by Joe Milan
At night, in a dance studio hidden in the bowels of the LPK Entertainment building in Gangnam, Seoul, with mirrors fogged and the speakers wailing like dying hyenas, the computer crashed. All four members of 2Qtoo collapsed to the floor. Violet (the “sexy” one), Jazmin (the “baby” one), and Mimi (the “dangerous” one) all cursed under their breaths. They held their sides and looked at each other as if to say the bastards are trying to kill us. Remembering that they were looking at their competition, they returned to their brave faces: masks that smothered daydreams of pulling hair and tossing each other down flights of stairs.
The fourth member, Tiffany, the sweet one, the cute one, the oldest one at twenty-five, looked at no one. She lay on the linoleum floor holding her stomach. Just below the skin something was whipping her. Stabbing her. Pushing a moan up her throat.
“Like fucking Shanghai all over again!” Mr. Lee, the manager, railed at the assistant by the laptop.
Gut-twisting squeals continued and grew from the speakers. The feedback sliced through everyone’s hands, through their ears and showered into their skulls. All of it so loud no one heard the insults spilling from the manager’s lips. Finally, the assistant pulled the plugs and quiet took over the room.
Mr. Lee slammed his fist on the desk. “Well?” he bellowed.
The assistant stared down at the desk. He hadn’t heard exactly what the manager said but understood, whatever it was, that the correct response was to look down at the desk.
As the ringing left their ears they all heard the moan. They looked. They saw Tiffany on the floor holding her stomach. It wasn’t the normal moan of fatigue. It wasn’t cute, for one thing, and a stray tear dripped from her eye to the floor. Then, as if the other girls were about to pounce on her with their manicured claws outstretched, Tiffany bolted from the floor and out the door to the bathroom.
“What the hell is wrong with her?” Mr. Lee asked.
The three other members of 2Qtoo shrugged and focused on their silent hope of a recently mopped bathroom floor. They listened for a catastrophic slip and a head-splitting fall.
It didn’t come.
Falling and breaking her arm during the first rehearsal with Jelly hadn’t done it. Her lips didn’t quiver when company managers told her to go back to the training pool. The bout with H1N1 that sidelined her from joining SuperNoBa! hadn’t even brought a sniffle. With 2Qtoo she had tumbled off the stage during sound check in Shanghai–which Tiffany suspected Mimi had something to do with–and had the little hairs on her left arm singed by the pyrotechnic mishap in Bangkok–maybe Jazmin? She didn’t moan, didn’t whine. Even the break up with Sungyup didn’t bring a tear. But this, the jaws of whatever was inside her now, gnawing on the soft spaces of her stomach, forcing her to seek refuge on the toilet, was the first she could remember actually bringing tears to her eyes. A torn muscle? Appendicitis? Indigestion?
Whatever it was, it bit hard. Harder than her tormenters from childhood: Your face is like monkey butt. Your voice sounds eight-bit. A three-legged dog dances better. That was until the dream, fueled by her parents’ unrelenting fervor and sacrifice, kept her in academies dancing and singing until her feet bled and every breath sandpapered her throat; strapped her to plastic surgeons’ tables and molded her face into something cute, something marketable; until the dream had gotten her accepted into the LPK Entertainment talent pool. Tiffany knew pain. But this was unreal.
A couple of days earlier, during a press conference announcing 2QToo’s second and final world tour, “Lollipop to the World,” she had winced and bitten her lip, and it subsided as quickly as it had appeared. Each hour it shadowed her more and refused to be tamed by Pepto or Multigrain Super-Lax. She hoped it would pass like preshow heartburn, but of course it didn’t. Nothing came so easily under the tight gaze of the company. A misstep in rehearsal, an unsteady hand during an interview, an angry red bump on the sculpted nose, any little thing could cause the company to lose faith. And the company’s faith was everything now. After the final tour finished LPK would choose one, and only one, girl to become their next superstar. The others would fade into nostalgia, only to work birthday parties and karaoke bars on Wednesday nights.
But now, on the toilet, the dream of fan clubs squealing her name, not 2QToo’s, felt so far away, so distant. And this thing in her could kill it.
Once, when she first joined the talent pool, as a teen, doubled over on the dance floor, she had looked up for sympathy from the dance instructor who bent down and asked in her most motherly voice, “What is pain?”
“Yes. And what is weakness doing?”
“Leaving the body?”
“Exactly. Now get up, and stretch.”
“But it hurts, like so bad.”
After fifteen futile minutes on the toilet, as she imagined the fan forums discussing her own death, there came a bang on the bathroom door. The assistant’s shaky voice echoed in: “Um, the speakers are fixed, we’re waiting for you.”
Her stomach twitched as if relishing the thought of pelting her some more. She breathed deep. “Leaving the body,” she hissed.
“I’ll be out in a minute.” But as the footsteps shuffled out, a little voice in the back of her mind whispered, Leaving the body, my ass.
In her room of needles and glass-cup vacuum bleeders, Doctor Pak eyed Tiffany over her glasses. “So, how long has it been since your last bowel movement?”
“Like, about a week?” Tiffany said.
“A week, or about a week?”
Tiffany counted the practices, the photo shoots, the interview on the comedy show set in a fake sauna. “Maybe ten days?”
Tiffany looked around the room for cameras but there were none. She had worn a sweatshirt, sunglasses, no make-up, and had taken three different taxis to shake any possible tail the company would have put on her. She avoided the eyes of the nurse at the desk and the elderly women who gossiped in the lobby. She had made the mistake of running to the company doctor before; now she had come to this old doctor on the edge of Seoul precisely because this one wouldn’t know anything about pop, wouldn’t recognize her, wouldn’t tell anyone about her problem.
Stress? she thought. That talentless group who always sings and dances like drum majors having seizures? “No, no, no, I’m not in a pop group.”
The old woman sighed. “Do you have a lot of stress?”
“Well, um, it’s like, I don’t know. You know, I guess anyone that’s anything has stress.”
“Do you drink or smoke or eat western food regularly?”
“Um, well, no?”
“Look, this is very serious…” Then the doctor looked at Tiffany as if she considered giving her the best advice money could buy, but instead she showed her a plastic model of an intestinal tract. She told her about the possible obstruction high up in her tract. She explained it could be serious and that they would try coercing it out with an enema.
Tiffany took off her sunglasses. “So, it’s just…”
The old woman sighed. “Yes, but this is serious.” A nurse entered the room with a long metallic hose.
The drugs were strong enough to dull sensation but not strong enough for her not to feel the tentacle snaking inside her, or not watch the screen as the camera traveled the tunnels of her bowels. She took out her cellphone and searched her name on the Internet, and avoided giving the younger nurse a good look at her face. There were few photos of her and they were all the same: her hair swept by a fan, her cherry lips sparkling and pouting in the light, her hands up as if her head was on a mantle. If only the photos weren’t cutouts from band posters. At least there were more hits of her cutouts than the others’.
If she could get through this and survive the attempts of sabotage on tour, it could really happen. With the exception of the forbidden boyfriend Sungyup–whom she had dumped as soon as she was told to–she had been stellar. No drunk driving charges like Violet. No rumors of drug use like Jazmine. No gambling debts like Mimi. Tiffany always washed her face with perfect pore-saving swirls and smiled, never straying from her role as the cute one. She had endured.
Sungyup had joked, “There can only be one!” and slashed the air with an imaginary sword. Of course he didn’t understand. He had never gone home from LPK dorms during the holidays after failing to get into a group. Never saw the disappointed faces as if carved from stone of a family who wished their daughter to be something greater than their modest lives as washed-up cruise ship entertainers with sequined dresses and suits and old keyboards gathering dust in the closets. He had never grown up. He hadn’t learned that “I love you” was just a catchphrase.
There was a cool feeling in her stomach.
If she could just get through this.
There were more x-rays. They jammed the tentacles in her and inflated her and made her roll around on the table. They told her not to fart. When they finished, and after she finished in the bathroom and told the doctors that nothing came out, the doctor and nurse talked in hushed medical tones. Tiffany struggled into her jeans.
“I think I feel better.” Tiffany shook her hips.
“That’s the drugs,” the doctor sighed. “We weren’t able to get it. The obstruction is pretty well set.”
“So what do we do now?”
“Wait. Hope it passes.” The nurse nodded with the doctor. “We will give it a couple of days.”
“Can’t we just do that thing again?”
“We’ll give you some laxatives. You’ll have to drink lots of water and try your best to relax. But if it doesn’t pass by itself in a couple of days we will need to surgically remove it.”
“Is this about money? I mean, I can give you more.”
“This is serious. It can become fatal, and trying to force it now might make it worse.”
“Give her the pamphlets,” the doctor said quickly to the nurse and motioned her out of the room. The nurse led Tiffany to the lobby, where a new crowd of elderly women waited, and pulled a pamphlet from a drawer.
The nurse eyed Tiffany. “You look familiar.”
“I… Is there someone who could fix this now? I mean…”
The nurse shook her head and handed her a pamphlet. It had a smiling cartoon intestine with a tiny hand giving a thumbs up. Keeping your insides happy: Colostomy bags and You!
After reading the final page in the pamphlet where the description of colostomy bags ended with ten tips for maintaining the O-ring, Tiffany wailed. She hid in her apartment and alternated bottles of laxative with bottles of water. She jumped rope in her living room through the pain and hobbled through the steps of the show until the feeling came. On the toilet she pushed. She scrunched her face until tears beaded on her eyelashes. Nothing happened.
She leaned back and tried to keep her focus. In the rehearsal space in her mind she saw the set-up of the stage for their hit single “All the Soul Needs Is a Lolly,” but when stage lights erupted she heard the swish of the bag hanging off her hip and the tidal wave of horror from the crowd. And she was back in the bathroom, on the toilet, coughing for air.
A few hours earlier she had been on the cusp of solo career. A superstar. Now, she scoured through her food diaries on her phone trying to see where she had gone wrong. Salad. Yogurt. Soup. Black Rice. And exactly two weeks earlier, there was a single blank entry. The night she had broken up with Sungyup. She had snuck a single fried chicken leg and beer to soothe her nerves.
She called her mother–she had to talk to someone, anyone–but her little brother, a brother she had only seen on holidays, said that Mother had gone to get a perm. She thought of calling Sungyup, but he was abroad, taking photos for one magazine or another. And even if he were there, would he talk? She could still see his mouth agape as she handed back the Pooh Bear he had given her on their first date, could still hear his stammering that rattled over the hum at Korean Fried Chicken. “Career?” he had echoed. “Career?”
After a couple hours of fruitless sitting, she left the bathroom and was almost out the door to go to evening rehearsal when the pain dropped her to her knees. Tears came again. By the time it relented enough for her to stand, something stirred inside as if it was falling through her.
In all the years she’d been with LPK, she had never been late. But as she held onto the handle of the door, shuddering, she knew that rehearsal would only leave her staggering and howling, or worse.
She retreated back to the toilet. And with a trembling hand she sent a text message to the Mr. Lee: Can’t come. Sick.
The next morning, she woke to the sound of a key twisting the lock tumblers of her front door. The shaky voice of the assistant called, “Tiffany?” Footsteps wandered the halls, stalked through the living room and into her bedroom. He knocked on the bathroom door. “Tiffany?” She could hear him fumbling with his sparkly tie.
“I’m busy,” she said.
“Where have you been?”
“Right here. Only here.”
“Um, Boss sent me to get you.”
“I know. Tell him I’m sick.”
“He’s pretty mad.”
“Mimi, Jazmine, and Violet are worried.”
“So, can I take you?”
“I can’t do that. I mean, he’ll kill me. Or worse.”
“He won’t kill you if you tell him I was, like, not here.”
“I don’t lie well.”
“Did you see me?”
“Well, there you go.”
“Do you need help? I mean, I could help you.”
“Do you think you can help me?”
“Um, you’re not doing drugs or something, right?”
“Like I would do drugs.”
“Um, I don’t think I can do that.”
“I’ll throw you in front of a train. Do you want that?”
“Mr. Lee would do that. Please, could you just come with me?”
“Fine. Give me half an hour. Go and get a Kim Bap across the street or something. There’s some money on the table. Take it.”
“Why not now?”
“Girl issues, you idiot.”
“Half an hour?”
“Go already. This is weird.”
She heard the assistant turn and shuffle toward the door. Then he stopped, shuffled back a few steps, and finally turned again and left. She imagined him out in the hall, waiting for the elevator, rubbing his mopped hair, fixing his black suit, and debating calling the manager after food. Inside her, and below her, from the pristine toilet up, a terrible sinkhole of feeling opened.
She hugged herself and breathed. She had to get out of there. She had to go someplace safe, someplace quiet, away.
Soul music blared from the speakers as she drove up the mountains. Honking cars passed her on the straightaways. She was driving slowly, she knew. But for her, with a travel pack of tissues clenched in her fist around the steering wheel and one eye out for secluded bushes–just in case–she drove at the speed she felt comfortable. She had never driven during the daytime with so many cars on the road. She stopped at each rest stop, each time filled with hope, and each time leaving the wretched-smelling bathrooms disappointed. When she reached the secluded house, it was dark.
It was an old traditional house. It was Sungyup’s house. During their short romance he had brought her here, high up in the mountains, hidden in the dark of the trees. It was the only place she knew where no one would find her. It was the only place where there was no one watching, the only place she had ever felt safe. Under the rock beside the front door she found the key.
Inside was just like she had remembered it. Spotless. Photos blanketing the walls. But she paid them no attention and went directly toward the bathroom with the fancy bidet: a heated seat, drying fans, and filtered heated water. As she passed the bedroom, she saw the only evidence of their relationship: the Pooh Bear she had given back to him, the photo of their two coffee cups on the railing of a coffee shop balcony, their first date. She held the bear and brought it with her to the bathroom.
When the toilet seat had heated up, a text message came. Mr. Lee: Answer or else.
Suddenly the phone rang.
“You’re with that photographer, aren’t you?” the manager growled.
Her stomach rumbled. She squeezed Pooh Bear in her hands. “I’m sick.”
“We have a schedule. That man is not on the schedule.”
“I’m sick. I just need a little time.”
“You know better. Think of the group, the stage crews, engineers, everyone who has been rehearsing, while you have been frolicking with that sack of shit.”
“I told you, I’m sick. Intestinal…problems.”
“Problems is right.”
“I just need time.”
“Photo shoot. Tomorrow morning. Six-thirty. After that you’re going to rehearsal and then a fan meeting. And when it’s all finished, you come directly back to the studio. You’ve lost your apartment privileges, it’s back to the dorms for you.”
Her hands clasped tightly around the neck of Pooh Bear. Somewhere deep in the coal furnace of her soul she wished its head would pop off. “I’m dying.”
For a while there was only the hiss on the line. Finally the manager said, “Uh-huh.”
“We don’t have time for you to act precious. You’re not special.”
“Didn’t you hear me?”
“Do. As. You’re. Told.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“You, Tiffany, that’s what’s wrong.” His sigh crackled through the line. “Six-thirty.”
After the phone went dead, Tiffany threw Pooh Bear against the tiled wall and dropped the cellphone to the floor. She held her breath and pushed with all her might. But nothing moved. Nothing came. She flushed the empty toilet, and staggered out of the bathroom as if gun-shot and screamed. If there had been a neighbor, if the house hadn’t been set on top of the hill, if it had been a music video, a man with messy, side-swept orange hair and a leather jacket would have kicked down the door and held her in his arms. But her screams fired through the house and vibrated through the double-paned windows and out into the forest, and no one came to her rescue.
She held her stomach as she sunk into the leather couch. She sobbed. She pounded on her stomach with her fists. And when her arms tired, she gasped for air and gazed up at the photos that ringed the TV console: Sungyup’s travels. A desert sunset burned the sky above a sign–Welcome to Chile. A frog perched on a wide tropical leaf licked one of its giant red eyes. A mustached man smiled and held out a hot dog from behind a cart in New York. The lights of Shanghai’s midnight skyline beamed in the fog, or maybe pollution.
She hated him for it.
If her intestines were to explode, what would she be able to say she had seen? Craft service tables? The insides of vans, planes, and dance studios? A million flashing lights coming from those people she never had, or would, meet? She felt a rumble inside her. She imagined gas inflating a bag hanging off her slender hip. That’s what it would come to: a bag hanging off her hip, worse than any muffin top.
The bag. Maybe she could make it a fashion statement, a swinging bag of debris in rhythm with the performance. She could cover it with a sarong. But she knew better. There would be no more dancing. No more singing. No more pouting faces to cameras. The feeling came again and she went back to the toilet. She reached for her phone to look at photos of herself. But at the first thought of cute poses, she decided that no, she didn’t want to see herself like that. That was the only type of photo she had: of herself as the cute one. No photos of the rashes she got from the sailor uniforms. No photos of stony callouses on her toes and ankles from the six-inch butterfly heels. Nothing showed how damn hard she had worked, battled, for that moment on stage that left as soon as the stage lights went dark. How she gave up her only boyfriend. How she gave up her own real name–Sumin. How an obstruction clawed and clung to the walls of her bowels for dear life. The photos were all of her, but not her. Not what she saw. As if she had never been alive.
A thought cascaded from some deep place in her mind and filled the room with a simple fact: nothing was worth this. She was better, deserved better than this. She deserved fried chicken and beer. She deserved a sunset without a photographer telling her to move her head a little to the right and to stop blinking. Or that he loved her.
Suddenly, like a battered soldier scaling out of a foxhole, hands shaking and haggard from years of blood and guts, teeth grinding and eyes aflame, she grabbed the Pooh Bear from the floor and clawed her nails into its neck until she heard the slow crackle of tearing plush. It felt good. Then, with hands still shaking, her skin slick, chest heaving, she picked up the phone and sent a message to Mr. Lee: I quit.
She would not dance for anyone. If she was going to have to get some damn bag slung from her slender hip, she was at least going to do something for herself. Sunrise, she decided. Yes, she would wake to see the sunrise climbing the peaks to the west. Did the sun rise from the west? She had no idea. All those years of training and she wasn’t even sure which way the sun came. It didn’t matter. She would hobble toward it and bake in the light and the sweetness of fall pine. And maybe go back to school with two bags hanging off her side. With that thought rippling past her eyes she leaned back and slept on the toilet.
It was sometime around midnight. The sound of thunder woke her. Her eyes focused on the stuffing gouged from the bear’s neck. The rumbles were not of thunder, but within her. It came in bursts, like beats through the editing suite of the recording studio. Deep in her, guns fired, squeaky toys whined, and bass drums boomed. The smell, so caustic, made her eyes water, and she cried. For an hour, and countless flushes, she shat.
After the storm abated, she stepped out of the bathroom and went directly to the scale. Two kilos had left her. She felt as if she could be a gymnast. And she looked up to the clock. There was plenty of time to hop in her car and drive back to Seoul.
Then she saw the photo of a clean reef somewhere warm and far off–so pristine, so peaceful. She gazed out the dark window, where all the sky was orange from the streetlights of Seoul, and wondered if the sunrise could break through the clouds. She couldn’t remember if sunrises were better or worse with clouds. And she stood there behind the threshold. She felt a weakness, a hurt so deep in her body she wasn’t sure if it was coming or leaving.
Editors Note on Dreams Obstructed:
Dreams Obstructed was previously published in 2014 at the The Danforth Review vol. 54 online