Lio Min’s Beating Heart Baby is an “achingly romantic” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) love letter to internet friendships, anime, and indie rock
When artistic and sensitive Santi arrives at his new high school, everyone in the wildly talented marching band welcomes him with open arms. Everyone except for the prickly, proud musical prodigy Suwa, who doesn’t think Santi has what it takes to be in the band.
But Santi and Suwa share painful pasts, and when they open up to each other, a tentative friendship begins. And soon, that friendship turns into something more. . . .
Will their fresh start rip at the seams as Suwa seeks out a solo spotlight, and both boys come to terms with what it'll take, and what they'll have to let go, to realize their dreams?
Release date: July 26, 2022
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Print pages: 339
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Beating Heart Baby
SUMMER’S OVER. NOW WHAT?
I glance at the billboard—an ad for college-prep tutors—as it passes by before bringing my gaze down to street level. While Aya navigates traffic, Los Angeles taunts me through my open window: giant succulents chewing up whole squares of sidewalk; palm trees shooting up into the sky like leafy rockets; corner stores blasting snippets of reggaetón and K-pop and Top 40 and rancheras. A city of a thousand cities, the signs on storefronts changing languages and styles every few blocks.
At the red, the car next to us collectively shrieks, “This is my jaaam!” The bass of Cola Carter’s new single shakes the Agumon bobblehead stuck to our dashboard. I wince. Obviously Cola Carter didn’t become a pop star just to get at me. But it’s impossible for me to hear her music and not think about Memo’s song. The soundtrack of the best and then worst moment of my life.
When I close my eyes against the harsh sun, the billboard’s afterimage flashes behind my lids. Now what?
Aya tilts her head toward the other car. Of course she’s going to make a comment about Cola’s track. “You listen to any of her stuff?”
I shrug and mumble, “I guess,” twisting deeper in my seat both to get a clearer look at the city unfurling around us and to avoid the weight of her eyes scanning over me, searching for an opening. When I refuse to give, Aya sighs and cranks up the stereo. We roll down Alvarado as Vince Staples and Kilo Kish call and respond over a cold beat.
We only got to LA a couple of days ago, but so much of this city is already familiar. Not because of movies or music videos or social media. But because of Memo. It’s the place they grew up, where they maybe still live. And all these things I’ve only ever imagined, impressions of a sun-soaked life pieced together from our chats, are now streaming past my window.
I spent years dreaming of visiting them here, of finally meeting them in person. But I never got the chance. And then they were gone.
I’ve heard that it should take you as long as a relationship lasted to get over it. For three years, Memo was the first person I talked to in the morning and the last person I talked to at night. After they ghosted me, I kept up the routine, checking my phone and waiting for their username to blink back online, for their chat window to pop up with a “Hey” or even “I hate you,” taking whatever they gave me if it meant an end to the radio silence. But for three years, I’ve been in what Aya generously calls “a bad place,” spiraling out in school, getting in fights and cutting classes like they didn’t matter, because they didn’t. Because nothing did.
Now, I should finally be free. Instead, I’ve landed right in the middle of the city that reminds me of Memo the most.
The thing is, I wouldn’t recognize their face if we drove past them. I don’t know their real name or what their voice would sound like if they called out mine. But for a long time, Memo was my only real friend. My best friend. They’d understood me in a way no one ever had before or has since, but I don’t think I ever told them that. And I’ll never have the chance.
Aya honks and curses as the car ahead of her changes lanes without signaling. After a few more minutes of tense driving, she pulls over to the curb and clears her throat. Her long black ponytail makes a swishing sound against her headrest when she turns to me. I steel myself for the usual talk about the future, but Aya surprises me when she takes a sharp breath and sighs, “Santi. I know it’s been hard, and I’ve been hard on you. But I’m also proud of you. You’ve been through so much and … I know your mami would be proud of you, too. We’re home now, okay?”
I can’t help it—tears spring to my eyes. I grit my teeth to keep them from growing. According to Aya, Inay had been an easy crier, too. Out of all the things I could’ve inherited from her, of course I got the tears.
Most of what I know about Inay is secondhand, recollected through Aya, or discovered by accident. It’s like after her death, I couldn’t hold on to any of our actual memories together. But Aya keeps her alive. The only furniture we’ve always moved with is the folding table where Aya and Inay used to do their homework and share meals together as kids. Wherever we live, it serves the same purpose: to hold a framed photo of the three of us together, mango studding our wide smiles, and a program from the funeral. MERCEDES ARBOLEDA: FOREVER IN OUR HEARTS.
By reflex, I touch the small golden cross around my neck. It’d been Inay’s, given to her by her parents when she got married. She and Aya had grown up together in the same tight-knit community a few hours north of LA. The kind of place where the girls become wives before they graduate high school—which is what happened with Inay.
In the end, Inay moved south to start a family while Aya saved money and faked interest in the guys her parents brought around. They didn’t talk for years and Aya moved east, chasing record deals that always fell through and playing tours with bands that a lot of times treated her like a live-in maid, based on her stories. But when Inay showed up at Aya’s door with a suitcase, that folded-up table, and a baby from a man who wasn’t her husband, Aya took us both into her life like we’d been there all along.
I want to ask Aya what it feels like to come home without Inay. If she misses her parents, who cut off contact both because of Aya’s girlfriends and because she didn’t turn her best friend away. If there’s any chance my grandparents will ever forgive their daughter for living her own life, or want to meet me. But I swallow these thoughts and fix my watery gaze at the next place I’m supposed to start fresh again.
De Longpre High is nothing like my last school, or the school before, or maybe any school not in LA. For one, it actually looks kinda nice. Arched open-air hallways. Solar panels on the roof. Floor-to-ceiling windows in the library. A large banner that reads WELCOME, SUNSHOWERS! stretches across a tiled courtyard. It’s too wholesome, too Hollywood perfect. But then a sign of life: a lush camellia fails to cover someone’s tag, CLOWDY BOYS 666, which a chain-smoking custodian tries in vain to wash off.
A line of kids snakes out of the courtyard. More mill around in small groups, catching up and taking videos and pictures. Almost everyone’s holding an instrument case or a flag. They all look at ease. I haven’t been around this many brown people since we lived in New York.
We’re home now.
Aya’s quiet cough takes me out of my head. When I blink again, the light’s a little dimmer, and the people look less like a casting call and more like a bunch of kids who are willingly at school on a Sunday afternoon for the first day of the Sunshowers marching-band camp. Aya sucks in her cheeks and searches for the right words, the ones that’ll get me through my second attempt at junior year without any suspensions or late-night phone calls wondering where I am. Before she can say anything, I mutter, “What if I can’t do this?”
“This” is marching band, but also De Longpre High and LA. “This” is the promise of stability, which both of us know isn’t guaranteed. Aya reaches over and lightly cuffs my shoulder. Her voice drops in annoyance but also weariness. “Just try. Not for me, but for yourself. Please. Oh, and don’t forget, I’ll be at a session so take the bus home.”
The part of me that cared about trying, that thought about the future and wanted something from it, disappeared when Memo did. But Aya has that look in her eyes, like she’s the one who failed me and not the other way around.
I grunt in response, grab my trumpet case from the back seat, and duck out of the car.
* * *
De Longpre High has never had much of a football team, but over the past decade, the school’s marching-band program has become “a force to be reckoned with in the Southern California band circuit,” according to a local news video I found online. Behind the reckoning: Kai Kahalehoe, a.k.a. “Cap.” Ever since he brought his Marine Band–trained direction to De Longpre a decade ago, the Sunshowers marching band became one of the best in the state. Its reputation was big enough to attract the attention of a documentary crew a while back, but something fell through and it didn’t happen.
More seniors who do marching band graduate than from any other De Longpre school group. This is part of the reason why, at the beginning of the summer, Aya sat me down, put on Drumline, and said coolly, “Santi, you better start practicing trumpet again.”
The other part is because of Cap. Because he was Aya’s high school marching band director, once upon a time. Because he’s the one who brought her back to LA. And because she’s counting on him to perform a miracle.
My palms start to sweat. I grip onto my case tighter. Am I nervous? Why would I be nervous? None of these kids look like they’d be able to take me in a fight. And what’s stopping me from turning around and walking away? It’s LA, it’s summer, and I’m in the middle of the city instead of dipping my toes into the Pacific for the first time.
I could tell Aya I didn’t fit in. No, too vague. How about, they made us play at orientation and my section leaders cut me? But then she’ll ask Cap.… I scratch my cheek and try to think of another out. Okay. I have until the end of the week of band camp to figure out why I can’t stay. Otherwise, I’ll commit. It’s the least I owe Aya for going to bat for me now and so many other times. If nothing else, maybe I’ll make some friends.
The line moves forward. I pull out my phone and scroll aimlessly, artist artist thirst trap ad thirst thirst tattoos anime ad ad anime anime ad—
“Oh my god, Prof!!!”
I fumble my phone as the girl in front of me stops abruptly and I get a faceful of curly dark green, almost black hair. Green waves her phone at the lanky boy next to her. His long black braids slide over his shoulders and form a curtain as he bends down to look at her screen. “Wow. Of course Suwa drops the biggest news of his life as a line in the group chat.”
Just as suddenly, Green turns around. “My bad, I’m all up in your—” She freezes and peers at me. “I don’t know you, but I know you … the junior-senior-freshman! Wow, huh, you’re way cuter in person.” My eyebrows shoot up in surprise as she loops an arm with mine, chattering, “I’m Mira, this is Octavian. Your name’s Santiago, yeah? An alto—no, right, you’re a trumpet.”
Octavian unravels Mira’s arm from mine and cuts in dryly, “Welcome to the Sunshowers, Santiago. Mira, back it up.”
They seem friendly. More touchy-feely than I’m used to, but maybe that’s an LA thing. I flash a peace sign and a smile. “Santi. Nice to meet you.”
They exchange looks. Octavian pretends to sniffle. “A sweetheart.”
Mira grins. “Oh, you’re ours, baby boy.”
I don’t mean to laugh but one escapes, too loud.
They exchange another look. Mira pouts. “We have to keep him.”
Octavian rolls his eyes. “For someone who’s not into guys, you’re coming on strong.”
Mira waves him away. “All right, Santi 101, let’s go. Favorite song?”
My heart stops. Out of all the questions she could’ve asked. I try to be chill about answering so of course I start rambling, “Well, uh, it’s pretty basic if you’re like, into music, and we’re at band camp, so, you must be … into it. But, um, it’s ‘Exit Music.’ That mystery song that dropped a few years back and it’s … It means a lot to me. Personally.” At some point my voice drops to a whisper. I hadn’t meant to sound so wounded.
“Exit Music.” Memo’s song. The one they shared with me in confidence and that I leaked by accident, setting off a chain of events that ended in Memo disappearing from the world. The mistake that’s haunted me for three impossibly long years.
Octavian’s expression shifts but Mira doesn’t catch my tone. She laughs, “Real. Some songs just hit different,” then asks me a few more rapid-fire questions—“What kind of food do you like?” “You dance? You look like you got moves”—as we sign in and head over to the football field.
This time Octavian’s the one who pulls me in toward the center of the crowd that’s assembled in front of a set of beat-up bleachers. Mira immediately gets swept into a group hug while Octavian starts catching up with a girl with shaggy white-blond hair. I step aside as someone wearing a rainbow tie-dye hoodie pushes past me to join Mira’s hug circle, and self-consciously hold my case closer to my side.
Right. Despite the warm welcome, I’m still the new kid. I make eye contact with a crow perched on the surrounding fence. It stares beadily at me but flies off when a cheer erupts from the crowd. Everyone around me has stopped what they were doing and turned toward the bleachers, faces rapt with excitement.
A deep, spine-tinglingly loud voice booms, “Good morning, Sunshowers! Shall we?” And I finally get my first IRL look at Cap: a broad, beaming man wearing golden aviators and a white polo, its short sleeves straining around his biceps. In photos, he looks like he could pass for his fifties, but according to Aya, he’s pushing seventy. I wonder how he keeps up with a bunch of kids until I watch him walk over to a raised platform, bypassing the stairs, and hoist himself onto it before hopping to his feet.
“WE SHALL!” I shiver as everybody but me shouts back. When Cap calls out, “Section leaders, assemble,” Mira and Octavian straighten their postures and drop their smiles as they line up behind him.
I listen closely to Cap’s introductions. Felipe Morales, the drum major, stands apart from the rest of the group. Mira Ortiz-Walker, with the sousas. Octavian Williams, trombone.
Cap gets to my section last. “Lucía Hernandez, trumpet.” Their white-blond friend steps up. “And Suwa Moon, trumpet.”
I crane my neck to get a better view of Suwa. His name popped up a few times in articles about the Sunshowers. One of the best trumpet players in the entire state. And unless there’s another Suwa at this school, he’s also the one Mira and Octavian were talking about before.
I’m not trying to stare, but unlike everyone else wearing T-shirts and soft shorts and sneakers, Suwa’s wearing ripped black jeans, black velvet creepers, and that rainbow tie-dye hoodie. The ends of his inky black hair cling to his cheeks. He’d seemed smaller when he walked past me, but his presence overwhelms everyone else’s: a flower in a field of grass.
I study his face. He looks a little bored, eyes roaming beneath curling bangs. But when they land on me, his face changes into a scowl. I break out into goosebumps and look away.
“Hey, freshman, some advice.” The girl standing next to me taps my shoulder. “Don’t stare at Suwa. He’ll bite before he barks, you get what I’m sayin’?”
I laugh nervously but I can’t help it. Like a moth to a flame, I look back at Suwa. Our eyes connect again. His dart away and I twitch at the sudden jolt in my chest.
* * *
After an hour of inside jokes, Sunshower history, and reviewing basic drills and commands, Cap calls a quick time-out before we break for section intros. I step into the bathroom for a breather after I drop off my case and think about what Aya said, about me really trying. I psych myself up: Maybe this will be the year I turn it around.
Then the bathroom door creaks, and I watch a pair of familiar creepers cross the floor. I pull up my phone camera to quickly check how I look before opening the stall door.
Suwa’s at the sink, one hand pushing up his bangs while holding the corner of his eye. The other smudges a black pencil into his lash line. He ignores me as I take the sink two down from him, but I can’t stop myself from trying to catch his gaze in the mirror.
“What’re you staring at, freshman?” Suwa’s voice isn’t what I expected—scratchy and low.
Why does everyone keep calling me that? “I’m not a freshman,” I say automatically, then cringe. I’d been aiming for friendly and landed on awkwardly defensive.
He’s still only looking at my reflection. I pick at my outfit: an oversized T-shirt and jean shorts, both from the Goodwill we lived next to in Nashville. Suwa obviously cares about fashion more than I do or can afford to. His cheekbones glow—is that highlighter, or some supernatural dewiness? I want to ask him how he isn’t sweating in the heat but what comes out of my mouth is “You wear makeup?”
Suwa puts down his pencil and finally faces me. I was right, he’s pretty short. I smile, another defensive reflex, as his eyes turn up to meet mine.
“Do we have a problem, freshman?”
I wince at the venom in his tone, the way the words curl in his mouth. I’d only wanted to comment on how put-together he looks compared to everyone else, but I suddenly remember something else Aya’d told me about Cap: “Back in the day, he was one of the only people who looked out for us.”
“Us”: a universe in a word. I know what she meant because I’m one of “us,” too, though the definition shifted depending on where I lived. In New York, it meant I cried a little too easily. And then I started kissing boys. Around Nashville and then Jacksonville, it meant all that, plus I was the only person in my class darker than blond.
I stumble over myself as I take a step back. “No, I uh—that’s cool, makeup’s cool, I mean, you look like that.” I start to nervously laugh when Suwa’s eyes, one rimmed in black and one bare, narrow, but I bite it back, my teeth cutting into my bottom lip hard enough to almost draw blood.
Neither of us says anything for what feels like forever. I’m frozen in embarrassment, but I can’t read Suwa’s reaction. Should I tell him I like everyone? I linger on the twitch of his bare eye, then the slight tremor of his fingers, and finally the rise and fall of his chest, a motion that picks up as he realizes where I’m looking.
And something dawns on me. One of Aya’s best friends is a trans guy and he once talked to me a little about what he looked like, how he carried himself, before he got top surgery. I open my mouth to tell Suwa if that’s what’s up, I didn’t mean to stare and I’m not normally this awkward, for real.
I take a pause to actually gather my thoughts instead of blurting that out, but it’s too late. Suwa swipes his eyeliner off the edge of the sink and, as he finishes his other eye, announces frostily, “You don’t belong here.” A chill runs down my body as he continues, “I listened to the recording you sent of your playing. I don’t know how you finessed your way into the band, but this is my turf. My family. But since Cap’s asked me to watch out for you, I will be.”
Suwa caps his eyeliner and slips it into his pocket. Every step he takes toward me echoes in my ears. When we’re shoulder to shoulder he tilts his head and murmurs, “Whatever you’re thinking of saying, don’t. Luckily for you, I’m only around for your freshman season, but you better not fuck things up for the rest of us.” He laughs, acid in the sound. “Have fun with junior year again. You’re off to a great start.”
Suwa breezes past me. I catch the backdraft scent of smoke.
Copyright © 2022 by Lio Min
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