My feet were wet when I met Ahn.
It was the day before the Entrance Ceremony. The snow, which started falling the night before, had lasted till morning, and everything outside had turned white. For me, the ankle-deep snow was so exciting and new that I walked around in it outside for quite some time before returning to the dormitory. I opened the door to our room and Ahn was standing there. Xe was wearing a T-shirt.
“Hi,” Ahn introduced xyrself.
I stood there speechless. Before opening the door, I’d been thinking only of soaking my feet in warm water.
Ahn asked, “Are you Suni?”
“You must be Ahn.”
The room was a double. I’d seen the name written next to mine. I’d imagined what Ahn might look like. The person who stood before me looked completely different from what I’d imagined. Ahn was luminous. Xe had an expressive face and a penetrating gaze. And was about eight inches taller than me. Xyr close-cropped hair suited xyr toned and trim figure. Black hair, just like mine.
“Can I ask you something kinda rude?”
Ahn nodded. I took off my boots. My feet felt like they would freeze solid.
“Are you a girl?”
At first glance, it was impossible to tell if Ahn was a boy or a girl. I felt self-conscious. Now that I had asked, it sounded extremely rude.
Ahn smiled. “I’m androgyne.”
I’d heard about androgynes. People who were both male and female at the same time. I heard that their overflowing hormones made them dangerously seductive, and I heard they were impulsive. In particular, I heard a rumor that they caused a lot of violent incidents. All the rumors surrounding androgynes didn’t paint a very nice picture. People gossiped a lot because not many had actually met an androgyne. This was my first time meeting one. Ahn’s face and frame were large and solid, like a well-built man’s. And, as if in opposition to that, xyr chest bulged out and xyr waist was slender, creating curves. Xyr features were delicate. It was true that xe exuded sexual magnetism, but xe didn’t look like the violent type. Actually, Ahn looked peaceful and reserved—the polar opposite of the rumors.
“So can I also be a bit rude?”
This time I was being asked by Ahn. Xyr tone was breezy. I nodded, just like Ahn had done.
Xe pointed at me and said, “Are you a Worm?”
“How can you tell?”
“You haven’t met the others yet, have you?”
“You’ll figure it out when you do.”
I hesitated, then asked, “Do you hate Worms?”
“How do you feel about androgynes?”
“Well, I’ve never met one before, so what do I know? You’re my first.”
“And you’re my first Worm,” Ahn said with a smile.
Xe didn’t look upset. Seeing how calm xe was helped me relax. I felt a closeness.
“I’m gonna wash up. I was out there so long I almost turned to ice,” I said and left for the communal showers shared by the whole floor. I was only going to soak my feet but changed my mind and decided to take a shower.
My first friend.
My heart pounded as I walked down the hall.
There was no one in the chilly shower room. Hot water poured down as soon as I turned on the shower. As my frozen body melted, my skin prickled, then grew warm.
Night fallen snow, morning views, the feeling of my feet punching through the snow, a cool roommate, a hot shower.
A wonderful feeling. My body melted in the hot water.
Where could all the anger I felt on the ship have gone?
I felt my hair, I felt my body. It was as if the anger and sadness that had built up these past few days spent alone in the dorms had been washed away.
When I returned to the room, Ahn was reading a book. My book. A book I had been given, full of information about all the Custom shops. I had lovingly marked up the book, noting all the shops I wanted to visit, and tried to disguise my embarrassment with anger.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I felt my face flame up as I thought about Ahn seeing the little memos I had written in the margins, like “A Must-Go!” and “Cute ♥.”
Ahn calmly put the book down, “Sorry. It was sitting on your desk. Are you interested in Customs too?”
It wasn’t just an “interest,” but I didn’t respond. Where I come from, we didn’t touch other people’s possessions without permission, even if we were really close. Did the kids here have a different concept of personal property?
I picked up the book and put it up on the bookshelf. The shelves looked desolate as I didn’t have many books yet.
The room spun with silence. Awkward. I pretended not to notice Ahn noticing my mood and lay down on my bed. I tried to think about what I should eat for dinner, but it didn’t go so well. Ahn still stood there, anxiously. I thought that xe would have a more uncaring personality.
In the end, Ahn spoke first. “Hey, I’m going to head into the city, wanna come?”
“Where’re you going?”
“I was just gonna look around and get something to eat.”
Truthfully, I was really happy that Ahn invited me out. I was going a bit stir-crazy after being stuck in the dorms for the past few days.
We turned our backs to one another and started changing clothes.
What’s Ahn’s body like?
I suppressed my curiosity, dressed quickly, and put on my coat. I bought it at a market near the dock the day my ship came into port.
“Do you have any Customs?”
I looked behind me. Ahn was wearing loose khaki trousers and a white T-shirt.
“What’d you get done?”
I said yes.
Ahn showed me the Customs to xyr body one by one. Xe had five.
The first were xyr eyes. Xe said that xe had changed the shape to almond. I thought they looked like a cat’s. The second were xyr irises; they were a pure pumpkin color. Ahn said they looked yellow in the light. The third Custom was a pattern incised on xyr wrist and the fourth made xyr fingernails turn green and emit a dark light.
I stared into Ahn’s eyes and took the hand xe offered to look at xyr wrist and fingernails.
These were common places to get Customs, even in the Worms District. But the sweet scent coming from Ahn’s body made the Customs done to xyr eyes and hands feel special.
“Your fifth Custom is your scent, isn’t it?” I asked. Now that I stood closer to Ahn, I felt xyr scent chase all my thoughts away.
“Yeah, I got it done at Dirty.”
Dirty is a Custom store that specializes in scent. They can put a particular scent on your whole body or make it come from a specific part of it. Even I knew about it because it was often featured in the magazine Customer. They don’t have any stores in the Worms District, but there were several stores dotted around the Jade and Sun Districts. It was somewhere I wanted to visit at least once.
“Did you mix the scent yourself?”
“I picked out the elements, but the expert helped me mix it.”
“What did you put in?”
“That’s right. And?”
“I’m not sure.”
It had the sweet perfume of flowers, but there was also a cool scent mixed in. I put my nose to Ahn’s neck and breathed in.
Ahn moved away from me and pulled on a windbreaker. The scent faded as xe zipped it up. “Let’s hurry up. We’ve gotta be back by nine.”
I was well aware. The dormitory curfew was 9:00 pm and roll call would be starting tonight. Ahn and I locked the door and exited the dormitory. My first trip outside.
* * *
I stood, stunned, in the entrance of the store and a man with a mane stared back at us. He had no human hair and instead had a horselike mane that grew voluptuously from the top of his head down the back of his neck. It had a deep red luster, bringing to mind sunset-lit barley. I only looked away when annoyance flashed in his olive-green eyes. He had been standing in the Nails section. The corner devoted to fingernails and toenails was closest to the shop’s entrance. I had little interest in nails. Ahn and I walked past the register and went deeper inside. The first place to pique my interest was the Eye section.
The Eye section was decorated to look like a laboratory. A skull with fluorescent pink plastic orbs slotted in its sockets instead of eyeballs was displayed at the entrance. Without thinking, I tapped its pink eye with the tip of my finger.
“You’ve come to the right place. Wanna trade eyes with me?”
The skull’s jawbone moved and laughter rang from its mouth. Lights flashed in its eyes. I furiously shook my head. Ahn saw me do this and laughed.
Ahn’s gaze held no wonder as xe took in the flasks filled with eyeballs or the eyelashes crafted from insect legs. Quite the opposite of xyr, my eyes were whirling around. They just about rolled out the back of my head.
An enormous pyramid-style flask stood in the center of the display area. It was nearly twice as tall as me and was pretty wide around as well. Fake eyes of all shapes and colors bobbed around in the clear liquid that filled the flask. Some had floated to the top and others had sunk to the bottom, but most of them were clustered together somewhere in the middle, tumbling and colliding as if in a fight.
What really caught my attention were the small flasks, which each held a single animal eye. They gave off a completely different vibe from the humanoid kind. Pig eyes. Cow eyes. A myriad of fish eyes, even one from a goldfish. Chicken eyes and bat eyes. Every single type of eye imaginable, they were all there.
I started to feel a bit queasy and moved on to where the human eye selection was displayed. There were even more types of human eyes, so instead of being in flasks, they were lined up in display cases. However, none of them could be popped into your head. All of the eyes in the display cases were just samples showing the different shape and color options.
I skimmed over the everyday eyes and focused in on the specialty eyeballs. Eyes with stars punched into the pupils. Eyes that glowed with aurora light. Eyes with patterns drawn on the whites and more! Looking into the hologram mirror, I played around trying out all the fancy eyeballs.
I tried on eyes until the novelty wore off, then made a full loop of the floor while also looking out for Ahn. I looked all around the Hair, Nose, Mouth, and Ear sections, but couldn’t find xyr.
When I finally found Ahn on the second floor, I felt so relieved I grabbed xyr arm. Ahn didn’t show any surprise and didn’t shake off my loose hold. A faint smile played on xyr lips.
“What’re you looking at?”
Ahn answered with a flick of xyr eyes. It was only then that I realized we were standing in front of a wall of male sex organs. We were in the Genitals section!
“What? You want a bigger one?”
I tried to bluff my way out with a stupid joke, but I was burning with embarrassment. I had touched a plastic penis during health class, but I had never seen the real thing before. I only knew the difference between an aroused and an unaroused penis in theory.
“More like the opposite,” xe answered coolly.
Another blast of bravado burst out of me, “Is it so big you trip over it or something?”
“Give it up. You’ve gone all red.”
On the second floor there was a section that dealt with body parts Customs, from simple Customs like lengthening or shortening legs to more complex ones like changing the skeletal structures. They even did Customs modeled on animal legs. I didn’t have any real interest in changing any part of my body, so I just casually browsed the displays of the Arms and Legs section.
* * *
I had seen all the second floor had to offer. We passed the column with the sign and went down to the basement. Now that really blew me away. I grew ecstatic when I saw all the tails, wings, and horns. These were exactly what I was interested in.
I made eye contact with a dapper monkey-tailed man who raised his cap in greeting. My heart pounded and I looked over at the Wings section. A woman with immense butterfly wings on her back stood at the counter getting help from the salesperson, testing how her new wings flapped and folded.
I fell into panic mode.
Ahn grabbed hold of me and asked, “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine. I’m just so happy. This place is amazing.”
“If you don’t get it together, we’re not going to get to eat before we have to go back. Are you going to get a Custom today?”
“I’ve got to.”
“Well then, let’s decide what kind of Custom you want.”
What should my first custom be?
I repeated the question to myself, over and over. It was something I had debated thousands of times before, but now that the moment had finally come, my mind emptied to a blank, bright white.
I was at a loss. Ahn pulled me into a corner and sat me down. Cushioned in a soft chair, I took deep breaths and was able to gather my thoughts. Now that I had calmed down, I remembered what I wanted my first Custom to be.
A horn. Just like the one growing from the forehead of the mermaid who once rescued me. I wasn’t sure if it was a dream or a memory, but that image had always stuck with me. I wanted to put a mermaid horn on my body.
“I’ve decided. Let’s go to the Horn section.”
There must’ve been hundreds of people who wanted to get horns! It was so packed that I could hardly find a place to stand.
A man with horns all over his body approached and inquired, “Do you have a specific horn you’re looking for?”
He had small horns poking out along the shell of his ears and he had big ones on his head that curled up at the end like a bull’s. He also had a trail of tiny horns running from the middle finger of his left hand to his elbow that looked like a red line from afar. His hair was half white, but I’m pretty sure it was a Custom and not a reflection of his age.
In front of a Customer like him, I felt like such an amateur for wanting to get something so small.
“I’m looking for a horn to put on my forehead.” I said shyly. Ahn was nearby, looking at the horns on display.
“What sort of size are you looking for?”
I glanced at the nametag pinned to his shirt.
Of course he’s called Pan.
I became tongue-tied, unable to express what I had in mind, so Pan walked me over to a display. Horns were displayed according to size in a vertical case. The second smallest size, one inch, looked about right. I would be able to hide it behind my bangs when I went home for the holidays.
“Now you need to pick what shape you’d like. We’ll be able to make them any color.”
Unlike his mischievous namesake, Pan was very friendly as he helped me. Now that I’d gotten a better look, I could tell Pan was very handsome. If he shaved his extravagant mustache, his face would look quite kindly. Even though it hid most of his face, his mustache couldn’t hide his soft eyes. When you noticed that he hadn’t changed his eyes with a Custom, it was hard to tell if Pan had hated his original, softer look. In any case, any man or woman who looked into those eyes would want to take care of him. Even I felt that way.
“I’ll let you know when I’ve made up my mind.” I said politely, trying my best not to cause him any extra trouble. Pan smiled and went to help another customer.
“See anything you like?” Ahn asked. Xe had finished looking through all that was on offer.
“I’ve almost made up my mind, I’m debating between these two styles. It’s between the corkscrew or the spiral one with the little lines cut in.”
“Since you’re getting a small one, I think the corkscrew will look good. The spiral just doesn’t have any impact.”
I nodded in agreement. The horn of the mermaid in my dreams was spiral with deep lines. The horns in the display case didn’t compare. Like Ahn said, the corkscrew would look better.
I found Pan and told him I had made my selection. “I’ll have the corkscrew.”
“Great choice, come this way.”
Pan sat me down at a large vanity table with a hologram mirror. The monitor had a program where you could select the shape and color of your horns. Pan touched the screen, inputting the style of horn I wanted and where on the body it would go.
“Now you can pick the color while looking at your reflection.”
Listening to Pan’s instructions, I tapped the middle of the purple group, and then the me reflected in the mirror had a purple horn on her forehead.
Ahn helped me pick the color. For a moment, I thought I might get them the same color as xyr fingernails, but I stopped that train of thought; if I copied someone else, I’d regret it later. Gold or silver were too common, so I passed over them and tried out my favorite colors one by one, but nothing really felt right.
After a long time spent debating, I decided on a deep silvery gray with a hint of purple pearlescence mixed in. Now that I had made my choice, I was pretty pleased with the results. Pan was in the middle of an engrossing conversation with a woman who had an orange horn on the bridge of her nose, but came over when we called him.
“Follow me, please.”
My heart skipped a beat when Pan brought me to a small booth with a sign that said “The Punching Room.”
Pan saw how nervous I was and smiled, asking, “Is it your first time?”
“Yes, it’s my first Custom.”
Pan nodded. “It’ll look very cool.”
“I think so too.”
I went into the Punching Room. I had to put my face up to the machine with a small camera hanging from it and stand still.
“Don’t worry, it won’t hurt. It’ll be over in a flash. Just close your eyes.”
“Wait! Are there any sort of side effects? Or anything I should know?”
Pan thought about his answer carefully, then said, “Well, since you’re putting something on your forehead, it will be uncomfortable to sleep face down. It’s best if you don’t do pushups. And what else is there . . . Oh! If you fall over, make sure you fall backward.”
He scratched his chin and gave me a look asking if I was ready now. I put my face against the machine.
Pan left the room. The door closed and I could hear the sounds of the machine moving. I felt light flash before my closed eyes. And then the machine turned off.
Was that it?
“Could you come out, please?”
Pan spoke to me through a speaker hanging on the wall. I moved away from the machine and felt my forehead. There was nothing there.
Did something go wrong?
Nervously, I left the booth.
Pan was twirling his mustache around his finger and frowning at the monitor. He looked like a doctor who had just found signs of serious disease in a patient’s X-ray. Ahn, standing behind him, also had a strange expression.
“Is something wrong?”
“Come take a look. You already have a horn.”
I looked where Pan was pointing on the monitor. There seemed to be something round in the middle of my forehead. It looked to be over two inches in diameter.
“This is the root of a horn.”
“You’re telling me this is a horn?”
“Yes, I’m certain of it.”
Pan tapped the cow horn on his head. “What would you like to do? Would you like to put them anywhere else on your body?”
“I have to think about it some more.”
“So you really had no idea?”
Was he seriously asking if I hadn’t known about a horn rooted in my forehead? Of course I hadn’t known! Do Mom and Dad know? Still in shock, I looked to Ahn.
Our eyes met and Ahn gave me an awkward smile. I started to get scared that xe might start to think I was weird. I feared I might lose the first friend I made.
“Customer” © Lee Jong San. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Victoria Caudle. All rights reserved.