For fans of Anna and the French Kiss and Loveboat Taipei, this effervescent debut takes readers on a journey to the place where trends are born—Seoul, Korea—where Melody Lee unwillingly moves with her family and must start a new life, a new school…and maybe a new romance.
Scroll down to read a sneak peek of I Guess I Live Here Now by Claire Ahn!
New Yorkers throw things away too easily.Sitting on the soccer field on 52nd Street and 11th Avenue, I’m painting patterns on a small wooden stool I snagged from the block my mom and I live on, a few avenues east of here, and the turf makes the underside of my thighs feel prickly. I’m wiping sweat from my forehead every few seconds so it doesn’t drip onto the wet paint. My favorite oversized yellow sunflower–print dress is potentially ruined, with multiple smears of blue paint now dotting the hem.
“Boo!” Sophia pushes me lightly on the shoulders, causing me to almost knock my stool over.
I grip my stool in surprise. “Soph! You can’t scare someone who’s already so nervous.”
“You’ll live. Here,” my best friend says, handing me a slice of pizza half falling off a paper plate. She looks especially cute today—-her curly black hair tied up in massive space buns and dressed in a bright blue crop top with high–waisted white jeans. “I got the goods,” she says mischievously.
I inhale the cheesy aroma of 99 Cent Express Pizza and gratefully take the plate from her. “Thanks,” I say between bites. “Soph, I’m sweating.” I lift up my pizza–holding arm and fan my armpit with my free hand.
“You’re sweating because it’s the end of August,” she replies. “Cool stool. Another street find?”
I ignore her question because I can’t stop thinking about what we’re about to do. “Are you sure this is a good idea? What if we get caught? Can you go to jail for this?” The thought of my mom bailing me out raises goose bumps on my skin despite the beating sun. We have perfect records both in school and, well, criminally, as in zero offenses, and I’m not sure junior year is the time to taint them.
Soph massages my shoulder like she’s giving me a pep talk. “Mel, if you walk down Tenth Avenue, all you smell is weed. No one gives. It’ll be fine, trust me,” she says confidently. “We said we’d try to be a little bit more badass this year, right?”
“Yeah, like a sip of alcohol, Soph, not potentially getting thrown in jail,” I whisper, so no undercover cops hear us.
Soph raises her eyebrows at me and shrugs. “If you’ve changed your mind, say the word and I won’t force you. But mind you, it wasyour idea to be ‘rebellious,’ ” she says in air quotes.
I sigh and look at her for a long time. “Fine, but not here.” I stand up, wrestling the dry part of my stool into my tote bag.
As we walk an avenue west, toward 12th, I feel sweat dripping down my neck and tie my hair up in a big bun with my favorite scrunchie. “We’re going to bejuniors.” I feel sentimental just stating that. In just two years, we’re going to be in colleges possibly outside of New York, although I can’t imagine living anywhere but here.
“I feel so old,” Soph says. “Oh yeah, what were you saying about your parents yesterday? On the phone, something about your dad not coming this month. You hung up so quickly.”
“Sorry, I freaked out thinking my mom might’ve heard me.” I shrug. “Something feels off. My parents talk maybe once a month, if that, but these past two weeks, she’s been on the phone with him almost every day. And she closes her door then comes out all tense afterward. Maybe it’s all in my head, but I doubt it.”
“I think I’m more impressed they can talk that often from opposite ends of the world.”
I shrug. Maybe it’s strange to other people, but I’ve never known another living situation. My dad lives in Seoul, and while I’ve only been there once, he visits us in New York City exactly three times a year—-no more, no less. To me, Korea is what I see on TV during my mom’s Korean–drama marathons: boys with over–the–top romantic gestures who really need to stop grabbing girls’ arms, and girls who never sweat no matter how fast they run.
“Why don’t you just ask?”
I chew on my lip in thought. “I don’t know. Feels weird.”
“Well, are you sad your dad didn’t come this month?” she adds.
“No, not really. My mom said he’s busy right now in Seoul. Maybe he’ll come visit in September.” When my dad comes, he’s usually here for just one week, so after sixteen years, I still don’t fully feel comfortable around him, the way I do with my mom; he’s the most formal and stern person I know, the quintessential Strict Asian Parent, a real–life K–drama figure.
When we reach 12th Avenue, we find a secluded corner and Sophia carefully draws a small white paper stick from her pocket. “You ready?” she asks me. She lifts it up to show me. “My cousin rolled it up for us already.”
My phone vibrates in the pocket of my tote bag and I jump about a foot, making my stool fall out.
“God, Mel, you need to calm down. You’re going to get us caught,” Soph chides me.
I open my phone and it’s my mom.
Umma taco bell for dinner tonight?
My thumbs nervously text back a thumbs–up emoji, and I put my phone away. My mom has her Scary Mother side but is usually a very chill person and my other best friend. Not every daughter has a mom that loves getting Taco Bell takeout as much as she does, and I know I’m lucky. I feel a twinge of guilt and give Soph a concerned look, which she reads instantly.
“You’re not backing out now, right?”
“No, I’m not.” We exchange grins and she pulls out a lighter—-also from her cousin. I look at her trying to light the joint and stifle my laughter.
She pulls a face at me. “Shut up, I need to focus.” Sweat beads on her forehead as she concentrates on the lighter, applying the flame very carefully to only the edge of the joint. “Then you have to rotate it around slowly, so it burns evenly.”
“Look who’s a pro.”
“My cousin taught me, and Google and YouTube. Apparently, if it’s burnt unevenly, might as well not even smoke it.” She holds up her finished product. “Ta–da! A work of art,” Soph says, pointing to the tip of the burning joint.
“What happens if it burns unevenly?” I ask, leaning in to take a closer look.
At the ripe age of sixteen, we have yet to be interested in what our more precocious classmates have already indulged in over the last school year: drinking, late–night partying, smoking, sex. But it’s time to catch up. Drugs first, apparently, thanks to Soph’s cousin’s connection.
“Okay,” she says steadily, bringing it to her lips. “Here goes.” I don’t realize I’m holding my breath until she bursts into a fit of coughs and I’m hitting her back rhythmically because I don’t know what else to do. Between coughs, she hands me the joint. “Your turn.”
“You barely smoked it!” I say accusingly.
“Well, I need a break. You try.”
“Wait, do you feel anything?”
“No, not yet. My cousin said it takes twenty minutes or so.”
“Well, you probably have to actually inhale it, not cough it all out.” I take a deep breath and repeat Sophia’s motions, daintily holding the joint between my fingers. I take my first hit and try to keep it down but also end up in a coughing fit. We’re ready to try for the second time, but before we can really start to enjoy our little act of rebellion, a voice calls out from behind us.
“You girls look a little young to be doing that.”
We whip our heads around and my body tenses immediately. I drop the joint and step on it as smoothly as I can, but I know the police officer’s already seen it. And smelled it.
I shake my head and put on the most innocent, casual smile my facial muscles will allow me to form. My words tumble out in a mess that rivals the blue paint splatters on my dress. “Oh, we’re not. Koreans have very youthful genes. You should see my mom, she’s in her forties but could pass as my older sister. Or a young aunt. Or an older cousin. And my friend is Ethiopian.” I pause. “Good young genes there, too.”
Sophia nudges me. “Stop talking,” she says between clenched jaws.
“We’re twenty–three,” I add, my mouth unable to comply with this basic cue.
“Mel, for the love of—-”
The police officer cuts her off. “IDs?”
Oh God. I am toast. My mom will definitely not be my best friend today.
Less than twenty minutes later, we’re back on Ninth Avenue, and my building’s front door is taunting me as I wait with the officer for my mom to come downstairs after he spoke with her through the intercom.
“I have the key, you know,” I mutter, but he just stands there, impassive and cold like a statue.
When my mom sees me with the officer upon opening the door, her brows are furrowed with concern. Studying her more closely, I realize she looks tired, like she hasn’t been sleeping well. Then, as he explains why he brought me home, her concerned face changes, contorted with anger.
“I dropped off the other young girl, um, Sophia Taye,” he says, like he’s trying to remember her name, “and now I’m dropping this one off with you. It’s a warning,” he says, turning to me, “but don’t let it happen again.”
I stare at the ground while my mom nods multiple times like she’s grateful for the warning and nothing more. “Thank you, Officer.” She closes the big brown door and says nothing while angrily stalking up the flights of stairs to our apartment. When we get inside, I keep a good distance from my mom, or as much of a distance as I can. Right now our tiny kitchen looks suffocating instead of cozy, and the apartment feels too small for the tension that’s breaking through the low white ceiling. I stare past her at our sink, which is too narrow to fit more than a few pots at a time, wishing it could swallow me whole right now.
“Lee Solmi,” she says angrily, whipping around to face me. “What were you thinking? Smokingweed?” Her face is red and her eyes are glaring coldly. It doesn’t help that they’re twice the size of mine. “Well?”
My voice comes out small. “It was just one small puff. I don’t feel anything. It wasn’t even a real drag because I barely smoked it. I promise I’m not high. I coughed it all out.” I stare at the burnt-orange wood floor. “It was for . . . future memories.”
“Future memories?” She’s looking at me like I just said something really stupid, which is probably true. It certainly feels stupid hearing her say it back to me.
“You know . . .” I say, shifting my body, “something we can laugh about in the future.”
My mom presses her fingers to her forehead and shuts her eyes. I steal a glance at her while keeping my head bowed. She’s wearing a faded green tie–dyed tee. I remember the day we tie–dyed it together years ago, back when I was in elementary school. I hated how my green one turned out and cried about it, so she gave me her purple one. “Melody, you could have been arrested, you know that? And we’re lucky the officer didn’t fine us. What are you thinking, to risk throwing away your future like that?”
I look again at her green tee and can’t remember the last time we did something fun like tie–dyeing together. “I’m sorry,” I mumble. “I didn’t think it was that big of a deal.”
I know that was the wrong thing to say because right after I say it, her face gets redder and I can see the outlines of her veins. Without a word, my mom goes into her room and shuts her door loudly. I feel a little bit at a loss of what to do or say because she’s rarely this mad. Things blow over relatively fast in this household. I guess I could follow her and apologize profusely, but really, deep down, I don’t think that what I’ve done warrants so much anger from her. I’m a top student, only second to Sophia in school, and I never get in trouble. It was one time and not even a real puff.
I go into my room and quietly close the door behind me. Four missed calls from Sophia.
“Soph?” I say when she picks up.
“Is your mom mad?”
I nod even though she can’t see me. “With the rage of a thousand wronged girlfriends.”
Sophia lets out a sigh. “I guess we deserve it. My dad grounded me for a month from all screens, except my phone, for one hour a day. I’m sorry, Mel. I really didn’t think we’d get caught.”
“It’s not your fault. Those youthful genes of mine probably got us caught,” I say, feigning lightness. “I’m sure it’ll blow over by tomorrow,” I assure her, willing myself to believe my own words.
After we hang up, I ignore the gurgling sound in my stomach. There are tacos on the table, but I’m too scared to leave my room right now. I change out of my clothes, which smell very faintly of weed, and sit cross–legged on my floor, pulling my sketchbook out from under my bed. When I open my portfolio—-the one I’ll be submitting to Maison & Saito Interiors’ summer internship program—-I let the familiar soothing feeling that comes from looking at art wash over me as I comb through drawings and designs. I can only hope my drawings are good enough to be considered for the coveted internship position at one of the top interior design firms in the world. But I don’t think about that tonight. Tonight, I stare at my art longer than usual, wishing I was inside a fake home I’ve drawn for myself, one with high vaulted ceilings and colorful Moroccan poufs. I never traveled much, but my drawings allow me to capture the places I dream of going or images from movies or memories I hold on to in my head so I don’t forget.
When I wake the next morning, I can hear my mom humming from her bedroom. The tension in my chest releases. She must be in a better mood. My mom sings a lot butalways when she’s in a good, relaxed mood, the way most of us would play a Spotify “Café Vibes” playlist. Our apartment is a one–bedroom flex, so the fake wall in my room is thin enough that I can hear when my mom moves around. I hear her humming “Sweet Caroline,” except for the “ba ba ba” part, which she sings loudly. My mom has the best singing voice I’ve ever heard, besides actual professional singers, although she’s probably better than a lot of them, too. Her voice makes our apartment feel lively, even though it’s just the two of us. And today, her singing nearly makes me forget about last night. Usually, I’ll chime in with her singing, and she’ll disagree when I sulk and say my voice is nothing like hers. Instead, she’ll usually harmonize once I join in with the melody, and we’ll sing until we forget the lyrics, usually halfway through.
I leave my bedroom, and when she meets my eye, I offer a tentative smile. “I like today’s song,” I say as I head to the bathroom to remove yesterday’s winged eyeliner off my face, now smudged in multiple places. I look like a sad raccoon.
I can see her staring at me in the bathroom mirror. “There’s kimchi jjigae on the table. I have to talk to your father for a few minutes. After that, we’re visiting Halmoni today. Be ready to leave in fifteen minutes.”
I mumble an okay and my curiosity nudges me to ask why we’re going today, but she shuts her door before I can get a word out. We usually visit on Sundays once a month. Today is Saturday and we just visited two weekends ago, not that I’m complaining. I love my halmoni.
I’m praying my mom doesn’t tell my dad about last night. He’s a lot more conservative than my mom and me. He’s like a well–mannered Korean dictator who’s always immaculately dressed in outfits that scream “I am an Important Man at a fancy law firm” and is constantly wishing for a daughter he can teach his ways. Too bad that daughter will never be me. Every time he visits us from Seoul, he’s always telling me I need to stop wasting my time and take myself more seriously, whatever that means. When I was younger, I remember being really sad that he lived so far away, but he told me that a lot of Important Business Families live separately, so I didn’t bring it up again. Mostly because he told me to stop asking stupid questions. Once, in second grade, I cried because a classmate, Toby Yang, told me my parents must be divorced if they don’t live together and don’t talk often and that they’re just probably keeping it a secret from me. I soon learned that my parents’ situation is different, and that living separately is common in Korea and other parts of Asia, like Singapore and Hong Kong. There’s even a name for it—-a “gireogi appa” is a father who lives in Korea while his family lives in an English–speaking country for a better education for the kids.
Toby Yang is a jerk.
I dig into my food, sating my hunger from yesterday with big spoonfuls of brown rice today. The spicy kimchi stew warms my stomach, and while I eat my breakfast, I try to empty my mind of the cold–shoulder treatment from my mom and the conversation happening behind her closed door. I wish I could hold on to this feeling of satisfaction longer, but I know life has a way of ruining dreams when you least expect it.