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.
When I was twelve, my mother and my newly acquired stepfather moved our post-divorce family to Newport Beach, California, along with my black Labrador retriever, Skipper. Skipper did not like Newport Beach. Although he was living in one of the most affluent neighborhoods in Southern California, his new back yard was limited to a small cement patio; coming from his former living quarters, with a back yard replete with grass and flora and swimming pool, he was apathetic to the trade-off of status and an ocean-view. Despite his growing depression, he never lost his inflamed sexual appetite. Even the leg of a patio chair served his purposes.
Skipper was not the only one having trouble adjusting to paradise.
Soon after our move, I took Skipper for a walk, and he chose a choice piece of lawn in front of a mansion that overlooked the ocean. He did his sniffing thing, becoming more agitated and excited at one particular section.
His hind legs scrunched and he plopped his rear close to the grass, in position. His legs trembled and he pushed out a green-tinted (what had he been eating?) poop, and then another, and then one more: three logs, a defecation code, pointing to the sea. Amazingly, they were the same size, as if he’d measured them with a ruler.
Since our move, I’d made a bad habit of not bringing the obligatory plastic baggie for excrement disposal during our walks. Along with my general adolescent indolence, it was a misguided rebellion, using my dog’s waste product as a temporary graffiti marker in the perfectly groomed, staggeringly beautiful surroundings.
Just as we were making our get away, a hand grabbed my elbow and pulled me back.
“Pick it up,” a man ordered. He was middle-aged and balding, with glasses.
I explained that I didn’t have a baggie.
“Use your hand,” he said, shoving me, so that I had to crouch on the grass. He continued to grip my arm, leaned over. “Push it in the gutter.”
I begged the man to allow me to go home and get a baggie.
He wore Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, but he looked uncomfortable, as if he belonged in a business suit. His feet were pale and his legs were hairy.
“Do it,” he said.
Humiliated, I rolled the three sticky segments with my fingers, one at a time, across the sidewalk and another patch of grass, until they dropped into the gutter. I did it as fast as I could and I had to scoot on my knees as I moved. The man continued to grip my arm, moving with me.
“There’s more,” he said.
I felt the tears on my face. He was referring to the glistening byproduct left on the individual blades of grass, wanting, I understood, for me to use my fingers to pinch and slide the residue off.
Instead, I stood, and he pushed me. Skipper and I ran. The palm trees, mansions, and grass blurred together. I was crying loudly.
Dogs weren’t allowed at Big Corona Beach but we went anyway. I left my shoes in the sand, and I unhooked Skipper’s leash, so that he could swim toward a group of seagulls lolling on the current. There were blotchy marks on my arm where the man’s fingers had gripped me. The waves crashed around me, and I lowered my hands, so that the foam washed my fingers.
I vowed never to tell anyone, and to get my revenge.
I was going to do the old tried and true light a paper bag full of dog poop and ring the doorbell and run trick, appreciating the idea of the man stomping out the fire and getting Skipper’s dung all over his nice Italian leather shoes.
As it turned out, I was too afraid. What if I wasn’t fast enough? The man had really scared me.
I settled on cracking a couple of eggs in his mailbox.
I wish I could report that Skipper and I carved out a fulfilling existence in our new surroundings, but the truth is that we never adjusted. And one afternoon, I came home from high school to discover that my mother had sent Skipper packing. For the best, she said, informing me only that his new home was on a farm somewhere, and that he had enough room to run and run and run to his heart’s content. And it was that image of Skipper that consoled me, imagining him chasing all kinds of fowl and farm animal; playing an endless game of fetch; attempting coitus with varieties of things, both animate and inanimate; and, when in repose, resting in a patch of shade, and panting slightly—tongue quivering at the side of his mouth, eyes squinted—in complete pleasure.
As for me, I continued to rebel against Newport Beach, mostly in ways nonproductive. And twenty-three years since the day I came home to find Skipper gone, I still carry a photograph of him in my wallet.
An unclad young woman stared at me from across the room. A straight line ran from her pointed breasts to my line of vision. I took a sip from my beer. Topless, unabashed, she positioned herself against the wall in a rather somber pose, half sobering considering the atmosphere. I took a drag from my cigarette, another sip from my beer. I wiped the froth from my lip. She had yet to blink, kept looking in my direction. Some specimen she was, I thought silently.
I exhaled a cloud of smoke and it hung heavy overhead like empty time. I walked her way. As I approached, she titled forward falling. I caught her, stood her back on the wall, and secured the loose piece of scotch tape that kept her shoulders square, her posture in perfect alignment.
Her name was Amanda. She was a sucker for the shy type. She was a late bloomer, she said.
She straddled a Harley Davidson motorcycle and wore a pair of black leather assless chaps. Amanda was one of various nude women, which served as wallpaper in my cousin Gary’s home.
He was a bachelor.
He drank whiskey.
He wore a leather beret.
He listened to Willie Nelson.
He once traded hats with Willie Nelson after a Willie Nelson concert.
They didn’t smoke marijuana together afterward.
It was getting late. The wee hours of the night tugged at my eyelids. My nostrils widened. Blood shot and dry, irritated by the cigarette smoke lingering in the air, my burning eyes did their best to water. I brought my hand to my mouth and let out a deep yawn. Jeremiah looked my way. His eyes closed. His nostrils widened. His mouth opened and springing from the pit of his stomach a deep yawn arose.
“I guess…. it’s like…. they say—” I said to him, finishing my yawn.
“Contagious is right,” he responded.
I dropped my hands to my side.
Wu Tang entered the speakers. The RZA, the GZA, Raekwon, and the rest of the Clan verbally assaulted us spitting more heat than a woodstove in winter….
You can’t party your life away
Drink your life away
Smoke your life away…
One by one, drunken teenagers and young twenty-somethings saturated in wildly wandering hormonal distress stood in a single file line down the hallway guzzling cheap American beer. With all their shouting, grunting, and vocal might they attempted to revive the once vibrant game of Waterfall that had so consumed them an hour earlier.
Their calls were moot at this conjecture in the night. Cal Adams stood tipsy on the tips of his toes, chugging a beer.
One cold can after the next, participants dropped like flies—beer foam all the while dripping from their lips and chins, giving them the impression of rabid raccoons rocking steady to the beat across the room.
I looked in Jeremiah’s direction and noticed him wobbling. His head bobbed from side to side. His hips swayed. His bones danced a jiggly, gelatinous dance. His body swayed like a drunken vessel….
He opened the front door. We both trailed out, lit our respective cigarettes, and surveyed the scene.
Numerous friends of ours lay before us in Gary’s front yard. Some were curled up in the fetal position. Others were slumped over the rail on the stoop blowing chunks of Natty Light and Pabst Blue Ribbon from their jowls.
In spit-filled slurs slung sideways, they promised empty promises: “I’ll never drink this much again,” only to drink that much and more the following Friday down in the boonies of southern Virginia.
Charlotte Court House.
We all were born and raised in a county without a single stoplight. We celebrated our boredom the same way every weekend. We had no music venues. We had no bars. No clubs. No movie theater save the drive-in.
We celebrated our existence, our invincibility at Gary’s on Scott Rd.
“This is the famous Budweiser beer,” I said flicking my cigarette, walking back into the house. “We know of no brand produced by any other brewer which costs so much to brew and age. Our exclusive beechwood aging produces a taste, smoothness, and a drinkability you will find in no other beer at any price.”
“Get this bumbling idiot some water,” Gary said.
“Yes, you. And tell your buddy, what’s his name—” He pointed in the direction of my friend Derek who was passed out on the couch with a cigarette still in his mouth. It had burned its way down to the filter.
“Yes, Derek. Derek Smith. Tell him not to come over to my house again unless he’s wearing a shirt. Do I need to post a sign on my front door that reads, ‘No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service;’ huh, do I?”
Derek rarely wore a shirt anywhere. He wasn’t some macho asshole. He just didn’t like to wear a shirt. Half the time he didn’t wear pants. That night at Gary’s he had on pants: camouflage cargo pants. Derek had signed up for the National Guard. He was due to leave for boot camp in a few weeks.
Derek used to sit in the parking lot at B&D Mart in our hometown of Phenix, Virginia, in the broad daylight in his tighty-whitey boxer-briefs with a Camel unfiltered hanging off his bottom lip, shaving his face with the Norelco electric razor his parents had given him. He shaved his face everyday with that razor. He kept it charged in the A/C adapter, this all despite having minimal facial hair at the time. The type of facial hair you have when you’re in high-school.
Unless you were Dwayne Davis.
Or Jimmy Lovelace. Also known as Paco. Or Mustapha. Whether he looked Mexican or Arab depended on the season.
If it was summer or fall, Jimmy looked Arab. If it was winter or spring then Mexican.
Jimmy got the nickname Paco when the two of us enrolled in summer school after 9th grade. We both had flunked Algebra II.
There was a kid named Deron that used to always ask him for lunch money. He hassled Jimmy a lot. Gave him a lot of shit.
Then one day Deron walks up to Jimmy, sort of nudges him. They were serving tacos that day.
“Yo Paco. Let me hold a dollar. I need a Taco, Paco.”
It’s been fifteen years. I still call Jimmy, Paco. He passed Algebra II that summer. I didn’t. I took it once again in 10th grade. Third time’s a charm.
The year before, we pleaded with Jimmy for nearly an entire semester in 8th grade to shave the Superman logo in his chest hair.
“My mom would kill me.”
“How the fuck is your mom going to know,” I asked him. I was pissed. Jimmy used to do anything I’d tell him like bark for a piece of chewing gum in 7th grade. Now he protested.
“Bark for a piece of gum and I’ll give you a piece. It’s Teaberry. Teaberry is fucking awesome,” I said chewing. “Man, this is some good ass gum.”
“I’m not barking for a piece of gum,” Jimmy whispered back. Our teacher had her back to us.
“Guess you won’t be getting any gum then. By the way, your breath smells like dog shit. Did you eat a turd for lunch?”
A few minutes passed. I had swallowed my gum by that point. I used to always swallow my gum despite my mom telling me it would take seven years to come out the other end.
That was bullshit. I remember seeing chewing gum in my shit when I was six years old.
“What was that,” Mrs. Clark said.
When Jimmy barked, I had switched over to Sugar Babies and had crammed my mouth with a handful of the caramel and chocolate treats developed in 1935 by the James O. Welch Co.
I began choking on my own saliva.
The saliva was thick and sugary.
It tickled my throat.
“Who just barked,” Mrs. Clark demanded.
I started to laugh. My eyes watered. I had too many Sugar Babies in my mouth.
Jimmy was shaking with laughter. I was shaking with laughter.
Old, fat women in bikinis, I thought to myself. I was trying to think of something not funny. It wasn’t working. I could hear Jimmy barking over and over in my head.
I started to cough. I thought my eyes were going to burst out my head.
Then I threw up on my desk. It looked like cat shit, kind of. I thought Jimmy was going to throw up too. Jimmy used to always throw up when other people threw up. I used to always throw up when other people threw up too. I remember once in 1st grade when Larry Wade poured milk over his tuna ball that sat on top a piece of lettuce in his lunch tray. Someone had dared Larry an orange push-up he wouldn’t eat the milk, lettuce, and tuna mixture.
This overweight kid I used to call Skipper threw up watching Larry eat. He called me Little Buddy. His mom worked at a chocolate factory. Every Valentine’s Day she would come to our class for Show and Tell. The Skipper’s real name was Chad.
When Chad threw up, I threw up. Then other kids started throwing up all the way down the table. My cousin Brandon threw up. He was in the middle of an argument telling all the other kids that Santa Claus didn’t exist when he stopped to throw up. He had a rat-tail. So did Erik Ragsdale. I’m not sure if Erik threw up.
Jimmy’s mom knew everything her children did. He was terrified to go against her or do anything he thought would upset her in the slightest. His older sister would later become pregnant out-of-wedlock, carry the baby the entire length of the pregnancy having never been to the doctor for a single check-up, and go into labor one day at the high school. She was a teacher.
She had graduated college, had a salary job, and was still terrified of her mother.
Jimmy would later tell me about the situation. He prefaced it by saying, “Man you aren’t going to believe this shit.” The conversation went sort of like this.
JIMMY: By the time I get off work, get to my locker, and check my phone I have like ten missed calls from my mom. One missed call after the next. One new voicemail.
“Jimmy,” my mom said. “Please call me when you get this. Call me as soon as you get this.”
She was extremely upset.
Crying. Fucking delirious sounding, man.
Naturally, I’m thinking someone has died. Somebody has definitely died. I start to panic a little. I’m almost scared to call her back. What if something happened to my dad or sister? I’m a little fidgety, antsy about returning the call. I’m going to do it. I just need to calm down first. I light a cigarette. I’m shaking. I’m hot-boxing that bitch. Then my phone rings. I look down at caller ID. It’s my mom.
She’s sucking back snot.
“What’s the matter I ask her? Mom, what’s the matter?”
“Melissa had a baby,” she says.
(Jimmy pauses, looks at me, eyes big as saucers, and laughs)
ME: Yeah man, that shit came through the grapevine. I heard about it all the way in Charlottesville. I didn’t even know she was pregnant.
JIMMY: Neither did I.
ME: What did you say?
JIMMY: The first thing that came to mind: “Are you fucking kidding me?”
That triggers my mom to bawl more.
“When the hell did she get pregnant,” I asked her.
I was floored. Dude I was fucking floored. My sister had a baby. Do you believe that shit? She was fucking pregnant for nine months and never told anybody. I mean shit. How do you pull that shit off? Thing is, you couldn’t even tell she was pregnant. You know my sister. She doesn’t exactly win the gold medal for most physically fit but still—pregnant? Nine months? Had a baby? Fuck!
Suddenly me dating a black chick isn’t the worst thing in the world for my parents.
ME: How’s that situation going?
JIMMY: Same ole, same ole. Don’t come home unless you’re single or got a white girl on your arm.
(He pulls on a cigarette)
ME: Your folks need to be more understanding. Do they realize you don’t even look white? You look like you’re from the United Arab Emirates. And you’re balding prematurely.
JIMMMY: Hey, fuck you.
Finally, the owner of B&D confronted Derek about his lack of outerwear. He was shirtless and had on no pants. He wore army boots and white boxer briefs. He had been polishing his boots since we got off from school.
He was standing at the Coca-Cola machine, trying to straighten a dollar bill on the side of the machine. I sat at the picnic table with some other friends: Rick, Ricky, and Brian.
Brian had a stuttering problem. If we were all having a down day, we used to get Brian to sing “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” by Bachman-Turner Overdrive for kicks.
You ain’t seen nothin’ yet
B-B-B-Baby, you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet
Here’s something that you never gonna forget
B-B-B-Baby, you just ain’t seen nothin’ yet
Brenda, the co-owner of B&D Mart (the “B” stood for “Brenda”), knocked hard with her knuckles against the drive-up window that was duct-taped shut. Derek looked her way. I looked her way. She had a mean snarl on her face and pointed at Derek.
“You stay right there,” she said. You couldn’t hear her but you could read her lips. She was fuming. Then she proceeded out the front door and began berating Derek.
She finished, turned around, walked back inside. She stood at the window looking outside at us.
Derek looked at me and said, “Shit. What’s her problem?”
“You don’t have on pants,” I said.
Gary turned his attention back to the fizzled out game of Waterfall. Then Jeremiah stumbled back into the picture, wobbling across the carpet like a pregnant woman, her water about to burst.
“Are you alright,” I asked Jeremiah.
He narrowed his eyes even more trying to fix his pupils on one of the three of me he saw. Assuming he was staring into the image of me located in the middle of the other two blurred images of my form, he asked if I was ready to leave.
“Are you ready to leave,” he asked.
When I was about to publish my novel, Banned for Life, I had a number of exchanges with Jonathan Evison, whose counsel I sought with regard to promotion, among other matters. He was aware of certain aspects of my past, and he advised me to be forthcoming about them, since to do otherwise, he said, would amount to breaking faith with readers.
Jonathan is a wise man, but I regarded Banned as my child, and so wanted to shield it from the sins of its father. I imagined dismissive reviews based less on the book and more on my rap sheet, as well as sneering remarks posted on message boards. Paranoia? But I’ve been the target of such remarks, and I wanted to give Banned a running start before falling on my sword.
Now, I figure, the time has come. Banned has barely been noticed since it appeared more than six months ago, and I’ve tested the waters with friends made since, and none have responded as feared.
The air fractures into filigree with the movement of wings.
Dragonflies, dozens, hundreds, emerge every March on one collective birthday, or so it seems.
They are one of Spring’s heralds for my part of the world. I know this because I’ve kept a sporadic journal for several years. I record my bird and insect sightings—and there is undoubtedly a cycle. Cedar waxwings, rufous-sided towhees, giant swallowtails, and dragonflies followed by the rupture of leaf and blossom.