The first catchy bars of CNTR’s newest hit, “Summer, Summer” blasted through the little café. It’d only been out a couple days, but it was already the Next Big Thing and I’d heard it upwards of 50 times. I had my hands full juggling multiple orders of double skim lattes, but my body moved smoothly from one step to the next.
Okay, maybe the song was a little catchy.
“Hey, you’re a good dancer,” my coworker Laura said. “Can you become their back up dancer so you can go on tour with them?”
She sighed dreamily, blowing a kiss to the lead singer who was giant on the overhanging TV of the café. His name was Shin, if I remembered correctly. I should’ve known, they were sometimes all my best friend Eunji talked about. I did remember that CNTR stood for Center… or Circle or something.
“And give all this up?” I asked.
“Just think about it, Hana!” Laura grinned. “It must be so amazing to be a K-pop star. Traveling the world with your best buds, dancing for millions of adoring fans….Legend has it, CNTR’s so amazing that girls faint at every single one of their concerts!”
I scoffed, “It’s not all fun and games, y’know. Look at the way they move, how synchronized and clean they are—that’s from hours and hours of practice and hard work that goes on behind the scenes.”
“Still, it’s gotta be better than this,” Almost as if on cue, a baby started wailing in line. We made faces at each other.
“I’m not going to be a barista forever, remember? After I graduate, I'm going to get licensed as a psychologist. It’s all in the five-year plan. But—”
“But you have to admit he is hot right?” Laura asked, pointing to the guy rapping on screen.
“Which one is he?”
Laura glared at me. “Jiho!”
I grinned mischievously, “Okay, Jiho is pretty hot.”
“I knew it!” Laura squealed, knocking over a coffee cup in her excitement and I burst into a fit of giggles.
A couple stood fuming behind the counter, both dressed to the nines in brand name clothes. The man snapped his jewel-encrusted fingers at Laura.
“Can you turn this garbage noise off? We were having such a nice morning, and this racket is really ruining it for us.”
I stepped in front of Laura, a plastic smile on my face. “I’m sorry, sir, but this is a popular song right now. And, we’re not playing it very loud. The song will change soon anyway.”
The woman spoke up in a nasal whine, “Well, I don’t like it!”
The owner appeared from his back office, wiping his gleaming, bald head with a handkerchief. In private, we always referred to him as “Bitchin’ Christian.” “So sorry, we’ll turn it off right away.”
“Make sure you do,” the man huffed before grabbing their two double-shot, soy pumpkin spice flat tops and marching away. Christian’s bright smile fell off his face as soon as the two were out of sight.
“How many times do I have to tell you this, Hana? The customer is always right,” he said. “This is the last time I want to catch you arguing with someone, is that clear?”
I nodded mutely, not trusting myself to speak. Christian walked away to the office where he spent the majority of his days, shiny bald head bent over stacks of cash like a fleshy baby dragon.
“Why is he always in such a bad mood? Would it kill him to be nice to me for a change?” I slammed a couple of dirty cups into the sink.
Laura rubbed my back, soothingly, “Don’t worry about it. I always get weird vibes from him, too.”
The worst part of it was, I had to put up with it. This coffee place was so high-end, it paid more than my old café in the city did. Plus, even with all the financial aid NYU was giving me, it was seriously eating up my savings…and New York wasn’t exactly cheap, either. Maybe I needed to take a semester off to save money—I’d looked into it before. I’d just have to turn in the paperwork to make it happen.
Just the thought of working for Christian an extra six months was enough to make me tear up. I abruptly got up and bustled to the coffee machine, busying myself with another espresso order. Busy hands, no bad thoughts, my mother always used to say.
Then, the doorbell jingled and two tall men wearing hats and sunglasses walked in.
Ordinarily, I wasn’t a coffee guy. I was a Korean who preferred boricha, or barley tea. Even the smell of coffee could make me nauseous. I glanced at Doyoon in his sunglasses next to me. He had insisted on going to this posh café that supposedly had the best Americanos in all of New York, and, being the good hyung that I was, I’d let him have his way.
We squeezed into a table at the front of the shop by the window. A bit risky, but this was New York City, I supposed.
“When are you going to tell me why you’re acting so strange?” I asked.
Doyoon pulled his sunglasses part of the way down. “How do you know that?”
I gave him a look. “We trained together, have been on tour for three years and I’m not supposed to know when my best friend is acting weird?” I asked. “Out with it.”
He took his sunglasses off and blew his silky black locks away from his eyes. “Look, I know how important the VMA’s are to us—” He cut himself off, then looked at me. “But I’m not sure I can do it.”
“You’re not going to perform?” I blurted.
“That’s not what I’m saying! I never said that I wouldn’t perform,” he said. “Maybe if you stopped interrupting me and listened for once, you’d figure that out.”
“It doesn’t matter what you want anyway. We’re all under contract to perform when the company wants us to, whether we like it or not.”
Doyoon poked his tongue out at me as he put his sunglasses back on. “You just don’t want any trouble because you’re the leader and it would look like you can’t control your team.”
He wasn’t completely wrong, but I bristled at the accusation anyway. As the leader, I was responsible for keeping the group in line and Doyoon knew it. I hadn’t exactly wanted the role, but I’d done it to protect them—DJ Entertainment treated us nicely so long as CNTR was performing well, but most of them didn’t know about the entertainment company’s dark side. It was a side that I knew far too well.
“That’s not it. I’m your hyung, we’re brothers. I’m supposed to look out for you.” I looked away from Doyoon’s questioning gaze, squinting at some artsy, minimalist photo on the wall instead. “I—we all want you to be happy, that’s all.”
Doyoon muttered under his breath, “If you really cared about my happiness, you’d never have had us come to New York.”
“You’re Korean, right? What are they talking about?” Laura whispered excitedly in my ear.
I swatted at Laura, shaking my head. “Just because I’m Korean doesn’t mean I can speak it. It’s none of our business anyway. Let’s just go back to work.”
Despite what I’d said, I couldn’t help but eavesdrop a tiny bit. Even though both their faces were mostly covered by their giant sunglasses, it was easy to tell that both men were extraordinarily handsome. The taller one spoke in a low, velvet voice that was oddly familiar—I could listen to him talk for days.
It was hard to follow their conversation, but getting easier now that they were getting in line for something instead of loitering at a table. The two spoke in rapid-fire Korean, and the only time I spoke the language anymore was with my best friend Eunji or her family. Speaking Korean was a painful reminder of the life I used to have before the car crash that had killed my parents three years ago.
“Stop telling me what to do! You can’t just boss people around like this!” The shorter man jabbed his finger into the taller one’s chest, but he was quickly brushed off.
“That’s not what I’m doing! But I guess I can’t expect you to be anything but a naive little kid,” the taller one mocked. I almost expected the sunglasses to melt off the shorter guy’s face, and I cut in hurriedly before they could get into an all-out fistfight and wreck the store. No doubt Christian would find some way to blame me for it.
“Morning! What can I get you?” I asked quickly in English. Speak of the devil. The argument had lured Christian out from his office cave, and I could see his pasty egghead, lurking out of the corner of my eye, waiting for me to make a mistake. “Hello? Excuse me, can I take your order?”
The two men continued bickering, completely unaware of my existence. Meanwhile, the line of customers behind them grew longer and Christian drew ever closer.
Desperate, I blurted, “Look guys, if you don’t want to order, maybe you can take your argument outside? I’ve got other customers to serve.”
This time, the taller one of the two gave me a quick glare before diving right back into his rant. Anger rose up in me, quick as a snake, but I fought it down. I’d already gotten into one fight with a customer today; Christian might actually fire me if I yelled at somebody else.
I mustered up my best 100-watt smile before trying again. “Would you like some recommendations today? Cappuccino is our specialty.”
The tall one finally turned to me, his flawless English dripping with disdain. “Didn’t your parents ever teach you not to interrupt?”
He rolled his eyes at the guy with him and muttered in Korean, “God, she’s so annoying. She should mind her own damn business.”
That was the last straw. The anger I’d been bottling up inside all day broke through and I spat back in Korean, “You guys are the annoying ones! I’m telling you to move because you’re holding up the whole line! What makes you so special, huh?”
Although he’d been momentarily stunned into silence, the man quickly recovered his trademark sneer, “At least I don’t work in a coffee shop.”
I saw red. Without even thinking about it, I grabbed the closest glass and threw its contents toward his stupid, arrogant face. The water formed a perfect, glistening arc in the air and the whole coffee shop seemed to hold their breath as it drenched his designer coat.
Rough hands grabbed me out of the way, and the last thing I saw before I stumbled backward was a sweaty, glistening, bald head.