Green Hills Literary Lantern

Laws of Motion

 

 

 For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction

            Luscious, lithe, eternally sad Sara Miller—who not too many months ago insisted that I was the father of the child growing inside her, then later said maybe, then still later, after the miscarriage, admitted that it was very unlikely, that it probably wasn’t my mild-mannered sperm that introduced itself, sweet-talked, then latched onto her unsuspecting egg, but more likely that of the infamous Andy Hall, which, she suddenly remembered, he so generously donated one particular prom night when she was drunk, depressed, and self-destructive (all my fault, by the way), and he was horny and more than a little aggressive (not really his fault, naturally)—is straddling me like a teeter-totter in the middle of her Better Homes & Gardens living room, rub-rub-rubbing her impossibly tight Levis against my smooth nylon tennis sweats (swish, swish, swish) and the big fat moon is shining through the sliding glass doors, spotlighting us on the faux-Persian rug; meanwhile, the Millers, all six of them elegantly framed in their Sunday best, stare down at us from the wall, wondering how in the hell their precious Sara can be doing this kind of thing on this rug on this kind of boy (what in the hell is he anyway?) at this time of night, and I have to keep reminding myself that I’m here for her, Sara, because she’s the one who admits to having problems, not me, and she’s the one who casually mentioned the surprising heft of her father’s loaded .22 pistol before strongly suggesting that I stop by for a visit.

 

            The conditions of the agreement that Sara broke by pushing me down by the shoulders and smothering me with her delicious fat lips went something like this: I’ll come over tonight after my tennis meet and we’ll just talk if you promise to never again mention your father’s pistol, but only if you understand that this is because you are my friend and nothing else, as we are definitely through, over, finished, old news, and there will be no fooling around this time and I mean it! 

 

            “Come on,” she says, “I know you want to make love to me again.”

 

            “We never did make love,” I correct her.  “We foolishly allowed our reproductive organs to engage in a brief, though spirited meet and greet.” 

 

            “Jesus,” she says, rolling her eyes, “Is that supposed to be funny?  Cuz it isn’t.  If it’s about Andy, I’m sorry, okay?  Is that your problem?  You know I only love you.  He was a big mistake.”

 

            “I don’t have a problem, you don’t know what love is, and yes, he was a mistake.  His mother’s.” 

 

            “Oh please.  I know I love you, you fool.  And I know you love me.  So just say it.”  She puts her head in my lap.  “Don’t make me do foolish things.”

 

            “We had an agreement.  Remember?  Just friends.”

 

             “I know you don’t want that,” she says.  “You’re trying to convince yourself, I guess.”  And before I know it, she’s got me pushed on my back again, her hands moving up my shirt, her mouth on my neck. And this is clearly disgustingly Oedipal, I know, but her warm breath and her sweet smell remind me of my mother, who is in the Cutlass right now, driving somewhere north, probably lost, probably drunk, probably humming the Neil Diamond tunes I never admitted I liked.  I move my hands inside Sara’s shirt, my fingers trembling. 

 

            I know the atomic numbers of all 105 elements, can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than two minutes, can hit fifty groundstrokes without missing (both backhand and forehand—flat, with topspin and underspin), but alas, when push comes to shove (and yank and grope), I still cannot maneuver the simple hook-loop mechanism of the modern-day brassiere.

 

            Sara stops my fumbling hands by rising up slowly.  She smiles devilishly and despite having twice failed Applications of Mathematics and clearly not a shoe-in to succeed at lowly Moberly Junior College next year, she is able to deftly unfasten the bra, pull it out of her sleeve, and dangle it over my face before I can begin to make excuses about the poor ergonomic design of this particular breast support system. 

 

            “Come on,” she says, “let’s go up to my room.”

 

            “I don’t know,” I say.  The weak part of me yearns to lie next to Sara on her soft flannel sheets under her goose down comforter. 

 

            “I’ll go make sure the coast is clear.”  She gets up, starts up the stairs.

 

            “Hold on.”

 

            “What?”

 

            “I got accepted to Stanford,” I say.

 

            “That’s too far,” she whispers, shaking her head quickly.  “You’re not going way out there wherever it is.”  She moves up a couple of steps.

 

            “My mom left,” I blurt out.  “And I kind of lost it today.” 

 

            “Okay,” she whispers, holding her hands out in front of her, “Just wait. I’ll be right back. You can tell me all about it upstairs.”  She disappears up the dark stairway. 

 

            Sara’s not being insensitive by sneaking up the stairs right after I’ve told her that my mother has left, as my mother has gotten drunk and left a few times over the last year.  Sara’s heard this all before.  My father says she had this “little drinking problem” when they first married, but got over it when I was born.  It started up again when we got kicked out of our house on the golf course.  But this time she actually packed and left in her own car sober, in the morning, as if she had actually planned things out.  This is what I was thinking of trying to explain to Sara before she went upstairs, that along with how I went half crazy during my sectional tennis match today and ended up forfeiting to a guy who could never beat me (which means I will not be going to the state tournament for the first time in four years).  But then I come to my senses and realize that the last person I should be spilling my guts to is Sara, because I have to get out of this “thing” with her.  Her idea of “talking things out,” after all, means that she smashes her mouth over mine, guides my erection into her, bites her bottom lip, and moans softly, while I try to focus on all things tedious and colorless in a desperate attempt to endure for more than two minutes. 

 

            Man must travel 25,000 miles/hr. to entirely escape the earth’s gravitation pull, but fortunately for me, the escape velocity for this particular situation is only about 3 miles/hr. and before I know it, I’m tiptoeing out Sara’s front door, then wheeling my trusty 1970 periwinkle Peugeot PX-10 down the long winding blacktop driveway.

 

            I turn onto immaculate College Park Drive and press my left foot to the skinny platform pedal, feeling ashamed that I am a coward and perhaps even cruel, but taking some comfort in knowing that the bicycle is man’s most energy-efficient means of travel (save the sailboat—which is not a viable option at this point), then pause just as I’m about to swing my right leg over the worn leather saddle.  Ominous headlights explode through the darkness, sweeping across the front lawn of a tall brick house before shining my way.  I stop.  An obscenely inefficient car creeps forward, growling.

 

            The engine roars, the compartmentalized explosions echoing in the night sky.  I squeeze the corked handlebar tape.  The car lurches forward, stops with a high-pitched squeak of rubber.  The engine purrs softly like a hick-town drum roll, and who should step out of the car to entertain us but Sara’s aforementioned sperm donor, Andy Hall.  I’m a dead man. 

 

            Andy’s obviously just returned from an out-of-town baseball game as he’s still in uniform.  I admit that I love baseball—the obsession with statistics, the geometry and physics—but I suddenly realize just how silly a uniformed player looks off the field: knickers, tall socks, funny little cap, spikes that click like tap shoes.  I try not to smile.  

 

            Two of Andy’s buddies file out behind him wielding shiny aluminum baseball bats (an affront to the grand tradition of wooden bats, I can’t help noting—though who am I to talk as I unceremoniously dumped my beloved wooden Jack Kramer for the lighter, stronger Pro Kennex Graphite Black Ace).  As I am more than a little paranoid and quite fond of the exhaustive list, I decide that they will soon be turning their ball caps backwards (as is standard tough guy procedure when one’s getting down to business), and, taking full advantage of the low specific gravity of the offensive aluminum in their bats, will swiftly batter my skull because: 1) I’m obviously just leaving Sara’s house; 2) My fat head is much easier to hit than a curve ball; 3) My father rejected their fake IDs at Quik Trip; 4) I don’t have a good-looking sister they want to feel up; 5) I prefer to ride a French bicycle and am loyal to neither Ford nor Chevrolet; 6) When they look at me they think of the sneaky little gooks in The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now; 7) What else is there to do in Eagleville since the Wizard World arcade closed down?

 

            Andy stops in front of the car, the headlights spotlighting his flexing biceps.  He barks at me: “What the hell are you doing here, little Chinaman?”

 

            I look over my shoulder toward Sara’s house, hoping now that her father really does have a loaded .22 pistol and a daughter with good aim.  I turn back to Andy and shrug.

 

            “Now why would the little Chink be out riding his little fairy bike at this time of night?”

 

            I know that I can avoid a beating by enduring a certain amount of humiliation.  I’ll admit I’ve done it before.  There is no honor, after all, in beating up someone who is kissing your ass.  I tell myself to keep my mouth shut. 

 

            “Exercising,” I say, putting my hands together and showing my front teeth.  “Confucius say, man on bicycle not become redneck.”  I bow.

 

             “Bullshit.  You were at her house.”

 

            “Okay, that’s technically true,” I say.  “But we were just talking about your many attributes.”

 

            “I bet.”

 

            “Oh you shouldn’t,” I say, “you’re not old enough and gambling addiction is a serious danger for the developmentally delayed.”  Shut up, I tell myself, or you will end up with serious injuries. 

            He takes deliberate steps toward me. 

             “Maybe you should shut the fuck up.”

            “Good idea,” I say, and I mean it.  “Anyway, I should be going.”

            “I don’t think so,” he says, continuing forward.  He stops a foot in front of me.  He moves his face an inch from mine.  I count the thirteen pimples on his forehead, take in the distinctly Midwestern aroma of Red Man chew, Busch beer, and corn-fed testosterone.  “I want you to say one fucking thing to me.  Come on, you little pussy. One thing!”

            From behind him: “Fuck him up, Andy!”

            “Fuck you,” he says, pushing me back with his chest.  “Just say something. Give me a reason.  Throw the first punch.  I’ll give you a free shot.”

            This is the time to apologize for being born and to compliment his fine hitting performance last week (yes, I read the paper: three-for-four with two doubles—and oh how I hate it that the stupid bastard is actually good at baseball and that the two of us probably share the same dumb luck affinity for striking a fast-moving spherical object).  If I don’t kiss his ass, Andy will be obligated to knock me around for a while, since he’s already completed the chest bump and the fuck you and since his buddies are expecting a good show.  I hate Andy and his buddies.  I truly want them to die in a fiery car accident later tonight.

            “Thirteen,” I say.  Stupidly. 

 

            “What?” he sneers.

 

            “Thirteen.  Pimples.  On your forehead, alone.  Probably your diet.  Or the steroids.”  I smile, knowing what’s coming (am I a sadomasochist in training?)  “Maybe it’s the red clay and the crushed lime clogging up the sebaceous glands.  Oxy 10 can’t protect you from all that testosterone and fine dirt.  It just can’t.  I’m sure you try your best, but with that low I.Q. and . . .”

 

            I don’t see the punch, but as I’m falling, I can’t help noting that the blow did not produce a loud Hollywood smack, but rather a dull heavy thud, like a dictionary falling to the carpeted floor.  I am immediately grateful that Andy’s fist has struck my cheekbone and not my temple or chin (which considerably raises one’s chances of brain concussion).  I crumble onto my bike, gasping when my slight chest introduces itself to the lightweight Reynolds steel of the Peugeot.  I look up once my cheek is resting on the pavement.

 

            Andy’s holding his fist with his left hand.  “You bastard!” he yells.  “I think you broke my pitching hand!”

 

            “Sorry,” I gasp.  “It’s not my fault.  That’s inertia at its finest.  The skull,” I sputter, “has great mass.  Your hand, though traveling at great velocity. . . .”

 

            I am silenced this time by a hearty kick to the ribs.  Now I begin to seriously worry.  Andy can do some serious damage if he drives his metal spikes into my head and of course he and his buddies still have the option of using their bats.  I slide my forearm under my mouth so my teeth can’t get knocked out.  Five years of regular flossing, after all.

 

            Andy has mercy.  He spits on my back and bends down beside me.  “How’s that?” he asks, and then waits.

 

            “Okay,” I tell him, “well done.”  He grabs my hair, then turns my head so that I’m looking right at him.  His hand is trembling.  His grip is strong.  “Don’t make me do this again,” he says.  “She’s just a piece of ass after all.” 

 

             “Okay,” I say.  Tears fill my eyes.

 

            “Faggot bike!” someone yells, and then, proving they aren’t the true brutes they claim to be, they carefully lower their delicate Easton bats to the pavement and then stomp on my fragile wheels.  Do they not appreciate the magic of 32 16-guage spokes holding together a hub and rim?  Nope, cause next I hear the sickening splash of what has to be their urine.  Bastards! 

 

            There’s a moment of brief silence once they’ve finished (are they feeling as bad as I about the murdered bike?), then their heavy panting fills the air.  “Okay,” I mumble, “you can leave now.  I think you’ve all learned your lesson.”

            “What the fuck?” Andy says, and he slaps me on the back of the head to show everyone that I disgust him.  “Maybe we should piss on you!”  I brace myself.  It’s silent.  Either they have empty bladders or they just don’t hate me quite enough, but they don’t piss on me.  I keep my good cheek pressed to the pavement as a trickle of blood works its way onto my lip.  They pick up their bats and gingerly click-clack back toward their car in their spikes.  The door slams, the big V-8 roars to life.  Andy paints the concrete street with two swipes of vulcanized rubber. 

            I decide to rest here for a while, but a porch light comes on and I know I better go before somebody calls FEMA and declares my face a federal disaster area.  I stumble to my bike only to find that it is no longer a bike at all, just a piece of modern sculpture.  I try to ride it, but art never moves you in the way you’d like it to, so I ditch my French beauty in a drainage ditch and start walking, deciding that a long walk will be good right now because it’s during walks like these that you can make sense of your life.  I’m like an aborigine on a walkabout, a Lakota on his vision quest.  I touch what’s left of my left eye.  I grab the bottom of my blue T-shirt and wipe my face.  The shirt smears a dark purple.   I try to reflect on my beating.  What did it all mean?  What have I gained from this experience?  Is this how Gandhi got his start?

 

            But before I can sufficiently ponder any of these questions, I find myself standing outside the Jefferson Street Quik Trip.  Is this just chance or was I driven by an unconscious desire to make my father feel my pain?  I walk in.  His back is to the door.  A cigarette hangs loosely from his lips and he’s looking carefully at his wrist, punching the buttons on his Casio calculator watch with a pencil.  

 

            I walk back to the drink cooler, grab an orange soda, and shuffle to the front counter.  He finally turns my way, looks me up and down without flinching.  This is his most impressive trait: never, ever looking surprised.  A couple of winters ago while he was driving me to school, he lost control of the car, spun around three times, and flew into a yard, just missing a massive oak tree.  My father calmly looked at me and smiled (I was still holding my breath and my palms were pressed flat against the dash).  “Well,” he said, “that’s a perfect example of overcompensating on a corrective steer.  Try not to do that when you get your license.” 

 

            This time he just barely cracks a smile while looking over my battered face.  “And they say tennis isn’t a contact sport.”

 

            “Well, you know, I had a tough three-setter with Chuck Norris.  Average serve, but great footwork and one hell of a slice backhand!”  I do my best karate-chop motion. 

 

            He smiles.  Then looks down.  “Seriously, though, are you okay?  Do I need to invest in that group health insurance plan?”

 

            I shrug.  “My head hurts,” I say.  “And my bike has seen better days.  I had to stash it in the ditch.  Can I take the car?  I’ll pick you up later if you call me.”

 

            “Just take it.  I’ll walk.  I need the added exercise until they get that executive weight training room finished back there.”  He gestures toward the stock room behind him. 

 

            “Oh yeah, the new Nautilus room.”

 

            “That’s right.” 

 

            He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the keys.  He tosses them to me.  “Oh yeah, I drove the Beemer today.”

 

            “Thanks,” I say, “I’m sick of that bloody Jaguar.”  I head for the door.

 

            “Hey,” he calls out, stopping me.  “So was this car vs. cyclist or fist vs. pacifist?” 

 

             I stop and smile, leaning against the heavy glass door.  “The way I see it, I’m a victim of love, sans the love part.”

 

            “Nothing’s worse,” he says. 

 

            I press the cold aluminum can against my swollen cheek.  “Is she coming back?”

 

            “Of course.  But I’ll grant you that she did look like she had a bit of gumption in her step this morning.  But honestly, who else is going to put up with her?”  He shakes his head like he might start laughing.  But he doesn’t laugh. 

 

            “Have you ever been punched?” I ask. 

 

            “Your mother’s overhand rights and left hooks notwithstanding, no.  I’m a strategic coward.  You maybe could learn something from me in this regard.”  He winks.

 

 “I didn’t hate it,” I blurt out. “It hurt, of course, but the whole process was sort of interesting in a kind of educational, experiential way.  What do you suppose that means?”

 

            “It could mean a lot of things,” he says, “None of them good.  You know what Freud would say?”

 

“More work with the heavy bag?  Improve the jab?” 

 

            He smiles and nods his head.  “Exactly.  But . . . consider this: I’ve recently discovered that I don’t actually mind working at this place.”  He smiles and looks to the left and right.  “Enough said?”

 

            He traces a pattern on the counter with his finger and then looks at his watch. 

 

            “I gotcha,” I say. 

 

            “Go home,” he says, “And put some ice on that face before it turns into this.”  He makes his mouth crooked and sticks out his tongue.  He throws me a candy bar.

 

 

 

 

            I push the accelerator all the way down and turn the key.  The Granada whines, coughs, then roars to life. It reeks of cigarettes and coffee, the floorboards littered with Styrofoam cups, crumpled wrappers, newspapers, and a few battered science fiction paperbacks.   I keep the gas pedal depressed, smash the brake pedal all the way to the floorboard with my left foot, and shift the car in reverse just as I’ve watched my father do a hundred times.  I check for cars and let off the brake.  I fly into reverse, smash down the brake again, let off the gas for a split second, then shift into drive and slam the gas down before the heap of shit can stall.  I careen out onto Jefferson Street.  

 

            For the last three years, before my father was fired as head groundskeeper of the Eagleville Country Club, he got to drive their metallic green Chevy Silverado pick-up.  PCC was painted on the door in ornate white lettering.  That’s what I thought I’d get to drive on my dates once I got my license.  The day after he was fired and lost the use of the truck he bought this piece of shit car for $500.  This heap was the reason I had to refuse to go to the prom with Sara last year.  Of course I didn’t say so as she would have just borrowed her father’s Cadillac for us.  But then I would have been a charity case and I just wasn’t going to do that.  That’s not how we do it in my family.  We suffer before we ask for help.  So I never mentioned to Sara that I was embarrassed about driving the Granada.  Instead, I went on a rant about the prom representing the worst of American ideals: snobbishness, opulence, deception, vanity.  I told her she could find another date if she felt she had to attend this desperate celebration of that which most of us don’t have.  I wasn’t going to pretend I was English royalty in the middle of backasswards Missouri (and damned if I didn’t start believing my own bullshit after a while—I was ready to start rallying a prom protest).  But Sara said fine and found herself another date in about three seconds (Andy Hall) and I spent that night writing her a seven-page letter explaining why she absolutely shouldn’t have done so, why sometimes love compels us to make certain sacrifices and how was she going to feel if I decided to run away forever, never to be seen again, all so that she could parade around in the high school gym with an asshole in a tuxedo who only wanted to fuck her in the back seat of his idiotic car (and who ultimately did just that). 

 

An object will accelerate in the direction of an unbalanced force.  The amount of acceleration will depend on the strength of the force and the mass of the object

 

            As I chug along First Street toward home, I stick my head out the window for some fresh air and gaze at the full moon.  Although you really can’t distinguish very well when it’s full, I know where to look for the ringed basins Mare Crisium, Mare Serenitatis, and Mare Imbrium.  I can barely see the bright light crater ray Tycho spider-legging its light across the ragged surface.  I know that the moon has been worshipped, feared, mythologized, you name it, but I can’t help but feel sorry for it.  I know this is nonsense, that a cosmic satellite sure as hell doesn’t want or need my pity, but I can’t help it.  If you pity a beaten dog, an acne-scarred teenager, a trailer park ravaged by a tornado, you must feel bad for the moon with its 30,000 identifiable craters.  With its wimpy escape velocity of 2.4 kilometers per second and no atmosphere to speak of, it’s a sitting duck for chickenshit meteorites that have nothing better to do than knock giant craters into defenseless planets.  I hate that.  Leave the moon alone already!  Go pick on those obnoxious gassy giants, Jupiter or Saturn, or see how you like messing with the mighty sun.  Andy Hall, meteorite.  Minh Thomas, moon.  Okay, that’s whiney self-pity at its best, but come on.  Didn’t I just get my ass kicked?  Didn’t my bike just get pissed on?  Am I not driving the world’s ugliest car? 

            Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium. I’ve been studying the great Nicholas Copernicus in Physics class.  Our teacher, Mr. Huffman, said yesterday that his brilliant book,  changed the world forever. Copernicus -- mathematician, astronomer, physician, and church canon-spent most of his life gathering evidence that would prove the absurdity of the geocentric model of the solar system.  Copernicus correctly hypothesized that the earth, along with the other planets and moons, are orbiting the mighty sun.  Everything does not revolve around us, he insisted.  I was duly impressed with Copernicus, of course, but yesterday while in the library, I discovered my new hero of astronomy: Giordano Bruno.  Fearless Bruno, who was obviously not in Copernicus’s intellectual league (yet no dummy by any stretch!), spent six years in a Roman dungeon for lecturing on and publishing Copernicus’s theory.  Keep in mind that the brilliant Copernicus, while certainly not a coward, was not willing to take on the Catholic Church.  He did his fair share of ass-kissing.  But Bruno would not sit on the truth.  He was no ass kisser.  He went to London, Paris, Wittenberg, Helmstadt, Frankfurt, Venice.  He was excommunicated, imprisoned, and eventually burned at the stake when he would not recant his teachings.  Before his final judges he proclaimed, “It is a poor mind that will think with the multitude because it is the multitude: truth is not altered by the opinions of the vulgar or the confirmation of the many.  You who sentence me are in greater fear than I who am condemned.”  Take that, Andy Hall!

            I pull into the driveway and yes I’m both worried and intrigued when I see no lights on and no Cutlass in the driveway.  Just where is she?  This morning she said she was driving back to Chicago if it was the last thing she ever did.  I know she could never get there on her own, so I start to wonder if the “last thing I ever do” comment was some sort of morbid hint. 

 

            I guess I don’t blame her.  I hate this pathetic little town too, which is why I applied only to universities in California, the Chicago area, and Michigan.  Truthfully, I think my father hates it too, but moving here was his idea and he never admits to being wrong.  Even after he got fired last year and he lost the green Silverado and we were forced to move out of our beautiful rent-free home on the edge of the golf course, he was optimistic.  He tried to assure us that this could be a positive move for all of us psychologically: we’d no longer be beholden to a bunch of rich small town hypocrites who got drunk every Friday and Saturday and spent all day Sunday praising the Lord.  We could live and work like honest Americans, like his father had done.  My mother laughed hard at that one, said that what he meant was that we were going to be dirt poor like her family was in Vietnam. 

 

            My aunt Phuong back in Chicago hates my father.  She claims that it was cruel of him to bring the two of us to a redneck town in the middle of Missouri where we would never be accepted.  My father as a white man would fit right in at his fancy little Country Club job, but we would be treated like foreigners.  It turns out she was mostly right.  We can’t tell people that we’re Vietnamese, not with actual Vietnam War vets driving around in trucks with gun racks and POW/MIA stickers, not with the Rambo movies packing the Kennedy theatre for a month at a time.  I’ve not told anyone that my real name is Minh, not even Sara.  To them, I’m Mike Thomas, Chink/Jap math & science geek.  Luckily, the one real Chinese student in the school, David Lee, a freshman whose parents own and operate The Great Wall restaurant and know my mother, doesn’t betray my secret.  I’m sure he’s got enough to worry about, like someone finding out that his name is Xiao, not David.

 

            I look up at our dumpy rented house and my stomach does a little 1 ½ with a full twist.  Just a year ago we had three bedrooms, two-and-a half bathrooms, shiny wood floors, chandeliers, and a fridge with an icemaker!  Now it’s two tiny bedrooms, one bathroom, and a backyard where grass refuses to grow.  The house reeks of cat piss and mildew.  My mother shampooed the carpets and wiped bleach everywhere when we moved in, but after the chemical smells dissipated, it was back to moldy cat piss stench.  It’s so bad that I carry around the stench in my wool letterman’s jacket.  Lately I’ve been putting my clean laundry in plastic trash bags to keep the house stink off of them. 

 

            I know my father never imagined that we would be in this situation when he decided to move us here.  His plan actually seemed logical: we’d be living rent-free in a beautiful house on the golf course (and I’d get to use the tennis courts whenever I wanted), he’d get a company car, we’d be automatic members of the country club, and a good portion of his income might go towards my college savings.  He would be in charge of all golf course management and would only have to stroll one hundred peaceful yards to get from the living room to his desk in the maintenance shed.  Even my mother was going to try to make the best of it: she’d start painting again and maybe work on writing a children’s book.  My father had promised her one of the bedrooms as her studio as well as regular trips back to the Chicago suburbs to visit her sister.

 

            I get back in the car and decide I’ll head back to Sara’s to get my bike and to apologize for running out like a coward.  With this battered face she’ll have to forgive me, and the truth is, I need to tell her about what happened today on the tennis court so that she can reassure me that I’m not losing my mind.  I know we’ll end up having sex, that I’m not strong enough to resist her, but the sad truth is, she’s the only friend I have.

 

            It occurs to me all of a sudden—and hell, why did it take so long?—that I’m not going to Stanford or to any of the other universities that accept me.  Yes, I’ll get decent scholarships, nothing to complain about certainly, but being the valedictorian of Eagleville High School, student population 624, isn’t quite the same as being the valedictorian of the Latin School of Chicago (where my cousin Dat is enrolled).  Whatever scholarship I get is not going to be enough.  And if my father had to steal money from the country club, there mustn’t be a big stash of cash in the bank for my college education.  No Stanford, no University of Chicago or Northwestern, no Michigan or Michigan State.  Now perhaps it will be University of Missouri, or worse yet, Central Missouri State.  So my meltdown this afternoon is looking costlier and costlier, as a tennis scholarship on top of an academic scholarship might have been possible at one of these state schools.  But no coach is going to give any money to a kid who lost it like I did.

 

            What can I say?   I’d like to say it happened because I was upset about my mother leaving this morning, but the truth is, I wasn’t thinking about that at all when I stepped on the court with Jeremy Keller, a nice enough guy I’d handily beaten in the sectional finals the last two years. 

 

            The match was going as planned.  I’d won the first set 6-2 and was up 3-1 in the second.  It was breezy and overcast, a little cold I suppose.  Jeremy Keller knew he couldn’t beat me.  I could see that on his face.  I just kept hitting every ball back and deep, waiting for him to give me the points with his mistakes.  Every few games I’d give him a nice sitter and let him hit a winner so that he’d be encouraged to get more aggressive, which would mean he’d hit harder and miss more often.  It was a foolproof routine, perhaps a little chicken shit in the grand scheme of things, but hey, that’s how most things are won in life, right?

 

            I don’t know, maybe it was finding out that my hero Bjorn Borg tried to off himself in Monte Carlo yesterday.  Maybe it was worrying that Sara was serious about her pistol threat.  Or maybe it was just the sudden realization that life is meaningless, absurd, and unfair, and that focusing so much energy on knocking around a fuzzy yellow ball is pointless x 1023.  What I do know is that in the middle of a pretty decent rally, I gritted my teeth and growled, pitched my racket toward the net like I was skipping a rock across smooth pond water, and began calmly disrobing.  Soon I found myself nearly naked, yelling something unintelligible at the top of my lungs.  I leapt onto the chain link fence behind me and began scaling it.  I threw myself over the top, got half-way down, jumped off, rolling down the embankment about fifteen feet.  I stumbled down to the clay track behind the tennis courts and I began to sprint around the track as fast as I could in my tennis shoes and jock strap, shouting out expletives along the way.  When I got half way around the track I veered into the infield, ran onto the long jump runway and headed down toward the take-off board.  I hit the board pretty well for a mostly-naked hysterical tennis player, flew into the air about ten feet, and crash-landed face first in the sand with an anticlimactic thud.  I didn’t move for a few minutes, the sand against my eyes and in between my fingers cool and soothing.  I might have been weeping, I’m not really sure.  Finally I heard my coach whispering my name.  “Mike,” he said, “Mike.  Are you okay?  You wanna put these clothes on?”

 

            It’s Minh, goddamnit! I wanted to say, and no I’m not okay, did you not just see what I did! but of course I didn’t say anything like that.  Instead, I slowly pushed myself out of the sand and mumbled sure, and took the clothes he had brought down to me.  When he asked me if I was going to continue the match I barked out a laugh, then apologized for that, then said no, that I was going to sit here awhile.  I asked him to forfeit the match for me and to come back and get me once everyone had left. 

 

            I’m sure this settled the issue for my coach, who no doubt thought I was on the weird side before this meltdown.  I can understand it to a certain degree.  I don’t have any friends, not even my teammates, and my parents haven’t been to any of my matches, not even when I went to the state meet as a freshman.  I don’t talk much to the coach either, not because I don’t like him, but because I just never seem to have anything to say and he doesn’t really know anything about tennis.  It’s also possible that he simply doesn’t want to get to know me because he considers me an outsider.  That’s the way my teachers act around me: they are for the most part polite and nice, but they don’t take a genuine interest in me, which is strange considering I’m their fucking valedictorian and their only National Merit Finalist.  They don’t ask me about my college of choice.  They don’t hand me copies of their favorite books.  Not a single one has ever asked me to stay after class to talk about an issue or a problem, even when it’s obvious that I’m truly engaged, that I’ve been doing supplemental reading.  It’s as if I’m not to be trusted, that they believe I’m taking something away from the other students.  But is it my fucking fault that I don’t look like everyone else?  Is it my fault that I got a good education in Oak Brook, Illinois?  Certainly I didn’t request this move to Hicksville, USA! 

 

            So now I approach Sara’s neighborhood with a big stupid grin on my face.  Things will be better after a couple of hours in her warm bed.  She seems to be the only person in this dumpy town who’s not only not repelled by me, but who actually likes it that I’m different.  She nearly goes crazy looking at my brown hand on her milky white belly.  She actually says she’d do anything to be my color.  As her house comes into focus, I’m shocked to see Andy Hall’s car parked on the street a hundred feet from her house.  Did he come back to make sure I wasn’t dead?  Did he come back to revel in his glory?  Is he waiting for another not-very-tough boy to exit her house?  But then I know.  I look up toward Sara’s bedroom and a slow burn washes through my body.  I stop the car, rev the tired engine, and consider ramming into the rear bumper of Andy’s precious Camaro or smashing out his headlights with the tire iron, but this would only invite more punishment, and I’ve had enough of that for one night.  I drive away.  I don’t stop to pick up the bike either.  What’s the point now?  I cringe thinking of Andy’s soiled baseball socks dirtying up Sara’s soft sheets, his tobacco-sodden tongue in her mouth, his callused hands moving across her smooth skin.

 

Every body continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line unless it is compelled to change that state by the action of some outside force

 

            I guide the Granada into the driveway and stop.  If I had faith or hope I would pray to God and ask for a certain amount of timely divine intervention.   Make Sara come to her senses and strike Andy Hall down.  Don’t let my mother be dead.  Gently place our once not terribly unhappy family back in Oak Brook, Illinois, where we belong. 

 

            I look to the heavens for a little help, but I believe in what’s real, what I can see.  The moon is impossibly bright.  I want it to be a sign, a reason to endure in this horrid place on this heartless planet, but thanks to Apollo 11, there’s no mystery, no magic.  I know what the moon is: aluminum, calcium, iron, magnesium, oxygen, silicon, titanium.  Basalt, breccia, tiny glass balls.  I know what the moon can and can’t do. 

 

            I pull forward into the garage, shift into park, then step out, pulling down the heavy wooden door.  The springs groan then give.  The door swings down tight.  I return to the seat.  Get comfortable.

 

            Who have I been kidding?  Why did I think going away to some hotshot college would make everything better for me?  Copernicus, then a seventy-year-old paralytic, died only hours after seeing the first copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium.  Bruno rotted in the Roman dungeons for eight years, then burned at the stake for teaching Copernicus’s heliocentric model.  Galileo later expired a broken man under house arrest because his data proved Copernicus was right.  So what will my tragic contribution be?  If nothing else, I am proof of man’s insignificance in the universe.  So in that way, my existence is a direct challenge to the Church’s geocentric folly.  The world does not orbit around us, we are all just useless specks in this endless universe, and none more useless than I.  Let me join your club, mighty Bruno.  Beam me up. 

 

            I push the gas pedal to the floor, opening the throttle valve, the hungry pistons sucking air, the injection pump spraying fuel, the odorless inorganic compound snaking its way through the baffles in the rusty muffler and methodically stealing the oxygen from my woeful blood.  The Granada shakes.  I close my eyes, wrap my fingers around the wheel, imagine it’s me up in Sara’s bedroom, not Andy Hall.  But I don’t blame her.  She must see who I really am.

 

            And of course my father knows who I am.  What I will become.  He knows.  My mother probably saw it coming—maybe she didn’t want to be here to see it, to have to watch two people throw everything away.  In the rearview mirror, through the foggy garage door window, I see the moon that bastard Galileo spoiled with his nosey telescope: barren, ominous, ravaged—the moon whose mystery and magic was destroyed by the human compulsion to know everything.  And now I’m relieved in the way my father must have been when he got his walking papers from the Country Club.  Now the pressure’s off, the ruse is over, the game is up—go ahead and fail like you always knew you would.  I’m so tired of worrying about it, of waiting for the moment when I just can’t hold it together anymore.  Enough.  I exhale slowly.  My eyelids grow heavy now and the moon’s rugged craters slowly dissolve into my mother’s narrow eyes.  I sleep.

 

            The next thing I know the car door opens and I’m being beaten about the head and shoulders with something soft but heavy.  It’s my mother’s purse.  “Stupid little shit!” she yells, “Goddamn you!  Wake up!  Wake up!”  She shakes my shoulders, slaps me hard on the face with the back of her hand.  She half-carries, half-drags me into the house and lays me on the couch, which is an impressive feat for a 5’ 1” 95-pounder.  She looks into my eyes, pats my cheeks gently with her cold hands.  She kisses my forehead.  I hear her mumbling in Vietnamese.  She walks into the kitchen, lifts the phone off the cradle and dials my father.  “Well run home, goddamnit, or call a fucking cab!” I hear her yelling. 

 

* * *

 

            The oppressive summer humidity and the ticklish ragweed pollen keeps us Thomas misfits holed up in the dark stinky living room, cooled by an overworked little window unit that always seems on the verge of exploding.  It’s where we feel safe, I suppose, away from the happy bustling masses with things to do and reasons for doing them.  Even when we were happier back in Oak Brook, we didn’t do much—no picnics, trips to the zoo, church outings, or excursions into the city.  My mother decorated, gardened, tried on her new bargain outfits.  My father read his paperback science fiction books and drank coffee.  I played tennis when it was warm enough and studied the Encyclopedia Britannica in my bedroom when it was cold.  It was fine, though, all of it, as dull and depressing as is might sound to a normal person living in a normal family. 

 

            It turns out that my mother did attempt to drive up to Chicago like she said (who would have thunk it?), but she got lost somewhere in Iowa and was rescued by an old farmer in a rusty green pick-up truck.  During the drive, the farmer convinced my mother (who had ended up weeping hysterically in a cornfield) to come with him back to his place for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie with his wife (I’m not making this up, I swear!).  She said okay.  The farmer asked her straight out if she was Vietnamese, said his son had fought in Vietnam and had fallen in love with a woman there and had never left.  The farmer told her that he and his wife had been to Vietnam twice and thought it was just about the most beautiful place they had ever seen, that the people had a good sense of what family and loyalty was all about.  My mother, who talks to nobody, explained to the old couple all that had gone wrong back in Eagleville.  The farmer’s wife told her that she herself had sunk into a depression when her son was sent off to war, but had survived it, and now knew that it was all meant to be.  She now had a wonderful daughter-in-law, a loving Vietnamese family across the globe, and of course beautiful grandchildren.  Whatever they said to her and however they said it, it was magic.  The farmer eventually got her back to Highway 61 and she drove right on back to Eagleville just in time to find me in the garage, and I suppose (and I’m not sure why I’m hesitant to say it aloud), just in time to save my life.  As my mother was telling all of this to her sister on the cordless phone, my father and I were listening to it on the police scanner. 

 

            I haven’t seen Sara since that night.  Andy’s kicking my ass put a nice tidy ending to my doomed relationship with her.  How could she expect me to forgive her for fooling around with the guy who had battered me just minutes earlier?  It’s a coward’s way out, I know (as clearly she didn’t even know about the beating), but remember, she was talking about using her father’s pistol on herself, so the two of us together might have spawned Jonestown Part II.  And yes I will be even lonelier without her, but she was wrong, we weren’t in love.  She was only in love with what I wasn’t and I couldn’t say no to someone who actually noticed me.

 

            So here I am, alive and well (all things considered), and in a month I will attend the University of Missouri on a Presidential Scholarship that will pay for my tuition and my books.  On top of that I’ll get a Pell Grant, so I’ll only have to borrow a couple thousand dollars a year for room & board.  Not bad, I suppose.  It ain’t Stanford, but it ain’t Central Missouri State either.  I’m done with tennis, even though the University of Missouri coach offered to let me walk on and become a Mizzou Tiger, with the possibility of a scholarship the next year.  But I believe that my meltdown was my subconscious telling me it’s time to stop playing games with my life.  Then again, maybe it was just the first of many mental breakdowns on my journey toward bona fide loony (I can’t deny genetic tendencies, after all).  But what the hell, I’m young and naïve, right, so I’m going to go with the tidy metaphor for now.  It was a sign, damnit, and if that one wasn’t, what about my mother meeting probably the only farmer in the great state of Iowa who loves the Vietnamese!  Signs, I tell you, signs!

 

            My mother and father accompanied me on my college visit to Columbia, Missouri, and damned if we weren’t something like the All-American family that day.  Sure, my father skipped  the dormitory tour so he could sit in the car and smoke, and my mother did drink three mugs of beer during lunch, and no, there wasn’t any hand-holding or kisses on the cheeks or comforting little talks about how they’d be thinking about me or missing me while I was gone, but hey, we were together for a whole day!  I saw a flier for an Asian-American Organization called disOriented! on the Student Union bulletin board, and I promised myself I’d not only work up the courage to attend the first meeting, but that I’d introduce myself as Minh, not Mike.  For a split second I even considered asking my father what it’s like to walk around with a son who looks nothing like him—is he ashamed, embarrassed, sad?—but then I realized that I wasn’t quite ready for whatever the answer would be.  But one day, maybe.  Maybe. 

 

            My father’s still working the night shift at QT, and my mother has started cooking at the Chinese restaurant.  They’re trying to save up some money so they can move back to the Chicago suburbs.  Aunt Phuong is going to help them.  My father’s also supposed to be trying to figure out why he stole from the Country Club and threw away everything that we had.  For her part, my mother’s supposed to be trying to find a better way to deal with her problems than drinking.  That’s all good, I guess, and I suppose they’ll probably stay together, though truthfully, I can’t figure out why and I’m not sure it would matter to me if they didn’t stay together.  I’ve been watching them closely these last few months and I just don’t see it: the magic, the warmth, the need—whatever it is that keeps husband and wife together.  I’ll admit that I have been rereading Jane Eyre and Romeo & Juliet (and yes I scoffed at them in ninth and tenth grade English class), and I know, I know, you can’t get more romantic and melodramatic, and surely this is more evidence that I’m desperate and lonely, but hell, what’s wrong with a little desperate love every once in a while?  Would my man Borg have tried to off himself if he had known true love, rather than just the fleeting satisfaction of Grand Slam titles, riches, and fickle fans?  Would heroic Bruno have been willing to burn at the stake if he had a loving wife and twin girls waiting for him at home?              

            I know now that what I must escape is not Sara, the Andy Halls of the world, or this shithole town.  It’s them.  My mother.  My father.  But for this last month I’ll be content to sit in the cool darkness of our stinky little home and be with them, these parents I barely know.  I know that once I collapse onto my little twin bed in Room 317 of Willingston Hall everything will change and I’ll begin a separation from these two people who probably love me but clearly aren’t helping me and just might be harming me (and I know it sounds cruel and pretentious to talk like this about my parents, but try living with them for just a few days).  I know that I need to reinvent myself:  I need friends; I need to stop making myself invisible; I must stop the self-pity routine; I must find an outlet for my anger; and yes, I want to fall in love. 

            The thing is, they didn’t tell us how to do any of this in school.  They pretended that all of us were going to do great things one day and that this was what we should be aiming for.  We were supposed to model ourselves after the greatest of the great.  We learned about all these people who changed the world: the powerful and articulate politicians, the ingenious scientists, the brilliant artists, the courageous explorers.  But that’s not what we’re going to be, not even close.  Why didn’t they teach us to cope with the endless everyday bullshit that will afflict us?  What about the miserable nobodies like my parents who struggle everyday to come up with a good reason for pulling themselves out of bed?  Did any teacher ever explain to them that things would most likely not work out like they imagined: that they probably wouldn’t find the true love they were looking for, that one day they’d find themselves doing something inexplicably disgraceful like getting fired or having an affair, that they’d be ashamed to call themselves a mother or father when their own son couldn’t figure out a reason to want to live? 

            If that sage Isaac Newton had taken a few more psychology classes, if he had been 100 pounds overweight or stricken with polio or a hideous hair lip, if he had had his tender heart ripped out of his chest and stomped on by a mean woman in high heels, he might have drafted this fourth law of motion, for the average victim of life:

Every person, no matter what they’re doing and how they’re doing it, no matter how earnest, hard-working, kind, or generous, should expect to be unfairly blindsided by a freight train of sadness, loneliness, or just run-of-the-mill bad fortune and will be damned lucky to survive.  Damned lucky!

            Now please please please let me be one of those lucky survivors.  I’ll forget all about steely-eyed Borg, brilliant Copernicus, courageous Bruno.  I’ll be Mr. Rogers on downers, the forgotten jar of crystallized honey in the back of the kitchen cupboard, the modest moon dust clinging to Neil Armstrong’s oversized boot, the Red Delicious that probably didn’t hit Newton’s fat head before rolling askew in the soft damp grass and taking its own sweet time to decompose.

            That’s it.  That’s all. 

 

 

 

Jason Sublette grew up in Kirksville, Missouri, and graduated from Truman State University in 1991. He currently resides on beautiful and wild Dowdy Hill in rural Tennessee with his wife and son and teaches at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN. He has previously published in Beloit Fiction Journal and is working on a novel about Asian-Americans in rural America.