with Featured Artwork: “Lola in the Diner” by Ruby Michelle Riego
At fifteen years old, my life is a Rolodex of scenes: wet t-shirt contests on MTV’s “Spring Break,” hot tub threesomes in Las Vegas via “The Real World,” and the glass handles of booze and solo cups that fueled each of them. I watch “The Real World” like a devout Christian girl saying her prayers at night, obsessing over who will get arrested this week or who will hook up. I crave the independence of these cast members as a teen without a driver’s license harnessed with an overbearing mother who attempts to control every aspect of my life, except the kind of TV I watch.
At this age, my burgeoning path to the wild party girl status I am desperately climbing towards is one blow job I’ve given in the back of a truck and water bottles of whiskey that I’ve stolen from my dad. I’ve graduated from Abercrombie & Fitch polos into more suggestive artifacts: electric red g-strings, and stretchy pants from Wet Seal that zip up in the back.
This year, 2004, “The Real World” cast is in San Diego and my waking thoughts are consumed by the curly-haired blonde girl from the South and whether she will hook up with the beefy bro. After I watch an episode where the beefy bro almost gets arrested for the second time and their romance is not yet cemented, I lay in bed wondering what would happen if I joined the cast. I curate scenes of the bro ditching the blonde girl for me, feeling triumphant and victorious in the way he looks at me with desire and want. The act continues as my lids get heavy and surrender to a stampede and swirl of colors, everything disappearing into the black waves of sleep.
I wake to the feeling of colored crystals banding together; transparent outlines turn into hard, opaque edges. The forms take place: a bean bag nestles my sitting body as pastel walls of purple, green, and orange crowd around me. Clusters of sea shells sit above the doorways, which are flanked by surfboards that are not meant to be used. French doors with white trim open up into the salt-drenched sun of San Diego.
My body has changed like my surroundings, too. Instead of the 15-year-old I was when I went to sleep, I am now the 18 year-old-version of myself that I will work so hard to become. Which is: a size 0 with a reputation for fucking and getting black-out drunk.
I shake my head, trying to locate the outlines of this dream, trying to remember if this is actually a dream or real life.
And then I see them. Four white people who operate as a homogenous blob of loud voices, confidence, and attractiveness. They look at me casually mid-conversation, having expected their eighth roommate and at this point unphased by the fact that I have magically appeared out of nowhere. Their conversations continue.
I try to gracefully stumble out of the bean bag, making sure my top bares the right amount of midriff, that my g-string might be casually hanging out. As I walk over to the whities, entering into their space, I feel a swirl of infectious energy that feels intimidating to penetrate. They all talk over one another, laughing at jokes and thrumming off of each other’s drunken buzz.
“Cammie, don’t you DARE.”
“OH YEAH Brad, OH YEAH?”
I laugh at the perimeter, watching the dazzling blonde try to kick a very buff dude in the nuts. I feel behind in my state of sobriety and gather up the handle of vodka on the kitchen counter with some shot glasses.
No one acknowledges me, that is until –
“Shots?!” I exclaim without even an introductory hello.
“YEAH!” they roar back. Muscles flexes his lats while the sensitive guy throws his head back like a horse to arrange his curly bangs on his forehead. Cute.
With the first drink down, I feel the heat rising through my body. My wings are preparing to take flight. Just a few more down the hatch and I know I will be ready.
Over the next hour, they ask me question after question, curious about me but not curious enough to pause to let me answer. The questions fly through the air and leave as quickly as they enter like darts torpedoing toward the board, never quite hitting the bullseye. My own declining dexterity doesn’t help in catching these but I don’t have any interesting answers anyways.
As the liquid courses through my body, I begin to feel my vocal cords stretching and growing, making space for the speakers that are about to blare from my mouth and the bass that will shake from my chest. The trunk of curse words and expletives, of “let’s talk about anal” and “how about my sideways vagina because yes I am Asian and let’s get that out of the way,” are making their way to the forefront. I am morphing in front of them and they have no idea.
“Who here’s been shocked before?” I ask to no one in particular, holding up the shocker sign with my hands, my index, middle and pinkie fingers waving in the air.
The conversation of the whities come to a sharp halt and they look at me, an echo of confusion washing over their faces until they’re laughing so hard they’re rolling on the ground and squeezing tears of vodka out of their eyes.
“This girl knows what’s up,” I hear Muscles say.
And just like that, I’m in. My mouth is a dumpster of filth that steams with masturbation, YEEHAWs, and booty twerks. They recognize themselves in me, forgetting that I look different, that I’m not blonde, that my skin is a shade of yellow. They begin to think that I am one of them.
“How y’all feel about that hot tub?” I ask, with a twinkle in my eye. And before they can even answer, I rip off all my clothes in a rapid swoosh, as if I had planned this, as if I had worn clothes made of snap-off buttons that were easy to tear off.
As we ease into the steamy, roiling water, I see her. Jamie enters the room in her short shorts and barely there crop top, invading a space that I have deemed all mine.
Jamie and two others make up the rest of “The Real World” crew. They are on the fringe of the center stage that is the dazzling whites. Where Jamie is Korean and looks more like me than any close friend I’ve ever had, Frankie is the essence of vampiric pale, Hot Topic and Hello Kitty. Jacquese, a Black man who seems like he might be the realest one here, rounds out the cast.
When I see Jamie a thought flies through my head: there can only be one token. I think of my Filipina friend Bailey who boys have chased after since middle school because of her sharp cheekbones and large brown eyes that never disappear, traits passed down to her from her white mother and centuries of colonization in the Philippines. She is hot and I am not but she keeps insisting that we are the same. At a party, while sitting on countertops with a backward hat atop her head, she exclaims “Blazin’ Asian!” as I pass by. She holds a rapt audience of burgeoning testosterone beneath her. I wave briefly and slink into darker areas to find validation in furtive kisses and liquid disappearing acts with any white boy who will partake.
One token is enough – it’s enough color to add to a white canvas. Too much would disrupt the flow and make things weird. Too much would render me invisible.
Be cool, I think, let’s see how this shakes out.
I watch Jamie come near me and feel a tug of annoyance. She tries to hug me and I feign delight, an easy task when the booze loosens everything up. I don’t want to be allied with this Asian woman and I need these whities to know that I am one of them, not one of her. Alliances are for failures and I know that, seeing the way Asians cluster around together and how my friends pull back their eyes at them and make jokes about the way they take pictures all the time and only talk about anime. I’m playing the long game of fitting in, the one I have perfected over my now-18 years on earth. And Jamie sure as shit isn’t going to ruin it for me.
She takes off her clothes and settles into the hot tub across from me, she’s all smiles and her eyes disappear as her mouth grows into a crescent moon. Do I look like that when I’m smiling? I can’t help but feel like I’m staring at a mirror and I want nothing more than to shatter it.
The conversation continues on as the minor characters watch the center stage. We see the whities pairing up naturally, perfectly matched up into heterosexual pairs. When Jamie asks me a question about my travels, I answer without looking at her. Staring into the green eyes of one of the whities I respond, “It was super easy, I just…appeared.”
I can feel Jamie’s confusion without even looking at her. But we’re interrupted by Muscles being pushed out of the hot tub, with an accompanying symphony of shrieks and maniacal laughter.
And then Jacques comes.
He sits outside the hot tub, perched just behind me.
“Hey Jennifer, it’s really nice to meet you,” his kind eyes peer at me through his oval black frames.
“Hi,” I respond, my mouth latched on to the rim of the red solo cup I hold, barely turning my head to respond.
“How was traveling? You must be tired, right?”
“Oh word, where are you from?”
I sigh loudly. “Tennessee.”
He pauses and I wonder if he feels my armor and then I feel bad for being such a bitch but I also know how much of a loser I felt like in sixth grade when the only boy who liked me was a Black boy named John and how I wanted a white boyfriend so badly. I wanted a white boyfriend but none of them liked me back. I wanted a white boyfriend to show how white I was, how much I fit in. I wanted a white boyfriend because I learned, at a very young age, that you are only valid in this country if white people say you are.
Which is why I want to succeed this time. I must.
My tactics work because the conversation comes to a halt as we both become spectators of the scene unfolding before us. The whities are laughing as Bangs sticks his butt in the air and pushes a fart out.
I wonder if Jacques and Jamie are beginning to see how white my soul is, how I have truly learned to live up to the name of Banana, the one that sits apart from its cluster, the one that stands tall and gleaming, the one that rises through the ranks of white people because what am I but a white person cloaked in a yellow peel. Later, when I am an adult, sober and comfortable in my existence as an Asian person, I’ll learn what this really means, how I am but a servant to white people, a vessel for diversity, a “Look! Look at what this Asian can do.”
But right now it’s 2004 and I’m proud to be white.
I catch the eye of one of the whities and it glitters like the ocean on a sunny day. I feel like I’m basking under the fluorescent rays of a tanning bed and a knowing smile creeps onto my lips. I’m reaching for that trophy and I’m just within reach.
Let the games begin.