We are SCREAMING about Loveboat, Taipei, an epic, beautiful book that’s almost here for the world to see!
Mix a little Crazy Rich Asians with some serious Sarah Dessen-esque life lessons, a truly swoon-worthy love triangle, and a summer of travel and self-discovery, and you have Abigail Hing Wen‘s dazzling debut. Get ready to sip all the tea, ’cause this is going to be a wild ride.
Ever Wong has always been a good daughter: hardworking and dutiful, she is primed to go to med school despite the fact that the sight of blood makes her queasy. But becoming a doctor is the least she can do. After all, her parents emigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. in dreams of providing Ever and her sister a better future. It’s no small amount of pressure. So Ever is ready to enjoy one last summer of freedom–including plenty of dance, the one thing she loves most in the world–before she’ll have to trade everything in for a lab coat and lectures.
But Ever’s last summer of dancing is ripped from beneath her when her parents have enroll her in school for the summer–in Taiwan! Ever is heartbroken that her final summer will be preordained by her parents… like every other part of her life has been.
… But Chien Tan, nicknamed “Loveboat” by its loyal students, is far from what it seems. It’s a cultural immersion program, yes, but of a completely different sort. Hundreds of teenagers descend on Taiwan without, for the first time, supervision. Partying, clubbing, and yes, falling in love are all a part of the Loveboat experience, all served with a side of delicious food and drama! It truly becomes a summer of firsts as Ever makes bold decisions she never, in a million years, thought she’d make. (You go, girl!)
Through every good and not-so-good experience, she learns more about herself than she even thought to ask.
This book is everything. Ever-ything. But you don’t need us to tell you… read Abigail’s author letter and check out the excerpt below to see for yourself!
EXCLUSIVE FIRST LOOK
There’s no chance to ask Sophie about the “Loveboat” in private. Potted plants divide the spacious, sunlit lobby into lounge areas furnished with chairs sculpted from twists of cherry-brown tree roots. Sophie and I join the back of a line to a registration desk. On the wall, six clocks made of polished cuts of driftwood display times in San Francisco, New York, Taipei, Beijing, London, and Tokyo.
All around us, more kids drop suitcases, saying to one another, “Don’t I know you from RSI?” A guy in a Berkeley T-shirt fist-bumps another guy half a head shorter: “Yo, saw you at Cal-Michigan! Sorry, man, next time.” Three girls in near-identical pastel dresses fall into each other’s arms, squealing, “How’ve you beeeeeeen? Did you see Spencer’s here, too?”
Even Sophie reunites briefly with girls from something called a Center for Talented Youth summer camp.
“How do so many people here know each other?” I ask Sophie.
“It’s that six degrees of separation thing. Only for us, it’s like, two degrees, know what I mean?”
I don’t. I don’t know a soul here, but in this moment, the loneliness I feel is overridden by the larger strangeness of blending in. In the mall back home, heads sometimes turned when I walked by with my family, but now, my Asian Americanness is invisible, erased like a shaken Etch A Sketch. It’s an unexpected relief.
As we inch forward, Li-Han walks toward us from the opposite direction, balancing a tray of plastic cups. Sophie grabs two, along with fat straws. “Classic,” she says. “I hate all the syrups people put in nowadays.” Dark brown marbles revolve lazily in the bottom third of a coffee-and-cream liquid. A plastic film seals its top.
“What is this?” I ask, mystified.
“Bubble tea!” Sophie jabs her straw through the film and sucks up the marbles. “You seriously never had it? Milk tea with tapioca pearls.”
“I’ve heard of it.” I’m wary—I’ve never drunk anything swirling with solids. But I imitate her, puncturing my top more forcibly than I intend, making Sophie laugh. I suck in a mouthful of cold, sweet tea, punctuated by the chewy spheres. “Oh. It’s good.”
Sophie laughs again. “Ever. You’re a Twinkie.”
I frown. Like the Hostess dessert—white inside, yellow outside? Grace Chin from my youth group would come out swinging if anyone used that term on her, but I’m not mad. Just defeated . . . again. Even among a horde of Chinese Americans, I’m not Chinese American enough. A sudden burst of missing Pearl weakens my knees.
Then a shuffle of guys descend on us: tall, short, lean, heavy, hairy—even a mustache and scary goatee. They ask our names and I find they all share two things in common: they’re top college–bound (UCLA, Penn, Stanford, MIT) and they’re sweating as much as I am. The humid air practically licks me. The male attention, the eager-eye smiles and handshakes—it’s all a little overwhelming.
Two girls stop to introduce themselves. “Hi, I’m Debra Lee.” A girl with blue, pixie-cut hair carried up in combs offers a firm handshake.
“I’m Laura Chen,” says her friend in a Yankees cap.
“We’re Presidential Scholars,” says Debra. “We met in Washington.”
“We met the President of the United States.” “That’s how we got invited on this trip.”
“Oh, Deb, we better run.” Laura checks her watch and flashes an apologetic smile. “We’re meeting the commissioner with the other Scholars—see ya.”
They speed off before either Sophie or I can get a word in.
“Oh, pardon me. A VIP awaits.” Sophie rolls her eyes. “Wow, that was annoying.”
“No kidding.” I toss my half-finished bubble tea in the trash, all my appetite gone. It’s obvious now. My parents have sent me here to be sanctified. As iron sharpens iron, so one well-honed nerd sharpens another—except these aren’t ordinary nerds like me, they’re prodigies on the order of Boy Wonder.
“Wong Ai-Mei.” A woman in her forties, heavy-set in a green qipao, greets me from behind the registration desk. Her salt-and-pepper perm curls down like a helmet on her head.
“Ai-Mei,” she thunders at me with general-like authority. Clearly, it’s not up to me what I’ll be called this summer. “Huānyíng. Woˇ shì Gāo Laˇoshī.” Welcome. I’m Teacher Gao. Gao—“tall.” It suits her. The rest of what she says is lost on me.
As she digs into a box behind her, Sophie murmurs, “Everyone calls her the Dragon. Sucks we’re stuck with her as program head this summer.” The name fits her haughty jawline and nose.
We are roomed by arrivals. The Dragon hands Sophie and me keys to room 39, along with a tote bag stitched with a red, white, and blue flag of Taiwan, a white sun instead of stars on its blue square. It contains a yearbook and folded map of Taipei. The Dragon switches to English in my parents’ Hokkien dialect accent to set forth the program’s expectations: Mandarin, Chinese culture, study hard.
“What electives would you like?” she asks. “Each runs for two weeks, then we have field trips.”
“I’m doing a double cooking class,” Sophie says. “I already sent mine.”
“Elective?” I say. “I haven’t picked any.” Sophie gets a binder of recipes while I flip through the materials: paper cutting, zither, Chinese yo-yo, kite making, mah-jong, Chinese chess, fan dancing, ribbon dancing, sword fighting, lion dancing, dragon drums, dragon boat racing, stick-fighting, Mulan-style, wow—
“Oh! Ai-Mei, your parents already sent in your electives.” My head snaps up. “They did?”
The Dragon hands me a sheet bearing my Chinese name at the top:
Mandarin: Level I
Elective 1: Introduction to Chinese Medicine
Elective 2: Calligraphy
“Hey, we’re in Mandarin together,” Sophie says, but I barely hear her.
They picked my electives.
Just like they picked them through high school: French instead of Latin, a dead language, Advanced Topics in Biology instead of Dance.
“Can I switch one to ribbon dancing?” “Ah, I am sorry. Class is full.”
“What about fan dancing?”
“Full as well.”
The Dragon shakes her head. “Your parents asked for these. You can call them.”
I imagine the dead-end conversation with Mom: Chinese Medicine is for med school. Calligraphy is practical. Good for writing prescriptions the rest of your life. Seven thousand miles away, their invisible hands are still tight around my life.
I answer through gritted teeth. “Fine.”
“Please reserve an hour for homework each night, always travel with a buddy, bed check at nine thirty p.m. No boys and girls in a room with the door closed.”
“Of course not.” If Sophie held her hand up, Scouts honor, she couldn’t appear more sincere. “We wouldn’t think of it.”
I can’t help but smile. Until the Dragon introduces the demerits system.
The wall to her right contains a grid of the Chinese names of all Chien Tan students, more than I can count. We get demerits for coming late to class, failing to turn in assignments, using cell phones during school hours, failing to be in by bed check, getting caught up after lights out. Too many demerits means a call home. Twenty strikes and we lose the two-week Tour Down South—a chartered bus tour of the island at program’s end.
“What?” Sophie protests. Apparently, that trip’s worth something.
I frown. Nerd camp with Wong-family level regulations. Everything about the Dragon—including her Hokkien accent and short, permed hair—reminds me of Mom. Studies come first. Why do you need to go out with Megan when you see her every day? My summer’s shaping up even worse than expected.
As the Dragon turns away to file our papers, I lean in to Sophie. “You said no supervision.”
“There are rules. You just have to not get caught. They’ve sent one or two people home in their whole history.”
“One more thing.” The Dragon’s back. “Every year, the kids put on a talent show on the last night.”
Of course they do.
“Maybe you’d like to participate?”
Right . . . how about a solo flag corp dance? I shake my head. “Oh, I have no talents.” Sophie cheerfully pushes back the sign-up sheet. I can’t help laughing. Sophie is a bit overwhelming, but also seems pretty down to earth, and funny . . . not her fault she’s related to Boy Wonder. With her around, maybe this summer will be more bearable.
We gather our bags and head for the elevators. Sophie waves to a few guys we’d met earlier. “Benji Chiu is a doll, isn’t he?” she whispers. “And David’s Haa-vard-bound—so cute, don’t you think?”
“Mm-hm.” I’m noncommittal. Benji brought his stuffed bear, Dim Sum—a little too cute for me. David—I’m definitely not a goatee girl.
“Ooh, check this out.” Sophie rips a purple flyer off a bulletin board pegged with glossy pages offering massages, tutoring, summer concerts. She plunges into the empty elevator. “We need a plan!” Sophie bats my arm with the flier. “The clubs! I’ve got a list of the best restaurants. Oh, and our glamour shots!”
“Glamour shots?” My stomach dips as the elevator rises. “Like what movie stars get?” For the girl stapling Summer Reading List posters to the guidance office bulletin board just last week? “I can’t afford—”
“They’re crazy affordable—trust me. I’ll book our appointment. Also, Rick and I are visiting our aunt at the end of the month—you’re invited, of course.”
“Oh, um. Wow.” How generous—she seems to have taken a liking to me and I find myself not wanting to let her down. “Are you sure?”
“Roommates are family. Especially ones who aren’t speeding off to meet the commissioner.”
We laugh. “I’d love to come. But aren’t we in classes all day? One hour of homework a night? Where are we finding time to do anything else?”
The elevator halts on the third floor, and I drag my luggage into a lounge of blue-silk couches arranged around a black-lacquered table. Sophie’s eyes glint with mischief. “Two hours a morning, plus two hours of culture class in the afternoon. Who cares about homework and the rest of the time is ours.” She lowers her voice. “What’ll they do if we skip? Send us home? No way. They want us to have a good impression of Taiwan.”
The elevator chimes behind us. To my surprise, the Dragon steps out, a crowbar in hand, face as grim as if she’s breathing fire. She’s followed by Mei-Hwa Pan, the petite counselor Boy Wonder mowed over earlier.
“Uh-oh,” Sophie breathes. “Something’s up.”
The two march past us to the third white door on the left, which the Dragon pries open with her crowbar. Her sonorous voice berates and scorches. We pass the doorway as a half-naked girl bursts out, giggling, clutching her pink dress to her bra. Behind her, a guy in a black shirt scrambles off the rumpled bed. Lights glint off his wavy, crow-black hair, tousled and falling in his face. He grabs his shorts—but not before I catch a glimpse of his . . . equipment.
Oh my God oh my God oh my God.
Back home, I’m not even allowed to watch kissing scenes— whenever one comes on during family movie nights, Dad always flips the channel. Now I’m too stunned to close my eyes. Seconds later, the guy’s in his shorts, shuffling past the Dragon into the hallway. His arm brushes mine. Insolent eyes—dark, liquid, opaque—slide to make contact. His lips curve in a wolfish smile and I read a spark of interest, an invitation. A dare.
The girl giggles again. She’s pulled on her baby-doll dress. “Let’s go, Xavier!”
A hot name to match the rest of him. I feel a small shock as our connection breaks. The Dragon chases them down the hallway and Sophie clutches my arm in a Megan-like way. Her body shakes with silent laughter as we weave toward our room.
If Dad were here, he’d have swatted Xavier down the hallway with his rolled-up World Journal and placed me under house arrest for my own protection.
Maybe nerd camp isn’t so nerdy after all. “So that—” I finally say.
Sophie’s cheeks are red from holding back her laughter. “That’s Loveboat.”
I’m starting to get the picture.
Our door is stuck, swollen into its frame with humidity. I turn the key and shove, then Sophie turns the key and shoves; then she says, “Here, you keep the key turned and we’ll shove together.” With our collective weights, the door flies open with a whoosh of air.
“We make a good team.” She laughs and swoons onto her pinstripe mattress. “Oh my God, Ever! That Xavier was the hottest guy I’ve ever seen.”
“He’s taken already,” I point out. Not that the pink girl had stopped him issuing that once-over.
“Taken?” Sophie snorts and sits up, flipping her sleek hair behind her shoulder. “One out of four relationships break up because of Loveboat.”
“Yeah, my cousin was dating someone then she met a guy at registration and they’ve been together since . . .”
Sophie prattles on as I set my purse on my dresser and cross toward our double-paned window to check out the view. Our room is clean but simple: two beds, two desks, two dressers, a hot water thermos. Three stories below, the lush green lawn separates us from a row of brick buildings. A concrete wall, twisted over with green foliage, encircles the compound. Beyond it, to the left, the blue-green Keelung River divides us from the far bank—a sprawl of rectangular high-rises of Taipei, and beyond those, a gray-blue mountain dominates the horizon. The view could have been really nice—except for the baby-blue pipe that stretches across the entire river, supported by two concrete columns. A red maintenance catwalk tops it. For sewage? What an eyesore.
“What music do you listen to?” Sophie winds her earphones around a slim iPod shuffle.
“Oh, um—I love musicals,” I admit, a little embarrassed. Most of my classmates were into rock, hip-hop, metal/goth stuff.
“What’s your favorite?”
“Oh, lots. Anything Disney. Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera. My best friend and I’ve watched The Greatest Showman about a half dozen times.”
“I adore Greatest Showman. When Phillip ran into the burning building after Anne, I about died.” She lays a hand on her heart, so dramatic I have to smile.
“I loved her trapeze dance. When she’s telling him they’re impossible.”
“The same songwriters did La La Land,” Sophie says.
“Really?” Cool that she knew that—she knows so many things I don’t.
Sophie plugs mini-speakers into her phone. The opening beats vibrate her desk and I resist an urge to stomp in time to them, like I would in my room back home. She unfurls her sheet over her mattress, rattling off the names of musicals she’s seen live on Broadway. I’ve only seen The Lion King, on a class field trip to Manhattan. She’s great, but our lives back home must be so different.
“So, do you have a serious boyfriend?” Sophie asks.
No, but my best friend does. God, I miss her. “My parents said no dating until after med school. I need to establish my career first.”
“Of course they did.” Sophie smirks. “No dating, then all in a day you’re expected to land the heir to the throne and produce grandchildren. I’ve had four boyfriends—not that my parents had a clue.” She rolls her eyes. “Anyways, what are you looking for?”
“Looking for?” I’m still stuck on the heir and grandchildren parts.
Sophie hugs her naked pillow. “I have criteria—I call them the Seven Cs: Cute, Cool, Cash, Clever, Creative. Charisma and Charm.”
“Oh, wow.” It’s a power list, not qualities I’d even presume to want for myself.
“Every girl has lists.”
I nod. “My best friend had a long one—blue eyes, six-foot-plus, good muscles, nice butt. She got all of them, too.”
Sophie laughs. “Lucky her. What about yours?”
I push my pillow into my pillowcase. A girl the grade below me, Grace Chin, had a short list: Christian and Chinese. Mine was even shorter—not Stanley Yee—the only Chinese American boy in my grade, whom people have been trying to get me to date since kindergarten.
“Someone I can dance with. Completely unrealistic.” But my heart finishes the thought. Someone to lift me high and weightless into the sky like in the musicals—if partner dancing didn’t violate my parents’ no-inappropriate-physical-contact rule.
I’m back by the dumpster again. My stomach knots.
“I bet you’ll find him here.” Sophie smooths her blanket. “In eight weeks?” I laugh at her, but she just twitches her
“It’s Loveboat. Lots of parents send their kids here hoping they’ll find someone.”
“Parents do that? On purpose?” And I thought my parents were interfering.
“Rick’s and my parents are old-fashioned like that.” Sophie shrugs. “But like I said, I’d have come anyways.”
I should probably feel horrified, but instead, I feel a strange thrill. If Megan were here, she’d have shoved me out the door already with a, “Go for it, Ever!” Not to find him, but to do something besides hanging back, wishing things were different with Dan—and boys in general.
I unzip my own suitcase. To my surprise, my dance bag sits in the center, a periwinkle egg in a nest of my clothes.
A lump forms in my throat, and I try to swallow it down. Is this Mom’s way of apologizing, even if it’s too little, too late?
I lift it out but it’s all wrong. Rectangular, heavy, folded in half, instead of soft with a leotard and tights—this is why my suitcase weighed so much. With growing foreboding, I flip the bag upside down, and dump out a blue-and-red . . . textbook.
Principles of Molecular Biology.
I once read about a burglar’s lantern, made for sneaking around in the dark. A metal box built so not a single ray of light can escape without the owner opening one of its narrow shutters. I’m that flame. Every want I have meets with its metal walls, like a supernova locked in a titanium prison.
I whirl on Sophie. “You know what my life is?” I tear out a page, crumpling it in my hand. “Get straight As. No more dancing. Insane curfew, dress like a nun—”
“No sex until you die?”
“The most sacred rule of all!” I fling the book down.
“Well, no more following rules this summer.” Sophie shoves her purple flyer at me. “This Thursday, we’re sneaking out.”
I drop my eyes to the flyer:
No cover for under 21s! First drink free!
A guy in black leather, chains, and tattoos jams on his guitar. His blond hair flies like fishnet. He’s with a band called Three Screams, from Manhattan, and he looks like the kind of guy my parents don’t even know exists, and if they did, they’d never approve of me going to listen to him.
“Clubbing all night,” Sophie says. “Drink what you want, dance, dress to impress, and your parents can go eat dirt.”
How many invitations from Megan and the girls for dinner and a movie in Cleveland have I turned down because they’d keep me out past curfew, or because boys were going?
“There’s a guard downstairs,” I point out.
She pulls a wry face. “Yeah, they’ve beefed up security. But Rick says we can climb the wall.” With her bare foot, she shoves her emptied suitcase under her bed. “This is Loveboat. One big party. All summer. And no one’s going to ruin it.” Sophie fans her yearbook pages at me. “Ever, you are never going to meet this many eligible guys in one place. Admissions is super selective. I’ve been waiting for this trip for, like, forever. I’m so done with all those rock band–poser boys I grew up with. I’m finding my man here.” She points to me like she’s passing a parliamentary baton. “And your game plan, madam?”
With a sweep of my hand, my two-hundred-dollar textbook clunks to the floor, and I back-kick it deep under my bed. I pick up her Club KISS flyer and jot my list on its back.
WONG FAMILY RULES
Dress Like a Nun Curfew of Ten
No Wasting Money
No Dancing with a Boy No Kissing Boys
I write the last one with a thrill, like I’m signing up to sky-dive off a cliff—it’s not going to happen, but oh, what if it did? I dangle the list before Sophie: all the reasons I’m a baby compared to the rest of the world, because I’m med school–bound, because I’m my parents’ daughter, because I’m Ever Wong.
“This summer, I’m breaking all the Wong Rules.”
“Well then you left out the most important one.” She grabs my pen and adds to the bottom:
“Not that.” I snatch my pen back, hating myself for blushing. Even if it’s the most sacred of the Wong Rules. Maybe I’ve read too many Victorian novels, but I’m saving that for love.
“Fine.” Sophie laughs and stabs at Curfew. “That one’s first.
We just need a way out.”
I peer out the window to study the concrete wall that rings the campus. “We could climb the wall. If we stacked chairs. But it’s a long drop on the other side.” The wall’s a good fifteen feet high. I scan the courtyard until my gaze lands again on the eyesore pipe crossing the green river. It disappears beneath a highway overpass. On our side, it starts from a concrete pillar beside the buildings across the lawn. A red utility ladder leads up to it and presumably down the other end. It must be a hundred feet long, all exposed to the eyes of Chien Tan by day.
But not by night.
“That’s our route,” I say, and I realize my decision is made.
Megan would kill me if she knew.
Sophie presses in beside me and peers out. “You’re not serious. If we fell—”
“There’s a catwalk.” I give my partner in crime a tight smile, ignoring the stab of fear in my gut, the image of tumbling dozens of feet down into dark waters. “Thursday night. We’re on.”
Our first task, Sophie declares, is to find clubbing outfits.
But downstairs in the humid lobby, Mei-Hwa and other counselors are herding kids into a dimly lit auditorium for the opening ceremony. I peer inside. The room appears to have been built with a smaller crowd in mind because every seat before the red-curtained stage is taken, with more students jammed in along the back wall and overflowing down the aisles.
“Come on,” Sophie whispers, and we duck around a group of guys, steering clear of Mei-Hwa.
“How many kids are here anyways?”
“Five hundred.” Sophie pauses at a table, where dozens of eggs bob in a bronze vat of tea-speckled soy sauce.
“Five hundred?” With a ladle, Sophie scoops a marbled tea egg out, drops it into a paper cup and presses it into my hand. “That’s bigger than my entire high school.”
Drumrolls echo from the auditorium, seductively deep and rhythmic. I crane my neck to see the stage, where two guys in sleeveless white shirts and black pants are raining whole-arm beats down on barrel drums. A Chinese lion, shaking its oversized gold-trimmed head, leaps out from between them.
Sophie grabs my arm. “Come on. Let’s get out of here.”
I almost suggest we stay—I’ve never seen a lion dance on this level of incredible. From the doorway, a counselor in a fluorescent-yellow hat beckons to us, calling, “Lai, lai.”
But Sophie yanks me around the corner, scraping my arm on brick, and then we’re pushing out double doors into blinding sunlight. A pair of gardeners kneels in the dirt, planting flowers. “Go!” Sophie urges, and I sprint with her up the driveway and around the lily pad pond, past the guard booth to the street. “Won’t they come after us—yipes!” I leap out of the path of a cavalcade of fume-spewing mopeds. Their rush of wind tears at
my hair and skirt with a sputtering of motors.
“No one knows who we are yet.” Sophie’s laugh bubbles as she tugs me firmly onto the sidewalk, then sets off at a brisk clip. “Don’t get yourself run over, okay? Traffic here is a human rights violation.”
The sun beats down on my head as I shell my egg and try to keep up with Sophie. I haven’t eaten a tea egg in years, not after I opened my lunch box to shrieks of horrified, “What are those?” and I begged Mom not to pack me any more weird Chinese food. Sophie devours her own egg, making moaning noises straight out of a scene I wouldn’t be allowed to watch on TV. I bite into warm flavors of star anise, cinnamon.
“Oh, yum,” I say.
Chien Tan’s driveway opens into a major street, facing a tree-covered mountain topped with that enormous pagoda building. Directly across from us, a brick mural of Chinese farmers is built into the hillside. Up the street, we pass a small, red temple with the fanciest tiers of rooftops—like a paperback book opened and laid facedown, sides gently sloping, corners upturned like the prow of a ship. It’s painted in a riot of colors— red flowers, intricate designs, Chinese scholars in blue robes. A long, green dragon, its back flaming with yellow spikes, undulates over the top.
“Wild,” I say. “I kind of like it.”
“There’s stuff like that all over Taiwan.” Sophie drops her empty cup into a trash can. “You’ll see.”
We veer off through a tree-lined park, then through narrow streets lined with three-story buildings, fronted by garage-sized stores. We pass hairstyling shops, a tea room, a whiskey store, all labeled with Chinese characters.
At last, we step into an outdoor market crammed with vendor carts, small shops, and tiny restaurants with only a few benches for customers. A man mists a mountain of Chinese cabbages. A stout woman, hair bound in a purple scarf, yanks dough into foot-long sticks and drops them into her copper vat of oil; another shakes out a bolt of red silk. Jewelry shimmers like colored fireflies.
On Sophie’s heels, I wander deeper through tarp-lined stalls. Vendors call, “Xiaojie, lai lai!” and motion to their fruit stands or dress racks. Their energy draws me in. I’m stepping into a tradition that must date back hundreds, even thousands of years. Sophie pulls out her wallet at every other stall—she buys a Hello Kitty shirt, a cloth pencil case printed with tiny cartoon bears, bottled water for us.
“Don’t you want anything?” she asks.
My stomach knots a bit. My family counts every penny, and I’ve never felt free to just buy whatever strikes my fancy, unlike Sophie, clearly. Our goal is outfits, and I need to save all my fire-power for that.
“Um, yea, sure,” I answer. “Still looking.”
Sophie flips through a stack of DKNY jeans, tries on a yellow North Face jacket, hefts Coach purses in her hands. “Everyone knows these are knockoffs, but they’re such a steal,” she gloats. She dangles a striped Elle-labeled dress before my body. “What about this one? Cut’s perfect for your body type. You’re slim, but sturdy.”
“Thanks, but not this one.” I push it aside. “I want an outfit my mom would kill me in.”
She laughs. “I like how you think.”
“Hey, Sophie.” To my dismay, Boy Wonder is coming toward us, head cocked to make room for the hundred-pound burlap sack balanced like a baby whale on his shoulder. So he’s skipped the opening ceremony, too. The 100 percent humidity clings to my skin, but somehow, Boy Wonder with his forest-green shirt stretched across his broad shoulders looks as cool as the shady underside of an oak tree. I grimace.
“Rice?” Sophie beats a fist on his sack, scandalized. “Are you transferring into my cooking elective?”
“I tried to sign up, but it was full.” Boy Wonder hefts his sack higher. “This is for weights. Turns out real weights cost fifty bucks a kilo here, so I bought this instead. Ten cents a kilo.” He grins, obviously pleased with himself.
My brow rises. Creative. And surprisingly unpretentious.
But Sophie sighs. “We’ve been here less than three hours and you’re already working out.”
“I sat on the plane for fifteen hours with my knees to my ears. Enough downtime to last me the rest of summer.”
I agree—instead of jet-lagged, I feel charged enough to dance a loop around the entire city. Boy Wonder levers the sack to his other shoulder. His T-shirt rucks up, offering a glimpse of tanned, flat muscles, from which I swiftly remove my eyes—but not before he catches me. Damn bad timing.
“At least you’re in a better mood,” Sophie says. “Good call?” “Yeah, I got my SIM card working. I have a landline in my room, too.”
“No fair, really? We don’t.”
“My roommate’s some VIP kid. Xavier. Haven’t met him yet.” “Of course they’d give the VIP kid to you.” Sophie catches my eye and quirks her brow. Xavier.
“Whatever. Jenna says hi. I found her this.” He touches the head of a carved bird tied with a red ribbon, jutting from his pocket—so Boy Wonder’s the Wonder Boyfriend, too. Of course. I still can’t believe Sophie suggested he date me—no way would I bring down a house of parental blessings on myself like that. Why can’t Mr. Perfect SATs at least have the modesty to look the part: scrawny with thick glasses and acne, for starters. And Sophie’s right—his mood’s done a complete 180.
“We’re hitting Club KISS Thursday,” Sophie says. “Ever’s idea.” His thick brow rises. “Not wasting time, are we?”
“Carpe diem.” I shrug, keeping it cool. Latin, not Chinese, on the streets of Taipei. So there.
“Carpe noctem,” he answers. Seize the night.
Deodamnatus! Boy Wonder’s trumped me again—how many languages does he know anyways? I indulge a fantasy of me using that big, hard body as a punching bag.
“Meet outside our room at eleven,” Sophie presses on. “And
please don’t wear yellow. It makes you—”
“Look jaundiced, so you’ve said.” Boy Wonder rolls his eyes at me. To my dismay, my heart skips a beat. “Aunty Claire will be thrilled to hear you begged me to chaperone. Even bribed me with such excellent fashion advice. I’ll be there. Don’t want any broken hearts.”
“It’s the real Rick Woo again. Welcome back. Tell me this isn’t a result of you and Jenna having phone sex.”
“Mind out of the gutter please.”
“Well, no worries about us.” Sophie links arms with me while I try to block out unwanted images. “No guy’s breaking our hearts.”
“Oh, it’s not you girls I’m worried about.” With a smirk, Boy Wonder heads off, sack still balanced on his shoulder.
“We don’t need a chaperone!” I call, but he’s gone.
An hour later, I gaze uncertainly into the full-length mirror of a curtained dressing room. My black chiffon skirt skims a whole two inches above my knees. I twist to examine the corset-like back of the black halter top: satin lacing, wide eyelets that show off diamonds of skin. It calls for a dance—leg lifts, pirouettes, strong hands encircling my waist. I don’t care that corsets are old-fashioned, I love it.
But between the waistband of my skirt and my top, a wide, pale ribbon of skin gleams.
So shameful! Mom’s voice rings. You want boys to think you’re a bad girl?
My reflection winces. The Dress Like a Nun rule is going down this summer, but maybe not with this outfit. Besides, what will Rick-the-Chaperone think, I wonder, before I remember I don’t care.
Reluctantly, I peel off the skirt and top and return it to the protesting vendor. It’s really more than I can afford anyways. But it gives me an idea. Maybe I can find a dance studio to join in Taipei. The thought gives me fresh hope.
I navigate out the shop’s racks of dresses and cross the alley to another shop, where Sophie is modeling before a mirror. She tugs down the hem of a gold lamé dress laced with delicate flowers. The silk clings to her full body and she lifts a bundle of gold chains over her head. They pour down the plunging V-neck into her cleavage. She’s the definition of sexy—and not afraid to flaunt it.
“Duōshaˇo qián?” Sophie asks the vendor. How much is it? “What?” she explodes, when he quotes her the price. “Tài guì!” Too expensive!
I watch, open-mouthed, as Sophie puts on a performance worthy of an Academy Award: she haggles, gesticulates, verges on changing her tearful mind, until she gets her dress to a third of the ask and the merchant smacks his hands with satisfaction.
“Wow,” I whisper as he wraps the dress in newspaper.
Sophie shushes me. “He got a great deal,” she whispers, then sprints off to a shop hung with Burberry coats.
I pull a black cocktail dress from its rack and lift it to my body. My reflection frowns. I look like a girl headed to a funeral. Even from 7,000 miles away, Mom’s turned me back into a little girl, while Sophie will look exactly like an eighteen-year-old breaking out for a night of dancing.
A horn honks from the street intersecting our alley. I step out of the shop to see a silver BMW with tinted windows, forcing its way through pedestrians to pull up beside the sidewalk. To my surprise, a familiar-looking guy in a black shirt swings a leg out the back door. Wavy black hair tumbles into his face. An opal earring glitters on his earlobe.
The boy making out with the pink girl—Xavier. Rick’s VIP roommate.
I duck out of sight and move to a gap between two vinyl flaps, through which I watch Xavier jerk to a stop halfway out of the car. Inside, a man with a face like Xavier’s grips his arm. Xavier’s dad? Does he live here?
They exchange an impressive torrent of Mandarin in loud, angry voices that cause a few tourists to scurry by. I recognize one word from his dad, only because my cousins used it on each other when we were little: báichī. Idiot. Xavier flashes his middle finger, hops out, and slams the door. The silver car squeals away. I draw farther back, shaken by the force of their anger.
Xavier’s body is all hard, furious lines as he stares after the car, arms at his sides, fists clenched. A reddish blotch shines on his cheek—a bruise? Did his dad hit him? Whatever his dad wants—better grades, not a toe out of line, prostrated nose-to-the-pavement filial piety—Xavier’s not just taking it like an Ever Wong.
He’s fighting back. Can it work? Is it even possible?
Dan floats to the center of my memory. My first real crush, who sat behind me in eleventh-grade chemistry. He was the only senior, and Will Matthews called him an idiot, too. He lent me a pencil, then I lent him one, and we started partnering in labs, helping each other decipher the teacher’s chicken-scratch on the blackboard. Dan was struggling with solubility calculations and asked for help.
“Sure.” I’d danced with excitement into the eye-wash station. “Want to come over?”
I’d been an innocent then.
When Dad opened the door to Dan—freckled, blue-eyed, towering half-a-head over him and asking for me—Dad’s jaw dropped. As we worked on the coffee table, he hovered waspishly close, flipping his newspaper, blowing his nose trumpet-loud.
Dan came two more Tuesdays. He wasn’t an idiot; he was acing world history. His brain just wasn’t wired for calculations. And maybe I’d smiled too much while he was over. Laughed too hard when he used my pen to play connect-the-dots with the freckles on his arm. Because when we slipped outside behind the backyard shed and he took hold of my waist, we were together for only five minutes before Mom was raging over us like a stung bull, swatting at us both. Have you no shame? Her cries, long after Dan had sprinted down our driveway, still echo in my ears.
I ran to find Dan in class the next day, desperate to explain. But when I arrived, he was emptying out his desk behind me. “Sorry, Ever,” he’d murmured. “I just can’t get in the middle of that.” Before I could speak, he slipped away to a seat at the back. Then bolted after class before I could catch him. As the days turned into weeks, I lost the courage to speak. He lent me a pencil when I asked, but never borrowed mine again, and if he hadn’t started dating Megan, I wouldn’t have known him well enough to congratulate him when he graduated.
I snap back to the present. On the roadside, Xavier’s shoulders have slumped. There’s something vulnerable, almost little-boy lonely about him, left in the dust of his dad’s fancy car. He jams his hands into his pockets and heads into the crowd, dodging a family sucking from fresh coconuts through straws. The crowd closes over him like stage curtains.
Before I can lose my courage, I return to the shop across the street and tap the vendor on the shoulder.
“I’ll take that skirt and corset after all,” I say.