View this short story in the October edition of the journal here.
On the night I got into Stanford, Ana and I snuck out with a few drinks tucked away. She had the stronger liquor, and I had the classier delicacies – white wine and Limoncello. We planned on meeting at Fordham St. where the paths between our houses intersected under one inconspicuous streetlight.
I left my house around 2 AM, as we had planned. It was still a risky move, however, because my father tended to stay awake into the early morning hours, watching television or reading in his room. We hoped, almost prayed, that he would be asleep by the time I left.
I flicked the lights off in the basement and worked on popping the window open. I dug my nails under the frame’s loose lower right corner and pulled, eventually catching the falling upper left corner. I climbed out, then sealed the window shut again. After sealing the window, I stopped to check the energy of the house. I didn’t hear my father, no lights turned on, no creaking footsteps echoed. I looked into my satchel and confirmed the drinks were trembling in the moonlight.
Once my shoes touched the black road, I knew I was finally on my own. The only signposts I had were the dimly lit streetlights of my memory. I remembered that I had to take a turn there; when I saw the rusted blue car, turn left; when I saw the meth house, keep going straight.
After following those directions, I found myself under the inconspicuous streetlight, waiting for Ana to find me. I canvassed my surroundings for perhaps a minute or so, before a ghostly white light emerged in the distance. As it passed the tangerine streetlight in front of the neighborhood bar, I knew it was her. She stopped in the middle of the road for a second, braking hard, then continued towards me.
“What was that about?” I asked playfully as she pulled up.
“I just wanted to make sure you were my guy. Hop in.”
As I sat next to her, the bottles in my satchel clicked together like bells. I opened my bag, making sure I hadn’t broken anything.
“It’s okay. I brought my stuff.” she said coolly.
“Sounds good.” I replied back.
“So, you got into Stanford, huh?”
“I know! It’s crazy. I didn’t think I would get in.”
“Look at you. You’re going from the ghetto to prestige. How does it feel to be talking to a lowly mortal like me?”
“It feels just the same. I hope you get in as well.”
“The likelihood of me getting in is nonexistent, Ren.”
“You know you can call me Ray.”
“Sorry, I might have drank a little bit already.”
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“We’re here for the drinks, Ren. I know the perfect spot for us to chill tonight. There’s this hill by the observatory that almost no one visits. We can try there.”
I was too absorbed in the euphoria of my Stanford acceptance to ask further questions or pry into her situation. Also, Ana always carried herself this way. There was a rougher side to her that I admired, but it did produce a fair amount of friendly fire. Some friends of hers had disappeared over the years, refusing to talk to her, and her friend circle eventually dwindled down to me and a few other people I barely know.
As we were driving up a deserted highway to her coveted hill, Ana rolled the window down and allowed her blonde hair to flow freely. She closed her eyes for a few seconds after turning the radio on. She looked as if she had attained her Nirvana.
“Hey, you might want to keep your eyes on the road.” I cautioned.
“Don’t worry about it. There’s no one here.”
She looked at me with disarming eyes, and I didn’t care to question her after that.
Ana always had a way of knowing what she was doing, even in the worst situations. After her expulsion from The Spencer School for fighting a girl who had gossiped about her sister, she had developed a plan.
Ana earned as much college credit as she could, and ended up becoming an excellent amateur songwriter. We were all hoping she made a pitiful enough case to get into Stanford, because everyone knew she was an artist with a rough past. I thought that was enough to impress an admissions officer.
“They don’t want an upper-class has-been girl like me.” She chuckled with a hint of sorrow. “They’d like you. I mean, you’re just a poor guy who likes the big questions. Although, being Asian might’ve hurt you. I guess it wasn’t enough to knock you out of the game.”
Her laugh was more defined this time in the popping wind. I opened my window to counterbalance the passing current banging against my right ear. When I turned to give her my response, I noticed she had already shifted gears.
“Here it is.”
She parked the car next to a tree and told me to hop out. I didn’t feel comfortable with the location initially. It was as dark as a nightmare, not even the moon gave us guidance. Ana flicked on her phone’s light, and we ventured through the haunting forest. I kept looking around, looking for maybe someone else walking with us or watching in the distance. My mind began seeing things like red eyes and saucers in the sky. I was losing it.
She nudged my arm, and I was ushered into the most beautiful sight of my life. We were by a cove now and the city was in the distance. Waves came rolling in and retreated with the same constant rumble. Even from the height we were watching from, I could hear and feel each crash. The city in the distance began appearing more like an otherworldly fantasy. For a moment, I felt as if I could see the entire story of Los Angeles. I was an unembodied entity watching over the world, and I felt safe from this view.
Ana laid her bag on the ground and began taking pictures. Of course, her camera didn’t pick up anything in the darkness.
“Wait, what am I doing?” she murmured.
With one swipe, her phone transitioned to another mode and captured exactly what she wanted. I rested my satchel on the ground to experience this moment with her. Not only did she capture a remarkable photo, but she had captured the night along with it. I hugged her, and she hugged me back. We were cheering now and hollering as loud as we wanted. I was almost in the mood to start a fire, like we were in Cast Away, until I realized I’m not Tom Hanks.
“Here, let me pick the first drink.”
“Okay,” I said, “Let me pick the second.”
She started off with the whiskey, and we had fun wincing. I especially had fun coughing out the first sips. She turned her flashlight on, almost blinding me, in order to see if I had the “Asian flush”. I told her it was too early.
We continued drinking little by little until we got the hang of it. We then switched to the Limoncello, which we both liked, and decided to stop shortly thereafter. We had no designated driver, and we were both feeling a little tipsy.
It was about 4 AM when she finally asked her pressing question: “What do you think got you in?”
“I think it was my paper on gender.”
“Yeah, you know about this. I did a big research project on the nature of men and women.”
“You never told me your conclusion. Do tell, good sir.”
“Alright,” I put the half empty limoncello bottle down and rubbed my hands. I was starting to feel warm, and I suspected this is what the “Asian flush” felt like. “I… I wanted to study where gender concepts and, in particular, gender ideals come from. So, I went and did some research, and I concluded that men want to be beautiful in their own unique way, in accordance with and beyond the masculine ideal women construct; but… they’re not always allowed to be beautiful in this world.”
“What do you mean?” she was almost on the verge of laughing, “Men want to be beautiful?”
“I mean, yeah. We do. We just have a different way of expressing that desire.” I shifted uncomfortably in my spot and continued, “My first premise was that men and women create the idea of gender for one another. In some way, you wouldn’t be who you are without men, and I wouldn’t be who I am without women. There’s this beautiful mutual creation process we go through.”
“Okay…” She was starting to pay attention.
“The second thing I learned is that this creation process creates the gender ideal – the ideal man, the ideal woman, etc.” I cleared my throat of the now sappy alcohol and continued, “The third thing I discovered is that men want to be beautiful. Women have this beauty naturally in their essence, but men… we have to make ourselves beautiful. And, there are only a few of us who ever attain this state.”
Now, Ana was laughing. She rolled around, gathering shards of grass in her lovely jacket, “Are you serious? Men want to be beautiful?”
“Don’t you see it as a compliment?”
“What’s a compliment?”
“Men have to achieve beauty. You – you women just already have it.”
“You’re such a weirdo, Ren. Now I know why Stanford accepted you.”
“Can you stop with the Stanford thing?” I finally lost my cool.
Ana looked at me with apologetic eyes. The wind whistled through the silence between us, until I finally saw Ana rise in the moonlight. I could tell my tone affected her.
“I’m sorry.” she whispered.
“It’s okay.” my voice trailed off and then returned, “Look, maybe we should just go.”
“Wait, before we go…” Ana began swaying back and forth, obviously on the verge of losing her balance, “I think it’s funny how you’re investigating what it means to be a man… even though you aren’t one.”
She staggered towards to me, and I caught her. She started laughing and crying all at once, getting her eyeliner on my jacket.
“Let’s go.” I said.
I drove Ana home but not without feeling a terrible weight in my chest. Something was weighing me down, and I couldn’t piece together my drunken thoughts. Ana was already asleep, so I couldn’t talk to her anymore. I was left with myself in this dreary silence, venturing ever closer to an unintelligible sadness.
I wanted her to help me again, to wake me up, but I had to remember that things weren’t the same anymore. She wasn’t the old friend I could trust. She wasn’t the old friend who used to support me in my endeavors or talk about politics for hours. No, that person died when she left The Spencer School. And, ever since then, I’ve been left with what remains of her and of us.
But, I didn’t want to give up no matter how many times her comments had hurt me. Something about tonight, however, felt like a line had been crossed, and our friendship was now finished. I then started wondering if this would be the last night we would ever be together, if this is how we’d remember each other before our graduations.
A few minutes before I drove into her posh neighborhood, I asked my best friend Yori to pick me up. He said he’d see me soon.
I dropped Ana off at about 6 AM. I helped her to the door, let her open it herself, and then wished her goodnight. Before she climbed her colosseum of stairs, she whispered once more, “I’m sorry.”
I didn’t know what to say back. I smiled as compassionately as I could and closed the door. After that, I waited for Yori. I sat on the front steps and admired the rising pink sun. It felt as if a long nightmare had ended, an awkward and twisted night was finally fading.
That’s when Yori pulled up. I went inside his car, gave him a weak fist pump and then drifted off into the pleasant morning.
After what seemed like a mere second, I awoke to him shaking me: “Get up, man. I think your dad knows…”
I saw my father’s sullen face waiting for me. Yori helped me to my feet, and then I waved goodbye with one eye open and the other covered in a drowsy deluge. Yori didn’t wave back. He was trying to leave as soon as possible.
As he retreated, my father helped me inside.
He opened our creaky front door and then brought me to the breakfast table. I was anticipating a lecture, an angry rant, a kick or two. But, my father was silent. He then grabbed a bowl of cereal, poured some milk, and got me a glass of orange juice.
I didn’t know what to say, until he finished pouring the juice: “Can I get some water?”
He looked at me for a moment and then filled another cup. It wasn’t until after he had finished dressing my breakfast that he dug into his cereal.
As much as I wanted to eat, I was still confused and overwhelmed by everything. My father was never this calm. He always had to have the final word on my shortcomings and late night adventures. I then realized the meaning of his silence.
I went straight to bed after breakfast. My father followed me in, still as silent as before. At that point, I didn’t really care why he was lingering around. He looked at my debate trophies, the posters in my room, my unopened Stanford jacket, and then sat next to me. He stared aimlessly for a brief second, perhaps watching a cloud of particles spinning in the infant sunlight.
A soft but tragic smile returned to his person again. And then he spoke, “I wish you had told me you got in. I saw the news online. I tried to find you at three, but you were gone. I didn’t want to go to bed.” He rested his hand on my head and ruffled my hair a little. “She would be proud.”
A bundle of tears formed around his eyes as he stood up and left. He closed the door behind him. All I can remember after that was the streak of sunlight on my door. I faded away into a cloud of dreams thereafter.
I was reliving my junior year. It was time to find a prom date, and I hadn’t the slightest idea who to ask. I ultimately decided to ask one of the prettiest girls in The Spencer School, Juniper Zhao. Even though she was only a year older than me, she carried herself like a goddess. She looked like she had it all together, and, in my mind, she was the feminine ideal.
There was always a warmness to her person, and, even when she was focused on solving some physics equation or mapping a biological system, her presence was kind. We all felt safe around her, and I guess that’s something we all want out of beautiful people – to feel safe around them.
People would “ship” us together, because we emulated the “opposites attract” principle. She was gorgeous and intelligent, while I was only one of those things. She was the confident straight-A girl who everyone loved being around, while I was the awkward but likeable outsider.
So, I asked her one day, “What kind of flowers do you like?”
She replied, “Surprise me.”
I had picked out the flowers in my mind, my suit was ready, and I had the cash to buy the tickets. Everything was set, but I wanted to check with her one last time. I wanted to know if she really wanted to go with me, if she had any interest, or if I would be dragged along and humiliated. I saw her enter the library, and I followed. But then my joints started tightening; my palms felt as if they were melting. Apparently, I had lost my confidence. Regardless, I began rehearsing my lines; but the more I tried perfecting them, the more I realized they no longer sounded like me. To be honest, I didn’t know how to ask her again without embarrassing myself. I didn’t know how to simply take a risk, go with my gut, and trust her. So, I turned my mind off and went into the library.
I scoped the first floor but didn’t see her there. I then went to the second and inspected. Out of the corner of my eye, her backpack appeared then vanished again. I followed the lead, until I heard some voices nearby. They were all feminine voices and obviously, I deduced, Juniper’s friends.
For a second, I thought about leaving, until they got onto the topic of boys. They did the usual: they described their boy problems and, in particular, their troubles with lousy guys everyone warned them not to date. And then, it was Juniper’s turn.
“So, the other day, Ray asked me what kind of flowers I wanted.” She paused to absorb the squeals of excitement. “And, I said ‘Surprise me.’” Once more, Juniper paused for her friends’ adoration.
I sighed, realizing that my chances weren’t nonexistent. I now had to get the flowers and figure how I would officially ask her: would I make a cheesy poster or do something original? I was just on the verge of leaving, contemplating the carnival of options, when they had shifted to the subject of their ideal man. I listened more intently this time. Even though I was sifting through books, pretending to care about quantum physics and principles of speciation, my focus was entirely on them.
They agreed their ideal man would be tall, over 6 feet. They described the strong jaws he would have; the mystical eyes adorning his symmetrical face. They described his body, the physical perfection of his form and the variations they all personally delighted in. I didn’t mind their descriptions all that much (this is usual girl stuff) until Juniper stepped into the conversation.
She pulled out her phone and showed a male model she followed on Instagram. When I saw his face, his body, his overall aesthetic, I realized how much I paled in comparison. My arms were lanky. I wasn’t nearly as tall. And, people often said I had an intense but lifeless face. There was nothing beautiful about me. The only redeeming quality I had was my intellect, but no one falls in love with a brain.
I felt something pierce my chest and furrow straight into my heart. I’m not talking about the metaphorical heart, the ephemeral place of one’s deepest emotions and desires. This inadequacy dug into the meat of my soul, and I couldn’t pull myself together. I felt real pain.
From there, the dream (more like a bad memory rerun) took an odd turn. I saw myself running through a blockade of stars that led into an ominous cave. I was a child again, running towards my mother’s voice. I could hear her calling me with the most gentle inflection. And, the more I heard her voice, the less lonely I felt. Her voice made the blue mysteries of the cave lose their anxious grip over me.
I stopped halfway through my search to wash my face in the pool of memories. Screens began appearing, regurgitating different childhood moments. There were some of my father trying to get me to play soccer – learn how to play any sport really – and how vehemently I cried to do something else. And then the images shifted to me watching the fathers of my friends cheering their sons on during soccer games, followed by the realization that my father wouldn’t be at my musical later that night. However, there were warm memories of my mother greeting me backstage after one of my plays, telling me how handsome I looked and how I was perfect for the role. And then the image of her dying face appeared, privation seated in her eyes, trapping a clouded soul.
Suddenly, I heard footsteps coming from behind. They were fast, almost like hooves. I got to my feet and ran with water still dripping down my face. The footsteps were angrier now. I turned for only a moment and then shrieked at who was following me.
I launched myself into a tunnel and began crawling as fast as I could. Shockwaves of terror electrified my body. I didn’t feel like I was going fast enough to escape myself.
And then I felt Juniper’s disappointment in that narrow tunnel. She had dropped her other plans in anticipation of me. She told her friends she would meet them at the afterparty, that she didn’t need a ride to and from the venue. But, everything changed when I backed out. Everyone had already solidified their plans, and she was too devastated to reconfigure her schedule.
It seemed illogical at first, how she missed prom because of me, and then it occurred to me recently how she must’ve felt.
But, I didn’t care. Or, rather, I refused to care. I refused to believe that there was anything more to our few exchanged words.
In fact, I reasoned that since I wasn’t her ideal, there was no reason to pretend we could be anything. I didn’t want to waste her time or be anything less than what she wanted. She deserves so much better than me. I just wanted to have a good time with her, but I knew that the image of her masculine ideal would perturb my conscience.
And then I wondered if there was something wrong with me. And, when I identified that pernicious deficiency, or the mere thought of it glowed in the corner of my mind, I jumped to the conclusion that I am unlovable. I couldn’t shake the insecurities that prevented me from asking her to the dance, and, for the millionth time in my life, I felt trapped in myself.
So, here’s the typical response: Maybe it’s not time for you.
I knew it would never be time for me. I saw other men in worse conditions who still found someone. And then I realized they had something I lacked, they had one redeeming quality that unified their brokenness and desirability. That one thing was beauty. Moreover, the feminine ideal they pursued created a masculine ideal they could attain. I had disproportionate longings.
Alas, the creature I was running from was myself devoid of all personality and human features. It was a disfigured monster.
As I left the tunnel, I felt something squirm in my heart. A pink liquid suddenly seeped out of my chest and glistened like proud crystals in a river. For a moment, I admired this lovely substance, until my monster had caught up with me. Its vicious arm was raised in the air, and it struck in one perfect motion. That’s when I awoke. +
TO BE CONTINUED (click for part ii)