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This is my friend, the K-pop star.

This piece is part of the Love Letters notebook, which features art by Ali El-Chaer.

Everybody wants to know about the semester I roomed with the K-pop idol. I love to tell them what they came to hear. Pre-debut J already acted like a star, ordering free rides down hot pewter highways to get detailed: hair lacquer, blood facial, sugar nails, bald vulva. She fed on plasticky lettuce and stringy chicken breasts measured by the gram, but begged me to photograph her with plates of tteokbokki larger than her face. I’d send her the photos, then see them on her profile violently shopped, nose blurred like a nipple.

J said she never reads the comments, but I do. In one fancam she wears her tinsel hair in impossible sailormoonesque pigtails. One viewer commented, “I’ve been craving this look on J for ages.”

“She’s my body dream,” said another.

“She was skinnier than N last year, and nobody even noticed,” someone posted with four sobbing emojis.

Later, I went to the Emart with the narrow aisles and found the new bubble hair dye with J on the box. I stared at her solar face stacked on her columnar neck rooted to her lily-petal chest and whispered, This is my friend, the K-pop star, until it felt like staring at a mirror.

Maybe it’s because that dorm room had no mirrors. I’d look at J, she’d look at me. I watched the question of who was prettier mutate into the question of who deserved to be. Now she has a hefty Wikipedia page and I’m scanning for any trace of myself in the Early Life section.

I’m the fan who savored the dimpled bite of mozzarella she curb-spat back into the molten rice cakes, the girl who gave her do-it-yourself eyelash extensions in the communal bathroom when she couldn’t afford the someone-do-it-for-yous, the friend who held her while she sobbed after a fifteen-year-old beat her to a spot in a debut girl group.

“I’m running out of time,” she had said.

I told her that the girl’s voice was contrived, sounded like California dying. That her parents fed her fame-fodder since infancy—she would never get to live a normal life.

“What’s the use of a normal life?” J mumbled into my shoulder.

A couple months later, J got her break. Management gave her a stage name that shared the first letter of her Korean name but fit better in paying mouths. It felt uncanny, like Disney Channel high schools. I told her I didn’t get it, but she didn’t hear me.

The last time she saw me was at graduation. I still see her everywhere: on mute bodega televisions, rain-stained billboards, packaging for electrolyte drinks.

A couple years back, I saw her cardboard cutout at the Lotte mall in Gangnam, where there was a pop-up for her Seiko collaboration. A purchase of any two watches from the collaboration came in a limited-time dollhouse gift box, explained the saleswoman. Uncapping its roof revealed a diorama: two mini maple desks, two bookcases, two tiny plush beds that propped up the watches by their glinting silver bands.

I thought about calling J at her old number, the conversation we’d have if she picked up: I’d hear her smile waft away the static. We’d talk about memories as if we were allied against them. She’d say she always loved my stories, as if suggesting they weren’t true. I’d mention that I finally learned to love the beach. She’d say she misses sex and driving. I’d tease her about the bathroom, ask why she left it out of the dollhouse. She’d say she forgets the bathroom.

I bought the two-watch special. When I returned them and kept the box, the saleswoman didn’t care. I felt bad for her, having to stand next to that cardboard cutout all day.

J released one more chart-topping single before she turned thirty and expired on the stage of the Soribada awards ceremony. I listened to it on my evening walk in Yeouido Park. It began with a cicadic hum that got louder and louder. I pulled out my headphones and made eye contact with a woman on a bench. “Do you hear that?” I asked. She nodded.

A steady beeping joined in, like a submarine’s sonar. It blipped me, and I was in our old dorm bathroom. I found J perched on the edge of the bathtub, gazing into the basin. Our two heads of thick, black hair had shed and clogged the drain. Little tadpoles of foam swirled on the water’s surface. The water evaporated, and we could see the floor of the ceramic tub, mottled with knots of hair that had rolled into embryonic shapes with the sewage burped up by the pipes. Like kids crouched over slippery tide pools, we peeled specimens from their rocks, wagged them in each other’s faces, laughed. 

When the hum stopped, I found myself back in the park. Was this all she wanted me to know? I should ask her once she gets some rest.