YJ Jun

The idiot doctor wouldn’t let me add a skin graft while I was under. “You’re too young,” he said, “legally. And even if you came back on your nineteenth birthday, we’d recommend you hold off till you’re older, Jihye.” He sighed but I wrangled him into adding a nose job. It was the least he could do.

I dreamt of pixels. Blood red. Dripping off scalpels. I dreamt of needles and surgery masks and when I woke I saw my mother asleep beside my hospital bed. She stirred and produced a mirror from her purse. I held it up, tracing my swollen skin. My blocky jaw would soon be a lovely ‘V,’ and my nose would be perfect, at least for the next few months—the trends were ever-changing. But why hadn’t I done my eyes while I was under? I’d have to squeeze in a sculpting before I left Seoul for Los Angeles.

My mother peppered me with the usual questions, but in my mind I dotted my face with where the next needles would go. As I turned my face in the light, I dared to dream I could one day be beautiful.

For the fall semester of 2028 I studied abroad in California. Finally, I thought. Beach bodies and blonde hair; smart mansions and dumb kids. I thought I’d immerse myself in the local culture. Let loose, live free. Maybe even date a hazel-eyed stranger.

Within days I gravitated toward other Korean international students and stuck with them, companions who didn’t gawk or leer as I passed; companions who didn’t talk over me like I was a robot.

Over Bible study and homework we discussed life in America. The Hollywood bodies we thought would be bronze and taut were wrinkled and sun-dried. “They stopped wearing sunscreen during the naturalism craze,” one of the girls explained. Meanwhile, almost all the Koreans were getting their monthly Botox kits shipped overseas. Should I have done the same? Some of the girls were planning to fly back after midterms for a touch-up. One girl said she’d found a clinic right here in L.A.

“It’s legit!” she swore. “The doctors are all from Seoul.” 

Angie, though some boys called her Angel, smirked. “I mean, it’s better than Toxinity, right?”

A silence fell over the group until the girl mirrored Angie’s smirk. “Oh my god, don’t get me started. How did anyone fall for that junk in the first place?”

“Toxinity was too good to be true,” we chimed in. Three shots were the Fountain of Youth? No more needles, no more recovery periods?

The twits who fell for the lie, we agreed, deserved to face the side effects.

On our way to Bible study one evening, the Koreans and I passed by my common room. The girl who lived down the hall from me was curled up on a couch, alone, as usual.

I realized with some relief I wasn’t the only one who got a disturbing sense of recognition from staring at her. “She isn’t Korean, is she?” someone whispered.

Angie flashed her signature smirk. “No Korean would let themselves look like that.”

The girl’s nose was round, the bridge flat against her face; cheekbones that might have risen high and regal were padded with flesh; and her eyes… her monolid eyes were small but round, like pebbles brushed smooth by water.

She looked like a figure from a historical painting, like she belonged in a world of ink brushed onto mulberry paper. When she wasn’t reading books that required you to manually flip the pages, she was with her journal, as she was now, twirling a pencil wildly between her fingers.

The pencil flew out of her hand, across the room, in front of our feet.

The others stepped over it. I would have, too, but I hadn’t seen an old-school pencil in so long. I crouched to pick it up, twirling the twig between my fingers. Without thinking I crossed the room to hand it back.

“Thank you,” she said. “I’m Brynn, by the way.”

Brynn. We’d never seen each other so up-close. Has she never had a melanin reduction? I wondered. She could lighten up that shade a bit. Her eyes were such a solemn shade of brown, like earth that had been unturned.

I scurried off to the stairwell—where the others waited, looking down on me. “Ya, Jihye, were you just nice to that freak?” someone asked.

Angie bent down. “I bet she makes you feel better about yourself.” She swiped a finger across my cheek. The others froze, then crowed. I reached up to cover the one pockmark I hadn’t been able to laser or graft or apparently make-up away no matter how much I begged the doctors. I hadn’t realized the others could see it.

Angie leaned in close to whisper as we trudged up the steps. “Bet a bit of Toxinity would clear that right up.”

I felt a cold thrill as she sneered at me. I decided I hated her. I hated how much I’d wanted to kiss her.

That night, washing my face lathered up thoughts of flying pencils and dark brown eyes and smirking girls and pockmarks. I tried to rinse it all away, but when I looked in the mirror I saw not spotless skin or crystalline nose or my eyes dyed green for the month with a melanin reduction, but my pockmark. A gash. A blemish.

I crossed the room, threw open my closet, reached beneath sweaters and procured my kit. Face still dripping I brought it to the bathroom sink and stared at the label: TOXINITY. Inside lay three vials, syringes and fresh needles. In my mind I heard screaming, shrill laughter, saw angry pimples and bloody fingernails and women in ads with smiles wired taut across their faces like silicon across a nanochip. “Set yourself free,” they’d said.

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Photo by Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash