Authors: David Yoon
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Copyright © 2019 by David Yoon.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: Yoon, David, author.
Title: Frankly in love / David Yoon.
Description: New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 
Summary: “High school senior Frank Li takes a risk to go after a girl his parents would never approve of, but his plans will leave him wondering if he ever really understood love—or himself—at all”—Provided by publisher.
Identifiers: LCCN 2018046718 | ISBN 9781984812209 (hardcover) | ISBN 9781984812216 (ebook)
Subjects: | CYAC: Friendship—Fiction. | Dating (Social customs)—Fiction. | Korean Americans—Fiction. | Racism—Fiction. | High schools—Fiction. | Schools—Fiction. | Family life—California—Fiction. | California—Fiction.
Classification: LCC PZ7.1.Y637 Fr 2019 | DDC [Fic]—dc23
LC record available at
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover art © 2019 by Owen Gildersleeve
For Nicki & Penny & Mom & Dad, all
before we begin
Well, I have two names.
That’s what I say when people ask me what my middle name is. I say:
Well, I have two names.
My first name is Frank Li. Mom-n-Dad gave me that name mostly with the character count in mind.
No, really: F+R+A+N+K+L+I contains seven characters, and seven is a lucky number in America.
is my American name, meaning it’s my name-name.
My second name is Sung-Min Li, and it’s my Korean name, and it follows similar numerological cosmology:
S+U+N+G+M+I+N+L+I contains nine characters, and nine is a lucky number in Korea. Nobody calls me Sung-Min, not even Mom-n-Dad. They just call me Frank.
So I don’t have a middle name. Instead, I have two names.
Anyway: I guess having both lucky numbers seven and nine is supposed to make me some kind of bridge between cultures or some shit.
America, this is Korea, Korea, this is America.
Everyone good? Can I go do my thing now?
of the senior year
of the high school period
of early human
Senior year is begun.
sounds cooler than the more normal
, because if you say it right, you sound like a lone surviving knight delivering dire news to a weary king on the brink of defeat, his limp hand raking his face with dread.
The final breach is begun, your grace. The downfall of House Li is begun.
I’m the king in that scenario, by the way, raking my face with dread.
For senior year is begun.
Sometimes I look way back to six months ago, during the halcyon days of junior year. How we pranced in the meadows after taking the PSAT: a practice run of the SAT, which in Playa Mesa, in California, in the United States of America, is widely used to gauge whether an early human is fit for entrance into an institution of higher learning.
But the PSAT?
A mere trial,
we juniors sang.
What counts not for shit, your grace!
How we lazed in the sunlight, sharing jokes about that one reading comprehension passage about the experiment testing whether dogs found it easier to tip a bin (easier) for food or pull a rope (trickier). Based on the passage and results in Figure 4, were the dogs
A) more likely to solve the rope task than the bin task?
B) more frustrated by the rope task than the bin task?
C) more likely to resent their human caregivers for being presented with such absurd tasks to begin with, I mean, just give us the food in a damn dog bowl like normal people?
D) more likely to rake a paw over their face with dread?
The answer was D.
For come Score Day, I discovered I got a total of 1400 points out of a possible 1520, the 96th percentile. This earned me plenty of robust, spontaneous high fives from my friends, but to me they sounded like palms—
ptt ptt ptt
—slapping the sealed door of a crypt.
The target was 1500.
When I told Mom-n-Dad, they stared at me with pity and disbelief, like I was a little dead sparrow in the park. And Mom actually said this, for real:
Don’t worry, we still love you.
Mom has said the words
I love you
exactly two times in my life. Once for the 1400, and another time when she called after her mother’s funeral in Korea when I was ten. Hanna and I didn’t go. Dad was at The Store; he didn’t go either.
In retrospect, it’s weird we didn’t all go.
Secretly, in retrospect: I’m glad I didn’t go. I met my grandma only once, when I was six. She spoke no English, me no Korean.
So in retro-retrospect, maybe it’s not so weird that we didn’t all go.
Dad has said the words
I love you
exactly zero times in my life.
Let’s go back to that PSAT score.
As a leading indicator, a bellwether, augury, harbinger, and many other words from the now-useless PSAT vocabulary study guide, a score of 1500 would mean I would probably kick the real SAT’s ass high enough to gain the attention of The Harvard, which is the Number One Top School in Whole of United States, according to Mom-n-Dad.
A 1400 means I’ll probably only ess-ay-tee just high enough to get into the University of California at Berkeley, which in Mom-n-Dad’s mind is a sad consolation prize compared with The Harvard. And sometimes, just for a nanosecond, their brainlock actually has me thinking:
My big sister, Hanna, coined the term
, which is like a headlock but for your mind. Hanna lives in Boston near the other Berkeley, the Berklee College of Music.
Berklee is my real dream school. But Mom-n-Dad have
already nixed that notion.
Music? How you making money? How you eating?
Hanna’s two names are Hanna Li (character count: seven) and Ji-Young Li (nine). Dad named Hanna Li after Honali, from a popular 1960s marijuana anthem disguised as a children’s song, “Puff (The Magic Dragon).” The song had found its way into high-school English classes in Seoul in the 1970s. Dad has never smoked pot in his life. He had no idea what he was singing.
Hanna is the oldest; Hanna did everything right. Mom-n-Dad told her to study hard, so she got straight As. They told her to go to The Harvard, so she did, and graduated with honors. She moved on to Harvard Law School, and graduated with a leap big enough to catapult her above assistants her same age at Eastern Edge Consulting downtown, which specializes in negotiating ridiculous patents for billion-dollar tech companies. She’s even dabbling in venture capital now from her home office high atop Beacon Hill. Weekdays, she wears very expensive pantsuits; weekends, sensible (but still very expensive) dresses. Someone should put her on the cover of a business travel magazine or something.
But then Hanna did the one wrong thing. She fell in love.
Falling in love isn’t bad by itself. But when it’s with a black boy, it’s big enough to cancel out everything she did right her whole life. This boy gave Hanna a ring, which Mom-n-Dad have not seen and might never.
In another family perhaps on another planet, this brown boy would be brought home for summer vacation to meet the
family, and we would all try out his name in the open air:
But we’re on this planet, and Mom-n-Dad are Mom-n-Dad, so there will be no Hanna this summer. I miss her. But I understand why she won’t come home. Even though it does mean I’ll be left high and dry without someone to make fun of the world with.
The last time she came home was a Thanksgiving holiday two years ago. She was at a Gathering. It was the Changs’ turn to host. I’m not sure why she did what she did that night.
So I have this boy now,
And he is The One.
And she held out her phone with a photo of Miles to Mom-n-Dad and everyone. It was like she cast a Silence spell on the room. No one said shit.
After a long minute, the phone turned itself off.
Mom-n-Dad went to the front door, put on their shoes, and waited with eyes averted for us to join them. We left without a word of explanation—none was needed—and the next morning Hanna vanished onto a flight back to Boston, four days early. A year later, after six or seven Hanna-free Gatherings, Ella Chang dared utter the word
And life went on. Mom-n-Dad no longer talked about Hanna. They acted like she moved to a foreign country with no modern forms of communication. Whenever I brought her up, they would literally—literally—avert their eyes and fall silent until I gave up. After a while, I did.
So did Hanna. Her text message responses fell from every day to every other day, then every week, and so on. This is
how disownment happens. It’s not like some final sentence declared during some family tribunal. Disownment is a gradual kind of neglect. Since Mom-n-Dad gave up on Hanna, Hanna decided to give up as well. I get that.
But I never gave up on her. I still haven’t.
It’s a scary thing to watch someone you love vanish from sight.
I talk a lot about Hanna with Q. Q is what I call my top chap, and I am his.
I’m forever grateful for Q’s patience with me, because I can’t imagine it makes Q feel all that good to hear how Mom-n-Dad rejected a boy with the same skin color as his.
Q’s full name is Q Lee. He Lee and me Li. Like two brothers from Korean and African-American mothers. His parents, Mr. and Ms. Lee, are normal people who seem forever astonished that they gave birth to such a meganerd of a son. Q has a twin sister named Evon who is so smoking hot I can barely look at her. You say Evon Lee like
doesn’t stand for anything; it’s just Q. Q decided to rename himself a couple months ago on his eighteenth birthday. He was originally born as Will. Will Lee.
Show us your willy, Will Lee,
they would say.
Good choice on the name change, Q.
Like most nerds, Q and I spend our time watching obscure movies, playing video games, deconstructing the various absurdities of reality, and so on. We hardly ever talk about girls, for lack of material. Neither of us has dated anyone. The farthest I have ventured out into girl waters is when I accidentally kissed Gina Iforget during a game of
spin-the-ballpoint-pen in junior high. It was supposed to be on the cheek, and both Gina and I missed and touched each other’s lips instead. Ooo-ooo-ooo.
The only time and place we even obliquely approach the subject of girl is when we happen to find ourselves sitting on the shore of Lake Girlfriend.
Lake Girlfriend is at Westchester Mall. Westchester Mall is the biggest mall in Orange County. For some reason, they leave all their doors open well past midnight, long after the stores have all shut. The mall becomes a beautifully empty, serenely apocalyptic space that no one in all of Southern California seems to know about.
Only two security guards patrol all seventy gleaming acres of the deserted mall. Their names are Camille and Oscar. They know me and Q and understand that no, we are not dating; we are just two guys with strange ideas of how to pass the time.
Lake Girlfriend is a fountain in Westchester Mall’s Crystal Atrium by the Nordstrom anchor store. It is a low polished structure formed from simple modernist angles. It bears a fancy brass plaque that says
DO NOT DRINK—RE
. Above, nameless jazz infuses the cavernous faceted space with echoey arpeggios.
I call it Lake Girlfriend because maybe if I give it enough confessions and offerings, a girl will rise from its shimmering surface and offer me her hand.
Q and I sit tailor-style on a stone ledge the color of chocolate by this fountain. We watch the water bubble up from an octagonal top pool, push through a stone comb, and descend
staggered steps to a pool floor sequined throughout with glimmering coins.
I reach into my army-surplus rucksack and take out my Tascam, a sweet little device no bigger than a TV remote, and record the sound: low, rich syrup layered with pink noise and the occasional pwip of large bubbles. Practically a complete riff unto itself. I click the recorder off and stash it away so that Q and I can begin.
“Ideal traits in a woman,” I say. “You go first.”
Q rests his chin atop his fists. “Speaks at least two other languages.”
“And?” I say.
“Can play the oboe at a professional level,” says Q.
“Q,” I say.
“Ivy League professor by day, ballet renegade by night.”
“I’m assuming this list isn’t based in reality,” I say.
“A guy can dream, right?” says Q.
It’s a little hard to hear him over the white noise of Lake Girlfriend, and I think that’s the thing about this place that makes it easy to talk about things like ideal girls. It’s like talking out loud to ourselves, but in front of each other.
“Your turn,” says Q.
I think. A hundred faces scroll through my mind, all pretty in their own way. A thousand combinations of possibilities. Everyone has loveliness inside if you look carefully. Lots of the world is like this. One time I halved an onion and discovered its rings had squashed one by one to form a perfect heart shape at the core. One time—
“Frank?” says Q. “You gotta move your mouth to speak.”
“Wull,” I say. “I mean.”
Q looks at me, waiting.
“Basically I guess she has to be kind, is most important.”
Q raises his eyebrows. “So no meanies. Got it.”
“And she should make me laugh,” I say.
“Any other vital criteria?” says Q.
I think. Anything else—hobbies, musical tastes, fashion sense—doesn’t seem to matter that much. So I just shake my head no.
Q gives the fountain a shrug. “That’s super romantic, like in the most basic sense.”
“Basically,” I say.
We both stare at the fountain for a moment. Then I mark the end of our visit to Lake Girlfriend with the ritual digging into my front jeans pocket for sacred coins, one for me, one for Q. Q tosses his in with a fart sound. I give mine a squeeze and flip it into the water, ploop. The coins are added to the submerged pile of random wishes: good grades, job promotions, lottery dreams, and, above all, love.
No one comes rising out of the shimmering water.
Q doesn’t know it, but I’ve secretly left out one criterion for my ideal woman. It’s one I’d rather not say aloud, even though it’s the one I worry about the most.
My ideal woman should probably be Korean-American.
It’s not strictly necessary. I could care less. But it would make things easier.
I’ve toed the dating waters only twice before, and each time something has held me back from diving in. A paralysis. I think it comes from not knowing which would be worse:
dating a girl my parents hated or dating a girl my parents loved. Being ostracized or being micromanaged.
Then I consider how Korean-Americans make up only 1 percent of everyone in the Republic of California, out of which 12 percent are girls my age, which would result in a dating pool with only one girl every three square miles. Filter out the ones who are taken, the ones I wouldn’t get along with, and—worse—add in the Ideal Woman criteria, and the pool gets even smaller. Lake Girlfriend shrinks down to a thimble.
So I shelve the notion of an ideal girl for now. I realize I’ve been shelving the idea for years.
“A guy can dream,” says Q.
“A guy can dream,” I say.