St. Patrick’s Day, 2003
John Chong is 22 years old
“Let me see that!” says Marsha.
“What?” says John.
“That! Your cell phone! Let me see it!”
Marsha shouts when she is excited, as if she’s drunk, even if she isn’t.
On the balcony, seated far above the busy din of everyday life with a sliding glass door separating them from the rest of the St. Patrick’s Day party goers, John Chong and Marsha Choi talk in the way that old friends who have never had sex with each other but always wanted to are apt to talk, finding mutual amusement at the expense of each other, like how siblings will sometimes banter the kind of banter that is loose and easy and that carries generations of unfinished business.
John gives her his cell phone. It is pink with colored sparkly lights on the antenna. When Marsha flips it open, it chimes out “Cascade of Fate” by Joost Benton. It’s a very heavy song, not at all pink and sparkly.
“You are so weird, John,” she says, holding the phone to her ear and checking her nails. “Joost Benton.”
“You know Joost Benton?”
“Nope,” she says, handing the phone back to him.
He looks at it. The display reads: Now Playing ‘Cascade of Fate’ by Joost Benton. He closes the flip top and puts it on the balcony ledge. The cigarette he was smoking is about two puffs past its prime. John puts it out and lights another. He offers one to Marsha. She accepts.
“Do you remember, with the Tribe, how you and I used to smoke on the roof of Swem?” she asks.
“Yeah,” he says.
“And all the people looked like bugs, roaches, skittering from one crack to another.”
“We’d make up stories about them, where they were going, who they were going to see.”
“Who they were fucking.”
“They all looked the same from up there. You couldn’t tell if they were tall or short, fat or skinny, white, black, Chinese.”
“Well, you could tell the Chinese guys,” she says.
“How?” John asks, a little sharply.
“Come on, remember? We used to joke about it. The Chinese guys had a gait, sorta hurried and in control,” she explains, thrusting her hands forward as if she were a robot holding an invisible box of tissue paper.
“And they were always going to Jones,” she says.
“I had a class in Jones Hall once,” he says.
“Yeah, so did everybody. That’s the only place they ever have any math classes.”
“Actually, I took an engineering class there.”
“Yeah, it was like ‘Engineering for Poets’ or something.”
“How was it?”
“I don’t know. It was cool. It made my dad happy.”
“Roy, my step-dad, the mechanic for American Airlines.” he says.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” she says. “Mr. Foxy McFoxy Pants.”
“You know, that’s kinda racist.”
“McFoxy Pants. Roy’s fucking Irish you know.”
“Dude’s about as Irish as Michael Jordan is African.”
“You’re not making it any better.”
“Why’s everything gotta be racial for you, Johnny? We’re just hanging out, bro.”
She chides him, emphasizing the word “bro” as a sort of cultural code for college educated dipshit.
“Okay,” he says, waving his hand across his chest as if to signify that it’s time to move on.
“No, but seriously. Dude is a fox.”
“Well, dude also thought I’d make a good engineer. So he got pretty excited that I was taking that class.”
“Little did he know your ass can’t barely recite your times tables.”
“Haha, but okay, that’s true,” he says. “So, it was actually kinda cool. I’d talk to him about what I learned, pour point depressant, endothermic reaction, suction head.”
“Suction head huh?”
“Oh sure, in engineering we got all kinds of suction and all kinds of head. We got a suction line; we got suction pressure; suction service; and we got self-lubricating heads; cylinder heads; dynamic discharge heads. It’s sexy stuff.” John says, straight-faced.
“Of course, you only remember the prurient terms!” Marsha says, yelling. “You have no idea what any of those words mean!”
“Of course I do!” insists John. “For example: dynamic discharge head is an equation. It’s pressure from fluid plus pressure from resistance plus pressure required to accelerate. ‘Head’ actually refers to pressure. So dynamic discharge head is referring to…”
“God! Okay, okay, enough! You’re killing me, John.”
John appears pleased.
“Well, he was happy, my dad I mean. I think he thought I might change my mind and finally go into engineering instead.”
“Instead of what, Bible college?”
“I wasn’t planning on Bible college yet at that point.”
They pause to quietly smoke their cigarettes, careful not to make eye contact for the duration of the intermission.
“So,” Marsha says, after a reasonable amount of time to honor the idea that John will very soon embark on what she sees as an ill-advised career choice. “You just set him up for more disappointment then.”
“Yeah, sure, well, I got an A.”
“Obviously, you get an A in every class.”
“So did you.”
“But I cheated,” she confesses. “You’re just a nerd.”
“Well, we both ended up in the same place,” he says.
“Yeah,” she says, “the same place. A thousand miles from home, back in school, dating white people, being geniuses.”
John laughs. He’s one to laugh. He can’t resist. She makes him laugh.
“Why are you dating a white guy?” John asks, apparently by chance.
“Why am I? Why are you dating a white girl?” she says.
“Why am I? Mar, come on, you have to know it’s not the same thing for me to date a white girl as it is for you to date a white guy. I mean, it’s not the same thing to be an Asian guy in America as it is to be an Asian girl. Dating for you is a party, a fucking smorgasbord. You have your pick of any guy in the room. For me? There are probably 1-out-of-10 non-Asian girls that would even consider dating a Chinese guy. Politically, our dating habits have totally different significances. Me dating a white girl furthers the cause. You dating Vann? Sets us back.”
“Really? So you’re dating Berta for political reasons? Well fuck! That is sad. I’m sorry, but here’s a novel idea, me and Vann just like each other.”
“Yeah, of course, that’s fine for you and Vann. But there is always a political part to every relationship, even, no especially, romantic ones. There is always an issue of power, whether it’s a gender issue or a race issue or a nationality issue or a geography issue or a financial issue. Every relationship contains a power struggle. It’s inherent.”
“I don’t know how to respond to that.”
John starts to feel a familiar feeling in his head and his hands, tight and panicky. His thoughts race and race.
“Well, how about: ‘Vann is my ticket to whiteness. If I marry Vann, my last name will be Rotterdam and people will think I’m white when I talk to them on the phone. And we can have kids with light hair, nose bridges and double-eyelids. And Vann isn’t tied down to all those misogynistic Confucian values, and isn’t kept down by all the American stereotypes for Chinese men. So, he won’t expect me to cater to his mom or to cook for him. And he knows how to have fun and how to hold his liquor. And he isn’t cheap.’ Or how about: ‘Vann has a big fat circumcised cock!’”
“Fuck you, John,” she says, quietly. “What? Am I supposed to become enlightened by that? Am I some kind piece of property that all you men are waging some sexual war over?”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Well, that’s exactly what you’re saying”
“It’s not about me wanting to own you. It’s about us trying to move society forward.”
“That’s not what it sounds like. It sounds like some backwards ass medieval bullshit. And you’re talking all this shit, you don’t even know Vann.”
“I don’t have to know him. He doesn’t matter to me.”
“No, you do have to know him. He’s not your goddamn enemy. He’s a great guy. He’s funny and nice to everybody. He doesn’t have an agenda. He just likes me.”
“Of course he likes you. That’s not the point. It’s not about him liking you. It’s not about him being a nice guy. Fuck! I like him! Vann is cool! But that’s not the point. You-dating-him is more important than that. It’s more significant than that.”
“No,” she says, getting up to leave. “It’s not. It’s not more significant than that. It’s not more important than that. John, let this go. This kind of thing, it’s not helping you.”
“Helping me? Mar, you know what? What I’m saying is true. You just don’t want to admit it.”
“Admit what? That I’m a piece of meat in your socio-racial game of Monopoly? Or that I’m some conniving race-traitor?”
“Exactly,” says John, pseudo-sarcastically. “Right, that’s what I’m saying. Shit, Mar, open your fucking mind. It is political. It is about power. Even love is about power.”
“So what, are you and me about power?”
“That’s…” John begins, but he doesn’t answer.
He is stuck.
He wants to say, no, of course not. We’re really friends. We really love each other.
But, at the same time, he doesn’t want to say that. He wants his point to be heard. He wants Marsha to acknowledge that she had it easy and he had it hard. He wants her to apologize for how things were when they were kids, how terrible he felt when he realized that people, especially girls, just didn’t like him and there was nothing he could do about it. There was no way he could make himself white enough to make him not Chinese. He wants her to be sorry that she never stood up for him, that she never shared the secret to her success.
John shakes his head, ruminating on how pist he is, and snarls comically. It’s comical because he looks a little like a bulldog on account of his chubby cheeks and pronounced under-bite. He stops snarling to adjust his glasses. They don’t really fit his face. Then he lights another cigarette.
He tastes something indistinct on the roof of his mouth and wonders if his breath stinks. Rubbing his canines with his tongue, he looks around for Berta. She is talking to two of her girlfriends. She’s about half a foot taller than the other girls. They’re Japanese. A Mexican guy is trying to enter their conversation. Berta ignores him completely. The Japanese girls try to be courteous by nodding and laughing at his jokes.
Usually, John would be smiling, watching Berta being Berta. He is very proud of her; she makes him feel proud, as if her love for him is proof enough of his value as a man, as a human being. Looking at her now, he’s not a believer, and there isn’t enough proof in the world to make him one.
Marsha looks at John looking at Berta. She scans the room for Vann. She grins as she does this. There’s no urgency, just curiosity. Whatever he’s up to, Marsha is sure he’s not arguing with someone about socio-racial issues.
Much more likely, she imagines, that he might be hitting a bong in the small bedroom with Regal and Richard. They might be watching I Love Lucy and laughing a lot. At least Vann and Regal might be laughing a lot. Richard might be pacing back and forth, as if he’s a robot holding an invisible box of tissue paper, but happy. Very, very happy.