Prose Spring 2021


by Isabella Ampil

The show at the Bransten opened at six, which meant Soojin should arrive at fifteen minutes to seven. That morning, her boss, Matthew, had explained, with uncharacteristic seriousness, that arriving earlier would imply she had nothing better to do on a Friday night. Later would suggest she didn’t know who Em Oldev was or why she mattered.

“Don’t walk. Don’t take the bus. Don’t even bother with the public transit section of Google Maps. I’ll be there at seven-fifteen, and I’ll introduce you. But don’t try to talk to Em before that. She hates when desperate strangers walk right up.”

Soojin had lived in San Francisco for seven months and spent almost every weekend biking two miles to this or that gallery in the Dogpatch; she knew the route by heart. Matthew knew all of this, or at least he should have by now, but he seemed so riled up that Soojin sensed it was the wrong time to remind him.

“Got it.”

Matthew seemed to expect more.

“Call an Uber at 6:30, get there at 6:45. See you at 7:15, don’t talk to Em before then.”

He broke into a smile. “See, Sue? That’s why you’re my favorite. That’s why you get the invite and the introduction. Imagine Oscar trying to remember just one of those timestamps. Goddamn nightmare.”

“Oscar knows time is nothing but a social construct.”

Matthew laughed. “Witty as ever. All right, I gotta go. You’re divine!” He was already walking as he said goodbye, calling over his shoulder without a wave.

Soojin held two different earrings to her neck and swished her head to see which sparkled more in the light. It was hard to tell through the cloudy veneer of the mirror, which she’d bought for cheap at an Austin flea market and hauled lovingly, maternally, down wet-tar roads in the salty sweat of August, up and down three different staircases, 1,750 miles northwest to the Mission District in San Francisco, and upstairs again into this white box of a room in the hopes that it would create the illusion of a space doubled in size. It was the sort of fixation Soojin’s mother would have condemned as stupid, American, materialistic, obsessive, and maybe it was. But the glass had been cut and warped at an angle that made Soojin look tall and willowy; it put her princess neck on full display.

Soojin decided on the watery pink crystal dusters and sipped her Chardonnay. Forty-five minutes until her scheduled Uber. Plenty of time to choose a dress and practice gliding in her new heels. She plucked a black gown from the floor and clasped it to her shoulders, swaying and humming a Korean folk song from her mother’s records — what was it called? Soojin imagined her mother singing along in her cardboard voice, warbling the long syllables, and losing her breath.

“Ahh-ahh-ahhh,” sang Soojin. She squeezed one eye shut and examined the world this way, half-submerged in memory. She made the shapes with her mouth, filling her cheeks with air and rounding her lips, but she couldn’t catch the words or their meanings. Damn it. Soojin slipped a white dress over her shoulders and drained her glass.

Her Uber driver, Mal, eyed her in the rearview mirror. “Soojin?” he asked, leaning too hard on the soo. Soojin considered correcting him. Didn’t seem worth it for an eight-minute drive.

“That’s me,” she said, and she closed the door on the hem of her dress, which tore in a small, private scraping sound as she slid into the middle seat. “Oh, fuck me,” she snapped. Her driver smirked from the right side of his mouth.

“You okay back there?”

Soojin checked her phone. Not enough time to change without making a fuss, without making Mal wait, without crossing the seven o’clock line into irrelevance. “I’m fine,” she said, more abruptly than she’d meant to, and she tore the offending strip of silk from her gown like a hangnail.

Mal nodded and hit the gas. Soojin lurched forward, not yet buckled in, and her face smashed against Mal’s shoulder. He snorted. “Buy me dinner first,” he deadpanned, and Soojin flushed deep and retreated.

This incident seemed to cheer Mal significantly. “You’re looking much too pretty for me,” he said when he’d begun to drive again. “But where are you going all dressed up and alone?”

Soojin clamped her upper lip between her teeth and didn’t reply.

“You go to a lot of parties?”

“Not really.”

“I don’t believe it for a second. A girl who looks like you? In this town, I’m sure all the boys are after you.”

Soojin willed herself to ask him what he meant, but she already knew, and he was careening down too steep a hill for her to escape. There was no good way to reply. Like catcalling. An airless compliment to a captive audience demands an answer: either thank you or fuck you. Either reinforces the catcaller’s sick amusement.

“You have a boyfriend or what?”

Three minutes left on the ride.

“I said, do you have a boyfriend?”

Soojin could see the stars through Mal’s sunroof, though not well enough to decipher any constellations. She only knew Orion and the dippers, anyway.

Mal was driving ever faster. “Hey, Soo-chen. I’m asking you a question.”

“You know what? Here’s fine,” said Soojin. Mal ground to a stop, the brakes shuddering, and Soojin felt the knife-edge of the seatbelt at her throat. She detangled herself and lunged for the door handle. Only after she’d flung open the door did she feel relief crack like a cold egg over her head: it wasn’t locked.

While slamming the door, she heard herself make the words out of habit: “Thanks for the ride.”

She must have imagined his reply. The door was shut to his muttering, and the clanging of a restaurant’s first dinner seating crowded the air; there was no way she could have heard him say, “Thanks for nothing, chink bitch.” It was only the pulse of fear in her ears.

In person, Em was shorter and more glamorous than Soojin had imagined. In the gallery light, the pudge in her cheeks spoke only of wealth, a lifetime of eating well in a privileged city. Her flat glass slippers laughed off her childlike height — no point trying to hide it — and her elaborately draped sheer dress flirted with nakedness without succumbing to it. Surrounded by painted nudes, pink-brown and three times her size, Em stood out in her whiteness, her clothed-ness. She was deflecting attention as much as absorbing it, the angel in a field of faceless sluts.

Soojin felt clumsy in her torn dress and tottering heels. She considered taking her heels off entirely and walking barefoot, but she didn’t want that kind of attention — quirky, iridescent. She wanted to project her seriousness, which was growing more difficult as she noticed slicks of WD-40 in the creases of her skirt.

“Do you think she’s going to give a talk?” said someone behind Soojin. She turned. The voice belonged to a tall blonde in a garish suit of orange florals.

Soojin was still registering her surprise at being asked when another tall blonde cut in. “She never does. She’s too famous for that shit.”

The blondes noticed Soojin then, as she stood open-mouthed before them.

“Yes?” said the first.

“I thought you were asking me,” said Soojin. “But you weren’t.”

“Who are you?” asked the second.

“I’m an artist.”

“Oh, where are you showing?”

“Nowhere yet,” said Soojin, and the conversation was over.

Five minutes to Matthew’s arrival, Soojin spotted Em talking to a woman with sharp bangs and her outfit’s opposite: creamy matte black from chin to toe, only the lower half of her face baring skin. Soojin felt a ring of recognition followed by a thud of disappointment; Em was talking to the only other Asian woman in the room. Soojin studied their body language. Was the woman in black an emerging artist too? In that case, she got to Em first and made her impression and took the minority slot in Em’s networking brain. In that case, Matthew’s advice wasn’t worth shit, and in that case, what was Soojin doing here, if only to be forgotten as the second, the lesser, the worse-dressed? The Asian woman seemed to have achieved her goal already – the two were speaking from seven inches apart, heads bent together in intimacy. So much for Em being unfriendly to strangers.

Soojin was staring now, but she didn’t care. She wondered what the other Asian artist’s work looked like. She wondered what her body looked like under her impenetrable clothing — flabby or taut, blank or tattooed, bony or muscular. Soojin resented the fact that she couldn’t tell. What was this woman hiding? It was August, and she was wearing a turtleneck and a coat with such long sleeves that not even her fingertips were visible. Maybe she had psoriasis, Soojin thought. This made her feel a little better. The Asian woman was showing Em something on her phone. Her work, no doubt. Em’s face lit up, and she nodded vigorously. Soojin’s stomach crumpled like an aluminum can. By the time Matthew strolled up, Soojin had mired herself in the certainty that she had lost.

“Cool dress,” he said, nodding approvingly. “Very industrial-chic.”

“Oh, God, don’t make fun. This night has been such an ordeal.”

Matthew laughed and clapped Soojin on the shoulders. “Well, lucky for you, I’m here now. And your night is looking up. Are you ready to go meet Em? You look stressed. That won’t do. I’ll get you a drink. Stay here.”

Soojin nodded and thought about how her mother would like Matthew, with his clipped, businesslike sentences and thick, straight hair.

The Asian artist talking to Em was dark-skinned and ruddy-cheeked. She wore no makeup, and her sparse eyebrows disappeared into her forehead. Her hair was wavy and reflected no light — unwashed? thought Soojin, or just unconditioned? It was becoming a trend among a certain sector of the SF art crowd. When Soojin told her mother about it, she received three bottles of Daeng Gi Meo Ri KI Gold Premium shampoo in the mail the next week. Soojin rolled her eyes when she opened the package, but the treatment actually helped. Her hair that night was thicker than ever and polished like bronze.

In a far corner of the room, people were tapping slender spoons against champagne glasses, and the echoes were gathering; Soojin’s ears rang. Neither Em nor her new friend noticed. They stayed bowed toward each other, and Soojin couldn’t look away.

The Asian artist looked like the Black-Korean roommate Soojin had in college, the one who called Seoul racist when Soojin was gushing about how much she wanted to go. The one who threw all her luminizing skincare products in the dumpster behind the dorms and told her they had bleach that would give her cancer. The one Soojin’s mother said must hate herself and her mother if she thought Korea was so bad. The one Soojin’s mother called ungrateful.

Now the Asian artist laughed, and the flat pane of her cheek caught the white light. Without thinking Soojin squinted, trying to name the woman’s shade: 302 Medium, she thought. Or maybe 303, which looked darker in the glass jar but dried to a dull, ashy hue. At sixteen, Soojin had spent eight months working behind the cosmetics counter at H-Mart; in the years since, she’d retained the ability to look at someone’s face for sixty seconds and rattle off a list of all the products they should use. She was testing herself on the Asian artist: White Lucent Brightening Gel for the ruddy cheeks; castor oil for the wispy eyebrows; a mucin sheet mask for the flaky mid-forehead. The game was harder from afar.

Matthew returned with two martinis. “Three sips of this,” he said, “and you’ll be ready.” He took Soojin’s arm, guiding her toward the back corner where Em and her new protégé were whispering.

“Em,” said Matthew. “Marlo. This is my lovely, darling, brilliant new staffer at the Gagosian, Soojin.”

“Hi.” Em smiled, and it had so much of her eyes in it — shining and earnest. Soojin couldn’t tell if it was real or fake. Who smiled like that at a stranger?

“I’m so happy to meet you.” The words dribbled out, as though Soojin was forgetting what to say as she said it.

“Are you enjoying the show?”

“Immensely.” Soojin paused. The other three seemed to be expecting more. Out came the rush: “The portrait of the nude examining herself in the mirror— first of all, the fact that they’re all headless is so fascinating— but that one in particular, I’m dying to see the woman’s face— I feel like she’s laboring to exert her sexuality, to see herself as desirable— she thinks she’s ugly, she thinks having her body painted is proof of its beauty—”

The Asian artist laughed, and Soojin stopped midway through a sharp intake of breath, realizing she’d talked too long already. Matthew pinched her upper arm, which meant, Keep it together. “Sorry,” said the stranger, and Soojin was startled by her flawless California voice: wide vowels, sticky y like she’d said it through a squelch of chewing gum.

“It’s just funny—” Soojin had expected, once again, for the other woman to have an accent. Not even a specific accent, just a vague marker of foreign-ness; she felt guilty about it and looked at her toes. “It’s funny you say that, because that nude is me.”

“Oh,” Soojin said. Matthew’s hand left her arm entirely, which meant, I give up on you. “Oh, I’m sorry— that was so rude— I didn’t mean to say you’re ugly—”

“Didn’t you?” the stranger asked. Soojin considered. Did she find this woman ugly? Marlo, Matthew called her. Soojin looked from Marlo’s face to her skin rendered on canvas, freckled and crepey. She felt the dizzy, sincere force of Em’s gaze on her.

“I don’t—”

Em’s face, Marlo’s face, Em’s body, Marlo’s body: they rippled in Soojin’s vision, as though they were standing at the surface of a twenty-foot-deep swimming pool, watching her sink beneath the water.

“I don’t want to be them, but—”

Soojin was overwhelmed by Marlo’s omnipresent body, massive and multiplied, every hair rendered in oily detail. Her wish to see the woman exposed and vulnerable had taken on a life of its own and grown monstrous, inverting the world so they were all standing in a room wallpapered with Marlo’s skin, which was ordinary after all, speckled with moles and faded scars and scattered cloudlike birthmarks and pimples and blurry tattoos, sagging at the breasts and arms and belly, wrinkled at the knees as though sucked dry after a long bath. Soojin looked at the space between two paintings because she couldn’t look at the woman who she had spent the whole night resenting for stealing her shot at fame, only to find herself the thief, the voyeur, the invader.

“They’re beautiful,” said Soojin, and her words were mist escaping a body that was fainting away. “You’re beautiful.”

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