The Box

As I was driving over to her house, I was thinking about what I might say. We had been building toward this moment for the past few months, if not years. In fact, probably all our lives. We grew up in the same church, attended Sunday School together. We even made music together. Sweet, sweet church music. She played the keys for our ragtag praise/garage band while I led sweaty and passionate worship sets every Sunday for our youth group on my starter-kit Fender acoustic guitar. Between the two of us, we only knew 9 or 10 chords: G strum—D strum—C strum—JESUS!—G strum—D strum—F#m strum—JESUS! There wasn’t much to it, really. But what I’m trying to say is that she knew all my secret chords. And I knew almost all of hers.

She held one back. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t pry this one out of her. Jessica lived the classic double life. At church, she played the role of sweet, blameless Christian daughter, older sister, and unnie for the younger girls in the youth group. But away from all that, she harbored forbidden desires. She talked to me once about wanting to get a tattoo on her left shoulder (a dolphin or a heart, I can’t recall). She had a thing for bad boys too, though she’d never admit it. She was more AC Slater than Zack Morris. More Pacey than Dawson. Not many people knew this, but she even had an Eminem poster on her bedroom wall (her favorite track was Stan). This is why she never let anyone into her room. It was a room of secret, smoldering, and shameful desires. Not many people knew this about Jessica, but I did. I knew because I was her best friend.

I was not a bad boy. I was as good as they come. People would tease us all the time. “Ooohhh, are you dating??” they’d goad. “Ludicrous!” I’d respond. “Do you think I’d risk this hard-earned trust by being one of those typical boys who…one of those boys who date girls??” To me, to date was to lust, and though I lacked the conviction to pluck out my own eyes, I’d never once think to degrade our precious friendship. I had seen her Eminem poster (from the hallway) because she let me. Why would I ever give up that level of intimacy?

But Jessica had hidden something from me, and it drove me crazy. As far as I was concerned, my best friend status was on the line; I simply had to know what it was.

I knew she had a secret because any time I’d say something nice to her, she’d hide in a hole of her own making. “No, Chris. You shouldn’t get too close to me,” she’d say. “You think you know me, but you don’t. I’m not good and you are.” She saw me as the pre-fallen Adam, glorious and unashamed. She was Eve, felled by the serpent, the half-eaten apple hidden behind her back. She was Mandy Moore and I was Shane in a Walk to Remember. As her best friend, I knew that she would never flourish holding onto this shame. I was very mature for my age to know something like this.

So, when my Nokia ringtone sounded off one balmy, Southern California afternoon, I knew what Jessica was about to say. “Chris,” she started, her voice trembling. “I don’t think we can be friends anymore. I don’t think I’m a good influence on you.”

I had heard enough. I told her I was coming over. Before she could object, I hung up the phone and gunned my ’98 Honda Accord straight to her house. When I pulled up to her house, I had no set plans, no strategy. I started by calling her.

“I’m in the driveway,” I said solemnly. “Ok,” she whispered.

She slipped quietly into my car; I could tell she had been crying. Though I had no idea what this “thing” she held onto was, I took a leap of faith.

“Whatever it is, I want you to go and get it. Right now.”

I surprised myself with how decisive my tone was. I projected control and calm, a maturity beyond my years. She nodded and went back into her house. When she re-emerged 20 minutes later, she was clutching a small box, approximately 12×12 inches, to her chest. It was smeared with dirt. Whatever it was, she had buried it in her backyard. I had the wisdom to refrain from asking her what was in it.

We had to drive somewhere so I instinctively started driving toward Huntington Beach. It proved to be the right decision for both practical and cinematic reasons. For one thing, the 40-45 minute drive measured out to about 9-10 songs on the mixed CD I had recently burned for her. With this CD, the literal soundtrack of our friendship, we didn’t even need to speak. Instead, Paula Cole did all the speaking for us:

I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over,
I want to know right now, what will it be?
I don’t want to wait for our lives to be over,
Will it be yes, or will it be sorry?

The Goo Goo Dolls. Third Eye Blind. Savage Garden. I was telling her a story, and in this story, everything was going to be alright. Sarah McLachlan crowed, Jewel cooed. Eagle-Eye Cherry pleaded with us to save tonight, while Natalie Imbruglia’s anthem struck a more defiant tone. We chased it with a cool sip of BBMak.

I parked the car near the pier. At this point, I knew what we had to do. For the first time in our friendship, I grabbed her by the hand. A shock of electricity shot straight up my spine. She was letting me, perhaps even wanting me, to hold her hand. I was in uncharted territory.

I led her down to the end of the pier. We hadn’t said a word in about an hour, so I broke the silence.

“We’re here,” I whispered. She began to cry.

I didn’t know what to say, but the way we were standing there at the end of the pier—the proverbial edge of the world, nothing in front of us but horizon and ocean and the seagulls cawing, the sea salt breeze lapping at our skin and sending gentle ripples through her hair—it all reminded me of Kate and Leo. Taking their cue, I found my words, at last.

“You have to let go, Jess. You have to let it go.”

She gripped the box tightly to her chest as the moment finally came, the moment she both dreaded and needed the most. She didn’t move for what seemed like 10 minutes. I was beginning to think she hadn’t heard my perfect line.

Just as I was about to repeat myself, I heard a distant splash. She buried her head into my chest and began to sob. She had done it. People, especially the ones who were fishing on the pier, were staring.

“Let them stare,” I thought. This was too important.

But then, I looked over the edge and to my abject horror, the box was still there, floating, and floating rapidly toward shore.

I turned her so that her back was to the water.

“You did it Jess,” I said abruptly. “Now, let’s go home.” Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the box tracking next to us as we walked the length of the pier, slowly but surely making its way to the beach. I knew that if she saw it, everything would be ruined. And by ruined, I mean, symbolically ruined.

Fortunately for me, we made it back to the car without incident and Oasis’ Don’t Look Back in Anger restored my confidence that destiny was firmly on my side that day. As we drove away, the weight of the box became lighter, and we both understood that a chapter in our sweaty adolescence had come to a close. Shame had transfigured itself into a 12×12 box in the sand, the contents of which some unsuspecting child might have stumbled upon—God only knows. All I know is that Jessica breathed a little easier that day and we remained good friends terrified of touching each other for the rest of our youth group days.

When I found out what was in the box 17 years later, all I could do was shake my head and chuckle. There was a truth then that remains the truth today: Hope floats, but apparently, so does shame.


About the Author: Christopher Paek is interested in authentic Asian American storytelling. He writes less often than he should, but he makes up for it by devoting part of his time encouraging other Asian American writers to share their stories.

Photo by: Pat Nolan via surfline.com

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Ivy League Hollers Part #1: Tales of Harvard “Dating”

An excerpt from the standup routine I call, “Ivy League hollers: Extremely intellectual flirtations that never go anywhere”.

Scurvy

So, this is the thing they don’t tell you about Harvard freshmen.

They might be incredibly smart, extremely accomplished, but this is also the first time they’ve ever had to plan their own breakfasts.

And it’s a free flow spread at the dining hall, so you can choose what you want to eat.

So obviously by the end of the year one of my classmates has scurvy. Cos’ the only thing he ate was Fruit loops.

I’m like, I can’t date any of these people? They’re small children!

So yeah. 18th century pirates and Harvard freshmen. The demographics of who gets scurvy.

I guess the thing is you can’t really blame him. Fruit Loops has the word “fruit” in it.

I will never forget when the guys on the top floor of my freshman dorm finally rolled their laundry down the stairs.

They hadn’t done laundry for the entire year. I don’t know what they’d been doing, rewearing things? Constantly buying new underwear? Anyways, there wasn’t a lift and it was four storeys.

This enormous ball of stinky laundry rolled down from landing to landing, slowly gathering speed and velocity. It left a little trail of socks.

It should be obvious to everyone by now that at Harvard, there is very little sex.

The White Rose Holler

So, when I first got to Harvard, I was shocked that everybody was so good looking.

Then I realized it was just because I’d been brainwashed by white supremacist advertising.

After a couple of weeks, I could tell who was actually good looking and who was just white.

Also, as a Singaporean, I didn’t know what an “Hispanic” was. They just looked like everyone else to me. They could be white, they could be brown, they could be black. So why did they have their own category?

Also, I kept getting all these white guys mixed up with each other. They all looked the same.

It was all very confusing.

Then I started figuring out people’s names.

There was this guy called Israel from Puerto Rico. He was obsessed with Singapore.

“Singapore is smaller than Puerto Rico, but you guys are independent,” he said.

“Every time the Puerto Ricans say we’re too small to be independent, everybody says, but look at Singapore! They’re smaller than us, and they’re independent!”

I definitely had a crush on this guy.

One night, when I’d had a couple too many Bailey’s with my roommate, I left a white rose outside his door, because he had the Jose Marti poem, on his Facebook profile.

Cultivo una rosa blanca
en junio como enero
para el amigo sincero
que me da su mano franca.
 
Y para el cruel que me arranca
el corazón con que vivo,
cardo ni ortiga cultivo;
cultivo la rosa blanca.

The next morning, he’s in the dining hall and he sits down with me and my roommate.

“So… someone left a white rose outside my door last night,” he said. “At first, I thought maybe I got punched,” (Getting punched means you’re invited to try to get into a club). “Then, I thought maybe it was a secret admirer”.

I shot a warning glance at my roommate, who is already collapsing in giggles.

“Then, I thought maybe, it was a death threat.”

So, I’m just sitting there, trying my best not to collapse into laughter.

The next week, I print out a tiny map of Israel and stick it in the middle of an orange and leave it outside his door.

The next year, he goes on the Harvard College in Asia Project (HCAP) and he goes to Singapore. “You guys really have your shit together,” he tells me. “I’m not sure if we can get our shit together the way you have your shit together.”

But I’m like, “But you guys have bioluminescence.”

It’s only a matter of time, guys.

The Magical Realism Holler

So, when I was a sophomore I meet this guy. He’s Guyanese-American, and he’s Lutheran.

The thing about him is that he transferred from Brown. Because he was TOO HAPPY.

He was like, “Judith, I don’t know if this is working out. I run every morning, my work is excellent, I’ve made some of the best friends of my life… and they let me do whatever I want to do. This goes against my Protestant Work Ethic. I think I need to transfer to Harvard.”

So, I’m like, yeah. Good choice. Cos’ Harvard is a misery factory. Four years of unrelenting soul-crushing competition with 1600 other type-A personalities. What do you expect?

Good job.

So obviously this guy is a writer.

When we meet, he’s doing this summer program at Pembroke College in Cambridge, and I find him through a Facebook friend for a floor to crash while visiting from London.

When I get to his room, he isn’t there, but he’s left me a note on his computer.

I leave a note for him on the computer, dump my stuff and then head out.

This happens four or five more times.

Then I finally meet him and he’s this Indian guy who’s into magical realism, like me.

Three years later, he’s working at the ACLU in NYC and I have an interview with a publishing house, so I crash his place again. I take the Chinatown bus from Boston to New York.

I get off the bus and stand in the alcove against this wall where the Chinatown bus stops and read Jane Austen’s Persuasion while waiting for him to show up.

He’s actually waiting for me in the opposite alcove reading Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

When we finally look up from our books and see each other, we go get dinner at a Malaysian restaurant.

At which we find out we were born on the same day, in the same year, at the same minute, on the exact same second, on opposite ends of the world on tiny islands.

So, he’s basically my Caribbean twin from different parents.

We walk around NYC and buy two butterflies made out of grass to honor Nabokov and get matching t-shirts with the see-no-evil monkeys on them.

We agree that we should never get married because what will happen is, we will fill our Brooklyn apartment with so many books that we will get snowed in, and we might never leave.

Also, for the sake of the universe, just in case it implodes.

So yeah, he started writing a novel about the same time I started writing a novel.

So, I don’t believe in magical realism, but magical realism believes in ME.

The Kebra Nagast Holler

So, when I was a junior there was this Scottish grad student who was incredibly cute and was thinking of converting to Catholicism. We were sitting in a Moroccan café and chatting.

“I was just pondering the mystery of the trinity,” he said “and how I didn’t understand how the third person of the trinity issues forth from the first two. How is the holy spirit a person if it emanates from the Father and the Son? Then I realized that every soul in the universe comes about that way. We all come from our fathers and mothers when they conceived us.”

And I’m like, “I want to go to Ethiopia to find the lost ark of the covenant. So, the Queen of Sheba visits King Solomon, and she’s Ethiopian and filthy rich, right?”

“Uh huh.”

“But she’s disheartened because even though Ethiopia is booming, it can’t compare with Solomon’s Jerusalem. So, Solomon leads her to her bedchamber, adjoining his. He places a jar of water in the centre of the room. ‘No one will touch you,’ says King Solomon, ‘if you do not drink my water.’”

“Naturally, Solomon has lined the room with aphrodisiacs and dehumidifiers, so the Queen wakes up in the middle of the night bloody thirsty….”

“And…?”

“So, she drinks. They have a son. Who later steals Moses’ ark from Israel.”

“You’re kidding.”

“Nope, Addis Ababa claims they still have it.”

“Raiders of the Lost Ark, eh?”

“Indiana Jones is rubbish. This is the real deal.”

Of course, like everything else at Harvard, this doesn’t go anywhere.

He got engaged to a woman called Mary and is discerning whether or not to become a Jesuit.

The Worm Vulvas Holler

In my senior year, I have a crush on a biologist.

He spends his entire summer cutting up worm vulvas.

That’s kind of hot.

Well, If you’re into that kind of thing.

A bunch of Singaporeans go down to the new pub in the basement of Annenberg.

We start playing truth or dare.

I tell a truth. I have a crush on someone.

Of course, everybody wants to know who it is.

He’s right there. So, I tell him.

A week later, he comes to my room.

“We’re not in junior college anymore,” he says. “I just wanted you to know, what I really love is science.”

So yeah, that didn’t work.

The Social Studies Holler

I went to Switzerland with his brother during spring break.

We flipped a coin to decide between Sweden and Switzerland.

I wanted to see all the countries mentioned in our stupid Social Studies textbook to see if their situations were really applicable to Singapore.

In Murren, we found a Singaporean restaurant halfway up the side of the mountain.

There was a Singaporean chef inside who had migrated here in the 80s.

He said Goh Chok Tong had promised the Swiss standard of living by 2020, and he didn’t think he’d deliver, so he just up and moved here.

He assumed we were boyfriend and girlfriend and made vague allusions to the fact that we shouldn’t have sex.

He fed us a meal of very bad Singapore noodles and lent us his sled.

We were both seniors, so we pretended we eloped.

When we got back to college, we told everyone we had got married.

Nobody dared to ask if we were joking.

He was the kind of guy who pretends he can open other people’s mailboxes because of his military training, when actually all he does is check which ones are not locked properly beforehand.

And I’m the kind of girl who tells people at the literary magazine that the peach pit which I carry around came out of my mum’s vagina when she had me, is called a “kai xin guo” and that every Singaporean is born with one.

How can you tell I’m not telling you an elaborate fabrication?

You can’t. That’s half the fun.


About the Author: Judith Huang is a failed comedian trying to make a comeback from being a serious science fiction novelist. Her first novel was shortlisted for a prize, much to her disappointment.

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