March 28, 2009

I Like Girls With Bangs

It has been almost five years. On that night five years ago, I was trapped in a sea of plaid and sweat. The night was young and the music was good, but I was far-gone and tired, my energy had been sucked away by the crowd.
“Hey. Let’s head home.” I took her sweaty hand in mine, and she swung around to look at me. Her hair traced hazy black through the smoky dense air in the club.
“Aw, come on. One more song,” she said. She swept aside her overgrown bangs and grinned at me. Sometimes she smiled so wide I could see her gums, which were just a little too red. She then pumped my hand twice and disappeared back into the crowd.
Later, lying spent on the floor, she gave me that same grin. I tucked a loose lock of black curly hair behind my ear, thinking she was smiling at my unruly mane of hair. She reached for her bag, this big hemp thing lying under our bed, and gave me a little box. It was velvety and soft, and probably black—but I couldn’t really tell for the darkness in our room.
“For you.” she said. I could tell she was looking intently at me.
I knew what it was the moment she grinned at me. I could see red.
I found a hinge on the box, and opened it. A flash of gold.

She was always pulling dumb stunts like this—things you’d never expect a rational person to do.
And I loved it.

It was 1980 and I was fresh out of school at Universidade de São Paulo. According to my parents, I was just fucking around right now. I ran a coffee shop by day and a music venue by night. I spent my days arguing politics with the homeless men who were fixtures at the café. I spent my nights running sound and lights for local bands and ushering drunk customers into taxis. But I was only 25, and I didn’t know what it meant to fuck around: I did what I only knew I should, and that was what I wanted and loved and therefore, kept close to me.
She shared that philosophy of sorts with me, and if anything, she helped me keep it even closer. She worked at a radio station and wrote short stories in her spare time. They were usually really cutesy stories about rescuing cats in boxes and lovers reuniting, but I really enjoyed watching her write them. She got this look on her face, like she was going to stab something with her pen. One time, I stood behind her without being noticed for a good half hour. I was eating an apple. But she just wrote away, the gentle but firm scritch-scratching noise of pen on paper sometimes going on late into the night.
We weren’t always happy. The café only did well some of the time, and her job at the radio station paid shit. And she had a drawer full of “no thanks” letters from literary magazines. We yelled at each other every now and then, our hot-tempered dispositions sometimes making for an explosive clash. I threw a frying pan at her once, only half-heartedly meaning for it to injure. It was made out of cheap aluminum, but it smacked her on the upper lip and she had to get five stitches to fix it up. We said an abusive boyfriend did it to her, and the doctors and nurses talked at us apologetically for the rest of our stay at the hospital. She has only a tiny scar there now, thanks to a concoction her mother sent her after telling her about the incident, using the same alibi we used in the hospital. But it is a scar, nonetheless, and a reminder that things will not always be as good as they usually are.
Lying side-by-side in bed, I was twisting the small golden band around my ring finger, thinking about the sincerity of her voice earlier that night. Not because I doubted her or thought her a fool; she was far from that. But perhaps she was a little too wistful. A little too hopeful. There was very little hope for us around here. Friends and acquaintances of ours had gone missing, and with each successive disappearance, we became increasingly afraid and bitter.
I turned in bed, my back to her. I thought then that maybe this is what my parents meant by fucking around. I tried to shake the thought from my head.
“Apparently, the cerebellum isn’t all that necessary. You can function without it. You’re just more clumsy.”
I was 19. I took a long, slow, hedonistic drag from a blunt and looked back at my audience, a tall gangly boy with Buddy Holly glasses— attractive, if that’s what you’re into.
“Cool. Where’d you learn that?” He blew a hazy ring to the side, flicking the ash off his cigarette. We had met just ten minutes ago, introduced by mutual friends. And now we were sitting on low couches in a dimly lit apartment, blowing smoke rings.
“Neurology.” I gave him my most daring stare. It was coming.
“Whoa. You’re at the school of medicine?” He perked up a little.
“Yeah.” I said.
“That’s pretty hard to get into, isn’t it? You needed to score at least an eighty-three on the entrance exam to get in, and even that didn’t secure you a spot, right?”
“Sure.” I took a sip of a coke from a bottle in front of me. I didn’t know whose it was.
“Well, shouldn’t you be well, like studying or some shit?”
“Yeah, something like that. But I like this too much,” I laughed, wagging my blunt at him.
He smiled complacently.
“Well, you see, my father is a doctor. Not just any doctor, you know,” My eyelids were heavy, and I knew I was about to run my mouth off. “he’s the president’s physician. I didn’t get in just because of that, though. Oh no. I know my stuff. But it doesn’t hurt.”
“Whoa, cool.” His eyelids looked as heavy as mine felt.
“Yeah, well, not so fucking much.”
I thought of the stiff white blouse I wore when my father was inaugurated as the President’s physician nearly a decade ago. I thought of my boarding school in Connecticut and how I hated it there, the cold being a far cry from home.
At some point, I got a beer. And then another. And then another, and soon after, it was deemed that I was piss drunk. Buddy Holly went to get help at some point, because apparently, I was vomiting so much that he thought I was starting to lose my innards.
With him he brought back a girl who had long black hair just as curly as mine. Every inch of her seemed like it stretched on for long, tan miles. Her eyes were maybe a little too widely set apart, and forehead too protuberant, but she was beautiful. As I heaved into the toilet, she rubbed my back soothingly. She murmured her name in my ear as she knelt over me. Her name, among other things.
The morning after, we both lay in the bathroom, spent and exhausted on the floor. She told me her name again, but I already knew who she was.
Buddy Holly and I also became great friends after that. He got me into coffee, which I had never liked before. Strange, as I had grown up with it— my parents took theirs black and strong every morning for as long as I could remember. Buddy Holly was the son of the son of a diplomat, so we both enjoyed deprecating the government together. These days, I do more problem-shooting than deprecating; but we were young and refused to think any other way.
Not long after that night after the concert, days at the café became longer. There would be some days I wouldn’t get any customers. To make up for the financial strain, she started to take longer hours at the radio station, and would sometimes come home so tired I often would be sitting alone at our dining table, the cat sleeping in her chair as I picked at my dinner. But the little things—like the small peck I’d feel on my cheek at 5 AM as she left for the day or the oranges and apples I found tucked into my messenger bag— kept us happy. Buddy Holly sometimes came to keep me company, and we would spend our days in busy silence. I would clean the counters, he would read the day’s paper and drink coffee, and the silence we shared would only remind us of the fact that as the years went by, we had less and less to complain about as we became more and more like our parents. We did things just to get by.
In the end, short tempers and sleepiness do not make for happy people: pots, pans, and vases flew. We would go to bed angry, which is the most terrible thing I think people can do to one another—you sleep on it and feel better in the morning, but only because sleep has buried it even deeper. Anger soon led to indifference, which led to nothing. I went through days just to get by for the sake of getting by. My lunches were no longer supplemented with surprise fruits.
My philosophy was fading.

Some weeks later after she proposed to me, she disappeared. She didn’t come home one night. I figured she had a night on the town with some coworkers; it happened every now and then. But when I called her office the next day and nobody had seen her, I already knew.
But I wasn’t sad. I paced the streets with missing-person fliers. I felt like a crazy person, harassing people who were just trying to go about with their lives. But at the same time, I didn’t want them to just go about with their lives. I wanted them to know what it was like to live to love and to strive to keep those things you love close to you. But walking the streets, my multicolored fliers in hand, I realized that people thought I was fucking around. And if that was what it was, then so be it, so long as I got to keep her here, even if just on paper.
In a strange way, her leaving brought me back.
Friends and acquaintances of ours had gone missing, and with each successive disappearance, we became increasingly afraid and bitter.
I turned in bed, my back to her. I thought then that maybe this is what my parents meant by fucking around. I tried to shake the thought from my head.
She turned over in bed a few minutes later and flopped an arm over my waist. She gave me a squeeze.
We fell asleep.

March 17, 2009

Good, Wholesome Fluffiness

My parents emigrated from a third-world country when they got married, and I was born some three years later, a citizen of a country foreign and strange to my parents. Unknown to all of us, this was a bad start: even though my parents bought a banana-yellow roadster, learned how to disco and eventually came to speak perfect, unaccented English, there is a distance between us, one that is not helped by the fact that I am a less-than ideal son (I crashed the banana yellow roadster just the day before last). And despite their unflawed English, there is a gap of incomprehension between my mother, my father, my little sister, and the bowl of rice at the dinner table.

-AP Calculus, 7:35 AM, Monday
“Shit, Ryan, wake up.”
A smart smack to the back of my head knocked me back into the classroom. My eyes opened and were immediately met with the hazel-eyed gaze of a pretty white girl peering concernedly at me over her homework. She scared me a little though; whenever I wasn’t sleeping, she always looked pissed off, like someone had told her that her nose was too big (it wasn’t).
I feigned sleepiness, squinted, yawned and turned to Michael Chen sitting next to me.
“Goddamnit Mikey, you know I’m not feeling well. My head feels like a fucking balloon that’s going to pop any moment.”
“Hah, after last night, I bet you’re not,” Mike said, perhaps a little more louder than necessary. “Hey, got the answer to number sixteen? I hate how they only have the answers to the odd-numbered questions in the back of the book. Effing retards.”
Before I had a chance to respond, Mike reached over me and snatched my homework, meticulously and half-hungover-ly completed just a few hours earlier.
-805 Glendale Street, 5:00 PM, Monday
“Ay anak, Jesusmaryjoseph! How am I going to pay for the repairs on the car?”
My mother, frazzled, short, imposing and beautiful and bouncing my little sister Eliza on her hip, frowned at me from the doorway as I got out of Mikey’s RX8.
“Hey Mrs. Dizon, my mom says hi!” Mikey shouted from the car.
Mom frowned slightly but said, “Tell her hello and it’s her turn to get the refreshments for this week’s church potluck.” Mikey nodded, revved, and sped away. She turned to me disapprovingly and sighed.
“Well, come inside!”
I squeezed past her in the doorway, and Eliza reached out with a tiny hand to pull my hair—her favorite pastime— but I ducked dramatically, feigning almost falling. She laughed and clapped.
“How was debating today?”
“Fine. Where’s Dad?”
“Can you make four cups of rice for dinner? It will be only us three; Father is going to be late again.”
I dropped my backpack by the upright piano in the living room, went to the kitchen, washed my hands, and got rice from the rice dispenser. The water was so cold that my bones ached when I was scrunching and squeezing and rinsing it. The water was so cloudy with starch that it looked like milk. I rinsed the rice once, twice, three times, then wiped the container clean before placing it into the rice cooker.
Forty-five minutes until good, wholesome fluffiness.

- AP U.S. Government, 1:30 PM, Tuesday
I was not paying attention to the lecture on the various dimensions of power. Instead, I was rifling through copies of college application paperwork; I had just mailed the whole lot of them off during lunchtime. Prestigious and Well-Known East Coast School X, Y and Z; the usual suspects were all here. I figured I fit the criteria well: “4.5 GPA, first-generation Asian-American and college student, all AP classes and star debater” at my large, inner-city magnet high school. My parents also knew I fit the criteria well, and were in fact pushing hard for PWKECS Z, especially since the recruiter came to our house a few months ago.
Like fuck I’m going there.
“Ryan Dizon, it’s wonderful to finally meet you. You’ve attracted a lot of interest at the admissions office back in Small East Coast College Town Z: 4.5 GPA, star debater, and from DuBravec, no less.”
My mom was hovering nervously near the upright piano, having just finished making lumpia to serve to Mr. Adams.
“I’m just going to say it now: we would love to have you over in X. Beautiful place. Winters are really cold though. May be even colder for you, but no matter!”
“It gets pretty cold up here in North California, too.”
“Oh, right.”
I suddenly wished mom hadn’t cooked lumpia.

-500 Forty-Second Street, 11:00 PM, Thursday
Red, blue and orange, the world spun hazily as I took a deep swallow of pale ale, savoring my heedlessness and the headrush.
“Hey Ryan. It’s her, from calc. Damn, she’s got a really nice--”
“Shut it.”
Mikey and I were at someone’s apartment—someone who threw parties on Thursday nights and was probably just as heedless as Mikey and our friends were. We all were rambunctious and full of it. We knew we were heading off to good places in a few months, and that these good places would take good care of us so long as we would be good statistics for College Board and the Princeton Review. But we mostly didn’t care.
Hence, we were full of it.
“Shoot, Ryan… she’s coming over here, and she looks pissed.”
My stomach did an odd flipping thing. God.
“What did you do?”
As she was glaring at Mikey with those hazel eyes I often met on accident early in the morning (8:00 AM, MWF), I heard our group of friends fall silent.
“Hi,” she said, “you may not know me, although we’ve sat at the same table in first period calc for over half a year, but my name is Lucille.” She spoke softly yet she had a steely edge to her voice. I noticed for the first time that her nails were manicured but not polished, and that she wore a pair of perfectly white pearl earrings.
I had no idea what she was about to say.
“You see, I’ve had this issue for a while, and I figured it’s about time I got it off my chest. Stop. Staring. At. My. Breasts. My face is up here, not down there!”
She stood at the head of our table, eyes welling with… indignation? Anger?
I swear I could feel shame emanating hotly from Mikey.
“Well fuck,” he said weakly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s nothing to look at.”
My stomach twisted in disbelief at how much of an asshole Mikey was sometimes. Yet somehow, I felt a wave of relief as I watched Lucille turn on her heel and storm out the door—her group of friends had been watching from a corner table on the opposite side of the diner, and stood up to rush after her. But I beat them to it.
“Hey,” I said, rushing to catch up with her as she walked briskly across the street. Although it was late, we were downtown, so the streets were still crowded. I pushed past a few people a little more roughly, worried I wouldn’t get the chance to explain Mikey’s behavior. Or mine.
“What do you want?” She said. She turned to face me, but I couldn’t tell what the expression was on her face because the streetlamp above us was broken.
“Hey. I, uh, am really sorry about what happened there. Mikey’s been my friend for a really long time, and he’s actually a really great guy… he just doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing or saying sometimes.”
I could feel her eyes on me. Was she angry with me, too? I wished I hadn’t been so sleepy in calculus this past year. She let out a stream of breath, which steamed in the cold NorCal air.
“I believe it. What a jerk.” Her voice didn’t have the hardness it did inside. I felt myself relax.
“Hey. It’s dark out here, and it’s late… can I take you to wherever you’re going? My name’s Ryan.” Time to explain my behavior.
“Yeah, I figured as much after all the times I’ve watched you get smacked upside your head.”

Winter came and went, and we were soon into the wet, city spring. Slips were frequent in the hallways, the panicked squeak of rubber followed by a firm thud on the linoleum being almost something of a soundtrack for April. I never slipped, although I felt very close to it a couple of times.
I stayed awake in calculus now.

-805 Glendale Street, 7:00 PM, Monday
“Have you made a decision yet?”
My father was eating a rare dinner with my mom, Eliza and me. Mom was really happy. She made his favorite—chicken in broth with different vegetables with names I couldn’t remember, all atop hot, steaming rice. Good wholesome fluffiness.
“I don’t see why it is such a hard decision for you to make. You got into every school you applied to. A million students would die to have the options you have available.”
“It is dinnertime. Let us simply eat and enjoy each other’s company. Leave this for after dinner,” said Mom. She was anxious to make things smooth and calm; Dad had been working really late hours lately, and she didn’t want to stress him out anymore than he already was.
“Mom’s got a point.”
“No. This is something that needs to be talked about now. Jesus, Ryan! It’s almost the end of April, and you still have not sent anything in.”
“Maybe I don’t want to go.”
Like in the movies, whenever something dramatic happens, the shocked sound of utensils hitting the table rang true through the dining room.
“Smaller is better.” Eliza said, absentmindedly spooning some rice onto her plate.
My Dad pounded his fist on the table, got up, and walked off. Mom rushed after him. I rushed out the door, leaving Eliza confused and alone at the table with the steaming bowl of rice.
Exeunt family, stage right.

-805 Glendale Street, 10:00 AM, Tuesday
The trickiest part about coming home after I’ve snuck out is getting up the trellis to my window, which I always leave unlocked and wedged the tiniest bit open with an old business card of dad’s. After I saw Lucille home after a long walk, I was presented with this daunting task. But on this particular night, I didn’t know how daunting the task was that I really had been presented with.
That night, I was feeling good. I had sent in my letter of acceptance to Small Liberal Arts College My Parents Didn’t Know I Even Applied To. I still hadn’t figured out how I was going to tell my parents, but then, I felt that could wait.
On the walk, Lucille and I had talked about what we were looking forward to this coming fall.
“Not doing any more math, given I pass the AP calc exam.” Lucille smiled impishly at me.
“No, really— aren’t you looking forward to being around people who aren’t idiots?”
We walked on for a little bit. I knew she was thinking; her fingers were resting lightly on her lower lip, a pose she was often in during class.
“I don’t think people are idiots,” she said. “They just don’t see what’s in front of them and appreciate it.”
“Well… I’m looking forward to being far away from here.”
Lucille smiled. “You and everybody else.”
“It’s more than just that. I feel such a disconnect here... like I’m in a box. I’m leaving the box.”
“All these expectations. These goals that I think I want, but really have nothing to do with.”
“Sounds like it all comes down to your parents.”
“Sure it does.”

That night, the trellis broke as I was climbing out of it. I was lucky my mom didn’t hear, but I was locked out of the house. Well, fuck.
I don’t really know why, but I felt the bushes in front of my house would be a good place to stay the night. At least I was covered, and it was dark. I fell asleep, despite the hard ground.
After a while, I heard a car pull up to the house. It sounded like a nice car, the purr of the engine being fat and deep. The blue digits on my Timex read 3:00 AM.
I saw my father get out of a jet-black Audi. He was tall, and all my life, always looked ten years younger than he was really was. My father. Wait. He was supposed to be on some business trip. He wasn’t carrying a suitcase or anything, just a sheaf of papers. I heard the jingle of his keys, and the creak of the door opening.
What in the hell is happening? I thought.
And then I saw her.
Tall and broad, she looked like some Nordic goddess. Maybe it was because her hair was up in a circled braid. She wasn’t beautiful, but there was something in the way she held herself as she stood leaning against the back of the car, its taillights casting a blood-red light on her figure, taking a drag of a cigarette.
My father returned, got in the car, and drove away. He didn’t even bother locking the door.
Ten minutes after I watched my father speed away in the Audi with that strange woman, I heard a scream. Worried, I bolted inside the house, not caring that I really was supposed to be in bed.
My mother sat crumpled in the middle of the dining room, holding the sheaf of papers my father had brought inside the house. I sat next to her, and put my arms around her. She dropped the papers and held onto me. She cried heavily into my shoulder. I suddenly felt too old.
I saw the papers that she had dropped. They were filing for divorce.

I embraced my box.