Nostrand Avenue

You are here.  
This semester, I'm taking a seminar called "Writing the City." Before class started the professor gave us an assignment: to take the C or A trains to Nostrand Avenue in Brooklyn and walk "with maximum openness and attention, building a narrative out of what you see, overhear, actual encounters, your insights, responses... The chronicle of a writer's walk, however you choose to craft it." 

It's the sort of assignment that would make my father scratch his head, much like when I accidentally shipped home books I'd ordered for my Spy Novel class and my father learned that these books, many of which were made into blockbusters, were my "textbooks." 

I took the walk alone, as directed, on a hot September afternoon. I probably should have used my eyes more, taken in sights and smells, stopped to study little details here and there. That was the whole point. But I was tired and already sweating from walking up the subway steps. I was also wary - the crowd where Nostrand intersects with Fulton is very different from the Upper West Side, where people are mostly white and there's only a sprinkling of bums, most of whom retreat back to shelters when the sun sets. Also, in the Upper West Side there aren't usually long lines of police cars parked next to crumbling sidewalks just for the sake of deterring criminal activity. 

The essay I wrote was probably too honest. 

I'm from a small town in Orange County, California where bums, though I've yet to see one, get picked up by cops and are dropped off in other cities.

The professor is a kind, curious man who defines himself as being remarkably open - open faced, and open-minded. Open to all the bits - ugly, beautiful, strange - that make up the human condition because he asks questions and writes down the answers. 

A white, female classmate put considerably more effort into the assignment than I did. She wandered up and down Nostrand for a good three hours with a notebook and pen. A police officer noticed her wandering and after a time, asked her if she was lost. 

"A fair question," I thought.

I had walked down the street just once and elicited enough stares and catcalls to feel more than slightly out of place. I saw exactly one other Asian woman, older and more world weary, but even she walked much faster than I. I assumed she was hurrying to a place she felt more at "home." 

"Why would he ask if you were lost?" the professor asked my classmate, "What do you think he meant by that?" 

"I told him I wasn't lost," my classmate said, "I said I was here for an assignment and asked him why he would think that I was lost. Then he got really nervous and just...ran off." 

"See," the professor said, "Isn't that interesting. That the officer would approach you, a young white woman, and ask if you were lost. I think he ran off because he didn't want to get in trouble for assuming...you know." 

Several of my classmates nodded in agreement. I rolled my eyes.

Assuming what? That a young white woman wandering the streets of a mostly black neighborhood might be lost? If my professor thought the cop was being racist, I'd have to disagree. It seemed to me the cop was just showing concern. If I was in Monterey Park, CA and saw a well-dressed white guy driving around the same three blocks for hours on end, I'd probably ask if he was lost too. Had the officer approached me, I would have thanked him for his kindness, acknowledging that to any bystander, I was probably out of place. I certainly felt it. You, depending on where you grew up and what you're used to, might have felt it too.

Aside from the girl who grew up in the Bronx, most of them were like me, from safe suburban neighborhoods they now look back upon and see as boring. No diversity! No struggle! So sterile! Gentrification is the devil! Oh definitely. They come to class holding three dollar coffees, lunch on fifteen dollar kale salads and delight in little exercises like this, assigned by a man who probably lives in a Brooklyn brownstone in a mostly white Brooklyn neighborhood, who shops at the farmer's market and whose brown leather briefcase and shoes are weathered just so, as though he paid extra to have them look that way. Never mind they chose to come to a writing program at an Ivy League school where tuition causes nosebleeds. 

Of course it was a perfectly safe neighborhood! Of course the cop had no business assuming what he assumed. And that obscenely long line of cop cars and the nervous looking officers walking around? Hallmarks of every safe neighborhood. 

I did not feel unsafe, but I did not feel safe, especially, ironically, when I saw the cop cars. But mostly, it was unfamiliar. I'm sure it showed on my face. I was not familiar with the bums on the corners nor the idle, old men sitting in wheelchairs in front of pawnshops and barbershops. I was not familiar with the young shirtless black men who seemed just as idle as the old men, if a bit more anxious. They flexed and asked if I wanted photos of them, with them. I did not. I took my photos and hurried along. 

But here's the thing about photos. I took these ones below. Stared at them and played around with filters and colors. Revisited the original image and the actual place in my head. Revisited this post as it was a draft too, and now these little rectangles of Nostrand Avenue are familiar.
The only familiar faces in the neighborhood. 
Another wall. 
And detergent. 
Not so secret garden. 
Nails my parents would not approve of. 
A wall of memories. Note the man also known as "Chincky" in the bottom middle. 
Brooklyn recycles. And provides nuclear fallout shelters.  
Van Gogh would have appreciated this building. 
The kid almost ran over my foot. But he apologized and called me "lady." 
Dusk. And a Range Rover. 
Where I ate dinner sitting at the same table as a cop. 
If for whatever reason you're there and end up hungry, try these places: 
1267 Fulton St
Brooklyn, NY 11216
b/t Arlington Pl & Nostrand Ave in Bedford Stuyvesant
(718) 783-0316

1184 Fulton St
Brooklyn, NY 11216
Bedford Stuyvesant
(718) 230-1115

Errands

For the first year after my grandma passed away, my grandpa went to her grave at least once a week, sometimes twice. Now he no longer goes that often, but every two weeks or so, my uncle Jin will drive grandpa fifteen miles from Cerritos to the sprawling Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier, California, neither man speaking much in the car. On these days, my uncle's white Toyota Sienna, purchased over a decade ago and still in excellent condition thanks to my uncle's meticulous care, can be seen winding its way up the groomed, curved road of the cemetery, turning right just before the white, futuristic looking Memorial Chapel, where grandma's funeral was held two Novembers ago. My uncle always parks by a trash can and together, they walk carefully down three yards or so, to grandma's grave. 

From atop the hill where grandma is buried, the view is pleasant. I'm not certain which direction the hill faces - it could be north towards El Monte, east towards Rowland Heights, or west towards Los Angeles - but the hill rises just high enough so you feel you're above the hazy line of pollution that hovers over the rest of the living. 

When we buried grandma, grandpa had nodded towards the view, commenting that it was a good thing my aunt Joannie had bought the plots early. 

"The early bird gets the view," he had said, or something to that extent. 

There were - there are - always flowers in the little metal vase provided by the cemetery. There's one in front of every tombstone, in a little hole in the grass so that the flowers appear to be growing from the ground. If the flowers were not left by Uncle Jin and Grandpa, then they were by Uncle Jimmy. If not by uncle Jimmy, then by Aunt Yang or cousin Angela or Wendy or Kathryn or whomever else took the time to make the drive, to spend a few minutes with a stone and a memory. 

After they refresh the flowers and take in the now-familiar view and say a few words to Grandma, Uncle Jin drives Grandpa home. But every three or four weeks, Uncle Jin drives further north, another ten miles to Temple City, a Chinatown comprised of dilapidated strip malls with stores and Chinese restaurants frequented mostly by the local elderly and their visiting children, some willing, some not. In one such such strip mall, there is a seafood restaurant with dingy tablecloths and mossy fishtanks filled with fresh but lethargic seafood. They offer an excellent lunch special: order three dishes and get another for just $1.99. Soup and rice included. Father and son dine on too much food - grandpa likes a whole fried flounder, uncle Jin likes the cold, slow-braised, chicken. They pack up the rest: for dinner, tomorrow's lunch and probably tomorrow's dinner too, and drive another mile or so to another strip mall where the Ever Beauty Salon is situated. 

A dim, run-down establishment with chipped mirrors, torn barber seats, and fading posters of chiseled eighties models with outdated hairstyles, the Ever Beauty Salon makes most of its money from Chinese men, mostly old, like my grandfather. Grandpa likes the price almost as much as he likes the price for lunch ($25 for a meal enough for four). A haircut for a man his age starts at $5. A slapdash dye job to hide white hair starts at $12, depending on how much hair the client has. A man might leave with more than a few missed hairs or more dye on his scalp than upon his strands, but for twelve dollars he's going for the overall effect. The, "don't stand too close to me and it looks fine" effect. The men who frequent Ever Beauty Salon are not vain. They are not looking for everlasting beauty; they are men well over the hill, heading for the bottom, looking for a good deal. They want to keep the hair off their necks and out of their eyes; they want to keep their comb-overs manageable. They want to look presentable for when their kids and grandkids visit or take them out to lunch. 

Those days are long, when Grandpa and Uncle Jin go from cemetery to restaurant to salon and perhaps to the Chinese Grocery Megastore. Uncle Jin prefers to leave grandpa's house by 10AM, be at the cemetery at 10:30. Lunch at 11AM followed by the salon and groceries and then the long drive back on the perpetually congested 5 freeway. If traffic cooperates, Grandpa can be at home, napping by one, one-thirty PM and my Uncle Jin can be at the Chinese school he runs less than five minutes later. 

A few weeks ago I was home in California with just two more days left - Friday and Saturday - before returning to New York, when my uncle Jin called. 

"Are you free tomorrow morning?" 

I hesitated, having an idea of what was coming. 

"What is it?" I asked.

"I wanted to see if you'll visit Grandma with me and Grandpa. After, we can have lunch together." 

I did not want to go. I had two days left in California, each hour of which I could think of a hundred things I'd rather do than go to a cemetery I'd been to too often. I wanted to swim and read travel magazines. I wanted to laze about in my bed. I wanted to play golf with my mother and walk around my big house because I had the space and hang out with my friends. I wanted to fix my own lunch. I did not want to drive nor be driven to an ugly inland city whose greatest expanse of beauty was a too-carefully groomed cemetery where even the grass looked sterile. I had been enough; I never wanted to go again. Mostly, I did not want to see my grandpa looking at his wife's grave. Mostly, I did not want to be sad. 

"Okay," I said.  

I did not know it was going to be one of those long days. My uncle Jin kept this information from me, knowing I would not have come along if he'd said, "After the cemetery we'll get lunch and a haircut and groceries." It wasn't until we'd replaced the flowers, when I'd looked very briefly down at Grandma's tombstone and then up at the view, and heard Uncle Jin said, "Hi Ma, Betty's home from New York and here to see you," and saw Grandpa standing on the empty plot next to Grandma's with his hands crossed behind his back. It wasn't until I heard him say, "In a few years, I'll be here," and I had wanted to tell him to step back, to not let his shadow fall onto that space because it was bad luck didn't he know - it wasn't until we'd all gotten back into the Sienna and Uncle Jin started the car and said, "We're going to get our haircut now," that I realized the cemetery was only the beginning and that the day had just started. 

"Is that okay?" my uncle asked, looking into the rear view mirror. 

I crossed my arms and looked out the window like a sullen teenager on a long road trip I didn't want to be on. 

"What am I going to do if it isn't?" I said. 

My uncle chuckled, wondering if he'd be better off not asking me to join at all. Grandpa said nothing. 

"The restaurant is very good," my uncle said, "I think you'll like it. And the haircuts, it won't take long." 

"They're very fast," grandpa said, "fast and cheap." 

"And the grocery store is right around the corner," my uncle added, "I'll just pop in and out. You can be back home no later than one or one-thirty PM." 

I doubted this, but I was already in the car, beginning to feel bad that my uncle felt bad. He had good if ill-communicated intentions. Also, no one would have guessed that I, family-oriented, old-people loving Betty, would be loathe to visit my grandmother's grave. No one likes going to the cemetery to visit people they know, just like no one likes going to the hospital - but lately, I've loathed it more than usual. I think about my grandpas and how different they were. My father's father, Grandpa Ho, who never went to hospitals unless he was the one who was sick, who never went to funerals - not his friends', not his wives', and had one of his elderly daughters passed away before he did, not hers either. 

"Why go," he had said before, "It's for the sick and the dead. I am neither." 

And I think about my Grandpa Leu, my mother's father, who went to the hospital almost daily when my grandmother was ailing, and who shows up dutifully at funerals of both friends and acquaintances and continues to go weekly to her grave with fresh flowers, to look at her smiling portrait lasered into the granite and stand on the empty plot next to her, mentally preparing for that imminent time.

My Grandpa Ho lived until he was one hundred, with very little wrong with him except an old heart. He had been selfish but hearing people talk about him, you would never have guessed. He looked ahead. Went to work. Kept busy. Made plans. Traveled. When a spouse died, he remarried. He was like a sturdy old stone and we, the river, flowed around his wishes. 

My Grandpa Leu cannot sit or stand or walk more than a few steps without wincing. He has pains in his legs, in his back, pains surgery can't fix. He still walks to the park every morning, but lately he sits more than he walks. He asks very little of his kids because he doesn't want to inconvenience them. He thinks a lot about the past. About grandma. He doesn't make plans. People make plans for him. 

Neither man is right or wrong, neither way of living is good or bad. They are just two men, two ways. But I am beginning to understand - or actually I've always known - which way I prefer and why. 

But I went along with Uncle Jin and Grandpa that morning. I quietly said hello to grandma, took in the view. I ate the fish, the chicken. I drank the soup. I took photos of my grandfather getting his hair cut and laughed when I found the long hairs on the back of his neck the barber had missed. 

"It's too dim in there," my grandfather had murmured, rubbing the back of his neck, "And it was five dollars. What can I expect?" 

I said very little the whole time, because the whole time, I was afraid of sounding selfish, or unfilial and still I am afraid. The whole time I wished I was somewhere else and the whole time I vowed never to be caught in one of these long days again. 

The traffic back was bad, and I wondered how Grandpa's waist was doing but pitied more my last Friday morning in California. By the time Uncle Jin pulled into Grandpa's driveway, it was nearly 2PM. I still had another half hour drive back home. 

"Thanks for coming with us," Uncle Jin said, "It's always nice spending time with you. And we appreciate your spending time with us old folks." 

Grandpa nodded, easing himself out of the car. 

"I'll nap now," he said, sensing my impatience to go, "You don't have to come in." 

I nodded, thinking for a minute as my uncle truly did: that I had done some great charitable thing and given them my morning. I thanked my uncle for lunch, just lunch. 

"Go, go," Grandpa said. 

And I did. I went home and swam and read travel magazines. I lazed about in my bed. On Saturday morning I played golf with my mother and walked around my big house. I hung out with my friends. In the evening, I helped my mother make dinner. I did all the things I wanted to do and thought about the things I had not wanted to do, but did anyway. I thought too, about thanking my uncle for inviting me on their long morning, a morning I'm unlikely to ever participate in again. But it would mean I was admitting to acting petulant and rude. Immature and selfish. So I said nothing. 

Bon Mot II

A few days later in California, I sat with my parents in the waiting room of the Hoag Center for Movement Disorders, waiting for my mother's quarterly check-up. An obese woman walked by, her pumpkin-shaped butt undulating underneath a faded mumu.

My father, himself with an insatiable sweet tooth and a belly like a yoga-ball, raised his eyebrows, made a face. I was reminded of POI's conditions. 

"POI says I can gain ten pounds," I said in Chinese, though wondered if my phrasing was correct. 

It was not. My father lurched to attention and waved his hand at me, a wild urgency in his eyes. 

"No!" he said much too loudly for a quiet hospital waiting room, "Don't fall into his trap!" 

I laughed, wondering if he feared POI was a chubby chaser. For the past ten years, since I was sixteen and gained thirty pounds when I joined the badminton team my sophomore year of high school, my father has been not-so-subtly hinting that I ought to lose at least twenty pounds. 

"At least," he always emphasized, "At least." 

After college, I lost ten and tried in the way I try to do most things (not very hard) to lose ten more. But certain pants stayed very tight and... in the back of my closet. 

But my father continued to stress room for improvement. 

"Don't eat that," he would say, if he found me helping myself to coffee ice cream, "It's all fat." 

Or, if I got another bowl of rice at dinner, would tsk tsk and say, "Ten pounds? What happened to losing ten pounds? Don't you want to?" 

But my father is a conflicted man. He is strong and sturdily built, an athletic man even now, with that rotund abdomen. He sees the same in me and cannot help but take pride in my similar albeit more feminine build (minus the gut) - my wide knees and broad, square shoulders (my mother, though far from petite, has soft, weak legs and sloped, almost pointless shoulders) and my rather strong neck, which, when I showed up to the first day of a college seminar wearing a Cal crew neck sweatshirt, prompted the professor to ask, "And what sport do you play for us?" - all these are genetic gifts from my father. 

My father also likes to eat. No, he loves to eat. As much as he wanted me to lose ten pounds, he wanted more to eat with me and for me to eat. He cuts fruit at all hours of the day, including right before bedtime, unaware that fruit is fiber and sugar water, as capable of causing weight gain as ice cream. And because the Chinese savory crackers he likes to eat are "vegetable flavored," he thinks they are healthy and thus perfectly fine if downed twenty at a time. But he is most conflicted when he tries to stop me from eating something. 

"Don't eat the ice cream," he'll say, then see that I've already scooped it into a bowl. He will reach for another bowl, "Well, give me a scoop then. Or two." 

Or, seeing that I'm already up at the rice cooker, hand me his bowl, "I could use some more rice too, I guess. But you really shouldn't eat so much rice." 

But then he will put more of whatever dishes we are having into my bowl as well, because he's my father and that's what fathers do. 

------

"Listen to me."

My father sat up, the image of the fat woman still waddling in his mind. I turned around and saw that she was still in his line of sight, inching down the long waiting room. 

"You do not need to gain ten pounds," he said, "You need to lose ten pounds." 

I wanted to tell him that he had misunderstood, that POI had meant that there was a ten pound maximum, but my father's tone said he was not to be interrupted.

"You lose ten pounds," my father continued, "And Tom will come running."

I nodded that I understood but he wasn't finished.

"Not just your Tom, all the Toms..."

He paused to grin before his final, genius point,

"And Jerry too." 

Bon Mot

The day I left for California, POI took me to lunch at Buvette, one of my favorite cafes in New York.

I ordered the salade niçoise, planning ahead for the cafe's excellent chocolate mousse, served in the form of a decadent little mountain topped with a luscious dollop of house-whipped cream, an ice cap of chilled fat.

"I'm so excited to go home," I said to POI between bites, "I'm going to eat all the things I've been craving for the past eight months." 

POI nodded, his bites smaller and slower than mine, "Like what." 

"In n' Out, for one," I said. 

POI nodded his approval. 

"And..." I rattled off all the foods I associated with SoCal living and didn't even know I missed until I was heading back. 

Pho, Korean BBQ, simple Taiwanese Chinese food, Chinese desserts, my mother's home cooking, my aunt's home cooking, affordable Japanese food, Mexican food, Souplantation, Wahoo's Fish Tacos... it was not a short list. 

"I'm going to come back a cow," I said. 

His spoon paused mid-air, "No fat Betty."

It was an inside joke, tinged with seriousness. On our fourth date he'd made reservations at Jeffrey's Grocery - another favorite - and ordered an off-the-menu pork chop. It was big, as in, if two people with normal appetites split it, there might have been some leftover. But if POI doesn't exercise, he has a below average appetite and I, if I don't exercise, have an appetite bordering on excessive. We started at opposite ends of the chop and worked our way in, though I beat him to the middle. About ten bites behind, POI put his fork down.

"I am disgustingly full," he said, "I cannot eat another bite."

Great, I thought, more pork chop for me.

Eventually the meat was gone, save for the meat around the bone, which, if you know anything about meat, is the juiciest, tastiest part and often can't be excised satisfactorily with a silly knife. Angles, you know?

POI watched me watch the pork chop. I had not made eye contact with him in a while.

"You want to gnaw on the bone, don't you," He was learning something about me.

"No no, no no." I too, put my fork down and pushed the plate away, "I'm done, that was amazing."

A few minutes later POI excused himself to the restroom. An opportunity presented itself. I have never been one to leave meat on the bone. Why now, especially with a pork chop as delicious as this?

I figured I had about three minutes, maybe four, to clean the bone and have the waiter whisk away the evidence. I got to work, never mind that I was wearing a rather frilly sundress and had my makeup done by my friend Angie, a professional makeup artist who was staying with me that week for New York Fashion Week. She had worked on J. Crew models all morning then generously gussied up my hair and face for my date with POI - just so I could smear it with pork grease. I bit down and gnawed with concentration, thinking how in the future, I ought to carry floss.

I felt a tap on my shoulder.

Damn. Why wasn't there a line for the men's room?

"So."

I turned, still holding the bone to my teeth.

POI's expression bore bemusement with a shade of horror - something I like to think he saves just for me. "You didn't want to gnaw on the bone."

I grinned. No point in pretending now. I was two percent sheepish and ninety-eight percent satisfied. I doubt Jeffrey's Grocery had ever seen a such a sparkling pork rib.

-----

Since then, I've consistently eaten more than POI, except when we exercise. When endorphins are released, something magical happens. POI turns into a bottomless abyss for nacho chili cheese fries and pizzas and burgers with cheese. Anything with cheese, basically, and I turn into that girl at the restaurant who looks like she eats way more than the "Just a salad with the dressing on the side" she orders. For POI a revved up appetite is a biological function. For me the reverse that happens is largely psychological. Why undo all the hard work I put into ___(insert strenuous and unpleasant exercise POI coerced/tricked me into)____ by eating like I normally do? Better to wait a day, when I turn into lazy, sedentary Betty to eat tons.

A normal person would think, "This kind of thinking is great. I ought to exercise more, every day!"

But I am special.

------

We finished lunch and took a walk - my preferred form of exercise - towards POI's office. We stopped at a red light and I turned to POI. 

"Would you really break up with me if I got fat?" 

POI hesitated, then lied. 

"Probably not." 

"Good." 

"Well," he said, nodding that the walk sign was on, "I'll give you a maximum of ten pounds." 

First Impressions V

Two weeks before my arrival, friends - both POI's and mine - asked, "You ready to meet the parents? You nervous?”
"Yes and no."
I don’t let myself get nervous because when I do, I freeze. But I’ll get to that. Instead, I was excited to do what came easily because my mother had made me perfect it through years of practice: make a good impression.
That Friday, I left work early and walked to Penn Station, carrying a backpack heavy with a bottle of Chianti for POI's mother and two books he'd brought back from England for his parents but had forgotten to bring.
I hauled these items along with a mixed bag of Murray's Bagels and at 4PM, boarded the train behind a podiatrist who held the skeleton of a human foot and a slew of young professionals who seemed younger and more professional than I. They typed away on laptops, describing marketing plans on fancy power points until it got old and they realized they were on a train and their boss was probably not watching. As though in unison, a handful of them began to watch "Orange Is the New Black," except for the anemic-looking woman who sat in front of me. She watched "You've Got Mail” while chewing at a bland sandwich that didn’t seem to have much iron.
I slept for an hour and spent the rest of the ride looking between the magazine on my lap and the view out the window.
"The east coast is very lush," I noted.
"People in Delaware seem very poor. At least by the train tracks."
"People who get off in Baltimore look rather dejected."
The train was an hour delayed but I was communicating with POI, who instructed me to text by the time I got to Baltimore. He'd leave his place around then.
Baltimore slid by. I texted. Before long the train stopped in a drab terminal and I found myself standing in Union Station, setting foot in our nation's capital for the first time.
"What have I been doing that it's taken me twenty-eight years to get here?" I wondered. Visiting other capitals, duh.
POI collected me from the large roundabout in front of the station in a little blue station wagon, his father’s old car. We said hello with a tinge of strangeness - he was not home but he was "home," just as I, writing this from my Upper West Side studio am home but not “home.” His family – parents, brother, brother’s wife, sister, sister’s husband and their baby – were all waiting at home for my arrival so we could eat dinner together. I felt bad that my train had been late, but they couldn’t hold that against me. I wasn’t nervous at all. Not yet.
----
So, when do I get nervous? And what happens? Like many people, I get nervous when I’m put on the spot. When, say, I’m at dinner with a group of friends and someone asks me to do the math on the bill. (Once my calculation came out to be $100 more than we needed to pay). I got nervous when taking the GRE, when the writing portion came first instead of Verbal or Math, like in the five practice tests I took beforehand. I had not practiced taking the test in this order. I also get nervous when people ask me questions I’m not expecting and, like most people who ask you questions, they expect answers right away. This makes me especially nervous when there are other people around, watching or listening and they too, expect an answer.
I am not one of those hardy individuals whose brain adapts quickly to these situations. I would like to be able to take the restaurant bill home and figure it out at with my dad’s giant accountant’s calculator. I would have loved for the GRE essay portion to come at the end, where I expected it to be. I might have gotten a less embarrassing score of two (out of six), considering I was taking the GRE to apply to writing school. And I would have given anything for POI’s mother to have said, “I’ll give you some time to think about it,” after she asked me, “Why did you say that?” Actually, I would have preferred if she didn’t ask me at all, and understood that it’s just the sort of thing I say from time to time.
------
The family dinner went well. POI’s father ordered Indian takeout and I assumed they all ate with more gusto considering I had made them wait an hour. After, the family migrated from the dining table to the living room, while I stayed behind in the kitchen chatting with POI’s mother. She asked me the usual things: what I was studying (writing), if I liked my program (sometimes), what was I going to do after the program (Not sure, but probably babysitting and tutoring the SAT’s. Just kidding. Of course I meant writing…), my version of how POI and I met (I patted myself on the back for leaving out the racist bits), our recent travels and plans for the summer. I asked her the usual questions too: how did she meet POI’s father if she was from Australia? While she was studying English Literature in England, he was there too, a young American man in the foreign service. They married, moved to a suburb just outside DC, and had three children. A few years later, when POI was eight, his father’s job took them to Tokyo where they lived for ten years.
“It was a wonderful time,” she said, her eyes sparkling, and I could imagine it. I felt an immediate kinship with this petite skinny woman with countless laugh lines, bright eyes and short, curly red hair. We both loved to read, though judging by the well thumbed books I found all over the house, in every single room, she more than me. She was, from the way she talked about her meeting POI’s father, a bit of a romantic, though with practical leanings, especially now having been married for so many decades to POI’s father who seemed like a very practical man. We moved from the kitchen to the back patio, each holding a glass of wine, and continued talking for another hour or so until we decided that it was probably time to go in and join the rest of the family. Confidences had been exchanged. She liked me, I could tell.
As we walked into the living room POI gave me a wary look – what had I been telling his mother out there on the patio? Or worse, what has she told you? The smug smile I returned said, “None of your business.” I took a seat next to his mother opposite POI and listened as they told me stories about their neighbors. There was the young family next door, who had two ill-behaved little girls who often scared Smoot and screamed and shrieked. POI’s mother did not like them. She was a bigger fan of the friendly, quiet guy who lived upstairs and who had been a bachelor for many years – he was in his early forties – but was getting married tomorrow.
            “Congratulations to him!” I said.
            She nodded and smiled, “His fiancée’s name is Turquoise.”
            Nicky and POI both snorted, “What kind of name is that?”
            Nicky pulled out his phone and started scrolling – he lived close to POI’s parents and was apparently friends with the neighbor on Facebook. He found a photo of Turquoise and showed it to POI.
            “Is she a bus driver?” POI joked.
            “Oh,” I said, arriving at what I thought was an obvious conclusion, “Is she black?”

I remember a sudden outburst of laughter, which then died down almost immediately into an awkward silence. From the corner of my eye I saw POI’s eyes widen as his mother turned to me.
“Why did you say that?”
Defense mechanism one. Pretend you didn't say it and even if you did say it, convince yourself no one heard.
“Hm?”
POI's mother looked at me with wide eyes sparkling with earnest curiosity. She repeated the question.
"Why did you say that?"
This is when adrenaline is supposed to kick in, when your fight or flight instinct is meant to help you either a.) smoothly redirect the conversation to something more PC ("So why do you guys call him Mr. Chicken?" But I'd already asked this. Or b.) Come up with an elaborate lie beginning with, "Oh what I meant was _(insert the exact opposite of what you meant couched it flowery language and said with a sweet "mean no harm, absolutely no harm" expression)__."
But my glands don't work like that. I'm witty, but not quick-witted. I'll come back at you with a witty comeback or a “quick” save…tomorrow. Or maybe the day after. I am also not- nor have I ever been-a good liar. An on-the-spot liar? Forget it. I'm better at math. And that's saying something.
In the past, when I've been caught red-handed doing something I wasn't supposed to be doing or carelessly let mean (but often true) things roll off a blunt tongue, I have never been able to successfully backtrack and assuage the situation. Instead, I run through the options (listed above) and my ability to execute those options, which is very low. The inner dialogue goes something like this:
Dammit. I can't believe I just said it. Dear God, may I please rewind this moment? No? Dammit. Dammit. Dammit.
The entire thought process takes less then two seconds (in some ways I am fast) but in the end the only options are either to apologize for a mistake or own it. In this case, I had to own it. To apologize would lead to too much explaining, which, given the blankness of my present state of mind, would color myself a deeper shade of prejudiced. I was at a crossroads too – back down now and set an expectation of apologizing for all the potentially racist/politically incorrect/and general unkind things that were bound to come out of my mouth. I am just that level of inappropriate. POI knew this. My friends know this. My family, minus my parents who are actually racist in the way most older Chinese people are, know this. And they still love me. Better be up front.
Don’t worry, I’m a little racist. You’ll get used to it.
I turned to POI’s mother, my face wide open with an “I thought it was obvious” expression.
            “Well,” I said as matter-of-factly as I could, “POI asked if she was black. A lot of bus drivers are black.” (I wanted to add that naming your daughter Turquoise was also a total black thing to do, but remembered my college roommate named Teal who was one of the whitest people I ever met). 
            POI's mother blinked. Her smile seemed a bit strained then, and I sensed her beginning to register some doubt, which she didn’t feel during dinner or in the kitchen or on the patio. Is this girl…right…for my son… but I looked away and didn’t see her finish the thought.
----
A week after I’d come home, I remembered my old school manners and sent her a letter-press thank you card I’d bought some months ago while wandering through the West Village. It had four trolls on it – the kind we played with as kids, with tall, pointy hair, wide googly eyes that stare blankly at you over frozen smiles (so...just me?). They reminded me of my childhood and I bought them, not sure if anyone would get the train of thought that went through my head. Well, I had to thank his mother for a good time and I had a card with four trolls and the right two words on it.
            Two weeks after that a postcard with a frog, painted by Matsumoto Hoji arrived in the mail. It was from POI’s mother – she’s gotten it from the British Museum gift shop and had saved it, I imagine, to send to the rare creature her middle child would final decide to bring home.
            “Dear Betty..." She thanked me for my warm words, agreed that my next trip should be longer and that Smoot aka Mr. Chicken sends a “woof.” I smiled when I saw the postscript squeezed in under her signature: “P.S. I see your trolls and raise you a frog.”

Saturday

Thus far, everything has gone as planned.

I woke up, chatted with POI on the phone, went to the kitchen to have a bowl of Frosted Miniwheats then went to the driving range with my mother. We discovered that the golf club in the neighboring city is quite nice, and not too expensive. We each hit one hundred balls, mine going much further than my mothers' which prompted her to ask me for tips.

I have had exactly one "lesson" from my brother, who used to play semi-regularly when he lived in California. Bend your knees. Stick your butt out. Keep the left arm straight and your eye on the ball. Swing.

I swung a good twenty, twenty-five times before I ever made contact with the ball.

For golf, I had not beginner's luck but second timer's luck.

Two weeks ago I revisited the driving range in New York with POI, who likes the game, preferring to have a beer or two to loosen up. We biked to the waterfront driving range and I watched him play before hitting a few on my own.

"You're pretty good," POI noted.

"Hm," I said. I agreed. But as with most things I do (or eventually give up on) consistency was an issue.

My mother, I observed this afternoon, would like to be able to drive the ball out much further than she currently does. Her range hovers around 100 yards, usually just below.

"I'm terrible," she kept saying, but her shots were consistently straight. The sound her driver head made upon contacting the ball quite appealing.

I recorded a few of her swings on my iphone, saying things like, "Keep your arm straight," and "Lift the club higher when you pull back," in Chinese, but was aware that the entire situation was very blind leading the blind. I wondered if the more experienced people to our left and right were chuckling to themselves.

My first thirty or so shots with the driver were consistent too, until I discovered I was terrible on the irons and much better on the woods. I used the driver to hit the last twenty balls, none of which went as far or straight and flat as the first thirty. Consistency, where'd you go, I muttered to no one. Still, my mother was impressed and said it was a shame I didn't start earlier.

"I wasn't interested back then," I said, shrugging.

She thought my tips were good. I'm pretty sure we both imagined it, but she seemed to be hitting just a few yards further by the end of the bucket.

"Take lessons when you get back to New York," she said, when we were finished. I nodded. That might not be a bad idea.

We came home and had lunch. My mother fried a fish - scallions, soy sauce, sugar, rice wine - and my father suggested we finish off the coffee ice cream.

"Time to buy more," he said, "though no one eats it with me when you're not home."

Everything as planned, this Saturday afternoon. Then I went to my room, called POI. He picked up and I started to cry.
------

The vestiges of our morning conversation. In POI's words, I had tried to start a fight because I felt he hadn't called enough over the past two weeks.

"But we talk every day," he had said in the morning, though by "talk" he meant "text."

"It's not the same," I said, because it's not, "And remember. It's a privilege to talk to me on the phone."

Eventually we were laughing. We had hung up shortly before I left for the driving range, he feeling as though everything was resolved because there had been nothing wrong to begin with, and I feeling a hairsbreadth better, but mostly needy and uneven.

I spent the last two weeks telling my entire family that I was happy in New York, in my relationship, in school (which hasn't started).

"This time around it's very different huh?" my cousins asked, "So different from your first time."

"Yeah," I said, "So different and so good."

It's true, but I worry about my internal consistency, none of which is documented via the usual channels. What makes me feel happy and steady and at peace one minute and another, say, when I'm packing to leave one home for another, off-kilter and confused? I didn't want to pull POI into this monologue - the "home" question. The what are we how are we who am I what is the future question. What comes tomorrow and the day after and the month and years and incredible vortex after? I didn't want to pull him into the one-woman fray, but I had to, because it's sort of what you sign up for when you date someone with a lot of words.

"I feel strange," I said to him now.

"How so."

"I don't know," because at that point I didn't. But we talked and just a few minutes later I knew.

The fact that there were two sets of keys on my dresser, one with a Prius key and another with cards to the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Fare. The fact that I was packing again, taking a few more items of my room with me - things I had thought, when I set them down on whichever particular surface, would stay for many years if not forever. The fact that I spent several days mulling over whether to bring said items - because do they belong at this home or the other? The fact that I'd come back this time, filled with the comforting confidence one has when one returns to a familiar city with familiar, loving faces, only to arrive and feel as though I'd forgotten to bring something important.

I told POI so, though not in those exact words. When I cry the words seem to drip down my face and I often can't say anything for interminable minutes.

"I think I get it," he said.

And maybe he does. But more importantly, I got it.

Medusa, Mozart

Last Saturday, I permed my hair. A digital perm which is supposed to be not only better for your hair but also produce more relaxed, natural results. I had a regular perm back in elementary school. The same time I had braces and short hair. I went to school the next day and a jackass with poetic leanings called me Medusa. By lunch he had revised it to "Metal Mouth Medusa."

Alliteration. Gotta love it.

I avoided perms for a while until I was twenty-five, when I discovered digital perms. So that's why Korean and Japanese girls have those glossy, glorious looking body waves. I signed up for one and it was a big hit. A friend said, "Whoa, you actually look feminine for once." My mother said I looked very romantic, like Kate Winslet from "Titanic." "...Thanks mom." A guy I met online and went on two dates with said my personality was like my hair, "Bouncy." It was a nice thing to say. Unfortunately his personality was like his hair, flat.

I've had other perms since then, but spaced out to let my hair recover. Also, in New York these perms are crazy expensive. Instead, I've been patient, growing my hair out, trimming it every few months to keep it healthy so that I could damage it all in one go for a digital perm, all in the name of femininity.

I sat in a Korean-owned Irvine salon for five hours getting it cut and permed.  My stylist was pregnant and very pretty. She complimented the strength of my hair and told me about her husband who taught Tae Kwon Do. She was going to have another daughter and my goodness your hair is really strong I need to apply the relaxer twice. Set the temperature higher than normal. My neck got close to burning quite a few times and when it was finally done, I was running late for my cousin Angela's housewarming dinner.

I walked in, aware of how curly my right-after-perm hair was. I prayed that it would not stay this way.

"Be honest," I said, plunking myself down and feeling my hair swing up and down, "Do I look like Mozart?"

My mom paused a moment too long before saying no, but her eyes said, "A little bit."

"It's fine," my cousin Angela said, her eyes saying the same thing, "It'll relax."

I knew this. But my other perms had not taken five hours.

Later, we moved from the restaurant to Angela's new house. Grandpa, who'd sat at the other end of the table at dinner, came up to me now.

"It's time you got a haircut," he said.

I laughed ("Oh Grandpa, so acerbic and witty and sarcastic and funny"), and wandered off to see Angela's house, a cozy duplex in Irvine with a gleaming kitchen and hardwood floors.

An hour later, I readied to leave.

"Bye grandpa," I said, but he waved me over.

"Really," he said again, a shade of urgency in his voice, "It's time you got your hair cut."

"Oh you were being serious?"

"Of course!" he looked surprised, "Why would I joke about these things?"

I had assumed someone told him why I was late to dinner.

"I was just at the salon," I told grandpa, "I just got my hair cut and permed." For nearly two hundred dollars! I wanted to add, but decided not to. Didn't want to give a frugal man an extravagant nosebleed.

He leaned back with a bewildered look, "Then why does it look like that?"
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