. “Concerts wait for no one.”

“Is it XOXO?” the sophomore girl asks. “I love them.”

I stare at her, then the rest of them—every expression is either warm or curious. I remember Ian and the way he’d made me feel as if my love for Korean pop music meant I couldn’t be serious about attending the Manhattan School of Music.

“This isn’t . . . weird?” I ask.

“Weird?” Professor Tu looks genuinely shocked. “No, why would it be? It’s music and we’re all musicians. You’d better hurry. You don’t want to be late!”

“No, you’re right.” I smile at her, then at the rest of the students in turn. “I don’t want to be late.”

I rush out the door, waving my hand vigorously for a cab, leaping inside when one pulls over.

A single thought repeats over and over in my head.

Please don’t let me be too late.


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