I had never considered myself a negative person. I thought life was good. I had no kids or property to tie me to my ex. I had a decent, though boring, job as a corporate writer, a cute apartment close to Central Park, and the time and money to take last minute trips around the world. I had friends I could rely on, family I loved, and all my limbs. I was a glass half-full kind of girl.
That spring, Graham told me otherwise.
Things started out well enough. Maybe too well. Our first date lasted eight hours, ending with us making out on his bed. For two weeks we couldn’t get enough of each other. He came up to my office and we made out there. We kissed on the street, at the movies. We hung out at his place on a Saturday and wrote all day, me on my memoir, he on a history book he needed for tenure. He cooked for me, and told me I was beautiful. He said that he had found me.
Then it started to get weird. His ex for one. He really wanted to be friends with her. I mean, really. They went to movies, and when it didn’t go well, he became very depressed.
“There wasn’t much to say,” he said.
He thought I should be friends with my ex, although I preferred not to, thank you very much. After he cheated on me and had a baby with his mistress, I decided he was probably not friendship material.
“It might help you move on,” Graham said.
Keeping someone from my past in my present wasn’t my idea of moving on.
When I asked if he was dating anyone else, he laughed and said, “I’m not kissing anyone else.”
That didn’t answer my question.
“Let’s live in the moment,” he said.
Still not an answer.
Finally he said, “I’m afraid I’m having a negative influence on you.”
Now. We had known each other fewer than thirty days. I doubted I was so malleable that he’d have a personality-changing influence on me. And what did he mean by negative?
The cases in point: we were on the subway, and a girl was leaning against the pole. Her whole body on the pole. You know what I mean. Since she was being so obliviously rude, I obliviously shoved my hand behind her to grab the pole. I looked at her. I did not apologize.
Two: we were walking down the street and caught up with slow walkers. Slow walkers who decided to take up the entire sidewalk. You know of whom I speak. I huffed, sighed, and rolled my eyes before finally speeding around them.
So this was negative.
Still, being a conscientious and growth-liking person, I thought about what he had said. Maybe I was making up for something with my toughness. As kids my brother and I were called chink and chingchong at the bus stop every day, but were always too timid to say anything. Our mother bossed us around. The bossing got worse as I got older. The yelling turned to screaming whenever I said anything back. I couldn’t even sulk without a scolding.
In high school I decided I was angry. An angry poet. I hated everyone, or at least pretended to. Secretly I wanted Bud Warner to pass me notes in class, to give me a rose on Valentine’s Day, to take me to prom, none of which, of course, happened. But being angry was easier. It gave me a nice coating.
In college I became an Asian American activist. Every racist was a kid at the bus stop saying chingchong. I went to a Miss Saigon protest and yelled fuck you to Cameron Mackintosh for not hiring Asian actors, for saying Asian actors were no good.
Then I fell in love.
I fell in love with an angry guy, only he didn’t seem angry at the time. At the time he was sweet and loving, funny and smart. The anger emerged later, after I was in deep and it was too late. We broke up, got back together, got married. He got angrier. I couldn’t blame him really. His parents expected so much. His mom was sick. They never thanked him for all he did, the way he never thanked me. Everyone was against him, everyone that is except his mistress.
So in comparison, was I really so negative?
Still, I would try.
Maybe I didn’t have to make my disdain so clear as some dim bulb yapped loudly on her cell phone. Perhaps I didn’t need to growl, “Watch it,” when a guy twice my size bumped into me. I might try not yelling, “Are you kidding me!” when someone came to a dead stop at the top of the subway steps. It shouldn’t make a difference that this was New York, and I was a petite Asian woman who looked younger than her years. I didn’t need to be a bitch to survive, did I? Survive yet have no soul?
Two tests. One, the NJ Transit on my way back from my parents’. At Newark an older man got on and sat next to me. Not right next to me, one seat over, but it didn’t matter because I could smell him from here. Cigarette smoke. Clothes reeking of it.
Seething, I pressed myself against the window and breathed into my hand.
Then at that very moment, on my iPod: One of Us. You know: What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Cheesy, yes, but true. And I thought, What if this guy is God? What if every annoying person put in my path was God in some form or another, testing me? What if I’ve been failing that test again and again?
I took off my iPod. We were nearing the city. Outside were the murky swamps of Secaucus. Unexpectedly beautiful egrets perched and flew.
Then I heard it: staticky music. Not even a song, a snippet. Cher: Do you believe in life after love? Over and over. Do you believe in life after love do you believe in life after love do you believe in life after love. Where the hell was that coming from?
Oh no. Oh yes. It was “God” next to me playing it on his cell phone.
Maybe he was preaching. Maybe he was saying life indeed went on after your best friend broke your heart.
Or maybe it was just some annoying dude with his phone.
Test two: On the subway to my apartment. A seat opened so I sat. An older woman next to me said, “Do you want to switch?”
Switch? Switch what?
She pointed at the Chinese guy on her other side. “Do you want to sit together?” she asked.
The “positive” scenario played through my head. “That’s okay,” I could have said. I could have smiled and thought, She’s just trying to be nice. She doesn’t know any better. It makes perfect sense that two people standing nowhere near each other would be together based solely on race. Haha, racism’s funny!
“I don’t know who that is,” I said. I did not smile.
She laughed. (Why yes, racism is funny.) She said, “I thought you two were together.”
You’re an idiot.
Graham and I broke up not long after, fizzling out as quickly as we had fizzled up. I quickly gave up on trying to be positive. Being bitchy was way too fun. And just because I got fed up with strangers didn’t mean I was soulless because yes, like Cher, I still believed in love. I believed in happiness even if I didn’t find love again because there were so many small things that made me happy. A peaceful morning with a cup of coffee, wandering museums with my pals, running in the rain around the Reservoir.
So maybe the guy with the phone and the woman on the subway weren’t God. Maybe there were no tests. No negative or positive, no glass half-full or half-empty. Maybe there was just a glass (or maybe there was no glass – whoa). There was just this moment, now; there was releasing the pain of the past but remembering the lesson; there was restraining from predicting the future but embracing whatever it might bring.
But if you get in my way, I’ll still think you’re an idiot.