Elise was new in the seventh grade. She was beyond nerdy. She wore little wire-framed glasses and braided barrettes (so elementary school). She favored white turtlenecks dotted with tiny strawberries; she always got straight A’s.

I used to get straight A’s. In elementary school, good grades were effortless, but in junior high, my A’s turned into B’s, then C’s, especially in math. I only did well in Composition, where we wrote stories and poems. My mother took away my radio and Olivia Newton-John tapes till my report card improved.

When you got straight A’s, you got a certificate that said Outstanding Achievement, signed by the principal. I had yet to get one, but Elise got one every time.

“That’s disgusting,” I said to her once, spotting the certificate on her desk.

She scrunched up her librarian face. “What?” she said.

I had been trying to make a joke. “Getting all A’s. It’s really disgusting you know.”

“Huh?”

I sighed. “Forget it.” What a nerd.

Since the first grade I had been friends with Susan, who wasn’t a nerd but was very smart. My father said she’d probably be a lawyer. Since the fifth grade, I had known Marie and Lauren. Marie had long curling brown hair and huge eyes; Lauren was blond, tall, and rather chubby. She played Dorothy in our fourth grade production of The Wizard of Oz.  People still talked about how well she sang “Over the Rainbow.”

It was Lauren who made friends with Elise first. I don’t even know how. Lauren was always making friends with new, seemingly quiet girls, and bringing them over to our group, like stray kittens. Aside from Elise, she had also brought over Marie V. (now the original Marie would forever be known as Marie R.), darkly beautiful, and Andi, who at 5’10” would later become a model.

By eighth grade, Elise had changed completely. She wore contacts now and had cut her hair into a cute bob. She had gotten ridden of the turtlenecks and upgraded her wardrobe to 1985. Big shirts, long sweaters, and oversized pearls. Gone was the mousy grind who didn’t get my sarcastic humor. In her place was a tall and willowy ballet dancer, a navy brat who had lived in Italy and Hong Kong, a wannabe writer like me.

I turned fourteen that April. For my birthday, we went swimming at the Y, then to my house, where we gorged ourselves on cake and my mother’s fried noodles, egg rolls, and wontons. After my parents left for an all-night mah-jongg party, we went wild – dancing, screaming for no reason, doing obnoxious imitations of our teachers and classmates.

Elise had come straight from ballet, and still had on her leotard and tights under her clothes. Overheated, she stripped off her jeans and ran pantless through the house. (Why she didn’t just take off her tights, I don’t know.) I have a photo of her in mid-run, giant sweater half-off one shoulder, a goofy smile on her face.

That was the last time I was happy. While my friends blossomed, I stayed the same. One minute Laura was in sweatshirts and jeans, her dark blond hair limp against her head, the next she was in tight sweaters and skirts, a chic short cut freeing her face. She wasn’t chubby anymore but voluptuous. Random guys stopped her in hallway. “Your legs go on for miles!” one said. “You’re so cute!” another remarked, pinching her cheek.

No one pinched my cheek except my first grade teacher when I ran into her at TJ Maxx. You could barely see my face for the glasses and braces. My legs didn’t go on for miles, which Elise was kind enough to point out at a pool party.

“I didn’t know your legs were so short!” she cried, stretching her lanky ballerina gams out to the sun.

I grew to hate my stubby limbs, round face, and small eyes. One of just a handful of Asian kids in town, I wished I were Italian, French, or Irish. I longed for big green eyes and a pert narrow nose, a quiet mother who didn’t yell out the door in Chinese, a name that didn’t sound like a body part.

The more insecure I grew, the less I spoke. The less I spoke, the cooler I thought I might be. At lunch I did math homework instead of joining the conversation. On car rides to and from the mall – where boys always eyed Lauren and Elise, never me – I stared silently out the window while everyone else chattered and sang along with Crowded House, Bon Jovi, and Madonna.

But instead of being cool, I became forgotten, like the night of the eighth grade dance when Lauren and the others neglected to pick me up. It was a misunderstanding, Lauren said, hugging me when I finally showed up. They had thought I was meeting them there. But I didn’t know that while I waited, sobbing, in my room.

Ninth grade was worse. There were even more boys to ignore me and hit on Elise, Lauren, and Marie V. One was a junior who sat behind me in algebra II.

“Hey,” he kept whispering to me one day. “Hey.”

I knew he wanted to ask me about Marie V., who had a crush on him. Bu I pretended not to hear him, too shy to talk to most boys.

When I continued not to answer, he switched his tactic. “Hey, ching chong,” he said instead. “Ching chong ching chong.” Face burning, I kept ignoring him, as I did the kids at the bus stop when I was younger.

Suddenly the teacher stopped mid-lecture. “Scott,” she said, eyes burning, finger pointing. “Get out of my classroom. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

Chagrined, Scott picked up his books and left.

I didn’t feel grateful to the teacher, only embarrassed that she had heard.

* * *

That winter my father got a new job in a nearby town. He could commute, but my mother wanted a new house. We sold our old one – to the high school principal, of all people – and moved that summer.

I was excited. I’d be at a new school. I could be whomever I wanted – popular, athletic, student body president.

None of these things happened. At first I made friends with a couple of popular girls who were also new, but once they understood their standing, dropped me like last year’s jeans. But that mattered less at this school. What mattered was that I wasn’t the only Chinese girl. Far from it. Almost a quarter of the students were Asian, the children of immigrants. Having parents who spoke with an accent wasn’t weird; in fact some of the kids had accents themselves.

Boys looked at me. My braces and glasses were gone, and I felt more comfortable in my new preppy outfits. Was I – pretty? Dan Wagner thought so, and Ron Jones, but still skittish, I never said two words to them.

Later that same year, Lauren moved too. Texas. Unlike me, she was sad. She cried at school; she begged her parents not to move, but it had been decided.

After Lauren left, the group began to fall apart. We still saw each other sometimes, but mostly when Lauren visited. She had an older boyfriend who she lost her virginity to and who’d later kill himself. I couldn’t imagine such a thing. I hadn’t even been kissed yet.

Junior year, Elise suddenly decided she was a painter. I was surprised. In art classes, she had always struggled, or pretended to. Now she was producing picture after picture. I remember one: a woman with long tangled hair, painted in shades of blue. The word “blue” appeared throughout, in her locks, her lips, her arms folded over her bare breasts. Elise became so engrossed in painting, she switched to an arts high school in another town. She took photographs and started making films, often casting Andi in the lead.

Towards the end of high school, Susan and Elise stopped talking. I was never sure why. Perhaps Susan hadn’t liked the way Elise was behaving with her new artist friends; maybe Elise was tired of Susan’s judgments. Senior year, all three of us ran into each other at a piano recital. Susan and I had been taking lessons from the same teacher all those years, along with Elise’s sister. I talked to Elise and Susan separately while they gave each other cold looks above my head.

Once we all went away to college, I lost touch with everyone except Marie R., with whom I exchanged letters occasionally. From her I knew that Lauren was going to school in Dallas, Marie V. at Bucknell, and Andi at Baylor (later her whole family would move to Texas and become born-again Christians). Susan was at Harvard – studying archaeology, not law – and Elise was at NYU. Over the summers, she modeled.

I was in New York too, a hundred blocks north of Elise, but I never thought of contacting her. It had been too long. I called Marie R. once while she was still at NJIT earning her architecture degree, but the conversation was stilted. She didn’t seem interested in talking to me, and asked someone in the room for an exacto knife. That was the last time I talked to her, that I talked to any of them.

* * *

In the last decade, I’ve done my fair share of Googling my old friends. I know that Susan is a renowned archaeologist, and Marie R. a successful architect. Marie V. may live in London. Andi is married with kids, as is Lauren.

For a long time I couldn’t find anything on Elise. Surely she’d be famous soon – a filmmaker, a painter, a dancer, a writer. Whatever she wanted to be, surely she’d be.

Finally on a hot summer night in 2006, I found something.

By then I was divorced and living on my own in Manhattan. When I wasn’t dating disappointing men, I hid in my apartment, trying to write and surfing the internet.

I found it in a local paper in Virginia. Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, homemaker, died July 2 at her residence.

Elise? Dead?

Was is the same Elise? The age was right – she was a year younger than the rest of us – but her name wasn’t uncommon. Then I recognized her parents’ names and her sister’s.

Elise, dead. She is survived by her husband, Jeffrey Warren; children Isabel, George and Molly. Shocked I called home.

My father answered.

“Remember Elise?” I said. “My friend from my old school?”

“Elise,” he murmured. “I remember Susan.”

Of course he did. I’d known Susan since I was six. “Elise,” I pressed. I needed him to remember. “She was a ballerina. She came to our house.” She ran through it with no pants on.

“Maybe. Mom would remember. But she’s not here.”

“Elise died.”

“Oh no,” my father said, trying to sound aggrieved. But he couldn’t remember her.

The item didn’t say how she died, nor did a church newsletter I found. I called the church. A secretary told me it was cancer. I didn’t ask what kind.

“So many of her old friends have been calling,” the secretary said.

Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, homemaker, died July 2 at her residence. There was so much to reconcile. Elise dead, Elise a homemaker. It was shallow – after all, her husband was without a wife, their small children without a mother – but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Elise O’Connor Warren, homemaker, not world-famous director, best-selling novelist, or genius painter.

Somewhere along the way, she had decided to shed her skin again. Enough with being an artist, she had thought. Enough with modeling and hobnobbing with celebrities in Manhattan. I want to marry this man and live in Virginia and have three kids before I’m 30.

I was 34 then and nowhere near having even one kid. I didn’t know if I’d ever have any. Was I that different from who I was back then? I was still shy and still wanted to be a writer. I was less awkward and more confident. I was proud of my Chinese self. The shedding and growing of my new skin took much longer than it did for Elise.

Almost twenty-five years have passed since we were friends. I don’t know if I’d recognize any of them, or if they even remember me. I don’t know if I have a right to grieve for Elise. But when I saw Elise O’Connor Warren, 33, died, it was as though I did know her, had never stopped knowing her, and we were who were back then again, laughing and running wild.

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A long-time New Yorker, ANGELA TUNG is a writer in San Francisco. Her work has appeared in CNN Living, The Frisky, Dark Sky Magazine, Matador Life, The New York Press and elsewhere. Her Young Adult novel, Song of the Stranger, was published by Roxbury Park Books.

Her latest book, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl, chronicles the failed marriage between a Chinese woman and Korean man, both American-born but still bound by old world traditions. Black Fish was short-listed for Graywolf Press' 2010 Nonfiction Prize.

In addition, she's a writer/editor at Wordnik.com, an online word source, and has an MA in Creative Writing from Boston University. Visit her at angelatung.com.

29 responses to “The Beautiful Girls”

  1. It’s funny, how we often look at the present through a prism of the past, without even realizing. Great memoir. I felt like I was there.

  2. Quenby Moone says:

    I swear, I’ve written this piece in my head a thousand times: now I don’t have to! It’s so moving and heart-breaking, and strange, how our own lives catch us unawares. We think we know how something, or someone, has changed, only to realize that it’s trapped in amber. Did we change? Or were we too trapped by our own perceptions to notice what had really happened?

    What a moving piece. Thanks.

    • Angela Tung says:

      thank you, quenby. it’s hard to let go of our perception of someone and how we knew them, to accept that they’re completely different by now. but then it’s funny: when you see them again, once in a while there’s a tiny peek to who that person was decades ago.

  3. Marni Grossman says:

    There’s something about them. Those beautiful, coltish girls with the long legs and the doe eyes. They haunt you.

    • Angela Tung says:

      marni, that’s a wonderful way to describe them. sometimes now i’ll see some effortlessly beautiful young girl, and it’s like i’m that plain and doorky 13-year old again.

  4. I love stories about teenagers–I write YA, too. You have a great writing voice and such wonderful details. Thanks for sharing this!

  5. Running into people you grew up with is such a strange thing; especially the ones from primary school. I’m lucky – the best friends that I had when I was five are still, for the most part, the best friends that I have now. I can’t think of anyone I’d go out of my way to track down from that time.

  6. Angela Tung says:

    simon, i have just one friend i’m still actively in touch with who i knew since i was little, and a few others lazily on facebook. sometimes i’ll google people i remember from way back, even if i wasn’t friends with them. it’s interesting to see that a lot of the people from my NJ hometown kind of look like the cast of “jersey shore.”

  7. Simone says:

    Great piece, Angela.

    There’s a similar memory you conjured up in my mind, although too long to share here. I, too, was the left out dork while the pretty girls enjoyed themselves. Today, I have friends, but i can can count them on one hand.

    You certainly do have a right to grieve for Elise. Reminds me of a poem / paragraph I received via email a while ago. It’s called “A Reason, a Season or a Lifetime”

    http://www.piffe.com/love/reason.phtml

    • Angela Tung says:

      i like that! i think i go along expecting everyone i meet to be lifelong friends, and feel somehow rejected when they turn out not to be. but there are other kinds of friends out there.

  8. Turning back is always difficult. Forcing us to remember the many incarnations of who we once were while at the same time seeing ourselves by the not so flattering light of awkward adolescence. To any of us who were on the fringes – it appears enviable- that kind of easy life that magically makes you look better, attract the best boys, have a fabulous career.

    Perspective teaches us that of course, life is neither that easy or that simple. Nothing is guaranteed, nothing is forever…. past becomes present and present becomes past and undeniably this colliding of worlds is what makes us live in the now.

  9. Thomas Wood says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. You adequetly indulged the changes and the feelings and kept the pace moving. I’m comin up to my ten year, and though, through the magic of facebook, don’t generally suspect too many surprises, I am super eager to see what’s become of people. And isn’t so much of it a matter of seeing how we measure up? I think your writing measures up pretty well.

  10. Angela Tung says:

    thanks tom! i have a big high school reunion coming up next year, and have no intention of going. i went to my 10th only because my friend made me, and it was as i expected: i remembered everyone, no one remembered me.

    i always say i want to know what everyone is doing and what they look like without having to talk to anyone.

  11. This is a very moving, evocative piece. I lived with a woman in college, while we were studying abroad in London, who died a decade later while living among the Bedouins in Jordan, and it impacted me very deeply even though I had not seen her in 5 years and had maintained only very casual contact with her at all after the brief semester we lived together. Maybe it was because we lived together in a foreign country, or maybe it was just her, but her death really haunted me and also strangely inspired me. I ended up writing a novel loosely based on a similar situation (my friend had Cystic Fibrosis, and so does the protagonist of the novel), and it was really cathartic and also led to a lot of unexpected places and revelations that had nothing to do with her. I hope this piece did something similar for you.

    • Angela Tung says:

      gina, yes, writing the piece was cathartic in way, getting out all that old insecurity and resentment – sort of reliving it to the place where i am now.

      i there’s something about living with someone in a foreign country, even if for a short time. my cousin in china and i became very close in just six months, and really changed each other’s lives.

  12. Mary Richert says:

    Oh honey. Jeeze. This piece is twisting me all up. I love it. So glad you wrote it. So far, what I’ve read from you had a really strong clarity that hits me right in the ribs every time. Great stuff.

  13. Victoria Patterson says:

    I enjoyed this–seems like you could turn into a larger piece (or I would just like to read more!). Love the part about the friend bringing the seeming quiet girls to your group like stray kittens. And the image of Elise running through your house sans pants…

    I wondered–purely out of curiosity–if you changed the names?

    • Angela Tung says:

      i did change the names. i never know if i should include a note saying i did?

      it has crossed my mind that this could be part of a larger piece. for a while i toyed with the idea of writing novel based on this group of friends, or else incorporating this into a memoir. still not sure.

      • Victoria Patterson says:

        It does lend itself to something larger. This is going to sound sort of corny Field of Dreamish, but it’ll eventually find its way if you keep writing. It’s compelling material!

        As far as the name change thing, I’m not sure if there’s a rule. I’ll usually put quotation marks around the name the first time she/he is mentioned, just so reader knows I’m not using the real name. Or I’ll write something like, “Let’s call her Margie..” I suppose to allow a level of anonymity for the person, and also to let the reader know he/she is going to be reading something that requires a level of anonymity–all about piquing that reader’s interest!

  14. […] Angela Tung knows what’s […]

  15. D.R. Haney says:

    I personally change names, Angela, in pieces where I think those involved could potentially take umbrage. I’ve announced the changes in some cases (“the woman I’ll refer to as Anne”), while in others I didn’t. It gets weird, though, when people talk about “Anne” in the comments, instead of referring to her by her real name. “Anne” starts to seem more and more like a “character,” which in a sense anyone about whom we write is, as you know.

    In fact, “Anne” (I wrote about her by that name in a TNB piece entitled “The Dark Undone”) is now dead, but I changed her name to spare the feelings of her ex-husband, should he somehow discover the piece. (Such things have happened in the nine months that I’ve been at TNB.) And do you know how I learned she was dead? I found her obituary online. Cancer. I knew she was sick, but I didn’t expect her to die as fast as she did. She’d only phoned me a week prior to the Google search that led to the obit.

    So I can strongly relate to that aspect of this piece, and I can in another way also: I’m currently friends with a group of guys, most of them handsome musician types. Women flip over them, as they don’t over me; but then I’m the oldest of the bunch and nowhere near as winsome. And lately the group is beginning to fray, and I wonder at where we’ll all find ourselves in a few years’ time. It’s strange; I’d have thought I’d be done with this kind thing long ago, meaning high school, but life hasn’t worked that way. Life never works the way we anticipate, does it?

  16. Angela Tung says:

    that’s so strange – and sad – about anne.

    i change names more often than not, even if i’m still friendly with the person i’m mentioning and if he or she is reading the piece. i think it helps me put the story more at a distance, as though i’m writing fiction, and not just scribbling in my journal or blog. also, like you said, the person being written about may not want to be so exposed.

    and it is very strange when readers refer to that person by their pseudonym. like in my last piece, “bite me . . .” graham wasn’t the guy’s name, so it was funny to read the comments: “graham was such a dick!”

    i haven’t had a big group of friends like the ones i had when i was 13 (hmm, that sounds like a stephen king story). since then it’s mostly been a handful of close ones. in college, there was a large group of us asians who hung out, but it was a pretty superficial relationship, at least for me.

  17. […] was 14, and ninth grade was starting the following week. I was already nervous about it. I’ve written about it before: my friends were blossoming, and I wasn’t. My hair was either too short or went every which […]

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