The Beautiful Anthology can be purchased at Amazon. To order your copy, please click right here. (Note: in the coming days, TBA will be available via other retailers like Powell’s and BN.com. Ebook editions are also forthcoming.)
A round-up of high quality tweets from people in the world of literature…
March 22, 2012
My brother Greg has always been more daring than I am. When we were kids, he had no problem riding his bike up and down the highest hills, climbing trees nearly to the top, and taking the car out for a license-less spin at 14. But in many ways we’re alike. Shy, uncertain, afraid to try new things, afraid to fail.
We see faces in the mountains. An Indian chief with a headdress and war paint. Old men with long white hair and long white beards. Aliens, flat and unknowing.
Perhaps we’ve been looking for too long.
It’s Friday night, and like every Friday night, we go to see Joe’s parents.
On the drive over, Joe calls: “What do you guys want for dinner?” Usually it’s Korean take-out, or occasionally Chinese, though that’s too salty. “Chinese people don’t know how to make rice,” says my father-in-law, no matter how many times I say that restaurant rice isn’t authentic. Tonight it’s Korean.
We lay the food on the table. I set up Joe’s mother’s bowl: duk mandu gook, dumpling soup, over rice. At this time, she can still feed herself, though she’s a bit messy. We don’t care that she’s messy, but Joe’s father fusses over every dropped grain of rice, every dribble of soup.
After dinner, we clear the table and do the dishes. Joe’s parents go up to their bedroom. Joe and I go down to the basement living room. Joe’s parents don’t have cable so there’s not much to watch though Joe always manages to find some sports game. After an hour, I get sleepy.
In Joe’s old room, I change into my pajamas. There’s little of Joe’s childhood here. Some yearbooks, a few pictures. Mostly it’s his parents’ stuff. The room, like most of the house, feels crowded. His parents like to collect things. Jewelery, pocket watches, fountain pens. Vases, china, grandfather clocks. As the years pass, they collect more and more, and yet their house gets no bigger.
Soon Joe comes upstairs and climbs into bed with me. There are only twin beds in Joe and Billy’s old rooms. I try to sleep but I can’t. I’m squashed. I rise to go to the other room.
“You can’t take one night?” Joe says. He thinks that a husband and wife should always sleep in one bed, no matter how uncomfortable, the way he thinks of many things, that there is only one right way.
“Sorry,” I whisper, and steal down the hall. I stretch out on the empty twin. Outside a brook gurgles; somewhere a clock ticks. I sleep.
Joe’s father runs an acupuncture clinic on Saturdays. Some weekends, he has clients at the house. Once I met one, the daughter of his friends.
“What do you do?” I asked her before remembering she had been a trader on Wall Street before having a stroke at 35.
She bristled. “I stay home with my daughter,” she said.
“That’s great!” I said. I’m not one of them, I wanted to say. I don’t care what you do.
By the time we’re awake, Joe’s father is already out the door. At Joe’s parents’, everyone showers and dresses immediately upon waking, even on the weekends. At my parents’, we lounge in our pajamas, drinking coffee and chatting, till almost noon.
While Joe picks up breakfast, I help his mother shower. I used to be afraid to be alone with her. I didn’t know how to hold her, and was nervous she’d fall. But now I know.
First, I take her feet from the bed and turn them to the floor. Next I take her by her left arm and hand, and lift her up to sitting. I shift my hand to her armpit, and help her stand. Then we walk.
When you walk, you don’t realize how you move. You don’t know you lift one foot while pushing off with the other, then again with the opposite foot, then again, and again. People with Parkinson’s disease get stuck, like cars revving in mud.
Joe’s mother is stuck now. “C’mon, Mom!” I say. “One, two, three!”
She tenses. I know she’s trying. “Right foot,” I say instead, like a drill sergeant. “Right foot, left.”
Still nothing. She begins to drool.
“C’mon, Mom.” I nudge at the backs of her ankles, but she’s rooted. Instead of lifting, she pushes, digging deeper into the floor. All of her socks have holes in the same places.
I get in front and take her by both hands, the way Billy does. Joe doesn’t like it. “She’ll fall like that,” he says, although Billy is a physician and knows these things. But Billy isn’t here now.
In front isn’t working. I inch her forward, but her lower half doesn’t move, which means she’ll fall. The last resort. I get behind her, line up our legs, and stick my arms under her hers. Then I walk her like a giant puppet. She doesn’t like this, embarrassed by the proximity of our bodies, though by that point I wonder how either of us can feel embarrassed about anything.
In the bathroom I attach her hands to the towel rack while I pull down her sweatpants and underwear. Then I sit her on the toilet. While she goes, I pull off her sweatshirt, undershirt, sweatpants, underwear, and socks. The whole time I keep my eyes averted. Her medicine had taken away her appetite so that she’s mostly bones. Her legs are broomsticks, her spine like dinosaur scales. Only her stomach is fleshy, a wrinkled yellow paunch.
When the water’s ready, I stand her up and get her in the shower. There’s always a moment of panic as she steps over the metal threshold. I’m always afraid her ankle will catch and she’ll cut herself, or worse, she’ll trip and, slippery and out of my reach, I won’t be able to stop her from falling. She doesn’t fall. She steps over the threshold, turns herself, and sits on her plastic chair.
At this time she can still wash herself. Later she won’t be able to. Later she’ll get so bad, she won’t be able to feed herself so that one of us will have to cut up her food, put it in her mouth, wait for her to chew, to swallow, give her a sip of water, then start again.
If this is what it’s like to have a child, I’ll think, then I don’t want one.
After the water shuts off, I return to the bathroom. I dry her off and get her dressed. I comb her hair. You can always tell who’s taken care of her by the way her hair is combed. The caretakers and I let it fall into its natural part and cowlicks. Joe and her husband part it severely and slick it back. Billy takes the time to blow it dry.
I bring her to the sink. She holds onto the edge while I brace my body against hers. My hands free, I can ready her toothbrush. I hand it to her and she brushes her teeth.
“Take your time,” I tell her. The longer she takes, the more time passes, and the closer we are to leaving. In the walls of my mind are taped the hours of the day. Twelve, eleven, ten, nine. In my mind I cross out each one. She spits and rinses many times. Parkinson’s hinders swallowing so that her mouth is always full of saliva and phlegm. I wait.
I walk her back into the bedroom and onto her bed, easier now that her muscles have warmed. I smooth moisturizer on her face, over and around, like a facial. I put lotion on her hands. I rub Ben Gay into her bad leg. Billy says this is no use. There’s no muscle there, only bone, but she says it helps. I wash my hands for a long time, the Ben Gay tingling the webs of my fingers.
I’ve bought a book on Parkinson’s disease. There are exercises to help keep limbs loose and supple, and I perform these on Joe’s mother after her shower.
“You should do these on your own,” I tell her, bending one of her knees, then the other. “You should get Wanda to help you.” Wanda is her caretaker during the week.
She shrugs, and I know she won’t, though she appreciates my efforts.
Joe comes home then. I smell fresh coffee and fried potatoes. “Your wife practices damned good medicine,” she tells him. “My doctor said he could tell someone has been exercising me.”
I smile. But then Joe says to his mother, “You should have been exercising this whole time.” He returns downstairs.
I help her take her medicine. Joe thinks she takes too much. “You were a physician,” he says, “and you pop Sinemet like candy.” Sinemet is for stiffness. She does seem to take a lot, but sometimes she takes only half. Then again I don’t know what she takes when I’m not there.
Joe and his father are especially afraid she’ll take too much Valium, which is for extreme stiffness. “I’m freezing,” she says moments before an attack.
“You’re not freezing,” Joe always corrects her, although that’s what my book calls akinesia. “Freezing is very cold. You’re just stiff.”
I recognize many symptoms from the book. There’s ataxia, or loss of balance. Dysphagia, difficulty in swallowing. There’s dyskinesia, that extra, involuntary movement from too much dopamine, such as that found in Sinemet. There’s the resting tremor I see in her chin right before akinesia. I often know that freezing is coming before she does. I can try to calm her down before she starts to panic.
They keep the Valium where she can’t reach it – in my father-in-law’s study, on the top shelf. Usually I give in, figuring five mgs is so little. But sometimes I resist.
“Wait five minutes,” I tell her. “Let me watch this show till a commercial, and then I’ll get your pill.” For the next five minutes, she moans. Sometimes she cries.
I don’t think I’m being cruel.
For now though she’s not freezing and doesn’t need her Valium. I bring her downstairs.
Joe has already cut up his mother’s eggs, sausage, and hashbrowns. He studies the box scores intently as he eats his own breakfast.
I close my eyes and sip my coffee. Soon I’ll feel better. “If you feel like going out,” I tell Joe, “go ahead.”
Sometimes he buys groceries for his parents, or hits a few golf balls, or goes to an aquarium store. We can manage without him, and when he returns, he’s more relaxed and less angry. Besides, he comes to his parents’ again on Sunday, although his dad is around, and I do not.
“Maybe,” he says.
After he finishes eating, he stands and stretches. “Maybe I will go hit a few golf balls,”
When Joe is gone, his mother and I sit in the kitchen and finish our coffee. She often tells the same stories over and over, how people have wronged her – her siblings, her husband, her mother-in-law. When she’s clear, she makes sense. But sometimes she tells the stories in circles. She reaches a point, then says the same point again and again, like her foot digging into the floor.
Other symptoms I know about now are hallucinations, delusions, and dementia. Before this, I believed everything she said, like how as a girl she often visited a beautiful garden, where once a strange woman gave her a red coat. Or how at her medical school graduation the same woman appeared, bearing a white rose, the woman who is supposedly her real mother, not the woman who raised her, several years’ dead, but a woman who gave her up during the war, wealthy beyond our imaginations, living in nearby Connecticut, ignoring her daughter while she’s been sick for some unimaginable reason.
I believed my mother-in-law when she said this woman called her one day out of nowhere, after years of no contact, to ask if she wanted to get together for a cup of tea. When she said she pulled up to their house in a limo in the middle of the night.
“Your father-in-law told me,” she said, and pointed at the window. “He was standing right there. He said, ‘Your mother’s here.‘”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “It wasn’t a dream?”
She was crying. “It was real.”
I wanted to believe her. It seemed possible, not like probing aliens or talking dogs. Later I found out for sure.
“Do you know what she said?” said my father-in-law one night at dinner. “That her mother came here, in a limo! And that I was the one who told her!”
She glanced at me. I didn’t know if her look meant she’d been caught, or see, her husband was in on it too.
“You’re like my daughter,” she says now. “You’re like me.”
I don’t answer.
We finish our coffee and return upstairs. I turn on the TV and find a cartoon we both like. Next we’ll watch a cooking show, and then maybe Antiques Roadshow, her favorite.
“That’s our cake platter!” she’ll cry, pointing a wavering hand at the screen. “That’s my ring!” In her mind, her wealth grows.
To keep my hands busy, I darn the holes in her socks. She falls asleep, and Joe returns with lunch. I bring his mother down; we eat. I bring his mother upstairs; we watch more TV. She sleeps again. I fold laundry. She wakes up, chin trembling, and panics till I give her Valium.
Three o’clock. Four. When will Joe’s father come home? We don’t know. He never calls. He doesn’t feel he has to.
Five, and it’s getting dark. “Stay for dinner,” Joe’s mother says.
I feel the walls of my head closing in. I want to leave, to breathe, to be in my house with my husband.
“I don’t know,” I say.
Finally, Joe’s father walks in.
By the time we get home it’s almost eight. I’m exhausted.
“I feel like going gambling,” Joe says. He’s looser now. We’ve put in our time at his parents’, and he can, at least for now, release his guilt. “Wanna go?”
I don’t gamble. “I’ll be bored,” I say.
“I’ll get us a room at the hotel,” he says. “I have enough points.”
He knows that if I go, I’ll want to say at the casino hotel. That way, I can wander the gambling floor and head up to the room whenever I want. That way, I know he’s right nearby.
“You’re sure?” I ask.
He picks up his phone. He’s smiling now, humming a tune. In a few moments we have a free room. “A deluxe corner,” he says.
I feel myself getting excited. I’ll eat some bad food, watch TV, take a bath. Maybe Joe will win some money, and we can go shopping the next day.
We throw together an overnight bag, and head down to the car. As we get in, he says, “I love you, honey, I really do.” He turns on the motor and we’re off.
This is why I stay.
Excerpted from the author’s memoir, Black Fish: Memoir of a Bad Luck Girl.
The turtle is the biggest dead animal I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen plenty of birds – a smashed robin at curbside, a wren worn to its skeleton in our garden – but they were nothing like this. Shell smashed, each square outlined by orange flesh. I think of pumpkins, destroyed, on Mischief Night.
“Who’s gonna clean it up?” someone asks.
“The Russos,” Barbara says. “Or the Tungs. Since it’s in front of their houses.”
The Russo boy is only in kindergarten so he isn’t at the bus stop with us older kids, but we are, the Tungs, my brother and I. We’re there, yet the kids speak of us as if we aren’t.
“What do you think killed it?” a boy asks.
“A van,” someone offers.
“A big rig!”
Another boys scoffs, “A big rig wouldn’t even fit down this street.”
“The Tungs or Russos should clean it up,” Barbara says again, definitively, as though she has final say.
Neither of us answers. We both hate and fear Barbara, and never talk to her.
Our street is small and quiet. You can roller skate up and down, up and down, and never worry about cars. Now we stand right in the middle and stare at the turtle till the bus comes.
“There’s a big dead turtle in front of our house,” I tell Noah.
It’s Saturday, and we’re at Noah’s house. We play together every week when our parents get together for mah-jongg, but we don’t go to the same school. I wish we did. “How big?” Noah asks without looking up. He’s putting together an elaborate race track for his Matchbox cars.
“Really big,” I say.
“This big!” says my brother, spreading his arms wide.
“And it’s orange,” I say.
Now Noah looks up. “Orange? Turtles are green.”
“Some parts are orange.” I pause, then add: “I saw a fly eat it.” This isn’t true but it could be.
Now he looks intrigued. Usually it’s at Noah’s house that we find something new. Atari, an expensive board game, the newest Star Wars action figure. Now it’s at ours.
“I want to see,” he says, then jumps up and runs into the next room. “Mom! Can we go to Angela and Greg’s house?”
“We can go tomorrow,” his mother says over the roaring of the mah-jongg tiles.
“No, now! ”
“Ai ya, don’t fuss.”
He comes back pouting. “We can go tomorrow. Let’s play capture the flag.”
Noah’s backyard is vast. Ours is cut off by a wood, which makes our yard seem small, but we like walking in the wood, pretending we’re in Narnia or Teribithia, emerging with our shoes covered in burrs.
In front of Noah’s house is a a highway. Cars drive fast, and in both directions. No one needs to tell us not to go there.
Whenever we go out to play, Noah’s neighbors emerge to join us. Billy is my brother’s age, and is both the tallest and dumbest of everyone. He looks normal but talks slowly, and has a hard time understanding the rules of new games. He cries when Noah yells at him.
Billy’s yard is divided from Noah’s by a chainlink fence. Beyond the fence, we can see his yard scattered with toys, broken bicycles, moldy-looking lawn chairs. Billy’s beautiful but dirty white husky, Sasha, follows us barking as we run up and down Noah’s yard.
“Careful,” Billy says whenever any of us gets too close. “She bites.”
Richard and Robert are brothers and Chinese like us, but their parents don’t play mah-jongg. They don’t let Richard and Robert watch TV during the week, only on weekends, and they don’t let Robert, who is hyperactive, have sugar. I think Richard must not have sugar either, he’s so skinny. He wears glasses and not only has to get straight A’s, he has to get 100%’s on all his tests, or else he gets into trouble.
Robert is less smart. He’s only six, but I can already tell. He looks and sounds like a monkey, chattering in a high-pitched voice I can barely understand. His nostrils are often plugged with green-gray snot.
We play all afternoon, stopping only to dash into our houses and scarf down dinner. We play until long after dark.
After dark we catch lightning bugs. Noah and I are both good at this. We pluck the floating lights easily from mid-air. My brother and Billy are medium-good, though my brother once almost swallows one as he’s running. Robert squashes the bugs dead, but still glowing, between his grimy fingers.
Richard is best. He stands still and holds out his skinny arms, and one by one, the fireflies land on him. His hands and shoulders, even his head. They blink like Christmas lights.
“Richard!” a voice shouts across the lawn. Their back door opens, an adult shadow in a square of light. “Robert! Come home now!”
Richard shakes himself and the fireflies drift away. “Bye,” he says.
“Bye, bye, bye!” chugs Robert, running in circles before he follows his brother home.
“We should go inside too,” Noah says. We start up the grass, Billy close behind us. Noah stops.
“Go home, Billy,” Noah says.
“Go home, Billy!” Noah says again. We rush inside and close the door behind us.
The bright lights and noise are a shock. I rub my eyes as Noah and my brother sit at the kitchen table and start eating potato chips. Cupping my face to the window, I see that Billy is still there. Lightning bugs twinkle around him, but none of them land.
Noah never gets to see the turtle. He’s forgotten he has soccer practice on Sundays, and by Monday, all that’s left is a greasy spot. Cars drive over it as though nothing happened, but we kids avoid it for a long time. For a long time, we remember.
I used to be friends with the girls at the bus stop. Barbara, Michelle, and April. They’re a year younger than I am, but I liked to play with them. We rode our bikes or explored the wood. Once Michelle and I found an old chicken coop. Another time Barbara and I found a pumpkin field and, not knowing the field actually belonged to someone, helped ourselves. We told other kids about it, who also helped themselves and would eventually get chased away by the farmer.
“He had a rifle,” said a boy on the bus. He looked right at me as he said it, as though it were my fault, and for a moment I felt a thrill, as though I were famous.
Last year, Barbara and the others suddenly decided they didn’t like me anymore. They call me and my brother chink and ching-chong. Barbara especially, whose blond hair is always greasy and who has several dirty-faced little brothers who run wild through the neighborhood.
One day at school my brother tells Barbara to fuck off. He’s going to the bathroom when he sees her. As they pass, he looks right at her and says, “Fuck you fuck you fuck you.” She stiffens and says nothing.
But nothing changes after this. At the bus stop, Barbara and the others are the same.
Weeks pass. The days are the same, but not.
Noah tries to teach me chess. Each piece moves differently, and I can’t remember which does what, only that the pawn moves one space. Noah gets frustrated with me and gives up.
In the wood behind our house, we find a huge cocoon of gypsy moth caterpillars. We poke at it with a stick till it breaks open and caterpillar after caterpillar tumble out on long silk strings.
Noah gets cable TV. I see my first music video (“Freeze Frame” by The J. Geils Band) and my first movie with nudity (Looker, with Susan Dey). We watch Clash of the Titans again and again.
At our house, we discover our swing set is full of wasps. Somehow they have burrowed into the hollow metal tubes and laid their eggs. While we’re playing, they come buzzing out.
At our house, Noah falls. We’re walking on top of the edge of the couch, pretending we’re in the circus. Noah slips, tumbles, and cracks his head on the coffee table. He screams and all the adults come running. His parents hover over him while my mother yells at me.
“How could you let that happen?” she screams. “Why were you doing that? What were you thinking?”
It wasn’t my idea, climbing on the couch like that. In fact it was Noah’s, but this is my mother’s house, and so somehow it’s her fault, which means it’s my fault too.
At Noah’s house, Robert gets hit by a car. He and Billy are playing together when their ball rolls into the highway. None of us are there. We’re still in school, or doing homework, or with friends. None of us are there to look out for Robert, the youngest. To yell, “Robert, stop!” and grab him by the scruff of the neck. Perhaps Billy said, weakly, “We’re not supposed to cross the street,” but no one listens to Billy and so he’s not surprised when Robert doesn’t either.
My mother tells me this one Saturday morning. We’re both in our pajamas. She has a mug of coffee near her face.
“Robert’s dead,” she says.
“Oh,” I say.
I think of the turtle, but I can’t imagine Robert like that. I can’t imagine Robert being dead. My father’s mother died the year before. Lauren Marcus’ father died that winter. She’s the only kid in class, that I know of, with a dead parent. She was gone for a long time. When she came back, she didn’t talk to anyone, just sat at her desk with her face against her palm, making doodles. Lauren’s father will never come back, and neither will my grandmother, and neither will Robert.
This is all it means to me, being dead. You don’t come back.
The news of Robert’s death is so big, it travels outside our world, beyond the ears of Chinese people.
“Did you hear about that kid who got killed on the highway?” someone on the bus says.
I’m surprised to hear this, the way I was surprised when the boy looked at me when he talked about the pumpkins and the farmer with the rifle. I’m always surprised when I discover I and my world are not invisible.
We still play with Noah. Billy still comes over. He doesn’t seem any different. No one says it was his fault. How can it be? Everyone knows how he is.
We don’t see Richard. He must be busy, we think. Soon he’ll be in junior high, and he won’t have time to play at all.
We see his parents once. We’re pulling into Noah’s driveway when they emerge from their own car. It’s a gray day, and the wind blows as they hurry into the house.
“There they are,” my father murmurs.
They look right at us: Please don’t see us seeing you. They shut the door behind them. We never see them again.
One night at mah-jongg, Noah’s mother and my mother have a fight. My mother has won yet again. She wins easily but never brags. Noah’s mother, fed up with losing, throws her chips at my mother from across the table.
“Take your damned chips,” she says.
The silence is palpable. Someone attempts a joke. “You’ll put someone’s eye out with those!” My mother and Noah’s mother don’t speak for the rest of the game, and for many years afterward. We don’t see Noah again for a long time.
I wish I could say Barbara and I had a confrontation. But we never do. The most that happens is that one day, she comes to our door. When I answer it, she looks nervous.
“I’m selling magazine subscriptions,” she explains.
My eyes narrow. I’m in high school now. I have a large circle of beautiful friends. We walk down the hall, side by side, an impassable wall of hair spray and Jovan musk. Barbara’s still in junior high. She’s gotten fat.
“But you don’t have to buy one,” she says quickly. “I’ll just put down that I talked to you.” She scribbles on her clipboard, then runs off.
It’s in high school that I see Richard again, in the hallways, between classes. He’s an only slightly bigger version of his same skinny, bespectacled self. I should see Noah too, but now he goes to private school. The next time we see him will be many years later, after we’ve grown up.
I see Richard once face-to-face. My friends and I go to see the school play, Grease, and Richard is collecting tickets. I’m surprised to see him wearing a drama club T-shirt.
“Tickets please!” he says busily.
Will he recognize me? I wonder as we approach him. People don’t usually, even with my being one of only half a dozen Asian kids in the whole school.
“Tickets please!” Richard says again. Barely looking at me, he takes mine and rips it smartly in half. Handing the stub back to me, he moves onto the next person. “Tickets please!”
Without another word, my friends and I leave him. We disappear into the darkness of the theater. Over my shoulder I see Richard framed in the doorway, his T-shirt bright with light.
ANGELA TUNG, a longtime New Yorker who now lives in San Francisco, is, among other things, TNB’s resident expert on Chinese-American culture…which is a fancy way of saying she knows a good dumpling when she tastes one.
She loves her maternal grandmother, Puo-puo…and was haunted by the death of her paternal grandmother (and the genealogical issues it brought up).
Chinese New Year, she digs. Chinese Christmas? Not so much.
And if you think, after reading this, that she’s a negative person, you can bite me.
February 28, 2011
I’m thinking I need to start thinking so I can write a piece called, “What I Think About When I Should be Thinking About Nothing While I’m Doing Yoga.” I’m thinking I need to write this because while I should be thinking about nothing during yoga, while I should be focusing on the present, focusing on my breathing, I inevitably start thinking. I think writing about it will help me stop. Thinking that is.
The only pets I’ve ever had were hamsters. My friend Adam was the first to get them, a pair of fluffy teddy bears who did adorable things like stuff their cheeks full of food, run around in plastic orange balls, and sit calmly in Adam’s fist as he stroked their heads.
I’m the opposite of a hoarder. I give or throw away things a bit too easily. A favorite skirt and T-shirt among bags of donations, my wedding ring with a pile of junky jewelery, expensive pieces of furniture. While a hoarder avoids a decision about an item by keeping it, I avoid the decision by giving it away.
Not so with stories.
* * *
I paid a long visit to Bittertown this winter.
In his memoir, Half a Life, Darin Strauss describes the treatment for Complicated Grief Disorder:
[T]herapists force patients to relive the details of the death, making them repeat the minutiae of their pain into a tape recorder in front of an analyst. The patient then replays this tape – this doting agony chronicle – at home every day. . . .It’s not about making the tape, or listening to the tape. It’s about possession, about having the story in one place. “The goal is to show that grief, like the tape, can be picked up and put away,” [a New York Times article] said.
It’s a little like Buddhism (at least according to the very little I know). Imagine your grief is your hand; trying to smash it down expends effort; moving it is easier; it’s part of you but you can control it. But whereas in Buddhism, you’d release your grief and leave it behind you – your hand would become once again, just your hand – putting away that tape means keeping that tape. Keeping your grief. For writers, Strauss says, our books are our tapes.
No wonder being a writer is one of the most depressing jobs in America.
* * *
In 2004, my husband had an affair. Had an affair and got the woman pregnant. Just like John Edwards. I haven’t written too much about it here. I’m not sure why. Maybe because I blab all about it elsewhere on the internet, or maybe because now, more than a year after I’ve started writing TNB, I feel like I know people here. And for me it’s always been harder to tell difficult things to people I know than to faceless strangers.
Anyway, so this is what my memoir is about. This and our whole relationship. Twelve years. A full Chinese zodiac cycle.
At the time of Joe’s affair, I could only write fragments in my journal:
July 3, 2004: Joe did the most terrible thing. I don’t know what to do.
July 8, 2004: Didn’t sleep again.
July 11, 2004: Felt better this morning but now I feel awful again.
Six months later, I could only write about it in third person. It was only about a year later, after I finally decided to leave, that I could write about it fully, from my own point of view.
* * *
“This can’t be good for you,” a guy I dated for a (very) short time once said of my memoir writing.
I shrugged, but inside, resented his comment. One, I wasn’t some delicate flower who could be undone by the mere act of writing. And two, I wasn’t the one who still cried when talking about my breakup, who was so anxious to be friends with my ex that I fell into a depression when an outing soured. I cried enough while it was happening, and I had no desire to be friends with my ex. I didn’t need to prove that I was over him or that I was “grown up.”
In fact, I needed to be far away enough from what happened in order to write about it well. To see my life as a story and myself as a character. I needed the grief to be outside instead of in. My hand, you could say, instead of my heart.
But while I certainly haven’t fallen apart while writing (and revising and rewriting) my memoir, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bring up those old feelings of anger, resentment, and bitterness.
Paying a visit to Bittertown. Even after you leave, you still smell like it.
* * *
This winter I rewrote my memoir again, taking advantage of NaNoWriMo (and part of December) to flesh out the parts of the book that I had rushed over, and I was surprised to find that unlike with revising, as I rewrote I was plunged deep back into my past life, even more so, it seemed, than the first time I wrote about it.
I was 21 again and falling in love. I was in China. I was with someone for whom nothing was good enough. My parents were worried. I was hiding something terrible from them.
Even after I stopped writing, my head was still back there. I started to think my boyfriend Alex was like my ex (he’s not). I wanted to go to China again. I was furious again at my brother-in-law’s fiancee for telling me I should wear more makeup, for thanking me like a servant for helping my own ailing mother-in-law, for getting the bigger engagement ring, for snubbing my parents at a party because they were merely Chinese and not Korean.
When I talked to my mom, I worried that she was worried, and was surprised to find that she wasn’t, that she sounded happy, and I remembered that I was no longer with someone she hated.
For some reason, that same rage and hatred towards my ex and his mistress didn’t come up again. Maybe because my anger and hurt were so intense at the time that when it was all over, I had nothing left. Or rather, I simply couldn’t continue living with that rage, if I wanted to survive.
As for the other sections, why was this time different? Maybe because I’m in a relationship now. (My crazy is less obvious when I’ve no one to bounce it off of.) Maybe because those conflicts were never resolved. I never told my ex I felt nothing I did was good enough though I did let loose my fury at his betrayal. I never got into it with my brother-in-law’s wife the way I did with the mistress – calling and hanging up several nights a week, screaming messages on her machine, and one live phone call (Me: “Did you keep the baby?” Her: “Yes.”).
Maybe because it’s been a while since I looked this closely at the memoir. Maybe because in rewriting an already finished thing, I’m fiddling with something already alive. A jiggly green alien blob if you will, that out of nowhere scurries up the stick I’m poking it with, over my arm, and onto my face.
I’m glad to say that as I finished each section, I was able to shake the resentment blob. I booted 21-year old me to the curb. I quickly lost the desire to return to China (in fact I dreamed that I got a teaching job with the same school, then realized I really didn’t want to go back), and couldn’t care less about the woman who was my sister-in-law for a mere two years.
* * *
But remnants of the bitterness remained.
Or I’d like to think so. I’d like to think I can blame the rewriting of the memoir, the whole reliving the past process.
Because I got jealous. Over some woman. Who I don’t even know.
A writer. A successful writer. A successful writer who, quote, oh my god, never wrote before! and was a lawyer for 10 years! and decided one day, what the heck! she was gonna write a best-selling novel! and guess what! three months later she had an agent! and a well-accepted novel that’s making all the top 10 year end lists! and who is Chinese American! and lives in San Francisco! and is not me!
Bittertown: I’m baaaaaack.
And eating chocolate cake. In my pajamas. Followed by Doritos.
I know I shouldn’t care what other writers are doing, beyond work that inspires me. I know I should just read this author and be inspired by her work, her story. Or I should I realize her story is bullshit, or at least that she is the exception and not the rule, just like every couple who meets by chance, whose hands touch while reaching for the same book, or who get their nonfat chai lattes mixed up, or who see each other across a crowded subway car and know, just know, they’re listening to the same song on their iPods – I know all of that is only the stuff of romantic comedies created to fuck with our heads.
I should remember the quote I saw on a girl’s tote bag on the bus: Jealousy does the opposite of what you want. I should remind myself it’s okay to feel this. (It’s my hand. I can move it. I can let it punch me in the face, or I can let it feed me cookies.) It’s okay to wallow for a day or two. But then I have to let it go.
* * *
Bittertown is a difficult place to visit. There are bad memories and old worries at every turn. The residue of insecurity. And don’t forget those alien blob things. But it’s also familiar. It’s that damaged yet well-known relationship. It’s what kept me from leaving my marriage for almost a year. Do I stay and make do with this awful familiarity, or leave and enter the – possibly more awful – unknown?
Well, I think it’s time to pack my bags. To leave and visit a new place, tell a new story. It’s time to give the tape away, once and for all.
At half past five in the morning on a Wednesday Melbourne Airport is empty anyone but airline staff. The sun hasn’t yet risen, and the big bay gate windows face out into a vast darkness broken only by blinking red lights and the dim movement of the great shapes of planes.
Deserted airports are unsettling places. As many of the flights I’ve taken have been during peak traffic hours, I’m used to being surrounded by people; long lines of people, stretching away from the check-in desks manned by energetic, white-shirted staff with great skin, or waiting to be herded through the thin cream plastic gateways of metal detectors while security guards turn their heads away to joke with each other, but never with passengers, or standing bored at the boarding gate, the long blue-carpeted corridor and the sense of forward momentum that just being on a plane brings only a tantalising few steps away.
Sitting here all by myself is a little eerie.
I want to stay awake as long as I can, in order to reset to California time faster – if I can go to sleep eight hours into the flight from Brisbane, I’ll be well on the way to coaching my body over the line and past the worst of the jetlag on the other side of waking. But because I’m up so early, I’m already fatigued, and if I go to sleep too soon, I’ll end up setting myself back further. My plan is to sustain myself by drinking thin, complimentary airline coffee, the taste of which, inexplicably, I love anyway, and focusing on some writing I want to get done until it’s time to sleep.
The flight from Melbourne to Brisbane is OK, although Brisbane Airport is no place for a young man. Leathery middle-aged women with missing teeth and low-cut pink halter tops over their flat and freckled breasts and entire families resplendent in identical rat-tail mullets and Juicy Couture roam the halls, delighted with the presence of a solitary Krispy Kreme outlet staffed by a lone and defeated Indian man.
I make it through to my gate and find there’s no one here, either. Just a long concourse, clinical and neat in its white tiles and in its empty tables and chairs. It’s quiet; lifeless in a way that seems to have no expectation of ever being anything but.
Where is everyone today?
People arrive and sit in pairs and groups around the departure desk throughout the next hour. When boarding is announced and I take my seat on the plane to Los Angeles I wonder idly if there are going to be any young children sitting nearby. I’m situated two rows behind the main bulkhead, and as the plane starts to fill, my insides clench. Beside me is a family with an infant. To my right, a family with two toddlers. Ahead of me, two more families with young kids. As I watch, another two families, infants in tow, come down the aisle and take the rows across the aisle to my left.
‘Isn’t this nice!’ one mother exclaims to another. ‘All these families here! All the kids can play together!’
On cue, one of the younger babies starts to bawl, which sets off another on the other side of this grid of horror, this devil’s game of tic-tac-toe I have found myself imprisoned in.
‘Excuse me,’ I say to a stewardess as she walks past. ‘I see a seat up ahead is spare. Do you think I could…?’
Thank God, thank God, thank God I’m so good-looking, I think. She’s going to give me anything I want.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she says, smiling professionally. ‘That’s Premium Economy. I can’t let you sit there. But there are some seats spare down the back. After take-off, you could go and have a look to see if there are any still free? If someone else hasn’t beaten you to it?’
‘Thank you,’ I say, and sink back into my seat for take-off.
As soon as the fasten seatbelts light chimes off, I’m up and moving. Like a hungry ghost, I fly down the aisle.
And I see it.
An oasis of solitude – empty seat surrounded by empty seat surrounded by empty seat; row after row of unreserved space. With one smooth motion, I strip my jacket from around my shoulders and launch it through the air. It soars in a graceful arc, its empty arms lifting like the eagle wings of sweet liberty herself, and lands perfectly in the middle seat of one of the empty rows, a message to the thieves and jackals who couldn’t think as fast as I: mine.
That night we hit the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced, and my three empty seats bring me no comfort. High above the Pacific, one of my three blankets tucked under my chin, and my three pillows gently cushioning my head against the shakes and buffets of the squalling wind beneath our wings, I close my eyes and think Goddamnit. I’m never going to get to sleep on this flight.
I am right, and my next chance to close my eyes and rest comes at LAX. I catch a fifteen minute nap there, and thank God for the opportunity to sleep on the connecting flight to SFO, even if its only for an hour or so. After I’ve taken my seat, a pale and tousle-haired hipster kid slinks his way down the aisle. He is wearing jeans so tight I worry for his future children’s IQ, and a loose beige cardigan that matches his perfectly dishevelled, scruffy hair. He sits next to me, and before I take my nap I wonder what he would do if I warned him that sometimes I scream in my sleep.
But I do not, and I’m sure I will be sorry for this later.¹
It’s Wednesday, still, more than twenty four hours later, and I wake from a deep and dreamless sleep as we’re touching down in San Francisco and catch a taxi from the airport to my hotel. The Huntington is a towering old building just below the top of Nob Hill on California Street that I can only afford because of the cut-rate prices on Priceline.com. My room number is 11-11, which I take as a good omen.
‘What brings you here?’ the desk clerk asks as I’m signing in.
‘Halloween, man,’ I say. It is the first of a hundred times this week I will say this.
‘You came just for Halloween?’ he asks. ‘Really?’
It is the first of a hundred times someone will ask this.
At last, I will have my Halloween.
It’s Thursday, and Meredith texts that she and her friends are going to watch Game 2 in a bar in Glen Park. On arrival, I am greeted by a sea of Giants fans in orange and black, and a buzz of friendly noise. I order a drink, Meredith introduces me, and I have to ask the group: ‘So how do you play this game?’
The rules are explained to me, and suddenly the bar erupts as we score against Texas.
‘OK!’ A, one of Meredith’s friends says. ‘Let’s drink a shot every time we score!’
In the eighth inning, Posey singles up the middle. Holland walks Schierholtz and Ross to load the bases, then walks Huff. Lowe walks Uribe, Rentería singles to left field, and Ross and Huff score. In the space of five minutes, the Giants score six runs, and we decide it may be in our best interests to abandon the drink-a-shot-whenever-we-score rule. Instead, we start drinking freely, and when the game ends with us victorious, we pour out into the night looking for another bar.
This is much better than any Australian sport.
Just as I’d hoped, Halloween is everywhere and by serendipitous coincidence, with the city in the Series, the streets are decked out in orange and black.
Everywhere I look, there are carved pumpkins on porches, or toy ghosts hanging in store windows, or cartoon witches soaring on broomsticks through supermarket shelves.
It’s the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life.
My first real taste of the day comes as I’m getting a haircut at a salon a floor above street level. ‘Oh, quick!’ Joey the hairdresser says and puts down her scissors. ‘The kids from one of the schools nearby are trick-or-treating! You have to come see this, you’re going to love it!’
She drags me to the window and from our viewpoint about the street we can see the long lines of kids, held in formation by the watchful shapes of teachers, dotted at regular intervals along the column, dressed in costume. Sunlight glints off astronaut helmets, off fairy wings, off the blades of cutlasses worn through belts.
I hate all of the children. Their bright and shining faces remind me that this could have – should have – been mine, and it never was.
Also, one of them has a bitchin’ Lady Gaga outfit.
I could never pull that off, and I know it.
Saturday night is Meredith’s all-girl football team fundraiser. Ten bucks at the door buys unlimited PBR, and Sue’s packing a giant bowl of Jello shots. Me and Zhu and Emily, Kate and Tara and Lindsey, and Lyn and Erin and Casey shout at the TV as the Rangers take the lead in Game 3 and beat the Giants. We turn to the bottomless PBR to drown our sorrow. Someone puts twenty bucks in the jukebox. The fundraiser tails into an invitation to a house party in the Mission, and we drag ourselves away from Stray Bar in Bernal Heights and work our way there across 18th, across Dolores, by bicycle, by taxi, by car.
The house party is being held by someone named Tersch, a werewolf with a kitchen full of Brazilians. She paints my face in black and red and shows me where the drinks are.
Zhu and I make it our unspoken mission to have more fun than anyone else here. We drink the unfinished Jello shots, we shoot Tersch’s whiskey, and when someone starts passing around a bottle of Jager, we can’t seem to avoid it. Twenty minutes into the party, Zhu’s doing a handstand against the wall and I’m holding onto her boots while she drinks a cup of water upside down to cure her hiccups. A nerd and a Native American and Cupid look on and laugh as Zhu proclaims her temporary illness finally fixed.
Somehow, a half dozen of us end up sitting on the side of the street, under a blanket in the bed of Cupid’s truck, crowds of hundreds of migratory Halloweeners laughing and partying and shouting out around us. Someone steals Tara’s crutch while we’re not looking, and I run across the street to ask security at the nearby street party if they’ve seen it.
I see a girl sitting holding onto a crutch and I think Aha! I’ve got you now!
Then I see she’s wearing a giant moon boot.
‘Can I help you?’ she asks.
‘Oh.’ I say. ‘Well, see, someone stole my friend’s crutch, and I thought… ‘
She looks at me, and with the honesty of someone who’s been drinking for about six straight hours, I say ‘I figured maybe you’d be the kind of awful human being who would steal someone’s crutch, but now I see that you have that big boot on, so you probably need your crutch, but I kinda hoped that whoever stole the crutch maybe thought it was part of a costume, because who steals a crutch? So I came over to check, but it looks like you actually legitimately need your crutch, and you didn’t steal it from my friend. Oh. Both of your crutches, I see.’
‘Your poor friend!’ she says. ‘I wish I could give her one of my crutches.’
‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘Anyway, I’m gonna go.’
It’s Sunday, and I’m going to meet friends in a bar in Bernal Heights to watch Game 4 and grab a few quiet drinks. I catch the 22 to the top of the hill, and when I get off, the sky is still that perfect hazy shade of powder blue and ice-cream white.
I have no way of knowing that Bernal Heights is where people take their children for trick-or-treating. It’s like the whole suburban neighbourhood turns into a small town for the night – I crest the hill to see an ocean of people with their children, everyone in costume, wishing each other the best and knocking on doors. Jack O’Lanterns sit outside houses and stores alike; ghosts and witches hang from streetlights, the doors of haunted houses are thrown open to reveal thick cobwebs and polished skulls and grinning demons.
This is so perfect I’m almost on the verge of tears. This is everything I ever wanted from my childhood, and it’s right here. This is exactly how I pictured Halloween as being when I was a kid. I move through the crowd, taking photos, talking and smiling and never wanting to be anywhere but here.
Fear the Beard
It’s Monday night and Meredith and I are in the Mission. We’re sitting and watching Game 5 with two friends of hers. Lincecum is pitching what may turn out to be the game of his life – firing off eight innings of death from the mound. I wonder if he’s related to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and why his face looks like it’s always going to crumple into tears.
The ninth rolls around with the score 3-1 to the Giants. Wilson takes the mound. He strikes out Hamilton, Guerrero grounds out, and Cruz takes the plate.
We’re watching the game on a TV with a delay of maybe two seconds, so as we see Wilson wind up for his final pitch and a roar suddenly goes up over the Mission, we know we’ve won.
Meredith and I take to the streets to meet some people I know, and the city has become a madhouse. Everywhere, Giants fans are roaring, running through the streets, slamming their palms down onto the horns in their cars. There are cops and roadblocks in the Castro, while people shout and sing and throw rolls of toilet paper over the streetlights. No one is inside; it’s like we just won every war that’s ever been fought.
Later that night, as I’m walking down Market Street, I come to a pedestrian crossing in front of a line of cars that goes back three blocks.
Unable to help myself, I yell ‘Go Giants!’ and the intersection explodes with the sound of people calling back to me and honking their horns. I’ve never seen anything like it.
The next day I read that people were burning mattresses in the streets.
Those guys party much harder than I do.
Jornada del Muerto
It’s Tuesday, and we’re in a giant open warehouse with a skull-headed DJ playing beats. For five dollars, make-up artists will paint your face with spray guns, shading paints, brushes and pads and pencils. But there are too many people here, and the line is too long, and the parade starts at seven. Zoe takes me to the DIY table and makes me up with black eyes, a hollow nose, and lipless teeth. She makes up Lexy too, before we head off for the parade. The organiser with giant hoops in his ears is bitchy about giving me my money back.
‘Well, I guess you’ll have to get here earlier next year, won’t you?’ he says.
Well, I guess that would help if I lived here.
Five of us start off through the Mission, following the route of the parade for Dia de Los Muertos, but Zoe’s stylist, whose name I can’t remember, hangs back to meet some people. Lexy and I and the other girl, another forgotten name, lose Zoe, then find her, then I lose the group. We stay in phone contact as I wander through crowds of the dead. Hundreds, thousands. Skulls and candles and offerings are everywhere. A giant black coach emblazoned with calaveras moves slowly through the mass of people that packs the streets. People hoist paper skeletons high on poles. Dead women in white dresses and dead men in black suits move through the crowd to the beat of graveyard drums.
I find myself at the head of the parade; dancers in long headgear shake and writhe under long banners. Somehow, I’ve overshot the mark of meeting everyone. There’s an anonymity here, all of us dead together and reaching out to offer a spark of life and love to that other black world that crowds in around us tonight.
I can’t believe I’ve never been to Dia de Los Muertos before.
This is the best week ever.
It’s Wednesday, and I start to realise just how much I miss it here as I walk into Walgreen’s for the first time.
I miss the way the light breaks over the top of houses in Bernal Heights and Noe Valley.
I miss the way coffee shops with dark wooden interiors and twentysomethings with yoga mats using Apple computers sit alongside Starbucks full of professionals with that wholesome mid-Western American look.
I miss that cold clean breeze that moves through the streets when the end of the afternoon starts to deepen into the start of twilight, and I miss the inexorable chill that signals the sun is going down.
I miss standing on the porch in the Castro and seeing the city spread out in front of me at night.
While I’m here, I walk from Chinatown to City Lights bookstore. I catch the Muni as much as I’m able, from Powell to Church, to the Castro. I catch the BART out to the Mission. I walk through Nob Hill, through the Mission, through the Embarcadero. At long last, I catch a cable car. I sit in Barnes and Noble and drink caramel lattes, and I want to be back here.
We drink at the Lex, we drink at the Argus, we drink at Stray Bar. We get coffee at Philz, at La Taza, at Urban Bread.
I get lunch with Angela Tung, and a bird relieves itself in my hair.
I sit in Dolores Park with Meredith, and we talk about traveling and settling down.
I buy a Giants cap at the Westfield Mall, and, unwittingly, take off and throw away the hologram on the brim that will result in it being worth money some day. I don’t care; I’m never selling this thing.
I promise myself that I’m going to get back here. Some way or another.
It’s Wednesday, and I arrive, exhausted, at the Grafton, on Sunset. I make a couple of calls, send a few texts, and open up my laptop to discover that the loose casing (my fault) has finally cost me. A wire is visibly broken, and my computer won’t turn on. I sit down on the bed and wake up the next morning.
My American Year
It’s Thursday, and my friend Erinn comes into town from Ventura and spends the day ferrying me around. We go to Olvera Street and I buy a bunch of Dia de Los Muertos souvenirs for people. I pick up a 50-piece jigsaw puzzle for my mother, suddenly acutely aware that I have never once brought her back anything from overseas.
Better late than never, right?
We head out to the beach and I insist we find a place where I can buy a yearly planner for 2011. My reasoning is that if I buy it in America, it will be a sign to the universe that 2011, for me, will be a year spent in America.
I’m wearing my Giants cap, and we pass a woman wearing the same as we cross the streets.
‘Go Giants!’ I say, cheerfully. The woman stares at me blankly as we walk past.
‘Who were you talking to?’ Erinn asks. I shake my head and make a note not to show off any more.
Then as we’re in line at Barnes and Noble, where I’ve found a planner I like, I see a guy wearing a Giants cap two places ahead at the counter. He sees me looking at my hat as I see him looking at mine. He doesn’t say a word, just gives me a silent, satisfied nod of affirmation. Erinn laughs beside me.
‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘I saw.’
It’s Thursday night and I can’t help it; if I think of Hollywood I think of Los Angeles, if I think of Los Angeles, I think of Lenore and Duke. If I think of Lenore or Duke, I think of Los Angeles, and I think of Hollywood. It’s just the way it goes.
Lenore and Duke pick me up from my hotel and we go to Delancey’s for dinner. I like that this is where we go when we’re together in Los Angeles, like it’s kind of where you go if you write for TNB. There’s an empty place at the table for four, and we allocate it to Zara, who calls a few moments into the meal. The food, as always, is good. Duke gets the chocolate cake for dessert, and I am jealous, as his choice is superior to mine.
It’s good to see them, and it’s strange to think I just got here and already I’ll be leaving tomorrow night. On the way back to the car we pass a cat who wants to play with us, and we decide that Zara’s place in the group can be taken by our new cat friend.
I secretly cannot wait to tell Zara she has been replaced by a cat.
It’s Friday, and I’m hanging out with my friend Linz. I’ve stolen Ben Loory’s delicatessen, Greenblatt’s. This is his place, as far as I’m concerned, but I want the hot pastrami dip sandwich. I must have it. I can have nothing else. The waitress is from San Diego and makes idle chatter as we wait about how good San Diego is, but has trouble pulling out specifics.
‘Hang on,’ I say. ‘We’re going to settle something.’
I call Joe Daly and ask him what the best place in San Diego is.
‘My house,’ he says, sounding surprised that such a question would even occur.
I promise Joe that Zara and I will make our next trip soon, and we will come to San Diego.
The day goes by too quickly, and soon I am back at LAX. I talk in my bad Spanish to the woman in front of me at the security checkpoint. She is from Colombia and going to Wisconsin, of all places. She is old, with bad teeth and a shy smile. We sit together after going through the metal detectors and put our shoes back on. Something falls from her bag, a piece of paper, and I hand it back to her.
‘Gracias, senor,’ she says.
‘De nada, senora,’ I say in reply. ‘Que tenga un bueno noche.’
‘Si,’ she says. ‘Y tu.’
I have no idea how to say, ‘I’ve had one of the best weeks of my life and I don’t want to go back to Australia yet,’ in Spanish. We haven’t covered that at El Patio Spanish Language School. So I smile and go to catch my flight, and in my head, I am laying plans for my return.
This week I have had my first baseball game, my first Halloween, my first Dia de Los Muertos. I have drunk my first Old-Fashioned, eaten my first tamale, done whatever it is you do with your first Jello shots. I have seen people I love and don’t see enough, people I don’t see nearly as much as I want to, because they’re so far away.
I could do this week every day of the year.
¹ – correct.
I was 20 and still a virgin the summer I met the gang girls.
Karen was Chinese and from Queens. Yumiko was Japanese, beautiful, and cursed like a Brooklyn dockworker. They both smoked.
My first day, Yumiko hollered at her boyfriend Pip, who was Filipino and also worked in shipping: “WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING!”
Pip jumped ten feet, and we all laughed, but still Yumiko said, when my boss came by, “I think I scared her.”
“You didn’t,” I said. Yumiko didn’t answer.
The truth was she and Karen did scare me, but not in the way that they thought. While I knew they could kick my ass from here to the Cloisters, I was more scared of what they thought of me, the suburban Asian girl with a voice like a newscaster’s.
I’d just finished my sophomore year, and was living by myself on campus. I needed alone time, lots of it, away from roommates, fighting friends, and nitpicking parents. In the evenings I’d run on our gym’s track, then have some sad semblance of a dinner concocted from the local market’s salad bar, toast, cream cheese, and canned sardines. TV-less, I’d write in my journal, filling page after page with daily minutiae, and I’d read the books we got at work.
My internship was in editorial. Everyone else in editorial was white. While Karen and Yumiko answered phones and click clacked through inventory on their green screen computers, we read dozens of books – or book jackets at least – and wrote pithy blurbs to go into little catalogs that went out to snobby bibliophiles once a quarter. When the World Wide Web came around a couple of years later, our little operation would be rendered obsolete.
Till then we worked on the same floor as the fancy schmancy New York Review of Books. Its one-armed editor was our editor too; the son of the poet Adrienne Rich was on its staff. Spotting him was almost like spotting a celebrity.
“Do you even speak Chinese?” Pip asked me.
I wasn’t afraid of Pip. “Yes,” I said.
“You don’t sound like you do.”
“How should I sound, Pip?”
I was two when we moved from Oakland to Queens. We lived in Queens for exactly one year before making our escape to the suburbs of New Jersey. Now that I was going to college in Manhattan, I wondered how I’d have turned out if we had stayed in the city. I might have gone to Stuyvesant or Brooklyn Tech. I might be tougher and less shy.
Or I might be completely sheltered, like my classmates from Chinatown who stayed on campus all week and went home every weekend, who had never been to the American Museum of Natural History or the Met.
“Never?” I squeaked. I’d been to each at least four or five times, between class trips and sojourns with my father.
They shrugged. School for them was about getting straight A’s and passing the Regents. Their dads were too busy working 24/7 to take them anywhere.
Karen and Yumiko weren’t in college although they graduated from Stuy, one of the city’s top magnet schools. Straight A’s weren’t their thing. Cutting class was, and dating Chinese gang members. The Ghost Shadows, the Flying Dragons. They recognized half the guys in the mug shots of a Chinatown history book I brought in. They knew someone who knew someone who knew the Uncle Seven, the Canal Street Godfather.
The boys in my high school played lacrosse. They wore pink sweaters thrown over their shoulders and loafers without socks. The girls were grade grubbers or cheerleaders. Some were grade grubbers and cheerleaders. One group of goody-two shoe Chinese girls who all ended up at Cornell had been dubbed “the Chinese mafia,” though they probably would have shat twice and died being anywhere near the likes of Karen and Yumiko.
* * *
The first time I heard the term “banana” was freshman year. I saw a flyer for a rap session: “Bananas: A White Man’s Best Friend?” I had no idea what a “banana” was or how it could be anyone’s friend, but it was hosted by a club called the Asian Women’s Coalition, which sounded pretty cool to me.
The room was packed. Apparently being a banana, or not, was a big deal. People argued about what it meant to be Asian – not just Asian, Asian American. What if you didn’t speak the language? What if you preferred dating white guys? What if you had a Texan accent like the Korean guy sprawled across the radiator? What about assimilation? Gentrification? Wasn’t this a melting pot? No, a mosaic!
I still didn’t know what a banana was.
Finally, someone asked: “I’m sorry but what is a banana exactly?”
The woman running the show snorted. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”
Someone else answered, thankfully: “Yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”
Was I a banana then? In junior high I did wish I were white, but now I didn’t. Was I residual banana? Was that a thing? Would I lose points in the game of early ’90s Political Correctness? What would I get if I won?
* * *
There were girls like Yumiko and Karen at my college too, I realized. Like my friend Rosana who once when I playfully punched her on the shoulder, stiffened like she was trying her hardest not to knock my block off. Who hit the deck whenever she heard a car backfiring. Who told me, “I’d have beat you up every day in high school,” after seeing a photo of me with long straight hair, pearls, and a Laura Ashley dress.
Like her friend Mei who was 80 pounds soaking wet but still threatened to pummel my roommate Judy for always staring at her dyed blonde hair.
“You have to stop, Judy,” I told her.
“I can’t help it!” she cried. “What Asian has blonde hair?”
The kind who can kick your ass.
* * *
The more I got to know the gang girls, the less they scared me.
Like me, Karen was learning Mandarin. We discussed characters, drawing them in the air or on our hands. Yumiko spoke Japanese fluently, and her voice would go all soft and flowy when she talked on the phone with her mom. But while I felt I understood them better, I knew they still didn’t get me.
“Okay, Angela, I have to know,” said Yumiko one day out of the blue. “Do you only date white guys?”
I hadn’t dated any guys by then. Had never even been kissed. I’d been on two (disastrous) dates, both in college. At the end of the first one, the guy left me at two in the morning to walk the two blocks home by myself. The other was a literal blind date with a blind guy, who I wanted to like because he was a musician and poet, but in the end couldn’t get past his girth, the way his eyes rolled in opposite directions, and his long pale fingers that were always moving – on his beard, over the platter of Ethiopian food, across the table reaching for my hand.
I thought of mentioning my crush Bernard, an engineering student. Like me, he was an American-born Chinese from the ‘burbs – Long Island in his case – and till college had had mostly white friends. I called him all the time although my mother warned me not to be too eager. What I didn’t know was that summer he was courting a girl from Taiwan, a girl who always wore dresses, and never swore, and covered her eyes during violent or sexy scenes in movies. What I didn’t know was that to Bernard, I might as well have been another guy.
“Race doesn’t matter to me,” I said.
Yumiko exhaled streams of smoke through her delicate nostrils. I knew she didn’t believe me.
The truth was Bernard was the first Chinese guy I liked. Till then my crushes were Jewish, Italian, and plain white. To me, Asian guys were like my brothers, my cousins, kids I’d known since diapers.
Till Bernard of course.
* * *
I grew to like the smell of cigarette smoke. I filched one of Karen’s and tried smoking it in my room. I watched myself in the mirror. I liked how the cigarette looked in my hand, but plumes kept rolling uncontrollably out of my nose.
I kept calling Bernard. I kept writing in my journal. I wrote about something that happened that was so upsetting, I ripped the paper with my pen. I can’t even remember what it was. One of those random racist things from some guy on the street.
I told Bernard how I tore the paper getting so mad.
“That’s. . .scary,” he said.
We were on the phone. “What’s scary?” I asked. “What happened?”
“No,” he said. “That you got so mad.”
I snorted. “Didn’t you throw a glass against the wall once because you were mad?”
“Yeah, but I’m a guy.”
I twirled the phone cord. I should have said something – to Bernard, to the guy on the street. The gang girls would have. Karen, Yumiko, Rosana, Mei. They’d have flipped the bird at least. They’d have composed a cacophony of curses; they’d have thrown something, called up an old boyfriend just sprung from jail.
“You should get out more,” I said. Then I laughed. It was a joke, see? Maybe you’ll still like me. “So what else did you do today?”
These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears. – William Shakespeare
The bird is the word. – The Trashmen
I love my job.
I love my job because it’s not my old job. At my old job, you were expected to dress, talk, and act a certain way. You were expected to be a team player.
August 27, 2010
On the flight from LA to SF I sat between a burly guy named Ken and a skinny young guy, whose name I forget. I feel a little bad that while I don’t remember his name, I remember that he misheard my introduction and called me Sam.
I like it when people mis-hear my name as Sam, which happens more often than you might think.
I wonder who this Sam guy is.