MY “FRIENDS” KEPT CALLING ME, Asian.
And I was Asian, I am Asian. But they called me Asian as if it were my name. Like it was on my birth certificate, like I’d put it on a resume, or end a love letter that way, or even put it on my tombstone. At first, it just rubbed me the wrong way and I wanted them to call me by a name that sounded right, that sounded like mine. But then they kept calling me, Asian, and I realized that they weren’t poking fun, or being snarky, but that they were being cruel. My name was Morgan. It’s still Morgan.
I was sitting at the neighborhood swimming pool in Hixson, Tennessee. I was drinking Diet Dr. Pepper and reading a Calvin & Hobbes comic book. I can’t remember which one. My memory is shot from the weed I would use to smoke back at high school. Back when I was sixteen living at home in Northern Virginia. I was here in Chattanooga, eighteen now, living in Hixson, trying out three different medications prescribed by two different white doctors.
I call them doctors because I forget if they were psychiatrists or therapists. And I call them that because I don’t remember their names. I wonder if my “friends” had forgotten my name. But I knew that was false. I knew they probably just didn’t care enough about me. I dipped my feet into the pool. I felt the water lap against my ankles. I looked up and the bright sun was shining through a cluster of clouds like a cliché in a film.
My “friends” Joe and Becca were laying back in the reclining chairs. They talked about what they would do after the summer had ended. They discussed getting jobs at the local mall shaped like a mandolin. They pondered about selling Adderall or tree to the rich kids in Hixson. They even joked about joining the army. Joe smoked a cigarette and blew a column of smoke rings towards the sky. He sighed and moaned in a sarcastic manner if that made any sense.
Becca stretched her arms. She laid back on the chair feeling the towel draped over the chair’s arm. Her nails gripped the cloth, snagging it. She looked over at me and smiled. She gave me a thumbs-down, as if to say, this is a metaphor for the end of August.
We’d all been “friends” for three months. We all shared an affinity for listening to Isiah Rashad and Phoebe Bridgers. And I didn’t have many other “friends” to be honest, and sometimes I realized I should drop them. But I was more afraid of them dropping me. They thought I was childish because I still read Calvin & Hobbes. They would talk shit: (‘that’s for kids,’ ‘why don’t you read a literary novel, something more grown up?’ ‘Cool book, Asian’).
However, I thought the comics meant something more than the universal. I thought the comics delved into friendship and imagination on a deep level. Maybe it was deeper than my “friends” may have been able to grasp. But maybe I was underestimating them. Just like how they had underestimated my capacity to learn and grow. I wanted to be more than just Asian. I wanted to be fleshed out more than a character in a story.
I nodded, said nothing, and rolled my eyes. Then I dropped my body into the pool to feel the water wash away the sweat on my chest. I swam freestyle from the shallow end to the deep end, using my arms and legs. I breathed to the side only when I had no more breath. When I reached the other side of the pool, I let my body sink to the bottom. I felt the water envelop me. I was clean.
I closed my eyes. I thought about the pills I would take later: pink, blue, white pills. I would give you the names of the medication, but then you’d judge me and stop reading this. Or maybe I’m being self-conscious, or too paranoid. So, I take: 500 MG of Depakote, 1000 MG of Geodon, and 50 MG of Abilify. I’m sick with Bipolar 1. I teeter-totter between happy and sad.
I opened my eyes and swam back to the top. I broke the surface, spitting out water as though I were a stone statue in a fountain. I got out and walked to my lawn chair. I picked up my towel to dry off my body, the water dripping down my swim trunks. I groaned in delight and smelled the air: hotdogs, burgers, ketchup. I wanted to eat, to devour.
Becca turned to me and asked, Asian do you want to chow down? And Joe said, Obvi, he does. Asian loves junk food. They smiled at each other, a smile they never shared with me. Maybe they knew me better than I knew myself. I probably would never know who I really was as person. But that was definitely a lie. Because I did want food, junk, and all.
My meds forced me to eat more. It had something to do with its chemical process that made me hungry, made me desperate. I chuckled and said, yeah assholes, I could eat. But inside I was feeling used, offended, and angry. I didn’t express my feelings to my “friends”.
Because I was afraid they’d leave me and find another Asian. They would hang out with that other Asian, and be a new pair of three. And the three of them would listen to Rashad and Bridgers without me.
Joe and Becca walked out of the swimming pool area. They crossed the lawn and they didn’t look back at me. I sat up on my lawn chair, cupped my hands, and shouted, I’ll catch up in a second. I picked up my Calvin & Hobbes book and tried to escape reality. As I read the comic, someone was saying Morgan, over and over again, and I wondered if I should make that my moniker. Morgan was my real name, and Asian was my fake name. But Asian was the name I’d always hear. I finished another comic, then I read another one. I did it again. I did it until there were no more pages left to devour. I read until I couldn’t hear my name anymore.
Duck, Duck, Goose
WE WERE LOOKING AT THE brown ducks gliding across Lake Kittamaqundi, leaning back on a wooden park bench in Columbia, Maryland, when Daniel squeezed my shoulder with his warm hand and told me he couldn’t see us being in a hook up, or friendship anymore. He took in a short breath and sucked in his teeth. I’m sorry, he said, You can hate me, you can scream at me, but we can’t be together. We just can’t.
The ducks quacked in an elongated chorus that sounded like a Vampire Weekend song off their first album. No. They didn’t sound like that at all. There wasn’t even any quacking. I’d heard the ducks speaking in duck tongue, but it wasn’t my language to translate. So I let it be. I stood up from the park bench, lit a cigarette with my pink Bic lighter, and walked over to the edge of Lake Kittamaqundi.
I looked down at my reflection and ashed my cigarette on my blue face in the hazy water, ashing until all that was left was the American Spirit butt. I exhaled, smoked,/; and cried so hard I almost hunched forward and dropped my head into the lake. Maybe I’d imagined Daniel telling me he didn’t want to see me anymore. I looked over my shoulder and saw Daniel putting on red Warby Parker sunglasses. He swung his leg over the knee and placed his hands in his lap. He was looking at me but not in a direct line, which made me wonder if he ever really saw me for the person I’d perceived myself to be.
I was Vietnamese American and he was white, and those things didn’t always matter, but yet they did matter as well. I guess it was the dichotomy of the way I saw my life and now the glass was neither half-full, nor half-empty, but there no longer was a cup for me to even hold in my hands. The water had evaporated from the cup, and it’d disappeared with everything else. And I knew I wasn’t making much sense, but if you’d ever experienced a break up with someone you’d loved since sophomore year at Virginia Tech when you both majored in the same comparative literature course, and had both loved to watch The Hours and listen to Vampire Weekend albums on vinyl while an old record player skipped on the B side, then you would be able to relate to me on a level that many of us have yet to actualize.
However, perhaps I was pontificating instead of resolving my feelings for a connection I would no longer be able to see, a note I would no longer hear, his mind I would never be able to pick and devour.
Daniel got up from the park bench and walked over to me with his hands in the tattered pockets of his black bomber jacket. He cleared his throat and put my arm around me and I moved closer to him and my pinky grazed his thigh, and I was wondering if this feeling would ever go away. It was like when you heard a song on the radio at the Apple Store, and it sounded like the first time you heard Oxford Comma and you thought no one would understand your interpretation of the song in terms of how you articulated it in your mind.
Because when Daniel showed me Oxford Comma in the dilapidated white gazebo in Blacksburg at an English Major House party, and I heard the electric guitar solo, I’d grazed his arm with my hand and I wished the song would never end, and that the chords from the guitar would stay embedded in your mind and linger for just another moment.
And now Daniel and I were standing across from each other, looking into each other’s eyes, feeling a chill pass between us like a breath of air from a cadaver and it felt like a moment in a movie where the climax was supposed to occur, but this was reality, not a film directed by an NYU grad student with money from auntie and uncle, this felt like a point in time that I’d later recall as an old Vietnamese American man at a hospice in Fairfax, VA as I watched a rom-com on an iPad mounted to the wall that had etchings of his name.
I removed my pinky from his thigh and curled the rest of my fingers into a ball, and then I drew my arm back and punched Daniel in the jaw. Blood spurted out from his lip. His head whipped to the side. He staggered back, his hands smacking against the asphalt bicycle path.
And then I got on top of him and punched him again in the face, and then a crowd had gathered around us and took pics with their iPhones, sending them to their fake friends on the west coast, or in a country that could be construed as exotic. Daniel closed his eyes and shielded his face with his elbows. But I continued to swing and this time I beat my hands against the asphalt until my skin split open, and blood spilled out of the cuts. He screamed at me and told me to stop it. He groaned and shivered even though it was the middle of July and the temperature was over 80 degrees.
When all of the little bones in my battered hands crumbled, I fell forward and drew a triangle on Daniel’s forehead. I drew an obtuse triangle, and measured the angles, on each side, covered the rest of his face with bent flower petals from the crushed daffodils under Daniel’s legs.
And then I stood up and walked over him and started running down the bicycle path. I swung my arms back and forth, my feet kicking up as I ran down hill, pieces of asphalt stuck to the soles of my red Air Jordan’s. I ran until I went back to my neighborhood. Ran until I was in my room.
I closed my door and locked it, and then I crawled under my bed and opened the trapped door in the hardwood floor. And then I dropped my body into the hole and felt myself falling down and back into my mind.
When I reached the bottom of the hole, I plunged into a body of water colored green. I closed my eyes. I held my breath. I heard you. It was you crying at a house party in Blacksburg after listening to a Vampire Weekend song for the first time. No. It sounded like a duck quacking before it dove below the surface of the lake.
RAYMOND, A VIETNAMESE AMERICAN CUB scout, was on the periphery of the campsite, watching the cub scouts, out in the grassy field, running towards the warmth of the small fire swelling up in the late evening. He rubbed his hands and held them in front of the flames.
Two white scout leaders, Mr. Flannery and Mr. Quinn, were chewing Skoal and drinking Corona. They both looked bored and tired. Their white sons, Clark, Marshall, and Bradley, sat around in a circle, holding small branches to the fire. The flames were raging, marshmallows melting down the branches.
Raymond’s stomach rumbled. He wondered why he didn’t get a marshmallow. Maybe the scouts had run out of them. A supply shortage seemed like a real possibility. He cleared his throat, smelled the smoke from the fire. It smelled like home back in Virginia.
He sighed and fiddled with his rose glasses. The lenses were smudged. He took out a micro-fiber cloth and wiped his glasses. Then he put them back on. He looked at the white boys, wished he were white, so he could have friends. Wished he didn’t have to feel this way, yet it felt valid, felt like something he needed to unpack. Why didn’t they want to hang out with him and get to know him?
Raymond grabbed a stick from the ground, drew a square in the dirt. He wondered if he could fit in that square, if he could find a home there. He moved the stick up and down in the dirt, and traced a roof, windows, a door, the bricks of the house. He believed it could be his foundation and he thought that could work, even if it didn’t make sense in a logical manner. Did things have to follow a logical cause and effect flow? Maybe it didn’t.
Clark, one of the white sons, looked at Raymond. He grinned and stood up from the tree stump. He walked over to Raymond, sat next to him. He put his arm around him.
Raymond smiled. “Hey Clark.”
“Sup, man.” Clark nodded and patted Raymond’s back. He looked at his friends Marshall and Bradley. Marshall blew him a raspberry and flipped him off. Bradley cupped his hands to his mouth and called him a wuss.
Clark clicked his teeth and took a marshmallow from his branch. “You hungry?” He smacked it against Raymond’s glasses. The lens foamed up with marshmallow. The frame of the glasses warped and folded.
Raymond screamed, flailing his arms. “What the hell dude?” He turned his hand into a fist. He pummeled Clark’s face. It sounded like a baseball being struck by a wooden bat.
“Fuck you,” Clark staggered, holding his bruised cheek.
Mr. Flannery looked up from his drink. “Goddammit Clark.”
And Mr. Quinn approached silently and groaned. He crossed his arms. “Really? Why is this happening right now?”
Mr. Flannery crushed his beer under his foot. He spat on the ground. “Jesus Christ.”
Raymond relaxed his fingers. His hand throbbed, the pain still there. “You saw what happened. He hurt me first.”
Clark scoffed. “Yeah, whatever, gook.”
Raymond shrank. He bit his lower lip. “Great.”
Mr. Flannery placed his hand on Raymond’s shoulder. He squeezed it and took a breath. “You’re both in trouble.”
Marshall laughed. Bradley rolled his eyes.
“I told you. I didn’t start it. He did.” Raymond said. He turned to Mr. Flannery; blurry. His glasses were broken, one lens popped out. Now, he looked like a cyclops. “I’m not lying.”
Mr. Flannery nodded and said, “I saw everything. But that doesn’t excuse the violence.”
Raymond shook his head. “It was self-defense. I promise,” he said. He started to sweat from his armpits. His mouth was dry. “I’m not this person. I don’t like hurting people.”
“He threw a good punch,” Mr. Quinn said. He was wearing a cowboy hat. His blue scout uniform, his boots, and even his slacks were all neat and pressed cleanly. “Stood up for himself, didn’t expect that.”
Clark puffed his chest. He cracked his neck and chuckled. A purple welt covered his left eye. He marched up to Raymond, winded up his arm, and said, “I’ll show you, you gook.”
Mr. Flannery clenched his teeth and grabbed Clark. “Stop it,” he raised him into the air, “Quit your shit talking.” He held Clark up like an offering.
Clark screamed. He was starting to cry. A sliver of piss slid down his thigh, down his leg, and into his sock. “I was just joking all around. It was all a joke.”
The fire in the campsite was blazing, and wafts of smoke filled the air. And the sky had shifted from pale orange light to a shade of magenta, so dark that it was hard to see what was happening. As the fire burned with a bright red and yellow color, Raymond stood at an awkward angle, as he listened to the others fight. He felt out of place. He wanted to leave.
“You should apologize to Raymond. I didn’t raise you to be an asshole, son. Grow up.”
“Dad, let go,” Clark said, crying.
“You’re hurting him,” Raymond said.
“I know,” Mr. Flannery said.
Andrew Tran is a digital collage artist from Virginia. He blogs at: https://saigoncoffeeshop453.blogspot.com.
Original art: Matt Mitchell